Lions and Eagles and Polar Bears, Oh My!

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It has been several months since the release of the Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens, during which time it has generated more buzz than any lens in recent memory, and established a new peak for what a super-telephoto prime should be. This lens is more than a full kilogram lighter than the competition, offers better weight distribution, three different image stabilization modes, the fastest focus system ever, and myriad other features. I’ve always had a passion for wildlife photography, though I’ve never had the right gear, but with Sony’s release of a professional wildlife and sports lens, I decided it was time to finally give it a shot. I’ve been fortunate enough to own one for several months and, every time I use it, I fall in love with it more. 

Since this lens has more custom features than my car (admittedly a higher price tag, too), I took it to my local zoo for some brief practice. I set a few custom buttons, fiddled with the various focusing and SteadyShot options, and ended up with some objectively nice photos.

Photographs © 2019 Nate Luebbe

Although the zoo test solidified the quality of this lens in my mind (and resulted in a print sale), I knew that to fully get a feel for this lens, I would need to test it on wild animals. My two favorites are bears and bald eagles, and despite “Bears and Bald Eagles” sounding like the most patriotic band name in history, the contrast between those two animals allowed me to explore the capabilities of this lens fully. Bears are slow, but they’re beautiful, majestic, and the fur requires flawless detail replication. Eagles are fast and constantly on the move, forcing me to push the boundaries of image stabilization, as well as focus tracking. 

I’ve photographed brown and black bears several times in the past, but had yet to see my all-time favorite animal in the wild: polar bears. Notoriously elusive, and famous for living in inhospitable climates, I knew that this trip would be a significant undertaking. 

Churchill, Manitoba, is famously referred to as the “polar bear superhighway,” due to the massive convergence of bears each fall, so I set my sights on an autumn excursion in the Canadian tundra. Since traveling on foot through the habitat of the largest terrestrial predator in the world is generally considered “stupid and irresponsible,” (according to my mom) I linked up with a local guide to show me the ropes. My polar bear self-defense plans started and ended with “try to run and probably get eaten,” so having Arctic Rambo at my side allowed me to relax and focus on photography, plus his trained eyes increased my chances of successfully spotting a white animal in a white, snow-covered world.

The first day at the lodge was a dramatic learning experience. Although the Sony 400mm f/2.8 is nearly 25% lighter than many other 400mm lenses on the market, I found traveling by foot to be exhausting. The temperature was hovering around -22°F, with howling winds and blowing snow, making every step forward an ordeal. Combine that with bulky arctic clothing, 40 lb of gear, and moon boots, meant that traveling just a single mile took well over an hour, and by the time we spotted wildlife and set up all of our tripods, we were too late for the shot. I decided to adjust my strategy for future excursions, opting to ditch the tripod and backup lenses in the pursuit of efficiency. 

There’s no logical reason to carry a 16-35mm or 24-70mm in my backpack in polar bear country—if a bear is close enough where you’re considering 16mm, taking a photo won’t be the most pressing issue at hand. Additionally, the best wildlife photos are candid, natural photos of the animals interacting with their surroundings. Setting up and adjusting my tripod caused enough commotion to distract the animals. Since the Sony FE 400mm GM has such incredible image stabilization, I could easily shoot handheld and produce crisp images. My lighter setup proved to be just the ticket, and the next few days resulted in some of the best photos of my entire career.

Shooting animal photos from a lower perspective is a great way to convey the personality of the animals, which is another endorsement for ditching the tripod. I found it a bit fatiguing after long sessions, but the lower perspective allows for unique captures that would not have been possible from a standing position. Getting low and looking an animal in the eyes helps convey a sense of their power and strength. Polar bears are tall enough to tower over an average human, so shooting photos from an elevated position does a poor job of conveying the incredible majesty of these creatures.

I never wanted to leave Churchill, but all good things must come to an end. Having newly discovered my passion for wildlife photography, I set out to the Skagit River, near my hometown of Seattle. Every winter, a flurry of bald eagles flock to the fertile waters of western Washington to feast on the spawning salmon, presenting a perfect opportunity to practice my skills.

One would think that ground-level photography would be rendered irrelevant by a subject with the gift of flight. In my experience, this turned out to be surprisingly untrue. Everyone in the world has seen a bird soaring above them, which makes photos from that perspective profoundly uninteresting. To create an image that’s engaging and dramatic, I aimed to photograph them as close to ground level as possible. Takeoffs and landings are the most exciting part of any flight, and those are the instances when you get to examine the physiology of your subject.

Since bald eagles are extremely mobile, photographing them requires patience and practically no hiking, allowing me to use a tripod for more stability. I bushwhacked down to the riverbank and set my tripod as low as I could get it. The morning was spent waiting and watching the big birds soar overhead, but, once the birds got used to my presence, they got closer and eventually I found myself in the midst of a spectacular display.

I found the wide f/2.8 aperture of the 400mm lens to be extremely beneficial in low-light situations (a major plus since eagles are most active around sunrise), while the side effect of shallow depth of field was incredibly helpful for subject isolation. Of course, bokeh can be abused, though certain instances clearly benefit from the look of shallow depth of field. Additionally, shooting at f/2.8 or f/4 allows for increased shutter speed without needing to increase ISO, so the photographer can freeze an animal in motion without introducing unwanted noise. This lens is exceptionally sharp, even wide open, and I rarely found myself stopping down.

I used to plan all my trips around gorgeous scenery or cultural events, but I would stare longingly at the incredible wildlife photos captured by my colleagues and wish I could participate. Although I still haven’t recovered from the sticker shock of this purchase, this lens has elevated me to a new plane as a photographer. It’s tack-sharp at any aperture, light enough to be portable, and loaded with so many features that I half expect it to cook me breakfast one morning. There has never been a better addition to my photography arsenal, and I can’t wait for my next wildlife adventure.

Are you looking to tackle wildlife photography yourself? How about being one of the lucky few considering the super Sony FE 400mm? For more winter-themed adventures, stay tuned to B&H Explora and Winter Adventure Week. 

Be sure to check back on B&H Explora for more of Adventure Week: Winter Edition​—and don't forget to follow B&H on Twitter @BHPhotoVideo for up-to-the-minute #adventureweek news.

Nate Luebbe is a self-taught photographer and lifelong explorer of the outdoors. An avid environmentalist, conservationist, and raconteur of experiences, you can find more of Luebbe’s spectacular images online, at www.nateluebbe.com, and on Instagram, @nateinthewild.

1 Comments

those eagle shots are the best Ive ever seen, so Iwent into your website to check it out and all I can say is WOW.  I can see why you justify spending 11k on a lens.  Makes me rethink my recent lens purchase.  Seems for wildlife 400mm wouldnt always be enough.  But you certainly arent having that problem....thanks for the article.  Im a fan, and Ill keep your photo for inspiration.  

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