I am routinely asked why I use the specific gear that I do for my wild horse photography and in this article today, I share four key reasons why I use the absurdly expensive Nikon 400mm F2.8E FL ED VR lens for my wild horse photography.
I have been following and photographing wild horses since 2015 and at the time of this article, I have taken over 50,000 photos.
I have used a variety of camera bodies and lenses in the field over the last several years, so I have a good perspective on what works for me and my style of wild horse photography.
It took me a few years to really find my style. I realized over time which images that I rated as my top picks and a pattern emerged. The bulk of my favorite images have been taken with the 600mm F4 G ED VR II lens. I needed a lens that was incredibly sharp, long enough to frame the horses the way I like them, and a soft painterly bokeh. The 600mm F4 has been a consistent performer in my tool bag for several years, but a pattern emerged over time that lead me to the 400 F2.8 lens.
The bulk of my wild horse images have been taking with the infamous Nikon F6 35mm film SLR camera using HP5 film. I have tried a variety of other films, but HP5 has worked very well with the white horses in particular and I find the film very flexible allowing me to use an EI rating between 200 and 1600 on demand.
I will continue to use the F6 when I know I want to make smaller 8x10 and 11x14 silver gelatin prints from the original 35mm film negative and for my archival pigment ink prints. When I know I want to make my bigger 30x40, 40x50, and 48x60 silver gelatin enlargements, I use my Nikon D850 or D5 and then use my proprietary process for making an 8x10 HP5 or FP4 film negative. Using the D850 or D5 allows me to easily make digital negatives for contact printing processes like platinum and palladium, silver gelatin, and silver chloride.
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I was consistently missing opportunities and this is the core of what lead me to start thinking about the 400mm lens.
The 600mm lens routinely forces to make creative decisions in the field that I really didn't want to make, so I tried using my 300mm F2.8 lens more.
Long story short, the 300mm F2.8 lens is an incredible tool that produces spectacular images, but I found it a little short for me a lot of the time and required cropping in post production which I try and avoid.
I make big prints and I want and need every pixel, plus, I just like getting it right in the camera as often as possible. Also, the 300mm F2.8 lens is still the older G ED VR II technology versus the newer E FL ED VR type which is sharper, lighter, and optically superior across the board.
After digging around online for months, I finally pulled the trigger and ordered the 400mm F2.8E FL ED VR lens and immediately started pacing the floors. The only way that I would know if the new 400mm lens would fill the void that I was looking for was to take it to the field and use it.
I was worried if I spent too much money on this lens and if it was really going to be the answer to my struggles and challenges.
The 400mm focal length for my style has worked out as good as I had hoped it would and it has exceeded my expectations on the quality of images that I am able to create.
It was my hope that I could use the latest generation Nikon TC's (1.4, 1.7, and 2.0) with the new 400mm lens and make this the most versatile lens in my bag (400mm @ F2.8, 560mm @ F4, 680mm @ F4.8, and 800mm @ F8).
Having the option to use four professional high quality prime lenses in my bag is the core reason I decided to dive off the cliff and buy this ridiculously expensive lens that I would buy again without hesitation.
I think a lot of other photographers struggle with similar issues and that is why I am taking the time to write this article.
I am on a mission to create compelling, emotional, and influential wild horse images that have the potential to guide and shape policy that will protect wild horses now and in the future. I believe we live in a visually-driven world and powerful images have the potential to help make a difference.
When you put a tool like the Nikon 400mm F2.8E FL ED VR lens in the hands of someone that knows how and when to use it, it becomes a differentiator in many cases.
One of the things that I strive for in a lot of my wild horse images are to isolate the horse or horses from the background because it creates a more artistic feeling and mood. I want the focus to be on the wild horse(s) and subject isolation is a good technique to help with this. Cheaper and slower lenses simply can't do what F2.8 or F4 primes can do and this is why professional photographers pay absurd prices for this gear.
To be fair, if you can get close enough to your subject and ensure there is nothing behind them in the background, you can get excellent bokeh out of a F5.6 lens too. The issue with a F5.6 lens is loss of 1 or 2 stops of light from F2.8 or F4 lens which translates into 2 to 4 less times light which directly impacts focusing abilities and noisy images. It might not sound like a big deal, but that one stop from F5.6 to F4 is a huge deal based on my personal experience and this is why professionals spend the extra money on the faster prime lenses. It can make the difference in many cases of photographing 10 or 15 minutes earlier in the morning at daybreak and another 30+ minutes in the evenings as the sun goes down.
