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

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lens kit

Outdoor photography encompasses a lot of territory—from landscapes, wildlife and macro to tripod-mounted shots of static scenes and handheld shots of quick action. So the “best” lens(es) depend in large part on what you photograph outdoors and how you see the outdoor world. A basic three-lens kit is a good starting point, and it gives you a solid foundation from which to build. Expanding from the basic three is like constructing the structure on that foundation.

The Basic Three-Lens Set
A wide zoom, a midrange zoom and a tele-zoom will get you going. They’ll cover a wide range of outdoor shooting situations. Why zooms rather than prime lenses? Three main reasons: 1) You get a whole range of focal lengths in a single package for simpler travel; 2) When you can’t easily move closer or farther from a scene, you can control the angle of view by zooming (remember that zooming changes the cropping, but not the perspective; moving closer or farther away changes perspective); 3) A zoom means fewer lens changes, and that means less dust on the filter that covers your D-SLR’s image sensor—and that means fewer dust spots to clone out when you edit your images.

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Olympus 18-180mm
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Sigma 18-250mm

Wide Zoom: You’ll need a wide-angle zoom to capture those epic vistas and magnificent skies. You also can move close to a main subject with a wide lens to increase its size relative to background elements—the classic shot of a big foreground flower with the whole flower field beyond. If an animal will let you get that close, this technique is very effective with wildlife.

Medium Zoom: A medium zoom includes the format’s “normal” focal length, plus wider and narrower focal lengths, making it a good general-purpose outdoor lens. This focal-length range is good for images that look “normal” rather than providing a wider-than-the-eye-sees or compressed viewpoint.

Long Zoom: A long zoom—one that goes from beyond the format’s “normal” focal length into “telephoto” territory—has an obvious advantage for wildlife photography. These lenses let you get frame-filling shots of shy wildlife you can’t approach closely. But long zooms can be very effective landscape lenses, allowing you to zero in on interesting portions of a scene and to “flatten” perspective in distant vistas. Long zooms also offer compositional flexibility. Let’s look at the lenses you might want to add to your basic kit.

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Tokina AT-X 11-16mm
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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.

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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).

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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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Canon TS-E 17mm Tilt-Shift

Macro Lenses
If you like to photograph flowers or bugs, you’ll want to add a macro lens to your kit. Macro lenses can focus close enough to produce a life-size image of the subject on a 35mm film frame and are optically optimized for close shooting distances.

Macro lenses come in several focal lengths. Shorter focal lengths let you move right in on a subject and still include some of the surrounding environment. Longer focal lengths produce a given magnification from farther away, handy when the subject is skittish. The longer working distance also provides more room for your lighting setup and reduces the chances that the lens will cast a shadow on the subject. (Serious macro shooters generally use electronic flash for three main reasons: It’s easily positioned anywhere you want it with today’s wireless off-camera flash feature; its brief duration at close range freezes subject and camera motion and negates the effects of wind; and it allows you to stop down for more depth of field—depth of field is very minimal at very close range.) Bear in mind that shooting from farther away also “flattens” perspective; if you want a feel of “depth” in a macro shot, it’s better to use a shorter macro lens and move closer to obtain the same subject magnification.

For even more magnification, you can attach an extension tube to your macro lens (or to any lens, for that matter). The advantages of extension tubes are that they allow you to focus even closer for more magnification, and they contain no optics to reduce image quality—they’re just spacers that increase the distance between the optical center of the lens and the focal plane. The disadvantages are a loss of light (you have to use longer exposure times or higher ISOs for ambient-light work), and the lens won’t focus out to infinity with an extension tube attached.

Many zoom lenses are touted as “macro,” but this usually just means they’ll focus closer than “non-macro” zooms of equivalent focal length. Most won’t produce better than a 1:3 (1/3-life-size) reproduction ratio. This is still good enough for a lot of semi-close-up work; just bear in mind that you won’t be doing 1:1 life-size macro work with these lenses.

