A Rant on Telephoto Lenses for the Uninitiated

If you are going to shoot wildlife you have to have a telephoto lens. Period, end of discussion. But how long is long enough? How fast does it need to be anyway? What about tele-extenders? To zoom or not to zoom? And who can afford to pay $12,000 for a lens anyway? Ah, grasshopper, you have much to learn.

In the very first photography workshop I ever attended, back in 1989, I was given the sound advice that when purchasing photo equipment I should buy to my frustrations. In other words, I should spend my limited photo dollars to eliminate my greatest frustrations. On my recent photography expedition to the Klamath Basin to shoot birds it became very clear to me that my greatest frustration was my seven year old Canon 100-400 mm zoom lens which just never seems to be quite long enough even on a Canon 7D whose ASP-C Hawk2015.jpgsensor makes it effectively equivalent to a 160-640mm lens in the 35mm film or full frame sensor world.

Yes, I have taken some great photographs with that lens, including this hawk taking flight, but there always seems to be something more out there just beyond my reach and I’ve had to do some heavy cropping to fill the frame. Same with the Western Meadowlark. The photograph of a hunting coyote, below, was taken with that lens but is the result of some seriously heavy cropping and has been judged to be just not sharp enough to win a competition, which kind of soured me on wildlife photography, not to mention competitions, for a while because I thought it was such a great shot. (All three of these photos were taken at Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge near Las Vegas, New Mexico).

A few years back I purchased a 1.4x extender thinking this would solve all my problems. But, it turns out, (and I had toWestern_Meadowlark.jpg learn this the hard way so pay close attention) that the auto focusing system on a Canon lens shuts down with a tele-extender if the effective maximum aperture is less than f 4.0 (2.8 for a 2x). (For a full explanation of this see: www.learn.usa.canon.com/resources/articles/2014/ef_extenders_pt2.shtml.). But do I really need f4.0 or f2.8 to shoot wildlife, outside, on a tripod? Yes, sometimes at dawn and dusk but with today’s ISO capabilities…  I don’t know, not for $10,000 I don’t.

Yes, I am capable of manually focusing the lens but 1) I’m spoiled, 2) I’m not getting any Coyote2015.jpgyounger and my eyesight never was that great in the first place and 3) some of those birds move pretty fast. When you are in a wildlife refuge using your car for a blind, trying to shoot out the driver’s side window while putting the car in park, hoping the bird doesn’t fly away before you get stopped, having to focus manually with a steering wheel in your way is just the last straw.

So, I went looking for solutions. Knowing that the next step up in Canon lenses was going to cost me at least $10,000 I knew that that wasn’t going to be an option until my trust fund comes through. I thought I might be able to rent a lens and, in fact, I could get an 800mm Canon lens from the creatively named Borrowlenses Company. But it would cost me nearly $500 for one week’s rental. That would probably be a good option if I were taking a once in a lifetime trip to Africa or Antarctica. But, I decided, for my current purposes I should probably try manually focusing my existing lens while sitting in a real blind first. I thought maybe I should get a 2x extender and try manually focusing that too.

The same photographer who advised me to buy to my frustrations also advised me to stick to my camera manufacturer’s lenses. The reason we buy Canon and Nikon is not because they make great cameras (not that they don’t) it is because they make the best and sharpest lenses. At least that was the case in 1989. A lot has changed in the quality of optics and the capability to design and manufacture precision optics since 1989. So, when in all my researching I stumbled across the Tamron SP 150-600mm lens I decided it was worth further investigation. (SP, by the way, I learned, is short for Super Performance. That sounds good.)

I also stumbled across a site that compares lenses on sharpness, vignetting and distortion (www.dpreview.com) on my very own camera body. So, after punching all the appropriate links I was able to compare the Tamron 150 to 600mm to my seven year old Canon 100-400mm lens and found that it is similar in sharpness, possibly a little better away from the center of the lens and there also wasn’t much difference in the other two categories. I then compared the Tamron to Canon’s more advanced lenses and learned that what I get for my $12,000 is not only superior sharpness and larger apertures, but consistency across the full lens. Ah, grasshopper, so much to learn.

Spotted_Towhee.jpgAs for whether to zoom or not to zoom I have to say that I have always been a fan of the versatility of the zoom lens but you do lose quality when you ask a lens to do too much. Back in the day, it was a well-known fact that a zoom lens was never as sharp as a single focal length lens. Again, times have changed, zooms have gotten much better as have optics in general. Given my druthers, on a long telephoto, I would probably opt for a single focal length if it were in the budget. In my case, it is not. And the answer to the how long is long enough question, in case I need to spell it out, is as long as you can afford.

When all was said and done I decided that for somewhat less than the cost of two weekly Scrub_Jay.jpgrentals and a 2x extender I could afford to take a chance on the Tamron 150 to 600mm zoom, at least until my trust fund comes through. I ordered the lens from B&H on Monday and UPS was on my doorstep Friday morning. The last two images, of a Spotted Towhee and a Western Scrub Jay are from my first test drive. Both were shot at North Mountain Park in Ashland, Oregon.  Yes, I did have to crop a little to get the composition I wanted, but not nearly as much as before. Both birds are sharp and I was standing a good 50 to 100 feet from each of them.

To quote Dewitt Jones, “So far, so good.” (That’s an inside photography joke, anyone who was at the last NANPA Summit in San Diego will get it). At this point I am very happy with the Tamron, it looks like a reasonable step up from the Canon 100-400mm and I can’t wait to get it out to the Klamath Basin.

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