We’re always on the lookout for ways to change things when we’re photographing, in an effort to keep our portfolio of images as fresh and varied as possible. Wildlife photography’s a competitive business and with the huge proliferation of great pictures out there it’s increasingly important to keep our eyes, and minds open, to different approaches, where merited, to much-photographed subjects.
One of the simplest ways to breathe a hint of fresh air into wildlife images of commonly snapped species is to photograph subjects within the wider landscape. This means ignoring the advice, and our natural inclination, to ‘go close and then closer still’ when we’ve got a good subject in front of the lens and go minimal instead.
We enjoy the challenge this approach offers, where conditions and circumstances allow, to produce ‘animal miniatures’ where our subjects are often just a tiny fraction of the frame; dwarfed by the surrounding landscape and/or sky.
It’s fascinating seeing how small you can take an imposing, heavy-weight wildlife subject like an elephant and make the picture work. It’s subjective, of course, but, looking through the wrong end of the telescope does seem to help communicate and emphasise the scale, stark beauty and significance of place, time and habitat.
You might think this is something that only works in exotic locations, and isn’t really ‘a thing’ for photographing closer to home. Interestingly, we’ve found, this style of shooting wildlife, if you can call it that, can be as successful for mountain hares in the UK’s upland snowscapes, for example, as it can be for imposing, iconic animals, such as elephants and giraffes on the vast plains of Africa.
It’s never a bad idea, anyway, when you’re out in the field, to get some shots of your subject from a distance – just in case the subject won’t tolerate a closer approach. It’s what we try to do. Even if it’s just a ‘grab’ to show each other later what we came across while stalking.
If, like us, you’re generally out and about on foot with a telephoto zoom at hand (we love our trusty Canon 100-400mm zooms for this) you can swiftly assess the potential for a ‘wildlife in the landscape’ shot by reframing the scene in front of you at different focal lengths as you proceed. Once you’ve got your eye in you won’t even need to hold the camera to your eye to make such judgments…
The next step is elevating things to produce a pleasing picture. Here are five general tips we find handy:
1.Study landscape photography as closely as you do wildlife photography, when not in the field, and familiarise yourself with the key elements you need for a successful landscape shot.
2. Make a beeline for places where good wildlife subjects and great scenery collide; keeping a look-out for strong and simple ‘elemental’ or graphic backdrops that would look brilliant with a wild animal standing proud or walking through them. Generally it’s a good idea to avoid busy scenes with lots going on in them that might risk your subject being overpowered.
3. Pick your moment and be patient. Add the magic ingredient of great light to the locale you’ve identified or some spectacular weather for an extra pop. In an ideal world we’re looking to include either interesting cloud formations, stormy skies, a rainbow, the setting sun or a moon, for example.
4. Place animal subjects very carefully within the landscape – almost always moving or looking into the frame and generally offset rather than central. As when shooting silhouettes subjects must be well defined, and never obscured, given their diminutive status. The rule of thirds is very useful here. The power points where the thirds intersect are reliable ‘hotspots’ from which your subjects can shine.
5. Be bolder. Go even more Gulliver and turn large animals into small ants crawling across this vast planet we share…
The aim isn’t simply to faithfully reproduce a documentary record of your subject’s habitat remember. You’re looking to produce a response from the your viewer about the bigger picture in the natural world with such shots.
It’s not everyday you cross paths with one of these tough little guys in the wild – and when you do see a canny and cunning honey badger it’s more often than not a fleeting glimpse and hardly ever a photograph. Nine times out of 10 they’re gone before you’ve got your camera ready.
So imagine our surprise when we met this chap one rainy morning just before sunrise in the Kalahari’s Nossob riverbed. We hadn’t been up long and were still feeling groggily half-asleep. As a result we were pretty slow to react when we spotted it. We almost drove past making it necessary to turn right around – a manouevre we knew from experience was guaranteed to buy this wily predator just enough time to effect his escape.
We couldn’t believe our luck when we saw the animal was still there after all our clumsy faffing about. What was keeping it so busy and so preoccupied it didn’t want to flee the scene even with our vehicle noisily bearing down on it?
