3.13 Other Considerations

A few additional aspects of lens design warrant a very brief mention here.  The importance of these features is arguably negligible compared to the various issues already discussed in this chapter, such as magnification (focal length), brightness (maximum aperture), image quality (due to glass type, lens coatings, lens design, and precision of manufacturing/QA), and image stabilization.  The features discussed below are nevertheless good to be aware of when shopping for a lens, since some of them can be red herrings.

3.13.1 Lens Balance

For hand-held lenses, reviewers will sometimes comment on a lens’ overall balance, with the implication being that a poorly-balanced lens (i.e., front-heavy or back-heavy) will make extended use of that lens in the field especially tiring.  The best way to hand-hold a long lens in the field—especially a lens lacking IS—is to keep one hand on the camera (so you can operate the shutter release) and the other hand at the far end of the lens, on the lens hood, supporting it from the bottom.  This allows the greatest stability, and helps counteract the effects of optical leveraging (section 3.5) by moving the fulcrum of the system further out from the camera.  A poorly-balanced lens may thus cause more fatigue in one arm than the other during extended use.  However, I think the overall weight of the lens can, in practice, contribute more to fatigue than issues of balance.  To some degree, these can both be mitigated by trying (if possible) to anchor your upper arm and/or elbow against your body while holding the far end of the lens, so that your body provides some support to your arm, improving stability and reducing the strain on your arm.

Fig. 3.13.1: The Art of Lens Balance.
A big lens like this 600mm f/4 typically would be tripod-mounted,
but in the field you sometimes have to improvise to get the right
angle.  Image stabilization helps enormously, no matter which lens
you’re trying to balance, but it also helps if you can anchor your
supporting arm against your body to reduce muscle strain.
(Photo by Linda Huber; used with permission)

3.13.2 Depth of Field

We’ve already encountered the concept of depth of field (DOF) in section 3.7.   The only aspect of lens design which significantly affects DOF is the maximum aperture  of the lens.  This determines the narrowest DOF that you can achieve with that lens, without artificially decreasing DOF in post-processing (which can be done—see section 13.2).  Increasing DOF can always be accomplished by closing the lens’ iris (i.e., reducing the aperture setting on the camera), though there are costs to doing so (such as reduced brightness, and possibly diffraction effects at small apertures like f/22 or smaller). 
    Most importantly, always remember the Golden Rule of Depth-of-field—that DOF increases with distance to subject.  Thus, if you’re planning to buy an expensive, large-aperture lens in hopes of getting lots of bird photos with paper-thin DOF in each one, keep in mind that you’ll also need to be close to your subjects in order to do so.  For subjects at a distance, even wide apertures like f/4 can give surprisingly deep DOF.  In the photo below, for example, I was using a 200mm f/2.8 lens stopped down to f/4.  The bird was extremely close to me (as it would have to be for such a small bird to appear so large in frame at 200mm without any cropping, as in this image), and that allowed the depth-of-field to be shallow enough that the bird’s head and beak ended up in focus while the tail is obviously quite out of focus.  You can see just how shallow the DOF was by looking at the rock to the left of the bird; the DOF appears to be about an inch or so in this case, which is indeed quite shallow.

Fig. 3.13.2: House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) at f/4.
For a given lens, the depth-of-field can be increased from
its minimal setting, but not decreased.  Remember also that
DOF increases with distance to subject, so obtaining a
shallow DOF requires a close subject as well as a
large aperture.

3.13.3 Field of View

The field of view (FOV) of a lens is the width of the scene that you can see through the lens at a given distance.  As with most photography jargon, however, the term is sometimes used to mean different things.  Most commonly, the term field of view is used to mean angle of view, or what can also be called the angular field of view.  The angle of view (AOV) measures the angular width of the cone of visibility extending from the lens, as depicted in Figure 3.13.3.

Fig. 3.13.3: Angular vs. Linear Field of View.
For a lens with a 5 degree angle of view, the red
numbers give the linear FOV at the specified
distances to the subject.

As suggested by the figure, one angle of view (in this case, 5 degrees) gives rise to a multitude of field-of-view values.  At at distance of 100 feet, the field of view is 8.7 feet wide, whereas at a distance of 200 feet, the field of view grows to 17.5 feet in width.  For an angular FOV of a, the linear FOV (actual width of the scene, in feet) at a distance of d feet can be computed by simple trigonometry:

Keep in mind, however, that the viewfinder typically doesn’t show you the full field of view.  The viewfinder coverage in most DSLRs is around 95%, so the image that is captured will show a bit more of the scene around the edges than what you see in the viewfinder.  Also, since crop sensors (i.e., non-full-frame sensors) crop the image delivered by the lens, the actual linear FOV captured by the sensor at a given distance will obviously be less than for a full-frame camera.
    The main determinant of angle of view is the focal length, with competing lenses of the same focal length having roughly the same AOV.  The table below shows the published AOV values for Canon’s super-telephoto lens line.  Canon gives these as diagonal AOV values, so the angle is measured from one corner of the frame to the opposite corner.

focal length
angle of view
8.3 deg
6.2 deg
5.0 deg
4.2 deg
3.1 deg

Table. 3.13.1: Angle of view for some common
birding focal lengths.  Angles are measured
diagonally across the imaging frame.

As far as choosing a lens, FOV and AOV are essentially useless when comparing units of the same focal length.  In the field, the above information can be useful, however, in that it tells you that in order to double your field of view you need to back up to twice your current distance to the bird (or vice-versa). 

