Choosing A Lens Set For Nature Photography

How to save money and find the best lenses to match up with your shooting style
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nature photography lens tips

When putting together a nature photography lens kit, there are three basic ways to do it. You can get one “superzoom,” several shorter-range zooms or a number of fixed-focal-length “prime” lenses. Each offers its pros and cons, and that’s what this article covers. Of course, your lens choices will vary depending on the type or types of outdoor photography you do. So we’ll break down the article into four segments: landscape, wildlife, travel and sports-action.

Sigma 18-250mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 DC OS MacroThere are trade-offs in any lens choice. The key is to identify how you shoot and determine what will work for you. Above: Sigma 18-250mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 DC OS Macro.

Most photographers take it on faith that costly pro lenses are “better” than the more affordable “consumer” ones, but where a given lens is better is frequently misunderstood. Pro lenses may produce better image quality across their entire zoom or aperture range, but that may not be as important to a landscape photographer who does most of his or her shooting at ƒ/16 or someone who works predominantly at one end of the zoom range or another. Pro lenses typically have better environmental sealing than a consumer-level lens, which may or may not be important for you. The upshot is that a pro-level lens isn’t necessarily the best choice for you. You can save a lot of money by being selective and making serious evaluations based on your needs rather than blindly buying the “top of the line.” Often, it’s worth a dip in image quality to have the right focal length with you—you’re more likely to carry a compact superzoom into the field on your DSLR body than to lug a set of bulky pro zooms or prime lenses. Also, keep in mind that not every “consumer” lens generates lesser image quality. Some manufacturers require that their pro lineup be capable of covering a full-frame sensor (i.e., the Canon L series). There are several excellent lenses that are APS-C only, and because of that, they can’t be part of the “pro” line.

Lenses For Landscapes

Nikon AF-S 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II; Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II USM; Nikon AF-S 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G EDNikon AF-S 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II; Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II USM; Nikon AF-S 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G ED.

Focal Lengths: Much landscape photography is done with wide-angle lenses, but very effective landscape photos can be made with “normal” and short to medium telephoto lenses, too. The budget landscape solution would be one of the superzooms: 18-200mm, 18-250mm, 18-270mm or 18-300mm for APS-C DSLRs, or 28-200mm or 28-300mm for full-frame DSLRs.

Superzooms provide focal lengths from wide-angle to telephoto in a single, compact package that’s easy to carry anywhere. Most superzooms also cost no more than a good shorter-range zoom, and certainly less than two or more shorter-range zooms or prime lenses. Their great range of focal lengths means you can change focal lengths very quickly at the twist of a wrist, and there’s no need to physically change lenses, which takes time and exposes the sensor assembly to dust.

That brings us to the main advantage of the three-lens landscape kit. A pro 14-24mm/16-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm kit can deliver sharper images (assuming you use a tripod, focus manually and use a low ISO setting), with less distortion and better image quality (less chromatic aberration and higher contrast). On the downside, three mid-range or pro zooms will cost much more than a superzoom, take up a lot more space in the camera bag and weigh a lot more.

Aperture Requirements: 
You’ll generally be shooting stopped down to ƒ/11-ƒ/16 to increase depth- of-field and keep everything sharp from foreground to background, so lens speed (fast maximum aperture) isn’t a priority. Superzooms generally aren’t as sharp as shorter-range zooms or prime lenses in their focal-length range, they exhibit more distortion, and they’re slower, especially at the long end. For the landscape shooter, these drawbacks may not be significant because the more you stop down, the less apparent the barrel distortion appears. A three-lens kit will give you more distortion-free options vis-à-vis focal length and aperture, but depending on your style, the advantages may not fully pencil out.

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Sony DT 18-250mm ƒ/3.5-6.3, Nikon AF-S 18-200mm ƒ/3.5-5.6G ED VR II, Sigma 18-250mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 DC OS Macro, Tamron 18-270mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD.A group of compact, lightweight all-in-one zooms—Sony DT 18-250mm ƒ/3.5-6.3, Nikon AF-S 18-200mm ƒ/3.5-5.6G ED VR II, Sigma 18-250mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 DC OS Macro, Tamron 18-270mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD.

Evaluating Distortion: Most superzooms exhibit barrel distortion at the wide end and the telephoto end. There are some that have the most distortion at intermediate focal lengths. It’s best to test a potential superzoom purchase on your camera to see how it performs for you. You also can check out, where there are a number of published tests using ISO 12233 resolution charts. Always buy from a store that allows you to return an unsatisfactory lens. As far as sharpness goes, if you shoot handheld, or at moderate or higher ISO settings, you probably won’t notice a big difference between a superzoom and a shorter-range zoom or prime lens. If you work from a tripod, focus manually and use a low ISO setting. You’ll see the difference between a superzoom and more costly lenses when you make big prints.

