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Choose Your Perfect Zoom

The modern zoom lens is a marvel of technology, and it’s the nature photographer’s best friend
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This Article Features Photo Zoom

Canon EF 28-300mm ƒ/3.5-5.6L IS USM

There was a time when most landscape photographers used prime (single-focal-length) wide-angle and normal lenses, while wildlife photographers relied on prime super-telephoto lenses.

Nikkor AF-S DX
18-200mm ƒ/3.5-5.6

While a good number of photographers still use prime lenses, today much landscape and wildlife photography is done with zoom lenses. Today’s top zoom lenses are a far cry from early zooms—they’re sharp, well corrected for aberrations and distortion, and let you travel much lighter, since they incorporate a whole range of focal lengths in a single package.

Nikkor AF-S 200-400mm ƒ/4G VR

Zoom Advantages
The major zoom advantage is having a broad range of focal lengths in a single lens. That saves a lot of space and weight, especially useful when lugging your gear in the field. Having all those focal lengths in a single lens also means fewer lens changes, which in turn means less dust on your image sensor.

Because zoom focal lengths are continuous, they can provide you with exactly the right focal length for a given photo. If you have a prime 28mm lens and a prime 50mm lens, and 37mm would frame the scene just right, you’ll have to use the 28mm lens and crop the image. But a 28-55mm or 28-70mm or 28-105mm zoom will provide that 37mm focal length. If 500mm is a bit long to catch that moose that just wandered into the nearby clearing, simply zoom your 200-500mm zoom back to 200mm and get the shot. If you had to remove a 500mm prime lens and attach a 200mm prime lens, the moment might be gone—and the noise of changing lenses might make the moose be gone, too (not to ignore the logistics of carting two big super-teles around).

Canon EF

If you want a long focal length for wildlife photography, zooms offer yet another advantage over prime lenses. For example, if you’re a Nikon user and you want 400mm in a prime lens, you have to buy the $9,000 400mm ƒ/2.8. But you can acquire the 200-400mm ƒ/4 ($6,300) or 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 ($1,700) and get 400mm (and other focal lengths, too) for a lot less. And many manufacturers offer 70-300mm or 75-300mm zooms for under $500, which gets you that minimum wildlife focal length for far less than a 300mm prime lens. (It’s true that the more costly lenses may perform better, but the less expensive models will get the job done for those who don’t have unlimited funds to spend on lenses.)

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Tamron AF28-300mm F/3.5-6.3 XR Di VC

How A Zoom Works
A single-focal-length lens contains a number of elements, both individual elements and groups of elements cemented together to function as individual elements. The elements establish the focal length and compensate for aberrations and distortions, and some of them move to focus the lens at different distances.

Canon EF-S 10-22mm ƒ/3.5-4.5 USM

A zoom lens must do all of this, but also move some elements to change the focal lengths while moving others to maintain focus and still others to maintain compensation for aberrations and distortions at all focal lengths. “True” zoom lenses maintain focus as they’re zoomed; vari-focal lenses change focus as they zoom and must be refocused after zooming. Autofocus systems take care of that automatically, but keep it in mind if you focus a “zoom” lens manually. Most SLR “zoom” lenses today are vari-focals, not “true” zooms.

The challenge for lens manufacturers is making a zoom lens that performs well throughout its focal-length range. With any lens, designers have to provide excellent resolution, contrast and color rendition, minimize peripheral illumination falloff (vignetting) and flare, and eliminate distortions, aberrations and field curvature. With a prime lens, they need to do this for only one focal length. With a zoom lens, they have to correct these things for the entire focal range, and correcting something at one focal length tends to make that particular problem worse at other focal lengths.

Olympus Zuiko Digital 12-60mm ƒ/2.8-4.0 SWD

Today, thanks to advancements in materials and knowledge, and powerful computers to run simulations, designers are able to create zoom lenses that produce excellent image quality at all focal lengths. As with prime lenses, the more costly pro zooms tend to be better performers in terms of sharpness, contrast, color rendition and autofocusing; and shorter-range zooms (3:1, 4:1) tend to be better performers than “super” zooms (7:1 on up). But today’s zooms, in general, perform very well—so well, in fact, that many landscape and wildlife pros shoot primarily, if not exclusively, with zooms.

That said, pro prime lenses—also having the benefits of advanced materials and computer-aided designs—still outperform even the best zoom lenses. But you’ll have to be a “pixel-peeper” to see it.

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Zuiko Digital
ƒ/2.8 SWD

You can change a composition (framing) and the subject size by changing focal length or by changing camera distance. Each method produces a different effect.

