The In & Out Advantage
How And Why A Travel Shooter Zooms Around

Check out the detail in this picture. Zoom lenses of yesteryear were not nearly as sharp. (Canon EOS 1N, Canon 100-400mm zoom, Kodachrome 64.)
Photos © 1999, Rick Sammon, All Rights Reserved

I'm a zoom lens man. I use zooms in virtually all my travel work, making exceptions when I need a macro or super telephoto shot.

This was not always the case. Back in '75, when I first started taking pictures seriously, I only used fixed focal length lenses. Why? Because the zoom lenses of yesteryear simply did not produce the same high quality images as fixed lenses of the same era. Common characteristics of early zooms included slightly soft images, vignetting, and lens flare.

Today's zooms are a photographer's dream come true. Advancements in computer-aided lens design make it hard to tell the difference between a picture taken with a fixed lens and a zoom lens. New zooms are that sharp.

Other improvements in zooms include a reduction in lens flash, made possible by the use of Apochromatic (APO) in telephoto lenses and aspherical design in wide angle zooms.

Vignetting has also been all but eliminated in new zoom lenses.

But perhaps the most surprising (to me, anyway) advancement in zoom lenses in the past quarter century (am I showing my age?) is in zoom range. We now have what are called "extreme" zoom lenses--Nikon's 28-200mm, Tamron's 28-300mm, Canon's 35-350mm, Minolta's 100-400mm, Sigma's 135-400mm, and Pentax's 250-600mm to name just a few.

My standard zoom lens is a 28-135mm. It's great for when action is happening super fast. (Canon EOS 1N, Kodachrome 200.)
In addition, we have "super cool" (my designation) wide angle zooms; most camera and independent lens manufacturers offer a 17-35mm zoom or a 20-35mm zoom. The popularity of these lenses has even surprised the manufacturers. about Canon's image stabilization lenses (75-300mm IS, 100-400mm IS, and 28-135mm IS)?

Okay, so technology is cool, giving us new tools to work with and toys to play with. (Sorry Sister Jerome, I remember you told me never to end a sentence with a preposition; bad English. Please forgive me.)

What do all these technological advancements mean to you and me? Well, it gives us several good reasons for shooting with zoom lenses. Take a look.

My favorite, as my buddy Bill knows, is, "The name of the game is to fill the frame." Zoom lenses let me follow my own advice. (Canon EOS 1N, Canon 70-200mm zoom, Kodachrome 200.)

Creative Composition. When people ask me what's the most important part of taking a picture, I usually answer: "Why...having a camera, of course." After I get a chuckle, I go on to say that composition is critical.

Zoom lenses make it easy for photographers (myself included) to think about composition, and to be more creative. While I'm looking at a scene in my camera's viewfinder, I zoom-in and out and see how I can improve the scene by eliminating distracting elements, or by including more of the surrounding area. Many times, I take a tight shot and a wider shot, which gives me the opportunity to choose the best picture at home.

Convenience And Compactness. I like to travel light. Actually, I like to travel as light as possible. That's why I like to shoot with zoom lenses.

Fast zoom lenses (f/2.8) are ideal for low-light photography, as illustrated by this picture taken at pre-dawn at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. (Canon EOS 1N, Canon 17-35mm zoom, Kodak Elite Chrome 200 pushed one stop.)

When I go on location, my standard shooting gear (stuff I always have with me) includes a 17-35mm zoom, a 28-135mm zoom, a 75-200mm zoom, and a 100-400mm zoom. As I mentioned earlier, I have a macro lens and super telephoto lens available; I also have fixed focal length lenses as back-ups. But all this stuff usually stays in the car, safari vehicle, lodge, hotel, or tent until I need it.

My four-lens system is relatively compact, which gives me more room in my backpack for accessories. It's also relatively light, which gives me more energy to stay out in the field longer.

Speed. When I talk about the speed of zoom lenses, I'm not talking about a lens' maximum aperture (more on apertures in the next paragraph). I'm talking about the speed at which I can pick up a lens, compose my shot, and shoot. To illustrate my point, say you were taking street scenes. With a 17-35mm zoom you can fine-tune your people shots in a few seconds. If you had to switch between two or three lenses--a 20mm, 24mm, and a 35mm--you'd probably miss the shot...or at the very least make your subject a bit more self-conscious while he/she was waiting to be photographed.

A zoom let me crop tight around this hot air balloon while it was swaying in the wind. (Canon EOS 1N, Canon 17-35mm zoom, Kodak Kodachrome 64.)

So what about those maximum apertures? Well, fast lenses, that is, lenses with relatively wide apertures (f/2.8-f/3.5) have two main advantages over slower lenses: they produce a brighter image in your viewfinder and they let you shoot at a faster shutter speed to stop action. Cool. But some shooters would say big deal. Why? Because today's ISO 400 and 800 films (as well as slower films that can be "pushed" to those speeds) produce damn good images. So, to some photographers, having the fastest possible (and most expensive) zoom is a moot point; they would rather get the slightly slower lens and have some bucks left over for film and travel.

Enjoyment. In discussing zoom lenses, I can't overlook how much fun they are to use. After all, we are into photography to have fun. Right? Well, zoom lenses add to the enjoyment of photography by making us feel more creative.

And speaking of fun, if you see some guy with a big smile on his face in some exotic location around the globe--carrying two camera bodies, one equipped with a 17-35mm zoom and the other with a 75-200mm zoom--that just might be me. Stop me and say hello. We'll have some fun zooming around together.

I like shooting with zoom lenses because they are fun to use. They also make me feel like I'm in total control of composition. In this picture, I zoomed in to eliminate a person who was standing just off-camera--and who was ruining my shot.
(Canon EOS 1N, Canon 17-35mm zoom, Kodachrome 64.)

Choosing A Zoom

Which zoom lens is best for you? Here are some things to consider:
· How fast will the zoom focus? This differs from lens to lens and from camera to camera. One way to find out is to contact the lens manufacturer and ask for the specifications.

· Will the zoom meet my creative needs? Should I consider the next lens up, that is, one with a wider zoom range?

· Can I afford a fast zoom, or should I buy a slower lens and have money left over for other accessories? If so, will I be happy with the increased grain found in ISO 400 and 800, which may be needed when shooting with a slower lens?

· Do I want to carry a fast zoom lens, which, because of all that high quality glass, is heavier than a slower zoom?

· Does the zoom focus internally, so the filters don't swivel around while the lens is focusing?

· Will my filters fit my new zoom? Will I need new ones?

· What zoom or zoom lenses do I need? For example, will a 28-135mm zoom for general pictures and a 70-200mm for people and wildlife do the trick? Or, am I better off getting a 17-35mm (for wider shots) rather than the 28-135mm?

· Should I buy a 1.4x or 2x converter for my telephoto zoom, or should I buy a longer zoom or zoom with a longer maximum focal length?

· Does the lens use Apochromatic glass or does it have an aspherical design, both of which reduce lens flare?

· If I switch to a zoom lens system, should I try to sell or trade in my fixed focus lenses, or keep them as back-up lenses?