The True Quality of Top-Shelf Glass – A Birder’s Perspective

2012-08-31 by . 2 comments

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I recently had the opportunity to rent a truly amazing lens via the Gear Grant program for the Photo.SE site. This lens has completely changed my view of what is possible with photography when you have quality glass in your hands, and how it can free you of your limitations. When first I started doing photography a little over three years ago with a Canon Rebel XSi (450D) kit, I had already made the decision to invest my money in glass, rather than camera bodies. Bodies come and go, but glass is something that can last for a decade or more…or so I had learned in all of my research before ever actually diving into the art. One of my first lens purchases, only months after buying the 450D was the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II USM lens. In its own right, the 16-35/2.8 L II is a phenomenal lens. At the time, I thought it was fairly expensive at $1800, and there is still little question in my mind that it is a stellar landscape and wide-angle lens. I had started out photographing nature in general, picked up the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro lens within a couple months of my 450D purchase, and was hooked on macro. The 100mm macro lens was also a stellar quality lens, and an absolute steal for the price. Compared to my 18-55mm kit lens, which I could tell was producing soft images riddled with CA from day one, the 100mm Macro lens was a dream. Once I got my hands on the 16-35/2.8 L, my opinion instantly changed. The 100mm lens is a good, solidly built lens, but there is an aesthetic and quality about L-series lenses that really puts them a level above anything else. The smooth, solid focus and zoom rings. The weather sealing ring around the lens mount. The silent, instant action of the autofocus. The considerable correction of optical aberrations that left a clean, crisp image behind. I was hooked…completely, hopelessly addicted. I couldn’t buy another non-L lens after that. The quality, both of the build and the image, was simply superb.

Rocky Mountain Brook : Shade : EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II – 8.0s @ f/14 – ISO 100

My next lens was the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM lens. Like the 16-35/2.8 L II, the 100-400mm L was another phenomenal lens. It is solidly built, autofocused like a champ, and was easy to handle. The push-pull zoom design was intriguing, and I quickly learned to zoom and manually focus at the same time thanks to the independent actions. I had originally purchased the 100-400mm L lens for wildlife photography…at the time my favorite subject was deer, elk, moose, coyote, pretty much anything I could find out in the wild, had fur, and could be adequately framed with a lens. My interest in landscape and macro photography started to fade more and more as I learned how to use this new wonder of a lens. At the end of 2011 I purchased a Canon 7D, my second DSLR. During the first couple months of 2012, I become hooked on bird photography. I had dabbled in it before, and I enjoyed it, but the 9-pt AF system with a single center cross-type point on the 450D was a serious limitation at the time, greatly limiting my ability to lock focus and track subjects. While I really enjoyed landscapes and wildlife, birds captured my fancy like nothing else, and the 7D with its more advanced features, higher frame rate, and better AF system unlocked another level of freedom. Ever since the beginning of this year, I’ve spent as much time as I could honing my skill, pushing the limits of my knowledge…and, as it turned out, even pushing the limits of my gear. For the first six months of 2012, my skill grew and grew as I practiced. I could see visible progression from my first photos from late winter in February through my more recent photos in May.

House Finch : Shade : EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS – 400mm – 1/640s @ f/8 – ISO 1600

That was when I hit a wall…I seemed to have solid skill with the 7D AF system, I have very little trouble using the 100-400mm L lens to track birds in their erratic flight. I’d learned how to creep up close to maximize the size of birds in my frame, and how to eek as much image quality as I could out of the gear I had. But something just wasn’t measuring up to my expectations…my effort had stopped improving my skill. Despite the high quality, expensive equipment I owned, something was holding me back. I wasn’t sure if it was me, holding myself back…or something about my equipment, that I’d simply reached its limits. Things were rarely as sharp as I knew they could get, and definitely not as sharp as I really wanted them. When it came to larger bird species like herons, I started having trouble getting close enough to really fill the frame with my subject before they would fly off. At times I’ve resorted to manually focusing my 100-400mm lens with a Kenko 1.4x teleconverter attached to get 560mm and some extra reach, so I could still photograph my subjects without encroaching on their bubble of comfort. Despite the considerable capabilities of my 7D, I had trouble working in the waning light of the later evening, sunrise and sunset, many of my subjects were out and about…at f/7.1 or f/8, ISO settings would creep up to the max levels available, introducing considerable noise. The quality of blur, particularly in the backgrounds…just wasn’t measuring up…at narrower apertures detail that I didn’t need or want was creeping in (as in the shot below, where background detail brings in a lot of competing detail and structure that detracts from the bird.)

