Nikon Digital Camera Series
Nikon D2x - How To Photograph Airshows
© Darrell Young
D2x Discussion Forums

With the powerful, fast, and flexible Multi-CAM 2000 autofocus module found in the Nikon D2x/D2Hs cameras, airshows are quite popular as subjects. Like shooting almost any high-speed subject a fast camera/lens combo is required.

Don't we all enjoy airplanes and wish that we could fly like the birds. For many of us, photographing high-speed planes is a great thrill, and puts us close to the aviation we love.The sounds, smells, and excitement of the crowd are all very appealing. Let's examine how we can use our Nikon digital cameras to capture striking airshow images.


Image by Nikonian Patrick Godfrey


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.

It would be a bit hard to use AF-S or Single Servo autofocus unless you are shooting planes still on the ground. AF-C or Continuous Servo autofocus works much better, because it allows your camera to track and adjust as needed.

Even though I like to shoot with airshows with Group Dynamic AF in Pattern 1, you might want to experiment with other settings to see if you like them better.

If you are unsure of how D2x autofocus works, and how to interpret the manual for all the AF selections, please review the article Understanding Multi-CAM 2000 Autofocus.

Several headings in this article relate directly to the use of the various features of the Multi-CAM 2000.


Image by Nikonian Patrick Godfrey

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.


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.

This can be frustrating if one's panning technique is not so good, since the camera will refuse to take an image unless it can focus on the plane.

But, why take dozens of unfocused images to grieve over later at home?

Image by Nikonian Steve Lamb


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.


Custom setting a4 (Lock-On) will make the camera feel slower since it does not react quickly to focus changes if it loses the subject it was tracking. It will keep focused on the "area" of the subject in hopes of finding it again.

It takes about two or three seconds before the Multi-CAM 2000 AF module will start seeking a new focus subject once it has lost an old one.

This may seem like a speed reduction, but in fact it is not.

Image by Dutch Nikonian Jur van der Wees

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.

YOU will have to be the judge about whether Focus Tracking with Lock-On is beneficial to you. It has a lot to do with sky conditions. If there are clouds, smoke, and other planes around, leave a4 on. If not, set it off and see how it does. I have had better results with it on, myself.

I find that any autofocus camera shooting against a plain sky will "search" while seeking something to focus on.

Image by Nikonian Patrick Godfrey

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!

Panning technique is as important as camera settings in capturing fast moving objects.

Use High-Speed Continuous AF (AF-C) so that you can fire off rapid sequences of shots.

It is good to use a digital camera like the D2x with some big CF cards for plenty of image storage room. Use that motor drive!

Image by Nikonian Jur van der Wees


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.


One way to deal with the silhouette issue is to spot meter the plane, or use manual metering.

If you can spot meter the plane while it is on the ground and the light does not change significantly, you may be able to simply use manual metering and shoot without worrying.

Of course, if the light changes, or the plane flies near the sun you'll have to pay attention to metering again.

Image by Nikonian Jur van der Wees

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.


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)

Even the best of professional action photographers shoot lots of pictures so that they will have several angles to choose the best images from. In fact, a pro photographer probably will shoot MANY times more images than you or I will on each shoot.

Due to skill and practice, a larger proportion of the images will be well exposed. But, I guarantee you that even pros only use about 1 out of 10 images that they carefully shot.

The point is, don't be afraid to shoot a LOT of images. Most of us have memory cards that will hold hundreds of images. An airshow is the place to use that capacity.

It won't cost you anything except a little more time in selecting the best images. No one will ever see your failures, except you. Experiment with metering on other subjects until you feel comfortable with your camera's metering systems. Then you'll be prepared to change to the best mode for your shooting styles.

Image by Nikonian Patrick Godfrey


Here is a good suggested starting point for camera settings at an airshow with the D2x:

  • AF-C (Continuous Servo AF)
  • CH (Continuous High motor drive)
  • Group Dynamic AF
  • Shutter Priority mode
  • Custom Setting a3 set to Pattern 1 Center Area
  • Custom Setting a4 set to ON (enabled Lock-On)
  • Custom Setting a1 set to Focus Priority (forces ONLY in-focus shots)
  • Spot Meter ON
  • ISO Sensitivity 200 to 400

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.

Image by Nikonian Steve Lamb

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...

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