A much more exciting news today is for Canon shooters – the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L with a built-in 1.4x teleconverter has finally been announced. The Canon 200-400mm f/4 was released in response to the highly regarded Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR, which Nikon has been making for a decade now. Many Canon enthusiasts and pros have been craving badly for such a lens, because it can be invaluable for photographing wildlife. Instead of creating the same lens, Canon took optical design a step further and designed the lens with a built-in 1.4x teleconverter, making it a versatile lens with 200-400mm or 280-560mm focal lengths.
It’s been a while since we had a tip for beginners, so here is a quick post for the wildlife photographer. It’s not uncommon for friends of mine to see a photo like the one below and for them to ask where I took it. Quite frequently my response to them is, “From the window of my car.” They usually laugh thinking that I am joking and then I tell them that I’m serious. If you take many wildlife shots, you will quickly realize that oftentimes, animals are acclimated to cars and if we stay inside them, we don’t stress them as much and they don’t flee as fast.
It seems like the debate of DX vs FX for wildlife and sports photography is a never ending one. DX shooters argue that they get more reach, stating that DX is like a “built-in 1.5x teleconverter”, or that DX setups are lighter due to smaller lenses and less expensive, or that DX chops off the corners of lenses, thus reducing vignetting and other optical issues. On the opposite side of the fence, FX shooters argue that they get better image quality at pixel level, better viewfinder, less diffraction issues, better AF performance in low-light, etc. Seems like we have two camps, each defending their own side for various reasons. Having spent a number of years shooting both DX and FX starting from the first generation Nikon FX cameras and every single DX camera manufactured by Nikon to date, and having talked to a number of other photographers that shoot for a living, I came to a conclusion that there are some myths surrounding the DX format that need to be debunked. In this article, I will provide my personal insight to this topic and explain why I believe that FX is always better for photographing sports and wildlife. This article evolved as a result of recent discussions of the subject with some of our readers.
1) The Myth of the DX Built-in 1.5x Teleconverter
A lot of people seem to be very confused about the effect of a crop sensor on the focal length of a lens. Stating that a crop sensor increases the focal length of the lens or acts as a teleconverter is completely wrong, since focal length is an optical attribute of a lens and has nothing to do with the camera. I talked about this in detail in my “Equivalent Focal Length” article that I published a while ago. Simply put, a DX sensor can never change the optical parameters of a lens, so if you are shooting with a 300mm lens, it stays as a 300mm lens no matter what camera you mount it on. The confusion of “equivalent focal length” comes from manufacturers that initially wanted to make people understand that the field of view on a cropped sensor camera is tighter than 35mm, because the image corners get chopped off. The word “equivalent” is only relative to 35mm film. So you cannot say that your 300mm lens becomes a 450mm lens on a DX body. It does not and never will. All you are doing, is you are taking an image from a 300mm lens, cropping it in the center area and magnifying that center with increased resolution.
2) DX Pixel Size and Resolution
The only reason why some people thought that DX provided longer reach, was because DX sensors historically had similar resolution as FX. For example, both Nikon D300 (DX) and D700 (FX) have about the same resolution – 12 MP. So despite having sensors of completely different sizes, the two cameras produce images of similar size / resolution. Ultimately, this means that the D300 can resolve more detail from the center of the lens (which is typically the sharpest on any lens) and thus magnifies the subject more, which led people to believe that DX was better than FX to get closer to subjects. One aspect that was rarely talked about, however, was the fact that the D300 has a lot more noise at low ISO levels than the D700 due to smaller pixel size. So despite having this magnification advantage, photographers had to constantly deal with cleaning up apparent noise even at low ISO levels. I personally had to constantly down-sample images and clean them up via noise-reduction software to get rid of the artifacts visible at anything above ISO 800 (and noise was visible even at base ISO!). So at the end of the day, taking a DX image and down-sampling it aggressively, versus simply cropping an FX image produced somewhat similar results, with a slight advantage on DX that resulted in more detailed shots, thanks to the down-sampling process.
