Four Winds Photography's Blog

Equipment, Part Deaux. Lenses

You are going to hear this until you are sick of it: Lenses are the most important decision you will make in choosing your equipment for shooting horse shows.  This isn’t a truism just for horse shows.  Any pro photog in any discipline is going to tell you this. It doesn’t matter if you are shooting portraits, landscapes or macros, glass is more important than camera. This is not intended to minimize the importance of good equipment.  You must have top gear for photographing horse shows.  But if one is in the situation of deciding between upgrading a body and a better lens, go with the lens.  Every time.   

 Lets talk about some lens basics.   

 Lens Speed Some real basic stuff here.  You will here photographers talk about lens speed.  What they are talking about is the lens’ maximum aperture.  As the number describing a lens’ aperture (or F/stop) gets lower, the lens will let in more light.  This seems backwards, I know.  A lens with a maximum f/stop of F/2 will let in more light than a lens with an f/stop of F/4.  Therefore, the F/2 will allow you to use a faster shutter speed.  So the F/2 lens is considered “faster” than the F/4.   

 Each increase in one F/stop doubles the amount of light of the previous f/stop.  Here are the full f-stops:  1.4;  2.0;  2.8;  4.0;  5.6;  8.0;  11.0;  16.0;  22.0;  32.0   

 Photographers love speed.  Fast lenses, that is.  For photographing horse shows you will need fast lenses, particularly for shooting indoors.   

 Crop factor.  Here we go again with that crop factor nonsense.  If you still struggle with this go back here again and study this. It’s important to understand it you are shooting with a cropped sensor camera.   If you are shooting with a Canon cropped sensor camera take the stated focal length and multiply it by 1.6.  If you are shooting with a Nikon cropped sensor camera take the stated focal length and multiply it by 1.5.  That is what the lens will act like on a cropped sensor camera.    

 Another example and then lets move on:  A 50 mm lens has an angle of view of about 460 on a 35 mm camera.  On a cropped sensor camera it will have the same angle of view as an 80 mm lens (50 x 1.6 =80) (On a Nikon it would have the same angle of view as a 75 mm lens. (50 x 1.5 = 75)   

 Canon has a good demonstration of the angle of view of various focal length lenses here.   

 But here is where this gets confusing.  You do not magnify.  A lens can not magnify more than it can magnify. Go back to the Canon chart above and look at the 85 mm lens example. Remember the angle of view.  Now look at the 50 mm lens example.  Crop (hence the name crop sensor) the 50 mm example to the angle of view of 85 mm example.  That is exactly what you get.   

 Confused?  Good. My job is done here.   

 So what do you need? Just as with bodies one can juxtapose your lens decisions.   

 Zoom vs. Prime?  Unfortunately, from a cost perspective, you’re going to need both.  If you frequent the forums many of the more pompous posters will try and lead you to believe that there is a huge disparity in the quality of images between primes and zooms.  In the days of film this was true.  “In the old days” we sacrificed image quality for the flexibility of a zoom.  The reality today is that the quality of images from zooms is so good no one is going to tell the difference.   

 Sharpness. You get what you pay for with lenses.  High quality lenses, meaning high quality images, are expensive.  Get the highest quality lens you can afford. In order to get an idea of image quality before you buy visit some of the lens review websites.  Dpreview   and The Digital Picture both offer comprehensive reviews.   

 Speed As you will see in a couple weeks if you are going to do any indoor shooting you are going to need a fast prime lens.  Once again, buy the best, that is to say, fastest lens you can afford.   In a zoom lens the fastest made is F/2.8.  In a prime lens you are only limited by cost.  An F/2.0 should serve you well.   

 There is a connect between lens speed and sharpness or image quality.  As a general rule lenses do not have optimum image quality wide open (at maximum aperture).  It improves  as you “stop down”.  One of the advantages of expensive lenses is they are sharper wide open and get sharper faster as one stops down.   An F/2.0 lens will improve at F/2.8 and probably have near maximum sharpness around F/4.0.  An F/2.8 lens will improve at F/4.0 and max out at F/5.6.  Therefore the F/2.0 lens will be sharper than the F/2.8 lens at F/4.   But this varies dramatically by lens.  Some are nearly at maximum sharpness only stopping down one stop.  This maximum sharpness f-stop of a lens is known as its “sweet spot”.   

