Walking With a Camera, Part 4

Lenses for walking with a camera

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The best all-around lens for walking with a camera is a mid-range zoom lens. If you are going to carry only one lens, and this really works best when hiking with a camera, don't take only a long lens or only a wide angle lens. I speak from experience, I have ruined the photographic part of more hikes than I like to remember by trying to get along with only a long or a wide angle lens.

Let me give you an example of how I managed to screw up a great photo hike, not once but twice, because I took the wrong lens.

One of the best hiking and photographic locations near my home in New Mexico is Tent Rocks National Monument in the Jemez Mountains west of I-25 between Albuquerque and Sante Fe.

Tent rocks are teepee shaped hoodoos capped with a single large boulder on the very top; they are created when the hard cap rock prevents the erosion of the hoodoo below. However, the real attraction in this National Monument is a mile long slot canyon that winds through the hoodoos. This is a wonderful place of golden rock, deep green ponderosa pines and usually a deep blue sky. If you are ever in this area and want a short, gorgeous photo hike, don't miss this one.

Anyway, the first time I did this hike I decided it would be a tight little canyon without any long shots so I took only my wide angle, 17x35 lens. Wrong, wrong, wrong. There really were none of the wonderful little closeup shots where wide angle lens excell. Wide angle lens are, for example, great when you have masses of wildflowers that you want to shoot very close-up and let the background shink to insignificance since it isn't all that great anyway. In this case, there was no really great forground and the hoodoos which were really very interesting ending up looking like tiny, small, insignificant little mole hills. I got no pictures worth keeping on this shoot.

The next time I went to Tent Rocks I did the opposite and took my 70x200 zoom lens thinking it would be perfect. Wrong again. This time I was too close to the hoodoos and I could get only pieces of them and this didn't work either. What I really needed was my 28x70 lens, my mid range lens. I haven't been back to the Tent Rocks since my last disaster, but when I return I'm sure this is the lens I will want. It won't be perfect, there will be a few shots where I will want to focus in on some hoodoos a long way up on the canyon rim, but it will definitely be better than just a long lens or just a short lens.

And so I'm going to have to go back a third time if I really want to photograph the Tent Rocks properly. But that's OK, it's a wonderful spot and I'm looking forward to my third trip. It's like a lot of places, like the Wind Rivers and the Tetons that I keep returning to year after year; I seem to never get tired of great places like these or run out of new pictures to take there.

A lot of the pictures I take when walking with a camera are what I call vignettes. These are intimate little scenes of say a flower group with a few boulders or grasses. Or maybe a log in a small creek with grasses on the bank and a red flower or two. Or maybe a small piece of a pond with shoreline and some water lilies. Another picture I take a lot is very close up pictures of flowers, like the picture above.

My best lens for taking this kind of picture is the mid range lens I have been talking about, my 28-70mm Canon lens. It works much better for extremely close-up pictures of flowers as well as for vingnettes of middle range scenes than either a very wide angle lens or a telephoto. Both the wide angle and the telephoto will work for these shots, but the 28-70 is always better.

When using a midrange lens for both close ups and vignettes, it is important to use a small lens aperature like f22 to keep all the detail sharp. If you use a wider aperature than f-16, there will usually be too much unsharp detail for a good picture. I have ruined thousands of shots like this by choosing an apperature that is too wide.

A midrange lens also works well for the most common landscape picture where there is both a very close foreground and a distant background, like the picture on the right. Again, you have to use a small aperature like f-22 to get a good depth of field so both foreground and background will be sharp. Read my article on Depth of Field for more information here. I will discuss this in more detail in another article later in this series on walking with a camera.

If I decide to carry a little more weight and put up with the hassle of changing lenses I sometimes add a second lens. Usually I will take a longer lens rather than a shorter, wide-angle lens. My choice of a longer lens is my Canon 70x200mm lens, since it dovetails nicely with the 28x70 I always carry. The 70x200 lens isn't long enough for wildlife but it works for most of the landscape situations I tend to run into.