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Nikon 10.5mm Fisheye
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Nikon 105mm Macro

Tilt-Shift Lenses
A number of SLR landscape photographers are using tilt-shift lenses because they provide some of the versatility of the view camera. The shift feature allows you to get an entire tall object into the frame without tilting the camera up; this, in turn, keeps the film plane parallel to the subject plane and eliminates the “falling-over-backward” look so often seen in photographs of tall trees and cliff faces. The tilt feature allows you to tilt the plane of focus for tremendous control over depth of field at any aperture.

Fisheye Lenses

While the big challenge in designing a superwide-angle rectilinear lens is eliminating distortion, fisheye lenses revel in it. Fisheyes produce a 180-degree angle of view (diagonal with full-frame fisheyes; in any direction with circular fisheyes) and lots of barrel distortion. This relegates them to the special-effects realm, but fisheye effects can produce effective landscape images. One idea might be to point the camera straight up at dusk or dawn, when one horizon glows colorfully with the rising or setting sun while the other is dark.

Circular fisheye lenses produce round images rather than rectangular ones. Full-frame fisheyes, in effect, crop a rectangle out of the circular fisheye image to fill the image frame. This produces a somewhat unsettling effect—the image frame is normal, but all straight lines that don’t go right through the center of the image will be bowed outward.

Full-frame fisheyes are available for most popular 35mm and digital SLRs. Those designed for full-frame cameras provide a true 180-degree diagonal angle of view with those cameras and an angle of around 110 degrees when attached to an APS-C D-SLR. Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Samsung and Sony offer full-frame fisheyes for their small-sensor D-SLRs, while Sigma and Tokina offer them for several brands. Four Thirds System shooters can use the Olympus Zuiko Digital 8mm ƒ/3.5 fisheye.

Today, only Sigma makes circular fisheye lenses. Its 8mm ƒ/3.5 EX DG comes in mounts for Sigma, Canon and Nikon SLRs, providing a circular image with 35mm and full-frame models. The Sigma 4.5mm ƒ/2.8 EX DC provides a circular image with a true 180-degree angle of view with APS-C D-SLRs, and comes in mounts for Sigma, Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony D-SLRs.

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Camera Format And “Magnification Factor”

Remember that the focal length required to produce a specific angle of view with an APS-C or Four Thirds System D-SLR will be shorter than that needed to produce the same angle of view with a 35mm SLR or full-frame D-SLR. The specs for each D-SLR note the sensor’s focal-length factor, a figure that tells how its images relate to those of a 35mm film frame. For example, Nikon’s non-full-frame D-SLRs (all except the D3, D3X and D700) have a factor of 1.5x—any given lens used on one of those D-SLRs will frame like a lens 1.5 times longer on a 35mm SLR (or full-frame D-SLR). For example, put a 100mm lens on a D300, and it will frame like a 150mm lens on a full-frame D3.

Here are the magnification factors for popular D-SLRs:
• Canon: 1.6x for all but the EOS 5D and EOS-1 series pro models

• Canon EOS-1D series: 1.3x

• Canon EOS-1Ds series and EOS 5D/ EOS 5D Mark II: 1x (full-frame)

• Fujifilm: 1.5x for all D-SLRs

• Nikon: 1.5x for all but the full-frame D3, D3X and D700

• Olympus: 2x for all D-SLR models

• Panasonic: 2x for all D-SLR models

• Pentax: 1.5x for all D-SLR models

• Samsung: 1.5x for all D-SLR models

• Sigma: 1.7x for all D-SLR models

• Sony: 1.5x for all D-SLR models but the full-frame DSLR-A900

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Pro Lenses And Image Quality
­­­The right focal lengths provide you with the needed angles of view, but there’s more to consider than just angle of view.

Most pros shoot with pro lenses. Pro lenses cost more and are heavier, but they’re also sharper, better corrected for aberrations and distortion, and generally can stand up to outdoor conditions better. Pro lenses are also generally faster, which means you can shoot in dimmer light, at lower ISOs or at faster shutter speeds. This, in turn, means you can get shots that photographers using slower lenses can’t get. Pro lenses also provides quicker, more accurate autofocusing performance, important for wildlife-action photography.

If your budget doesn’t allow for pro lenses, you can get the same angles of view with lower-priced lenses, and some very good shots. But image quality won’t be quite as good as if a pro lens had been used to shoot the same images.

