Nikon Digital Camera Series
|Nikon D2x - How To Photograph Airshows
|© Darrell Young|
Airshows are a lot like photographing flying birds, except that the "birds" are bigger and move much faster. I like to use my Group Dynamic AF settings in the cross-shaped "Pattern 1" (custom setting a3). This allows me to select the center AF sensor to focus and follow the airplane, and it allows the plane to move around in the viewfinder without leaving the focus area.
Learn to use the powerful autofocus modes of the D2x/D2Hs for best airshow results. The Multi-CAM 2000 article makes them much easier to understand.
USING FOCUS PRIORITY
It is also very important to set Focus Priority (custom setting a1 or a2) so that the camera won't shoot an out-of-focus shot.
USING "FOCUS TRACKING WITH LOCK-ON®"
I also feel that turning "Focus Tracking with Lock-On" (Custom setting a4) ON is somewhat important in shooting airplanes, since it allows the camera to stay with the target plane even if a bright cloud or another airplane gets near. Leaving custom setting a4 on is not absolutely necessary if the sky is clear and blue, since nothing will distract the autofocus system.
The AF module is just trying to keep its focus on ONE subject only, instead of being influenced by other objects that might be picked up by an alternate AF sensor. If you lose the airplane briefly in the viewfinder, and custom setting a4 is enabled, your camera will still be focused on the airplane when you find it again. It won't go searching for a new subject for several seconds.
One Nikon D2x user, Patrick Godfrey, reported that he had his best results with Lock-On enabled. He said that the planes would often fly through smoke from the airplane smoke trails, and the smoke would tend to grab the camera's attention with Lock-On disabled. After he turned Lock-On to the ON selection, he said that the camera would stay locked on the airplane and ignore the smoke trails sorrounding it. Take note of some of Patrick's images illustrating this article.
With Lock-On turned off, if one loses the airplane for but a moment, the autofocus will start racking in an out looking for a subject. With it turned on the D2x will not start searching for a new subject until about three seconds have elapsed. This gives one plenty of time to re-acquire the subject. Test for yourself!
One needs to really work on their panning techniques to capture a fast moving airplane. It is important to continue panning with the plane even after the shutter is released. If one does not continue panning then the shutter release will tend to be abrupt and may blur the aircraft. A good place to practice is alongside a roadway in your neighborhood. But, be careful not to look suspicious, or someone may call the police. Practice panning and shooting fast cars as they go by until you can successfully capture nice sharp images most of the time. It might be good practice to go to a few car races where they expect you'll be taking pictures, and the cars are moving much faster than normal cars. Good practice!
WHICH METER MODE?
You'll need to be careful shooting the airplane if it is silhouetted (sun behind plane). Your meter may give you a picture of a beautiful sky and a black featureless airplane under those conditions. This is especially true if the plane is some distance away and doesn't fully cover an AF sensor point. You need a zoom lens that can at least let the airplane cover an AF point and a distance of about 50% of the width of the AF brackets on either side. Many do not realize that the focus sensor width on the D2 cameras extends significantly on either side of the focus point brackets you see in the viewfinder.
Just use your good sense. If the plane is silhouetted, with the sun behind it, and you are using matrix or averaging meters, you may not get the best results for keeping the detail in the plane. Of course, a silhouetted plane makes an interesting subject too.
TAKE LOTS OF PICTURES
An airshow is a place where having a large memory card and taking lots of images makes a big difference. Digital cameras allow one to shoot a large number of images without worrying about running out of "film." So why not shoot a lot! (DD's Chant)
SUGGESTED CAMERA SETTINGS
Here is a good suggested starting point for camera settings at an airshow with the D2x:
Try these settings out, and see if they work for you. Experiment with other settings also, until you find your own way. The D2x is ready with extreme flexibility, giving you creative control as your skill increases.
As with anything else, practice makes perfect. Since airshows are somewhat uncommon in many places, it is a good idea to practice a LOT on fast moving cars before trying to shoot airplanes in flight. The D2x is a powerful camera and will help you make excellent airshow images if you learn to use the best modes and settings.
Keep on capturing time...