Choosing the right super Telephoto lens.

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I am seeing a lot better pictures on image sharing websites, forums and photo sharing groups on Facebook since a year or 2 back, simply because of the launch of cheaper good performing lenses like the Nikon 200-500 and the Sigma/Tamron 150-600. Optically these lenses are fabulous and will fulfill the needs of a majority of photographers worldwide. For those few who need a better lens, which costs substantially more, but one that may not be substantially better than these budget options and are unsure of which one to get, can read on to get a better idea of which one to choose.

I have been asked this question many times now. Which lens to buy among the usual suspects, the 400 2.8, 500 4.0 and the 600 4.0. This is not an easy decision and camera makers have made them excel only in one area so that people are compelled to buy more than one of their lenses to satisfy all their shooting needs. But for most its just one of these lenses that becomes a part of their kit bags because at-least in India, these cost as much a nice sedan and wild life photography still does not really pay back enough to justify their high costs for a majority of junta here.

So first lets find out what all the hoopla and lure of these lenses is and why do people buy them.

Here are some compelling and non compelling reasons that I can think of:

  • Subject isolation. Their large apertures usually mean much better subject isolation than the slower super zooms
  • Greater light gathering abilities.  Their large apertures usually mean more light gathering ability and you can shoot earlier in the morning and later in the day much before or after the F5.6 lens crowd gets into the game.
  • Highest build quality. These lenses are usually built with the best technology and materials, are weather sealed and are usually the flag ship products of the lens makers.
  • Fast AF. These lenses usually have the fastest and most accurate AF systems that usually helps one to get that difficult shot in challenging conditions.
  • Performance wide open. Most lenses are at their best a stop or 2 down from wide open. But these lenses are designed to give excellent performance from wide open.
  • They just look cool and make me look like a wild life photographer and are attention grabbers 🙂
  • People take me as a serious wild life photographer 🙂

So the big question is, which one should I choose. Well the answer is not quite simple and as there is no single lens that can cover all shooting situations and fulfill all your needs. Each one has its own pros and cons and frankly cannot be replaced by another without compromises.

So now let us examine the strengths and weaknesses of each.

600 4.0

This is usually the first choice for most people as most of them think, more reach is the answer to most wild life situations. But my experience with my 600 4.0 says, that this is a very specialized lens, that is great for shores and plains or where you can do short to moderate hikes. Its a great bird lens and takes the 1.4 TC very well. The example below is shot with a 1.4 TC on the 600 4.0.

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For larger animals on safaris, it is usually just too long even on a Full Frame camera. But there may be a use for this lens on a safari, but it will never be my preferred animal or a safari lens.

It is also the biggest and heaviest lens of the bunch and needs specialized support and bags to be transported. Support is usually a nice Gimbal head with a Gitzo 5 series legs. I have seen people manage with a ball head and lighter set of legs, but these are just not optimum for a lens of this weight and size. This is hardly a hand hold-able lens and you can hand hold it maximum for a minute or 2. So choose this lens only if you are willing to use it on a dedicated support or atleast a bean bag on a safari most of the time.

So the bottom line is, the 600 is for those who shoot birds and little animals a lot more than large mammals and are willing to spend on a good support system and willing to carry this heavy rig to a short to moderate distance.

400 2.8

Now this is easily the sharpest lens compared to the 600 4.0 and the 500 4.0. It is a great mammal lens and takes TCs very well. In-fact TC performance is the best among its peers and it is one of the few lenses that can take the Nikon 2.0 TC pretty well. (The Nikon 2.0 TC  btw is just rubbish compared to the Canon 2.0).

Subject isolation and sharpness even at 2.8 are astounding. In size, it is the smallest in length but weight is in the middle. Its a fat, stout lens and again is not hand hold-able for too long. It can be hand held for a longer time than the 600 4.0 simply because its a much better balanced lens unlike the 600 4.0 that is too front heavy.

It again needs a proper support system but I use it mainly for animals in the Indian jungle safaris, so a bean bag is enough most of the times. If you have to trek with it, then it can be a handful and your back will hate you for it. I have hardly ever stopped it down for additional sharpness, such is its performance at 2.8. Stopping down is only for a deeper DoF. It is also Nikon’s sharpest telephoto for distance shots, better than the 600 4.0 which in turn is much better than the 500 4.0. Filling up a Full Frame camera with birds and small animals is tough for this lens so it will never be my choice if I shoot a lot of smaller wildlife. But it is a great large mammal lens and excels at this.

(In my experience, Nikon telephoto lenses tend to be better at shorter distances than their Canon counterparts but are much worse as distances increase).

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500 4.0

A lot of people I know ended up with this lens after all the thinking and research in buying a super telephoto. After all, its is the best compromise lens that gives the best of both worlds. Its neither too long nor is it too heavy to be a chore to carry. So if you do a fair bit of mammal photography along with a fair bit of bird photography, this is a good lens to have. Its small and light and takes a 1.4 TC quite well. It fits into smaller bags and does not need a heavy tripod to support it. Being the lightest super telephoto it is much easier to carry longer distances without too much of a problem.

But people can never be happy with what they have, can they. I have heard constant complaints that it is just not long enough  for birds especially on Full Frame cameras or it does not give enough separation as compared to a 2.8 lens or it is just too tight for a majority of large mammal shots. And now there is a new problem. Lenses like the Nikon 200-500 5.6 aren’t all that worse at 500 5.6 compared to the 500 4.0. For most people the 500 4.0 just can’t justify the extra money over a 200-500 5.6. Some of the differences that I can highlight based on my personal experiences are as follows. Now whether they are worth the premium or not is something for you to decide.

  • Better light gathering and subject isolation.
  • Faster AF and subject lock
  • Better contrast and pop to pictures
  • Better handling of back lit situations
  • Handles TCs better.

So it is a good all rounder lens excelling at nothing but fulfilling most needs. This lens deserves a strong look if you are just not sure of what genre of wild life photography you want to do and cannot buy specialized lenses like the 400 2.8 or the 600 4.0.

So I hope your decision making has become a bit easier now and do tell me which one did you finally get 🙂

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