Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Big-Glass Effect

I remember my first big telephoto lens.
Text & Photography By Tom Bol Published in Shooting
The Big-Glass Effect
I remember my first big telephoto lens. I was living in a small cabin in Alaska, working as a mountaineering guide and living on a shoestring budget. I awoke many mornings to see moose wandering through my yard or sandhill cranes feeding nearby. My Nikon 80-200mm ƒ/2.8 lens was always attached to my camera, ready to go. I captured some nice moose images, but I had one problem: 200mm just wasn't long enough to get a close shot. I wanted a full-frame headshot, not a brown speck in a green field.

The next summer, I spent so much time guiding clients on glaciers that I missed summer; instead, I just saw snow and ice. But I had saved enough money to buy my first big lens, a manual-focus 500mm ƒ/4. I was so excited I found out where the FedEx truck would be loading my package and drove to Anchorage to intercept my big box. I'll never forget opening that box and seeing the big, yellow Nikon 500mm case. I had just spent my entire summer savings, but holding that big black lens was a religious experience! Was it worth it? Absolutely!

Now, years later, I've owned many supertelephoto lenses, lenses 300mm and longer. My current favorites are a 200-400mm ƒ/4 and a 600mm ƒ/4. These lenses represent a big investment, but they're critical in my work. Big telephotos not only allow me to get close to my subject, but also produce creative effects for portraits and landscapes. To get the most out of these lenses, you need to learn how to use them correctly and "see like a supertelephoto."


What's the best telephoto lens for you? Price, weight and maximum aperture all will affect your decision. Start by asking yourself these questions: How much does this lens weigh, and will that affect how much you use it? I love shooting with my 600mm ƒ/4, but it weighs close to 12 pounds and it takes a lot of work to carry it around. On the other hand, my 200-400mm ƒ/4 weighs about seven pounds, is much smaller and is very easy to carry. I even handhold it on occasion, something I couldn't do with my 600mm. Don't buy a lens just to look cool! Get one you're going to use without hesitation!

Another important aspect to consider is the maximum aperture of the lens. Lenses focus using the widest aperture of the lens, only closing down to the chosen aperture at the moment of exposure. A 300mm ƒ/2.8 lens is very bright, allowing lightning-quick autofocus, even in low-light situations. But a 300mm ƒ/2.8 is more expensive and heavier than a 300mm ƒ/4 lens. Today's cameras have excellent autofocus systems that work in very dark situations, so maybe you don't need that extra stop of light in your telephoto. Also, today's cameras perform excellent at high ISOs, allowing you more shutter speed without needing a larger aperture—instead of going from ƒ/4 to ƒ/2.8, you can go from ISO 200 to ISO 400 to gain that extra stop of light.

If you're a serious wildlife or sports shooter, then consider a 500mm or 600mm. If you only need big glass occasionally, then look at a 300mm or 400mm. You can use a teleconverter if you need more reach.

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