About this time last year I made a significant upgrade to my camera bag, retiring my trusty 100-400 and switching to a 300F4+1.4x teleconverter as my go-to birding lens, while upgrading my other lenses to “L” class glass with a 24-105F4 and a 70-200F2.8 IS. I decided at that time to buy the older IS instead of the newer, sharper 70-200F2.8L IS II. My testing showed that the 70-200 IS with the 2.0x teleconverter (the Canon II model) wasn’t sharp enough to use together to replace the 100-400, but I was quite happy with the 300F4+1.4x combo.
Over this past year, I decided I’d made a mistake in choosing this lens combo. The 70-200IS is a great lens, don’t get me wrong. But by not picking up the IS II, I was forcing myself to carry three lenses — 24x105F4, 70-200F2.8, and the 300F4, plus a 1.4x teleconverter. The problem: these are NOT small lenses. That’s a fair hunk of bulk and weight to schlep around. In case you’re curious, that’s 1.5 pounds, 3 and 2.6 pounds respectively.
I had an opportunity to fix this in the last few weeks and did, picking up the 70-200F2.8L ISII and a new 2.0x III teleconverter. While down in SoCal for Christmas, laurie and I went out for a bit and I used it as an excuse to do some quick field tests to compare the sharpness of the two lenses.
All images shows are 100% blowups grabbed out off the screen while displayed in Lightroom. All have had zero (none!) processing. no sharpening, no adjustments of any kind. These are straight out of the camera as raw images, loaded into Lightroom and zoomed 1:1 so we can pixel peep a bit. All were taken under the same conditions on a 7D with the same camera settings in Aperture mode.
This first image is from the 300F4+1.4x combo, to give you an idea of what my existing lens produced. You can see some detail in the feathering of the green-winged teal to the right, and the water isn’t showing any nasty artifacts or noise.
First test: seagull portrait
A nearby seagull sat and modeled for me. The first image is the IS plus 2.0x. The second image is the ISII.
There is a lot more detail in the new image. That, in a microcosm, is why the ISII is worth the extra money over the older model. And remember, we’re looking at a 100% pixel peep here. Overall, I’d say the ISII is showing itself a bit warmer of a lens. The noise in the sky is about the same if you ask me.
Second test: looking at textures
A second comparison. Look at the american wigeon (on the left, partially off-screen in the second image) and the cinnamon teal (the red bird, of course). Compare the sharpness of the eye on the wigeon in the first image to the eye of the teal in the second. take a look at the relative lack of texture on the bird’s bodies with the older lens, and how much more you see with the second. Again, the IS II seems to be a touch warmer.
There’s a very distinct difference in clarity between the two lenses. What isn’t here is that my tests a year ago were done with the 2X teleconverter model II, and this year I’m using the model III. I’m working from memory on this, but the IS+2.0xIII is a lot sharper than the IS+2.0xII was, enough so that I have to suggest that anyone using the older teleconverter consider renting the newer model and running a test — you may well find it a worthy upgrade.
If you want to see this lens in action, my first “real” shots with it were when Laurie and I went down and visited the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery a few days ago near Hearst Castle.
What does this change mean? It means I can remove two and a half pounds out of my camera bag (my back thanks me). It also means I’m going back to using a zoom for my wildlife/bird lens instead of fixed prime. While working with far-off critters a prime combo is fine 90% of the time, that other 10% of the time you end up scrambling to not clip a wing or to keep the animal in the frame, or just to find a way to take a wider angle shot. Because of that, the reality I found was that I was doing a lot more two-body shooting, putting the 70-200 on my T3i to cover the need for those wider angles; and when you do that, and you want to get really wide for environmental shots, you find yourself juggling that third lens again. Unless the weather is bad or it’s dusty and windy and you say bugger it, because you don’t want to contaminate your sensor…
Which is why I like the 2 body, two lens approach. And in my case, what I end up with is the 24-105 on one body (usually my T3i unless I’m primarily shooting landscapes instead of critters), and the 70-200+2.0x on the 7d for an effective range of 140-400. I can live with a gap between 105 and 140 happily.
By the way, I now have a 70-200F2.8L IS USM in really good shape available, if someone wants to make an offer. drop me a note.
Bonus: 600mm f8 tests
Of course, as a bird and critter photographer, the answer to “how long a lens do you need?” is always “dammit, I need more!” — sometimes. Enough that I don’t know of a bird photographer who can say “my lenses are just perfect” with a straight face. Art Morris had done a blog posting about how you can get past the “autofocus only goes to F5.6 on canon bodies” limit — if you use the Kenko teleconverters. For some technical reason, they go to F8 with autofocus.
I couldn’t help myself. I’ve been really, really trying to convince myself I could buy a 500mm lens (and failing, at least for now), because sometimes, 400mm just isn’t enough. So I grabbed myself the Kenko 2.0x teleconverter and slapped it on the 300F4 and decided to see what happened.
What happened was I was now the owner of a 600mm F8 prime lens that you can buy new on Amazon for under $1500.
And it autofocuses.
Back to the pixel peeping.
I’m actually rather impressed with the sharpness of those images, to be honest. I didn’t expect that. All of those images are hand-held, by the way, including that gull flight shot which was point-focus-click-pray. NOT bad.
In admittedly limited testing, the combo has some challenges. The autofocus works. Except when it doesn’t. It will at times seek and fail. It does seem to AF poorly in poor light or with subjects without good contrast. The AF is butt slow. None of this surprised me.
But when the Autofocus works? it’s spot on, and you get a very good picture. But is the autofocus reliable enough that I want to depend on it in the field?
I don’t know yet. That will require more testing, to get a feel just when it’s usable and when it isn’t. I’d rather crop a 400mm image and know I’ll have it than shoot with the 600mm and end up with a blurry mess.
Also, look closely at those images compared to the above tests. This lens combo is coming in hot — exposure is about 2/3 to a full stop faster than the other lens, and that’s using the same body set with the same settings. That implies that if I want to use this lens I’m going to need to do some in camera exposure compensation or images are going to blow out. Not a huge deal — unless you’re in the field in a hurry and swapping lenses in a rush and forget, and… And while the above images are fixable in Lightroom, will that be true all of the time?
This combo requires a lot more testing before I decide whether I’ll trust it. And decide whether it deserves to add 3 freaking pounds to my camera bag. For now, it’ll go into a lens bad and live in the car, and I’ll pull it out on a situational basis. I think it has potential, and since a 600mm USABLE lens combo with autofocus for $1500 is going to be of interest to some folks, I thought I’d post some initial notes on it. It might be something you want to explore as well.
If I were going to be carrying the 300mm around anyway, adding the kenko 2.0x to the bag would be a no-brainer. But since the 70-200 IS II is replacing that lens, it’s not as easy a decision. And if you don’t already have the 300mm lens handy, honestly, for that money you’re probably better off with the Sigma 50-500 and a bit of a crop in post-processing. And don’t forget you could also slap a Kenko 1.4x on a 400mmF5.6 and get close to that 600mmF8 as well.
But heck, it never hurts to explore your options. Hopefully, this helps you see whether these options might work for you…