The benefits of a zoom or telephoto lens for “macro” shots

Posted on 19th January, 2020

Close up shot of a flower head
Close up shot of a flower head

I don’t like carrying more lenses around than necessary. I will go into this in a future blog, but ultimately, if I could get away with one lens I would.

However, “horses for courses” and all that! So I inevitably end up with several choices when going out for a day of shooting.

I use a fairly large pack – an FStoppers Tilopa or Sukha pack – both of which are large packs, but I always tend to take a minimum of other gear, plus clothing and food / drink. I hate having a small pack crammed because it’s uncomfortable. Much rather a larger pack that is lightly filled. Each to their own.

Point being I usually take at least one camera body (often two) and ancillary stuff like batteries, spare SD Cards, tripod, and cleaning kit as a minimum.

Lens choice is where the weight can start to creep. I have good lenses, and good glass is both expensive and heavy. I shoot Sony so I am at a relative advantage to Canon and Nikon shooters – the Sony Full-Frame Alpha cameras are smaller, lighter and so are the lenses (by and large)

However it all adds up.

 

A Brown Argus butterfly taken with a 100-400mm zoom lens
A Brown Argus butterfly taken with a 100-400mm zoom lens

So, I now take the following for general wildlife and landscape shooting.

(1) A 16-25mm F/2.8 if I am doing a lot of landscape that day
or
(2) A 24-70mm F/2.8 if I am mixing landscape with wildlife

Finally, a zoom lens … and I almost always use the 100-400mm F/5.6-F/6.3 for this. If space or weight is a premium I will substitute this for a 70-200mm F/4 and if I am definitely and predominantly doing wildlife, I will like take the 400mm F/2.8 telephoto instead. It’s heavy, bulky but unbelievably good if you can’t get close to your subject.

I usually throw in my teleconverters. The 1.4x will mean my 400mm becomes a 560mm with only the loss of a single stop of light (F/4)

The 2x I use very occasionally – turning my 400mm into an 800mm with a loss of 2 stops of light, meaning I lose the delicious bokeh of the F/2.8 aperture for the relatively okay bokeh of an F/5.6. Sacrifice yes - but sometimes you need the reach :) 

 

A picturesque lane with misty light taken with a zoom lens
A picturesque lane with misty light taken with a zoom lens

I am a huge fan of telephoto for Landscapes. It really allows you to focus in on some distant point and really makes you think about framing your shot. Too often with a 16mm lens, you are getting in so much of the landscape, it can make you lazy.

Also, you may be on a hillside waiting for the right conditions, and in the distance you can see light playing across the landscape and creating some really interesting scenes. A telephoto or zoom is perfect in these situations for isolating those areas and forcing you to compose within that tight frame. I love zoom with landscape!

 

A Teazle plant taken with a 400mm telephoto lens
A Teazle plant taken with a 400mm telephoto lens

Where it really works for me though is for wildflower and butterfly photograpy.
I have a good macro lens, and if I am in my garden I often use it – sneaking as close as I can to a subject and trying to get a crisp closeup !

However, out in the field it is extra weight. And not only that, it is really intrusive – often requiring you to get so close you will certainly scare the majority of “flighty” butterflies like Fritillaries, Skippers and Blues. Small White butterflies seem noticeably twitchy and are always settling and then flying off again after several seconds.

So, a macro lens can sometimes be more of a hindrance, or at least, require much more patience and time. Sometimes you don’t have that luxury.

Light changes fast, and you also have errant gusts of wind often to contend with. Most of all are the random nature of butterflies and where / when they land.

A zoom though is fabulous for this type of shot. You can sit six or 10 feet back and still almost fill the frame with your subject, all without really alarming them and you certainly aren’t close enough to cast shadows with either your body or your kit. Win-Win!

 

A 90mm Macro lens (left camera) and 400mm telephoto (right camera)
A 90mm Macro lens (left camera) and 400mm telephoto (right camera)
90mm Macro shot taken with the camera next to the plant
90mm Macro shot taken with the camera next to the plant

A setup showing a macro lens and a telephoto lens looking at the same plant

Not only that, but you maximise the subject/background separation to really make the subject “pop” – reducing the distraction of a busy background to a multihued blur. This really works extremely well.

Here are some pictures showing the same plant photographed with a 90mm F/2.8 macro lens and a 400mm F/2.8 telephoto.
Shown too is the setup showing the difference in where the camera is in relation to the shot.

This is the shot taken with the macro lens about 3 inches from the plant.

400mm telephoto lens shot of the same plant
400mm telephoto lens shot of the same plant

...and this is the picture of the same plant head with the 400mm telephoto. As you can see in the image of the setup, the telephoto was about 8-10 feet further back. Actually it has to be a fair way, this lens will not focus much less than about 8 foot. 

Brown Argus basking on a plant- no clutter
Brown Argus basking on a plant- no clutter

Getting down, ideally lower than the top of the plant or butterfly and looking “up” towards the subject will also mean you are likely to lose clutter and possibly have a clear sky around the subject. This doesn’t always work, and you need to be aware of where the sunlight is coming from. You can get silhouette shots like this too.

Alternatively, look down at a sharp angle from the perpendicular – like in this shot. The butterfly (Brown Argus) was almost on the top of the flower basking and enjoying the warmth. I had looked at several shots from the side, but this seemed the better option. Be aware too though that some zooms and telephoto lenses have quite a large “Minimum focus distance” – which means they won’t focus on anything less that that. If you are struggling to focus, this could be why. Try moving back if possible.

If you want a superbly close up shot of an insect or flower, you really can’t go wrong reaching for your macro lens, providing you can control the environment. In many cases, especially with flighty insects, you will struggle to approach them without scaring them away. This is where the zoom lens comes into its own. It really does make insect photography particularly, and absolute breeze!  

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