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Prime Or Zoom?
Back in the day, pros used prime (single-focal-length) lenses because zooms back then weren’t very sharp. That has changed today, though, and most of the landscape pros we surveyed use pro zoom lenses. Improvements in optical materials, construction techniques and computer-aided design breakthroughs have made today’s top zoom lenses excellent.

That said, few pros would use the “kit” lenses that are sold with entry-level D-SLRs. These 18-55mm (or thereabouts) $100 wonders are great for D-SLR newbies, but they don’t have the sharpness, distortion and aberration correction, and in the case of longer zooms, AF performance, of the pro zooms.

Pro wildlife photographers still prefer the fast supertelephoto lenses over zooms, in part for their longer focal lengths and in part for their greater speed. The longest focal length available in a current Canon or Nikon zoom lens is 400mm, while the superteles go up to 800mm (Canon) and 600mm (Nikon). And both Canon and Nikon offer 400mm ƒ/2.8 supertelephotos, a stop faster than Nikon’s 200-400mm ƒ/4 supertele zoom and two stops faster than Canon’s 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 supertele zoom.

Zooms do offer a special advantage to the D-SLR user: fewer lens changes. Each time you change lenses on a D-SLR, dust can enter and settle on the low-pass filter that covers the image sensor. Once there, the dust will appear in every future shot. With zoom lenses, you won’t have to change lenses every time you want to use a new focal length.

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Pentax DA 300mm
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Tamron 18-270mm

(800) OK-CANON

(800) NIKON-US

(888) 968-4448

(800) 211-PANA

(800) 877-0155

Pro-Optic (Adorama)
(888) 991-6599


(800) 896-6858

(877) 865-SONY

Tamron USA
(631) 858-8400

Tokina (THK Photo Products)
(800) 421-1141


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    This was a great article! Too bad it is not in copy mode so those, like me, can have for future purchasing aides.

    i just got a subscription to your magazine and I love it.

    When I saw your article, I went to the table to see the lenses you recommend for a Canon full-frame camera. I was surprised to see your choice of the MP-E 65mm macro lens. I say this because the ‘experts’ that I read e.g., John Gerlach recommends a 200 or 100 mm macro as they give more flexibility. I then looked up the MP-E and saw that it is a specialty lens, so I was wondering on the rationale for the MP-E 65 rather than, say, the 100.

    To Bob Johnson. If you simply click and drag over the desired data, right click and copy, then paste into Word and do this for each “page”, you can edit out the icons, etc. and keep a copy saved. I save my print copy but use this method for reference. These articles are great.

    I am working on this a little at a time.

    So far the most versatile lens I have purchase is the 150-500mm Sigma.

    I use this combined with a 24-105mm Canon so in two lenses I cover a wide range 24-500mm IS f4-f6.3

    I also use a quantaray 70-300mm for macro shots

    And a Sigma 28mm Fixed lens.

    I would like to add two lenses to my arsenal…

    a Good Macro lens such as 70-200mm IS and a nice prime 300 or 400mm telephoto.

    At that point I think I will be done lens shopping but then again is one ever done…

    I shoot Nikon D200 (D80) back up. Prime subject is sports (all three bike racing, sports cars and motorcycles. What three Nikon lenses would you recommend for my basics. I’ve tried other lenses and found only the Nikon’s focus fast enoguh. I’ve also found I need faster lenses to achieve the shallow depth of field. Yes, I know these cost more. I’m also thinking whether I should be purchasing for full frame now.


    A very good article to read! However, some of these Lens are quite expensive, and really are not for the average Amateur Photographer. I know for sure that I can’t afford buying a $1 – 4,000 Lens! Just to much money. I like taking pictures of what-ever will interest me, mostly Landscapes, Flowers, and places of History will always attract my attention.

    I shoot a Pentax K100D DSLR with a variety of different Lens that are not real expensive, but take a pretty good Image. I use the Pentax 18-55mm Lens, a Tamron 28-80mm Lens, a 70-300mm Lens, a Phoenix 28-210mm Wide Angle Lens. I can also add my Pentax 2X Doubler, which doubles everything. I also have a “Add On” Wide Angle Lens to add to my Tamron 28-80mm Lens to give me Wide Angles. I would think that I have more than enough to take some good Images.

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