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Choosing Your Tele-Zoom

Some of the best nature photographers share thoughts and tips on their favorite medium telephoto zoom lenses
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Click Images To EnlargeThis Article Features Photo Zoom

The versatility of medium tele-zooms is just incredible. With ranges that vary from around 50mm to between 200mm and 400mm at the high end, these lenses provide a tremendous variety of framing options for landscape, wildlife, sports action and macro work. Between one of these lenses and a good wide-angle, you can travel most anywhere and be confident that your bases will be covered for nearly any situation. And you can travel light—an absolute necessity if you fly anywhere these days, given the weight restrictions on baggage, not to mention how much easier it can be on your back.

Unlike the very first telephoto zooms, optical quality nowadays often rivals that of prime, fixed-focal-length lenses. That’s why so many pros have migrated to these lenses and use them routinely. Downsizing to fewer, lighter zoom lenses with flexible coverage was the way to go.

Art Wolf

Art WolfeArt Wolf
For someone like Art Wolfe, who travels a great deal, the Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/4L IS USM is an ideal lens. On a six-week trip abroad working on his TV series, Travels to the Edge with Art Wolfe, it was one of his primary lenses.


Says Wolfe, “When I was photographing camel trains coming out of the Sahara laden down with salt, and you know they’re moving quite fast toward you, having the ability to change the composition quickly, and pan with them, and do all those kinds of things, really would be quite difficult to do with a fixed lens. As far as I’m concerned, these zooms are an absolute necessity for photographing moving subjects”.

Wolfe says he’s relying on the 70-200mm ƒ/4 and the new 16-35mm ƒ/2.8 almost exclusively. They offer economy of scale, size and weight when he’s traveling and provide the amount of coverage he needs. Plus, there are so many airline weight restrictions now that smaller, lightweight camera systems are essential these days.

William Neill

William NeillWilliam Neill
If you’re photographing a mountain vista as William Neill often does, including foreground subjects, such as a tree or a gathering of wildflowers, gives the viewer clues as to scale and depth. A telephoto makes the mountains seem larger because of an inherent optical quality called compression. Compression creates the appearance that objects are closer to each other than they actually are. A proximity with distant objects is established that can serve as a means of contrasting elements in a photograph.

Compression also can be useful for capturing a variety of textures or patterns that exist in a scene. “When I photograph, I often prefer to extract the essential elements out of a scene or subject” says Neill. “The telephoto zoom, specifically my Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM, is my primary lens, which I use about twice as much as any other lens. I supplement this lens with the Canon EF 25 Macro Extension for macro work or the Canon Extender EF 2x II for wildlife photography. As a teacher, I often see students’ work that includes more information than necessary. My mantra is: Keep it simple.”

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John Isaac

John IsaacJohn Isaac
After 20 years as the United Nations’ chief photographer, John Isaac turned to nature and wildlife to recuperate and find some joy in the world again. “Just like in photojournalism, when one photographs a portrait of a subject in his or her own surroundings, I like to photograph my wildlife subjects the same way. A medium-range zoom is more than adequate and is in some ways the best choice, since I want my audience to see the surroundings of my subjects.”

The Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 50-200mm ƒ/2.8-3.5 and 90-250mm ƒ/2.8 are Isaac’s favorite lenses for wildlife and landscapes. He likes their sharpness, flexible range, beautiful color fidelity and contrast. And with the Olympus Four Thirds system, the lenses are double the focal length of 35mm format, pushing them out to 400mm and 500mm, respectively.

Bob Krist

Bob Krist
Whether it’s wildlife in East Africa, Badrulchau stone monoliths on the island of Palau or the Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland, Bob Krist always has a telephoto zoom along. The AF VR Zoom-Nikkor 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6D ED has been a favorite on trips to Tanzania, as well as Ngorongoro and the Serengeti. With a magnification factor of 1.5x on his Nikon D300, it gives Krist the 35mm equivalent of 120-600mm—an ideal reach for photographing wildlife there.

“Lately, I’ve also been playing with the AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G IF-ED,” says Krist. “This is another gem, lighter than the 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 with a bit more reach, going out to an equivalent 450mm with the magnification factor. It’s definitely easier to tote around, and with Vibration Reduction and the good performance of the D300 at higher ISOs, I’m able to get more use out of this lens.

“Several months ago, I was traveling very lightly on an assignment in Mongolia. When I went out on a camel trek over the Hongoryn Els dunes in the Gobi Desert, the Vibration Reduction of the 70-300 was a great help when shooting from the back of a Bactrian camel.”

Connie Bransilver

Connie BransilverConnie Bransilver
Nature and conservation photographer Connie Bransilver says a day in the field often means being on site where chimps or lemurs are just leaving their nests, then an all-day follow ensues through the rain forest until dusk. “I’m a five-foot, two-inch, 115-pound female, so I have to give high priority to light weight and versatility,” says Bransilver. “For me, the Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS USM is my basic lens for those situations.”

