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Wildlife photographer Marina Cano's five tips for choosing a telephoto lens

A close-up of a newborn elephant. Photo by Marina Cano.
Getting as close a shot as possible is a hallmark of Marina Cano's wildlife photography. The Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM lens allows her to capture details, such as the hairs and skin texture of this newborn elephant, with pristine clarity. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II at 1/1000 sec, f/4 and ISO 1600. © Marina Cano

Telephoto lenses are a vital tool for many photographers, particularly when covering wildlife, sport or news, but they can be a substantial investment. It's therefore important to consider what you need your lens to do, both now and in the future, to ensure you make the right choice and can shoot the kind of imagery you want as the scope of your work progresses.

For Spanish wildlife photographer and Canon Ambassador Marina Cano, telephoto lenses form the core of her kitbag. With over 16 years' experience of shooting nature, Marina has learnt what she needs from her lenses, whether she's shooting at Cabárceno wildlife park close to her home in Santander, Spain, or leading photographic safaris in Namibia or Kenya. Reliable, versatile glass ensures she is able to capture tender moments in the wild, in the fine art portraiture style for which she's become known, and share them with her 28,000 Instagram followers.

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Marina's favourite L-series lenses have to be portable, quick to autofocus and weather resistant. There are several further considerations she bears in mind when choosing a lens. "First, I consider how far away the subject is from my shooting position," she explains. "Second, the quality of the glass has to be good enough to give me the detail I want. Third, my personal style influences which lenses I use, based on their optical characteristics."

Here the wildlife pro explains what to look for when choosing a telephoto lens, and reveals why she's chosen the telephoto lenses in her kitbag.

Wildlife photographer Marina Cano sitting on the bonnet of a 4x4 vehicle holding a Canon camera with a long lens attached to it.
No matter the environment, Marina's sturdy, waterproof lenses allow her to keep shooting.

1. Pick what you need for your subjects

When choosing a telephoto lens for shooting wildlife, it's important to bear in mind what you're likely to be shooting, says Marina. How far away will your subjects be? Are they likely to be in a fixed position or on the move? "Your destination will give you an idea of how far away the wildlife could be, and that will decide the focal length," she says. "Then your own style, together with the lens quality, will help you decide on a lens."

If you're shooting from a static location, such as a hide, it's especially important to consider the minimum focusing distance of a fixed telephoto lens to ensure continuous coverage. For example, the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens focuses down to two metres, while the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM lens focuses down to more than twice that (4.2 metres). If an animal is coming towards you, you might be better off using a 300mm lens.

Marina loves the flexibility she gets from telephoto zooms and encourages her photography students to use them because they make it easier to frame fast-moving subjects. "Using the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x lens gives you the optical quality of a fixed focal length lens and combines it with the versatility of a zoom," she says. "The zoom helps you to compose your shot, especially if you cannot move from your position, for example if you're in a car on safari, or if your subject is moving further away or getting closer."

A young zebra and its mother with their faces touching. Photo by Marina Cano.
The Image Stabilization built into her Canon lenses helps Marina keep up with the action and minimise the effects of camera shake, which are exacerbated at long focal distances. Here, a young zebra nuzzles the face of its mother. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM lens at 1/1600 sec, f/4, ISO 1250. © Marina Cano

2. Consider weight and size

Telephoto lenses are notoriously unwieldy. Historically both bulky and heavy, they are often considered hard to transport and work with. Yet, within the telephoto category there is a wide divergence in focal length and associated weight and, as optics technology progresses, lenses are coming in smaller packages yet performing better than previous iterations.

A lioness yawning, jaws open wide. Photographed by Jonathan and Angela Scott on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II.

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Depending on what and how you're shooting, it may be advantageous to consider some of the lighter and smaller telephotos on the market now, such as the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM lens. Weighing in at 3,050g, it's 870g lighter than its predecessor.

"The fact this lens is nearly 1kg lighter than the previous version makes it easy to hand-hold for several minutes," says Marina. "I can move around freely, carrying it to any location. Before I had this lens, I needed to think twice about bringing a 600mm f/4L because it was so heavy, but now I don't have to worry."

While zoom lenses bring an associated weight increase due to the greater volume of glass in the lens barrel, there are smaller portable options. "When I run my wildlife workshops in Cabárceno Natural Park, the largest wildlife park in Europe, I usually bring my Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens for my students because it gives great performance and is lightweight and small," says Marina. At just 193mm long, this lens sits on the smaller side of the tele-zoom market and fits in most carry cases and camera backpacks.

3. Seek out Image Stabilization for sharper handheld shots

As telephoto lenses continue to become smaller and lighter, shooting with them hand-held has become a more viable option. However, these lenses are still large enough for camera shake to remain a potential problem. This effect is magnified at longer focal lengths, making good quality Image Stabilization (IS) critical for maximum sharpness.

