Lens Choice for Nature Photographers

Just so I am not leading anyone on, I am not going to list the 10 best lenses for nature photography or anything like that. I don't think there is such a thing. Lenses are best for specific purposes and how and what you photograph will influence what you need for a set of lenses.

So I am going to talk a bit about the lenses I most commonly use and give a story about my latest purchase. I am a big believer in buying lenses based on what you find you cannot do well with your existing gear, in other words, based on what you need.

So first, the most common lenses I use and why they fit my needs. I love the perspective of very wide-angle lenses on everything from landscapes to close-ups, so a real workhorse for me is the Canon 10-22mm EF-S lens. That focal length range fits me well. I tend to shoot mostly in the 10-15mm range because I find the perspective more interesting. I am shooting with APS-C cameras, so this lens is perfect for them. For a full-frame camera, this would be a lens with a focal length of approximately 16-35. I also like that I can get very close to a subject with this lens, down to about 10 inches, which gives some very cool effects. This next shot is with this lens at 10mm, a close-up and wide landscape.

I then skip up to two lenses I use occasionally, though they don't always travel with me, a Canon 50mm f/2.5 macro and a Canon 85mm f/1.8. I use the 50mm macro when I need a moderate focal length and a fairly fast lens, and when I need to get really close to a subject with more depth of field. Shorter focal length macro lenses will give more depth of field. I use the 85mm for its wonderful, fast max aperture of f/1.8. I love the look you get with such a lens, especially when photographing people. There are very few zoom lenses you can buy that will give you the look of an f/1.8 85mm lens.

I don't always carry those two lenses because I don't always like those focal lengths and I am not one to carry more than I have to. I find I shoot a lot of my images with the wide-angle and with a long telephoto because of the look I get. I like the perspective and depth of field that you get with both, and both give a much stronger look than middle focal lengths. That is not always a good thing, though, and sometimes I get caught not having a mid-range focal length when that is most appropriate. But I would rather travel light and sometimes get caught than carry lenses with me that I don't use very often. I will pack these lenses when I am shooting in conditions that I will likely need them.

Next, I often shoot close-ups and macro with a Sigma 180mm f/3.5 lens. This is an older macro (Sigma now makes a 150mm macro that is a very nice lens -- I have used it and have found it to be excellent -- but I am happy with the 180mm I have now, though I have been tempted by the 150mm because it is smaller). This is a real workhorse for me for close work because I like the working distance of the telephoto macro and I like the look it gives both in perspective and out-of-focus background or bokeh. This focal length does have less depth of field, so you have to be careful of your focus point, but I like the look. I will often shoot it at f/4-f/11, not at really tiny f-stops, again, because I like the look. That's what was used for the digger bees photo next.

Last, I use a zoom in the 80-400mm range. I like the longer focal lengths for everything from landscapes to birds to close-ups. The photo at the beginning of this blog post is shot at 400mm for the perspective. I do not specialize in bird photography, so this is a good all around focal length that lets me shoot wildlife when that is appropriate. I used to have a Tokina 80-400mm zoom which is a fine lens, as long as you are shooting at a distance. It only focuses to nine feet and for good reason. When you add an extension tube to get it to focus closer, the image quality really dropped. For me, close shooting is really important.

So I tried a friend's Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6. I liked the image quality and it would focus up close with excellent quality. This lens focuses to just under six feet without accessories and works nicely with extension tubes to focus even closer. I was not crazy about the push-pull zoom implementation on this lens. I always found it awkward, plus the focus ring is on that moving lens element, also awkward.

Next I had the chance to try out a Sigma 120-400mm f/4.5-5.6. I was immediately impressed with the feel of this lens on camera, and it did not have a push-pull zoom! In my informal tests based on real subjects that I actually shoot, I found it was every bit as good as the Canon 100-400mm (and it is also less expensive). What about the close-focusing ability that is so important to me? This lens focuses to five feet without accessories (good) and image quality is excellent when using extension tubes to focus even closer. Is it as good as a macro up close? No, but there are no macros at this focal length, and image quality is excellent. Plus if I stop the lens down to f/8, it is so close to the 180mm macro that I can now leave the 180mm macro at home if I want to keep my gear to a minimum. This next shot is with the Sigma near its minimum focusing distance, at 400mm, f/5.6. Depth of field is extremely narrow -- the stamens of the bush poppy are sharper than the fly.

So now I am buying a Sigma 120-400mm and it will definitely become a key part of my field gear. The point to all of this is not that you should consider buying any of these lenses or that these focal lengths will work for you. I wanted to show how lens choice is strongly affected by specific needs, in this case, my needs, so your gear needs may be different than mine. But I think the thought process of picking a lens based on needs helps.

A lot of photographers now buy lenses from mail-order locations, but having a relationship with a local camera store can be worth the extra price. Most places will let you try out the lens, including shooting some images, at the minimum in store, and often letting you go outside and set up a tripod. Some stores will even let you try the lens more extensively like I have done. Many places will also rent lenses so you can try them out before buying, too.