A fellow photographer recently asked me how much image degradation one would see with each Nikon teleconverter. As a nature photographer, I have been wondering myself about this for a while, but never had a chance to actually quantify what the image degradation figures would look like when using the TC-14E II, TC-17E II and the TC-20E III with Nikon lenses. I have been relying on field use and my vision so far and here is what I have thought about each teleconverter.
The Nikon TC-14E II is excellent. I have not seen it degrade image quality on any Nikon lenses to the level where I could see obvious loss of contrast or sharpness. I have used it with the 105mm VR, 70-200mm f/2.8G VR (the old one, as well as VR II), 300mm f/4 and pretty much on every expensive super telephoto lens. I take it with me everywhere and mine stays pretty much glued to my favorite Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S the majority of the time – that’s what I use primarily for birding. When shooting with my Nikon 200-400mm, I don’t hesitate to use the TC-14E II, because it does a very good job sharpness and contrast-wise and AF stays accurate and fast. It is obviously the smallest and the lightest of the three.
The Nikon TC-17E II is a mixed bag. It works with many Nikon lenses, but it slows down AF and impacts AF accuracy. Not as good of a TC to be used with slower f/4 lenses, which includes the 300mm f/4, 200-400mm f/4 and 500mm f/4 lenses. I tried to use it with my 300mm f/4 and it makes the lens hunt a lot, especially in anything but good light environments. The same thing with the Nikon 200-400mm f/4, even with the latest camera bodies like Nikon D4. Because of this, I rarely use mine. On fast f/2-2.8 lenses, however, it does pretty well. It works great on the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II and it does not disappoint with the 200mm f/2, 300mm f/2.8 and 400mm f/2.8 lenses.
The Nikon TC-20E III is much better than its predecessor (which was very disappointing with many lenses). I was pretty shocked to see it perform very well with the 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II (stop down to f/8 for best results), because the 2x TC was always known to be bad with zoom lenses. It works like a champ with the 300mm f/2.8 and 400mm f/2.8 lenses. On slower f/4 lenses, however, it is still pretty disappointing. It is unusable on the Nikon 300mm f/4 and 200-400mm f/4 lenses and while it will work with the 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4 lenses, you will have to stop down to f/11 to get anything reasonably good and you will need to use one of the latest Nikon DSLRs like D4 that can handle f/8 lenses. Not a great setup for fast action, but could work for large animals from a very long distance.
What are the best Nikon lenses for wildlife photography? Our readers often ask us about lenses for nature photography and while I have already written about which Nikon lenses I consider to be the best for landscape photography, I have received numerous requests to write about lenses for wildlife photography as well. In this article, I will not only talk about which Nikon lenses I believe are the best for wildlife and nature photography, but also when I use a particular lens, along with plenty of image samples from each lens. Please keep in mind that the information I present below is a personal opinion based on my experience so far, which is subject to change. If you have a favorite lens of yours for wildlife photography that is not listed below, please feel free to add a comment on the bottom of the page with some information and links to pictures (if you have any that you would like to share).
When photographing wildlife, whether shooting bears in Alaska, or capturing birds in flight, one of the most important factors in choosing a lens is its focal length. Generally, the longer the lens (in focal length), the better. Unlike landscape and portrait photography, where you could get away with a cheap lens and still get great results, wildlife photography pretty much requires high-quality, fast-aperture telephoto optics. This obviously translates to a high price tag, with the lowest end of the spectrum averaging between $500 to $1,500, and the highest-quality / best reach lenses costing as much as $10,000+. Without a doubt, wildlife photography is a very expensive hobby to have (unless you are so good that you can sell your pictures and make good money), especially once you add up all the gear and travel costs.
1) Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR
If you want to get into wildlife photography on a tight budget, the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR is the lens you want to get. It is a great buy that will get you to 300mm at under $600 USD. Its autofocus is pretty good in daylight and its versatile zoom range of 70-300mm is great for large animals and perched birds. The lens is light and compact, making it easy to carry it around when scouting for wildlife in parks and wildlife spots. It is capable of producing relatively good bokeh, especially on its longest end, although its sharpness performance also drops quite a bit at 300mm. Having VR is a definite plus when hand-holding the lens.