The Lighter Side
On Location With Just Two Lenses

For the full frame shot of the rhino, a focal length of about 500mm was selected. All photographs were taken on Kodak Kodachrome 64.
Photos © Rick Sammon, 2000

Okay, so I lied--but it's a small, white lie. Please let me explain. I do go on location (and on assignment) with just two lenses: my 100-400mm Image Stabilizer zoom and my 17-35mm zoom. My tiny fib is that I use a 1.4x tele-converter (some would call a lens) on my 100-400mm zoom. So, with this system, I have a whopping effective zoom range of 17-560mm. Cool!

I took this system on my recent trip to Botswana, and have used it on previous trips to the "dark continent." And it's true! I can shoot my entire assignment with just these two lenses and my trusty tele-converter.

I must confess, however, that I pack additional lenses: 20mm, 24mm, 70-200mm, and 300mm. These are my back-up lenses, just in case a rhino runs over my camera bag, or some other less-catastrophic event happens to my gear, like a lens element getting knocked out of alignment while I'm getting knocked around in a safari vehicle.

I find that having these two zoom lenses handy--each one mounted on a camera body--helps me get photographs that my fellow travelers miss because they are fumbling around in camera cases looking for lenses. I also find that shooting with two cameras and lots of film and filters stuffed in the pockets of my photo vest gives me the freedom to think/compose/adjust/shoot much faster than a loaded-down shooter.

Perhaps the biggest asset of zoom lenses is that you can compose and crop in camera; the wider the zoom range, the more freedom you have when it comes to composition. (Professional photographer George Lepp often shoots with a 35-350mm zoom for this very reason.)

When I look through the camera's viewfinder, I zoom in and out several times before I shoot, placing the subject in different areas of the frame. Taking the time to do this (when I have the time, that is) lets me see the difference between say a portrait of an animal (tele-zoom) and a picture of the animal in its environment (wide angle zoom). What's more, zooming is fun. Plus, it makes one feel creative!

The wide angle "you are here" picture was taken at about the 17mm setting.

I like zoom lenses for another reason: I enjoy the challenge, and therefore the reward, of shooting with a limited system. Think about it. The early LIFE magazine photographers shot many stories and covers with just one lens--and the pictures were terrific! So, challenge, and reward, yourself.

Now, some of you long-time and dedicated shooters may be saying, "How can Sammon shoot with zooms? Don't they produce soft pictures? And how about that tele-converter? I thought these add-on lenses produced very soft pictures?"

This full frame portrait of a lioness, resting after a "kill," was photographed a few minutes after 6am. When on safari, it pays to get up early, when much of the action takes place. (EOS 3, Canon 100-400mm IS zoom at 400mm, Kodak Elite Chrome 100.)

Well, my friends, those were the zoom lenses of yesteryear--lenses that pros, including yours truly, did not use. Today's zooms produce super-sharp pictures. In fact, I had one picture taken with a Canon 17-35mm zoom and Kodachrome 64 that was enlarged to 30x60' for display on the Kodak Colorama in New York's Times Square. Looked sharp to me--even with binoculars!

And as far as my 1.4x tele-converter goes, even in 11x14" prints I can't see any softness. But that sharpness comes at a price: 1.4x tele-converters are often more expensive than same-brand 2x converters, which tend to be softer than less powerful tele-converters.

But wait! My dad (a photographer) says that if you notice the softness in the picture (as well as the grain), the picture is probably a bore anyway. To this, I ask the following question: "What's worse, a slightly soft picture or no picture at all?"

Back to being honest. I guess it's time to bring up another accessory I use (back home): Adobe Photoshop. This computer imaging program lets me sharpen my scanned 35mm pictures--up to 500 percent (although I rarely sharpen a picture more than 40 percent). So, even if a tele-converter is not that sharp, all is not lost, thanks to digital enhancements.

Going to work on safari sometimes requires taking the back roads--or the back rivers and streams, as was often the case on my last trip to Botswana. (Canon EOS 3, 17-35mm zoom at 17mm, Kodak Elite Chrome Extra Color 100.)

Perhaps I'll write a Shutterbug article sometime in the future entitled, "On Location with Just Two Lenses and a Computer." You see, when I save up enough for three pro-quality digital cameras (two for shooting and one as a back-up), I'll probably be downloading photo files on site, enhancing them (as I do--to be honest), and sending them off to Shutterbug--if I can find a phone line while on safari in places like Botswana€or if my computer, like Global Star phones, work via satellite.