Saturday 10 January 2009

Long Lenses - Part 1 - What lens?

As wildlife photographers, lets face it we always need more length. Focal length that is and with that comes the cost/focal length/portability dilemma.

This series will cover a range of of topics dealing with the essential elements of long lenses, from supporting, techniques of use, primes v zooms through to how we carry and travel with our cherished glass and what we use to protect them while in use.

We will start off today with just a brief introduction covering some of the early thoughts that we go through as wildlife photographers when choosing a lens before we part with hard earned money and try to justify it to ourselves or others in our lives who think we should be spending money on the unnecessary luxuries like food, clothes or shoes.

One of the first dilemmas that you will face is how much you are prepared to spend. You can get a 75-300 f5.6 zoom for as little as £150 that will give you a reasonable reach on a 1.5 or 1.6 crop body, and for many this is the starting point in their wildlife photography. Early results seem promising which encourages the desire for further improvements.

Then you get fed up with the slow auto focus or lack of critical sharpness, so you start justifying bigger and longer lenses, and maybe better bodies with better AF in your ever growing quest for photo perfection. How do I know? - Well I have been there and seen many do the same thing.

Most improvements will usually come from investment in glass. One mantra that is pretty much true in the field of lenses and optics is that you get what you pay for.

You can get started with a lens for wildlife for reasonable prices. Many start with a zoom in the belief that the flexibility of the varied focal length will be what they need - and in some senses this view has much merit. However, remember that zooms will always be a compromise in terms of optimal performance at any given focal length, usually, but not always, at the long end.

Which takes me back to my opening line on this post. That is the last place we need compromise.

Good starting places are the Sigma 50 -500 or the more recent 150-500 in terms of giving you budget focal length for those more distant subjects as well as the Canon 100-400L IS. Nikon do not currently offer anything in ti's more budget price range and it is a mighty price hike for the 200-400. Additionally, the Tamron 200-500 is well liked by it's followers too. Most of these lenses will perform reasonably well when stopped down a stop or two, around f8 to f11. The respective weights make them easily portable and without any particular need for special bag requirements. If your budget is confined to these lenses, then DO NOT try out any of the bigger primes, unless you are prepared to find substantially more money, because you will end up finding a way to fund one, and I do not want to be held responsible for any domestics!!

If you are brave enough, you will start looking at the primes at the outset, and by this I am thinking about respective Canon and Nikon 300f4 offerings or the Canon 400f5.6. Why brave? - well it does take some thoughts to fix your yourself to a particular focal length, rather than zoom flexibility that you may feel you need for other forms of photography.

But let me tell you of an experience in our household. My partner Sue had the Sigma 50 -500 and got some very good images with it, I was using the Canon 100-400 at the time. I subsequently added the 500f4 and the 300f4 primes. When we were out photographing together, I was always using the 500f4 as you would expect. Sue had the two zooms available to her, but she always blagged the 300f4 prime out of my bag, with the Canon 1.4EF extender - Why? - image quality pure and simple that you get with primes. This is still true today, although she has recently taken to blagging my 300f2.8, now she owns the f4 version

But at the end of the day, the most important thing is to actually use what you have or can afford, and not spend all your time crawling over gear specs - So get out there, study your subjects, understand what they are doing and get some photos.

In part 2 this time next week, we will cover some of the thinking you go through when you make that big financial step of buying one of the big primes, and share some of the other cost impact's that you will need to think about to, such as bags, tripods and heads.


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