The “Wrong” Lens

Red-eyed Tree Frog (Agalychnis callidryas) Costa Rica

I am often asked what lenses to take for a particular journey.  My standard answer?  All of them.  Seriously, I have found that I need everything in my arsenal nearly everywhere I go, which explains why my backpack is so unbelievably heavy.  In almost every shooting situation, you can be sure that whatever lens you leave behind will be the one you need.

The truth is, however, that not having the “right” lens can force you to get pictures you might not otherwise have seen.  Consider, for example, my red-eyed tree frog (taken, by the way, on Kodachrome –  more than 25 years ago).  When I found this frog, sitting on a palm frond, I didn’t have any of my macro gear with me.  In fact, all I had a was a telephoto lens, without any macro capability.  Although I wanted to a close-up, the lens simply did not focus any closer….and the picture above is the result. Instead of an in-your-face portrait (of which I have hundreds already) I was forced by my equipment to create a composition with what I had.

I liked the design, of course, and the balance between the off-center frog and the black areas on the left. It worked for me: and a year later, it was published as a wrap-around cover on Audubon Magazine, a picture I only took because my equipment forced me to look beyond my initial instincts.

The lesson? No, it’s probably not a good idea to intentionally leave a useful lens behind to stretch your visual instincts. But it is worth trying a different lens that you might not  use normally, one that changes your perspective and allows you to see a picture you might not see otherwise.

Then there is our obsession with big glass. In the Arctic this summer, I shot polar bears next to a guy who had a 600mm lens on his Canon  – all the time. By contrast, I went back and forth between my 300mm 2.8 and a 70-200mm.  Did I lose some great close-ups when the bear was a long way away? You bet I did.  But the shorter lenses forced me to get something BESIDES a close-up – like this environmental shot of a bear on a vast sheet of drifting ice. Like the frog picture, the “wrong” lens gave me access to a picture I would never have taken if I’d been using a mega-telephoto.

Polar Bear on Pack Ice, Svalbard

But when the bear turned and came right up to the ship, as I knew it would, I was ready – and got some of the best pictures of the trip.

Nikon D300, 300mm 2.8 lens