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Wildlife Lenses

It isn't just about reach when you shoot wildlife, it's also about isolation. Those two things are not quite the same. One of the problems of shooting wildlife-- whether it be in a zoo, in a private preserve, or in the wild--is that foregrounds and backgrounds can be distracting. In fact, I'd say that if you're shooting animals with long telephoto lenses, more often than not the foregrounds and backgrounds are distracting.

Basically, there are two types of wildlife shots: environmental (shows animal in its environment) and isolation (shows key aspect of animal or behavior). The 70-200mm is my go to lens for the former (on an FX body--I'd want wider on a DX body). It's the other end that leads us all to the exotics, because 500mm f/8 often doesn't give you want you want in terms of isolation.

Of course, the 400mm f/2.8 and 500mm f/4 are very expensive lenses, which leads wannabe wildlifers to ask "when's Nikon going to make a 400mm f/4?"

Be careful what you ask for. At 50' we'd have about a foot of depth of field on FX, about 8" on DX. Is there a way we can get that level of isolation today at a reasonable cost? Yes: we get about the same one foot DOF with a Nikon V1+FT1 coupled with the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens shot at f/2.8 and 200mm (effectively 540mm).
So if you already have a 70-200mm, you don't need to wait for a 400mm f/4. Just buy a V1 and FT1 and use your existing lens. Bonus: that's cheaper than a 400mm f/4 will be!

A lot of today's discussion centers around new camera bodies, like the D4 or D800, but often the answer to a problem you face is more nuanced than just waiting for the latest and greatest. As a pro, I pick the right tool for the right job. As it turns out, the V1 is the right tool some of the time, and a 400mm f/4 wouldn't actually give me all that new an option, as I've already got that option in my bag!
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+Ben McBride Didn't say it was a V1 image. It's simply an image to illustrate a teaching point: isolation.
I've been using the 70-300/FT1 combo, and getting pretty good isolation at f/5.6, but I'm sure f/2.8 would be a stellar option. Focusing the 70-300 on the V1 isn't a no-brainer, been experimenting with manual focus, but would prefer a bit more throw on the focus ring. Overall, a nice choice to have the flexibility of the FT1 to try out new combinations... want to try the 35/1.8 as a portrait lens soon.
+George Gibbs I've actually backed away from using the 70-300mm on the V1. I find the 28-300mm to be just as good, a more flexible. The 55-300mm DX isn't bad, either, and makes for a more compact, lighter option that still gives you 810mm f/5.6 equivalent.