 Focusing speed (USM).  It is intuitive that a fast focusing lens is imperative in equine photography.   You must have something fast enough to follow that horse that is approaching the jump or chasing a cow.  Did I mention that photography equipment is expensive?  As with every other piece of equipment manufacturers have a cheaper version and then the version you need.  Get the version with an ultrasonic motor or USM.  I have no idea what this means.  But I know my 70-200 F/4L USM has it and it is blindingly fast.  Do not get a lens with either an AFD (arc-form drive) or micromotor drive. Both types are slow and noisy compared to ultrasonic (USM) motors.   

 Weight As a general rule the faster the lens the more the weight.  My 70-200 F/4L weighs in at 705 grams.  The comparable F/2.8 lens weighs 1470 grams (according to Canon specifications).  1470 grams may not seem like much when you slap it on your camera.  But after 12 hours on your feet all day at a horse show you will know it is there.  I can do everything I need to do outdoors with my F/4 lens.  Plus I am chubby and out of shape.  If your lens is going to serve dual purpose you will have to get the faster, more expensive, heavier one.   If all your are going to do is shoot outdoors in bright sunlight, which is highly unlikely, the slower, lighter lens will do the job.  I’m fortunate in that I use the lighter lens outdoors and have a different one indoors.  Weigh (pun intentional) your needs against cost and weight.

Bokeh  is one of the most hyped subjects regarding lenses lately.  It has to do with the quality of the background blur a lens produces.  It is one of those qualities that is difficult to explain but you know it when you see it.  Wikipedia does a good job of trying here. There are differences produced by different lenses.  It has to do with the type of aperture blades a lens uses.  While I won’t say much more about it, it can be important in your horse portraiture. 
IS or not. IS stands for Image Stabilization. Nikon calls it VR for Vibration Reduction.  Sigma calls it Optical Stabilization. Whatever it is called it is an attempt to eliminate the blur caused by camera shake at slow shutter speeds.  For photographing horse shows IS is absolutely irrelevant.  This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get a lens with IS.  I have three of them.  It just means weigh your needs against your budget.  For everything that I do with horse shows I need fast enough shutter speed to where camera shake is not a problem.  But if another type of shooting you do requires slow shutter speed then seriously consider an IS lens.  If all you need it for are family gatherings where you don’t want to use flash it is worth it.  For wedding photogs it is mandatory.   

A few words about kit lenses.  Actually, one word: junk.  The term “kit” lens means the lens that is packaged with a new camera.  In order to minimize cost of a new camera “kit” a cheap lens is included.  Most of them are slow and have very low IQ.Many of them also are what is called variable aperture, again to hold down cost.  Variable aperture is a term that only applies to some zoom lenses.  What we have been talking so far are fixed aperture lenses.  A fixed aperture lens, if you set it to its maximum aperture, stays at that aperture all through its zoom range, F/4 as an example.  A variable aperture lens by contrast changes its maximum aperture as one zooms.  It may have a designation of something like F/4.5-5.6.  What that means is that at the short end of the zoom range it will have a maximum of 4.5.  As you zoom in the maximum aperture changes until at maximum zoom your maximum aperture is 5.6.  Lets say you shoot in manual exposure, as you should.  We will talk more about this in a week or two.  You set the exposure to wide open for a dimly lit arena or you’re shooting a portrait and want a shallow depth of field.  You then zoom and your maximum aperture changes and throws your exposure off!  Need I say more?   

Lastly, there are 3rd party manufacturers of lenses for both Canon and Nikon that owe it to yourself to at least investigate. For the most part they provide lower cost alternatives at near equal quality to the original manufacturer.  Some will argue in some cases the 3rd party manufacturer exceeds in quality. Three of the major players are as follows: Sigma, Tamron and Tokina.  I use one lens from each of these manufacturers.   

Here is my lens stable.   

My Lenses


From left to right:   

Tamron 28-75 F/2.8.  A general purpose lens that I will also use for portraits.    

