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Happy Memorial Day

 On this Memorial Day, enjoy your time off, enjoy your barbecues, enjoy the weather, but most of all, take a moment today to be grateful for those who have given their time and lives in service to this great country. Happy Memorial Day.

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May 2012 Solar Eclipse

Unless you've been living under a rock the past week, you probably heard about the annular solar eclipse that happened this past Sunday (May 20, 2012). So, like many of the residents in its path, I headed out with my protective glasses and my camera to witness this amazing event.

Annular Solar Eclipse in Irvine, CA on May 20, 2012Click image for larger version

This was the first solar eclipse I'd ever seen, let alone photographed, so I didn't really know what to expect. Photographing it proved to be a bit tough. It was difficult to not get ghost images and reflections of the sun off the filters and elements inside the camera lens. Also, I had to bring the exposure way down since, you know, I'm looking directly into the sun and all. With the exposure way down, the sky turned black, which kind of made it look like a crescent moon. And even with 8 stops of split ND, there was no way to get a correctly exposed foreground element in the shot. So, in order to execute the picture above, I resorted to one of my least-favorite techniques: digital composite (bleh...).

If you're a regular here on my blog, you know how much I hate combining multiple images using Photoshop. I never do it for my more traditional non-eclipse photos - in fact, this was only the second composite image I've ever done - but the above photo was just physically impossible without either digital manipulation or an 11-stop split ND filter. If I'd had that 11-stop split ND filter that doesn't exist, I could have and would have executed this photo in a single frame without any Photoshop.

But, alas, my only option was to photograph the scene at a correct exposure for the foreground, then photograph the eclipse separately at a much darker exposure. I then overlaid the photo of the eclipse on top of the foreground image and faded the transition between the two images from top to bottom much like a split ND would. The sun is still in the correct spot in the frame and is about the correct size, but all-in-all, it took about 15 minutes of work in the computer to create this image.

And as for the close-up shots of the eclipse, I only had 400mm to work with on my lens. 1200mm would have been nice, but whaddya gonna do?

Overall, the eclipse was beautiful, interesting, exciting and fun to see/photograph. I'm already counting down the days to 2017 when we'll get a full solar eclipse!

Annular Solar Eclipse in Irvine, CA on May 20, 2012

Choosing a Telephoto Zoom Lens

Along with a good mid-range zoom lens and a wide-angle zoom, a telephoto zoom will round out your collection of lenses quite nicely. A telephoto lens will zoom in further and magnify the subject more than a typical mid-range kit lens. This makes them great for "reaching" those far away subjects like wildlife, sports and even detail shots on landscapes.


This is 200mm on a full-frame camera (equiv. to 125mm on a small-frame)

When selecting a telephoto zoom lens, you'll have to consider a few things (in addition to budget). First, the higher the focal length number, the more "zoomed in" the lens can go. Meaning, a 70-200mm lens won't reach as far as a 100-400mm lens. So if you need to reach as far as possible, go for the higher focal length number.

You'll also want to look at the lens' maximum aperture. The maximum aperture is the widest the aperture can open on the lens. A wider maximum aperture will let in more light and, thus, allow the camera to use faster shutter speeds. So if you think you'll need fast shutter speeds when using the lens, you might want to consider getting the lens with a wider maximum aperture. The lens' widest maximum aperture is always indicated in the title. For instance, the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens can open all the way to a maximum aperture of f/2.8. Whereas the Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS can only open to an aperture of f/4. To learn more about how to understand lens nomenclature, check out this post.

Here are the telephoto zoom lenses I recommend:


Canon 55-250mmCANON

Entry-Level
Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS (buy - $255)

A great starter lens for those looking to get a little more reach out of their Canon DSLR. It's a mere $255, which shouldn't break the bank for most people, and it zooms pretty far out to 250mm. Although this isn't as far as the next lens, which reaches to 300mm, 250mm ain't half bad for a lens under $260. At this low of a price, though, the autofocus motor isn't as fast or as quiet as the more expensive lenses. But at least it has image stabilizer, which is a very nice perk on long lenses like these.

Canon 70-300mmMid-Level
Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM (buy - $549)

This lens has a few benefits over the 55-250mm discussed above. First, it reaches 20% further out to 300mm. When photographing wildlife or sports, that extra 50mm turns out to be quite a bit. The build quality of this lens is a little bit better over the 55-250, too. Sure, it's no magnesium-alloy tank like the professional series lenses, but it will feel a little more robust than the 55-250mm. Most importantly, this lens features Canon's Ultrasonic Motor (USM) auto focus system. That means this thing will focus much, much faster and much more quietly than the 55-250.

