Getting up close with a 600mm lens (July 2015)

A juvenile bald eagle at North Twin Lakes, July 2015 – trying to hide in the tree branches

I primarily capture landscapes and my 10-20mm wide-angle lens and 18-250mm super-zoom are indispensable tools in my camera bag. Occasionally while I’m out in the field shooting I have the opportunity to photograph eagles, loons and other wildlife. While my equipment doesn’t prevent me from getting good images, I often wish I had a much longer lens.  For this year’s vacation at North Twin Lake I decided to focus my efforts on the adult and juvenile bald eagles I knew were at the lake. While I got some fine images last year with my 250mm lens, I decided to expand my range this year and rented a 600mm lens. It was fortunate that LensRental.comwas offering 20% off all rentals during the period of my vacation. After looking at my options (there were many), and the prices (they vary widely just like purchases) I decided to rent a Sigma 150-600mm lens. Both of my main lenses are Sigma and I’m very happy with the brand.

The logistics of rental are pretty simple, even in the remote area where I’m staying. You select the lens you want, the number of days you want to keep it and set the shipping address. You pay $25 for round-trip FedEx shipping.  The lens arrived on schedule, very well packaged in a return box with a shipping label. I dropped the lens off at a FedEx location when I got back home, but I could have also scheduled pickup at my location.

My first impression of the lens is that it is heavy. It’s a beast. When I first attached it to my camera (a Canon 60D) I immediately scanned around for something to shoot. I quickly realized I would not be shooting this hand-held. It is just too heavy and too difficult to keep steady when fully zoomed to 600mm. The lens includes a tripod mount and I needed to use it to get any useable pictures.

This is the 600mm lens fully extended on a Canon 60D

I used the lens for the full 11 days I had it on vacation and found many opportunities to utilize its length. Overall I was very happy using the lens and would love to have it available to me always in the future, but I don’t expect that to happen any time soon (the lens costs aprox. $1,100).  Here are some of the images and lessons I learned using the lens. 

1. Optical Zoom is far superior to cropped images.  

This is a pretty obvious lesson, but I was really reminded of the fact using this lens.  Last year I was able to get fairly close to some juvenile eagles and was able to capture images I’m very proud of. Even so, to really draw attention to the eagle I was required to crop the image, losing resolution and rendering some of the image pretty soft.  With the 600mm lens, even though this year’s family of eagles didn’t let me get as physically close, I was able to get in remarkably “close” with the lens. More significantly, except for occasional post-processing to slightly improve the composition, I didn’t need to do any cropping to highlight the subject. The images retained nearly their full resolution and were generally very crisp with good detail. Any softness of the image was more my error then the lens, which leads me to lesson two.

A juvenile bald eagle at North Twin Lakes, July 2015

2. It takes a lot of effort to keep the 600mm trained on the subject and achieve good focus.

If you’ve ever used a large telescope or binoculars to see something very far away, you probably have an idea what I’m getting at here. Imagine the eagle is a hundred yards away on a tree branch. It isn’t easy to find a patch about 3′ x 3′ 100 yards away in the camera’s viewfinder.  Moving a big heavy lens, trying to get stable on an often moving subject magnifies the challenge. Once I got locked on the eagle, it was still difficult to prevent any movement that easily introduced softness in the image. 

A pair of adult bald eagles watching their three juveniles at North Twin Lake near Inchelium, WA

Speaking of movement…

3. It is difficult to track, lock focus and capture a moving subject.

One of the pictures I have in my head that I dream of reproducing in my camera is an image of a bald eagle soaring toward me. Wings out wide, focus crisp and sharp, the colors and details of each eye, beak, feather and talon on display. Of course the biggest challenge in capturing my dream shot is opportunity. Simply being in the right place at the right time. That may never happen. But when it does, I thought having the extra length of a 600mm lens would help guarantee my result. Please refer to lesson number 2 above; multiply the difficulty factor by about 100x when you add moving the lens and tracking a flying animal. The image below gave me just a taste of what I might be able to do when opportunity and experience combine in that one magic moment.

A juvenile bald eagle soars away. At North Twin Lake July 2015

4. It’s less about the equipment and more about talent and experience.

We hear this all the time about photography, but using this lens drove home this one basic truth. I’ve seen so many stunning images of eagles and wildlife and I’ve set a personal goal to create similar fantastic photos. Fortune gives me many opportunities to photograph these majestic animals, but I always felt my 250mm limitation held me back. While that is partially true, just getting the longer lens was not enough to guarantee a great result, because it isn’t just about the gear. There is a learning curve with this new equipment. There were challenges I haven’t experienced before. Even though I have experience capturing birds and know something about their habits and flight, being able to use the equipment well didn’t come naturally. I’m confident if I had the lens to use many, many more times, eventually my experience would build to the point I could capture some amazing shots. Like many artistic endeavors it takes talent and practice to be successful. Bigger and better equipment helps, but it does not guarantee results.

I really enjoyed my time with the lens and would rent it again tomorrow. I’m happy with many images the lens allowed me to capture; images I don’t think I would have made with only the 250mm lens. While it does remind me of some fundamentals of photography, I welcome the challenge and opportunity to keep learning and growing at my craft.

A juvenile bald eagle at North Twin Lakes, July 2015

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