On one expedition, Bransilver was following a community of habituated chimpanzees for days through the Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania. While Bransilver had a porter carrying the bulk of the gear, she carried only the 100-400mm lens as she rarely had time to set up for a perfect shot, and this lens got her close enough for revealing portraits of the chimps.

Kerrick James

Kerrick JamesKerrick James
Adventure sports and travel photographer Kerrick James is shooting a new guidebook to Grand Canyon National Park for Fodor’s. In late October, Kerrick did a four-day backpacking trip, hiking west 30 miles along the Tonto Trail after descending the very steep Grandview Trail.

“My 26-year-old uberstrong cousin was my model for photos,” says Kerrick, “and we carried close to 70 pounds, exiting the Grand Canyon on the South Kaibab Trail. Because we couldn’t count on water sources, we had to carry two gallons each, and photo gear weight was a real factor.”

“I chose to carry the Pentax smc P-DA 50-200mm ƒ/4-5.6 ED lens instead of my old favorite film lens, the 80-200mm ƒ/2.8, because the new lens is about one-fourth the weight. I had never used the 50-200mm lens for a serious project and was truly delighted with it’s image quality and feather weight. By far, the 50-200mm is the lightest ED lens I’ve ever used, and it will be in my hiking bag wherever I go from now on.”

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James Shadle

James ShadleJames Shadle
Accomplished nature photographer James Shadle conducts photography workshops and tours to some of the most beautiful bird rookeries in the world. His primary lens for years has been a 600mm ƒ/4, but his enslavement to the one long focal length was preventing him from realizing the potential of all the photographic opportunities available.

“I decided a lens in the 70-300mm range would open up a whole new world of opportunities. It’s more of a ‘sidearm’ than a ‘big gun,” says Shadle. “After doing a little research, I decided to purchase a Tamron AF70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 Di LD Macro 1:2. I found the Tamron lens to be light and compact, fast focusing and well made. But it was the lens’ sharpness that really impressed me. I’m so confident in the results I get from my Tamron 70-300mm that, on many occasions, I leave my 600mm at home.”

Stephen Lang

Stephen LangStephen Lang
In addition to documenting Native American culture and architecture, past and present, for well over 15 years, Stephen Lang is an emerging landscape and wildlife photographer. A Navajo Indian himself, Lang says the Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG and 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 DG Macro are two of Sigma’s best telephotos.

“They’re ideal for nature shooting as they have a perfect focal length for both close and far subjects” says Lang,”and I can always add a teleconverter if I want to go for even more distant subjects—all this, while staying sharp and keeping my ƒ-stop within reason. For nature, adventure sports or even event photography, these lenses are pretty much in my bag all the time.”

Carol Polich

Carol PolichCarol Polich
Whether doing assignment work or shooting her own wildlife and scenic images, Carol Polich loves the quality and focal range of the Sigma 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 APO DG Macro. “When people ask me what lens to get” says Polich, “I tell them you don’t want to go any smaller than 300mm at the top end, and I often recommend the 70-300mm in particular. So if an animal is close, you can shoot at 70mm to 100mm, for example, if you want to include details from the surrounding environment. Or you can zoom in real tight and isolate that bison or wildebeest or whatever it is you’re photographing. You also can do macro work on flowers or lizards, which happen to be one of my favorite subjects.”

Polich says variable zooms and how they’re made have come a long way in the last few years. The quality is just excellent. “I’ve been using Sigma lenses since 1993, and I’ve been published all over for 15 or 16 years, so the quality in the optics is definitely there.”

Connie Bransilver

Moose Peterson
As a wildlife photographer with a passion for North America’s wildlife and wild places, Moose Peterson relies heavily on the AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G IF-ED. “I love to go out on a cold, crisp morning when the big game is out browsing” says Peterson. “The photography is marvelous with midrange teles attached to my D3s. It’s a focal length that’s very important to my style of photography, especially when it comes to mammals.”

Because most of time he’s not using a tripod, Peterson likes the fact that the 70-200mm is easy to handhold. Being nimble and having the ability to make quick adjustments is critical since he may have only a few seconds to frame a Rocky Mountain bighorn or a snowshoe hare before snapping the shutter.

What Lens Is Best For You?
The ideal telephoto zoom for you depends on your shooting needs. The pros to whom we’ve spoken in this article have offered their insights as to what works best for them and why. Getting that kind of perspective from the people who make their living from these modern marvels of technology can help to guide you in making the best choices for your needs and style of shooting.

Ask yourself the important questions. What focal-length range will be most useful to the kind of photography you do or want to do? If your camera isn’t a full-frame, consider the magnification factor of your camera and how that will affect the focal range. Does the lens offer a fixed maximum aperture like ƒ/2.8 or ƒ/4 at any focal length, or is it variable—changing as you zoom? Consider weight and how that will add to the overall weight of your gear. Is the added expense of built-in stabilization important for you because you like to handhold the camera or maybe you just want that versatility? Modern lenses are so good, it’s hard to go wrong.