I'm less impressed by the 35mm f/1.8. It's okay as a portrait lens, but something just isn't quite where I'd want it. Nikon's going to solve that one with a dedicated Nikon 1 portrait lens, anyway.
Good info on the other lens options Thom. My only other gripe about the 70-300/FT1 combo is that bokeh in certain conditions is really harsh. Have you tried any of your exotic tele lenses with the FT1? Seems like the 300/2.8 or 400/2.8 could be really nice for birds, except for the focusing.
Thanks +Thom Hogan . Good to know all these despite the fact I will more likely wait for the 2nd gen Vx with better control options among others.
What kind of critter is this? And how long did you have to wait until the shadow of its head was in just the right place to be the right background for the thing in its mouth.
I hear you +Ben McBride . I have 2 imacs, macbooks macmini.... pretty much all the collection, so for me nothing wrong with apple, but i want my controls on my camera. I hope you are wrong and if nikon goes apple direction then better go in a "photo-centric apple" style :))
+George Gibbs Turn off the VR and see if you still think the bokeh is harsh. The 70-300mm is notorious for harsh bokeh with VR because it doesn't isolate backgrounds enough AND the backgrounds are at just that distance where the VR effects can be seen.
+Ben McBride Maybe. But they actually don't have to change a lot to offer "enough" control. It can be done without cluttering up the controls/menus and still keeping the camera simple.
+Richard Swearinger Albino honey badger. And I had to hang way off the back of the vehicle to get that alignment. I got exactly one shot at it.
Well, one issue with the V1 solution is lack of continuous autofocus, so it's limited in that way as well as all of the usual caveats about low light and the rest.
+Bud Gibson Actually, the FT1 imposes a considerable number of limitations. Thing is, in practice, you can deal with most of them. Some people will have to change their style of shooting from being a button masher, but that's a good thing, IMHO.
I'm quite pleased with the price of my EF 400 F/5.6 L. So far the limitation of the lens is mostly found immediately behind the camera.
I always thought that the DoF were equal between FX and DX at the same distance, especially with primes... and it was the fact that we could zoom in more (200mm on FX vs. 135mm on DX) to get the same framing which gives FX a smaller DoF at the same aperture.
I would have definitely never guessed that a DX camera would have a smaller DoF, 8" compared to 12" on an FX camera on the 400mm at f/4, focusing at the same distance... but I guess that would be a whole other article...
Thanks again for another thought provoking post... you tend to bring about more questions or make us answer the questions instead of just posting the answers which has been so effective with the learning process...
Maybe it's just me, but I find it distracting that the animal isn't fully in focus. I understand isolating the subject from the foreground and background, but not the subject from itself.
+Andrew Powell Nice observation that the whole badger is not in focus... I think that was the point of his article... +Thom Hogan has a way making his point in this exact way...
+Andrew Powell Having a completely in focus badger was not what I was attempting to do, moreover, compositionally, it detracts from what I was trying to show. As much as you can with a only-one-moment-to-get-it wildlife shot, I've captured that one almost exactly as I'd want to. About the only thing I would have done differently is give a little more space under the front toes and at the top of the head, but in that I was constrained by a non zoom lens--it was what it was and I was not able to move from where I was.
+J. Scotty You are correct. I really do try to find an image in my files that illustrates one and only one point well. There's far too much distraction with putting out images that have lots of ideas in play and lots of nuance--that's an advanced lesson that is tough for a wide audience to follow, so I reserve that kind of discussion for small groups.
+Thom Hogan I do like the reach/DOF characteristics you describe and may as a result get the FT1, but, without continuous autofocus, it's for stationary objects where you can either pre-focus or focus and recompose.
I do not understand why you need to purchase a Nikon 1 to achieve less DoF. Why not use your existing DSLR and crop the image for additional magnification?
The 400/4 in your bag is the 200 f/2 with a 2x teleconverter?
+Allan Pakett How many pixels do you have left when you crop to 2.7x? Even a D800 cropped to that would be 5mp. So the answer to your question is simple: to get 2x the pixels!
Thom what about the 70 - 200 f2.8 with the 2x teleconverter?
Nice article. For those of us who don't have $1,200+ toss out, what would you suggest for someone who is currently shooting a D3000? I'm trying to save up for a D5100 at the moment, but my biggest problem is getting close enough to my subject to fill the frame (or even come close to doing so) without cropping to the point that the photo is all but worthless. I can't see buying a 10MP camera when I already have one. Is there something like the FT1 that works on a D3000 or on a D5100? I'm under the impression that the FT1 does not fit either camera body, so please correct me if I'm wrong. This is my first DSLR and I've only had it for a few months.
+D. Allen Martin Best you can do on a tight budget is the 55-300mm DX. However, getting top-notch wildlife shots on a budget is an oxymoron in almost every sense. Moreover, it can be dangerous. I can't count the number of times I've seen someone in a National Park approach an animal too close because they wanted to get a picture of it and their lens wasn't long enough. Hmm. That gives me an idea for a teaching point.
Personally I love environmental wildlife photographs. Going in that direction seems to require even more patience and hard work than isolation shots. Alas I lack the discipline for that.
Is there a teleconverter that works on the D3000 I could use to increase my equivalent focal length while still keeping the electronic functionality of my lenses?
+D. Allen Martin Short answer: same as before: there is no budget solution. You could probably find a third-party teleconverter that would fit on the 55-300mm I suggest, but the results would be poor and it wouldn't autofocus. When I said budget wildlife is an oxymoron, I meant it. You can't get there from here.

You could, I suppose, rent an exotic and put it on the D3000 if you've got a special trip coming up, but I'd be wary of that solution, too, as the D3000 has no way to tune focus and doesn't have a lot of flexibility or control for continuous autofocus, which means you'd likely get frustrated easily.

Okay, here's a budget answer: buy a compact camera with a gee-whiz lens. The Coolpix P500. That gets you to 810mm, but with poor focus and high ISO capabilities.
+Thom Hogan how good is the handling of the V1+FT1+70-200 combo in real life? On a "regular" DSLR, the lens would usually be considered "hand-holding worthy", but I find it hard to see how you could comfortably use it with the diminutive V1 (the J1 would be even worse, since it lacks the viewfinder). Though to be fair, the comparison should have been an exotic on a tripod, in which case the V1 has better Live View than most Nikon DSLR's people are currently using.

