- Super Telephoto
I have had a love hate relationship with telephoto lenses. They are essential for much of the work that I have done (bird and animal photographs), but there are issues with using them:
1. Canon's super telephotos are called "Big Whites" or "Great Whites", because of their size, price and color. I won't shock you with prices as you can easily look them up, but they are very expensive.
2. Most Canon Lenses in this category are physically large and heavy. Either you are not going far from the car, or you have special carry bags and a strong back. There are a few medium weigh exceptions that have smaller apertures (larger minimum F-stops). Example
3. The super telephotos (say 400mm, f~2.8 and bigger) are too large for anyone not currently playing in the NFL to hand hold. For best results with these super monsters, a heavy duty tripod and gimbaled tripod head is needed (Cha-Ching again).
4. When you need one, nothing else will do. Canon's Super Telephotos are very sharp, even at their widest aperture. Most of the newest versions of these have built-in image stabilization (IS) to make hand holding somewhat of a possibility (see paragraph 3.).
5. When they stop working, they are very expensive to fix, if they can be repaired at all.
On this last point, I have had two Canon telephotos die. On both, the autofocus stopped working. One was a first generation EF 300 mm f~4 and the other a first generation EF 600 mm f~4. Both had been purchased new, used a lot, but had no scratches or dengs on the exterior and the glass was perfect. They still looked like they were new. Never dropped (I was the only owner). Just died of old age. The rub was that neither could be repaired by Canon Professional Services or anyone else because no parts were available. The lesson here is that eventually lenses will fail and if its not a current model, it may be unrepairable (also known as a boat anchor). I guess this is industry practice and something one has to live with. Given this history and for occasional use, you (and I) may want to consider renting these large lenses when the need arises.
I would recommend that anyone starting out in bird and animal photography start with a lens like a prime 300 mm f~4 or 400 mm f~5.6. There is a new kid on the block from Canon. It is the EF 100-400mm f4.5- 5.6 II Zoom lens. This lens is about as sharp as the Canon Prime 400mm F 5.6 lens. There is a lot of flexibility in being able to have this wide focal length range in one lens, and the minimum focus distance is phenomenal. Unfortunately the current price for the new lens is over $2000. U.S. After using one of the smaller and lighter telephoto lenses for a couple of years you will get a good feel for whether or not you need to go to the next higher telephoto level for your photographic style. As an alternative, some high quality spotting scopes can be fitted to an EOS camera body. This combination has a high (and fixed) effective aperture of about f~11 and it is not really sharp enough for critical photography. There are also some zoom lenses that reach into the 600mm range from Sigma and Tamron. I have not used these, but initial reviews of the Sigma Sport Telephoto shows that fairly good image quality can be achieved with a much lower outlay than for the Canon Primes. Another important factor is the size of the sensor in your camera body. Using an APS-C size senor such as the one in the new Canon 7DII body will provide an image 1.6 X larger than a full frame sensor. This is equivalent to putting a 1.6 X Tele-extender on your full frame body along with the lens. Canon does not actually make a 1.6X tele-extender (1.4X and 2.0 X are current offerings). When you need more telephoto reach from your lens, (sports and wildlife) a crop body is a very good choice. Closely compare reviews of these lens choices before making a decision.
Remember, I am only recommending lenses that I use (or have used) to make images in my Galleries. For birds in flight, my former go to lens was the Canon EF 400 mm f~5.6. This gem has a fairly long reach at 400mm, but is still light enough to hand hold (easily) because of the f~5.6 max aperture. I shoot birds in flight with the lens wide open and boost the ISO until shutter speed is in the 1/800 to 1/1000 second range. This lens can also be used for close birds that are not in flight. I usually use a tripod for stationary or near stationary subjects. I am now testing the new EF 400mm f4 DO II lens for birds in flight and I expect this lens to become my new favorite. Check the tools tab at the top of this page for my field review of this new Canon lens. There are a number of new lenses being released by Canon providing exciting new choices that look to reinvigorate nature and wildlife photography.
For birds/animals that are too far away for the 400mm, I've used a Canon EF 500mm f4.5 lens. This lens is not super heavy, but it does not have image stabilization (IS) and I usually don’t try to hand hold, but it is possible. With the 5D Mk III Camera, it will still autofocus with a 1.4x Teleconverter. With the teleconverter the lens becomes a 700mm f~7. One can never have too much lens reach, but this lens satisfies my long telephoto needs. On a gimbaled tripod head it will work OK for shooting birds in flight. For mammals, a lens in the 300mm to 600mm range usually works best. A lot of mammals are larger than birds and that helps. Some mammals don't like people (see my Bears Gallery) and you should keep a respectful distance for your own safety. Lenses longer than this one have gone beyond my reach in cost. There are also some new Canon Telephoto zooms (like the 200-400 mm f~4) that have good test reports, but are also in the stratosphere price wise.