AF Vs. Manual Focusing: While today’s AF systems are terrific, able to handle all sorts of quick action, many landscape pros prefer to carefully focus manually, especially when great detail is important and large prints are to be made. Using live view lets you zoom in on the area of interest to check critical focus. Some cameras offer focus peaking, where in-focus edges are highlighted in a color. A helpful accessory is the Hoodman HoodLoupe and the Flashpoint Swivi, which fit over the LCD monitor, blocking extraneous light and providing a magnifying eyepiece. If you don’t use such a device, cover yourself and the monitor with a jacket or dark cloth, as view-camera landscapists do, for easier viewing in bright lighting. Note that live-view manual focusing is best done with the camera on a tripod; if you shoot handheld, use the eye-level finder.

Of course, when optimal sharpness is required, as in landscape work, a tripod is a necessity. It’s a pain to lug a tripod into the field, but camera shake will negate the sharpness you paid for when you bought your lenses.

Adding Primes To Your Kit

prime lens

A good prime lens will outperform a zoom that includes its focal lengths because it can be optically optimized for just the single focal length. A zoom must be corrected for a range of focal lengths, and something that makes things better at the wide setting might make things worse at longer focal lengths, and vice versa. A zoom lens also contains more elements than a prime lens, and each element adds weight and additional surfaces that can cause reflections and a loss of contrast. Prime lenses also can be much faster than zooms, often ƒ/1.4. Landscape shooters generally will be shooting stopped down, but travel photographers, and especially sports and wildlife action shooters, appreciate the faster shutter speeds possible with faster lenses.

Once you’ve shot with your outdoor zoom(s) for a while, you might find yourself gravitating toward certain focal lengths. If a large percentage of your images are made at or around a specific focal length, consider getting a good prime lens of that focal length and supplement with zooms.

The AF motor (for lenses that contain one) also can be optimized for a prime lens. Wildlife and sports photographers will find that the 300mm ƒ/4 telephotos from Canon, Nikon and Pentax outperform zooms that include 300mm, both in sharpness and AF speed.

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Lenses for Wildlife

Canon EF 400mm ƒ/2.8L IS II USMCanon EF 400mm ƒ/2.8L IS II USM.

Focal Lengths: Since it’s very hard to get close to most wild animals, wildlife specialists tend to work with long focal lengths. With a 1.5X/1.6X crop factor, the longer superzooms will take the budget-minded APS-C shooter into wildlife territory, as will one of the lower-cost supertele-zooms: 70-300mm, 80-400mm, 100-400mm, 120-400mm, 150-500mm, 200-500mm and the like. The full-frame shooter usually will want at least 400mm, which rules out the superzooms. Note that the lowest-priced 70-300mm zooms (those around $200) don’t have the AF performance necessary for wildlife action (they will work well with nonmoving subjects), but the better ones can handle birds in flight and other wildlife action (not as well as the quicker and more accurate autofocusing pro lenses, of course, but better than bargain-basement zooms).

Sigma 120-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 DG APO OS HSM; Sony 70-400mm ƒ/4-5.6 G; Nikon AF-S 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6D ED AF VRTOP TO BOTTOM: Sigma 120-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 DG APO OS HSM; Sony 70-400mm ƒ/4-5.6 G; Nikon AF-S 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6D ED AF VR.

Aperture Requirements: Wildlife photographers often shoot at the lens’ maximum aperture to get the fastest possible shutter speed to stop action and to throw the background completely out of focus to place emphasis on the subject (especially important in wildlife portraits). Thus, they prefer the fast pro supertelephotos: 300mm ƒ/2.8, 400mm ƒ/2.8, 500mm ƒ/4, 600mm ƒ/4 and 800mm ƒ/5.6. These lenses are very bulky and costly, but besides lens speed, they offer better image quality, better AF performance, and in the case of the last two, more reach than the lower-cost supertele-zooms.

Lenses for Travel

Focal Lengths: A superzoom is an excellent choice for the travel photographer because it provides the right focal lengths for most travel shots in a single, compact package. While the superzooms generally aren’t as good optically as equivalent-priced shorter-range zooms (or prime lenses), they’re easy to carry just about anywhere. Having a whole range of focal lengths literally at your fingertips can make the difference between getting and not getting lots of great travel shots.