‘He’s got a tortoise. He’s got a big tortoise and he’s eating it!’
Perhaps you have to be an African wildlife afficionado to fully appreciate just what a rare and exciting sighting this was. Magic. Unless you happen to be a tortoise that is – and certainly that particular tortoise. Feisty, fierce but full of character it’s not your everyday animal that can get through such defences. A bit like opening a can of corned beef without the key or a tin-opener.
Call us weird, but putting aside the harsh reality of the ‘red in tooth and claw’ aspects of this sighting, we couldn’t help noticing similarities to that famous E H Shepherd illustration of a portly Winnie the Pooh with his paws in the ‘hunny’ pot as our badger delved deep into the tortoise shell to extract more of his tasty meal.
Given the honey badger was happy for us to gawp at him eating his breakfast in the rain we took lots of stills, shot some video and just watched. The captures are not what we like to call ‘photographers’ photographs’; the light was poor, we had to use flash, and you can hardly call our results aesthetically pleasing, but the chance to document a moment like this doesn’t come often. We probably won’t see this behaviour ever again.
It’s why we go to Africa. In the hope that we might do!
We seemed to have the lion’s share of big cat sightings on our trip to the Kalahari last month. Always cool for cats, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park surpassed itself on this occasion and provided us with not one, but two sets of cute lion cubs to contend with, a camera-friendly female leopard posing on the red sand as if it were the red carpet, some cheetah cubs washing up after their dinner of springbok tartare and a bunch of muscular, black-maned male lions strutting their stuff up and down the Auob and Nossob riverbeds.
That all added up to some spectacular wildlife encounters and adrenaline-fuelled, feline photographic opportunities despite the 40 plus degree temperatures in the shade. You can imagine the two of us, hot and bothered, getting camera gear and gearstick in a tangle in our excitement to soak up (capture and expose correctly!) all those awesome big cat sightings.
It’s never easy trying to manoeuvre a vehicle speedily and efficiently into the best position for the light, relative to an often moving subject, at the same time as changing camera settings in a nano-second, in a small space, all the while ensuring you’re well-braced for each shot. The results can’t ever reach up the the magic of the real-time moment, of course, but here, as they say, are just a few of the ‘mane’ highlights…
It’s a big anniversary for us Toons in 2016. This year, this month in fact, we’ll be celebrating 20 years of safaris in Africa with a trip to the Kalahari – the very place where our photographic adventures first started.
Where did those two decades go? If you want living proof that Africa gets under your skin look no further. We’ve been visiting the continent two or three times a year since then for several weeks, often months, at a time, because, quite simply – we can’t get enough.
That six month trip to South Africa and Namibia in ’96, what Steve refers to now as our ‘road to Damaraland’ conversion, convinced us to ditch our day jobs in journalism and hitch our wagon to wildlife photography instead. Spending almost all our time in the bush on that visit changed our lives completely. Crazily we gave up stable, well-paid jobs in the media for the hand to mouth, roller-coaster existence of the freelance wildlife photographer. It wasn’t easy – starting a new career from scratch – building a portfolio and a profile, getting established with the right photo libraries, mastering the arcane arts of marketing and the 24/7 demands of running our own business.
If we’re talking steep learning curves ours has been a Kilimanjaro. We’d just cut our teeth on film when the digital revolution happened. Just in terms of ISO we jumped from a gold standard of 50 (we’re talking the good old days of Fuji Velvia here) to routinely being able to shoot at 1,000 plus without much loss of quality – a huge step forward when so many of the critters in our crosshairs are crepuscular, high-speed or hyperactive.
Back in the day we spent an age, plus a fortune on postage, sending out manually labelled and catalogued slides to prospective clients around the world which once out for consideration could not be touted elsewhere. Our hard-won images were sat on for weeks, returned covered in gum from the photo printing process, often sent back scratched and in one or two cases lost forever.
In the field back then we missed so many great moments of action, and nuances of mood, now within our grasp. Exposure was a make or break issue and techniques needed to be nailed in camera – no second chances in the digital darkroom. Looking back it was probably a great way to hone our skills and pay our dues – but what would we have given for a couple of Canon 1DX’s back then?
