Will I Miss the Extra 100mm?

Yes, you will. 

Oh wait, you’re wondering about the question. 

It’s a common one that I get when people start talking about telephoto lenses and which one they should buy. They’ll consider a 70-200mm and 70-300mm choice, or a 70-300mm and 100-400mm choice, or a 100-400mm and 150-500mm choice, and so on right out through as far as the lens makers will let you go. 

The thinking behind this question—and yes, the answer, too—is a bit on the wrong-headed side, though. The reason the question comes up so much in the first place has to do with FOLF (fear of losing flexibility). The zoom (often variable aperture) is cheaper than an exotic, but it’s also way more flexible if you’re not sure what you’ll encounter. Never know when you need 235mm, after all.  

I tend to advise people to consider their most desired end result. What is the optimal image you’re imagining? (Wait, you’re not imagining your future images? Another article coming…;~). 

If you’re trying to emulate the pro sports or wildlife photographers, for telephoto use that tends to mean frame filling, background diminishing, tack sharp images of a subject. Let’s take that piece by piece in terms of the headline question:

  • Frame filling — you get this in one of two ways: (1) using a longer focal length, or (2) getting closer to the subject. The pros tend towards #2 for a couple of reasons, one of which has to do with the next item on our list, the other being that perspective makes a difference. Amateurs tend towards #1 because they can’t do #2. 
  • Background diminishing — large aperture on a telephoto (exotics) is one way you achieve this. Indeed, that’s one of the go-to moves by the pros. But two other ways exist, too: (1) using a longer focal length, or (2) getting closer to the subject. Doh! 
  • Tack sharp — phew, no #1 or #2 that are the same here! I will say, however, that this particular attribute tends to be governed by price in the telephoto realm. There’s good, very good, excellent, and spectacular, and those usually come with rapidly escalating price. 

That last sentence brings me to other part of the question, which is usually clearly revealed only by cross examination: there’s a budget involved. The person asking the question only wants to buy one lens, at less than X price, and only carry one lens in the field. Note that all three of those things are compromises. You know what I’m likely to write: seek optimal data collection, not compromised data collection. 

Which takes me back to my answer: for the person asking that particular question, they’re fine with compromise, have severe ROLF, and just want to know if they might be limiting themselves with the lesser focal length choice. And that answer is again, yes. Given the way they’re evaluating things, they very much will miss the extra 100mm. Less focal length is a compromise. 

Of course, it’s a compromise I often live with. I’ve been known in recent times to sometimes wander the sidelines or the savannah with a single camera with a fixed focal length lens on it. That’s because I’m imagining the image I want to create and putting myself in the position to create it. If I can’t imagine the image, I’m at the will of reacting to whatever happens in front of me, and if I can’t put myself in the position to create it, I need to fix that as best I can. 

Thus, if you’re asking the headline question, I’m telling you that you should already know the answer ;~).

Bonus: I just wrote that I might be wandering the savannah with a single fixed focal length lens. But what is that lens? I’m currently contemplating that for an upcoming trip. The 400mm f/4.5 is ridiculously light, handles well, and is optically excellent. The 400mm f/2.8 has that built-in TC that gives it a dual personality, but is bigger, heavier, and has some handling issues I think sub-optimal. I don’t own the 600mm f/4 TC, but it’s just a longer version of the 400mm with the big and heavy emphasized. The 800mm f/6.3 is svelte for its reach, but do I need that reach? 

Be sure to watch the next episode in our reality series Which Lens? to see which of the competitors is eliminated next week. And don’t forget to tune in for the exciting conclusion where this year's winner is named, coming in May. [cue theme music and credits…]

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