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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Find Your Wildlife Action Lens

How to pick the right lens to match your photo needs and your budget

Labels: Lenses

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Clockwise from top: Sigma 200-500mm ƒ/2.8 APO EX DG; Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG OS HSM; AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II; Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS II USM; AF-S Nikkor 600mm ƒ/4G ED VR
When you venture above $2,000, you’re getting into some top-tier pro lenses, including the latest 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 zooms from Canon and Nikon, and some pro superteles from Sigma. These models are optically excellent. Their main disadvantage is price. The $2,000-$4,999 range tends to include large and heavy lenses, which also is a disadvantage if you’re planning on hiking a lot with one.

Over $5,000
Here are the best of the best: the lenses used by most pro wildlife photographers. These include the latest 300mm ƒ/2.8, 400mm ƒ/2.8, 500mm ƒ/4 and 600mm ƒ/4 lenses from the major players, some 800mm exotics, and even the world’s fastest and largest 500mm lens, the 200-500mm ƒ/2.8 Sigma zoom. Lenses in this category offer the best optical quality, the best AF performance and the most rugged construction. They’re bulky and costly, but worth it to those who make their livings photographing wildlife and to enthusiasts who can afford the entry fee.

Camera Considerations
What if you have an older camera and an older action lens, and your budget allows you to upgrade only one? Which should it be? If you have an older DSLR body, a new camera body is probably more important. It provides better image quality and has a better AF system. However, today’s best action lenses have an AF motor in the lens, so the AF system is in both the camera body and the lens.

Assuming a competent camera body, though, the lens is more important. A midlevel DSLR with a 300mm ƒ/2.8 lens will outperform a pro DSLR with a 300mm ƒ/4. But the pro DSLR with the 300mm ƒ/2.8 will be superior to either of these combinations. An entry-level camera will perform better with the 300mm ƒ/2.8 than with the 300mm ƒ/4, but not as well as the midlevel because the midlevel’s AF system is optimized for the ƒ/2.8 lens and the entry-level camera isn’t.

The Biggest Factor
The best thing you can do to improve your wildlife action photos is actually quite inexpensive: Practice! Shooting action is a skill that takes time to acquire, and once acquired, must be practiced regularly to keep sharp. You don’t have to go to exotic locales to practice, either. A local park or your own backyard should provide birds, squirrels, even dogs and cats, as practice subjects.

While the lighter action lenses can be used handheld, the larger ones require a sturdy tripod or at least a monopod. Some wildlife-action photographers like a rifle-stock support like the BushHawk for tracking action. If you choose a tripod, get a sturdy one capable of holding a heavy lens steady—cheapie tripods don’t cut it with long lenses. Besides keeping your camera steady for sharper shots, a tripod will hold the camera in position for long periods, as when you’re waiting for a wildlife subject to do something interesting—handholding a long lens for minutes while waiting for a hawk to take off is a major pain.

For action shooting from a tripod, you’ll need a gimbal head, rather than a conventional ballhead or pan-tilt head. A gimbal head holds the camera and lens in position, but when unlocked, also allows you to move the camera freely to track even birds in flight. Gimbal heads are available from a number of manufacturers, including Custom Brackets, Flashpoint, 4th Generation Designs, Induro, Jobu, Kirk Enterprises, Manfrotto and Wimberley.

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