Canon F/2  My “go to lens” for low light indoor shooting.  Also a great portrait lens for head and shoulder shots.   

Tokina 19-35 F/3.5-4.5.  A really cheap lens that is pretty good stopped down.  Used when I need wide angle on my full frame especially for landscapes.   

Tokina 12-24 F/4  A great wide angle lens on my cropped sensor camera.   

Canon 70-200 F/4   My “go to lens” for outdoor sports.  Razor sharp and blazingly fast focus.    

Canon 24-105 F/4  IS Another great general purpose lens with a little more reach and IS.  Another portrait lens and great for side shots of halter horses.   

Sigma 80-400 F/4.5-5.6.  An “extra reach” telephoto zoom for those times I need just that.  Maybe I’m at one end of the arena from a roping.  Also for wildlife the rare opportunity I get to do that.   

Sigma 1.4x matched teleconverter for above.  Obviously makes it a 100 – 560 zoom.   

So what lenses are you actually going to need?  As always, I annoyingly answer my question with the same old question, “What are you going to shoot?”  Different tools for different jobs.  Once again, I am suggesting lenses as if all you shoot are horse shows, which I know to be unrealistic.The foundation of your horse show lens tools should be a telephoto zoom.  The classic here is the 70-200.  Again, I use the 70-200 F/4L Non IS.  This lens is not practical for indoor use; it is too slow.  If you are going to use this for other applications seriously consider the F/2.8 IS (VR) version.  Tokina has come out with a interesting lens, a 50-135 F/2.8.  It is not image stabilized and maybe Sigma or Tamron has come out with a similar offering.  If you calculate the crop factor this converts to the popular 70-210 range on a cropped sensor camera.   

The other lens I suggest you start with is a fast prime.  I would recommend something in the range of 50mm on a cropped camera and 85-100 for a full frame.  As you know, I use the 100 mm F/2.0.   

One zoom and one prime should get you started.  Go shoot and your shooting situations will dictate what other lenses you may need to look at.   

Next week: lighting.



  1. Great article – I am still deliberating what lens to get for the show jumping, may look at the 70 – 200 f/4 as I only shoot outdoor events.

    Comment by Gill Langridge — March 20, 2010 @ 4:37 PM

  2. I have been reading a lot here and just wanted to say thanks for all the good “basic” info that many may already know.

    Comment by Matthew McCubbins — March 21, 2010 @ 3:29 AM

  3. Great info for the newer equine ‘shooter’.
    As being new to equine photography, I have only shot 3 shows, one was a miniature horse show! Cute little guys and gals!

    I using a Nikon D300 and D300S, Sigma 70-200 2.8, Nikon 85 1.8, Nikon 300 f4. also have Nikon 50 f1.8 and Tamron 17-50 f2.8. Been shooting ‘human’ sports for past several yrs and need more practice getting great horse images – in action!

    Comment by Steve Hopkins — July 25, 2010 @ 4:05 PM

    • Hi Steve,
      Glad you find info helpful. I have heard good things about the Siggy 70-200 2.8. Thanks for visiting.

      Comment by Four Winds Photography — July 27, 2010 @ 1:18 PM

  4. This is a bit old, but I regularly shoot with a 70-300/4-5.6 (non-L) which is close to dirt cheap and is fantastic. I have used the 70-200/4L (non-IS) and I would rate them confidently very close optically to each other – the 70-300 may have slightly more flare when pushed to its limits but a quick +1-2 purple defringe in Lightroom gets rid of it pretty quickly. The variable aperture is annoying but doesn’t really matter if you’re mainly at outdoor events. The extra reach is helpful, especially on a crop body where you get ~100-480(!!) mm of coverage and with most recent bodies you can always bump the ISO to compensate – I’m confident with my low-level 550D to get relatively noise-free until 1600 ISO and don’t hesitate popping up to 3200 ISO if I have to.

    Comment by Teri — April 2, 2013 @ 8:25 AM

    • (By flare I meant chromatic aberration, d’oh.)

      Comment by Teri — April 2, 2013 @ 8:25 AM

    • Teri, thank you for that input. I’m sure that others that read this blog will find it helpful.

      Comment by Four Winds Photography — April 2, 2013 @ 2:57 PM

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