On Renting Super Telephoto Lenses

I get this question often and thought I should write a brief post about it.

There are some lenses that are extremely expensive for most photography enthusiasts to afford and hence they are very interested in renting these.  Especially for a big safari trip to Africa.  For example, the 500mm and 600mm prime lenses used for wildlife and sports photography.  The main misunderstanding among those considering a super telephoto lens rental is the feeling that the only gap between them and great wildlife/sports photographs, is the lens.  This is plain wrong.

Simply having a great lens is not sufficient for you to make great images with it.  What you really need is lots of practice with that lens for a prolonged time, until you are familiar with using it proficiently.  Exposure and focusing problems aside, one of the hardest skills to master in wildlife or sports photography is the ability to track a fast moving bird or object.  In the beginning stages, even with my 70-200mm f2.8 lens coupled with a 2x teleconverter, it was a real achievement for me, if I could spot a flying bird with my eyes and then immediately point my lens towards that bird and barely be able to see that bird through the viewfinder.  Even getting this far was difficult, let alone getting the bird in focus and furthermore, ensuring that the eyes of the bird were sharply focused with a glint in it.  Look, handling super telephoto lenses in the field successfully, requires loads of years of practice and renting them for a first and last Kenya trip does not make sense.  You will spend more time fumbling with your equipment than enjoying your visit.

So what to do – Buy yourself some inexpensive wildlife lenses and practice with it locally for months and months before you go.  For example, the 70-200mm f2.8 lens with a 2x teleconverter is what I use.  You can go for something similar.  I recently heard that 3rd party lens manufacturers have a very affordable 100-300 mm f4 lens that can be coupled with a 1.4x teleconverter to give you a 140-400mm range.  If you do this with a crop-factor sensor, you effectively have a 600mm reach.  Now, if you can really afford to buy a 600mm lens for the $10,000 price tag, go for it.  But, please don’t buy it one week before your once-in-a-lifetime Tanzania trip.  Buy it a year before and practice in your local park, until you get good at it, before you go.

So when to rent – Despite what I have said so far, there are situations in which renting makes sense.  Here are some examples –

  1. You already have a 600mm lens and for some reason, it broke just one week before your big Safari trip.  Go ahead and rent the same one.
  2. You don’t want to risk carrying your big lens on an airline with all the restrictive carry-on luggage limits.  Leave your lens at home and rent one at the Safari location, if available.
  3. You usually use a 17-55mm f3.5-5.6 lens and based on the dark situations involved in your next night photography trip, you feel the need for a faster lens.  Go ahead and rent the 17-35mm f2.8 lens.
  4. You already have a 600mm lens, but your manufacturer has introduced a newer version with additional features.  You want to test whether the new features are worth it for you.  Go ahead and rent the newer version lens and try it out for a couple of weeks, before you decide to upgrade yourself.

You get the idea.  Don’t rent a lens in a focal length range that you have never photographed just for that once-in-a-lifetime trip.  It simply won’t work.

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American Avocet in flight, Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge, Alviso, CA, USA

American Avocet in flight, Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge, Alviso, CA, USA. I made this image a few months back. And, I have been practicing photography for nine years. It took me that long to succeed in a well timed shot like this. I could not have done it with a rented super telephoto lens.

Turkey Vulture, Alviso, CA, USA

Turkey Vulture, Alviso, CA, USA. One of the most difficult things in wildlife photography with telephoto lenses, is to be able to frame a fast moving bird or animal well.  Years of practice is required.

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