I have recently inherited some lenses from my granddad and am going on a trip to Alaska this summer. I want to take one general purpose lense for mountains and close things and one telephoto for wildlife. Which of these telephoto should you recommend. I think the bigger might not be the best quality, is is this not the case? is focal length the most important thing?

  1. Nikon ED AF NIKKOR 70-300mm 1:4-5.6 D
  2. Nikon ED AF-S VR-NIKKOR 70-200mm 1:2.8G
  3. Sigma ex 50-500mm 1:4-6.3 APO DG HSM D

I'd say that if you have to ask which lens would be most suitable, you're probably going to want the range of the Sigma 50-500mm. The 70-200mm f/2.8 is the best of the lenses you listed. The 70-300mm D has gone through a couple updates over the years, so compared to the other 2, it's a bit dated.

But because you're not exactly sure of what you'll be seeing, or what catches your eye, and without knowledge of what your "style" is, in my opinion, the range available from the Sigma 50-500mm is your best bet. I have taken that lens to several outdoors trips where I didn't know exactly what to expect, and in every one, I was not disappointed. I have even shot nesting eagles from a rocking pontoon boat on a windy, overcast day, and obtained crystal clear images at 500mm with it. In that regard, my only complaint with the lens is that it is heavier than the other 2 lenses you listed.

  • I agree. I own two similar lenses (the Sigma 150-500mm and the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L). The 500mm is inferior in most regards but it facilitates shots that would otherwise be much less interesting at 200mm. If I have to pick one, I go for the 500mm. – Tim Medora Apr 23 '16 at 16:57

Sometimes the circumstance under which you are shooting trumps distinctions between the optical quality of one lens over another, even when there is significant difference in the optical quality of the lenses in question. This is one of those times. When shooting subject matter such as bears in the wilds of Alaska, focal length is the key consideration.

What you really must decide is whether the 50-500mm f/4-6.3 is up to the task of delivering what you desire to bring home from this (possibly) once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Neither the 70-200mm nor the 70-300mm give you the reach you need unless you are willing to crop extensively after the fact. Don't wait until you are in Alaska to find that out. Go out on a hike in the area where you live and see how you can handle the lens and how the lens performs shooting at long distances. This would include early morning and evening twilight when the light is weaker and wildlife tend to be active. If the Sigma 50-500mm is not up top the task, then consider renting a higher quality lens for the trip.

What focal length will be most appropriate depends in part on whether you are using an FX or DX camera as well as how much weight you are comfortable carrying around. With an DX body 400-500mm will probably be the sweet spot, with an FX body 600-800mm is needed to get the same amount of reach.

We can rule out the 70-300 right off. It's noisy and not great optically.

I would take the 70-200 Nikkor as it's got good glass, big aperture and VR but is no good for landscape shots.

The Sigma will handle the wide and very long ends but you are right that the compromises needed to make a 50-500 lens are going to result in poorer images.

That really leaves it to you to decide what you want to compromise on if you are only taking one lens - picture quality or wider-angles.

  • 2
    If you're close enough that the bear(s) can hear even the 70-300, you've got a lot bigger problems than which lens to use. – Michael Clark Apr 23 '16 at 16:48
  • I dunno... It's pretty noisy! :) – James Snell Apr 23 '16 at 18:44

I live in Alaska and have shot assignments involving bears for the US Forest Service and the NY Times [ for example ]. In Alaska photographing bears can mean many things. If you end up someplace like Brooks Camp in Katmai, you can actually get quite close to the bears because you are shooting from platforms around habituated animals. Other places you will not be able (or want) to get very close and photography is difficult unless you are lucky or have very long glass. Still, even at Katmai a 400mm lens on a full frame sensor is ideal for nice tight shots and you will see people there with 500mm and 600mm lenses.

Something like Nikon's 200-500mm might be a sweet spot between portability, VR, and reach. I worked with the 80-400 and it was fine for Brooks Camp. If I were you I would consider renting a lens for this trip. Keep in mind that working with long lenses requires some practice and knowledge to get sharp photos.

The Nikon ED AF-S VR-NIKKOR 70-200mm 1:2.8G combined with a 2x teleconverter is probably the best choice overall, I have the Sigma 50-500mm myself, it very heavy, and it's very dark. The VR/IS is fair but you will still need good light, if you wish to keep ISO down.

It's soft on the long end, so 70-200 2.8 with a teleconverter will probably be round the same.

To be honest, I'll pick the Nikon P900 instead over any of the lens for this purpose. The 2000mm reach of the P900 compensates for the lower IQ, with any of the other lenses you will need to crop a lot anyway - or be too closes for your own safety.

A camera like P900 is only really suitable for certain situations because of it overall characteristics, but this is one of the those situations.

So I'll sum it up, get a P900 or if you insists on doing it with a system camera, the 70-200 2.8 combined with a Nikon 2x teleconverter, alternatively the Sigma 50-500mm.

It is important whether you use it with a crop or a full frame camera and where in Alaska you go. But in general 200 or even 300 mm is not enough. Get the longest lens, do research and make reservations.

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