If I decide to add a third lens, it is my 17x35 Tamaron wide angle lens which works well for shots where I want to include a lot of foreground. With these three lenses I can shoot almost anything Imight find. Of course, now I have three lenses in my pack and most of the simplicity of walking with a camera is gone. So I often opt for the simple, relaxed, light option and leave the shorter and longer lens at home and walk with just the medium 28x70 lens.

If you are planning to go out and buy a new lens for walking with a camera, I recommend the Canon 28x70 I have been talking about. Maybe a lens with a little more range would be a bit better. However, resist the tempation to buy one lens with a very wide range. This sounds great, but in practice these lenses usually don't work out well. A couple of years ago I decided a Tamaron 18x270 lens sounded like just the ticket. It has everything from very wide angle to moderate Telephoto all in one lens. I could get by without ever changing lenses.

As it turned out the Tamaron 18x270 is a fairly good lens but it just doesn't have the sharpness I need for really good pictures. It's mostly OK on closeup pictures but not on big wide, large landscapes with lots of tiny detail. This is especially true if I plan on blowing the pictures up to large sizes, which I often do. Also, this lens does not have enough coverage for a full, 35mm size sensor. I use it for my less than full frame Rebel but not for my full frame Canon 1Ds Mark II.

Like most things in the real world , you can't have everything in one choice; there are always tradeoffs. When you have a huge zoom range and a price tag of only $400.00, you just aren't going to have the quality of a good professional lens with a limited zoom range. For that matter of fact, professioanal fixed lenses with no zoom at all are going to give you the very best picture quality of all. But then, I like the trade off I get with a short zoom that has great convenience with a slight loss of image quality.

All in all, it is my experience that it is worth paying a little more for a really good lens. If you are going to buy a new lens, you might as well buy a good one that is going to take great pictures for a lot of years. The Canon 28x70 is this kind of lens. In a longer lens, the Canon 70x200 is also a great lens. If you buy one of these lenses, be sure you get the one with L glass; L Canon lenses are the high quality, professional version of their lenses.

Lenses like the canon 28x70 are expensive but there are a couple of tricks for saving money on them. One place where I often save is by avoiding fast lenses. I never buy fast lenses, ie lenses that have very wide aperatures like f 2.0 or 1.8. Lenses like this are huge; the hunk of glass in the front of these lenses can be three or four or even six inches wide. Lenses like these are used mostly by wildlife and sports photographers who need to shoot at extremely fast shutter speeds. If you are shooting landscapes, you can get all the speed you need by using higher ISO speeds in the camera. You don't need fast lenses. Fast lenses are not only expensive, they are heavy and if truth be told, you really do need a tripod or at least a monopod for the largest of them.

For example, I bought my Canon 70x200 lens last year. This lens comes in two versions, one with a widest aperature of 2.0 and the other with a widest aperture of 4.5. The 4.5 is a slow lens but it cost $1000.00 less than the 2.0 and it weighs a quarter as much. It works perfectly for landscape photography; the f-2.0 lens is for me just expensive, heavy overkill.

I mentioned dpreview in my last newsletter about buying cameras. Dpreview also has lens reviews. Another good way to save money and get a good quality lens is by researching lenses on dpreview.com. Again, this is a teriffic site. Everything you need to know about buying a good camera or lens is right here. Go to the reviews. Look at the lenses that interest you, read the reviews and concentrate on the conclusions of the in-depth reviews. Look for cameras and lenses that are highly recommended; these will be good cameras and good buys.

I have recommended this site many times before but dpreview has recently changed the layout of the website with lots of great new features. If you haven't been there for awhile, it is very much worth another visit. And if you are in the market for a new camera or lens, run don't walk to dpreview. (In the most recent reviews, the best lenses are no longer called "Highly Recommended." They are now rated by a percentage; the best ratings, which correspond with the old "highly recommended," are those that are over 80%.

On the hikes like Joan and I did in the Tetons and Yellowstone this fall I mostly took only one lens , my Canon 28x70. I can shoot 90% of anything I may find with this lens and I since I find that taking only one lens makes walking and shooting much more relaxed and enjoyable, this is the one I took. More than one lens necessitates continual lens changes which can ruin the simplicity of the one-camera /one-lens idea.

