Arthur Morris
Arthur Morris

Arthur Morris is widely recognized as the world's premier bird photographer.

Which telephoto lenses do I bring? Traveling with big glass and more

September 03, 2013

Wildebeest crossing, Mara River, Serengeti

EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 70mm with the EOS 5D Mark III

Going wide here, with a slow shutter speed of 1/15 sec., was the key to the success of this image.

I am blessed in that I routinely travel to the world’s top wildlife photography destinations and am blessed as well to either own or have access to the great line-up of Canon telephoto lenses available today. In an ideal world, I would be able to bring each lens that I need on every trip, along with several assistants to hand them to me as needed. But in the real world, I travel only with a Think Tank International Security rolling bag for all of my gear. For extended workshops at various US locations, I will often ship additional gear in advance. But for international trips, that is not a viable option – the Think Tank bag is it. Deciding which telephoto lenses to bring often presents a dilemma that may determine the success or failure of a given photographic journey.

Cheetah brothers on plain, Serengeti, Tanzania

Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM at 286mm with the EOS-1D X

Working with the new EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM has opened my eyes to creating images that include lots of attractive habitat.

I was working with my Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens with the EF Extender 2X III from the top of a safari vehicle on the Serengeti plains of Tanzania creating head portraits of a cheetah. When they headed off to hunt, I grabbed my new EF 200–400mm f/4L IS USM, flipped up the internal TC, and began making wide images at 200mm that showed the animals in their seemingly endless grassy habitat. The previous day, we were thrilled by a 20,000-strong herd of wildebeests crossing the Mara River. For that momentous event, my first choice was the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM but the new EF 200–400mm f/4 IS USM came in handy as well.

Galapagos Tortoise with azola fern background, Puerto Ayora Highlands, Galapagos

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM with the EOS-1D X

The EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens offers great light gathering ability and incredible sharpness.

For years I traveled with either an EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM or an EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens, one of the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lenses and Extenders. That left somewhat of a focal length gap. When I saw that the EF 200–400mm f/4 IS USM was on the imminent horizon in early 2013, I sold my EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM as it would in part be overlapped by the versatility of the new lens. Now, when it is practical to do so, I travel with the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, the EF 200–400mm f/4 IS USM, the EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM and two sets of Extenders (1.4X III and 2X III). That covers me for all focal lengths, from 70mm to 1200mm. And with my trusty EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens always in my vest, I am good to go from 24–1200mm.

Burchell’s Zebra herd and stormy sky, Tanrangire National Park, Tanzania

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM zoom lens with the EOS-5D Mark III

When working with dramatic skies, I love creating in-camera Art Vivid HDRs with my EOS 5D Mark III.

Traveling by air to most locations with all of the above lenses, along with two or three digital camera bodies, is doable but difficult. You may on occasion be forced to gate-check your camera case and, in the worst case and potentially catastrophic situation, to check it. I have always avoided having to do the latter, but on occasion that has been a big challenge. If you run into the wrong gate agent, your goose may be cooked….

Waved Albatross courtship display, Hood Island, Galapagos

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM with the EF 2X III and the EOS 5D Mark II

Though traveling with the EF 600 f/4L IS II USM can be problematic at times, there is often no substitute for working at 1200mm.

The EF 200–400mm f/4L IS USM lens with Internal Extender does, however, open up new worlds for those opting to travel relatively light, especially when visiting photographic destinations that offer hordes of tame birds and wildlife. For many folks who will be traveling to places like the Galapagos archipelago, The Falkland Islands, South Georgia, Antarctica, Eastern or Southern Africa or Japan in winter, making the trip with the EF 200–400mm, an EF 70–200mm, the EF 24–105mm, several Extenders and two or three digital camera bodies will make air travel a relative breeze. Serious photographers should consider bringing along the EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM as a backup.

Blue-footed Booby feet, North Seymour Island, Galapagos

Tripod-mounted Canon EF 200–400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x, with the internal extender in place, plus an EF 1.4X III, and the EOS-1D X

With the internal and external extender in place, you can reach 784mm with two meter (6.6 feet) close focus and the amazing four-stop image stabilization system.

Here’s why I was glad to have the EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM as a backup. On my last Southern Oceans trip in October 2012 to the Falklands and South Georgia, I was ready to leave home with the EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM and the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM in my telephoto arsenal. At the very last moment, I moved the EF 70–200mm f/2.8L IS II USM from my rolling bag to my vest and packed the EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM in my rolling bag. My thoughts? “If someone on the trip wrecked a super-telephoto lens, then the EF 300mm f/2.8 IS II USM would make a great backup.” Little did I suspect that I would be that person.

Macaroni Penguins allopreening, Hercules Bay, South Georgia

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM with the EF 2X III and the EOS-1D Mark IV

Both the lens and the camera bodies were backups which saved my trip.

It had been a great morning at Fortuna Bay, South Georgia. The landscape was covered with fresh snow and King Penguins. I had walked out to the colony and was headed back to the landing site at a slow pace, taking in the beauty of the place. I was walking on flat grassy ground and not watching where I was going. One moment I was at peace. The next moment my left foot struck a small rock about the size of my fist. So I pitched forward onto the soft turf. The mount was ripped out of my new EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM and the camera had a large crack in it. You could see the red, green and yellow wires inside and it was firing away nonstop. In short, both were totaled.

I laughed — smashing gear is part of the job description, no matter how careful you are. I was glad that I had decided to bring the EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM along at the last moment. It served me well for the next two weeks and pretty much saved the trip for me.

As you are planning for your next great photographic journey, learn as much about the location as possible and then consider your lens choices carefully. If you realize that you do not own what would be the perfect lens, consider borrowing it from Canon Professional Services if you are a member, or renting it from a reliable outfit. If not, pack wisely and make the best images that you can with the gear that you have.

White-backed Vulture in flight, Mara River, Serengeti, Tanzania

Hand held Canon EF 200–400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x, with the internal extender in place and the EOS-1D X

The EF 200–400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x is the best flight photography lens I have ever used. Being able to zoom out as a bird approaches to avoid clipping the wing tips is a huge plus. The next time that you fly, consider taking this versatile new lens as your only super-telephoto.

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