Thursday, July 19, 2012

Best Canon Lenses for Nature Photography

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Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L
I frequently get asked about lens recommendations for nature photography, so I thought it would be good to offer what I consider to be wonderful choices all in one post.  Before beginning, though, I do have a few caveats.  First, I'm limiting myself to Canon simply because that's what I know best.  I'm sure you can find comparable lenses to those mentioned here made by Nikon and other manufactures.  Second, there's no one way to build your arsenal of lenses.  Often the best lens to buy next depends on what you already have in your camera bag. We all have different habits and shooting styles, and so there's no one set of lenses that will be perfect for every nature photographer. Third, lenses can be very expensive, and my blog is generally designed for those on a modest budget--that is, cameras under $1800 and lenses under $1200.

Wildlife (Long Telephoto)
For wildlife photography, you often want to have your subject large in your frame while keeping your distance to avoid spooking it.  This means you frequently need long telephoto lenses.  You also want the lens to focus quickly so that you can get sharp photos of the animal before it moves, or while it's moving.  On the one hand, you can buy long prime lenses at 400mm and longer with large maximum apertures, but these are so expensive that they are prohibitive for many photographers.  But on the other hand, consumer grade zooms (like 100-300mm zooms) are often simply not sharp enough to give you excellent results consistently.  They work, but you won't be able to crop as heavily to make your subject larger in the frame. I think there are two great options, though, for wildlife photographers who can't spend much more than $1200.

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Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L.  This is the lens I use for most of my wildlife photography.  It's extremely sharp, focuses nice and fast, and doesn't give me a bit of trouble.  It's small enough to handhold (which is one advantage this lens has over larger, more expensive lenses), so you can get photos of moving subjects nicely. The biggest drawback to this lens is the lack of image stabilization.

Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS. Many wildlife photographers swear by this lens, especially when adding a 1.4x tele-converter, which makes this effectively a 420mm f/5.6 IS (roughly equal to the 400mm lens above).  The drawback here is that by adding a tele-converter, the lens will be less sharp and focus a little more slowly. But on the upside you get IS, so you can get sharper photos at slower shutter speeds.  NOTE: a reader just reminded me in a comment below that this lens has a shorter minimum focusing distance than the 400mm lens (about 5ft v. 11.5ft)--this makes it easier to use your 300mm lens for closeup photography.

There no one right choice between these two lenses.  The choice really depends on what's most important to you.  If you need IS, the 300mm option is better.  If you want a lens that's a little sharper and faster than the 300mm + 1.4x combo, then go with the 400mm lens.  I opted for the 400mm lens because it was given to me, but I'm happy with this lens.  Wildlife tends to move, and IS only helps stabilize camera movement, not subject movement.  So even with IS, you need faster shutter speeds to get sharp images of moving subjects.  IS is a definite advantage, but the advantage is not as great when your subject is moving.  To compensate for the lack of IS, I set my ISO to give me the shutter speed I need.  And when shooting stationary subjects in low light situations, I use a tripod or wish I had the 300mm + 1.4x combo.

Flowers & Bugs (Macro)
With macro photography, you are much closer to your subject, but the same principle applies here as in wildlife photography.  Especially with insects and other creepy crawly wonders, you want to stay far away from your subjects to avoid spooking them.  So I prefer longer telephoto macro lenses.

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Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L
Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L. This lens lets you stay farther away from your subject and achieve a blurrier background than macro lenses with shorter focal lengths. I know Canon released a 100mm macro with IS, but (and I may get flack for saying this) I don't think IS is very valuable for macro photography. First of all, I'm a big believer in tripods for macro shots. Macro photography demands precision--a kind of precision that simply isn't possible when hand holding. When using a tripod, IS is generally useless to you. Bugs and flowers move, too, and IS doesn't help with subject movement. I find that when I get the composition I want, I inevitably have to wait until the breeze stops before taking a picture. I need my camera securely set in the position to give me that composition while I wait, and I need a shutter speed to stop any movement that may still be affecting the scene. IS doesn't help me with these, so I opt for the longer focal length lens.

Landscapes (Zoom)
It's a myth that landscape photography requires wide angle lenses. You can photograph landscapes with any lens in your camera bag. Nevertheless, landscapes are where zoom lenses reign. I like to stand where I can get the shot and use the zoom to give me the composition I need.  Your biggest concerns with zoom lenses are sharpness and distortion, especially at wider angles. Wide angle lenses tend to distort straight lines (like the horizon), and they also lose sharpness around the edges of the frame. I have two zoom lenses that cover most of my needs for landscape photography.

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Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5
Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5. This is simply a fantastic wide angle lens. The distortion levels are very low. Adobe Lightroom can almost eliminate distortion from this lens. And it's a joy to use. If I can use this lens for the composition I want, I do.