However, a second or even a third lens does increases the numer of good pictures I might get. So, the kind of trip I am on does determine how many lenses Iwill take along. If this is a top notch location where I can expect to find many good pictures, I will take three lenses. This is my limit for lenses when walking with a camera though. And it is rare that I take more than one.

One thing I never take along on walking trips these days is a tripod. A tripod will instantly convert a great walk into hard work and more hassles than you can imagine. Five years ago I never went anywhere without a heavy tripod, but those days are now gone forever. In the last year of two I have learned how to live without a tripod. Modern cameras are so good that most of them are capable of shooting with small aperatures, at high speeds and thus tripods are really no longer necessary to take great pictures. Here is a whole series I wrote on hand holding cameras.

Very recently I have even begun to handhold my huge, 500mm Canon lens. This is that huge lens with a five inch piece of glass in the front that you often see wildlife photographers using, always with correspondingly huge tripods.

Joan and I were in the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in Southern New Mexico last week shooting the hundreds of thousands of Snow Geese, Sandhill Cranes, ducks and Canadian Geese that spend the winter there. We ended up handholding this very large and heavy 500 mm lens since a lot of the shots in the Bosque are of flying birds. Trying to get them with the camera on a tripod, even a tripod with all the adjustments loosened is a real hassle. So we hand held the camera and got tons of really good shots. You have to have a decent amount of light and a camera that will shoot clean pictures at high ISO's to do this, but it does work. We mostly shot at 800 ISO and at speeds around 1/1000. And this wasn't a really fast lens either. The widest f-stop on this lens is 4.5, not f-2 or f-1.8. It worked fine to handhold it though, except in the very low light of dawn before the sun came up.

There is more on techniques for shooting great pictures without a tripod later in this series of walking with a camera.

By the way, if you get the chance to visit the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge between mid November and February, be sure to go. It is an awsome place. There are literally hundreds of thousands of geese and ducks here at this time. There is nothing like watching a hundred thousand large birds take off, all at once, just as dawn is breaking. The sound is thunderous (the birds, not the dawn) and the spectacle is unimaginable. You have to experience it to believe it. This refuge is just south of Socorro NM. Drive up in the afternoon and catch afternoon light and the sunset, stay overnight in Soccoro and then be at what is called the "Landing Platform" at dawn the following day. There are tons of beautiful pictures to be had on both the "Marsh Loop" and the "Farm Loop." It is one of our favourite places in New Mexico.

If I were to take a longer lens with me when hiking, I would never take the Canon 500. It is just too huge and too heavy and too cumbersome. Sometimes, like on some on some our recent hikes in Yellowstone where we knew we were likely to see wildlife and where there are wide open vistas for longer landscape shots, I will carry only a longer zoom lens. I this case I carry my Canon 100x300. This is an excellent choice for this kind of a hike; it is super sharp and the 300 does a good job on wildlife that isn't too far out. Again, this is a f-4.5 lens, not the far more expensive, faster f-2 lens.

I got a lot of good landscape shots with this Canon 100-300 lens last weekend in Bosque del Apache. In this case, the birds were often distant Snow Geese that were a small part of a larger landscape picture. It was really the landscape I was after, the birds were just part of it and not the real focus of the picture. For this kind of picture, this lens was perfect. It is my favorite lens for landscapes that include wildlife.

The next article in this series on Walking With a Camera is about packs and walking shoes. These items sound pretty mundane, but they are extremely important for having a qualitly experience when hiking with a camera. And there are some pretty major differences between the good ones and the bad ones.

Fred Hanselmann
November, 2010

9067, Towers of theVirgin, Zion National Park, Dawn


9080, Naked Stem Sunray, Dawn, Capitol Reef National Park


9117, Cactus and Indian Paintbrush, Sonoran Desert, NM


9133, Pale Evening Primrose and Grasses, Arches National Park



9148, Narrow Leaf Yucca and Sunset,
Canonlands, Utah


9143, Grinell Glacier Trail, Wildflowers and Sunset, Glacier National Park


All of the picures in the article are new pictures for 2010.