So now we embrace the digital age for the additional freedom and creative scope it brings us, even if it has led to a surfeit of wildlife imagery and a consequent squeeze on earnings. It means we can run our photographic business from home in the wilds of Northumberland National Park, and increasingly from the remote African bush if we have to when we’re away on photo-journalistic assignments or running photographic safaris. And while it’s become tougher than ever to make a good living from photography – we’re doing something far more important – we’re making a life. No-one can take away the rich bank of wildlife experiences we’ve amassed over the last 20 years and the expertise and knowledge we’ve garnered by focusing hard on a well-defined subject area we’re totally passionate about.
Would we make the same move today we did all those years ago – I’m not sure. But then again I think we would. The huge skies, the smell of the dust, that soundtrack of doves, those sunsets, that sense of excitement you feel before every game drive, crossing paths with an elephant or coming face to face, in the flesh, with a big cat, witnessing a unique bit of animal behaviour, or best of all having a completely wild, unscripted scenario unexpectedly developing to your photographic benefit. Nothing beats that. For us it’s just about one thing. Being there…
Found ourselves wrapping up 2015 a bit like we started the year with a trip to the Cairngorms National Park in the Scottish Highlands in the snow. Back in January our quest was wintry reindeer shots for a Christmas magazine feature for this month – now safely published and ticked off the ‘to do’ list. This time round our mission was mountain hares – a whole lot trickier to capture than docile deer lured to our lenses by expert herders and a bag of supplementary feed. This one wasn’t a commission so much as a personal challenge and a chance to brush up on our stalking skills and burn up a few calories before the Xmas excess.
Unless you’ve been hibernating this winter you’ll know that the weather story in recent weeks here in the north of the UK has been all about milder than average temperatures and the terrible flooding following a soap opera cast list of storms a whole lot less friendly than their names – Eva, Desmond, Frank – might suggest. The white stuff has been pretty scarce so getting any shots of hares in the snow wasn’t looking that likely.
So, a week or so before the Christmas festivities were due to begin, as soon as we heard there had been snow in The Highlands, we headed off. For once luck played into our hands. The roads into the glens were just about passable and the weather was fine and fair. Wrapped up against the minus five temperatures we parked our car and climbed and climbed, and climbed and climbed, following hare tracks here, there and everywhere. It’s tiring, toe-numbing stuff – but what a place to be and what a view all around us.
Eventually after considerable slogging we spied a couple of hares resting up a little bit higher on the steep face of the mountain. They were watching us as keenly as we were spying on them. Time to go into hare stalking mode. If they don’t scarper straightaway – and a fair few do – then slow patient progress is the way with these subjects. Take it steady and very slow and you may be lucky enough to get quite close as some hares will tolerate you if you don’t push them. We found our new best friend, Canon’s 100-400mm zoom, proved a perfect piece of kit for the job with a 1.4x contender on hand for when you need to work at longer range.
We managed to get shots of one fairly confiding hare on that morning’s stalk. You could be lucky and photograph several or not get close to any at all. That’s how it is with mountain hares. Frustratingly we had to make do with photographing stock material at the nearby Highland Wildlife Park on the next two days because an overnight fall of snow made it dodgy for driving into the glen.
We did resume our mountain hare quest later on in the trip, as soon as we were able. But the return of the unseasonal mild weather meant that, when it came, the thaw was just a bit too thorough. The snow disappeared completely – as fast as a fleeing hare – even from the high ground. We did find plenty more mountain hares and took lots of pictures, but charming and characterful as these hardy creatures are, somehow it’s just not the same without the the snow…
From surfing penguins in South Africa to…leaping salmon on the Tyne. There’s a definite watery theme to our photography at the moment. We’d hardly finished saying goodbye to the two oceans of the Cape peninsula last month than we suddenly found ourselves staring into yet more foaming waters – in this case the iconic north-east England river near our home.
