Do You Really Need a Zoom Lens?

Will Goodlet

This is a great time to be a photographer. No doubt about it! The change from film to digital has opened up enormous creative opportunities that never existed in the past. At the same time more people are taking up photography based on the easy digital workflow and the advent of social media, the camera manufacturers have been plying us with all sorts of exciting new glass and technology.

Some of that new glass has been aimed squarely at bird and wildlife photographers. We have so many new lenses in the 100-600 focal range that we are spoiled for choice. The Sigma 150-600 & 120-300, Tamron 150-600, Canon 100-400 & 200-400, Nikon 80-400 & 200-400 & 200-500. In addition to that, we've had some wonderful entrants to the prime lens arena - the Sigma 500 f4 and Canon 400 f4 DO come to mind.

I suppose that one of the reasons for this popularity is the ability of a zoom to frame a subject without having to move and the fact that, obviously, a range of focal lengths are offered in one compact package. Of course, this is photography, and there are always downsides and compromises.

3 horizontal shots stitched - Canon 400mm F2.8 mark ii

One of these is often the aperture we see in zoom lenses. It's compromised generally by being variable from wide/fast at short focal lengths to narrow at longer focal lengths. It's also compromised, in many cases, by being a bit narrower/slower than the equivalent primes.

The narrower aperture doesn't just affect image brightness and create a need to photograph with slower shutter speed or higher ISO. It also affects the depth of field at a given focal length. The difference in the character of the background between a 400mm at f2.8 and a 400mm at f5.6 or f6.3 is profound for subjects that have busy backgrounds or are further from the photographer.

Grey Heron - 3 portrait shots stitched

There is only one way to win some of this quality back and it involves using clarity, contrast and blur masks in post. That can get a bit boring, at least for me!

But what about the other end of the argument? The one where we simply can't frame our subject with our prime lens, because we are too close? A zoom does the job, even if it is at the expense of the background.

27 horizontal shots Canon 400mm F2.8 mark ii

I remember being frustrated several years ago when arriving at a lion sighting in Botswana. The guide drove right up to the lions, not uncommon in Botswana and everyone was presented with a wonderful opportunity to photograph them. Everyone, except me! Why?

I was packing a 400mm f5.6 prime on a crop camera. Perfect for birds and distant animals but not so great for the pride lying 10 metres away!

24 Vertical shots - Canon 400mm F2.8 mark ii

So, what's the best way around this little conundrum if one doesn't own a zoom lens or doesn't want to change lenses on the back of a dusty vehicle?

The answer is a wildlife panorama. I love them. They offer the best of primes with the benefits of a zoom. There are only a few downsides, the tendency for the wildlife to move during your shots and the possibility of a change in light.

4 vertical shots Canon 100-400mm F4-5.6 mark ii @ 100mm

Having tried my hand at a few, my experiments are becoming more and more ambitious. Some panos are up to 24 shots, all at my widest aperture, stitched together later on. 

To me, they make very striking images that can't really be achieved any other way.  The shallow depth of field and the wide field of view are, most of the time, mutually exclusive in a photograph. Additionally, the size of components in the background are typically more prominent than can be achieved with a wider focal length.

36 shots - Canon 400mm F2.8 mark ii

The option works very well for landscapes too, no need to change from a telephoto to a wide angle unless of course, you want the perspective distortion offered by wides. Simply, fix your aperture a bit narrower, dial in manual white balance, shutter speed and ISO and sweep across the scene in portrait orientation, taking between 3 and 6 shots. Stitch them together later on using the new tools in Lightroom and hey presto! A beautiful lazy 'togs landscape.

I like to include moving components in the foreground as these are unexpected (read more difficult) in panoramas. The horse in the shot below was very interested in eating and not so interested in posing!

The advantage of a shot like this is more emphasis on the background and full size hills and mountains.

12 shots - Canon 50mm F1.8 mark ii

Next time you are challenged by your framing, don't waste time changing lenses, have a go at a pano instead and see if you like the technique. If you would like some specific advice and tips be sure to read my wildlife panorama tutorial.

© Will Goodlet