3.13.4 Unit Variation

It’s an unfortunate fact of the economics of lens manufacturing that most manufacturers don’t put much effort into testing the units coming off the assembly line for defects before they’re packaged and shipped off to retailers.  Camera and lens companies have discovered that it’s cheaper to just ship all products directly from the assembly line without any testing, and to allow consumers to do the testing for them.  Companies rely on the fact that many consumers aren’t discerning enough to notice defects anyway, so by effectively paying for QA (quality assurance) activities only for those units returned by the few discerning consumers in the population, they can save many thousands of dollars per annum.  In other words, they're hoping you're too stupid to notice any defects in their product.
    Though I’ve purchased a relatively small number of cameras and lenses during my very brief photography career, I’ve encountered a disproportionate number of brand-new items that turned out to be defective—including items that the manufacturer agreed were defective after I sent them in for repairs.  These include both name-brand and third-party items.  As just a few examples, I bought two pro-sumer Canon cameras that front/back-focused, a Canon teleconverter that back-focused, and a Sigma 800mm lens that fell apart and had to be held together with rubber bands during the peak of the spring birding season.  In all cases, the manufacturers honored their warranties by servicing the units free-of-charge.
    The moral of this story is that any brand-new lens or camera, no matter who manufactured it, can turn out to be defective.  Unfortunately, defects in optical equipment can be very subtle, so that you may not know for sure whether the issues in image quality that you’re noticing are due to manufacturing defects or to your technique.  Issues affecting sharpness are especially difficult to diagnose, since there’s typically no standard to compare against: you may think the images produced by the lens lack sharpness, but whether that’s due to poor lens design (in which case all units of that model will perform poorly) or due to individual unit variation (i.e., random manufacturing defects) is generally hard to determine without significant effort. 
    The issue is confounded by the fact that what may appear to be a lens issue may actually turn out to be an issue with the camera that the lens is attached to.  This is especially true of sharpness and focusing isues.  Sharpness, or resolution, can be limited by the pixel size of the camera’s sensor as well as by the precision of the lens’ manufacture.  Focusing problems can likewise arise from either component, with the assignment of blame being even more difficult when the camera and lens were manufactured by two different companies (i.e., when using a third-party lens with a name-brand camera).  In the latter case, the lens manufacturer will have had to reverse-engineer the AF communication protocol used by the camera, so as to render their lens compatible with the name-brand camera.  Sometimes this reverse-engineering process works as planned, and sometimes it doesn’t.  When it doesn’t work entirely as planned, the name-brand camera coupled with the third-party lens may occasionally behave erratically, producing out-of-focus images or even refusing to focus at all in particular circumstances.  In these cases it may be very difficult to decide whether to send the camera or the lens in for servicing, when a defect is suspected.

3.13.5 MTF Charts

Manufacturers of lenses sometimes like to publish graphs called MTF charts to try to convince consumers that their lenses are sharper (or contrastier) than those of competitors.  MTF is another one of those acronyms for which, fortunately, you really don’t need to know what it stands for.  The short version of the MTF story is that (1) it’s a good idea, in theory, to compare lenses based on their MTF charts, but (2) in practice the MTF charts published by different manufacturers aren’t comparable because either (a) they’re scaled differently, or (b) one or both of the manufacturers have fudged their MTF charts.
    Canon is one of the culprits of MTF fudging.  As the fine print on their web site will tell you, their MTF charts are typically theoretical MTF charts, meaning that a published chart doesn’t show you the actual measured optical performance of a given lens, or even an averaging across a number of empirically tested lenses, but rather is a prediction based on details of the lens design.  In essence, their MTF charts can be ignored.  And because different manufacturers follow different protocols for constructing their published MTF charts, the other companies’ MTF charts can be ignored as well.  In summary, then, I don’t recommend even looking at the MTF charts when choosing a birding lens.  What’s more relevant is whether you can find a number of example images taken through a given lens showing you that the lens can deliver the image quality that you want.

3.13.6 Build Quality

In the field, lenses can receive quite a beating.  When on long hikes, it’s very hard to ensure that your lens doesn’t bump into a few tree branches here and there.  Even through normal, responsible use of a lens, some parts will receive a fair amount of stress over time, such as the lens mount.  For hand-held lenses, the weight of the lens itself can exert a lot of torque on the lens mount, particularly if you hold the camera horizontally without fully supporting the weight of the lens.  For tripod-mounted lenses, the lens mount can still receive a lot of stress during operation of the camera, for example when you rotate the camera to level the image.  Over time, these forces can cause parts to become loose, especially in less solidly-constructed lenses.
    During my first season birding with the Sigma 800mm f/5.6, the lens mount became loose, allowing the camera (and therefore the sensor plane) to wobble around quite a bit.  Even a small amount of wobbling of the sensor plane could result in (partially or completely) out-of-focus images.  Because it was the peak of the warbler migration, I was loathe to send in the lens for service, so I temporarily fixed the problem with a system of hefty rubber bands, which worked fine.  After the migration was over, I sent in the lens to Sigma and they fixed it at no cost since it was under warranty.  It’s worth noting that I’ve never had a problem like that with a name-brand lens—only with third-party units.
    As a further testament to the build quality of name-brand lenses, I once dropped my Canon 400mm f/5.6 prime lens on a boulder from a height of 3 feet.  The lens body—not the lens hood—soundly struck the boulder, but the lens continued to work fine after that, producing images fully as sharp as before.
    It’s worth noting here that mirror lenses typically can’t take the same kind of abuse that
real camera lenses (i.e., refractors) can take.  Mirror lenses using a Schmidt-Cassegrain design in particular tend to be very delicate, and may require re-collimation from time-to-time to maintain sharpness, since the angle of the main mirror can shift over time, simply through normal use.