We’d wanted to photograph the splash and flash of jumping salmon for a while. Although we live in the perfect place to do it – the Tyne is England’s prime salmon river and the annual salmon run’s an autumn highlight in these parts – it’s always ended up being one of those ‘doorstep’ subjects we’ve never quite got around to doing precisely because they’re so handy. You know the ones. You intend to have a serious go photographing them, and even note it down on your shooting list for the season. But then it drops off the bottom again because you tell yourself they’ll still be there again next year and it’ll be a good project to do then because you kid yourself you’ll have more time to devote it in 12 months.
It’s a bit weird this particular local shot has eluded us for so long given the fact Steve’s a keen angler – any excuse to stare into a river and dream of finding a free day for some fly fishing is welcome in his book. That coupled with the fact we’d previously done a photo story on the fascinating work of the nearby Kielder dam salmon hatchery.
As a result we have photographs on file of all stages of the hatchery’s work from salmon eggs to smolts, but not a single image of a splashing wild salmon flip flopping in the river. You could well say it was the shot that got away.
This autumn we hadn’t even put the salmon on our shopping list of pictures. I think we completely forgot about it. It was only when we were passing by chance, and, attracted by the crowds of spectators gathered above the weir, leaned over to see for ourselves that we truly appreciated what a compelling and photogenic wildlife subject we had within our reach. Why had we left it so long? The sheer numbers of fish exploding out of the teeming waters was staggering, the energy of it all breathtaking, their migration story mind-blowing, their jewel colours against the dark pools of the river mesmerising. They really do look for all the world as though they’re flying. The challenge to capture them on camera was overwhelming. From nowhere the salmon were top of our ‘wish list’ and we rushed home at once to get the camera gear.
For a couple of days, while the water was high enough and when the light was bright enough to give us the requisite speed for sharp action shots and that all important glint of silver on our splashing subjects, we primed our cameras and trained our lenses on the salmon show.
We very quickly discovered it was no use trying to predict where and when the salmon would leap. They’re just too fast. You need to pick your spot – just as a fisherman would. So to catch our fish we trained our cameras on the busiest part of the weir where the highest number of fish and the biggest specimens appeared to make their leap of faith – making sure we had plenty of speed, a fast frame rate and enough depth of field. Then it was just a matter of waiting patiently for the magic moment when a salmon leaped into our view – a bit like waiting for that tug on the line. Click, click, click…
The technique seemed to work okay and we were quite pleased with our first attempts. If we don’t get back again to exploit the remaining window of opportunity this season we’ll definitely be back to try again next November.
Success seemed to be all about holding our nerve as we learned to our cost on more than one occasion. Because it felt stupid at first to narrow our view so much when salmon were leaping along the full length of the weir we kept being tempted to shift position. Don’t. Even though it’s hard to stay focused on the same spot when you start seeing lots of bits of salmon leaping in the corners of your frame, be patient, the fish will jump into your frame at some point. If you take your eye away from the viewfinder, and your finger off the shutter release for just a split second, it’s guaranteed the biggest, best salmon that day will jump perfectly, just where you want it in the frame…
There’s no getting over the real sense of surprise you experience when you see penguins in Africa – of all places – and get great views of their antics – without going on a major, massively expensive expedition to colder climes. Even after repeat visits to the famous and unique breeding colony of endangered African penguins on Foxy Beach in Simon’s Town on the Cape – part of the Table Mountain National Park – it’s still a real joy to spend time photographing these compelling, anthropomorphic subjects.
Just last month on our latest photo trip to South Africa we got the chance to return to the handful of beaches where the colony has made its home since the early eighties. We caught up with the characterful penguins returning to the beach, and to their waiting hungry chicks, after a busy day’s fishing out at sea. The tide was high and photographing the penguins riding the surf and exploding out of the water onto the shore in waves of small groups tossed about by the foaming waters kept our fingers clicking furiously.
At first penguin-watchers more eagle-eyed than us were spotting the returning hunters well before they reached the shore – when they were just tiny dots near the horizon. The groups were back at the beach before we’d had chance to fix them in our viewfinders. We soon learned to distinguish the shapes and colours of a distant penguin group from the vast ocean backdrop and began to see the wonderful potential for pictures. Peering out to sea, we were now poised to track them, cameras primed as they surfed the waves at considerable speed back home to the land-based colony.
