I’m going to be traveling to the Katmai Peninsula in Alaska later this year to photograph the brown bears (aka grizzly bears) during the salmon spawning season. You’ve seen those photos of the bears standing in the waterfalls while the fish literally jump into their open mouths, right? Well, that’s where I’m going. Needless to say, I am totally stoked (and near broke after paying for the entire trip). Which is why I will be renting (not buying) a 500mm lens to take with me.
Oh, I’ll be taking other lenses too, but that 500mm is going to be special for me. It’s 100mm longer than my 100-400mm lens, and it’s a prime. Prime lenses (aka fixed-focus lenses) on the whole, tend to be sharper than zoom lenses (not always true, but for the most part, yes). This lens that I am renting is going to be a little on the weighty size and –well – it’s gonna be a big honkin’ lens that requires a special tripod head called a gimbal head.
I figured I should perhaps get used to working with such a lens, so I went to my favorite online lens rental outfit and plunked down the money for a 3-day rental of the Canon 500mm f4L lens. Now, this is not the lens I will be taking with me on my Alaska trip. That lens will be the Mk II version of this lens. However, even the rental price for the Mk II version for a 3-day jaunt was more than I wanted to spend at this particular point in time – I’d just paid for my Alaska trip, including airfare – which is why I also did not opt for renting the 600mm lens. Instead, I stuck with the original version of the 500 (which has since been discontinued but you can still rent it).
I wish now I would have measured the lens (with its lens hood) so I could add this to the description, but I was so excited when I received the rental package that I never once thought about anything other than attaching it to the gimbal head and taking it out for a spin.
What’s a gimbal head? Well, it’s a tripod head (just like a ballhead or a panhead) that screws onto your tripod legs. A gimbal head not only accepts the weight of a large and heavy camera/lens combo, but it allows one to move such a combo up and down and around with the lightest of movements. The thing about a gimbal head, though, is that – unlike a ballhead, which allows you to move your camera over all angles in order to get a level position even if the tripod legs are not level – you must get that tripod level to begin with, because the gimbal head itself is not moveable like a ballhead. Oh, I can pan the camera up and down and left and right, but I can’t make the minute sideways or oblique adjustments to get it level on a gimbal if the tripod legs are not already level. You’ll see what I mean from the following photos.
Yeah, so did I mention that the lens is heavy? It weighs 8.5 lbs. I attached it to my Canon 1-DX which weighs about 3.5 lbs. This combination is far too heavy to carry around my neck while walking along a path, so I did what I have seen other photographers do. I carried this combo on the tripod, which I hefted over my shoulder.
Yeah, I’m smiling for the camera in these photos. In reality, the only time I was smiling while carrying this behemoth setup was inwardly at all the neat photos I planned on capturing.
After my three days were up, I noticed that my left shoulder and arm had quite a number of bruises on them, which were from traipsing around with this setup. I was also pretty sore from the shoulders down to the waist (I am 5’2” and not a bodybuilder). The weight issue was so worth it, though. So how am I going to be packing this for my Alaska trip? That will be a blog post for the future.
I probably would have never rented this lens for the three days except that I live so close to Brazos Bend State Park and the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. So, guess what kind of images I captured?
Bird on a wire. Looks like a red-tailed hawk. Maybe juvenile. Not sure.
Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks and American Coots
A Meadowlark, I think…
Sunning. The day before, there were several alligators near each other and their mouths were open and they were emitting this deep, reverberating rumbling noise to warn each other off. They also rumbled whenever a big bird got too close, and they always rumble whenever a human gets too close. In this image, though, this guy’s mouth was open to help regulate its temperature (yes, alligators do that). Apparently, those three reptiles were in accord for the moment.
Now this alligator was definitely rumbling at the other alligators. And it’s the kind of rumble that you can hear quite a distance away, yet it sounds like it’s right next to you. A bit unnerving unless one is standing high above the gator that is doing the rumbling.
A yellow-crowned night heron yawning (well, that’s what it appeared to be doing since it wasn’t making any noise when it opened its beak).
An egret and a crawfish lunch.
A little blue heron with a crawfish almost as large as the bird!
The local “lunch stop” that is catty-corner to the observation tower on 40-Acre Lake in Brazos Bend State Park is a plethora of different birds. Egrets and herons are quiet and stealthy and then suddenly, they lunge into the water and bring out some morsel of food.
Three ibis and a frog. Ibis are not stealthy like egrets and herons. They constantly move about the water as they poke their long beaks around in the water until they find something – like this frog (Nature: eat or be eaten). I was tickled with this image not only because of the frog catch, but also because I have a white ibis in three stages of feather pattern. The ibis on the far left is a juvenile. The ibis with the frog is in its summer moult, and the ibis on the right is an adult.
Quite a mouthful. This crawfish was ready to do battle with the ibis.
Cardinals – harbingers of spring. My mother calls them “redbirds”.
The only great blue heron I saw that day…..walking away from me….
Natures jewelry: raindrop bedecked orb weaver’s webs gently blowing in the wind. I saw lots of these on the road leaving Brazos Bend State Park.
After processing the images from this lens, I must say I am impressed with the resolution quality. No, I don’t think the 500mm f4L original version is quite as sharp as, say, my 70-200mm f2.8L Mk II, but it’s pretty sweet nonetheless. And, if I am this impressed with the original version of this lens, I can only imagine how it will be with the Mk II version that I’ll be taking with me to Alaska.
8 responses to “Fun With A Big Honkin’ Lens”
Ooooh, now that’s a pretty lens and what beautiful results!! I can’t wait to see what you can capture with that lens in Alaska!!
Great post and terrific photos!
Thanks, Jane. It was a fun lens to work with and I literally felt a little pang of sadness when I had to pack the lens up and ship it back to the rental place. 😉
Wow, what a lens. I think I would worry it might get damaged if I rented and transported that lens. I’m excited for you the trip will be worth it!!!
This is why I always pay extra for the damage waiver on the items I rent. It’s peace of mind for me.
I love the photos! they are so incredible. can’t wait to see what comes out of your alaska trip 🙂
that’s a honker all right. Nice work. There’s nothing quite like the Joy of photography. did your lens come with a polarizer? with something that big that probably isn’t that fast, a polarizer could cost you a few stops though.
I chose not to rent the polarizer for this particular time. Now, with the Mark II version that I’ve reserved for my Katmai trip, I’ve also rented the drop-in polarizer filter. I’m hoping to maybe try and get a “silky water” effect image with a bear standing there at the falls.