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Exploring the Creative Possibilities of a Super Telephoto Lens

I’ve been a Nikon DSLR shooter for over 10 years now. Starting out with the small but mighty 6-megapixel D70S that did so much to crack open the hobbyist/amateur market, I’ve been lucky enough to build up my skills and photographic repertoire just as digital photography technology seemed to evolve and mature in parallel. For many, that initial leap in to the DSLR world is soon followed by the realization that the performance and creative capabilities of any camera are limited nearly as much by lens choice as by megapixels, shutter speed or dynamic range.

So, certain logical next steps in glass are often around the corner. Feeling limited by that kit lens? Time to get more reach with a telephoto or an ultra-wide zoom. Photos not as sharp as you’d like or focusing slowly in low light? Time to enter the world of primes with your first ‘nifty fifty’ 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.4, or step up to f/2.8 zooms like the 24-70mm or 70-200mm.

For most who aspire to capture wildlife or sports action with their photography, a super telephoto is often the solution. Typically, this means an effective focal length of more than 300mm. And perhaps more importantly, this usually also implies an eye-watering price tag. They can deliver stunning results, but if you have your heart set on a 400mm, 500mm or 600mm prime lens, or even a 200-400mm zoom from either Canon and Nikon, you might find yourself parting with enough cash to buy a decent used car!

Yukon, Canada - July 18, 2016: The Porcupine Caribou herd summer migration through Yukon's arctic North Slope region..

Grizzly bear spotted along the Dempster Highway – Canada’s only highway that crosses the arctic circle.

Yukon, Canada - July 22, 2016: The Porcupine Caribou herd summer migration through Yukon's arctic North Slope region..

Colourful moss sporophytes growing in Yukon’s lush arctic north slope region.

Whitehorse, Canada - June 25, 2016: Mountain biking action from the 2016 24 Hours of Light Mountain Bike Festival.

Whitehorse, Canada – June 25, 2016: Mountain biking action from the 2016 24 Hours of Light Mountain Bike Festival.

Unless money is no object or you’re earning income regularly with your 500mm f/4, it’s hard for most of us to justify a purchase like that. I’m a big fan of renting equipment for individual projects or assignments when the rental costs can be recouped. Personally, I have managed survive just fine with my trusty Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-D as my go-to lens this whole time, supplemented with rented or borrowed long glass when the assignment called for it.

That is, until the relatively new phenomenon of the affordable super telephoto zoom hit the market a few years ago. Tamron and Sigma were first to deliver 150-600mm lenses for surprisingly low prices, and given those prices, image quality was even more surprisingly impressive. Zoom lenses always present some level of optical compromise over equivalent focal length prime lenses, and these were no exception, but the auto-focus and sharpness performance levels were unexpected at such a budget-conscious price point.

Before long, it was clear that these two lens offerings were running essentially uncontested in a new market segment, and diverting sales from both the aging Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-f5.6 and much more expensive Nikon 200-400mm f/4. So Nikon’s August 2015 announcement of their new 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR was not entirely a surprise in itself, but a few of its features were eye-opening. Not least of which was the price. Launched at $1399, the Nikon offering came in nearly $1,000 cheaper than most would have speculated, and perhaps more importantly, was priced even cheaper than some variants of the off-brand alternatives.

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The reach of the 200-500 helps frame even little critters like this chipmunk spotted along the Alaska Highway near Haines Junction, Yukon.

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Snow-capped peaks of Mount Gilliam in Yukon’s southern lakes district.

Yukon, Canada - August 13, 2016: Softball action at the 2016 Men's and Women's Canadian Slo-Pitch Championship.

The 200-500 had no problem grabbing and maintaining focus in this crowded action shot captured at the 2016 Canadian Men’s and Women’s Slo-Pitch Championship in Whitehorse.

While the 200-500mm may lack the full zoom range and weather-sealing that comes with the higher-end and higher-priced versions from Sigma and Tamron, it manages to deliver a constant maximum aperture of f/5.6 at all focal lengths. This is important for both auto-focus acquisition (especially in lower light), as well as the ability of the lens to play well with teleconverters. With the addition of Nikon’s 1.4x TC-14E, the 200-500mm becomes a 280-700mm monster, while bumping maximum aperture to f/8 and crucially, still allowing autofocus on most Nikon DSLR bodies.

But before we stumble down a rabbit hole of spec-sheet analysis-paralysis, let’s stop for a moment and consider why a super telephoto lens is even worth adding to your photo toolbox in the first place. Is it all about the ability to “zoom in” on far away subjects? With today’s DSLR sensors there is no shortage of megapixels, and if the only objective is to more closely frame the subject, one can just as easily “zoom in” by cropping more tightly in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. After all, 6MP was enough resolution to produce some great files and prints with that original D70S camera. But cropping down to the 6MP centre of a 36.3MP D810 file created with a 50mm lens to achieve 300mm via “zoom” changes something else.

This something is field of view. Without falling into yet another rabbit hole (they’re everywhere!), field of view is the reason your wedding and portrait clients would prefer not be shot with a wide angle lens. The more narrow field of view of a telephoto or super telephoto reduces the angle at which light enters the camera, resulting in a more flat, neutral and often more pleasing rendition of people and facial features. You can zoom with your feet or crop in post, but a subject shot with a 20mm lens will appear much different than one shot with a 200mm – even when the subject fills the same space in the final image.

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The frantic start of the 2016 Yukon River Quest. The epic adventure race covers over 700 kilometres of the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson City.

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Moonrise at sunset near Whitehorse. The 200-500 provides an opportunity to capture unique perspectives for landscape shots.

Yukon, Canada - August 13, 2016: Softball action at the 2016 Men's and Women's Canadian Slo-Pitch Championship.

Team spirit at the 2016 Canadian Men’s and Women’s Slo-Pitch Championship in Whitehorse. The 200-500 can help isolate not just action, but emotional moments too.

And because of that unique field of view, the 200-500mm can become a valuable creative tool to use in ways beyond the usual birding and shooting motorsports. Capturing a landscape at 500mm is both compositionally and aesthetically different than capturing one at 50mm or 20mm. Working toward the close-focus limit of the 200-500mm, it can also become a quasi-macro lens to bring smaller subjects into sharp focus while creating beautiful distraction-free out-of-focus backgrounds. An f-stop of f/5.6 at 20mm might be all you need to achieve front-to-back sharpness in a particular situation, but f/5.6 at 500mm will tend to throw anything outside the thin plane of focus into smooth, dream-like bokeh.

In my time with the lens so far, image quality has been spectacular, but I’ve been most impressed with its creative flexibility. Since I’m a bit of a photographic generalist, I was initially concerned that a dedicated long lens would gather dust until a particular assignment came up where I knew it would shine. On the contrary, I’ve found myself reaching for the 200-500mm in situations where a shorter lens would normally do the trick. Thanks to its relatively compact dimensions it’s possible to pack this lens in almost any camera bag that could accommodate my 80-200mm or a standard 70-200mm. And even better, thanks to its light weight and effective vibration reduction, it’s a fairly convenient lens to shoot hand-hold too.

The Nikon 200-500mm certainly delivers tremendous value and performs admirably on its typical long-lens assignments. But as a welcome surprise, compared to the longer and heavier Nikon 200-400mm f/4 or any prime super telephoto, this new lens is one you can also pack without hesitation on a hike and use whenever your imagination strikes. That alone makes for a great creative addition to your photographic tool-box.

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