The penguins were fantastic to watch as they porpoised through the foam like polished torpedoes. One moment you would see them crest a wave, the next they would disappear beneath it, so hunting a tight-packed group and keeping the birds in focus was a bit of a challenge. Before you could say ‘nailed it’ they were bobbing up back on the beach in a penguin pile, picking themselves up and striding up the shore, chests and tums puffed out, fanning out like chorus line extras from an old Fred Astaire movie in full evening dress. Time for us to try again with the next incoming group…
A visit to see the birds is a ‘must-do’ on any travel itinerary in and around Cape Town. The colony is just a hop, skip and jump from the ‘Mother City’, one of the world’s most popular travel destinations, so the downside is you do have to share the penguins with others. But there are one or two quieter spots along the shore if you’re prepared to look a bit harder, and on the tiny, family-friendly Boulders Beach, right next door to Foxy Beach, there’s the chance of having a penguin toddle right onto your picnic blanket or join you in the shallows as you paddle. How cool is that?
African penguins are the only penguin species found on the African continent. There has been a breeding colony of the penguins on this beach since 1983. We first visited the penguins on Foxy beach in 1996 before the current tourist boardwalk was built. In those days it was possible to walk on the shore in and among the main colony. Since then tourism has increased so the extra protection for the birds is welcome. Penguin numbers in the colony were rising until about 2005 when there were 3,900 penguins. since when there has been a decline to around 2,100. This is thought to be due to a number of factors including global warming affecting fish stocks, over-fishing and the impact of oil spills and marine pollution.
We’ve been invited to take part in an exciting new project to raise much-needed cash to tackle the appalling elephant poaching crisis – and you can take part too.
‘Remembering Elephants’ is being described as a ‘Live Aid’ moment for wildlife photographers. Some of the world’s best wildlife photographers (and us!) are donating images to produce a stunning hardback book of elephant images, which will be sold to raise funds for Born Free Foundation’s anti-poaching work.
With well over 100,000 elephants slaughtered in the past few years, this initiative can’t come soon enough. If you want to help out, you can do so by pledging financial support to the Kickstarter campaign which aims to raise £20,000 to produce the book. If successful, the project could raise £45,000 to go directly into elephant anti-poaching. The Kickstarter campaign kicked off today, with a flying start, but has only one month to reach its goal. If you can afford to make a pledge, then every little helps, and there are some great rewards. Even if you can’t afford to pledge, please pass on the Kickstarter link to anyone you know.
We’re stuck in the office on a typical British summer’s day (cloudy with a chance of rain showers) wrestling with photo processing, marketing, boring admin and magazine deadlines. Each of us is waiting for the other to go downstairs and brew a mug of coffee or make that much-needed call to the boiler-repair guy. Who was it said wildlife photography’s a glamorous, well-paid job? At moments like these (and there are many) the mind easily drifts off to past photo opportunities and adventures. Like the time we finally got the chance to photograph that African savannah classic; a cheetah mum with cubs on the top of a termite mound…
Okay so perhaps it’s not cool to want ‘me-too’ pictures of a subject photographed tons of times before. But we’re not too proud to admit that sometimes we do. We can’t help it. Especially when there’s the chance to spend a morning photographing a fantastic feline, and her playful offspring, in good light in a great location – just as we dreamed about doing when we first started out in this game and saw great shots of cheetah by wildlife photographers we aspired to emulate.
The thing is that until that day we’d never had much luck with cheetah cubs. From the Kalahari to Kruger, the Karoo to the Kunene, we’d been fortunate to watch and photograph wild cheetah in some of southern Africa’s most spectacular locations, yet somehow cute little cubs just eluded us. So when our guide told us he was confident of finding us a mother with three quite small youngsters, we snapped to attention.
We were staying at Phinda, the upmarket operator &Beyond’s private game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. It was three years ago now, at the start of our Project African Rhino photo-journalism campaign. We were there to find out about the important rhino conservation work being carried out on the reserve (today &Beyond is part of a bold initiative to relocate around 100 white rhinos from South Africa, where they’re being hit really hard by poaching, to Botswana, a country with low density rhino populations and a good anti-poaching record).
