Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Wildlife Photography: Lenses (Part 1)

Nikon D50, Nikkor 70-300 VR @ 300mm

A common question I get is, "What's a good wildlife lens?" The short answer is, the longest and fastest you can afford. That doesn't really answer the question though. So why do wildlife photographers need the longest and fastest lens they can afford?

Focal Length
The first part of my "short answer" was focal length. So why is this important? Most wildlife, most of the time, are difficult to approach. They see humans as a danger and run, fly or swim away. So focal length is obvious, you always want the most reach you can get. So how much focal length is required for wildlife photography? I started with a Nikkor 70-300 VR lens and I was able to get some nice full frame wildlife shots at 300mm. (above)

Nikon D90, Sigma 150-500mm OS @ 500mm

Fastest Lens
What do I mean by the fastest lens possible? I'm talking about the lenses' aperture. A fixed f/5.6 is good, a f/4 is better and a f/2.8 is best. "What makes a fast lens" could be an entire topic itself so I'll just briefly mention a few things. First, larger aperature lenses (f/4 and f/2.8) gather more light, and therefore allow faster shutter speeds. They also autofocus faster and are usually the sharper than the slower lenses. Faster lenses also take teleconverters. Teleconverters multiply your lenses focal length depending on the teleconverter. So a 1.4x teleconverter will turn a 500mm lens into a 700mm lens. Variable aperature lenses like my previously mentioned 70-300 VR don't play well with teleconverters. So in the end it comes back to focal length.

Nikon D90, Nikkor 500mm f/4 AFS @ 500mm

In the never ending quest to obtain more and better gear you might find yourself saying, "If only I had a 500mm lens." But then if you had a 500mm lens, then you'd be saying, "If only I could shoot at 700mm." If you had 700mm, then you'd say, Oh really wish I could shoot at 800mm and so on. Trust me, I know from experience, you can never have enough range.

The real secret is approaching wildlife, using a blind, shooting from a car or just finding wildlife that is acustomed to people. Even if you have a 500mm or 600mm f/4, you'll still need to find ways to get close to wildlife. If you have a 300mm lens, you'll just need to figure out how to get a little closer.

Nikon D90, Nikkor 500mm f/4 AFS + TC-14E II @ 700mm

So get the longest and fastest lens you can afford. Then learn how to get close to the wildlife, because that's the real trick...

If your wondering what my recommendations for wildlife lenses are, stayed tuned for Part 2.