One of my readers was asking me the following question: “given I’m mostly shooting birds in low light, which (super) telephoto lens should I choose? (600mm f/4 or 400mm f/2.8)”
…What would you suggest?
I thought I’d spend an (small) article on this, rather than trying to answer in just a couple of lines. And also, it was a nice opportunity to dig into my images from my trip to the Galapagos a couple of years ago (I hope to post more!).
Galapagos Owl, Nikon 300mm f/2.8 G on Nikon D3S, f/2.8, 1/500 s., ISO 1800
So, let’s ‘parameterize’ the statement a little: “birds” and “low light”. Now, this is not exactly the ideal situation for a wildlife photographer! Basically, to get the very best images with the best bokeh and the best image sharpness with the highest shutter speeds (to ‘ freeze’ those flapping wings) and to shoot these while chasing the birdies all over the place (cause that’s what these creatures tend to do…) you simply need an f2.8 (or better, f1.2) lens @ about 800mm-1200mm weighing just a couple of ounces (hundreds of grams). Unfortunately, scientific progress in optics has left us all a little behind, and a lens like this – if ever manufactured – would weigh a couple of hundred tons, or more (and cost tenfold, or also more…). So, we have to choose the best of what is currently out there. Actually, my recommended choice is a combination of 2 DSLRs and 2 lenses, but I’ll get to that in a second (depending on your reading speed…).
In general, it hard to get close to birds. This means you need a lens with a large focal length: at least 400mm or more; 300mm can do as well (even 200mm or less) but you basically have to be at the Galapagos islands or something similar where you can approach the birds up to just a meter or so (see image above)! I owned the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G lens and found this better for large mammals (e.g. bears, deer etc.) at relatively close (20-30 meters) distance and not so much for smaller animals especially at larger distances.
The (current) 500mm and 600mm lenses are all @ f/4 aperture, meaning you’ll loose a stop compared to the 400mm f/2.8. However, the (required) larger focal length will result in less cropping and therefore better ISO (more remaining pixels will effectively reduce visible noise). If you combine this with a DSLR that not only has great IQ at higher ISO values, but perhaps even more importantly, can bring back those underexposed highlights, you’ve got a winning combo. This seems to apply for DSLRs like the Nikon D4S and D750, as well as the new D500. However, for those hard fans who are contemplating the new Nikon D5, please check out dpreview.com. You may be unpleasantly surprised with the dynamic range of the successor to the D4S! As for me, I’m definitely holding on to my D4S until a D5S comes out, hopefully with a dynamic range that fits the huge price tag (i.e. not the case with the D5…).
So the better choice would be to go with a fast prime and sufficient focal length. Traditionally, ‘birders’ go for the 500m f/4 because of reach, fast zoom, and last but not least: weight. Now we’re getting personal: if weight is more important to you than reach, go for the 500mm f/4. If you care a little less about weight (and cost for that matter) and welcome more reach (app. 40% more than the 500mm) go for the 600mm f/4. In terms of teleconverters: the whole idea of a TC (let’s say 1.4) is that you need them only on occasion: if you find you’re using your TC almost always… get the longer lens! (again, budget permitting…)
But this is not where my recommendation stops: I have discovered on pretty much every trip (perhaps with the exception of Galapagos) that my prime lens was insufficient in capturing all the images I was after. I simply also needed a flexible, relatively long-range zoom to get the images my fast prime is too close for. Until about half a year ago I was using the 70-200mm f/2.8 for that purpose, and as it often didn’t reach far enough I would add a 1.4 TC, and use it @ f5/6. This combo gave me an effective 100-280mm on full frame, and the image quality (IQ) wasn’t too bad at all! That was until Nikon surprised the entire (photography) world with their release of the “AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR”, providing an attractive alternative to competitors such as Tamron and Sigma. The 200-500mm f/5.6 is now a bestseller and has been tested extensively. Much to my surprise, it hasn’t received the best reviews, but all I can say is that my copy is incredibly sharp. How sharp? OK, I’m already starting to regret this… but my D750 +200-500mm f/5.6E perhaps shows me more detail (perhaps) than my D4S + 600mm f/4 combo. I’ve taken a lot of test shots and the result is the same each time. It’s just amazing.
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 E @ 340mm on Nikon D4S, f/5.6, 1/2500 s., ISO 3200, +1.0 exp. corr.
The combination of a D4S + 600mm f/4 and D750 + 200-500mm f/5.6E is a very powerful one: The pro DSLR/prime combo will give you the reach you need in those situations you can ‘control’, and if you have the time you can add a 1.4 TC as well, giving you 800mm f/5.6 in exceptional cases (again, if you always need 800mm then perhaps better to sell your house and buy one…). When things tend to get ‘out of control’; e.g. Alaska bears suddenly running around (or towards) you; drop the prime (slowly…) and quickly reach out to your backup DSLR (or in the case of the D750, a very nice landscape body as well) and use your flexible zoom to get those tack sharp shots while the action is happening.
In summary: if you’re a millionaire/billionaire, by all means by all lenses and see what works for you. For everybody else, consider a pro DSLR + fast prime (500mm for weight, 600mm for reach) and backup DSLR (e.g. D750/new D500) + the sweet 200-500mm f/5.6E combo. This will take care of your birding needs. If you’re mostly after small/none moving and reasonable large mammals, consider the 400mm f/2.8 especially in low light situations, or if your budget is not helping you much, simple consider the 200-500mm f/5.6E-only, assuming you do have enough light for both low ISO shooting and AF tracking.
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