Lens Comparison

Comparing lenses of different focal lengths is quite a challenge to do well...

I recently decided to upgrade from high-end consumer camera equipment to professional. What a hassle!

There are really two kinds of professional cameras: those that are designed to do both very good images and be really fluid to operate (thinks sports and journalism), and those that are designed to take great pictures—convenience be damned.

I find myself on the convenience be damned side. I want the best possible image quality—not fast images, not easy images, but willing to sacrifice such conveniences for the Greater Good of high-quality images.

Technical aside: while a journalist might feel that being able to take a rapid series of images is ideal for getting the best shot, that’s not useful for me. 20 shots of a landscape is hardly the way to go; the scene doesn’t move, but one’s ideas about how to photograph it slowly evolve as you understand what’s in front of you.

I do wildlife photography, however, and that is a compromise with either approach, and I’ll talk more about that in a bit. Because what’s on my mind today are just those compromises. If I lean toward sports capabilities, everything is tilted toward fast fast fast: smaller pixel counts, trying hard but not too hard to have a decent dynamic range, rapid focusing, etc. If I lean toward high resolution and high dynamic range, I sacrifice small size (relatively speaking; the best sports cameras are also larger than consumer cameras), rapid exposures, and light weight.

So: having come down on the side of high dynamic range and really big pixel counts/sensors, how can I deal with the wildlife side of my photography? Would I need to choose one or the other (budgets are not infinite!), or can I manage to get good wildlife photos with the large, heavy, and otherwise ungainly and slow-focusing medium format equipment I love?

These are the conditions for wildlife photography:

  • Fast-responding equipment, so you can quickly respond to something you discover before it moves on. This includes setup, focusing, and getting to the next shot. This is really very similar to a sports situation: long lenses are highly desirable, but so is light, easy-to-fire hardware.

  • Long lenses. Really long lenses. I like to do mostly hand-held so that I can respond rapidly in any direction, including low and high. I need to be able to point a long lens quickly. Given that long lenses are heavy and awkward to hold, and the longer the greater the awkwardness, this is a tough area to compromise on.

  • Well-design camera user interface - I have to change settings rapidly. Sun to sudden shade, for example, is a demanding change. Controls need to be handy, and easy to modify without getting distracted. That means feedback inside the viewfinder.

  • Fast and accurate autofocusing. This is truly a challenge for cameras and lenses. There are so many ways to go wrong with focusing. A branch near the bird might grab focus; how do I deal with that? It varies from one camera to another. The area I want to focus on is small - how to deal with that? My subject moves (birds in flight)—what features exist to follow-focus, if any? And how well can I, the human in the midst of all this technology, manage to move a large lens accurately to follow said bird accurately enough to keep it in the frame? The longer the lens, the harder that gets.

And that leaves out a lot of detail, but I hope that gives you some idea of the complexity involved in wildlife photography. It’s a skill as much as a need for good equipment.

That’s page one, an introduction to the issues which any nascent wildlife photography will I hope find a useful orientation. Page 2, coming shortly: how to deal with the real-world choices on equipment.