Tip #84: The Tips are Back!... Tools (Part 2: The Wildlife Lens)

Grizzly After the Rain - Banff National Park, Alberta Canada
Canon 7D + Canon 300mm f2.8L IS @ f2.8

In Tip #83 I described my five (plus one) essential camera features for the nature generalist. Today’s thought will broaden this discussion about the gear to include my essential characteristics of the wildlife-shooter’s lens. 
The Disclosure Statement: Selecting the right lens will likely involve a Compromise.
  • High-end and advanced telephoto optics are very expensive to design, construct and manufacture. This cost will be passed on to the consumer who will then need to justify an obscene purchasing decision (Cost v Justification).
  • Telephoto lenses, by design, have massive optical elements. To house these elements, the lens barrels are constructed from exotic metals and reinforced plastics. As a result, telephoto lenses are heavy, bulky and difficult to carry (Magnification v Bulk).
  • The most expensive telephoto optics are relatively fast lenses. In contrast to the best of the best, similar focal length lenses can be acquired for less of an investment if you are willing to sacrifice lens speed. Consider the following as one example: Weighing in at 3.84 kg, the Canon 400mm f2.8L IS markII can be purchased for the mere sum of $11,499. In contrast, the budget minded wildlife photographer might decide to spend $10,000 on an incredible safari to Africa and invest the other $1,499 on a Canon 400mm f5.6L or Canon 100-400mm f4.5-f5.6L IS optic. While the additional $10,000 buys the photographer two precious stops of light, it denies her the opportunity to travel and have fun with that camera (Cost v Speed).
Curious - Banff National Park, Alberta Canada
Canon 7D + Canon 300mm f2.8L IS @ f2.8
Three Essential Characteristics of the Wildlife Shooter’s Lens
Apochromatic Design
  • The lens uses exotic elements to correct for chromatic aberrations. Non-corrected lenses exhibit softness where edges meet highlights. For example, consider a photograph of a leafless branch against a bright overcast background. Poorly corrected lenses will exhibit soft edges that appear to be frayed by colors like cyan or magenta. These uncorrected optics behave a bit like a prism and fail to focus each wavelength of light at the same point. In contrast, apochromatic optics correct for this type of optical aberration; the result is a sharp lens. Canon calls these “L-lenses,” Nikon labels them as “ED-optics,” and Sony describes these as “G-lenses.”
Integrated Tripod Collar
  • I suggest that you avoid a telephoto lens that does not include an integrated tripod collar. A good wildlife optic will balance nicely in the hand and on a tripod. The tripod collar has two primary functions. First, it is the point of attachment for the lens onto a tripod. By placing the lens directly on the tripod, you reduce stress to the camera mount and create a stable orientation for the optic. In addition, the tripod collar will allow you to seamlessly alternate between horizontal and vertical compositions. 
Optical Stabilization
  • Optical stabilization will increase your opportunity to capture erratically moving wildlife subjects. There are times in nature photography where a tripod can be an impediment to your success. Flying birds and rapidly moving mammals are a challenge to track when the lens is mounted to a tripod. On these occasions, you will need to brace the lens with your body and shoot it hand-held. Lenses or cameras that include internal stabilization (IS) or vibration reducing (VR) elements will increase your number of “keepers.” Nikon and Canon have designed many of their telephoto optics with elements that act as a gyroscope. These moving element counteract your inability to be a stable platform for your lens. In contrast, Sony has engineered their sensors to move in a way that cancels out camera shake. While this technology facilitates hand-held photography, it does not negate the effects of a slow shutter speed. If your subject is moving faster than your shutter speed, then no lens can counter-act the blur of that type of movement.
(3 + 1) Weather Sealing
  • I know I said 3 key features, but I feel compelled to add one more to the list... sound familiar Tip #83? Many lenses are designed to be used in the heat, cold, mist or snow. Weather sealed optics have gaskets where the environment meets the interior and gasket between the lens mount and the lens. The newest telephotos being released today are sealed against moisture, and some lenses now include optical coatings that are scratch and water resistant. These lenses will expand your opportunities because they will allow you to continue shooting when others have retreated to the safety of a shelter.
Buy the best lenses you can afford... cameras are ephemeral, but lenses can last a lifetime. 
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