How to Choose and Use Lenses - Part 2

April 27, 2010 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | 14 Comments | |
How to Choose and Use Lenses - Part 2 Image

So let's come back to your dream “money no object” photographic system and contemplate the dilemmas and conundrums that rear up when we consider choosing and using long focal length lenses.

In Part 1 we looked at medium focal lengths and found difficult compromises to be considered between size, weight, portability, speed, performance, zoom range, cost and durability.

Tough decisions had to be made. And now considering the heavy artillery those choices get tougher as all the factors we considered previously become more extreme.

We need to get back to basics; why do we use long lenses? Simple; to fill the frame with distant subjects, catch action, and for the perspective effects of a narrow viewing angle. For sports and wildlife photographers super long lenses are vital tools of the job. For the rest of us it's not quite so clear-cut.

How to Choose and Use Lenses - Part 2
A misty dawn in the Blackmore Vale from Bulbarrow Hill, near Okeford Fitzpaine, Dorset, England. Canada. Canon 1Ds mkIII, 70-200mm f2.8 IS L lens @150mm, 1/5 sec @ f16, ISO 100

When I purchased my first SLR, an Olympus OM10, life changed and photography became an obsession that shows no sign of dissipating some 30 years later. Immediately I wanted to expand my system and the first and foremost desire was to obtain a telephoto lens; and the longer the better. In my inexperience I just assumed that was the way to go. I and I suspect most of us in our fledgling photographic days were seduced by the notion of “beaming in”. I thought I could watch from the fringes of life and make stunning shuts by simply bolting on a Big Long Lens and adopting a distinctly dodgy voyeuristic approach.

Of course I soon learnt; great pictures come about by getting stuck in, kneeling down amongst the rotting vegetables and immersing yourself in the situation, be it a bustling market in Yunnan or tranquil morning in Dorset. Reality dawned; in most cases a medium focal length lens is much more useful than an extreme one. And the notion of being a fly on the wall was soon dispelled; it doesn't matter how long a lens you've got, those peasants in Lijiang will know you're there.

There's no getting round it, you've got to take the occasional flak and get in amongst the action, making pictures come to you. Excess equipment, especially long lenses can get in the way; in the market in at Wasel a 300mm f2.8 lens will be more of a hindrance then a help. In amongst the prawns and sharp elbows a neat fast nimble 100mm is just the job for tight shots of faces, hands, simmering noodles and shiny fish. It's also a focal length that's a staple for landscapes, portraits, details; virtually all forms of photography really. So let's start by looking at medium telephotos.

How to Choose and Use Lenses - Part 2
The market at Wasel, near Lijiang, Yunnan, China. Nikon F5, 70-200mm lens

Straight away the zoom vs prime and speed vs portability debates rear their heads again. Take for example one endlessly useful zoom lens I'd never be without; the 70-200mm. I think with a modest 3x zoom range the optical performance is inseparable in the real world from prime lenses right through from 70mm to long. I use Canon's f2.8 L lens that has image stabilisation, excellent crispness and a price tag to match, but in this focal range there are many alternatives from all the major manufacturers and independents; you're spoilt for choice.

As with Nikon's similar offering it is a fast workable versatile tool, a mainstay of most pros. With lens hood fitted it's a fair lump though, and if size and portability are your key criteria a slower optic may answer well. Backpackers and landscapers who don't need fast apertures may well be tempted by an f4 variant, which is much smaller, lighter and cheaper. Working off a tripod the fast aperture and image stabilisation become redundant, so why not?

Trouble is most of us are opportunists; the hunter-gatherers of the photographic world, and a lens in this range is by definition a general-purpose tool. We may think of ourselves as predominately landscapers, macro types or whatever, but who's going to turn down the opportunity of an impromptu travel portrait, hand held in the fading light? There is no doubt an f2.8 lens with IS/VR is a more flexible tool then a slower one without the whirling internal motors. But it's less portable and more expensive. So we're back to square one again.