The opportunity is too good to miss. We’d worked with specialist guide Daryl Dell and tracker Bernard Mnguni before, tracking leopards that were part of a long term research project on the reserve, and we knew teaming up with them again would be both fun and rewarding. Our trigger fingers were itching.
Phinda’s always been a great place to see cheetah. On our last visit we’d had a cheetah explode from the trees by our vehicle and hunt down a young impala. Lots of research is carried out on the reserve’s cheetah, making them some of the most intensively monitored cheetah in South Africa. While we were there conservationists were collecting skin samples for DNA testing to gain a clearer picture of the familial relationships between the individual cheetah.
We headed out for the open terrain of marshland in the north of the reserve, where the cubs had been spotted the previous evening. Our search began by patrolling the track along the edge of the floodplain, Bernard on the tracker’s chair up front, scoured the sand for fresh spoor (pawprints).
It was Daryl who spotted her first – the tell-tale, compact, square head of a female cheetah poking out from a clump of grass. You needed a trained eye to pick her out, but there she was keeping on the look out for trouble, and seeming more than a little nervous. We turned off road and nosed the vehicle cautiously to within 20 metres or so. We could see right away why she was so wary: sprawled in the long grass by her side were three cubs, and by her feet, the remains of a fresh kill.
It was tempting to start photographing at that point, but the three were partially obscured by long grass and there was little chance of framing clean compositions. The background was cluttered and we were looking down too much. Daryl, who knows the place like the back of his hand, motioned to a low termite mound nearby and whispered to us that she just might go up there to check everything was safe before settling down for the day. Cheetah often use vantage points like this to scan the terrain, but could we be that lucky? Many of the classic shots of cheetah on termite mounds you see are taken in East Africa and even there you need to be in just the right place at the right time. Picture perfect encounters are not as common as you might think. Could Daryl be right? Did we have a chance at photographing this classic cheetah behaviour we so wanted? And with cubs to ice the cake too?
The youngsters seemed more interested in snoozing than moving position, but we could see their mother was restless. After a few minutes we watched her get to her feet. She stood and looked around for what seemed like an age. Then she walked. She walked straight. Straight to the termite mound. Daryl grinned. I don’t think he could quite believe it either. In no time at all she was atop the mound, posing perfectly, lean and long-legged, fur glowing golden in the warm light of the newly risen sun.
Over the next hour we were treated to the early morning rituals of a young cheetah family. All four were draped over the mound, like a scatter of fur rugs. The adult and two of the youngsters seemed content to rest in the warm sunshine, but one cub had other ideas.
He played with his tail, then mum’s tail; then started pouncing on her head. She was tolerant at first but soon had enough. She quickly pinned him down and gave him a cat’s lick of a wash with her rasping tongue to calm him down. Freed from her grip, he turned his attention to the other two cubs, but they weren’t interested in playing, and eventually he too was comatose. Our fantastic photo session was at an end. To spend so much time in their world had been truly special – but now we had to rejoin our own.
Back at the lodge reserve manager Simon Naylor told us that at that time Phinda’s cheetah had produced more than 100 litters and more than 250 cubs since the first 15 animals were reintroduced from Namibia in 1992-94. ‘It’s been one of the most successful cheetah reintroduction programmes in South Africa. Phinda was the first private reserve in KZN to reintroduce cheetah successfully,’ he told us. ‘It’s one of the best, if not the best place in South Africa to view wild cheetah,’ he added.
Right now we’d give anything to be back there… Now where’s that boiler repair man’s number?
OK, so this is where we eat our words. After years of avoiding big zoom lenses in favour of primes, we’ve finally gone to the dark side. Canon’s latest version of its 100-400mm L series zoom has won us over – and how.
It was with considerable reservations that we decided to invest our hard earned dosh in the Canon EF 100-400L f4.5-5.6 L IS MkII zoom lens. Actually, it’s with considerable reservations that we invest our dosh in anything that costs four figures, being naturally ‘careful’ with our limited resources (he means stingy – Ann). We’d played with the 100-400mm MkI a few times, and been distinctly underwhelmed. Apologies to any proud owners out there who love the old lens, but how do you live with that push-pull zoom? Never the sharpest lens in the block, it just didn’t cut it for us, and we stuck with our trusty 500mm and 300mm primes, reserving zooms for the sub-200mm range.
