This is a confession. I confess that I have only ever loved fixed super-telephoto lenses. I confess that I have always told other people to buy fixed lenses, and I confess that I have made a mistake.
Fixed super-telephoto lenses
For thirty years I have been photographing with fixed focal length super-telephoto lenses. At the moment, I use the Canon 600mm f/4, 300mm f/2.8 and 300mm f/4, but have used everything from a Novoflex 600mm and 400mm, Canon 500mm f/4.5, 400mm f/4.5, and many more. I have however, never considered using a long zoom lens. I did use a certain dust-sucking apparatus for a few months before selling it (read Canon 100–400mm), but it was more like a one-night stand than a love affair, so it was almost never used.
I stuck to fixed lenses. I like my 300mm f/2.8, because one can use it with a 2× converter getting brilliant results and really love my 600mm f/4 t. In my opinion, there is no lens that even comes close.
Then again, I don’t really trust my own opinion any more, now that I realised that I might have been wrong about zoom super-telephoto lenses all along.
Recently I bought the Canon 200–400mm f/4 lens. The price knocked me over, but what got me up again was the incredible versatility of this lens. All of a sudden I can be on a game drive with only two telephoto lenses (70–200mm f/2.8 and 200–400mm f/4), both of which can be handheld, and I don’t miss images any more.
A person can become more creative when it comes to framing images, instead of zooming to the perfect length, or trying to fit a subject into the limiting lens length of a fixed lens. I no longer think about which lens to use or which converter to attach, but rather how to create a beautiful image. Suddenly I am free and this freedom is worth the price of the lens.
The images created by this lens are much better than a f/5.6 lens, more like a fixed 300mm f/2.8 than a 300mm f/4. When it comes to bokeh, the large diameter of the front element puts this lens into the pro lens category and using it without the built-in converter when the extra length is not necessary, really improves the effect.
Like everything, the lens is not perfect. If you really want to nitpick, then the quality is not as good as the higher standard fixed lens. However, for my applications (book publishing, mainly), the image quality is much better than what is required, in fact, the image quality is overkill.
I find the 560mm maximum length inadequate at times. On a typical game drive in southern Africa, one often needs a 700mm plus lens to capture a subject. Personally, I don’t like keeping two big telephoto lenses with me on a game drive due to space restrictions. The 200–400mm, for me, cannot be a second lens. I either use it alone, or use another long fixed lens with a small zoom as a second lens.
There are definitely places where other lens combinations would work better. In the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, for instance, the action normally happens further away, so 560mm would not be enough. There, I would rather use my 600mm f/4 as my main lens, and perhaps my 300mm f/4 as a second small lens with the 70–200mm.
For general game drives in most game parks, I now prefer to have a big zoom lens like the 200–400 mm because of the ease of use and versatility.
In addition, because of the advances in equipment and the changes in the photography industry, I find myself doing much more video than in the past. For video, this lens is the best you can use. The manual focus is easy to use (although I still get confused by the focus and zoom barrels, having been swopped compared to the 70–200mm lens).
So there you have it. My most important confession to date. I would like to apologise to everybody I have ever told that the only way to go with super-telephoto lenses is fixed, since I was wrong.