Another side-note: with a 100mm+ front element, the 400/4 would be big, heavy, expensive and difficult to hand-hold. Exotics- can't shoot with them, can't shoot without them.
+Thom Hogan Nice example Thom. Nikon have a note about weight issues on the Nikon 1 lens mount when using some lenses with the FT1. Is the 70-200 over the recommended weight and if so can you recommend a strap carry system that would allow carrying by the lens?
I'm not quite sure that I'm understanding you correctly, but it sounds like you're saying wildlife photography can't be done with a D3000, or even with a D5100, because they are a "budget" camera. The D5100 is very close in price to the V1 you are recommending we buy, so I'm a little confused as to why one is a "budget" camera and the other is not, especially since the D5100 is a 16.2Mp camera and the V1 is only 10.1Mp from what I've read about it. What criteria are you using to define "budget" here?
+D. Allen Martin No, I don't think you're understanding me. The primary issue starts with lens, or "reach." Even if you're shooting in zoos you tend to need pretty long focal lengths. The secondary issue is isolation, the ability to use shallow DOF to get rid of distracting backgrounds. Those two together mean big, expensive, and heavy lenses. Now we move to the camera. The primary issue will be the sophistication and control overrides of the autofocus system. The secondary issue will be putting huge, heavy lenses on a mount that isn't integrated into a metal frame. The tertiary issue will be that the CPU that works on focus in the budget cameras isn't the same or as fast as the ones in the upper end cameras.

My comment was that you can't really do the type of shot I did here on a budget. Not unless you know a zookeeper and he'll let you into the enclosure. Even then it won't be a slam dunk. To get this shot I needed 500mm and f/4. That's a US$9000 lens. I might have been able to get the focus point where I wanted it on the budget 11-AF sensor cameras (D3000, D5100), but I have a slower CPU in those cameras and less control of the AF system, so I'd tend to miss as much as I hit.

The V1 is a pluses and minuses situation versus a D3000 for something like this, but mostly pluses, I think. The big plus is the 2.7x crop on a very good sensor. That means I can put, oh, a US$800 70-300mm VR on the V1 and get to 810mm equivalent (though at f/5.6, a slight minus). The V1's autofocus system is fast in light as good as this. Faster and more reliable than the D3000. The whole lens+camera at some pretty long focal length equivalents is smaller and lighter than a D3000, another plus. Not only with the V1 do 5 fps, but with some sometimes acceptable compromises, it'll do a very nice 10 fps full frame. If the situation is right and focus doesn't need to change, it'll do 60 fps. Those are all pluses. The minus is basically this: you're stuck with the center focus point and a single servo focus action. Frankly, that's partly a plus, because it means you won't spend ANY time trying to control the AF system. You move more to a point and shoot mode when you don't have any control like that. The likelihood you miss the shot is reduced to "did you point the camera at the right thing" and "did you tell it to focus at the right time?"

There's a reason why Nikon builds seven models ABOVE the D3000 at the moment. There's a reason why Nikon has more than a dozen lenses more capable than the 55-200mm DX for telephoto work at the moment. A D3000+55-200mm is at the bottom of the heap. It's budget. Now, the question is can you do impressive wildlife work with it? With the right access to animals and a lot of discipline, maybe. From a standard safari tour? Not as likely.
HI Thom - I'm a couple of days late but I must say I really like the V1 and 70-200 VR II combo. I don't do a lot of wildlife so this is a really great way to have my long lens kit - pretty much on the cheap and able to do double duty. Like another commenter I trying to decide on teleconverters. Any guidance on the quality differences and performance between them would be useful especially in combination with the 70-200mm. Thanks!
+Richard Swearinger Well, yes, the right solution for most people would be to rent an exotic and put money into going on the right safari with the right instructor (that's not really a self plug--there are plenty of great wildlife workshops, including ones by Chas Glazer and Andy Biggs). The problem is that people think they're "investing" in a lens/system. I suspect if we actually analyzed how most people used their long lenses, including me, it would take a lot of rentals before they'd get to the price of the lens. I'd say I probably use my 400mm f/2.8 about three weeks a year, maybe four.
+Terry Banet Haven't tried the TCs with the 70-200mm on the V1, so can't answer the question yet. There's a lot of stuff I'm going to have to do complete retests on soon.
You state here "At 50' we'd have about a foot of depth of field on FX, about 8" on DX." But DOF is only dependent on focus distance, f-stop, and focal length. In this case, you define each parameter (400mm f4 at 50'). FX and DX are only crop factors. Could you explain what you mean?
+David Egan Care to state which DOF theory you subscribe to? If it's the Zeiss theory, which is what virtually every lens ever made is marked with, DOF calculations have one more variable: circle of confusion size. That size is calculated from 1/1730 of the diagonal of the capture area. The reason for this is that the thing everyone wants to do is make sure something "looks in focus in the viewed image." The 1/1730 value was back calculated from a number of variables, including print size, viewing distance, vision (e.g. 20/40), and thus is highly dependent upon capture area. Smaller capture areas mean more magnification.

