I'm renting a lens to shoot the Blue Angels with a Nikon D700 on a monopod next month. For you Nikon shooters, which would you recommend for this:
- 400mm f/2.8G ED VR
- 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II?
- is there a lens you'd rather use?
The 200-400 gives you a lot more flexibility. But it might not be short enough depending on what you want to do and how far away you're going to be.
When shooting airshows I usually use a 70-200 f/2.8 with 2x teleconverter, and a second camera with a 28-70 f/2.8. For takeoff/landing shots, depending on aircraft and location, even 140mm can be too long (though it should be fine for fighter jets).
Of course if distances are a lot longer than I'm used to here (and from my one visit to a US airshow they seem to be) even 400mm might be a tad short for some shots you want to have.
Things happen fast at air shows, and there are no do-overs. You already know these things, but IMHO these are the facts that most drive your selection. Everything else flows from the requirement for the fastest lens you can get.
Of your two choices, the one which is faster is....hard to say.
The 400/2.8 prime will:
double your shutter speed
let you use a 2x teleconverter if you want, allowing you to reach out and grab distant compositions you'd have to wait for with the zoom, if they come by at all
give you a sharper picture at f/4 than the zoom, making it more desirable to remain at wide apertures, and thus fast
The 200-400/4 zoom will:
reduce the amount of time you need to wait for frame-filling compositions when the subject is moving away from you (down the runway)
make available shots you cannot get with the prime because the subject is too close
I think I would go with the prime, if I already had a 1.4x teleconverter and a 70-200/2.8 zoom to supplement it. The 200-400/4 zoom would be a better choice if you had no other lenses that day near its range.
Just a comment on the monopod - if you're using a lens of any (physical) length you may want to consider some sort of neck-based strap support instead. The reason for this is that you really won't have time to pan the camera on the monopod, and if you're surrounded by people they'll undoubtedly get in your way. You need to be able to hold the camera+lens rigidly as you pan with your body instead.
One device that may prove useful is the SteadePod which can attach to your belt, and you'll probably be able to screw the "mount" into the screw thread on your lens, if there is one.
I've shot the Blues in the past and want to echo what Warren Young said: Things happen fast. If you can shoot the practice days, you should. That way, you will have less crowd to work against and ... there's always tomorrow.
For the high maneuvers, you won't have enough lens, even at 400mm. But for the medium and low parts of the program, you can get some great stuff with 200-400mm. I used a 100-400mm Canon zoom on a crop sensor -- I know you're a Nikon guy so translate that into 200-400mm -- and if I had it to do over, I'd take the same lens because even though the prime is faster and sharper, the zoom let me frame what I needed. I didn't have any issues with subject motion, so either I was lucky, or I panned at just the right speed. I don't recall shooting any faster than 1/500th.
The trick is hearing them in advance and tagging onto one early in the pass. And shoot lots of frames.
Do you want to buy one of those lenses or do you already have them? If you already own them, I would suggest you take both with you for the sake of flexibility. If you want to buy one of them, I would recommend the 400mm f/2.8G ED VR. Sure, with this one you are not as flexible as with the 200-400, but the brightness of this lens will give you the chance to use much lower exposure settings to "freeze" the planes in midair. I've seen some amazing photos like this. It also depends on how close you will get to the airplanes, I assume you want to capture your photos while the flying is going on, so you will be very far away in general.
Whether you're renting or buying, I have only one advice for you: The super fast and optically excellent 70-200 2,8 VR ! This is the best lens I have ever used for ground to air photography ! I use mine in conjunction with a TC 1,4 converter on a D300, and you could use it the same way on your D700. The crop factor of the D300 turns it into a 420 mm but honestly, that is too much for taking pictures of the Blues. They always fly close enough so that you don't need a very long lens. Their photo-passes are just fantastic and you should get good results if you observe the basic rules. I never use any tripod, monopod, or shoulder support. These always get in the way and spoil one's pictures. Instead, get used to a stable and firm position on your two feet, arms tight against your body, and move the top of your body as smoothly as possible. Train yourself at your local airfield. These planes go much slower and will let you get the right habits. Have fun ! :)