But the constant headache of dealing with restrictive carry-on allowances on aircraft, the frequent frustrations of trying to shoot with an unwieldy 500mm on safari vehicles that simply weren’t designed for big lens photography, and the positive reviews for MKII of the 100-400mm after six months on sale, persuaded us to give it a shot. Our recent trip to South Africa, where we were shooting from vehicles, on foot, and in hides, proved a perfect testing ground, and our new baby passed with flying colours.
This isn’t a fully fledged review, there are plenty of those online already, complete with full lens specs, and detailed tests of the lens’s optical qualities. This is a brief subjective assessment, based on a month of shooting in the African bush. How a lens performs in the lab is, of course, important, but for us it’s how it works in the field that matters. Can we get commercially useable shots, consistently, under tough real world conditions? The answer to that is a resounding yes.
First impressions of the lens were positive. Slightly larger and heavier than the original 100-400mm, the new lens is nonetheless fairly compact – not much bigger than Canon’s 70-200mm F2.8 when not extended – and feels very well engineered. You’re certainly not likely to forget you’re carrying a lens that weighs more than 1.5kg, but it’s nonetheless eminently usable as a walk-around lens for hand-held shots, for example when stalking animals, especially given its excellent image stabilising system. Its compact form was also a pleasure to use when in a confined space, in our case a closed vehicle or a hide. So much easier to manoeuvre than the 500mm.
The rotary zoom is much more to our liking than the old push-pull, and has a zoom touch adjustment ring that allows you to easily adjust the zoom ‘tightness’. Set to the lowest friction level (‘Smooth’), it’s easy to zoom in and out with little effort. At the ‘Tight’ setting, the zoom isn’t quite locked, but there’s little chance of accidentally altering focal length. This is important, for example, when you want to keep the lens to its maximum focal length, such as when we were photographing small birds at the bird bath hides at Zimanga private game reserve. (We were visiting Zimanga in preparation for our 2016 photo safaris – visit www.toonphoto.com/safari if you’re interested in signing up.)
Shooting waxbills, twinspots and the like at a range of about five metres, we needed every bit of the lens’s 400mm maximum extension most of the time – until a big old warthog boar showed up for a brief drink, at which point the advantage of using a zoom was very obvious!
Point the lens downward, with the friction ring set to ‘Smooth’, and the lens does slowly extend itself under gravity, but it only takes a slight adjustment of the ring to stop this. So even if the zoom action slackens after a year or two of hard use, it should be easy to compensate by tightening the friction ring a little more.
The lens is supplied with a twist-on, locking hood. It’s nice and compact when reversed for storage, but we found it a bit fiddly to attach in a hurry. The hood includes a small sliding window, that allows you access to any rotating filter that you might have attached, such as a circular polarising filter. This is a great idea in principle, but in practice we found the slide was a bit loose, meaning the window occasionally opened itself, creating a potential problem of flare. As we almost never use filters on our longer lenses, I suspect we’ll end up supergluing the window closed.
By contrast, the various switches on the body of the lens are anything but loose, requiring a reasonable amount of pressure to alter. This is a very good thing, as it greatly reduces the chance of accidentally switching off stabiliser mode. When we’re on safari we’ll often keep our camera/lens rigs on the back seat of our vehicle as we drive around, and with our elderly 500mm lens in particular we’ve found the stabiliser switch often gets turned off accidentally as we jolt along corrugated roads. In the heat of an exciting encounter it’s easy to not notice that you’re shooting without stabilisation.
You can’t remove the tripod collar, but you can unscrew the tripod foot without the need of a tool. We preferred to keep the tripod foot attached, even when shooting on beanbags, as we often do when in a vehicle. Resting the lens on the tripod foot reduces the chance of unintentionally altering the zoom or focus rings when you pan on a bean bag. The tripod ring is well engineered and easy to rotate when using a tripod.
