Later this year we are traveling to Namibia. For those of you who are geographically challenged, Namibia is in Africa just northwest of South Africa. As part of our trip we will be doing six days of safari, photographing animals large and small. Our safari guide Ryan recommended we get a longer lens to better photograph the animals. I now had carte blanche to do one of my favorite things, purchase new camera gear! I chose the Nikon 200-500mm zoom which will give me 25% more reach than my current longest lens. It arrived a couple of weeks ago. I couldn’t wait to try it out.

The easiest place to try it out is at the Desert Botanical Gardens just minutes from our home. Early in the morning there are many, many birds there, perfect for a long lens test. We arrived early in the morning, the good time to photograph birds, only to find out that today is “Dog Day”. There wasn’t a single bird to found or photographed. They were obviously wary of the hundreds of dogs milling about. I walked around for 30 minutes or so hauling this mega-lens and did not take one photo. So much for these plans. Failure #1.

Over the subsequent days that turned into weeks, the lens sat there mocking me. I needed to find a place to try it out.

Kathryn recommended the local zoo (which would have been very easy) but I wanted to photograph animals in the wild. We settled on Whitewater Draw, a tributary stream of the Ro De Agua Prieta, known to be the winter home of Sandhill Cranes. These are the same species of cranes we just photographed at Bosque Del Apache just last month. We loved photographing them at Bosque. These are perfect birds for testing the lens. They are relatively big and slow – they look like they are lumbering along while flying.

Getting to Whitewater Draw requires a commitment, 3 1/2 hours drive from our home in Scottsdale through the historic city of Tombstone, then through the artsy and eccentric town of Bisbee, and finally, down some unmaintained dirt roads, arriving at parking lot with not much around.

We arrived a bit before sunset eager to find the cranes and take some photos. I quickly set up my tripod, took out my camera and attached the lens. I then tried to attach the lens bracket to the tripod and found it did not fit.  I tried everything I could think of to make it fit. No dice. Instead of using the tripod as the base for holding the weighty camera and lens combo, I had to resort to hand holding. Within minutes my arms were aching using muscles I had long forgot about. To make things worse I had to increase my ISO to handle the shutter speed required and compensate for potential hand shaking of the camera. Would this be a valid test for the lens? Overall, this was not an ideal shooting situation. I started to think this was Failure #2.

Then, a Sandhill Crane flew by. Ignoring the cramping in my arms I tracked my prey. Click-click-click-click, I got it.

A Sandhill Crane in flight. The image is extremely sharp even when zoomed in. I think the lens will work just fine. It’s coming to Africa with me.

There were thousands of birds everywhere. After some time watching the cranes, I realized that other subjects were more interesting. So much for our plans to photograph cranes.

A Great Horned Owl in a nearby barn. I shot this handheld (like I had another choice) in the relative darkness. My ISO was set to 5000, the highest I dare go, and my shutter speed set to 1/250 second, the lowest I dare go. The lens’s vibration reduction (image stabilization) worked like a charm. I like the result.
My attention was piqued by these birds, all perched on the bush in the water. All of a sudden they flew off together in interesting patterns. My new lens did just fine at 1/1250 second shutter speed and ISO 1100. I’m starting to love this lens.
As the sun was setting these Red Winged Blackbirds were settling into the marsh for the evening until one last blastoff! Do you like the mood of this photo? How does it make you feel?
As evening was closing in, the Great Horned Owl left the barn to survey the field for breakfast.

What do you think of these non-crane photos?

We were able to turn failure into success. I think Kathryn liked the results from the new lens and now she wants one for herself. I should have just bought two to begin with. Remember, it’s all about the light (and maybe the lens).