I was fearful I would miss using my 600mm F4 lens, but the 400mm F2.8E with the 1.4TC making it a 560mm F4 lens has completely won me over at this focal length and I no longer miss or worry about this any longer.
The 400mm lens stays connected to my D850 or D5 almost 100% of the time now unless there is a unique situation where I need the 70-200mm F2.8 lens. A few times a year, I will find the wild horses deep in the woods and the 70-200mm focal length has proven to be useful for this scenario for me. I keep the 70-200mm lens in a sling bag that is always with me in the field.
In the end, I was able to sell off several other lenses that I no longer used which paid for the new 400mm lens. It was a gamble that I am very thankful that I had the courage to take. Now my field kit is down to just two lenses and I can't tell you how incredibly great that feels.
Technically, I have two lenses and three small teleconverters that simulate having 5 lenses (70-200mm @ F2.8, 400mm @ F2.8, 560mm @ F4, 680mm @ F4.8 and 800mm @ F8).
The only other lens that I would consider would be the 800mm F5.6 if I get the chance to go out west and photograph the wild mustangs. The 800mm F5.6 will obviously out perform the 400mm F2.8 with the 2.0 TC on just about every level, but that should be no surprise.
The 800mm F5.6 lens also comes with an optically matched 1.25 TC that transforms the 800mm F5.6 into a 1000mm F8 lens which is the real value in my mind over the 400mm F2.8 with the 2.0 TC.
I can see how wildlife photographers in places like Yellowstone or Alaska could seriously benefit from this lens. I frequent the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to watch and photograph black bears and my 600mm F4 is regularly not enough lens. I often don't have enough time to install the 1.4TC to make it a 840mm F5.6 lens and the moment is gone before I can even respond.
I can't imagine a scenario where I could justify purchasing the 800mm lens, so I will probably rent it as I need it for special trips.
I will follow up with another article and new images with the 400mm F2.8E FL ED VR lens and teleconverters as I use it in the field.
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HISTORY OF THE WILD HORSES OF SHANNON COUNTY MISSOURI
Shannon County is home to an extraordinary herd of wild horses that very few people know about. Hidden away in Southeast Missouri in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways on public land about 130 miles from Springfield and 150 miles from St. Louis, 4 herds of wild horses roam the beautiful and rugged landscape.
Ozark National Scenic Riverways is the first national park area to protect a river system and the only place in the state where wild horses still roam free.
It hasn't been an easy path for the wild horses over the last 100 years and it would be foolish to think current conditions couldn't change and put the horses back in danger again.
During the 1980s the National Park Service announced a plan to remove the wild horses, and people were outraged.
In 1993 the U.S. Supreme Court denied a final appeal to protect the horses and gave the National Park Service the right to remove the horses from federal land at their discretion.
The national park service started the process of removing the wild horses in a way that was profoundly upsetting to local residents and horse lovers around the country. The people of Shannon County and horse lovers around the country rallied together and the Wild Horse League of Missouri was formed.
Luckily, by 1996 the Wild Horse League of Missouri, which formed in 1992 to save the wild horses, received help from the people of Shannon County, Congressman Bill Emerson, and Senators Kit Bond and John Ashcroft.
Their tireless efforts paid off, and President Clinton signed a bill into law on October 3, 1996, to make the wild horses of Shannon County a permanent part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
Now, people from around the world visit Shannon County Missouri in hopes of seeing these majestic wild horses.
The Missouri Wild Horse League works with the National Park Service to capture some of the horses when the herd exceeds the maximum agreed upon limit of 50 horses. The captured horses are taken into care and evaluated before being adopted by loving families for permanent homes.
It is important to remember that these horses are wild. When looking for them, be sure not to approach them or attempt to feed them. It is essential to keep these animals wild and free, and for you to be safe. The horses are big, strong, and unpredictable and for your own safety as well as theirs, keep a safe distance of 100 yards or more between you and the horses.
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