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Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS
Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS. This is easily my weakest lens, especially near 17mm. But for the cost, I really can't complain. It does what it's supposed to do well. It's a good, inexpensive all-around nature photography lens. If you want a longer zoom, you may consider the Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS. If you can spend more money on higher quality glass, or if you need an EF lens for a full-frame camera, consider the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS.

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Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS. I don't own this lens, but I have borrowed it a few times. It's so much fun to use. You can save a little cash if you buy the version of this lens without IS. Some photographers can't imagine going into the field without this lens.  But personally, I haven't felt the need for this zoom range. When I need to get longer than 85mm and shorter than 400mm, I can usually make the 180mm work for me.  My shooting preferences make this lens less necessary, but for others, it's indispensable.

9 comments:

  1. One big advantage of the 300 f/4 over the 400 f/5.6 that you don't mention is the dramatic difference in the lenses close-focus ability. If someone wants to photograph dragonflies, for example, the close-focus ability of the 300mm lens will make all the difference. The 400mm cannot focus closer than 3.5m, almost 12 feet; whereas the 300mm will focus to 1.5m, just under 5 feet (even with the 1.4x attached). Also, for someone like me who doesn't have very steady hands the IS is vital, even for framing the shot.

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  2. Excellent point. I added a note to that effect above. Thanks!

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  3. Narrowing down the lenses to recommend for the
    landscape category is not easy. Most lenses out there, from a 15mm fisheye to a
    600mm Super Telephoto, can be used for landscape photography. Many of the
    lenses in my


    Advanced Digital Photography


    make excellent choices.

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  4. I've just bought my very 1st dslr, a canon 60d, I ended up getting the single lens kit (EFS 18-55mm) a 50mm 1.8 canon lens, and a tamron 18-270mm lens (which I have been told is a great all round) I'm not sure what the kit lens is good for, it has a pol filter on it, but I've used the 50mm lens mostly which I love, what I'm finding with the 50mm lens is when I do portraits, I use AV and set it to 1.8 mainly, but when I do group shots, I set it to around 5.6 and am finding at least one person is coming out blurry, I use centre focus and centre weighted for the metering. What settings should I be using for group shots with the 50mm outdoor and in? I'm hoping to do a proper camera course next year and I can't wait! So excited!

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  5. Congrats on your new camera! The 60D is a fantastic camera, and I'm sure it will serve you well. I'm not a portrait photographer, but for group shots, I probably would not use f/5.6. I would try f/8, and depending on how close you are to your subject you may even decide f/11 works best. Your depth of field is a range 1/3 in front of where you focus and 2/3 behind, so you can try choosing a focusing point about a third of the way into the range you want in focus and then choose an f/stop that will keep the front and back people sharp..


    If you have your camera mounted on a tripod and if your group shots are stationary portraits, you may even try staging the shot ahead of time. Have two people standing in your scene (one in the front and one in the back), set your focus to manual focus and choose the focal distance and f/stop that works. Use your preview screen to make sure you have both sharp. Then leave it in manual focus for the portraits. The advantage of this is that your focal distance won't move as your subjects move. For instance, if you have it set on the center focusing point, and that puts your focus on someone in the back, people in the front may be blurry. If your center focusing point is on someone in the front and that person moves to the side, the camera may refocus all the way to the background and everyone will be blurry. Just be sure to double check your focus from time to time, and you can even use your "depth of field preview" button (located near the lens mount) to make sure the front and back are in focus.

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  6. Lovely pictures and very good capture.

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  7. I own a EOS Rebel t3i and bought the lens kit which came with the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Type II Lens. This summer I am traveling to South America and have to pack light. I'll be mainly taking landscape and wildlife photos which canon lens would you recommend? Thanks!

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  8. That's a very good question. Your 18-55mm lens will probably work pretty well for you for landscapes, especially if you stay off f/3.5. In the f/8 to f/16 range, that lens will probably do very well. For wildlife photos, if the 300mm or 400mm lens is too large, it may be difficult to find an SLR lens small enough to fit your needs.

    One option to consider is a compact camera, perhaps Canon's SX50HS. It has plenty of zoom for wildlife photography, and if you need to pack light, it may be your best option (and cheaper than buying a high quality 300mm lens). It has a small sensor, doesn't shoot RAW images, and with shutter lag, slower focusing and frame rate, you may miss action shots. But it zooms out to an effective 1200mm, and it's tough to argue with that. Image quality will not be the same as a DSLR, but it still may work. Lilian Stokes wrote about the camera here: http://stokesbirdingblog.blogspot.com/2013/02/canon-sx-50-hs-for-bird-photography-i.html

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  9. Nature Photography is an extremely broad term and so contains a lot of subcategories. Some of the more popular classes and subjects are flora and fauna sceneries, waterscapes, Plants and lots more.The term Nature Photos refers to a large field of photography, which deals with natural occurring constituents and the grand outdoors

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