Zoom or fixed telephoto?

There are several compelling reasons to use a telephoto zoom lens in preference to a telephoto prime lens, writes Andrew James.

The most obvious of these is the flexibility offered by a zoom in terms of focal length. In lots of cases (though not all), the old argument that a zoom lens will not give you sufficient quality has been blown out of the water by the manufacturers’ ability to produce new and highly effective zoom lenses. 

There are still zooms that don’t quite live up to the ‘quality’ test but even so, their flexibility coupled with the fact they inevitably cost less make them a popular choice. I’ve not yet met a photographer with a telephoto zoom who isn’t acutely aware of what their lens is good or not so good at. We all get to know our equipment and can generally eek the best out of it, accepting where there may be failings and working around the issues. 

I’ve long been a fan of prime lenses but my ever-growing lens collection houses zooms in the wide, medium telephoto and long telephoto ranges. The most recent addition (a couple of years ago) was the very impressive Canon EF 100-400mm 4.5 – 5.6L IS II. I bought it for the very reason stated at the start of this article – flexibility. I’ve since used it in many situations, including photographing elephants and gorillas in the Congo rainforest and lions, elephants, zebra and landscapes in Namibia, plus elephants seals and penguins in Antarctica. It’s done me proud. 

100-400 zoom

But when it came to a jaunt to Eastern Russia to photograph brown bears I hesitated. Out of the cupboard came the 100-400 and so did my Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 IS II lens. I stared at them both and agonised. Taking both seemed stupid, as well as damned heavy. 

300mm prime

I made a mental list of pros for each lens. For the 100-400mm was that huge tick of flexibility. Against it was the fact I ‘might’ need a longer focal length and while the 1.4x extender is ‘okay’ with it, the 2x it is a disaster. The AF doesn’t work for starters and there is a clear drop-off in image quality even when shooting at f/11. You can get shots if you are careful but it’s less than ideal. But then the size and weight difference of the 100-400mm against the 300mm prime is pretty substantial. Especially when you are lugging it on numerous aeroplane and helicopter flights to get to your final destination. I’m sure all you mirrorless users are laughing at such weight dilemmas but this is still the cross to bear for us diehard DSLR users.

While not the biggest or heaviest prime going, the 300mm f/2.8 is still a considerable weight to stuff into a camera bag. But its quality and speed of autofocus is second to none. I like using it and I think that is a big factor too as it’s important to feel comfortable with your gear. It also works brilliantly with extenders. I simply don’t see any drop-off in quality when popping on the 1.4x and relatively little when using the 2x, although I do see some. It’s inevitable when you consider the 2x extender is effectively magnifying the focal length by so much. But I will still use the 2x with confidence with the 300mm, when I need that extra length. 

So what did I finally decide on for my flight to deepest Russia? Pretty much on gut feeling alone, I took the 300mm, plus both extenders. Then I popped in my 70-200 f/2.8. To be fair, this weighs almost as much as the 100-400 but it can be used effectively with the extenders and gave me the more flexible zoom option below 300mm, if I needed it.

This whole article isn’t so much about the choice between a fixed telephoto and a zoom telephoto, it’s about how the decision to take my prime zoom lens the influenced my photography while in Russia. 

On the whole, I stuck with the 300mm lens, sometimes with the 1.4x attached but never the 2x. I used the 70-200mm a few times but not as much as I expected. I used the 300mm because I had total confidence in its delivery of quality images and ability to focus accurately and fast. Interestingly I found that although its inflexible focal length meant that at times the obvious composition wasn’t possible, it made me take shots that I wouldn’t otherwise have considered had I been able to zoom back or move back (I couldn’t move back more than a few feet due to an abundance of bears and limited working space). In a sense, the restrictions it imposed resulted in a slightly different approach for a lot of shots. At times I could take the kind of wildlife shot I typically like – an animal in its environment. An example is this backlit shot of a bear standing in the middle of the river. 

Backlit brown bear taken on the 300mm lens.

The 300mm lens was perfect for this shot, allowing enough room around the subject for it to work well. Incidentally, for you backlighting fans this image was shot in early evening and I deliberately dialed in two stops of negative exposure compensation to darken the background and allow the rim lighting on the bear’s fur to stand out even more. It also lost some of the distractions on the far bank. I also tried -3 stops of exposure compensation but on these shots I lost too much detail in the front of the bear. 

But bears don’t just sit still when there are salmon about; instead they rush all over the place and that’s precisely when using the fixed focal length became a bit trickier. I considered switching to the 70-200mm and the 1.4x. That would give me just short of 300mm and the ability to zoom in and out as required. But then I thought, let’s just see what happens if I stick with the 300mm. Sure, I might miss the odd shot, but in a way I’d be allowing the random movement of the bears to dictate the composition – and I rather liked that idea!

For example, when a mother and cub plonked themselves right in the middle of the river (image below) less than a few metres away from me, the 300 was always going to produce a tight crop. I am pretty sure I’d have zoomed back with the 100-400mm because I’d have worried about the rather frenzied scene created by the water in the foreground. But now, that’s why I like the shot! Mother bear right in among the white water and her cub watching hopefully behind, willing his mum to catch a salmon.

The use of a drop-in polarising filter with the 300mm was essential for this shot. The light was really very harsh but the polariser allowed me to tame the bright water and bring through just enough detail on the bears. Of course, it means you lose two stops of light but in the bright conditions this really didn’t matter. Without it I might as well have just put the camera down and sat sipping a cup of a tea.

This is another image when the polariser helped me retain detail. It was taken in better evening light but even so the glare from the fur and the water was intense. By using the drop-in polariser, I could keep the highlights under control. It looks from the bear’s expression that there’s eye contact but again, this bear is scanning the river for salmon. I love the hunched, powerful stance. Never try to outrun a bear. You won’t get far! The advice is stand your ground and if that fails, plays dead. Fortunately I didn’t need to test either scenario.

This last bear shot for really represents how the 300mm was forcing my hand in a good way. Any closer and I probably wouldn’t have been able to focus at all! This big fella chased the salmon for some distance, finally getting hold of it right in front of our position. With a zoom I’d NEVER have taken this shot. Without doubt I’d have pulled back. At the very least I would have included the bears ears, probably with some room above them. Instead, I’ve got this uncompromisingly tight composition that’s all about the fur texture, the water and blood dripping from the salmon and the war wound on the side of the bear’s head. 

There’s no doubt that using a fixed focal length – whatever that length might be – will change the way you compose and perhaps make you take decisions that don’t normally fall within your photographic norm. That’s not to say you should be restricting yourself all the time and I am certain that I missed some good shots because of it.

But rather than worrying about what might have been, I’m rather enjoying the results of my enforced rigidity. You don’t have to go to Russia to experiment with this approach either. In fact, it’s generally best done closer to home! Next time you’re weighing up the pros and cons of prime versus zoom, give the prime a whirl – it forces you to change your approach, and that’s always good for your photography.

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