- Medium Telephoto
For this focal length (and remember my style of photography), there is no need to look further than the EF 70-200 mm zoom (either f~2.8 or f~4). The latest versions of these lenses are excellent across the entire zoom range. They are useful for some tamer animals, like at zoos and even some tamer birds. With image stabilization, both lenses are easily hand held. The Canon EF 100-400mm II Zoom is also a great lens for use in this situation. Put on a tripod, these lenses are very useful for some landscape shots, particularly some panoramas that are stitched together from multiple shots (see some of these in my "Sunrise Sunsets" Gallery.
I use an EF 180mm f3.5 macro in the medium telephoto range too. I like a long focal length macro lens so that I don't have to get very, very close to my subject. Any macro subject you see in my galleries was shot with this lens. I am using the older non IS version. There are occasions where IS would be nice to have. For instance the butterflies is my Gallery were shot hand held, but I had to push ISO up to 1600 and use a narrow depth of field f-stop to get an adequate shutter speed for hand holding. Either IS or a macro flash (or both) would have been very useful in this instance. After this experience, I purchased the canon macro flash and retried the butterfly shoot with better results (larger number of keepers).
- Normal Lens
A prime lens in the 40-55mm range is considered a normal focal length. I don't have one. If I need something in this range, my wide to normal zoom will cover it. I’m not disparaging a prime in this range for someone who uses it a lot, or needs a very wide aperture that a zoom cannot cover. That is just not me.
- Wide Angle
I use a first generation EF 28-70 mm f~2.8 zoom. This discontinued lens also covers the "Normal" focal length range. There are newer and slightly better Canon zooms that cover 24-70 mm, but at f~8, mine is as sharp as those lenses at f~8. This is a great f-stop to use for landscapes. I don't feel compelled to upgrade at this time. Than means I am not currently running into many situations where the newer lens would offer me an advantage.
- Ultra Wide Angle
For my style of shooting this is a landscape lens. When shooting landscapes, it is often useful to have a close subject and a distant subject in the same photograph where both subjects are in focus. An Ultra Wide Angle lens excels at this feat. When you get into the 20 mm and wider focal range, depth of field is quite large, even with moderate f~stops. The near-far technique puts some dynamic tension into a photo and makes it visually interesting (see "Crystal Mill" as an example in my "Fall Color" Gallery). I like the Canon EF 16-35 mm f~4 zoom. This lens is reasonably light weight, affordable, and very sharp across the entire frame at medium aperatures. Canon has had a weakness in its lens line-up in the UWA category. In my opinion, both Canon's primes and zooms in this UWA category have some weaknesses in either sharpness (corner to corner) at wide apertures, coma issues, or distortion issues (or some combination). The EF 16-35mm lens now addresses many of these weaknesses but the wide aperature choices (f2.8 or better) can still be improved. Canon is slowly improving their UWA lens offerings, if you are the patient type. They recently released the EF 11-24mm f/4 lens that is the first of its type by any manufacturer (I don’t personally need a lens this wide). There are also some inexpensive but high quality wide angle lenses from third party manufacturers. Rokinon in particular offers several wide angle primes that are well built and extremely sharp. The downside of the Rokinons is that they are complety manual for focus and aperture setting. For wide angle landscape shooting this is not really much of a disadvantage, and these lenses should be considered. See my hands on review of the new Rokinon 12mm F 2.8 Fish-Eye lens on the tools tab at the top of this page. In finishing this section I will mention the new Tamron SP 15-30mm lens. I recently acquired this lens and so far, it appears to be a jewel. Although fairly hefty for an UWA lens, it covers many of my most used UWA focal lengths and has few faults. This lens is also fairly fast being an F 2.8. I have found that this lens also excels at low light and starry night landscape images. See some wide angle lenses compared for use in night photography here.
- Specialty Lenses
One person's specialty lens is another person's bread & butter lens. What I call specialty lenses are those that are not getting heavy use by me. For instance, I had a EF 24 mm Tilt-Shift lens for awhile but have since sold it because I used it so little. For an architecture photographer, this is probably a heavily used lens. For me it was a specialty lens.