Sigma 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 IF EX DG HSM; Sony Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 ZA SSM; Tamron 18-270mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD; Canon EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM.CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: Sigma 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 IF EX DG HSM; Sony Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 ZA SSM; Tamron 18-270mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD; Canon EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM.

Aperture Requirements: A lot of travel photography takes place handheld so you’re generally going to lose some sharpness, and you’re always going to be pushing at the limits of ISO and shutter speed settings on your DSLR. Plus, travel photography frequently includes night scenes and building interiors. Today’s DSLRs provide good performance at higher ISO settings. This can mitigate the need for a superfast maximum aperture, but generally, for travel work, you want to have as much aperture at your disposal as possible. Image stabilization, whether in-camera or in-lens, also helps to offset the slower maximum apertures. Superzooms are relatively slow—ƒ/3.5 at the wide end, ƒ/5.6 or even ƒ/6.3 at the long end. A three-lens zoom kit or primes with fast maximum apertures will give you more latitude to shoot in variable lighting conditions, but fewer options for fast focal-length changes.

If your budget and baggage allotment allow, you can obtain better image quality by carrying the standard three-lens travel kit, which is pretty much the same as the landscape three-lens kit: wide zoom, normal zoom and tele-zoom. While lens speed is of little concern to the landscape shooter, faster lenses can be helpful for travel photography, which is more often done handheld and in dimmer lighting. But three fast lenses are much bulkier (and more costly) than a single superzoom, so consider what’s most important to you: optimal image quality or minimal cost and bulk.

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Lenses for Outdoor Sports-Action

Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS USMCanon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM

Focal Lengths: You often can get closer to the subject when shooting sports than when doing wildlife, so you don’t need such long focal lengths. But fast lenses can be helpful for night action. A good, albeit pricey, starting sports lens is a 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 zoom. It lets you shoot at a shutter speed two to four times faster than a 70-200mm ƒ/4 or 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 zoom, which can help produce sharper action shots. (Image stabilization won’t help stop action—stabilization just counters camera shake, not subject motion—but higher ISO settings will give you faster shutter speeds in a given light level.)

Nikon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 G ED VR II.; Sigma 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG OS HSM
Nikon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 G ED VR II.; Sigma 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG OS HSM

At some venues (especially non-professional ones), you can get close enough to use wider lenses, and doing so will provide a different (expanded) perspective. In good light, a superzoom can work; in lower light levels, a 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 can prove very useful. The superwide zoom of the landscape shooter (14-24mm, 16-35mm, etc.) will be less useful in most sports situations, unless you can acquire a field pass and know how to stay out of the way. If you can’t get very close (as when shooting from the stands), a longer lens can be useful. Pro sports shooters often use the “big guns”—300mm ƒ/2.8, 400mm ƒ/2.8, 500mm ƒ/4, 600mm ƒ/4 and even 800mm ƒ/5.6—but these are very bulky and very costly. If your budget doesn’t permit one of the big guns, one of the long wildlife zooms can do the job (although at a higher ISO setting to offset the slower maximum aperture): 70-300mm, 80-400mm, 100-400mm, 120-400mm, 150-500mm and 200-500mm.

Add A True Macro Lens

Tamron SP 90mm F/2.8 Di VC USDTamron SP 90mm F/2.8 Di VC USD

Some superzooms are billed as “macro,” but this generally just means that they’ll focus closer than “non-macro” superzooms—down to maybe 20 inches for a reproduction ratio of 1:4 (1/4 life-size at the image plane). This is very handy for a lot of outdoor subjects, such as flowers, butterflies, building element details and the like, but it isn’t really macro. Macro starts at 1:1—life-size at the image plane. True macro lenses will focus close enough to provide this life-size magnification. They’re also optimized for such close range (they can better handle a flat closse-up subject). If you find that you’re shooting a lot of detail shots, flowers and bugs, you might want to add a true macro lens to your outdoor lens kit.

Macro lenses come in three basic focal-length ranges: “normal,” “short telephoto” and “telephoto.” For a full-frame camera, that would be around 50mm, 100mm and 200mm. For an APS-C camera, about 30% shorter: 35mm, 70mm and 135mm or so. A longer macro lens produces its life-size magnification from farther away, handy when you don’t want to get too close to a flighty or hazardous subject like a wasp, and the greater working distance also gives you more room to set up your lighting (most serious macro photography is done with a ring light or off-camera electronic flash). A shorter macro lens lets you shoot closer to the subject, which provides a more three-dimensional perspective.