You don’t always need the latest and the greatest photography equipment to take great wildlife pictures. In the digital photography world, dominated by quick-changing technology these days, most photographers feel the urge to keep on updating their equipment because otherwise they won’t be able to make good pictures anymore. Especially in wildlife photography, most amateurs feel they need to migrate to full-frame cameras and buy the best super telephoto lenses to get the desired results. This means that you are easily spending more than ten thousand dollars to have the latest wildlife camera gear kit. In this article, I want to demonstrate that you do not have to spend the same amount of money that could buy you a nice second-hand car.
For many years I also have been longing for the latest and the greatest, but due to financial limitations I had to compromise, and sometimes that would mean less quality. A few years ago, I discovered that by using high quality, but old, prime lenses, you can get amazing results at much more affordable prices.
My main interest is wildlife photography and in particular birds. An even more zoomed in you could say my main interest is water birds, be it on a lake or at the seaside. My main camera body at that time was the Nikon D7100, a 24 MP crop-sensor camera and a Sigma 50-500 HSM OS which basically was always at 500mm, because birders always need more reach…
Since I live 5 minutes walking from the beach, this is my place to go for when going out shooting birds. At the beach I will first locate my subjects and then try to get closer to them. One of my favorite species is the Sanderling – this bird runs faster than I can walk despite being only 10 cm tall (I am almost 20 times taller).
These quick creatures run to the water level, pick their food as quickly as possible and when a wave rides in they run back to the sand. In other words, you need to be able to maneuver quickly with these critters! Although the Sigma (or Bigma as a lot of people call this lens) is a reasonably fast focusing lens, it is not very light, pretty big and thus due to its mass hard to relocate quickly.
Usually I am lying on the sand using an angled viewfinder for optimal low point of view, hand-holding the camera / lens combination. Although I always longed for a ‘real’ birding lens like the Nikon 500mm f/4, I knew that the ‘mass’ of this lens would even be worse than when using the Bigma and that long hikes would be a problem because I would also need to carry a tripod!
Then I stumbled upon a 16-year old Nikon AF 300mm f/4 ED, built like a tank and for only €400. The lens weight was just 60% of the Bigma, and its size also considerably smaller, making it ideal for fast movement. Unfortunately, no VR and no fast focusing, so it looked like a bad change compared to the Bigma. But the reality proved to be different. First of all, the image quality of this prime was (and still is) fantastic, much more micro detail than the Bigma. Second of all, it worked perfectly with a Kenko Telepro 1.4x TC, giving me an effective 420mm f/5.6 combo. The Bigma at 500mm proved to be just 460mm at f/6.3 so the focal length difference was less than I thought it would be.
But the biggest advantage proved to be the much smaller size and the lower mass, allowing for much quicker movement of the combination, meaning I could follow a fast-moving subject easier and with better focus tracking, despite the slower initial focus acquisition (thanks to screw drive AF). And often I was using the Nikon D7100 with the Nikon 300 f/4 ED in 1.3x crop mode, effectively giving me a 15.3 MP 550mm f/4 setup with a carrying weight of just 2kg, very high quality images and relatively low cost.
Of course there were some disadvantages of the older lens, most noticeable in visible chromatic aberration, something you are often confronted with when photographing at the sea. But Lightroom was usually able to remove most of that, so I used this lens for quite some time, later with a second-hand Nikon D800 as my main camera body. Also on this hi-res FX camera, it produced amazingly sharp images, even wide open.
Then, a little more than 2 years ago my financial situation changed for the better, and since I was getting older, also longing for even lighter equipment. So currently I own the Nikon 300mm f/4E VR PF, its weight now only 60% of the older 300 f/4, fast focusing and no CA, also perfectly compatible with the Nikon 1.4x and 1.7x teleconverters. I sold my old 300mm f/4, but I knew the new owner would not be disappointed with this lens that will probably last forever…