Essential Lenses Of The Pros

What the top professionals have to say about the optics they need the most
This Article Features Photo Zoom

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.

ƒ/2.8 IF-ED

Corey Rich
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.

Art Wolfe
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.

AEF 70-200MM

Sandra Nykerk

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!

AF18-270MM ƒ/3.5-6.3

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Jack Dykinga
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.

200-400MM ƒ/4G IF-ED

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.

EF 500MM

Andy Katz
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.


This Article Features Photo Zoom

Robert O’Toole
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.

ƒ/2.8 EX APO DG

Dave FitzSimmons
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.

10-20mm ƒ/4-5.6

Jay Dickman
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.

12-60MM ƒ/2.8-4.0


Olympus America
Sony (Carl Zeiss)


    If I were forced to use only two lenses for the rest of my life on my 5D Mark II, I’d pick one that I own and one that I hope to get one day. The one I own is the newer Canon 70-200mm/2.8 IS II, Canon improved the image quality in a big way for us full frame shooters. The second would be the Nikon 14-24mm with the Novaflex adapter to make it fit my Canon. That insane lens needs no description. The only lens I admit I would miss is my 50mm/1.2, I have such a blast with that thing, but in the end it’s not the most important tool for landscape shooting. Anyway, just some thoughts!

    Love the article. My essential lens in the field is my Canon 24-105 L series f/4. Love this lens. Recently, I have been testing Sigma lenes and agree with the M&M guest pro Robert O’Toole about the Sigma 70-200mm ??/2.8 EX APO DG. The Sigma is growing on me.

    Thanks again for good info.

    Mike G.

    When using one of my DSLR’s I like using my Nikon 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G the most. It’s great for walking around and for when I’m covering festivals and events where I can get in close. It’s fast and it’s sharp. I was one of the lucky photographers that was able to cover the Savageman Triathlon Festival ( in 2010 and had 70 photos purchased. The 18-70 was the only lens that I used.

    Great Article- It is always nice to see what the “Other Guy Uses”. Personally, I would not be without the Canon 24-105 L IS lens- In a pinch, I can always take 2 shots and with today’s software like PhotoShop, I can stitch two or more photos together and make a “Perfect Shot or Pano”. On the deep end, the new Canon 70-300 L IS lens gives me plenty of reach for the distant shots.
    You always have interesting articles!! Thanks,
    Ron Stein

    Thanks for the article, but i want to know what most of those photography magazine will help me in? I mean i have plenty of lenses and i surfed many websites since 2005 and i’ve got all what i need of gear [cameras, lenses, flashes,…] so what will those magazine will tell me different then? And when i read about those pros what gear they use is that means i have to buy or get same as what those pros have got? I am a Canon shooter and i saw only 2 Canon lenses above, also i shoot with digital and film medium format bodies, where i can find articles about medium formats or even large format on this magazine?

    Good point Tareq. I listed my faves above, but you know what? It’s not the lenses we should concentrate on, the article sould have been about the FOCAL LENGTH that the pros like to use. Doesn’t that hold true for all of us? In the end, we have certain focal lengths we like the most. For me on a FF it’s 16mm and 200mm, I just fancy those best. So the 24-105mm does nothing for me, but for others it’s the best range for them, and that’s great. Now, while I like those foval lengths, I also like very thin depth of field and using no flash, so I have to have an f2.8 or even faster. That puts me in a place where onlya couple lenses will fit my needs.

    So your point is well understood, we don;t need to focuson the model number, we need to talk about the focal length and aperture we desire, then fit the lens to that need.

    OK OP, you guys/gals need to do a verson 2 of this article, lol!

    I won’t leave home without my Sigma 18-200mm 3.5 OS. It is all i need for optional wide angle shots and closeups. I own many Sigma lenses and the prices are resenable for the optics they offer.

    My primary subject matter is macro and close-up. The lenses that reside in my F-Stop Tilopa BC pack are the Sigma 150mm macro and Nikon 24-70mm w/25mm extension tube. Having the Sigma and Nikon with extension tube provide me with great working range in the close-up world without having to bring all my gear. – Vince

    I was surprised to see the shorter length lenses. I almost always use the Canon 100-400 L IS for wildlife (and the weight provides a work out as you shoot! 🙂 ). Though the Canon 16-35 L 2.8 is my go-to for castles and such.

    While there are lot many quality pro lenses available these days, lot depends on personal preferences based on results & convenience. I just love using my Canon 100-400mm L lens. Not only does it have a nice telephoto for great wildlife shots, but it’s IS technology also helps especially when you can’t use a tripod while on a jeep safari (inside India’s national parks). The images are sharp, the lense is affordable, carrying it is easy, auto focus is dead on, & the built quality is great.

    Alexander wins the prize! My photo shown above was shot on the approach to Cerro Torre (the tall spire left of center, bathed in sunlight) in Patagonia. This is possibly one of the most magical places on the planet – when you can see it.

    I have to agree. The 17-35 is one of the sharpest lenses ever made and my all-time favorite. The 70-200 is a close second, but for the grand landscapes and in-your-face action the 17-35 can’t be beat.

    My most useful lens is the Nikon 28-70 f/2.8 on my D3. It can cover the range of wide angle to portrait easily, and is super sharp. I bought the limited production light gray version in 1999 for my F5 and it has been on all my cameras since. It has paid for itself over and over again.

    For me…, the Nikkor 18 – 200 mm lens, is ” under my skin”…. The last version GII. It is strong, versatile, light, fast. My only complain, a its 3,5 aperture, with a 2.8 y could be in heaven…

    While not the most versatile, I’d never leave home without my Pentax 10-17mm DA Fish-Eye f3.5-4.54 ED Lens. It’s nearly impossible to take a bad photo with it. The colors are deep and details are sharp. Plus the end result is stunning. My favorite and most often published photos are taken with that lens.

    I got sick of carrying agound my D700 and big zooms. Even the 50/1.4G is now fat.

    Instead I am now using an FM2n and Galen Rowell’s favourite, the 20/f4. Its so easy to keep a 50 and maybe the 80-200 F4 in a bum bag, and I’m set.

    I always have a short zoom on my camera. I use the Nikkor 17-55 f2.8 a LOT: fast, sharp, excellent color transmission, although a bit large. For my field work I use my Zuiko 14-54 f2.8-3.5 on my E-3, because I just love the ease of use, its excellent sharpness, and superior image-rendering ability. It’s also small and light, making it perfect for hiking and camping.

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