About Rob Sheppard

I am proud of the work I have done as a photographer, author, naturalist and nature photographer, editor and videographer. I love the natural world, and that can be a native bee in my native plants garden as much as a visit to a national park. I am a husband of a beautiful and smart wife, a father to my outstanding son and daughter, and one who lived in Minnesota most of my life, but now loves the variety and very long growing season of Southern California. I have written and photographed a lot of books and magazine articles but what is most important to me about them is knowing that I have helped people become better photographers and gain a better connection to nature. I work to help people connect with photography and nature through speaking and as a workshop leader, too. All of this has gained me a Fellow award with the North American Nature Photography Association. Many people knew me as the long-time editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine and I am still connected with them as a contributing editor. A short list of some of the books I have done: Landscape Photography: From Snapshot to Great Shot, Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, The Magic of Digital Nature Photography, National Geographic Field Guide to Digital Photography, The Power of Black-and-White in Nature Photography and Reports from the Field (an iBook). My website is at www.robsheppardphoto.com; my blogs are at www.natureandphotography.com and www.mirrorlessnature.com.
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20 Responses to Lens Choice for Nature Photographers

  1. Hugh Nourse says:

    I have tried many different lenses from 20mm to 400 mm in 35mm measurement. However, I first started with a Nikon Micro 105mm lens because John Shaw indicated that he used it for 90 percent of his nature photography (at that time) and that it was an excellent field lens. With over 20 years of photography of gardens and wildflowers I have come to believe that I photograph better with that lens length than any other. It seems to be the way I see the environment. I currently use an Olympus E-3 with the wonderful Olympus 50mm (100mm in 35mm equivalence) macro lens. My subjects are anything that I can shoot with that lens.

  2. Susanne Romo says:

    I am a rank amateur nature photographer, and every time I read one of your blogs the world of photography makes more and more sense to me. I love that you provide not only the technical 'specs' of what you do, but put a picture in the blog to show what that specific setting creates. Your blog has helped me learn so much, and I have become more confident and adventuresome in my photo taking.

  3. Jan Maklak says:

    Rob I couldn't agree more that the Canon EF 10-22 lens is a workhorse of landscape photographers. I probably use this lens the most. I'm impressed by the clarity of glass and the color that comes through. The next lens on my list is a 100-400 and I'm glad to see that you recommend the Sigma. I own other Sigma lenses (EX 24-70 2.8) (EX 50-150 2.8) and I find they are a great substitue for OEM glass. Keep up the good work!

  4. I use the Sigma 120-400 with my Nikon D700. With an APS-C camera it'd be even cooler. (I got it because when I went back to full-frame with the D700 I couldn't bear my long lenses ending at 200mm; I'd used 200mm at 1.5x a lot with my D200. I got the D700 for the low-light capability, which is utterly amazingly fantastic at the price point, and is key to a bunch of my photography, and I don't regret that; but it messed up my lens collection well and good to go back to FX. Oh, since you mentioned ultra-wide -- I'm now having more fun than I expected with the Sigma 12-24mm full-frame zoom, too. 12mm is really wide! And an 8mm fisheye looks a lot better left as a circle, not cropped on the sides.)

    Anyway, I've been very happy with the 120-400, most especially at the price point. Hope it works well for you when you actually own it!

  5. Nitin says:

    I have been using Sigma 8-16mm and EF 16-35L lenses on Canon 7D body for landscape photography during travel . I found 16-35mm to be a better lens for landscapes as the colors, brightness and the details are far better with this lens. I bought Sigma 8-16mm for creating interesting perspectives in landscapes but was disappointed as the details are completely lost for distant subjects like mountains or lakes. Also, filters or polarizers can not be fitted on this lens. However , 8-16mm proved to be an excellent lens for heritage and architectural photography during travel. Would you please suggest how best this lens can be used for landscapes?

    Nitin

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      One of the things that is interesting about changing focal lengths is how the background will change. As you go wider, the background gets smaller. If you photograph a rock, for example, with a wide-angle and a telephoto, moving your position between shots so that the rock stays the same size in the final shot, the wide-angle will show the background as small behind the rock, while the telephoto will make it big. This affect occurs with any change of focal length, such as if you did this same experiment with the 16-35mm lens, shooting at 16 and 35mm. So it gets even stronger with the 8-16mm. I will often use a wide-angle to get close to something and make the background smaller. This is very helpful to me at times because I can make the background small enough that if I get low, I can put the subject against the sky, which I might not be able to do with a "longer" (less wide) focal length. So that is one way I use very wide lenses. The other thing I do is use it for perspective (which is related). I can create deep space from foreground to background, stretching out nearby details that you cannot do with a longer lens.

      Rob

  6. Kat says:

    With your Canon 10-22mm EF-S lens, if you are shooting with an APS-C camera, would you not end up with approx. 15-33mm...while it stays at 10-22mm on the full-frame?

