Which lens for the perfect shot?

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I am often asked about cameras and lenses for photography. In this article I will explain with reference to wildlife photography some of the more useful lenses to have. Increasingly, I suggest to people that they consider a compact digital camera, as these now provide at least 10 mega pixels, optical zooms of 18X, close-up shooting, and RAW file format (a lossless format for high quality).

However, a more expensive digital SLR, coupled with bulky and heavy lenses are, quite simply, going to produce better quality images. The lenses themselves are faster at focusing and shooting and are quick to work with, so this article is for those who have enough commitment to carry a bag load of equipment to capture the best shots. I will discuss some of my favourite lenses with reference to Canon, because this is what I use.

For sheer quality and speed, it is hard to surpass my 600mm f4 lens. It’s a monster of a lens and needs to be mounted on a tripod or bean bag. This in itself means that you have to be settled in for a shot and in a measured frame of mind to take pictures; there are no hasty grab shots possible with this lens.

Some of my best images of wildlife have been taken with this lens. To capture a shot of elephants mud bathing in Minneriya National Park, Sri Lanka, I used the very fast shutter speed available to freeze motion and show the texture of the chocolate brown mud on their skin. The long focal length also meant I could stay back at a distance and allow a Hanuman Langur (monkey) to be totally relaxed, for its portrait to be taken. The speed of the lens also allowed me to freeze the motion of a walking leopard in the warm but soft evening light.

One of Canon’s most popular lenses is the 100-400mm f4/f5.6 lens. This is a real workhorse and I will not travel without it. When I am on a game drive, this lens is attached to my camera body, a Canon EOS 1DS MkII. It allows me to take quick grab shots. Once I was in Yala National Park (Sri Lanka), with Lyn Hughes, the founding editor of Wanderlust travel magazine, an elephant walked into the light. The light picked up the details on the elephant’s face, but the background remained dark. I had imagined this image for years. I raised my camera and took the shot. The opportunity was gone in seconds and neither I nor any of my friends have had this combination of lighting and elephant happen naturally again.

This is also a good lens when whale watching. You can zoom out for a pod of dolphins or go in close to capture the Remoras on the tail of a Blue Whale. With the lens extended out to 400mm, it’s also fantastic for taking pictures of people looking relaxed and natural, as you can stand some distance away.

In July 2007, I produced a photographic poster that featured 132 species of butterflies. Almost all of them had been taken on my Canon 100mm f2.8 macro lens which offers true 1:1 macro capability. I am amazed at the detail I see when I magnify the images on a laptop. If I was to buy a lens afresh, I would consider the 200mm macro.
When it comes to wide-angle lenses for landscapes or photographing interiors there is a lot of debate. Influenced by a friend who reads more of the photographic blogs and magazines than I do, I settled for the Canon 16-35 f2.8 L. It is one of the more expensive, but has fantastic edge-to-edge sharpness and is wide enough for almost any practical or creative situation I face.

However, the important thing about photography is taking images, not owning lots of expensive equipment which is just too heavy and too complicated. So if you haven’t already got into photography, think about one of the better specified compact digital cameras as a way of wetting your toes.

My favourite image (see top of page)
is this dark portrait of an elephant. People are amazed at the personality they see in this image.

The one lens I will not leave behind is the Canon 100-400mm f4/5.6 L image stabilised lens. Great quality, good enough speed, and offers a range of shots.


Left to right
600mm f4 - 100mm f2 macro - 16-35mm f2.8 L.

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