How to Choose and Use Lenses - Part 2
A local in the market at Tarabuco, Bolivia. Canon 5D mkII, 70-200mm f2.8 IS L lens @150mm, 1/250 sec @ f2.8, ISO 500

Entry Tags

lens, DSLR, zoom, prime, telephoto, SLR, David Noton, lenses, nature, choose, use, long, tele-photo, long lens

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14 Comments | Newest Oldest First | Post a Comment

#1 Matt Jacks

Thanks for postinf this on your website, It’s a nice article which I enjoyed reading, and no doubt I have learnt a few things.

But the author seems to be only talking about exoensive cameras and expensive lenses. Judging by your reviews, I’m assuming that most of your readers (including myself) can’t afford the equipment that he uses. I would have preferred it if he’d talked about using DX cameras, and consumer zooms and what not. I’m not likely to have a 1Ds Mark III with 70-200mm f2.8L, nor would I take it traveling with my.

How about some tips regarding a Nikon D5000 and 70-300mm lens?

10:49 am - Tuesday, April 27, 2010

#2 Tim

@Matt Jacks
Nikon’s 70-300 VR lens is excellent and comparatively affordable, a definite sweet-spot. I seem to get better results on the few occasions I use it that off my normal zoom sigma lens. Recommended.

@David Noton: this article should carry a friendly warning that the choice of medium-long lenses, while relevant for ducking in amongst market-stalls, is not as applicable in the fields of sports, racing (F1 or horse), or flying at airshows. I wouldn’t be without my 300mm end for those.

12:03 pm - Tuesday, April 27, 2010

#3 Bas

Get a Pentax. It has SR (shake reduction) for all pentax lenses.

1:25 pm - Tuesday, April 27, 2010

#4 Bas

A wait, sorry. The world only exists off Canonikons…

1:28 pm - Tuesday, April 27, 2010

#5 madeinholt

OK so we need a decent 70-200/300 f2.8 lense.
Whats the best lense make to go for? I know the body dictates the lense type to a degree - it’s just I am thinking of upgrading all of my kit.

3:07 am - Wednesday, April 28, 2010

#6 Fara

Hello. I’m looking to buy a point and shoot camera that can give me the same quality of the first and third picture. I know it sounds silly but I’m looking for something that makes every picture look like art or something out of a magazine. I’m looking for a camera that has the best quality images, at least 10 optical zoom, good in low light, the best fps, etc basically something that is an all in one point and shoot out there. Suggestions please. Thank’s

4:34 am - Friday, April 30, 2010

#7 jesus c. deleon

Olympus E-3 is not good camera?
Only nikon and canon is good to use?

2:19 pm - Tuesday, May 4, 2010


An interesting article. I am planning to buy a new lens for portraits. After reading the last part of this article, I guess I will go for the Canon 85mm 1.8 on my crop 50D. Also don’t want to go too close to some of my subjects.

4:20 pm - Monday, May 10, 2010

#9 Tim around 100mm or longer is conventional for portaits, so taking crop-factor into account, 85*1.6 is about right.

4:35 pm - Monday, May 10, 2010

#10 Claire

Nice to relate to the story of the early obsession for the super long lens (Thought it was just me!)  Nice post.  Thanks for sharing.

5:04 pm - Saturday, June 12, 2010

#11 Laura

I too had to have a super long lens (ended up with a Sigma 120-400mm) and like it very much but I have to train myself to use MY TRIPOD, camera shake is definately an issue at the long end:(

1:23 pm - Tuesday, June 29, 2010

#12 matt

@fara how about the finepix hs10, apparently a very good camera

5:01 pm - Monday, July 12, 2010

#13 Joe Bennett

I have to be honest. You can spend alot on some of the Canon Zoom but I I use the 70-200L F4 version without the image stabilization and it is only around 500 dollars. This lens is probably the best value your money can buy. It is the perfect walk around lens that does not get in the way and its super sharp with lots of contrast. I do not leave home without it

4:49 am - Thursday, September 23, 2010

#14 Geoff

It would be great to be able to afford these sexy lenses - I am happy with my 70-300
It is not the case of having the best of everything - it is simply a case of getting the best out of what you have
Happy New Year to all

10:59 am - Wednesday, December 29, 2010