When you simply change focal length, whether by zooming or by changing from a prime lens of one focal length to a prime of another focal length, the perspective doesn’t change. You’re just changing the framing. A longer focal length shows less of the scene and makes the subject (and everything else in the frame proportionately) larger; a shorter focal length shows more of the scene and makes the subject (and everything else in the frame proportionately) smaller.


When you actually move the camera closer to or farther away from the subject, you change the perspective as well as the framing: When you move closer, the subject grows larger not only in the frame, but also relative to its surroundings. When you move farther away, the subject not only becomes smaller in the frame, but it becomes smaller relative to its surroundings. That’s a change in perspective, and it happens because you changed the camera-to-subject distance. Merely changing the focal length does not change perspective; you have to change the camera-to-subject distance to do that.

Pentax DA

We think of wide-angle lenses as expanding perspective because we generally move closer to our subjects when using a wide-angle lens. And we think of telephoto lenses as compressing perspective because we generally use telephotos to photograph distant subjects. But it’s the camera-to-subject distance, not the focal length, that changes the perspective.

You can demonstrate this for yourself. Put your camera on a tripod, attach a telephoto lens, and take a photo. Remove the telephoto lens, attach a wide-angle lens, and take another photo. At your computer, blow up the wide-angle shot so it covers the same area as the telephoto shot, and examine both images. You’ll see that the perspective is identical: The subject’s size relative to its surroundings is the same (of course, the wide-angle image will be much “grainier” due to the degree of enlargement).

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Sigma 17-170mm
ƒ/2.8-4.5 DC HSM

Lens Speed
Manufacturers often offer a zoom range in two versions: faster and slower. For example, Canon offers 70-200mm zooms in ƒ/2.8 and ƒ/4 flavors. The former admits more light, so is better for dim-light shooting, as it allows for a faster shutter speed, offers a brighter viewfinder image and provides quicker autofocusing—and costs a lot more. The ƒ/4 is more compact and lighter, costs less and still performs very well—a great choice when you want to travel light or have a limited budget. Since many AF SLRs can’t autofocus with lenses slower than ƒ/5.6, the ƒ/2.8 lens offers another advantage: You can attach a 2x teleconverter, and the resulting 140-400mm ƒ/5.6 combo will still autofocus (albeit somewhat more slowly than the lens alone). With the 70-200mm ƒ/4 and a 2x converter, you’ll be focusing the resulting dim ƒ/8 image manually.

Pentax DA* 60-250mm
ƒ/4 SDM

Variable-Aperture Zooms
Fixed-aperture zooms maintain their maximum aperture throughout their zoom range: A 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 has a maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8 at all focal lengths. Many zooms have variable maximum apertures: Sigma’s 150-500mm ƒ/5-6.3, for example, has a maximum aperture of ƒ/5 at 150mm and a maximum aperture of ƒ/6.3 at 500mm. Through-the-lens metering in digital and 35mm SLRs automatically compensates for this, but you’ll have to keep it in mind if using a handheld meter.

Tokina 11-16mm
ƒ/2.8 AT-X PRO
Tamron SP
F/5-6.3 Di

Twin-Ring Vs. Push-Pull
Most zoom lenses today provide two rings, one for focusing and one for zooming. Some use a single ring; rotating it focuses, and pushing it away from the camera body or pulling it toward the camera body does the zooming. Some photographers (myself included) prefer the two-ring design; others prefer push-pull. Before buying a zoom lens, try it out and see how you like its zoom control.

Nikkor AF-S 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G ED

Camera Format
You have to consider your camera’s format (sensor size) when choosing a lens for a specific task. A focal length that provides a moderately wide angle of view when used on a 35mm or full-frame digital SLR becomes a “normal” lens when used on an APS-C digital SLR because the latter’s smaller sensor “sees” less of the image the lens produces.

Sony 70-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 G

All the major lens manufacturers now offer lenses specifically designed for the smaller APS-C and Four Thirds System image sensors. Advantages include more compact lenses, since they don’t have to produce as large an image circle, and more effective delivery of the light to the smaller sensor for better image quality. Canon’s are called EF-S and can’t be mounted on larger-sensor (or film) EOS SLRs. Nikon’s are designated DX; if you attach one to a full-frame Nikon DSLR, the camera will automatically switch to a cropped DX format. All Olympus Zuiko Digital lenses were designed specifically for the Four Thirds System image sensors used in Olympus DSLRs. Pentax’s DA* and DA lenses were designed specifically for the APS-C sensors used in Pentax DSLRs and can’t be mounted on Pentax 35mm SLRs. Sony’s DT lenses were designed specifically for the APS-C sensors used in all Sony DSLRs except the full-frame DSLR-A900 and A850, and the full-frame cameras will crop to APS-C format when one is attached. Sigma’s DC lenses, Tamron’s Di II lenses and Tokina’s DX lenses were designed specifically for DSLRs with APS-C sensors.

