Shooting long is fun, but it is also challenging for a number of reasons. When I speak of shooting long I’m talking about shooting with super-telephoto lenses. One of my top three favorite genres is wildlife photography, and within that genre I like wild animal portraiture (head shots). My current lens of choice is Canon’s EF 400mm f/5.6L USM super-telephoto.
This lens is a classic L-series pro-level lens and has been around for years, and yet remains virtually unchanged in its present form. It’s a prime lens (non-zoom) with a fixed focal length of 400mm. Any wildlife photographer will tell you that a lens is never long enough; 500mm, 600mm and 800mm all seem inadequate (even when coupled with 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters).
The challenge is to get closer and closer to your subject, doing that takes fieldcraft: the ability to sneak up on the critters undetected. The shorter the lens the more sneak & peek that is required: 300mm is about the minimum focal length required for wildlife photography. I’m a global traveler and photographer, and I can’t transport a lot of heavy gear (everything I own must fit into a small pack and duffel bag). That means no tripod, everything shot must be handheld.
Canon’s 400mm prime lens is just about perfect. It has one fixed focal length and no image stabilization, insuring that the lens is pretty lightweight and easy to handhold. It is touted as the “perfect” birds-in-flight lens, and Nikon has nothing like it. With a retail value of $1,200 USD you get a lot of bang for the buck, whereas a fast 500mm, 600mm or 800mm super-telephoto lens will set you back $10,000 to $20,000 USD.
Wide-open it shoots at f/5.6 which is modest by any standard, whereas lesser quality lenses shoot even slower at f/6.3. The advantage of the Canon lens is that it is “tack-sharp” wide-open, and most f/6.3 lenses need to be stopped down to f/8 or f/11 to enjoy that kind of crispness. To get a fast f/4 super-telephoto lens you are back at the $10,000 to $20,000 USD price range (prohibitive for most of us). Canon’s 400mm lens enjoys a stellar, and well-deserved reputation amongst wildlife photographers.
Typical challenges of the lens include: a shallow depth-of-field at f/5.6, no image stablilization and marginal low light capability when compared to its f/4 big brothers. However there are compensating factors such as: its relatively low cost, its amazing image quality, its quick auto-focus and its light weight. Build quality is exceptional, with modest weatherproofing, and a built-in lens hood. I love it. Lets talk a moment about overcoming its limitations.
Shallow Depth-of-Field. At the distances I shoot from I usually have just a few inches of DOF to work with. If it’s really bright I can stop down to f/6.3 to f/8 to give me a little more wiggle-room, but more often than not I’m shooting in low light situations. If the subject is in profile most everything will be on the same focal plan insuring sharpness throughout the image. If the subject is facing me DOF can be more problematic, so I always focus on the eyes. If the eyes are tack-sharp some softness in the rest of the subject can be forgiven (soft eyes are never forgiven). I use a single focus point (the center focus point) almost 100% of the time when shooting wildlife.
No Image Stabilization. The lack of IS is not a problem for me. Shooting handheld I’m always shooting at 1/500s or faster which eliminates camera shake. To stop motion blur (movement of the subject) I often shoot at shutter speeds of 1/1000s to 1/2000s when shooting birds-in-flight (this prevents both motion blur and camera shake). IS becomes a moot point in these shooting situations. If I was able to shoot from a tripod I could substantially reduce my shutter speed when shooting static subjects, but I am unable to pack a tripod on this world adventure. But I like the flexibility and rapid response of shooting handheld.
Shooting in Low Light. A f/5.6 lens in not a particularly fast lens, and shooting at fast shutter speeds only exacerbates the problem. The only option is to increase my ISO (sensor sensitivity), what we used to call film speed in the “olden days”. My camera body is the Canon EOS 5D Mark II full-frame (22MP) digital SLR. Its low light capability borders on the spectacular in most situations, and I can safely shoot at ISO 3200 if need be. Performance at ISO 800 to ISO 1200 almost matches ISO 100 performance. I also shoot in CameraRAW 100% of the time, and any digital noise (graininess) can usually be cleared up in Photoshop.
To appreciate the crispness and image quality of this lens click on my sample photos, this will enlarge the images for better viewing. If you enjoy wildlife photography, like I do, buy the best lens you can afford and work on your fieldcraft. Closer is always better, and your two feet can add precious millimeters of focal length. Remember to focus on the eye(s) and fill the frame as much as possible. But above all have fun. Until next time adios amigos.
Stephen F. Dennstedt
Photographer, Writer and World Traveler