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Everyone has one. It’s the lens you never leave at home. No matter what, this is the one you have in your bag, and more often than not, it’s the one you’ve mounted on your camera. It’s your go-to, must-have lens. We asked a select group of OP contributors and nature pros to tell us about their essential optics. These are the workhorses in their bags, the lenses that they feel they can’t do without.
We all can learn from the gear that our favorite photographers use. It gives us a unique insight into what they find crucial to achieve their vision and to create compelling images in their particular genre.
The AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 17-35mm ƒ/2.8 IF-ED lens is by far my most essential, go-to lens for documenting the outdoor adventure world. Of primary importance to me is the speed; ƒ/2.8 is critical for capturing still images and video in dawn, dusk and other low-light situations. Secondly, the fact that it’s a zoom allows me to essentially have multiple lenses, or multiple focal lengths, packed into a single configuration, and that’s invaluable. The less time I spend changing lenses means the more time I can spend focused on making creative images. Third, it’s tack-sharp across the zoom and aperture range, even at ƒ/2.8, which is critical.
Oftentimes, I’m in wild environments with the athletes hanging off a cliff on ropes, descending a mountain on skis or in a tiny boat heading out to a surf break. In these situations, I can only work with a minimum of gear, the absolute essentials that will allow me to be productive as a visual storyteller. With the 17-35mm, I can be in tight quarters and still make pictures. I want people who see my images and footage to really get a sense of what it’s like to be in a wild environment, and the wide-angle perspective allows just that. The Nikkor 17-35mm ƒ/2.8 is a fast, sharp, durable and compact zoom in just the right focal-length range.
The Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/4L IS USM has been a key lens for me since it was introduced. It falls in the perfect range for my travel photography where I frequently change focal lengths as new photo opportunities pop up. When I’m shooting in a place like Bhutan, the 70-200mm goes from being a perfect portrait lens to a perfect landscape and cityscape lens. It’s also tack-sharp, and it’s reasonably lightweight. Often using a tripod is impossible for me when I’m photographing in exotic areas, because by the time I could set one up, the shot is gone. I use the image stabilization to give me the freedom to keep shooting.
I always have a short zoom with me, but my “go-to” lens—the one I would want to take to a desert island if I could only take one lens—is the Tamron 18-270mm VC. It’s all about versatility, and because I often head into the field completely uncertain about what I’m going to encounter, this is the perfect lens. I just finished a workshop in Yellowstone where I used the 18-270mm to capture dramatic wide-angle landscapes at the 18mm setting and landscape details and wildlife at the telephoto end. The close-focusing capability gives me more compositional options, and the vibration control helps to maintain sharp images even at slower shutter speeds. Lightweight, versatile and sharp—it’s my one-lens photography solution!
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While I’m still a 4×5 view camera user, more and more I’m using my Nikon D3 for all sorts of photography, including landscape work. The AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 200-400mm ƒ/4G IF-ED is causing me to reexamine my photography. I’m also doing long-lens landscape photography never possible with a 4×5, like this image of the Grand Canyon’s ridges stacked against an amber sunset, and I still have the option of directing it toward wildlife, where it’s so amazingly sharp that I can see delicate ice patterns on the leg of a flying sandhill crane! It’s my new essential piece of glass.
George D. Lepp
My “go-to” lens for wildlife photography is the Canon EF 500mm ƒ/4L IS USM. Earlier in my career, my long lens was a 600mm ƒ/4—too big, too heavy. When I switched to Canon equipment, I also changed the long glass to the 500mm ƒ/4.5 and later to the EF 500mm ƒ/4L. It’s a lot lighter and handholdable, even from a kayak, and easier to transport in the field and on airplanes. The lens is exceptionally sharp, even with an EF 1.4x (700mm) or EF 2x (1000mm) extender added. Wildlife photography often requires long lenses that are responsive to fast action and low-light conditions, and the EF 500mm ƒ/4L meets those demands while serving as an excellent compromise between mega-millimeters and versatility. Whenever possible, I use a tripod with this lens to maximize its potential. And from a tripod, it can be an excellent landscape lens, too, for extraction of an interesting composition from within a distant scene, or for capture of a multiple-image, high-res panoramic rendition of a grandscape.
Since I got it, the Zeiss 24-70mm has been my go-to lens on my Sony DSLRs. It’s simply the best and most versatile lens I’ve ever used. I’m in the business of shooting travel-landscapes, and because I make large prints, I need the sharpest lenses I can get. This 24-70mm is ridiculously sharp. When I’m in exotic parts of the world, I also rely on it as a portrait lens where its fast ƒ/2.8 maximum aperture lets me render distracting backgrounds out of focus. Until I started using this one, I would routinely carry as many as six prime lenses into the field. Now I pretty much just bring this one. It’s in my sweet spot of how I see.
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As a wildlife nature photographer, my lenses have to be fast, sharp and small enough not to slow me down in the field. For handheld bird photography, my favorite lens combination is the Sigma 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 EX APO DG and a 1.4x teleconverter. The lens has fast auto-focus, quick zoom control and solid low-light ability. It’s extremely sharp, even with the 1.4x converter, and it’s still reasonable to carry. This is the one lens combination that’s always in my bag.
Speed is the most important aspect for me. The 70-200mm’s autofocus and zoom control are quick enough even for full-frame birds in flight. The zoom range gives me flexibility, and with the 1.4x converter attached, I get great reach with almost no loss in speed, sharpness or image quality. The ƒ/2.8 aperture provides a bright viewfinder, allowing me to accurately and consistently track birds in flight, and I can work in low light without having to set the ISO too high. This combination is just about perfect, from eagles fishing in Alaska to nesting egrets in Florida.
I use the Sigma 10-20mm ƒ/4-5.6 EX DC HSM lens on my Nikon DX-format DSLRs. The APS-C sensors give me considerable depth of field, meaning that images shot at ƒ/11 or ƒ/16 will be sharp from quite close to the camera to infinity. This 10-20mm is compact and lightweight, and it uses a 77mm filter—the size I tend to carry—so it’s my go-to lens.
A superwide zoom is essential for my nature photography. The wide field of view allows me to dramatically emphasize close-at-hand subjects while showing surrounding environments. In addition, when I’m in tight spaces, like deep within a forest or down in a gorge, the wide view lets me capture the immensity of the landscape. In my photography, I want to create a strong sense of place and three-dimensionality. The 10-20mm superwide zoom allows me to compose with an accentuated foreground subject and a clear middle-ground element, all the while showing an expansive natural backdrop, a great three-part recipe for space and depth.
The lens I literally can’t do without is the Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 12-60mm ƒ/2.8-4.0 SWD; it has a 35mm equivalent of a 24-120mm. It’s the lens that’s always the first one I grab when heading out to shoot. It’s just an incredibly sharp lens. Traveling light is a necessity for me as a photographer on the go. It allows me to focus on capturing images instead of dealing with equipment. The Zuiko 12-60mm provides that wide-angle coverage I love using. I can move in close to my subject, or I can zoom out to a short telephoto that works perfectly for portraits. And, as I said, it’s an incredibly sharp lens.