Lessons from Behind the Lens of a Legendary Wildlife Photographer: In All Honesty, This Is Really Just a Starting Point
I have a quick note, or rant, if you can spare a second. There is nothin’—nothin’—sexier in the lens world than the 300mm f/2.8 lens. That beautiful 122mm front element reflecting back your giant smile as you stare at it is a heart stopper. The honking front element instantly tapers back into a sleek barrel that just screams expensive. When I started out, it was the lens that made other photographers look at you and say to themselves, “There’s a successful photographer” just because you owned it. It was the lens for wildlife photographers for such a long time.
Then there is the lonely 300mm f/4 lens, with its 77mm front element that can barely reflect back its lens cap. It’s small, has a not particularly sexy profile, and hardly anybody knows it exists, let alone owns one. But compare the 300mm f/2.8 image next to the 300mm f/4, and you’ll see no difference—both are wicked sharp. Compare the lens envy in the eye of a photographer looking at the 300mm f/2.8 or 300mm f/4, and you’d think the 300mm f/4 carried some social disease. Then look at the price of $5,000 compared to $900, and all of a sudden that expression changes to one of mass confusion.
What you’re paying for is literally the technology to deliver that one extra stop of light to the film plane. That’s right, $4,000 for one stop of light! The classic example I like to use is shooting football. To make the linebacker pop visually from the background (a stadium of fans), f/2.8 is a must, because at f/4 you start to see enough detail that the fans aren’t a seamless background, but have shape and form (a great photographer will move past that obstacle). That extra stop is not for shooting in the pitch dark in a barn, but for depth-of-field control. It’s for controlling the elements that are and are not in focus around your subject. Go back and look at the photograph of Keebler in Chapter 3, and look at how his nose is out of focus. It’s just three inches away from his eyes, the focus point. That’s a narrow band of focus at f/2.8.
There are times when you’ll have the option to buy a fast lens or not-so-fast lens. My advice, especially when you’re starting out, is to spend money on time behind the lens, not the lens itself. You’ll learn more and create better images the more you’re behind the lens, not by paying for that extra stop of light. End of rant (at least this one).