The reason why I asked the question up front is that Zeiss isn't the only DOF theory around. I know of at least two other prominent ones ,and one doesn't involve capture area.
African or European?

Smaller sensors just don't give less depth of focus.
I mean, if we extrapolated this line, we could just use iphone sensors with 20 mm lenses, right?
+David Egan Sorry, but the Zeiss theory says sensor size changes CoC and CoC changes DOF. I write extensively about this and where it came from in my books. This is no different than it was with film.
+David Egan Yes, we could, except that the iPhone sensor isn't up to the level of the Nikon 1 sensor, the iPhone doesn't have phase detect autofocus, the iPhone doesn't have an EVF that doesn't lag, the iPhone doesn't have 10mp, the iPhone doesn't have autofocus lenses as we'd need, and more.
Could I get less dof by changing my d3s to dx?
+David Egan Yes. If you print an 11x14" print from FX and another 11x14" print from DX, the DOF (again, according to the Zeiss theorem) is different. You might notice that I keep using the word "theory" in relationship to DOF. DOF is not an optical "fact." In our cameras one and only one plane in front of the film/sensor is in focus. And planes are infinitely small. Thus, there is very little that is actually "in focus" in your shot. The notion of DOF is "what's ACCEPTABLY within some range that it looks like it is in focus?"

Zeiss worked backwards from a print. He established a print size (not particularly big, something close to 11x14"). He established a viewing distance (standing away from the print, not holding it in your hands). He considered a particular eyesight (not 20/20, but something approaching 20/40). He then used math to determine what the smallest detail that a person could see (at that distance with that eyesight on that size print) and ran the calculations to determine a number he could plug into a formula. As it turns out, that number is 1/1730 of the diagonal of the CAPTURE AREA.

As I noted, all lenses are marked using a (usually more lax) variant of this type of calculation. Curiously, many of the Japanese companies apparently misinterpreted or reinterpreted or rounded the Zeiss work. For 35mm film, the CoC should be 0.025. I've seen lenses marked with everything from that to 0.035. I've seen lenses destined for APS and DX that used 0.033 when they should use 0.016. And one company, Olympus, is to be thanked, as they have correctly marked the m4/3 lenses using the right CoC (again, according to Zeiss).

Also as I noted, there are at least two competing DOF theories. But most everyone starts with Zeiss. It's ubiquitous, and it works as I describe it, no matter how much you don't want to believe it.
Ok, I see what you are saying. Obviously blowing up a photo will show up out of focus. But how does smaller sensor size translate to creamy blurred out backgrounds?


Now I looked up the formula myself. The focal length in the divisor and is raised to the 4th power, while everything else in the divisor is only squared.

So, when you drop from 300 to 200 mm to get the same picture in DX as FX, you change that factor in the divisor by 100^4, but only change your CoF factor in the divisor by x^2.

I see I had it backwards about distance, but because the lens focal length is by far the dominant factor, I don't understand your assertion that you can get the same dof out of 200mm as 400mm.

What are your thoughts? Do I completely misunderstand?
Surely the apparent DoF effect is just a product of camera to subject distance, i.e. a greater camera to subject distance for a DX sensor to achieve the same image as an FX sensor, with the same lens focal length?
Actually running the numbers, I get:

at 50' f2.8, 15.86mm diagonal CX sensor, f150 (to get the 'same picture') = 21" dof
at 50' f2.8, 15.86 mm diagonal CX sensor, f200 = 11.7" dof
at 50' f4, 43.21mm diagonal FX sensor, f400 = 11.4" dof

So yes, for max focal length on the two lenses one would get about the same DOF.

