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Bring Them Closer

March 20, 2013

The second most purchased lens by owners of DSLRs is a usually telephoto zoom. This can result from a desire to get closer images of kid’s sports, motor racing, portraits or nature. Unfortunately, they are an easy lens to use badly. The expensive ones feature a constant aperture, which means that as you zoom, the aperture and hence the exposure remains constant. This is essential for professionals and advanced amateurs with deep pockets and a specific need that can only be fulfilled by one of the lenses. In fact, the 70-200 mm zoom ƒ2.8 is a classic mainstay of the genre. Every major camera manufacturer offers several, as do the independent lens makers such as Sigma and Tamron et al. They work well in low light, most now feature image stabilisation and all are incredibly sharp. Their major disadvantages are price and bulk.

What of the weekend warrior, or hobbyist who still wants a telephoto, but won’t use it that much, or doesn’t have excessive funds to buy one with a fixed aperture? You’ll be delighted to hear that solutions abound. Most manufacturers offer cheaper alternatives that feature image stabilisation, but variable aperture. In practice, this means that as you zoom out, the aperture gets smaller, less light comes in and so the shutter speed slows down to cope. Typically these lenses are ƒ4.5 and become ƒ6.3 when zoomed, reducing the light coming in by half. In low light at the widest aperture and with a moving subject, zoom in and you get blurry pictures

An old rule of thumb states that, to ensure sharpness handheld, your minimum shutter speed should be the reciprocal of the focal length. In plain English, the slowest speed to get sharp pictures with a 200mm lens is 1/200 sec. a 300mm lens 1/300 sec etc. With a telephoto I always have a sturdy tripod on standby. It makes life easier and you get sharper pictures. In good light you can handhold to around 1/100 of a second with an image stabilised tele up to 300mm. After that you may get a few good shots, but don’t rely on it.

Manufacturers promise miracles with image stabilisation, but in the field you never get as much help from electronics as you need. That said, there are some gems on the market, that used within their parameters, give incredible results. The example I’ve used here was photographed with a 55-300 mm Nikon, through a window. This particular lens costs less than $300 and is a bargain.

Little Bird photographed through a widow. Nikon 55-300mm zoom

Little Bird photographed through a window. Nikon 55-300mm zoom

It is incredibly sharp, auto-focuses well and is image stablised. It has an equally excellent sibling at half the price, but less reach; the 55-200 mm and a more expensive older brother that covers full frame, the Nikon 70-300 mm zoom. Canon, Sigma and Tamron have similar offerings. I have used the Canon and the Sigma at an airshow, handheld to photograph flying aircraft and I was amazed by the sharpness and detail of the results.

I am an unashamed lens connoisseur, or snob depending on your viewpoint. I got that way through long experience, not Google and firmly believe, that in lenses you only get what you pay for. In the case of this group of low priced telephoto lenses, you get far more than you pay for. You just have to use them within limits and on a tripod when the light goes..


From → Photography

One Comment
  1. Excellent write-up. I certainly appreciate this website.
    Keep it up!

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