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Photography/Zoom vs Telephoto


Hello Sir,
  Question. I work for a lawfirm as a part time paralegal and part time investigator.
  We are going to purchase some camera equipment for use in investigations.  The senior partner said he wanted "something that could read news print at a thousand yards."  (We just took a beating on a civil case we could have won, should have won but the photos our gu2y took lacked detail and was too far away.)
   I was going to recommend originally either a Nikon d800 (36.3mp)or the d7100 (24.1mp).
   I was uncertain how much the lens was going to be.  I was thinking either a Sigma 300-800mm or a Nikon High end ??mm.
   I then today was with some friends out on a hike and one of them pulls out a Canon Powershot SX50HS that had 50x optical zoom.
   He paid $399 for it online.
   I have a Nikon d300 and a few smaller lenses.  And this camera (the sony) seemed to blow away my $1500 in lenses and cameras.
   So my question is this:
   The firm needs to buy something that will to quote the boss "read newsprint at a 1000 yards"...
   Is a d800 with say a 600 or 800mm lens (with at least a 10-15k investment) going to be outshot by $399camera.
   And yes, the user will be non professional but detail and ability to enlarge a photo is essential  (We lost the case because of a ring that was being worn.  We had a photo of the party we were suing and we needed to prove he did in fact still have a ring that he made an insurance claim on. The detail was not good enough to definitively prove it was the same ring.  Photo was taken from 250yards.)
   Or is there a third option?
   I appreciate your time, thank you in advance.

Reading newsprint at a thousand yards is pretty extreme.  That's like a third of a mile! Is that realistic--having to read newsprint from a third of a mile?  A hundred yards isn't far enough?  There is a combination of consumer available (i.e. not military satellite spy gear) that could conceivably take photos of a ring at 250 yards.  I'll start with the camera.  I would skip the D800 and D600 for starters.  No doubt you are just looking at "32 megapixels" and the hype on internet message boards about "FX is better."  Well, definitely not for this it's not.  I'd go for a D7100.  This is a 24mp camera but since it's DX, the pixels are much more concentrated, giving you MUCH better resolution than either the D600 or D800.  It's the favorite camera for wildlife photograpers for that reason.  It has also Nikon's best autofocus system.  Second would be a lens.  The Nikon 600mm VR would be a good bet.  On a D800 camera it's a 600mm, but remember that on a D7100 it performs like a 900mm!  You could even add a TC14e converter that multiplies that by 1.4x, for equivalent of 1200mm.  That should easily give enough magnification for something 250 yards away.  There is another choice I'll get to in a bit.

So far I've only talked about camera and lens performance, but there is yet one more factor and it's the most critical.  The 600mm lens is HUGE, and heavy.  You will definitely not be taking photos with that thing hand held.  A 600mm especially with a 1.4x will be VERY difficult to take sharp photos with in the real world because even the teeny tiniest movement will cause some blur. The most common users of lenses like this are bird photographers--people who wish to photo small birds and get the fine little feathers absolutely sharp.  To do that, they use honking big tripods that cost about $1,200 (Gitzo carbon fiber tripods) and heavy duty gimbal mount heads (such as made by Wimberly) that cost over $500.  It takes something this solid and expensive to reduce the tiny jiggles in the camera/lens so you get the maximum sharpness and resolution.  

The Sigma 300-800mm is a good lens, but while you do gain about a third more magnification, I'm not at all sure it's as basically sharp as the Nikon.  Both lenses are huge, bulky, and heavy and are difficult to really get the best from if you don't have a lot of practice with them.  This is called "technique" in the bird and wildlife photographer's realm.  The Nikon 500mm f4 VR is very sharp and somewhat more manageable.  On a D7100 you could use a TC20e converter (2x) and still get reliable autofocus in daylight.  That would give you 500mm x 2 x 1.5 = 1500mm equivalent magnification.  I can't imagine that not being enough for a ~250 yard photo, but ONLY IF the camera & lens are held perfectly solid.  I would use shutter speeds of something like 1/4,000s and turn the VR off in that case.  Do not underestimate how CRUCIAL the tripod & head are for critical sharpness.  I'd rather have a $500 Nikon D3200 camera with 500mm f4 lens on a $1,500 Gitzo tripod & Wimberly gimbal head than a $3,000 Nikon D800 with 500mm f4 lens mounted on a $300 tripod & head.  The camera on the more expensive tripod/head will win EVERY time.  So I guess that's my suggestion--Nikon D7100, Nikon 500mm f4 VR, Nikon TC20e, Gitzo Series 5 carbon fiber tripod, WH-200 Wimberly gimbal head, and lot's of practice.

Good luck!
Kent in SD


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Kent Staubus


I am an experienced outdoor photographer My knowledge base includes digital Nikons, use of flash, vintage & historical cameras, and shooting both medium format and large format film. My specialty is night photography, both with or without flash set ups. I am primarily an outdoor photographer and shoot railroads, country churches, abandoned buildings, and candid people photos. I shoot a lot of travel photos in places like Canada, Scotland, Hawaii, Iceland, and of course the Northern Plains.


Have been taking photos daily for the past 15 years, with total experience of 26 years. I have had a number of photos in magazines, including a few cover shots. I am proficient with camera gear made from the 1850s to present.

TRAINS magazine, Railroads Illustrated Magazine

Bachelor Degree from University of Kansas

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