My gear : cameras, lenses and teleconverters (part 2)

The importance of a good lens, or two …..

Whereas cameras will become dated reasonably quickly with new models being introduced that offer improved technology and features, lens design remains far more constant. In theory this means that whilst you may expect to upgrade your camera every few years your lenses should have a much longer life. In fact, a good quality lens could last almost a life time.

So, with that point in mind, why have I had so many lenses in such a relatively short period of time, when I only started taking wildlife photography seriously in 2008? This was the question I had to ask myself. I believe there are two reasons. Firstly, when I look back, I can see how my photography has evolved and, as a result, why I’ve felt the need to upgrade, change or add lenses. The second reason, is simply down to a combination of affordability and usability.

The most important lens for a wildlife photographer is one that provides both adequate reach and IQ (image quality). A camera is of no use without a lens, and a decent camera is of little use without a decent lens. You need good quality glass, and good quality glass comes at a price, especially when you’re talking about long focal length wildlife lenses.

But, we all have to start somewhere …..

My first wildlife lens was the 70-300mm f/4.5-f/5.6G VR zoom, which I bought in 2008 when I purchased my D300. It was a full-frame lens, which gave me an effective 450mm reach on the D300 DX crop-frame camera. This was the most practical and cost effective option for me at the time. Initially I was happy as, in my mind, I was taking pretty good photos - well, certainly better than those I was getting previously with my Coolpix 8800 zoom camera! But, as time went on and my photography progressed, I realised that those photos weren’t as sharp as they could be. I’d negotiated the first couple of rungs of the ladder, but It was time to buy a better lens.

Ideally I wanted more reach, but the priority had to be quality, so I plumped for the 70-200mm f/2.8G VRII ‘professional-level’ zoom, which I purchased in July 2010 together with a TC-17E II teleconverter. In hindsight I should have purchased the TC-14E II, but I was drawn to the TC-17E as it gave me 340mm at the long end of the 70-200mm, which equated to just over 500mm on the D300. The lens was superb, and still is, but the teleconverter was poor. Not to be outdone I purchased the new TC-20E III, which was released at the end of 2009 at the same time as the 300mm f/2.8 VR II lens. That teleconverter promised even more reach and better quality than the TC-17E. It gave me the reach okay, albeit with another half stop lost, so that my 70-200mm f/2.8 was now a 140-400mm f/5.6. As for quality, well, no not really.

My first telephoto prime lens …..

Another year or so later I donated the 70-300mm to my wife and purchased the 300mm f/4D (non-VR) lens together with the TC-14E II teleconverter. That TC coupled well with the lens, but surprisingly the TC-17E II was better. However, the TC-14E II worked well with the 70-200mm lens, which was good. I acquired this lens shortly after purchasing the D700 full-frame camera, so I now had a few options as I was also using the D300 crop-frame body as well. The 300mm f/4 with the TC-17E gave me 510mm at f/6.7 on the D700, or a theoretical 765mm on the D300. And, although I would generally use the 70-200mm without a TC, I had a 98-280mm f/4 lens with the TC-14E, equating to 147-420mm on the crop-frame D300.

An interim word about teleconverters …..

There’s always a 'reach v functionality and/or quality' trade-off when using a teleconverter - it’s unavoidable. With a magnification factor of 1.4 you lose a stop, but if you're using it on a good fast lens you should barely notice a loss in AF performance or image quality. When you increase magnification to 1.7 there’s a bigger trade-off as you lose one-and-a-half stops. The Nikon TC-17E II has had some bad reviews and is not a popular TC, but now and again it bonds well with a lens and provides a useful and acceptable combination. You’ll almost certainly notice that AF is slower and, consequently, the combination may not be suitable for certain types of photography such as birds in flight, but it may give you the extra reach you desire with minimal affect on IQ. Next up is the TC-20E III, which doubles your focal length, but loses you a full two stops. You need to use this TC on the right lens. I’ve known people use it on an f/4 lens fully acceptant of the fact that they will need good light and that they will be limited to a maximum aperture of f/8 but, although most current cameras will support AF at f/8, the TC-20E III is more suited to being used on a faster lens such as the 300mm f/2.8.

Whilst the above general comments hold good, my specific experiences with teleconverters may not necessarily translate to similar cameras and lens as every combination differs. Not all cameras and lenses match up straight away and, as such, you may need to auto fine-tune (a separate subject in its own right), but when you factor in a teleconverter you may negatively affect or improve the match. Sometimes this can be corrected with more fine-tuning (the camera stores the results of different lenses and teleconverters, so you can adjust for all combinations), but sometimes it can’t. I can only comment on what I’ve found with the different combinations I’ve tried.

The continuing quest for more reach and better IQ …..

In early 2013 I started giving retirement some thought and decided that I wanted to invest in a couple of good lenses whilst I could afford to do so. The first was the 200-400mm f/4G VRII which, from everything I’d read, would be the perfect safari lens. Then a couple of months later in May 2013 I sold the 300mm f/4 and purchased the 300mm f/2.8G VRII.

I tried the 200-400mm lens with the TC-14E II and it worked quite well, but the main purpose of this lens was for animals on safari, and as such I had no plans to use it with the TC. In fact the lens was so heavy and cumbersome handheld without the TC that I didn’t want to add to the problem. The TC-14E also worked beautifully on the new 300mm f/2.8 lens as expected. And, although I was a bit dubious at first, the TC-20E III also married up with it pretty well, so I now had a very useable 600mm f/5.6. I still have the 300mm f/2.8 although these days I more generally use it without a TC, or just with the new TC-14E III which I purchased shortly after it became available towards the end of 2014.

