Why use Super Fast Telephoto Lenses for Wildlife?

Why use an f2.8 (or other super fast) telephoto lens for your wildlife work when modern cameras are so good at high ISO?

It’s a good question; and one I get asked on a frequent basis on the workshops and expeditions I run in the world’s polar regions. The truth is, super fast telephoto lenses do weigh more than their f4 or slower equivalents and that can be an issue schlepping them through airports; especially if you are unfortunate enough to run into any airport staff having a particularly bad day. Just as an aside,  the latest generation MK3 super-telephoto lenses from Canon are now much lighter than their predecessors, so the issue of weight is starting to disappear. Super fast telephoto lenses also cost more than their slower, smaller and lighter brethren; but there are some BIG advantages that far outweigh the extra weight (and cost) if capturing something special and unique is your goal. The most obvious advantage a super fast telephoto lens brings to the party is the shallow depth of field obtainable with a wide open aperture; which for wildlife can be a real boon in isolating the subject from its background. In addition, a wide aperture gives you a faster shutter speed; which in low light can make the difference between a sharp shot and a blurry one. A very good friend of mine recently waxed-lyrical, ‘Which would you rather? A sharp grainy image, or a soft blurry one? Well, truth be known I want to eat my cake and as such I want a sharp shot with a soft background free from excessive grain! And thankfully you and I can have it with a super fast telephoto lens strapped to a modern digital camera.

The third and probably the most useful (although vastly underrated) feature of a fast super telephoto lens (after creative DOF control) is you gain access to a lot more cross-type auto focus points and thus significantly faster and more accurate auto focus. The benefit of cross type points is more than considerable with moving wildlife and is in my experience often the difference between a sharp capture and one that doesn’t quite make it. The photograph above of a polar bear on the sea ice in Svalbard was shot with the Canon 400mm f2.8L IS MKII wide open at f2.8 in low light (I recently updated to the MKIII version of this lens, but have not yet had a chance to use it in the field). You just cant replicate this creamy bokeh and ‘look’ with a significantly slower lens. Nor could I have achieved the shutter speed I wanted and needed in the light conditions I was shooting in with a slower lens. If you are not familiar with cross-type auto focus points then its well worth your time to either break out your manual (that paper book thing that used to ship with a new camera) or read up online about the differences. Cross types are one of the best ‘guns’ in any wildlife photographers arsenal.

Photo of the Month May 2019 – Reindeer Sketch

The photograph of the month for May 2019 is from my recent Svalbard Snow Mobile Expedition (Read the Trip Report). One of the greatest joys for me of photography in the Arctic in winter is the monochromatic colour palette (along with the driving snow). The combination of a muted monochromatic palette with fresh wind blown snow on the fur of the Reindeer (with its perfect antlers) is highly evocative. This is a very simple, yet very elegant photograph that tells a great story about the environment the animal lives in.

Svalbard Winter Ship 2019 Expedition Report

In March and early April of 2019 I lead my annual winter expedition by ship in the Svalbard archipelago in search of wildlife and frozen landscapes. As I have written recently before, Winter has become my favourite time of year to visit Svalbard.  The low angle of sun, snow and ice covered landscape draped with stunning ethereal light make for wonderful photographic opportunities and unlimited potential. Of course, winter also brings with it an increased chance in inclement weather which can present a different set of challenges to summer expeditions when the weather is typically more stable. For those that are willing to brave the elements of a winter trip the rewards can be truly outstanding.

Unlike my snowmobile expeditions (Read the Trip Report), the 2019 ship expedition proved a challenging year for weather with repeated days of high winds and often poor visibility. Strong winds over the entire archipelago prevented us from heading to the edge of the permanent pack ice north of Spitzbergen. Instead, we made the decision to search many of the fjord systems still partially frozen with sea ice. We played cat and mouse with the high winds, seeking shelter in the fjords wherever possible.  This strategy proved fruitful with some great landscape opportunities that we might otherwise have missed. We also had some really great wildlife encounters whilst we sheltered from the weather.