Snowy Egret : Overcast Sunset : EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS + Kenko 1.4x PRO 300 GDX – 560mm – 1/1000s @ f/8 – ISO 800

I knew I could do better. Much better. I’d seen better quality bird photography from professional bird photographers and serious hobbyists…there was more to learn, more knowledge to gain. I was, and still am, very far from the end of my journey. I knew that part of it was gear…the photographers that inspire me all sport kits tens of thousands of dollars in value, whereas my own was less than $5000 in value…I wondered if that had something to do with the stunning quality they were all apparently able to achieve. That level of detail where every barb of every feather was crisp and sharp. That was when I decided to start renting the best of the best…the cream of the crop…the top lenses Canon makes. The new Mark II series of Supertelephoto lenses from Canon: The 300mm, 400mm, 500mm, and 600mm L II IS lenses that had all been released (or announced) in 2011. Despite owning one of Canon’s best wide-angle lenses and their most popular telephoto zoom lens for wildlifers, I had little idea how good a lens could really become. There was a time when I thought this photo of a Yellow Warbler was adequately sharp and detailed…

Yellow Warbler : Sunset : EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS – 400mm – 1/500s @ f/5.6 – ISO 500

I am currently renting the new Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L II IS USM lens. What I thought I knew about camera lenses and optical glass was nothing. My concept of good image quality, sharpness, and color depth has been shattered. The original Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS lens was considered one of the best lenses Canon ever made. It was considered to have excellent optical quality, great handling, and was broadly considered as one of the sharpest, if not the sharpest, lens Canon had ever made. In comparison, the new 300/2.8 L II completely redefines the meaning of quality…and surpasses even the much-vaunted 300mm Mark I. I don’t believe there is a better lens in the world…except possibly one of the longer Mark II supertelephotos from Canon themselves (all of which I intend to try via rental at some point over the next 6 months to a year). This lens produces unparalleled image quality, with cleaner definition, better microcontrast, and greater color fidelity than I thought possible. I knew I was missing something, that something was holding me back…that I could approach the image and color quality that I’d seen produced by professional bird photographers. The wall I’d been facing for months crumbled and fell away, and once again…hopelessly…I was hooked. L-series glass, and for that matter quite possibly any glass…doesn’t get better than this. It might not get much larger than this either…the 300/2.8 L II is a big lens. By big, I mean more than twice the overall volume of the 100-400mm lens. The front lens element is gargantuan…you can tell this monstrous thing eats light for breakfast! Compared to the 100-400mm lens, the 300/2.8 brings an extra couple pounds of weight to the game. For hand-holding, this lens is a bit of a trade-off, although not necessarily a bad one, especially if you add a battery grip to your camera body, and use a larger DSLR such as the xxD series or a Canon pro body, as it helps to balance the lens. The lens barrel has a very large diameter. Manual focus is a bit easier with the 100-400mm lens, as its easier to wrap your hand around the smaller barrel.

Distant Mallard : Daylight : EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS + EF 2x TC III – 600mm – 1/640s @ f/8 – ISO 800

Technologically, Canon’s newest lenses are the pinnacle of optical engineering. They blend perfect balance, optimal weight, and superb build quality with phenomenal image quality. Each of these new Mark II telephoto lenses sports Canon’s SWC or Sub Wavelength Coating, a nanocoating technology far superior to any form of multicoating…and it nearly completely eliminates flare and ghosting. Even pointing the corner of the lens right into a bright light source can still produce usable images, whereas the loss of contrast from flare alone, let alone ghosting, in multicoated lenses would leave most images unusable. The image stabilization used in the Mark II generation is some of the best in the world, offering a theoretical 4-stops of improved hand-holdability and lower shutter speeds. It was all theory to me before…it sounded good. Having held this, admittedly huge, but beautiful lens in my own two hands now, and had the opportunity to use it…I can vouch for all of its technological superiority. This lens is a wonder that frees you of limitations and opens up new worlds of possibility.

Chickadee : Patchy Clouds : EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS – 400mm – 1/640s @ f/7.1 – ISO 2500

The image above is a photo of a Chickadee taken with the 100-400mm lens. This particular chickadee is a frequent visitor to my yard, and enjoys a particular branch of one of my trees as his snack chow-down spot. This photo was shot on a partly overcast day with the 100-400mm lens. To get decent sharpness, I had to use an f/7.1 aperture, and to maintain the 1/640th minimum shutter speed needed to prevent the birds constant motion from blurring it into oblivion, I needed to use ISO 2500. To my own eyes, the bird looked quite a bit brighter and better illuminated, however even at a very high ISO of 2500, I still couldn’t capture it in full detail. The high ISO setting also eats away at color fidelity (most noticeable in the drab coloring of what are actually tan feathers around his legs), the high noise requires considerable NR in post which eats away at detail, and still leaves noise behind.  A considerable amount of sharpening…70, with a radius of 1.8, detail 35, and masking 20 in Lightroom 4.1 was used to improve the sharpness of the feathers.

