I remember my first zoom lens, the Nikkor 80-200mm ƒ/2.8, as a gift from on high, a bulky chunk of metal and glass dropped down from another planet. How was it possible to get the equivalent of three to four of Nikon's most popular lenses of that era—the 80mm, 135mm, 180mm and 200mm lenses—all wrapped into one? This new technology for wildlife and nature photography seemed to be an obvious advantage, but you couldn't find a positive commentary on the benefits of a single, multi-optic lens anywhere. As far as all the magazines were concerned, zooms were proof of an amateur photographer. That was somewhere around 1985. Goodness gracious, time does fly when you're having fun and testing new equipment.
Today's multi-range zooms produce razor-sharp images, as did the original 80-200mm ƒ/2.8 I started with. Zooms also reduce weight and bulk, and provide mobility for the fast-paced photography that nature demands. The ability to quickly change compositions with the push-pull or twist of the zoom collar is just one of many tremendous advantages. I've always felt that even if zooms were microscopically less sharp than a fixed equivalent, zooms would always give me a marketing advantage due to the many more images I'm able to collect. Not having to constantly change physical positions is a brilliant time-saver and often the difference between capturing the image or not.
With those benefits in mind, I've added the newly redesigned Nikkor 80-400mm ƒ/4-5.6 zoom to my collection of photographic tools. Ever since my first 80-200mm, I've been a huge fan of the multi-optic concept. Admittedly, there are great and not-so-great zoom lenses. But with today's technology and lens design, my general, daily camera bag doesn't contain one fixed-focal-length lens.
I brought the new lens with me to the Galápagos Islands where it was used as my primary lens for capturing the islands' vast assortment of birds, reptiles and marine mammals. For landscapes, I carried a Panasonic Lumix GX1 with a Panasonic 7-14mm lens and a 14-42mm lens. The Panasonic Lumix is a Micro Four Thirds camera with a "crop factor" of 2X, so the 7-14mm frames like a 14-24mm and the 14-42mm frames like a 28-84mm. With these three zoom lenses, I had everything covered, from superwide to respectable telephoto.
My two short lenses, fixed to GX1 and GH3 bodies, fit nicely in a Lowepro Inverse 200 AW beltpack. I carried the 80-400mm over my shoulder attached to a Nikon D600 or D7100. While in inflatable boats, I covered the larger lens and camera from splash and spray with a lightweight Mountain Hardwear rain jacket that easily attached via compression straps to the bottom of the Inverse 200. Overall, my method of transporting the equipment fit well with my desire to go small, light and extremely mobile. When shooting on the Galápagos, you have to shoot like paparazzi—there's very little time to sit and wait. To keep the islands as pristine as possible requires substantial control over visitors, and making great images under those constraints demands one to be able to think, compose and shoot on the fly, which is exactly the conditions where zooms excel. Being able to change focal lengths instantly is an advantage for making those types of images editorial clients demand to tell the complete story.
I work hard to cover all angles when I'm in a location like the Galápagos Islands. A complete photo essay includes the habitat an animal lives in. To show that in a way readers understand requires a wide view. Yes, a good wildlife story includes using a wide-angle lens. An example of such an image might include a scene that contains an animal or a bird where the creature isn't the central focus of the picture. Instead, it may be a minor to moderate part of the composition. Either way, the images should give the viewer the ability to see the habitat your subject lives in.
Medium shots are just as important as the wide view. Coming in tighter to your subject helps establish its identity and allows the viewer to see precisely the subject being documented. In a shot like this, you may even include more than one animal, which is what I did on Española Island, where I captured a mother Nazca booby and her large chick.
The tight portrait makes the animal's personality come alive and encourages viewers to take an intimate look into the detailed beauty of the animal itself.
When done correctly, with proper optics, you'll see the tiniest of feathers, the wispiest of lines radiating out from the pupil or calcium-based keratin flaking off the beak. Discovering the most delicate details is like solving a mystery, seeing more than you can imagine, all of it right before your eyes. Only the highest-caliber optics can resolve this.
Another helpful option for making the most of zoom lenses is to use the back-focus button on most current cameras. The key to gaining the benefits of the back AF button is to make certain you disable the front shutter AF first. The default setting on all cameras is to initiate focus by pushing halfway down on the front shutter-release button. The idea is to remove AF from the front and exclusively rely on the rear AF Start button to initiate focus.
Without disabling the front AF, pressing the shutter to take the picture will refocus the lens after you already used the rear AF to set your focus. If the front AF isn't turned off, the two buttons are fighting each other and effectively canceling each other out. Using the rear AF Start button is even more important when using a zoom. It allows you to compose your subject more effectively. The rear AF Start button lets you point the AF sensor at your subject, push to focus, release to lock the AF, recompose, and shoot a more professional composition. Many photographers use a similar technique by holding the front shutter button down halfway. That works, but the rear AF is much easier because you don't need to delicately hold a button halfway.
Another advantage to the back-focus AF is being able to leave your camera in Predictive AF or AI Servo at all times. Using the back AF button is very similar to having your camera set to Single Shot AF when needed, with the added ability to change to Predictive AF instantaneously. When capturing a stationary subject, pressing the back AF button to focus, then releasing to lock, you now have replicated the camera's Single Shot AF option even though you're technically in Predictive/AI Servo. When your subject starts to run or fly and the action gets heated, your camera is already in Predictive AF; by simply pushing the back AF button, initiating Predictive or AI Servo now easily tracks your fleeting subject.
Zooms also facilitate easily getting down to your subject's level. A zoom isn't technically any better at low angles than a fixed-focal-length lens. However, it does relieve the need to jockey to and fro as your subject changes position. Getting down on your belly to get the photo can be difficult and dirty, and it's nice not to have to get up, go down, get up, go down, repeat, repeat, repeat. Maintaining your position and the ability to easily change compositions with the turn of your wrist provides many more opportunities to collect interesting images.
See more of Daniel J. Cox's photography at www.naturalexposures.com.