Do-It-All Telephotos

When You Need Three

Q) I can only afford one long telephoto for bird photography. Is there a particular focal length that’s more versatile than others?

A) In my experience, there are two answers to the question. A quality 300mm ƒ/2.8 telephoto with matched 1.4x and 2x tele-extenders is very versatile while being reasonably priced and compact in size compared to an expensive and weighty 400mm ƒ/2.8 or 600mm ƒ/4 telephoto. The 300mm ƒ/2.8 focuses closer, maintains excellent sharpness even with the extenders attached, can be carried in a photo backpack and enables you to work with a fast ƒ/2.8 300mm, a lightweight 420mm at ƒ/4 (with a 1.4x extender attached), and a light yet reasonably fast 600mm ƒ/5.6 (with a 2x extender attached). If your D-SLR has a less-than-full-frame sensor, you’ll have the additional advantage of a 1.5x or 1.6x magnification factor, yielding as much as 960mm.

The other good option is a quality 500mm ƒ/4. This lens has a size and weight that allows handholding if necessary, focuses reasonably close for smaller birds and will maintain excellent sharpness with either the 1.4x or 2x matched tele-extenders available from the lens manufacturers. The Canon 500mm ƒ/4 also has image stabilization, which adds to its versatility and value.

This snow goose was photographed in southwestern Louisiana with a Canon EOS-1N and Canon 300mm ƒ/2.8L lens with an EF 2x tele-extender attached.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.

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