Alternatives to the Mother of all Telephotos
Now that we've settled down following all the hubbub raised over the Canon EF 1200/5.6L we featured in our last newsletter, we agreed it would be a good idea to look at the options for those of you who simply can't justify - i.e. explain to your significant other - popping a hundred grand for a lens regardless of how cool it is.
Truth is, cool-factor and ego gratification aside, there are many options out there for those eager to crush perspective and/or read street signs in Weehawken from the comfort of a Manhattan high-rise. And as many of your emails and online forums pointed out, there are more-than-a-few high-quality alternatives for a fraction of the price of the big monkey. A prime 600/4 lens from Nikon or Canon coupled to a well-matched 2x teleconverter yields a very capable 1200/8 for a tenth of the price. And you can actually hand-hold the darn thing.
The following is a roundup of optics designed to reach out and bring distant subjects near. Price wise, the options run from a smidgeon under ten grand - a Nikon AF-S 600/4G ED VR and Nikon TC-20E 2x teleconverter - to as low as $109.95 for a Phoenix 500/8 mirror lens in the lens mount of your choice. Now as you might guess there's going to be a difference in image quality between the $10,000 and the $100 solution, but if you check out all the choices there's a pretty good chance you'll find an monster tele solution to fit your budget.
The term ‘super tele' comes into the vernacular when we start discussing optics longer than 300mm on a full-frame (24x36mm) 35mm camera. If you're shooting with an APSC or 4/3-based imaging system, you're already ahead of the game. Beyond the 300mm mark, there are many options available - both fixed and zoom - in the 400, 500, and 600 mm range from camera manufacturers as well as third-party sources. Currently, the longest fixed-focal length made is the recently announced Canon EF 800/5.6L IS.
Within each of these focal lengths there are choices of maximum aperture. For 300mm lenses, wide apertures range from f/2.8 to f/4 and f/4.5. Maximum apertures for 400, 500, and 600mm lenses fall between f/4 and f/5.6. Needless to say the faster options have higher price tags. On the other hand, lenses that are a stop-or-so slower also tend to be smaller, lighter, and noticeably more affordable than their faster siblings without – in most cases – sacrificing image quality.
Fast Glass or Not-so-Fast Glass
The advantages of wider-aperture lenses include faster autofocus, more accurate metering, easier viewing, selective focus options, and most importantly, extra wiggle room if you're shooting through a Polarizing filter and/or using a tele extender, both of which eat light like there's no tomorrow.
As an example, a 2x tele extender on an f/2.8 lens reduces the maximum aperture to an effective f/5.6. On the other hand a lens with a maximum aperture of f/4 effectively becomes f/8 lens, at which point you start loosing AF sensitivity, especially in low-light situations. Add a Polarizing filter into the equation and you can pretty much kiss your AF goodbye.
Image stabilization is another increasingly common option when shopping for a longer lens. A proven technology, image stabilization enables you to hand-hold your camera at shutter-speeds up to 4-stops slower than a comparable non-IS lens. And unless you absolutely need that extra stop of light, IS makes it easier to live with smaller maximum apertures.
Before image stabilization hit the scene– i.e. 'IS', 'VR', 'OIS', etc - the rule of thumb was never hand-hold a lens at a shutter-speed slower than the focal length of the lens. So if you're shooting with a 300mm lens, the shutter-speed should be at least 1/300th, a 500mm lens at least 1/500th, and a 1000mm lens no slower than 1/1000th if you want to nail sharp images.
Image stabilization makes it possible to capture sharp images - handhold – at shutter-speeds about 4-stops slower than a comparable non-IS lens. This means a 300mm lens can be hand-held at 1/20th, a 500mm lens at 1/30th, and a 1000mm lens at 1/60th without compromising image sharpness… assuming of course you're not nursing a brew from Starbucks.
Tele Extenders- Easy to carry around and easy on the wallet
Tele-extenders – a.k.a. teleconverters – are designed to multiply the magnification factor of a lens. Tele-extenders are most commonly available in 1.4x and 2x powers. In addition to 1.4x and 2x converters, Nikon also offers a 1.7x converter.
As with most things in life, teleconverters come at a price, in this case its light-loss. A 1.4x converter turns a 200mm lens into a 280mm lens, but also robs you of a stop of light, i.e. your f/4 lens is now effectively an f/5.6 lens. As you might have guessed a 1.7x converter turns a 200 mm lens into a 340 mm, but robs you of a stop-and-a-half of light, and a 2x converter converts your 200 mm into a 400 mm lens at the cost of two stops of light, or an effective maximum aperture of f/8. And while light loss is somewhat of a bummer, it's a fair price to pay to extend the reach of your optical system in a relatively inexpensive – and quite portable optical device.
Aside from Nikon, teleconverters are available from Canon, Pentax, Olympus, Sony/Minolta, Tamron, Sigma, and Kenko. It's important to keep in mind your lens and teleconverter should fit securely to each other as well as to the camera body, especially at longer focal lengths for best results. And as with most things in life, you get what you pay for, so watch out for ‘bargains'.
Less Expensive (and easier to hide from you-know-who) Alternatives
I already know what you're saying. "Al… all these fancy lenses are wonderful but I'm looking at 15 years of tuition payments and braces. I have ‘X'-amount of play money and I want an affordable long lens so I can crush perspective and photograph the Jones Beach water tower from the parking deck of the Roosevelt Field Mall".
That said, there are in fact many affordable ($500 - $1000) options in the form of wide-range long zooms from both OEM and third-party suppliers including Sigma and Tamron.
Mirror lenses are another option. Small and light, mirror lenses are in fact short telescopes, and use internal mirrors rather than glass lenses to capture images. The downside of mirror lenses is that they're slow and have fixed apertures, which for 500mm mirror lenses are f/8. While not currently in vogue as they used to be, Sony offers a nice 500/8 for $649.95, and for those on the tightest of budgets we offer the Phoenix 500/8 mirror to fit most any SLR for $109.95.
Lastly, for those looking for the most bang for the least amount of bucks, have a look-see at the Phoenix 650-1300/8-16 manual focus zoom, which like its mirrored sibling, is available to fit most any DSLR. If anything, for a nickel under three hundred dollars you get one impressive looking hunk of glass.