But for the 'same picture', shooting wider to get equivalent focal length, much more DoF on CX.
+David Egan You can't have everything. Larger sensors make it easier to blur backgrounds, smaller sensors make it easier to get more apparent DOF. There is no free lunch. However, with long telephoto work, we tend to have smaller DOF to start with, so we can get some isolation if you put the right lens and shoot at the right distance with the smaller sensor.

The point I'm trying to make is simply that you need to know your equipment and what it does. Only by knowing that can you make good choices.
+Niall Bacon DOF is not solely dependent upon subject distance. CoC (capture size), focal length, and aperture all come into play.
I thought DOF essentially comes down to magnification and aperture, and aperture varies depending on format but is independent of focal length.
maybe it's true... Nikon 1 could be the only solution to go longer "cheap" (though 70-200/2.8 pulls the bar up speaking about money - quality too), especially if you own something like 70-300 VR... Whate could be autofocus with "old" 80-200/2.8 (last version)?
+Anthony Beach I repeat: distance, CoC, focal length, and aperture for Zeiss-type calculations. One of the problems that different formats have posed is that there's a notion of equivalence that comes into play (same picture from same place) which makes it look like at least one variable (distance) isn't necessary. But if you're trying to take a picture with whatever you've got in your hand, you have to consider distance, CoC, focal length, and aperture to calculate apparent DOF according to Zeiss. Again, I'll put the disclaimer: Zeiss isn't the only DOF theory out there, it's just the most commonly used one.
Doesn't focal length + distance = magnification? I just figure Zeiss is doing that calculation for us when we input those two factors into the equation.

I'm definitely not a math whiz, and my eyes glaze over when confronted with even relatively simple math formulas. What I do understand is that if I want to photograph a sphere (for instance) and fill the frame with it, I will have an equally difficult time with it regardless of focal length, and that smaller formats will require less magnification and therefore have greater DOF at a given aperture to accomplish that.
+Anthony Beach Different kind of magnification. You have one "magnification" in capture with physical size of an object versus recorded size of an object. Shoot a two inch object at 1:2 magnification (which is determined by focal length and distance) and it appears 1 inch at the sensor. The magnification we're talking about here has to do with output. We're now going to take our 1 inch object and blow it up into a print that's, oh, that makes it 11" wide. THAT'S where the CoC (and aperture) comes into play. How much of that object APPEARS in focus in our print.
Hey Thom,
What d'you think of the 80-400 Vr & 105 AF-D for reach & macro respectively on the V1?
+Pavan Kaul Neither lens is AF-S, so you'd be focusing manually. The manual focus assist sucks on the Nikon 1, so I wouldn't even bother trying to use those. The AF-S 105mm macro is fine.
+shubhmohan singh Yes, but probably not if you're going to handhold it in front of you (normal J1 practice). That's one of the things people don't realize about DSLRs/SLRs/EVFs: holding the camera to your face provides an extra point of contact and steadies it considerably. So if the J1+FT1+AFS telephoto is on a tripod or other stable support, sure. If you're trying to handhold 810mm at arm's length, the VR isn't going to save you.
Great article Tom. After reading all of the posts it feels a little like my own circle of confusion. I have a real world example that I'm trying to solve and I'm hoping that the V1 will do it. I have a D300s with a 300mm f/d attached to a 1.4 TC. Currently, I have 2 problems when photographing small birds. I can only get to within 20m of the subject before they fly away. This doesn't give me enough resolution after cropping. The other issue is, that at 20m, the BG is not blown out to the level I want. This is at f/6.3. So, my question is: Do you feel that at 20m the V1-300mm/tc14 will blow out the BG? How will the BG compare to me shooting without the V1.
+Wes Aslin Do the math:
D300+300+1.4x at f/5.6 and 20m is 18.83-20.17m in focus
V1+300+1.4x at f/5.6 and 20m is 19.97-20.03m in focus

So yes, DOF isolation is better given those definitions.'re probably cropping the D300 image now, and "blow out" is your term and one which I can't interpret.
+Thom Hogan Thank you, Tom. This answers my question perfectly. So, I get 80% more reach with a norrower DOF. Sounds like a winner (with the caveats you mentioned earlier in your comments). Sorry for the lingo (blown out) ... I just mean that the BG gets that creamy OOF bokeh that is most often seen in the best bird-on-a-perch shots.
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