Aviation lens choices

In Aviation by Patrick

Aviation photoghraphy is becoming more popular and with that increase in popularity, questions about which lens is the best to use have been hitting my inbox. Aviation show season is winding down as of this post in November, but planning for 2023 can never start to early. There are a few variables that may dictate what lens you purchase. Those are, do you shoot with a DSLR or mirrorless and of course, cost. I will try to answer the question as best I can by providing the options that I feel will give you great images. This post is going to focus on the air-to-air only as statics is another post in and of itself and the lens choices for me personally are different.  I shoot Nikon so that will be me focus, but other manufacturers may have equivalents with similar focal lengths.  So let’s get started. If you shoot a DSLR you can knock our great images all day long with these lenses:


AF-S 70-200 F/2.8 FL-ED-VR

The next lens that I would gravitate towards if you use a DSLR body that is lightweight and would allow you to have a decent reach to fill the frame decently.

Nikon 70-300 f/4.5-5.6

If you find that you are coming back short and you would like more reach when shooting the air-to air, here are a couple of options. Keep in mind that these lenses are more expensive but if that is not an issue then these choices will work well for you.

Nikon 80-400 f/4.5 – 5.6

These lenses offer more reach and with that usually comes a bit more weight. Keep in mind you will be panning hundreds of times at and airshow. Practicing and working out so you don’t fatigue is something to consider.

Nikon 200-400 VRII

This lens gives you exceptional reach. but as I mentioned, it is a heavier lens, so practicing prior to the show and ensuring you can handle the repetition of panning is paramount. Since the advent of the mirrorless cameras, this has come down in price, but is still a significant investment. This is my preferred air-to-air lens. All of these F-mount lenses can be used on mirrorless with the adapter.

OK, those are my DSLR choices, lets move into the equivalent mirrorless versions of these lenses. One advantage IMHO, of the mirrorless is the weight difference. This can be huge if you are shooting all day long. Each of the aforementioned DSLR lenses have a mirrorless counterpart, save for one, which I will get to.

Nikon Z 70-200 f/2.8 S

Equal in focal length to its DSLR counterpart this lens is very sharp and paired with a copatible body, it can produce some great images. This lens is slightly lighter than the DSLR version and those few ounces can make a big difference when pointing this upward all day.

Tamron 70-300

As of this posting, Nikon does not make a 70-300 version for their mirrorless Z system. Other manufactureres have stepped up. I personally have not shot with this lens, but have friends that have and they note it is very sharp and performs well with the autofocus system on their given Z bodies.

Nikon Z 100-400

Offering you a lot of reach in a compact package, this is very popular with aviation photographers. As with the DSLR lenses, the more reach you require, the bigger the price tag. This lens has very good optics and is also part of the Nikon Z series S line.

Nikon Z 400 f/4.5

This lens is a relative newcomer from Nikon but offers a prime super-telephoto that pairs spectacularly with any Z body. This lens will give you reach to get this great shots by reaching out a getting you a bit closer. This will definitely be an addition to my aviation bag.

I hope that answered the questions for everyone. These are just my personal recommendations and are by no means the only way to go. I have seen photogs have larger telephotos on tripods with gimbal head and that is just not for me as I like to travel light. Certainly that is an option, but one for you to determine. The important thing is for you to enjoy the show and come back with great images.

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