"Stabilization is really important when hand-holding super telephoto lenses, such as the Canon EF 600mm f/4L III USM lens, or in low-light conditions, when you need to match the shutter speed with the focal length reciprocal, such as 1/600 sec for a 600mm lens," says Marina. With powerful IS built into professional grade telephoto lens ranges, such as the Canon L-series lenses, wildlife photographers can select different modes depending on whether they are shooting static animals or tracking moving ones.

The Canon EF 600mm f/4L III USM lens has 5-stops of IS to keep things sharp, while the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x has 4-stops of IS built-in, and the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens has 3.5-stops of IS.* This is particularly beneficial when shooting animals that are active at dawn and dusk – in low light, shutter speeds need to be slower for a good exposure, meaning potentially more risk of blurring due to camera shake.

The IS in these lenses, coupled with fast autofocus from ring-type Ultrasonic motors, allows you to easily keep up with any fast-paced action. "The Canon EF 600mm f/4L III USM and Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM are my most used lenses for a reason," says Marina. "The autofocus is precise and very fast. I also love their performance in the out-of-focus areas in the background."

A lynx looks directly at the camera, while the background is blurred. Photo by Marina Cano.
The 9-blade aperture diaphragm design of the L-series lenses produces a smoother bokeh in out-of-focus areas in the foreground and background. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM lens at 1/2000 sec, f/4 and ISO 1000. © Marina Cano

4. Demand edge-to-edge sharpness

Marina's style of wildlife photography captures great detail in her subjects, from the crease on the back of a gorilla's hand to the fine hairs on an elephant's trunk. That's down to how close she can get to wildlife, and the clarity with which she can focus. These small details on an animal's skin develop intimacy in photography, so choosing a lens that can resolve small details with precision is key.

"Quality, together with nearness, is essential in my work," she says. "The Canon EF 600mm f/4L III USM lens allows me to capture details in my images such as hairs and skin texture in a brilliant way. The most important factor with this lens is the proximity it gives me."

With Super Spectra Coating (SSC) and Air Sphere Coatings (ASC), the Canon EF 600mm f/4L III USM lens is designed to minimise flare and ghosting across the lens elements for increased clarity. Meanwhile the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM uses SubWavelength Coating (SWC) to prevent unwanted reflections and flare. Plus, the 9-blade aperture diaphragm design in both these lenses produces a smoother bokeh in out-of-focus areas in the foreground and background, to complement a sharp subject.

A young bear and its mother on a rock, lit from behind by the sun. Photo by Marina Cano.
The Canon EF 600mm f/4L III USM lens has 5-stops of IS to keep things sharp no matter how low the light is when the subjects appear. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM + EF 1.4x III Extender at 1/800 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 800. © Marina Cano

5. Be prepared with weather sealing and durable build

Shooting the natural world means working in the great outdoors, with all the adverse conditions that can bring. Whether shooting in sandstorms in the desert, dust and rain on the Savannah or freezing conditions in the Arctic, wildlife photographers need to invest in durable lenses with a superior build quality to resist the elements.

Weather sealing is something Marina has fallen back on time and time again in the field and always looks for when choosing her lenses. Waterproofing means that she's able to keep shooting for longer when the weather turns, and can shoot subjects that are more likely to emerge in the wet. "I was photographing bears with their cubs in the springtime using my Canon EF 600mm f/4L III USM lens when it started to rain," she recalls. "I knew I didn't have to worry about the lens getting wet, so I could keep shooting."

The fluorine lens coatings on the front and rear elements of Canon's L-series telephoto lenses make it easy to clean away dust and other particulates, which is helpful when shooting in dusty and arid conditions. A strong rubber ring fixed around the lens mount, as found on the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, also helps to keep dust and debris out of the camera.

* IS figures based on CIPA testing.

Autor: Jason Parnell-Brookes


Marina Cano's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their wildlife photographs

A selection of Canon cameras, lenses and accessories.

Camera

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

Canon's flagship pro DSLR with 20.2-megapixel, full-frame sensor, 61-point AF system, up to 14fps and ISO to 409,600. Marina says: "This is the best camera on Earth right now, although at the same time it has an ISO performance from another world."

Lenses

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM

High-performance L-series super-telephoto lens, with 3.5-stop Image Stabilizer and three modes ideal for all types of action photography. This lens delivers outstanding image quality in a robust lightweight construction. "It's small, easy to carry, light, sharp and all with the best quality," says Marina. "I also love its performance in the out-of-focus areas in the background."

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM

A super lightweight 600mm f/4 lens, perfect for professional wildlife, sports and news photographers. "It allows me to capture details in my images such as hairs and skin texture in a brilliant way," says Marina.

Lenses

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