My exploration into the world of photography began a few months ago when I purchased a Canon Rebel T3 for astrophotography use. I had been slowly acquiring the gear required to take pictures of planets, galaxies and nebulae, and the last thing that I needed was a camera. I purchased the T3 in an effort to accomplish my astrophotography goals and save a little bit of money compared to the higher end models. Unfortunately, I have not been able to do any astrophotography since I purchased the camera as I go to school in a city with too much light pollution. My first goal for the summer is to bring my astrophotography gear to my family’s home in VT and finally use my camera for its intended purpose.
After buying the camera I immediately set to work learning each button and every function the camera had to offer. I had very little knowledge of the technical side of photography,
and turned to YouTube and other online resources to learn. I found a great channel by Spyros Heniadis, aka the ‘Self Help Photographer’, where I learned all the basics from manual exposure to composition to managing my Lightroom catalog. If you are just starting out into photography like me, I would highly recommend watching his series on how to use your DSLR camera.
To practice using my camera in manual mode, I went outside behind my house and tried to take pictured of birds on a bird feeder. The first thing that I found was that my 18-55mm kit lens did not have nearly enough reach. No bird would land close enough to me to fill more than a few pixels of the frame. After awhile I left the bird feeder in frustration, and took photos of my cat instead.
Trying to capture those birds was an exercise in futility. However, it left me wondering how people did manage to snap the beautiful images that I ignorantly expected my entry-level camera and lens to produce. In the interim between then and now, I must have watched dozens of hours of wildlife photography videos, read numerous educational articles, and re-watched every BBC nature documentary available on Netflix. I knew that in order to get the images that I wanted, I would need a longer lens.
In the end I narrowed down my search to two potential telephoto lenses, the Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM and the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM. Both lenses are shorter and darker than what a professional wildlife photographer would use, but also a fraction of the cost and a fraction of the weight. I decided to go with a fixed focal length “prime” lens, as opposed to a zoom lens, such as the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM, for a few reasons. Prime lenses generally have better optical quality, are cheaper than zoom lenses with similar focal lengths and apertures, and are lighter. But most importantly, all of the large lenses common to professional wildlife photography are prime. So learning to shoot wildlife with a prime lens just seemed like the best long-term plan.
Ultimately I purchased the 300mm f/4 lens. Both lenses that I considered are very high quality, and while the 400mm specifically is hailed as a great birding lens, the 300mm offered more value for my intended purposes. The first advantage of the 300mm is flexibility. My next purchase will be a Canon Extender EF 1.4x III, which will make my lens effectively 420mm f/5.6, nearly identical to the native 400mm lens, with only a slight drop in image quality. This way I will have the practicality of both the 300mm and 400mm focal lengths for about $500 and 2.5 lbs less than if I were to purchase and carry both lenses. The second main advantage is the short minimum focus distance. The 300mm f/4 will focus down to just under 5 feet, making this a great lens for larger insects and smaller animals such as frogs.
My new lens arrived yesterday, and I have already learned a ton and managed to capture a few photos that I really enjoy. Next time I will share more about my gear, some successes and failures, and lessons learned. For now, here is one of my favorite pictures from my first day with the new lens.