Lessons from Behind the Lens of a Legendary Wildlife Photographer: In All Honesty, This Is Really Just a Starting Point
What Is the Best Lens?
This is the #1 question I get asked by email, and has been since email hit the masses. Along the same lines is the question, “Which is the best lens for me: this one or that one?” My problem with this question (which is a very valid one) is I can’t answer it for the majority of the folks who ask it. I have a Quicktext set up with a pat response to this question that’s real simple and sincere: “Since I don’t know you, your style of photography, or abilities, I don’t have an answer for you.” This is as honest an answer as I can make, and by breaking its three components down, perhaps you’ll find answers for yourself in it.
You—I think that’s the most important part of this equation. Women often say that they are too “fragile” to carry a 600mm lens in the wilderness. Yet, I know two “little ladies” who keep up with me, and we’re all carrying 600mm lenses (their short legs are the only thing slowing them down). I know a lot of older shooters—in their mid- to late 80s—who still get the big glass around just fine, which gives me encouragement for that day for me. So don’t let weight scare you off.
There is always the price barrier, for sure. Wildlife photography is not a poor man’s sport. The price to play is high, and there’s really no way around that, especially when outfitting the camera bag. While I typically have less gear by quantity than folks I go shooting with, the price tag of mine, when all added up, is more. I lay down the pennies for the good stuff. This rambling still brings us back to: What is the best lens?
As far as I am concerned, it’s the one that permits you to bring back what you see with your mind and heart, and communicate that wonder to others. We’re going to get into the lenses I use soon enough, but I want to make sure that you don’t just copy down my list, go buy them, and think you’re golden, that there isn’t a photo you can’t capture now that you have your own Moose’s camera bag.
I posted a bunch of aviation photos on my blog. They were from the air races in Reno, Nevada. We’re talking planes-traveling-in-excess-of-500-mph-just-100-feet-over-your-head kind of photo ops. The majority of the time, we shot 1/250 of a second or less, so the prop blurred and wasn’t frozen, to give the illusion of speed and movement. I received a number of emails asking what lens I was using, because the images were so sharp. I answered that it wasn’t the lens capturing the sharp images, it was the panning technique. Most didn’t understand that answer. To be successful in this game you must understand that.
Stopping the motion of the plane (or a bird in flight) is not an action of the lens, nor of shutter speed. Only when you stop the movement of the plane traveling 500 mph can you get a sharp image. That stopping comes from keeping the film plane perfectly in sync with the travel path of the plane. When you keep the film plane perfectly in sync with the moving subject, whether you’re shooting at 1 second or 1/1500 of a second, the subject will be tack sharp no matter the lens. (Of course, keeping the film plane in perfect sync at 1 second just isn’t physically possible. I struggled at 1/60 of a second.) The method we use to keep the film plane in sync with the subject is panning. It’s not some special lens, but plain old technique.
There are specialty lenses—like micros or perspective correction—that have a specific purpose in photography. But even those can be used for general photography, as you’ll see. In that search for the holy grail of lenses then, there is no one answer and perhaps not even multiple answers to the question. This is something camera manufactures know, which is why they keep coming out with new flavors of the month. So, take a deep breath, realize that the “best” of anything in photography comes from within and is not something you can buy, and you will improve your photography!