One thing that took a bit of getting used to was the orientation of the manual focus ring and the zoom ring – they’re the opposite way round to those on our 70-200mm f2.8, with the manual focus ring near the camera body, and the zoom ring in front. Not a big issue, we just had to retrain ourselves.
The IS system on the lens claims a 4 stop effectiveness. The slowest handhold speed we tried was 1/40 sec at 100mm, and the image was pin sharp. This was using IS mode I, which damps movement in all planes and is our default setting. Mode II reduces shake during panning, while Mode III corrects vibration only during exposure (and only in one direction if you are panning). We need to experiment more with these modes, and at slower shutter speeds, but initial impressions were certainly favourable. IS is very quiet, to the point that we sometimes had to double check that it was switched on.
Focus is fast, accurate and quiet, and while the lens is never going to snap onto a subject as quickly as, say, a 300mm f2.8, it is more than proficient for the vast majority of wildlife situations, including moving subjects in decent light. There’s a focus limiter switch with two choices, full or 3 metres to infinity. We used the 3 metre setting when shooting from the Zimanga bird bath hides, where subjects were always more than 3 metres away, and the full setting in Zimanga’s new lagoon hide, where waterbirds often approach much closer. In truth, focus acquisition isn’t noticeably slower on the full setting, so I doubt we’ll often use the limited range. Close focus on the lens is an impressive 0.98 metres, which is great for us, as we often use a long lens for close-up shots of small subjects such as rodents, lizards, large insects, flowers and fungi, where we specifically want shallow depth of field and narrow field of view.
Of course, all of this counts for nought if the images produced by the lens aren’t sharp enough. And in this respect the lens considerably exceeded our expectations. It’s fair to say that shooting from the hides, with the lens firmly held on a Manfrotto tripod with gimbal head, the sharpness of the images it produced were indistinguishable from those produced by our 500mm used on the same subjects at the same time. Images were not only pin sharp, but had excellent colour and contrast. Image sharpness is maintained throughout the zoom range, and whether stopped down or opened wide. Bench tests may tell you that certain apertures will deliver optimum sharpness, but for practical purposes (in our case shooting mainly for editorial use, where images may be cropped and printed as double page spreads in magazines) this really isn’t an issue. This is great news for us, as we’re often shooting at the ends of the day, in very low light, when maximum aperture is essential to get a realistic shutter speed.
We expected image quality to be very good, having read a few reviews, but what really surprised us was when we stuck a 1.4x extender on – just out of curiosity, and with no expectation of getting a satisfactory image. We never use extenders on zoom lenses. Correction, we never used extenders on zooms. In good light, and with a stable platform, the lens plus extender delivered very sharp images, certainly good enough for print. On our 1DX and 5DIII bodies autofocus was maintained, though only the central AF point works. Of course, with the 1.4x extender attached, the maximum aperture becomes a rather slow f8 at the 400mm end, which can be problematic in low light. When we need reach we’ll still be using our 500mm as our first choice over the 100-400mm plus 1.4x pairing, but where we can’t use the 500mm, for example if travelling with restricted baggage, we’ll be happy to use the zoom with extender if there’s reasonable light.
The lens produces a little vignetting, particularly at the 400mm end, but this is easily rectified in Lightroom. There’s minimal chromatic aberration in most circumstances, and again where it does appear it’s easily dealt with in post processing.
Overall, we’re definitely in love with the 100-400mm version II, and it will be seeing a lot of action. It’s perfect for safaris, with a zoom range that covers many eventualities, and a compact form that makes it suitable on vehicles, boats and in hides, and easy to pack in carry-on baggage. If, like us, you’re keen on photographing birds, then you’ll still want a longer lens such as the 500mm or 600mm, but if your budget or baggage allowance won’t stretch that far, then a 1.4 extender is certainly a viable alternative. Pack a short zoom (say a 24-105mm) alongside the 100-400mm and a 1.4x extender, and you’ve a highly portable and very practical pared-down kit for travelling with your camera.
Wildlife, conservation, photography and ecotourism: the adventures of award-winning photojournalists Ann and Steve Toon