The Best Wildlife Lens In Your Kit Might Be A Cheap 50mm
Photographers suffer from GAS. Gear Acquisition Syndrome, that is. Wildlife photographers are particularly notorious, eyeing everything from expensive prime telephoto lenses to the latest gadgets for camera traps. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in coveting the newest telephoto zoom with a faster aperture or a lighter, sharper prime lens.
But when it comes down to it, the old adage still holds true: the best camera is the one you have on you. Great photos come from the skill of the person holding the gear and not from the gear itself. A quality photographer can make great images with any camera. And as viewers, we will always value content over quality in photography.
Whenever I start to forget that, and fall into the thinking of, “If I just had [insert latest awesome gear], then I could really step up my photography,” I remember my experience with this little red fox and a beat-up nifty fifty lens.
After a long day of photographing wildlife in Alaska, the small group of friends I was shooting with had scarfed down a delicious dinner and were relaxing with wine. It is my habit to always have a camera next to me, so while the others had put away their gear for the day in their cabins, I still had my camera body with a cheap and well-loved 50mm lens with me so I could get photos of the group during the off-time. That’s why, when someone spotted a fox sniffing around outside, I was the first one out the door, ready to shoot while the other scurried back to their cabins to grab their gear.
I followed the fox around the cabin, luckily having her to myself for several minutes. This gave me opportunities for shots that no one else in the group would have — a rare and wonderful thing when shooting with friends! It also gave me a few minutes of not having anyone else competing for a shot or, worse, popping up in my frame.
Because I was carrying a 50mm, I had a few other advantages. First, I couldn’t get tight portraits which I certainly would have tried for with a long lens, and which were the kind of portraits the other photographers were going for when they finally got their gear from their cabins.
I knew that my only realistic shots with a cooperative but wary fox were environment shots, so I made the most of it. That gave me the benefit of coming away not only with unique images, but also images that showed off the beauty of the place we were visiting.
Also, even though I just had a cheap nifty fifty, I had a faster lens than anyone with a telephoto. A wide-open aperture provided the opportunity to shoot at a nice, fast shutter speed despite the fact that the sun was setting and the light getting low. But I could also stop it down for a slow shutter and pan-blurs.
I had a broader choice of settings, which came in handy as the fox darted from one place to another, often staying in shadowed areas.
In the end, it didn’t matter that I only had a cheap 50mm while everyone else had their nice telephoto lenses. Because I used whatever I had on me in the best way I knew how, I came away with photographs that stand out from those my friends shot.
What’s more, I came away with the two photographs below that have stayed at my top favorites from the entire trip – including one that became an award-winner:
Never underestimate the capabilities of the gear in your kit, because it only means you’re underestimating your own capabilities. Sure, sometimes certain gear is essential. But not always. And a creative photographer figures out how to make what they have work for beautiful photos.
Think of sticking to a budget and avoiding GAS as an opportunity to expand your creativity and existing skill set. That way, by the time you do buy a new lens or new camera body, the additional capabilities it provides you are just icing on the cake.