I am getting interested in night photography where the night sky and stars can be seen in the photograph. There is nothing in my Gallerys yet in this category. I am using what I would call specialty lenses for night photography. I'm going to wait awhile to discuss them when I feel like I'm on a firmer footing.
You probably noticed that most of the lenses that I use above are Canon branded. That is not the case for some specialty lenses. In some instances, price or image quality dictates that other manufacturer's lenses be considered as best for a particular (specialty) application. Does it really matter whose name is on the lens?
- Lens Filters
Yes, I use lens filters. Not all pro photographers routinely use them for lens protection but I don't want to take a chance with scratching the glass or getting salt spray on the lens itself. Therefore, a UV filter usually sits on the front of my lens. This approach has saved my bacon on a few occasions. Filter effects like polarization can be difficult to obtain any way other than a physical filter, so I keep those filters in my camera bag too. Sometimes shooting into the sun or a strong light source will cause flare in the picture. A UV filter on the lens wll frequently make the flare worse. I will remove any and all filters from the lens in those cases. Just remember to put it back on after the shot. Details for using neutral density filters requires more words than I want to put into this space. ND filters can have a graduated density in many possible strengths and usually fit into a sliding rectangular holder. These graduated ND filters help to tame the large dynamic range (DR) of brightness values that can be in landscape images. They do this by selectively darkening the very brightest part of the image to a value that can be recorded with detail on your camera sensor. Another technique with high density filters is to darken the image to a point where very long exposure times are needed to capture the image. The long exposures give a cotton candy effect to moving object such as clouds and ocean waves. Ten stops (or even more) of darkening are possible with some filters.
Quality matters in filters. All your image forming light is passing through the filter. Bad quality filters will affect your images in a negative way. There are several companies that make high quality filters, but I can’t name them all. The screw-in filters that I am using are made by B+W. They have several lines of filters. As a minimum get the ones that are multi-coated. The coating makes the filters easier to clean (usually), and helps reduce filter induced light flare. I put (usually) in parenthesis above because there is one manufacturer's filter that I am aware of that is more difficult to clean with one of their coatings applied. It seems to me that filters are overpriced for what you get, but it is what it is. I've also heard there are counterfeit filters in the market place, so using a reputable source is important.
In most cases, cost is a pretty good (though certainly non-linear) indicator of lens quality within a given Manufacturer's line of lenses. I would not be afraid to try an alternate brand that is made to be compatible with your camera body. Sigma, for instance has started introducing a line of "Art" lenses that cost less than those from Canon and Nikon, and in some cases, are better in important aspects than the branded lenses. Do some research and you may be surprised by what 3rd party lenses are capable of today.
Another important way to reduce cost is by choosing an f~4 (or similar) lens over the f~2.8 lens counterpart. Compare the specs. Often the only thing you are giving up is the 1 stop of light gathering capability. For this one f-stop, the price of the lens may double. If you are shooting landscapes at f~8 (common for me), then the extra f-stop is not being used anyway. If a need develops for the wider aperture (such as night photography), then trade-up at that time.
When cost is important, don't have much overlap in your lens line-up. Even having a few holes (uncovered focal lengths) is not a big deal. Zooms cover a lot of focal length range and have become remarkably good when compared to primes in the same range. As always, do some research before buying. There are still some bad lenses on the market too. Some lens failings can be overcome with software during post processing. Lens distortion for instance was once the kiss of death, but can now be corrected very well in software. Some types of cromatic aberrations (CA) where all colors don't focus at the same point, can also be repaired easily in software. Correcting 2 stops of lens vignetting is also easy to do. Some slight compromises may be made with software corrections, but you can correct some lens faults. Poor sharpness is hard to correct. There is no perfect lens, so don't bother to wait for it.
I've only talked about SLR system cameras and lenses. There are other options that are less expensive for the occasional or casual shooter. Often, excellent results can be obtained with these other options (like the new mirrorless cameras). I don't have sufficient experience with these other options to discuss them in detail; however, there is plenty of information on the internet. For a pocket camera you can use your phone Cam or for something a little larger and with significantly better quality I’m using Sony’s RX-100 camera. It will easily fit in my cargo pants pocket when I am out without my system camera. The RX-100 is currently in it’s forth iteration. I have the second iteration version and am satisfied. Sony has been very innovative in new cameras and camera sensors. Nikon is now using Sony sensors in their high megapixal SLR cameras.