Is bigger always better?

10th July 2014
There seems to be a commonly held belief these days that you have to buy the biggest telephoto lens you can afford in order to obtain good quality wildlife images. While I don't deny that the 500 + 600's of this world are invaluable for some situations and I am indeed a huge fan of these lenses, there are times when they are not suited to the task at hand.
I have written in previous blogs about the unsuitability of the Canon EF800 5.6 lens, particularly in low light situations and also its almost non existant depth of field. Yet people still seem to crave this lens as if it's some sort of status symbol. It is a marvellous lens for shooting stationary small birds but after that it definitely has its limitations. Trying to wield a Canon 600 f4.0 to catch small birds in close flight and also quickly moving around is a major challenge ( Wood Warbler, typically ) and the 800 f5.6 is a bigger challenge. An f4.0 lens lets in twice as much light as a f5.6 lens and the smaller focal length makes it a bit easier to locate flying and moving birds. Yesterday on Skomer Island,( previous blog), was a prime example of a large telephoto lens being next to useless, not only because of the weight factor as I mentioned, but the difficulty in focusing on fast moving Puffins flying across your lens!
I found myself in a situation yesterday where Puffins were shooting past me as they came in to land at their burrows. I managed to catch a few with my Canon 300 f4.0 but there was no open perspective to the image, so there was no alternative but to use a much smaller lens.
I decided to use my Canon ef 17-40 f4.0 mounted on my old Canon 1D Mk2,( which my wife kindly agreed to carry in her rucksack ). This might seem an unlikely solution to the aforementioned problem but I had an idea it might work.
I waited for the Puffins to fly past reasonably close and then I just blazed away at them, while hand holding my kit. I wasn't too worried about focussing because there is such a large depth of field to a wide angle lens. However, I knew even if I was lucky there would need to be some post processing involved.
Later when I examined a few images from this type of shooting I thought I might have one or two images that were usable.
This image was one of candidates;

This is just a jpeg converted from the RAW image out of the camera, nothing done to it whatsoever. Consequently you can see that the horizon is far from level and the image is dim and lacking contrast and sharpness. In short a typical RAW image, but even if they are under exposed and look poor, all the data is still there and as I have said before RAW images can be recovered much better than jpegs.
Using Adobe Photoshop CS6;
First thing to do is to level up the horizon, this can be done by choosing the arbitrary function on the image rotation caption. Then just keep levelling up until you are satisfied and then crop the image. It should be noted that you will inevitably lose some of your original image by doing this. Once you have your cropped image you can process as normal, in this case I isolated the flying Puffin using the magic wand tool and just increased the sharpness and contrast of the bird. I then saved this and reopened the image to proceed to 'liven up' the overall look. In order to do this I just increased the vibrancy and saturation of the overall scene. Then I gently sharpened up the whole image and then using the curves function I added some more contrast and also removed some shadows from the scene, before finally lightening the image using levels.
This is the final image, nothing is superimposed and the only thing lost from the original was the Puffin on the ground, a casualty of the image levelling and subsequent cropping.

I managed to process two images using this method of shooting.

Please see Latest Images, Skomer Island.