Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Desert Island

The scenario is a familiar one, and I’m nearly certain that you’ve been asked some permutation of this question before... You’re stranded on a desert island, what’s the one...  (fill in the blank)... that you want, need, must have?
Today’s "blank" is brought to you buy the word L-E-N-S. That’s right, what is your one must have, couldn’t shoot without, gotta save from sinking boat lens? My inspiration for this post began at FM is a photo community that I frequent for its interesting discussions about gear, amazing landscape photography, and occasional humorous post. During the week there have been a number of discussions about trading gear or saving for an elusive optic... my favorite focal length...  a 300mm f2.8 lens.

The banter about whether it’s worth selling current gear or plunking down some serious change for one lens got me thinking. Why is this one optic so important to me? 

To answer this question, I thought that I’d begin with a little history about my first introduction to a 300mm lens. A long time ago... in 1986... I purchased a Contax camera with my first Carl Zeiss optic. I was really interested in ecology and had been doing research in Alaska. I could not afford any Zeiss telephotos, so I purchased a Tamron 300mm f5.6 lens. This beast was slow and clunky, but it was my first lens that made wildlife photography possible. Fast forward to 1994 and I managed (with the blessing of Tamy) to buy a Zeiss 300mm f4.0 lens for my Contax bodies. This was my first taste of a high-end telephoto lens. While this precision made German optic might seem archaic compared to the current offerings, it was highly corrected and produced amazing images on Velvia film (for those too young to understand this thing called film, follow the link to Velvia ;).
In 1996 I sold all of my manual focus Contax gear and invested in a Nikon AF system. My love affair with Nikon lasted into the digital age, and it included the purchase of my first 300mm f2.8 lens. While I couldn’t afford the Nikon equivalent, I managed to sell enough photos and save enough money to buy a used Tamron 300mm LDIF AF lens. A friend had shot this lens prior to my acquisition, and I seethed with envy every time he discussed the magic of his 300mm f2.8... I had to have one! 

Since that first purchase in 1998, I have owned and shot the following collection of 300mm f2.8 lens: Tamron MF 300 f2.8LDIF, Nikon Ai-S 300mm f2.8ED-IF, Nikon AF 300mm f2.8ED-IF, Nikon AF-S 300mm f2.8ED-IF, Sigma 300mm f2.8 HSM, Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 HSM, and Canon EF 300mm f2.8L IS. At this point, I’m not sure that I’ve included them all and if I should be proud or embarrassed by the lunacy of this history. My desire to obtain, own, and covet these lenses most definitely stressed the limits of my finances and patience of my incredibly tolerant wife (thanks Tamy!). With some pride, I can now claim to have owned one 300mm f2.8 lens for nearly three years now. I have no plans to sell or trade this optic, as the Canon 300mm 2.8L IS lens is pure magic.
Lovers of this focal length adore its narrow perspective and illusion of compression. When shooting landscapes with a 300mm lens, distant objects appear close and compressed against those in the foreground. The result is an apparent stacking of subjects within the frame. When shot at f/2.8 to f/4.0, the shallow depth of field isolates the focal point and sends the background into a soft blur. This effect, described as bokeh, is most pleasing when fast lenses are shot wide open. While the sharpness of the lens diminishes at its widest aperture, the blurred background forces the viewer to concentrate on the point of focus, and the image really “POPS.”
A 300mm f2.8 is a versatile wildlife, landscape, and macro tool. Pair this lens with a matched 1.4x converter and the best of them become a 420mm f4.0 with no apparent loss of sharpness or contrast. My 300mm f2.8 is my desert island lens. I love its perspective and the way it helps me to realize my photographic vision. 
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