    • mrsammy7 says:

      I have attempted to use the 10-22mm on my 5D MarkII. When I did, it knocked the mirror out of it's place in the body so I just use it on the 40D. Canon is coming out with a new wide angle for the full-frame. I'd wait for that if using a full frame camera.

      First time on this blog. Well done and look for future postings.

      • Rob Sheppard says:

        The 10-22mm is specifically designed for the APS-C format. You could sort of use it on your 5D, or any full-frame camera, if you shot Live View, because the mirror is not used, but it would not cover the whole sensor, i.e., it would vignette terribly in the corners and around the edges. It does not have an image circle large enough for the sensor. All lenses have an image circle where the image is projected from in front of the camera to the sensor or film. All lenses are designed for specific formats and so the image circle has to be at least slightly larger than the format. This is why a larger format lens will always work (assuming it can be mounted) on a smaller format camera -- the image circle covers the larger format, so it will always be bigger than the smaller format. This is why you could use a medium format lens on a 35mm camera but you could not get a 35mm camera lens to work on a medium format camera. When the Pentax 6x7 was a popular medium format camera, you could get adapters to fit its lenses to 35mm Pentax camera bodies, though you never do the reverse. The same thing applies to digital cameras. All ful-frame (full-35mm) lenses will work with APS-C, but APS-C lenses will not work on full-frame.

        Rob

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      It is important to understand that focal length never changes. 10mm is always 10mm. What does change is how much of that 10mm angle of view the camera sees. With an APS-C camera, you have a smaller format than a full-frame camera (which is actually full-35mm), meaning the sensor can "see" less of what the lens potentially might see, therefore it acts like more of a telephoto. Canon APS-C cameras have a magnification or "crop" factor of 1.6x, so the 10mm on an APS-C camera acts like a 16mm lens would act (in terms of what it "sees" or its angle of view) on a full-frame camera. This is not simply about these digital formats. This is also true if you compared 35mm to medium format. For example, a 50mm lens on 35mm "sees" an angle of view like a 75mm lens on a 6x6 medium format. The 10-22mm EFS lens is designed for use on APS-C cameras and cannot be used on a full-frame.

      Rob

  7. Jim Foss says:

    I purchased a canon TS E 24mm tilt shift lense and I can't seem to get the results that everyone raved about in the reviews. I can do the minature effect but the real reason I purchased the lens was to get the big DOF in the landscapes I shoot. I don't know if it is the height thing or the degree of tilt or even the manual focus but I get sharper shots with my canon 24-105mm lens. any thoughts on getting the sharp big depth of field with this lens.?

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      I have shot with that lens and it is quite good. It is also a trick to use. You are not actually changing depth of field. Depth of field is primarily related to three things: focal length, f-stop and distance to subject, though the size of the image displayed also has an effect. No matter what 24mm lens you have, if it is at the same focus distance and f-stop, depth of field will be identical. What a tilt-shift lens allows you to do is tilt the plane of focus. Normally, the plane of focus is parallel to the back of the camera. As you tilt the lens, that plane of focus stays parallel to the tilt of the lens (okay, for those of you who have shot view cameras, this is a bit simplified, but the essence is true for how the lens is used). For the "miniature effect", the plane of focus changes to intersect the scene so that only a small area is in focus. For deeper focus in a landscape, for example, you tilt the lens toward the plane of the landscape so that the plane of focus is getting closer to the plane of the landscape.

      That's odd that you find your 24-105mm sharper. Do you have the latest 24mm tilt-shift? The older version was made for film while the newer 24-105 was made for digital, though I have never heard of any problems with the old lens. You should see the same or better images from the 24mm. Have you done a direct comparison with cameras locked down to a tripod and shooting the same subject? Be sure your f-stops are identical and the focus point is identical.

      Rob

  8. Thanks for this great article on all the Canon lenses. I too am a Canon fan and have used the 28 to 300; 3 .5 to 5.6 for a long time as my main lens. I also shoot with a Canon 16 to 35. Both of these are L-series lenses and love what they do for my photographs. I've heard that Canon is coming out with the superwide angle, the 10 mm, and have thought about getting it but I think I'm okay where Im at right now.
    The macro shot of the bees are great! I totally dig macro photography and would love to have a good macro lens. Thanks for all the considerations placed on the lenses you wrote about here cheers!
    LeLinda Bourgeois
    BourgeoisPhotography

  9. Oh I forgot to mention that Canon 50 mm 1.4 that I use I love love love that lens! gets the field is spectacular and it's a great portrait lens as well as everyday general lens thanks. ( please feel free to add this comment to my previous comment if possible)

  10. Michael Guncheon says:

    Great information!

    I really liked the tip about using an extension tube on the long lens.

  11. Hello there, just was alert to your weblog thru Google, and found that it's really informative. I am going to be careful for brussels. I will be grateful if you happen to proceed this in future. Lots of other people might be benefited from your writing. Cheers!

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