During a reportage dedicated to climbing the highest summit in geographic Europe, Mount Elbrouz (5642 metres, Russia), the photographer Anthony Nicolazzi swapped his two 24-70 and 70-200 F/2.8 pro lenses for one sole lens system: the brand new Tamron 16-300mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD. The objective: to favour versatility and restrict oneself to a minimum of weight. Here is an account of this experiment performed in extreme conditions.
This is not the first time that I have photographed at high altitude. Back in 2012 I was on the slopes of Mera Peak (6476 m) and Island Peak (6189 m), in Nepal, in the Everest region. I had been struck by how hardy my Nikon equipment (D800) was in these circumstances. At -20°C, no worries on release, apart from the particularly dry clacking of the shutter, which luckily came to nothing. At the start of 2014, I had the opportunity to experience even lower temperatures: -35°C, in Québec! The mechanism withstood the challenge perfectly, even though, this time, I several times had the skin of my fingers or the tip of my nose frozen on the housing, which was ice-cold.
By paying a little attention to your equipment, to how you store or use it, high mountain conditions do not present any particular problem with regard to using a camera housing. A reflex, at least, whose 7.4V batteries are more resistant to the cold than the 3.7V lithium rechargeable batteries in compact cameras, smartphones and/or outdoor cameras. On the other hand, things get complicated for the photographer. At 5500 m altitude, the average pressure is 500 mm Hg, that is half of that observed at sea level. Every movement, every step demands considerable effort. Photographing in these conditions is no slim undertaking: besides the housing(s), accompanied by their stacks of lens systems, you will sometimes need to transport a heavy tripod, a video visor, a microphone and more if you are wanting to film video sequences.
It was faced with this problem that I found myself interested in the solution brought by Tamron with its brand-new 16-300mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD. In barely 540 g, Tamron allowed me to replace two lenses of almost one kilogramme each. Not having to make full use – for the purposes of my reportage – of the totality of my Full Frame sensor, I was able to tackle the use of this lens in APS-C format with a definition of 15.4 Mpx on my D800, that is 4800 x 3200 px, without problems.
The reduced aperture compared with my pro lenses at F/2.8 did not worry me too much. On a “full frame” camera, the possibility to “rise in ISO” without generating too much additional noise is a real bonus. And, especially, unlike my usual lenses, the Tamron 16-300mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD is equipped with a VC image stabilizer, likely to gain me a few diaphragms in low light. Optical quality remained to be seen – this would be tested on the ground.
Right from my arrival, I surprised myself by using the full range of focal lengths available on my 16-300mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD. Usually, I use two lenses above all: my classic 24-70 F/2.8 and my wide angle Tamron SP AF 10-24 mm f/3.5-4.5 Di II, in APS-C format (which I swap for a 20 mm F:2.8 fixed focal length when I want to shoot in full format). Most of the time, my 70-200 stays at the bottom of the bag; I only get it out for very specific cases. The flexibility of having an additional focal length range of 70 to 300 mm (that is 105-450 mm equivalent in APS-C) permanently available to me seemed to me to be an initial strong point. A very strong point, even. With a focal length varying between 24 and 450 mm (full format equivalent), I no longer needed — apart from some very rare exceptions — to change lens system. And I also discovered new composition possibilities with the long focal lengths.
The Mount Elbrouz base camp is located at 3750 m altitude, at the foot of the immense glacier that covers the whole of this ancient volcano. Possibilities for manoeuvring on the ground are fairly limited: it very soon becomes preferable to manoeuvre while roped up, for safety, due to the numerous crevices that are hidden under the end-of-season snow. As soon as I was roped up, by lighting the few hundred metres of blocks of lava on which the base camp is set up and by using my zoom to the best of its abilities, it was possible for me to photograph the site and its environment in better conditions. A close-up of the summit that was emerging through the clouds, mountaineers on the first slopes, portraits of my abseiling companions, details of the seracs and crevices scattered across the glacier…
Beyond “mountaineering” aspect of the climb itself, my work on Elbrouz consisted of photographing the activities of an expedition to clean up the litter (1) that was on the mountain, between the base camp and the summit. As official expedition photographer, I was therefore required to supply a visual testimony, in photo and video form, of this environmental assignment. For that reason I was on the lookout for the various situations that could arise and had to show a very swift response in my photographic work at all times. If I confine myself to straightforward statistics, distribution of my images is fairly even, with one third of my shots in the focal length range of 16-24 mm, a second third in the 24-70 range (cross-standard), and finally a third third in the long focal length range (>70 mm).
In order to optimize the clarity of my images, I mainly opted for intermediate apertures, by “screwing” by two diaphragms almost systematically. In wide angle, clarity is entirely satisfactory, with barely a handful softer zones on the edges and in the corners. At intermediate focal lengths (equiv. 50 mm in 35 mm), image precision is still very decent across the field. Background blurring (bokeh) with focal lengths used in portrait format (between 50 and 85 mm equiv. 35 mm) require a large aperture (5.6 maximum), and in this case, if possible, it is preferable to step back a few paces in order to “zoom” more and enhance the effect of the blurring. Finally, in conditions where the telephoto lens is used, clarity is fairly homogeneous across the field.
As Tamron offers an image stabilizer on its pro cross-standard zoom (SP 24-70mm F/2.8 Di VC USD), unlike Nikon, all at a very competitive price, my attention fell to this lens at the start. A question of convenience, the availability of stabilization is a real revolution for the photographer, since it now makes it possible to free oneself of the sacrosanct rule that says that, “to avoid any camera shake, the speed must be higher than the inverse of the focal length used”. During this stay in the Caucasus, I was required to photograph with hand raised to 300 mm, in macro position, with a shutter speed of 1/60e! And all this for a perfectly clear image, which, without an image stabilizer, would have needed a minimum exposure time of 1/250e or 1/500e, that is 3 IL more! Despite all this, considering the very strong conditions of luminosity (sun, glacier, etc.) present in the high mountains in the setting where I was, most of my images were realized at very short exposure times, higher than 1/1000es. In video mode, the stabilization also allowed me to free myself from tripod use several times, resulting in attractive in vivo reportage images. Long live the VC image stabilizer!
The Tamron 16-300mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD is an excellent lens, incredibly versatile and pleasant to use. Image quality is excellent, especially when you take into account its weight and bulk. When travelling, you can really rely on this sole lens. For owners of APS-C format cameras, it is a logical choice if you wish to progress from a true wide angle (16 mm) to a telephoto lens mode (300 mm) in situations where weight/bulk are of prime importance. For travellers, it is without any doubt a “must have”.
A photojournalist who has been specializing in the field of mountains and nature for more than twenty years, Anthony Nicolazzi regularly wins fame in the four corners of the world: Himalaya, Andes, Central Asia, Great North, Alps… Today he regularly collaborates with Trek Magazine, Grands reportages or Montagnes magazine. He has published several works at various publishers and in 2011 received the Philippe Revil mountain award for his reportage, “Belledonne, l'échappée sauvage”.
View the specifications for the Tamron 16-300mm:
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