The best, all-round super-telephoto lens to take to an airshow is the Canon EF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6L IS USM Telephoto Zoom Lens.
Fixed, prime lenses such as the Canon EF 300mm F4L IS USM and Canon EF 400mm F5.6L IS USM will give you sharper images, but you lose the flexibility and of being able to zoom the lens in and out in order to frame your photos as best as possible.
Here’s what “qianp2k” has to say about using both the 100-400L and 400L 5.6 lenses on the Canon 1D Mark III and Canon 5D (1st generation) cameras for a spot of photography at the 2010 Andrews AFB airshow (enjoy viewing the fantastic images too):
First time watched and took photos in an airshow. 1st Day, 400L 5.6 on 1D3 and 100-400L on 5D. 2nd Day 100-400L on 1D3 exclusively. 100-400L is the best airshow lens, and my 1D3 nails virtually every shot. I had to reduce to 5fps as it eats 16GB CF so rapidly and need to carry HyperDrive to backup onsite.
In another discussion on DPReview, you’ll note that the participants also overwhelmingly recommend the EF 100-400 f/4L lens for airshow photography with the Canon 7D. The following are some noteworthy quotes.
“crazybadger” writes on the Canon 400 5.6L and 100-400L lenses:
I have and use both the Canon 400 and 100-400, but when I go to airshows I always take the zoom. You can still get great shots with the prime […], but for me the flexibility of the zoom is just too useful at an airshow, especially if there are large aircraft of formations taking part. A big transport or an air display team can take up a lot of space.
…done many an airshow with the 100-400mm IS. It does a great job.
I have a 100-400L and use it a lot. Just yesterday I was out on the water and shot some birds.
I’ve rented and played with both the 400 5.6 and 300 f4 with a 1.4TC. Both are good alternatives.
Both the 400 5.6 and the 300 f4/1.4TC produce slightly sharper images… but on the other hand they don’t zoom down to 100mm.
If you feel certain you will be shooting at distance or want the best possible close ups the 400 5.6 is the way to go… a little lighter and easier to use than the 100-400 especially if you are doing all hand held.
I tried the 100-400L zoom once in my first airshow shot a few months ago with excellent results. It’s the most versatile zoom for airshow and zoo photography, with nice colors and contrast. Focus is very fast. It’s very close to 400L f/5.6 prime at 400mm.
“Mark B” concurs:
I’ve shot a few airshows myself, and the Canon 100-400mm L is the most versatile; a fixed 400mm lens would be too limiting. If there is a static display as well, I’ll take a wide zoom like my Tamron 17-50mm lens.
All Canon Lenses – Main page.