Wide-Angle Zooms
Wide-angle zooms are those that start at a wide-angle focal length for the camera format. Popular wide-angle zooms among APS-C-format landscape shooters include Canon’s EF-S 10-22mm ƒ/3.5-4.5 USM, Nikon’s AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 12-24mm ƒ/4G, Pentax’s DA 12-24mm ƒ/4.0, Sigma’s 10-20mm ƒ/3.5 EX DC HSM, Sony’s DT 11-18mm ƒ/4.5-5.6, Tamron’s SP AF10-24mm F/3.5-4.5 Di II and Tokina’s 11-16mm ƒ/2.8 AT-X PRO DX. For Four Thirds System users, the Olympus Zuiko Digital 7-14mm ƒ/4.0 provides the widest views.

Popular with the full-frame and 35mm set are Canon’s EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II USM, Nikon’s AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G, Sigma’s 12-24mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 EX DG HSM, Sony’s Zeiss 16-35mm ƒ/2.8 and Tamron’s SP AF17-35mm F/2.8-4 Di.

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Sony DT Zeiss 16-80mm

Medium Zooms
Medium zooms cover the format’s “normal” focal lengths, along with wider and longer ones, and are good choices for general outdoor shooting. Good medium zooms for APS-C-format DSLRs include Canon’s EF-S 18-135mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 IS, Nikon’s AF-S DX Nikkor 18-105mm ƒ/3.5-5.6G VR, Olympus’ Zuiko Digital 12-60mm ƒ/2.8-4.0 SWD, Pentax’s DA* 50-135mm ƒ/2.8 SDM, Sigma’s 17-70mm ƒ/2.8-4.5 DC HSM II, Sony’s Zeiss 16-80mm ƒ/3.5-4.5, Tamron’s AF17-50mm F/2.8 XR Di II VC and Tokina’s 16.5-135mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 AT-X DX.

For full-frame and 35mm film shooters, popular medium-zoom choices include Canon’s EF 28-135mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 IS USM, Nikon’s AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 24-120mm ƒ/3.5-5.6G VR, Sigma’s 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG HSM, Sony’s DT 16-105mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 and Tamron’s SP AF28-75mm F/2.8 XR Di.

Pro-Optic 420-
800mm ƒ/8.3-16

Telephoto Zooms
Telephotos aren’t just for wildlife photographers. Many pros use them for landscapes, too, for a different “look.” Some particularly popular wildlife zooms include Canon’s EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS USM, Nikon’s AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 200-400mm ƒ/4G VR, Olympus’ Zuiko Digital 90-250mm ƒ/2.8, Pentax’s DA* 60-250mm ƒ/4 SDM (DSLRs only), Pro-Optic’s inexpensive 420-800mm ƒ/8.3-16 Vari-Zoom, Sigma’s 150-500mm ƒ/5-6.3 DG OS HSM, Sony’s 70-400mm ƒ/4-5.6 G, Tamron’s SP AF200-500mm F/5-6.3 Di and Tokina’s 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 AT-X.

Tamron SP AF70-
200mm F/2.8 Di
LD Macro

If you’re a landscape shooter, some favorite telephoto zooms include Canon’s EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM, Nikon’s AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G VR II, Olympus’ Zuiko Digital 35-100mm ƒ/2.0, Pentax’s DA 50-200mm ƒ/4-5.6 WR, Sigma’s APO 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 II EX DG Macro HSM, Sony’s 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 G and Tamron’s SP AF70-200mm F/2.8 Di LD Macro.

Sigma APO 70-200mm
ƒ/2.8 II EX DG Macro HSM

Super Zooms
When you want to travel really light, a wide-range “super zoom” can (almost) do it all. Popular super zooms include Canon’s EF-S 18-200mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 IS (for APS-C) and EF 28-300mm ƒ/3.5-5.6L IS USM, Nikon’s AF-S DX Nikkor 18-200mm ƒ/3.5-5.6G VR II (APS-C), Olympus’ Digital Zuiko 18-180mm ƒ/3.5-6.3, Pentax’s DA 18-250mm ƒ/3.5-6.3, Sony’s DT 18-250mm ƒ/3.5-6.3, Sigma’s 18-250mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 OS (APS-C) and 28-300mm ƒ/3.5-6.3, and Tamron’s AF18-270mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC (APS-C) and AF28-300mm F/3.5-6.3 XR Di VC.

Zooms For Nature
(800) OK-CANON

(800) NIKON-US

(888) 553-4448

(800) 877-0155

Pro-Optic (Adorama)
(800) 223-2500

(800) 896-6858

(877) 865-SONY

Tamron USA
(631) 858-8400

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