Whilst the 200-400mm was an excellent lens, I found it difficult to handle on safari. Despite having our own vehicle, driver and guide, and both myself and my wife having a full width seat each, I found the lens somewhat unwieldy within the available space. Not only was the weight an issue, but I found that I was continually hitting it against the vertical tubular support for the roof. The vehicles we’ve used to date have all been open Landrovers with a metal roof. The roof supports are between the seats, which is great unless you’re trying to manoeuvre a long lens. If you’re parked up in position and photographing something that’s reasonably static then there’s no problem, but if suddenly there’s some action, or you’re trying to photograph a raptor flying past, and you want to quickly pan or reposition then it’s very easy to forget that the metal upright is there. Ideally I want a zoom lens for this type of photography that is a bit lighter and a bit more compact - the new Nikon 200-500mm may well be the answer. But, the 200-400mm wasn’t right, plus it was spending most of the time stored away at home, so in March 2015 I decided that I’d part-exchange it for the 500mm f/4G VRII lens and use the 300mm f/2.8 with teleconverters when travelling as the size and weight of that lens was more manageable than the 500mm. I won’t digress into the problems and considerations of air travel now as I will deal with some of those issues when I discuss bags, but I accepted the fact when I decided to buy the 500mmm lens that it would be a UK and Europe lens rather than one I would take further afield.

There’s no doubt that I’d still be happily using that original 500mm lens if it hadn’t been for the previously noted incident, reported here, that took place at the beginning of 2016. Looking back, it was a blessing in disguise because, notwithstanding the additional cost of upgrading, the new lighter 500mm f/4E FL VR lens is simply outstanding. I’m not suggesting that IQ is any better than the previous model, although many reviews claim that it is marginally, but it’s the improved handling that makes it such a joy to use. It’s still heavy at a tad over 3kgs but, due to the inclusion of the fluoride elements and probably some other refinements, Nikon have managed to reduce the weight by just over 0.7kgs. Not only is that a fairly significant reduction, but the weight is now much more evenly distributed rather than being biased towards the front end. I can now handhold this lens for short periods if I need to. And, now weighing in at slightly less than the 300mm f/2.8 plus a TC, I have another option when travelling. The other important point to note is that it works perfectly with the TC-14E III, thereby giving me an effective focal length of 700mm.

So, where does that journey leave me?

The simple answer is that it leaves me in the very fortunate situation of owning three exceptionally good lenses (70-200mm f/2.8G, 300mm f/2.8G and the new 500mm f/4E) plus all three current teleconverters (TC-14E III, TC-17E II and TC-20E III). Plus, I’m now adding the previously mentioned 200-500mm f/5.6E in order to provide complete flexibility and a range of options when travelling. Subject to possible future malfunctions or damage I can honestly say that my GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) is well and truly satisfied when it comes to long lenses. I now want to enjoy using those lenses without the feeling that I need something longer or better. Yes, there’s the 600mm or even the 800mm monsters, but they’re extremely expensive and heavy and are not for me.

Subsequent comments related to the 200-500mm lens :-
Quarterly diaries - '2016 - Q2' and '2017 - Q1' (final paragraphs)

Other lenses …..

The above concentrates on long lenses, but as the list of equipment on my introductory page shows I also currently own a couple of shorter lenses, being the 24-120mm f/4 and 105mm f/2.8 micro. The micro (Nikon’s term for a macro lens) is a great lens that, as I noted previously, couples well with a TC. It’s rarely used though, simply because I’ve never got down to that type of nature photography despite also owning the associated flash kit. I keep saying that I should and one day I will, so I certainly have no intentions of selling it. The 24-120mm wide-angle zoom is a different proposition entirely as, in the right situation, it allows you to capture close-ups of animals, or indeed birds, in their natural habitat. Unfortunately I don’t use it as much as I’d like as it’s usually the third lens on the list when travelling and, therefore, the lens that gets left behind due to weight restrictions. I considered the 24-70mm f/2.8, but decided that the lighter, cheaper and extra reach that the 24-120mm offered was more appropriate for my needs. I’ve also owned the excellent 16-35mm f/4, but sold it as it was used so infrequently.

Well that’s it, apart from a final word about upgrading and gear acquisition costs …..

The decision to upgrade is a personal one, which is usually driven by a need or desire, and controlled by one’s financial situation. As a retired amateur photographer with more than enough gear already, my desire is definitely more of a want than a need. I simply have to consider the cost and make a decision whether I want, or can afford, to spend the money. Admittedly I also have to think about my wife who shares the same hobby and has similar wants, but at the end of the day our desire to own more photography equipment is a consideration based on spending money. But, if you’re a professional, who has to earn money through the photographs you take, you are going to view the expense differently. The need to use better and more up-to-date equipment will be more than a want and, the consideration of the cost, more of a justification of the cost. A professional has to look at the expense and decide whether the intended outlay is both viable and cost effective - this is difference between having an expensive hobby and running a business.

Footnote about Nikon's lens coding system …..

Nikon have produced many cameras and lenses over the years and, although the names of the different camera bodies are easy to understand, their lenses can be confusing with all the different versions. Camera names such as the D300 or D3 are nice and simple, but lenses such as the 500mm f/4E FL ED AF-S VR are not, due to the code that’s used to define that particular model. To avoid unnecessary usage of the full name I’ve only used it on my introductory page, using a shortened description within the above write-up. To help I've compiled a simple 'Nikon terminolgy' page to explain some of the most common abbreviations such as FX, DX, VR, ED etc.