Some people will tell you that size doesn’t matter – I’ve been trying to sell that idea for years. However, as with all things in life, different situations and preferences determine the suitability, or lack thereof, of any given set of equipment. I have recently been lucky enough to play around with a 600mm f4 Nikon lens. It is a serious piece of equipment. You know this when you pick it up, or at least try to – the version I have been using weighs over 5kg (11lbs). The latest version of this lens is 1.5kg lighter at least, and they have even brought out an 800mm lens at around the same weight. As with most large prime lenses (i.e. fixed focal length, no zoom) this can make it impractical if you are travelling to Africa – which is why rentals can be extremely convenient. What can also be useful is a 1.4x or 2x converter on a shorter lens, such as a fixed 300mm – this makes it a lot lighter, however you do lose sharpness with the converter and the camera tends to focus a bit slower, particularly if you have a generic brand converter. I have found that using a converter on a zoom lens doesn’t generally produce consistent results.
Despite being somewhat unwieldly, the 600mm focal length is a huge help, particularly with bird photography. The combination of their small size and skittish nature mean the only way to be able to fill the frame with them is to have a long lens. From a sharpness point of view, a prime lens also simply can’t be beaten, and the f4 aperture allows for higher shutter speeds (essential for birds in flight), as well as operating in lower light. If you enjoy bird photography, make sure you have a good quality tripod, camera mount or beanbag and give one of these big lenses a try. A few trips to the gym beforehand to prepare your biceps also wouldn’t hurt…
A Pied Kingfisher perches in a Matumi tree over a pool of water in the Sand River. 1/2500 sec, f5.6, 600mm, ISO720
Its cousin, the Giant Kingfisher takes flight from a nearby perch. 1/2000 sec, f6.3, 600mm, ISO1600
Having a good quality lens that has enough focussing speed, and a camera with a high frame rate, make you more likely to get a sharp bird in flight shot. Irrespective of your equipment, be prepared to miss far more than you get right. 1/2000sec, f6.3, 600mm, ISO1600
We spent some photographing two Verreaux’s (previously Giant) Eagle Owls that were roosting in an Ebony tree in the north of Londolozi. 1/2000sec, f6.3, 600mm, ISO2200
It was the screeching call of this particular bird (usually made by females or juveniles soliciting food) that drew our attention to them in the first place. 1/2000sec, f6.3, 600mm, ISO2000
The only mammal photo I have taken with the lens so far – two hippos having a territorial battle in Camp Dam. 1/2000sec, f7.1, 600mm, ISO1000
A Great Egret perches against the rising sun. The long focal length enhances your ability to take backlit shots by getting in close to the subject and avoiding blowing out the shot by having your frame area too close to the sun. 1/2500sec, f5.6, 600mm, ISO125
A closeup portrait of an African Darter. The focal length and low aperture help blur the background and ensure the subject stands out more. 1/2000, f4, 600mm, ISO640
A Grey Heron stands in one of he few remaining pools in the Sand River. As the river dries the fish are concentrated in these pools and make for easy pickings for the herons and crocodiles that gather at these points in their numbers. 1/2000sec, f4, 600mm, ISO640.
A terrifying sight if you are a Helmeted Guinea Fowl – an African Hawk Eagle takes off from it’s perch in pursuit of prey. 1/2000sec, f7.1, 600mm, ISO560.