This year we encountered just two Polar Bears during the expedition. Thankfully, both encounters proved extremely profitable with fantastic photographs of both the  bear in front of one of Svalbard’s many glacier fronts as well as the playful teenage bear that put on a wonderful show for us on our last full day of the expedition. As I have frequently lamented – its not the number of bears one encounters during an expedition; its the chance for a ‘photo-friendly’ bear encounter that really counts. I would trade ten bear sightings for one good ‘photo bear’. This year we had two wonderful bears and all aboard made fantastic photographs.

Although Polar Bears were quite thin pickings this year we did have some absolutely superb Walrus encounters on ice flows that more than made up for the lack of bears. Walrus are fantastic to photograph and vastly underrated as a subject. In addition we also had multiple encounters with both white and blue Arctic Fox, Harp Seals, Ivory Gulls and more.

My 2020 expedition to Svalbard in Winter is already almost sold out with just a few places remaining. If you are keen to photograph in this amazing archipelago in the beauty of winter then just drop me an email to express your interest. The remaining places are filled on a first come, first served basis.  If you want to get an idea of what to expect check out the Article – The Art of Polar Bear Photography.

Svalbard in Winter by Snow Mobile 2019 Expedition Report

In March of 2019 I lead two back-to-back small group expeditions via snowmobile in Svalbard in search of winter landscapes, Arctic Fox, Reindeer and the mighty Polar Bear. I have been exploring Svalbard by snowmobile in winter for quite a few years now and have to come to absolutely love both the intimacy and solitude of being out in the freezing winter and at one with Nature and the incredible wildlife that survives in this hostile environment. The Arctic in winter is truly another world and for those that are willing to make the effort, and brave the elements the rewards are simply life-changing. 

 

The weather during our expeditions was generally superb with cold clear days that were on the whole predominantly wind free. Only on few occasions did we experience true white out conditions whilst crossing some of the glaciers of Svalbard. Conditions can vary wildly and quickly in the Arctic in Winter. It is almost a given that one will loose a day or two to bad weather during any winter expedition. I am pleased to say though that at no time did we loose any time to weather during either of the two expeditions. In fact, we were able on several occasions to take advantage of weather to really enhance the mood and drama of our photographs. Blowing snow is a wonderful addition to any winter wildlife photograph and we took advantage of it whenever the prevailing conditions allowed. The white on white canvas of the Arctic in winter in near white-out conditions is highly fertile material for simple, powerful and emotive photography.

During both expeditions we had fantastic encounters with Polar Bear, Reindeer and Arctic Fox. In total I counted fifteen Polar Bear sightings this year that included several photo bears that provided outstanding opportunities on the frozen sea ice. Encounters with Polar Bears are rare (even in the summer months) so it was fantastic to have such wonderful opportunities during these expeditions. Our encounters with Arctic Fox and Reindeer were no less exciting with some wonderful close up encounters that provided outstanding opportunities.

Svalbard in winter by snowmobile is not for the faint of heart. The distances required to travel are long (upwards of 200km plus per day) and the terrain (glacier crossings and sea ice) is often bumpy and challenging. Temperatures can be extremely cold with many hours of exposure in the field. The rewards for those who are willing to push themselves though can be truly exceptional. The possibility of close encounters with Polar Bears, Reindeer and Arctic Fox make this an expedition where truly unique and powerful photographs can be captured.

I will be returning to Svalbard in early March of 2021 to lead another winter snow mobile expedition for no more than two photographers.  I am not quite ready to start taking bookings as yet but expressions of interest are welcome via email. Prior snow mobile experience is preferred, but not essential. What is essential is a strong desire to spend time in Nature with a willingness to be out in the field in Winter elements. Expect long days, cold weather and best of all incredible rewards that fill the soul as well as your memory cards.