The Essential Zoom

Venerable. Indispensable. Classic. Timeless. For a nature photographer, there just isn’t one word that expresses the true value of a fast, constant-aperture 70-200mm lens.
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This Article Features Photo Zoom

1) 1⁄200 sec., ƒ/2.8 , ISO 800, 134mm (effective 214mm), Tamron 70-200mm ƒ/2.8, Canon EOS 7D, 7:39 p.m.

There was a time when the 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 was the workhorse zoom of choice: a highly versatile range with formidable light-gathering ability. Eventually, over time, a lot of other zoom ranges were perfected that stepped all over the focal range—18-200mm, 28-300mm, 70-300mm, 100-400mm—and gave photographers the option to zero in on the range that suited their very specific needs, and at all price levels. A few years back, Canon thought enough of this category to introduce their Series II version with a substantial price of $2,500. The escalation in price tempted a lot of pros to step down to the smaller, far less expensive ƒ/4 version and step up their ISO a notch. While that’s not a bad choice, a constant-aperture ƒ/2.8 70-200mm gives you some particular advantages.

Many photographers first fell for the 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 photographing wildlife. No other lens delivered such quality in low light, had the ability to crop compositions from a stationary vehicle (which can act like a blind) and could be easily amplified with a 1.4X or 2X converter. For the images in this article, we ventured into the Eastern Sierra of California with a Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC USD zoom steadied with a Giottos 6010 window mount (see sidebar). On a safari in Africa, staying in your vehicle is a matter of preservation. In the Sierra, it’s a comfortable way to shoot while seated.

We climbed northwest along the San Joaquin Ridge 4×4 road above Minaret Overlook to get a better angle with the crescent moon closer to the mountains at sunset. Named for their resemblance to the towers of Islamic mosques, the Minarets are a series of jagged, 12,000-foot crags formed by an arête—a blade-like ridge of rock that’s formed when two glaciers carve out parallel valleys. The edge is then whetted by freeze-and-thaw weathering. At about 30 minutes past sunset, the alpine glow reaches its peak color while there’s still enough light to shoot at reasonable shutters speed and ISO using the lens’ large ƒ/2.8 aperture. Only 20 minutes later, and with a teleconverter attached, the shutter speed is reduced to only 1⁄15 sec., but the Vibration Compensation feature in the Tamron lens and the window mount capture a sharp image of the Minaret ridge and the craters along the terminator of the moon. You never know what the evening sky will serve up, but it helps if you watch the calendar to be on hand when moonset coincides with sunset, with the moon following the sun. Often, daytime cumulous clouds that promise a spectacular sunset dissipate with the cooling air. Just two days later, the wind changed and smoke from the Rim Fire in Yosemite Valley reddened the sky, with the sunset clouds casting a curious shadow on the densely polluted air.

2) 1⁄15 sec., ƒ/2.8, ISO 800, 162mm x 1.4X (effective 362mm), Tamron 70-200mm ƒ/2.8, Canon EOS 7D, 7:51 p.m.

3) 1⁄250 sec., ƒ/18, ISO 800, 113mm (effective 180mm), Tamron 70-200mm ƒ/2.8, Canon EOS 7D, 6:54 p.m.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

The zoom range of the 70-200mm, and in many cases, the sheer lack of super-magnification, encourages you to explore some contextual compositions with wildlife. We were drawn to waterfowl set against the majesty of the High Sierra. Before the morning wind kicks up to spoil the reflecting pool, it’s enjoyable to cruise the shoreline of Big Alkali Lake near Mammoth Lakes.

Between 70mm and 200mm, there’s a lot of medium focal length that can serve up a lot of mediocre photos if you don’t fill the frame with intent. Sometimes American avocets will punctuate your picture, here, with a film of ice on the water. At other times, it’s common to find American white pelicans or trumpeter swans. We still had the 1.4X teleconverter attached, but had to zoom out to include more of the mountain, making the effective focal length only 302mm, so take that into consideration when judging the quality of the birds at a distance of 300 yards.

4) 1⁄500 sec., ƒ/16, ISO 400, 200mm (effective 340mm), Tamron 70-200mm ƒ/2.8, Canon EOS 7D, 7:04 a.m.

5) 1⁄500 sec., ƒ/4, ISO 100, 135mm x 1.4X (effective 302mm), Tamron 70-200mm ƒ/2.8, Canon EOS 7D, 7:01 a.m.

Approximation of human-eye view
At 30 minutes past sunset, mule deer come out to graze. Individually, either an ƒ/2.8 aperture or an ISO 1600 setting would be a potent solution for penetrating the last light of the day. But, in combination, the lens and camera sensor delivered the night vision of a nocturnal hunter. Near darkness to the human eye (6a) was opened up to dusk levels (6). Is this what a cougar would see? One caution: At this time of evening, your eye has difficulty judging focus, so it’s helpful to rely on autofocus. Make sure the focus point is on the subject. We threw a lot of frames that missed the point and picked sage rather than antler.

6) 1⁄25 sec., ƒ/2.8, ISO 1600, 200mm (effective 320mm), Tamron 70-200mm ƒ/2.8, Canon EOS 7D, 7:30 p.m.

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7) 1⁄640 sec., ƒ/5, ISO 800, 113mm (effective 180mm), Tamron 70-200mm ƒ/2.8, Canon EOS 7D, 5:33 p.m.

Rock Creek Canyon, 10,000 feet, mid-September
In Rock Creek Canyon, the first color comes to the aspens above 10,000 feet in the Eastern Sierras in mid-September. The autumn change appears as the dominating green chlorophyll pigments degrade, leaving the always-present yellow and red pigments to show their colors. There’s a specific beauty to this early turn, as some leaves opt for a change to red, while others turn a more traditional yellow, and others, still, retain their soft hues of green. The compression of a moderate zoom setting, here, 113mm, draws together the planes of focus from the foreground aspens to the background conifers, creating the effect of a flat canvas. The abundance of needle-and-leaf detail is artfully gathered by the SP (Super Performance) glass in this high-quality lens. Also important in these conditions of bright leaves and dark needles is an overcast sky that serves to soften the light and retain detail down to the tree trunks.

Your SUV: The Nature Photographer’s La-Z-Boy®

The Giottos 6010 car window mount with built-in, three-way panhead and quick-release camera plate has a street price of only $53.95 and is perfectly mated with the 70-200mm. The lens collar centers the balance point on the window mount, and the quick release makes it easy to remove and reattach as you drive from point to point. Not knowing what the shatter threshold of safety glass might be, we felt better about removing the weight of the camera while pitching and rolling over uneven ground.

Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC USD
What you get:
1 Lens-collar mounting for balance
2 ƒ/2.8 maximum aperture
3 Tamron Advanced Vibration Compensation
4 Alone or with a 1.4X teleconverter, you have an effective range of 112-320mm at a constant ƒ/2.8 or 156-448mm at a constant ƒ/4
5 Estimated Street Price: $1,499