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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Building The Ultimate Lens Kit

There are so many top-notch, high-tech, affordable lenses available for nature photography, it’s easy to assemble a collection that will give you the right tool for what you love to do

Labels: Lenses

This Article Features Photo Zoom

lens kit
Tokina AT-X 11-16mm
lens kit
Sony 70-400mm
Superzooms incorporate a wide range of focal lengths in a single package and are handy when traveling light is a major concern. They also provide a wide range of focal lengths for a relatively small cost. They’re very good general-purpose lenses, allowing the user to do wide-angle landscapes, some wildlife work, and with some, even 1:3 or 1:4 close-ups of flowers and bugs. A single superzoom could replace two or even all of the basic set lenses but for one thing: Due to the optical challenges involved in putting such a wide range of focal lengths in a single lens, superzooms aren’t quite as good optically as the better shorter-range zooms.

lens kit
Samsung 16-45mm
If you like to photograph wildlife, you’ll want to add a really long lens to your kit. Wildlife pros prefer the pro supertelephotos—300mm ƒ/2.8, 400mm ƒ/2.8, 400mm ƒ/4, 500mm ƒ/4, 600mm ƒ/4 and even 800mm ƒ/5.6. These are huge, heavy and costly beasts, but they bring shy, distant animals up close, allow for faster shutter speeds to “freeze” flight action, autofocus quickly and accurately, and produce excellent image quality.

While the lenses mentioned above start at more than $4,000, there are far less costly alternatives for those on a budget. Slower supertelephotos from the same manufacturers are one example: A 300mm ƒ/4 from Canon or Nikon costs thousands less than their 300mm ƒ/2.8s and is far more compact and handholdable (and can focus much closer). The major disadvantage beside lens speed is that autofocusing performance is somewhat slower than with the faster lenses. But performance is still very good.

If you have a D-SLR with an APS-C or Four Thirds sensor (i.e., it’s not a full-frame model), you get a free focal-length “boost” because the smaller sensor “sees” less of the image formed by the lens than a full-frame sensor sees. A 300mm lens on an APS-C camera frames like a 450mm on a full-frame (or 35mm) SLR; a 300mm lens on a Four Thirds System D-SLR frames like a 600mm lens on a full-frame D-SLR (allowing for the different aspect ratios, 3:2 for “full-frame” and 4:3 for Four Thirds).


lens kit
Panasonic Lumix G
Another money-saving path to long focal lengths is a supertelephoto zoom. Many long zooms cost less than a prime lens of the zoom’s longest focal length. Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Tamron and Tokina all offer supertele-zooms with 400mm or 500mm at the long end for under $1,500—some even under $1,000. The downside of long zooms is that they’re rather slow.

For even more “reach,” you can add a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter to a telephoto lens to increase its focal length by 1.4x or 2x. Add a 2x converter to a 300mm ƒ/4 lens and it becomes a 600mm ƒ/8 lens for less than one-quarter the cost of a 600mm ƒ/4 (not to ignore the sizable savings in bulk and weight as well). Of course, you lose two stops of lens speed (and with many camera bodies, autofocusing capability altogether if the lens/converter maximum aperture is slower than ƒ/5.6), but you get the “reach” for those distant animals. (Tip: If your D-SLR has a Live View feature, use that when manually focusing with a teleconverter.)

While some incorporate stabilization systems (Canon IS, Nikon VR, Sigma OS and Tamron VC lenses), the big supertelephotos are best used on a solid tripod—even if you can hold it steadily for a shot, you won’t be able to hold it for long while waiting for the decisive wildlife moment. If you intend to do action shots—birds in flight, say—a gimbal head such as those from Jobu, Kirk, Mongoose and Wimberley is a must. It allows you to pan the camera in any direction while still providing solid support.


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