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L ISHigh-End Option 1
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS (buy - $1,349)
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II (buy - $2,499) 

For your first high-end option, I'd recommend the Canon 70-200mm. At 200mm this lens really doesn't reach that far. Truthfully, it just isn't enough zoom for most wildlife photography. But for sports and portraits...it's phenomenal. That being said, Canon offers both a 70-200mm with a maximum aperture of f/4 and one with a maximum aperture of f/2.8. Both varieties come with or without image stabilizer, too (get it with stabilizer included - no doubt about it). As part of Canon's L-series professional line of lenses, both feature Canon's top-of-the-line optics, construction, weather-sealing and ultra-fast USM auto focus motors.

But now the real question: do I get the f/4 or f/2.8 version? Here's my short, no-nonsense recommendation: If you want to shoot portraits or sports and you won't have to hike long distances with this lens, get the f/2.8. The 2.8 max aperture will let in 1 stop more light than the f/4, which may be the difference between a shutter speed that's just fast enough or one that's just a little bit too slow for sports. And as for portraits, the ultra-blurry background at f/2.8 will make you drool. But if you're planning to use this more for photographing detail shots in landscapes or if weight will be an issue for you, go with the f/4. It's over a pound-and-a-half lighter than the 2.8 and it's only 1 stop loss of light, which is usually no big deal when shooting still subjects. Oh, and it's over $1,000 cheaper.

Canon 100-400mm High-End Option 2
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS (buy - $1,699)

If wildlife is your thing, then I'd recommend the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L. It reaches over twice as far as the 70-200mm and features the same pro-level build, optics, weather-sealing and image stabilization. At 3.04 lbs, it's no lightweight, so be prepared. But hey, the 70-200mm f/2.8 discussed above still has a quarter of a pound over this baby. The extra reach here will be worth the loss of light (which is actually quite a bit). And with today's modern cameras going up to 6-digits on the ISO in some cases, the lack of light won't be much of an issue.

 

NIKON

Nikon 55-300mmEntry-Level
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR (buy - $397)

Much like the Canon 55-250mm discussed at the top of this post, this Nikon 55-300mm is a great starter lens if you're looking to zoom in a little further for sports, wildlife, portraits or kids. It has Vibration Reduction (which is Nikon's brand of image stabilizer) and has a decent auto focus motor. Truth be told, though, this thing feels pretty chintzy in your hand. The focus rings always feel loose to me. I really think this lens should run more around $275 than $397, but again, good for starting out. It'll last you a couple years or less, then you can graduate up to a more rugged lens.

Nikon 70-300mmMid-Level
Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED (buy - $587)

This is a great mid-level telephoto that works perfect for those photographers looking to shoot the occasional kid's baseball game or the local air show. Like all lenses in this mid-level price range, it won't let in a ton of light, which may become an issue when photographing in dim environments, but the price and weight are just right for the casual shooter. The build quality is slightly better than the 55-300 above, but the zoom and focus rings still feel loose to me. It also has Vibration Reduction to help combat camera shake.

Nikon 70-200mmHigh-End Option 1
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II (buy - $2,397)

For close-range sports, portraits and scenic details, the Nikon 70-200mm is a superb choice. Its max aperture of f/2.8 will let in a boatload of light, allowing you to use faster shutter speeds and/or lower ISOs - perfect for capturing action. The build quality is leaps and bounds above the mid-level lens discussed previously. Rugged construction and weather sealing ensure this lens will go to hell and back with you, and never miss a shot. The optics, of course, are top-notch and the Vibration Reduction will be a godsend when handholding this puppy. It's pricey, but you won't need to replace it for years and years.

Nikon 80-400mm

High-End Option 2
Nikon AF VR Zoom-NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED (buy - $1,679)

If you need more reach than the 70-200mm can give you, the Nikon 80-400mm may be your best bet. It's rugged, tough and sharp - all good things when it comes to photographing wildlife. And with double the reach over the 200mm, you won't find yourself wishing for "more lens" as often. Don't get me wrong, though, you'll still want "more lens." Wildlife always leaves you wishing you could reach further. The loss of light with the smaller max aperture may be an issue when photographing in dim environments, but with ISO performance the way it is on newer cameras, it won't be a problem most of the time. Be prepared to carry the weight of this beast, though.