In contrast, the 300/2.8 lens with a 2x TC was used to take the photo below. This photo was also shot on a partly overcast day, although it was slightly brighter. Same branch, but a different spot, and another Chickadee. With top-grade glass at my fingertips and an extra 200mm of reach and the most phenomenal image stabilization I have ever used, I was able to shoot this photograph at 1/250th of a second at f/5.6, greatly improving my exposure. I was able to drop the ISO setting by 2/3rds of a stop to 1600. Even at ISO 1600, color fidelity is excellent, detail is extremely high. ZERO sharpening and ZERO noise reduction were applied to the photo below! Also compare the detail in this shot with the Yellow Warbler and House Finch, both taken at fairly close range in bright sunset sunlight and shade (respectively).

Chickadee : Patchy Clouds : EF 300mm f/2.8 L II IS + EF 2x TC III – 600mm – 1/250s @ f/5.6 – ISO 1600

 

In addition to the EF 300mm lens, I also rented the Canon EF 2x TC III. One of my greatest weaknesses, and one of my largest limitations, was the limited reach a 400mm lens offers. Different birds react differently to the presence of a human, particularly a photographer. Unlike the average passers-by a blip in time then and gone, photographers are right there…looking, encroaching. Song birds tend to go about their business, unafraid in general, with smaller comfort bubbles. Medium sized birds like doves or birds of prey, and particularly larger birds like herons and egrets, have larger, often considerably larger bubbles of comfort. Herons, beautiful and elegant birds, and often hawks tend to take flight and disappear the moment their bubble is breached. Reach is a critical factor in combating breach of comfort…and I couldn’t think of anything better than a lens small enough to walk around with but with the powerhouse reach of 600mm. Like the EF 300mm lens itself, the optical quality of the Mark III version of Canon’s 2x TC is superb. The IQ impact, while present, is minimal, and optically the 600mm combination is still superior to the 100-400mm L lens. In terms of weight, balance, and capability, I can’t think of a better setup for a roaming bird photographer than the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L II IS with either the Canon EF 1.4x TC III, EF 2x TC III, or both. The versatility offered by the full set is considerable, allowing TC’s to be interchanged or removed to achieve 300mm, 420mm and 600mm focal lengths, all with excellent quality, and as much as 2 full stops more light than the 100-400mm lens when dropping back down to the bare 300mm lens. Low-light photography of either wildlife or birds in the low light of late evening and sunset, or early morning sunrise, becomes a minor issue with an f/2.8 telephoto lens. The Snowy Egret photo below was taken about 15 minutes before sunset, with the sun just peeking through the gap between the clouds and the horizon. Shot at 600mm, compare the considerably greater detail, color fidelity, microcontrast and sharpness of the photo below vs. the 560mm shot of a Snowy Egret posted earlier in this article.  One case where a zoom lens like the 100-400mm or the possible alternative Sigma 50-500mm lens offer greater versatility compared to the 300mm prime lens is focal length flexibility. The 300mm lens is a fair bit more difficult to use if you actually need multiple focal lengths. Tracking birds in flight can be tricky at 600mm, however trading a 2x TC for a 1.4x TC to drop your focal length to 420mm is a pretty time consuming process. You will either have to stick with a single focal length and really improve your tracking skill, simply miss the BIF sequence, or not bother trying to capture BIF shots at all when your photographing birds not in flight. One potential alternative would be to have two bodies set up with different focal lengths…assuming you could afford such a kit.

Snowy Egret : Early Sunset : EF 300mm f/2.8 L II IS + EF 2x TC III – 1/2000s @ f/8 – ISO 400

Another benefit of a large lens like the 300mm f/2.8 is a very large physical aperture. I love blurry backgrounds to frame my birds…when detail starts to resolve in a background of a bird photo, it tends to detract from the key subject. The quality and amount of background blur is directly dependent upon the physical size of the aperture and the total focal length. Both are something the 300mm f/2.8 lens and the 600mm combo when using the 2x TC have in spades. The 300mm lens has a whopping 107mm aperture, and when combined with 600mm of focal length, beautifully blurs out the backgrounds of any bird photo. This not only adds to the aesthetic quality of photos produced by this lens, but it helps enhance the sharpness of your subject by eliminating any competing detail in the background. The beautiful, low-noise, richly colored pine tree boke in the Chickadee shot below, thanks to a 420mm focal length, an extra stop of light offered by the f/4 maximum aperture, and a low ISO of 200, was near impossible to acheive…while maintaining sharpness and exposure…with an f/7.1 or f/8 aperture on my 100-400mm lens. It should be noted that all photos of birds taken with the 100-400mm requires a fair amount of sharpening in Lightroom…around 65 at the least, and as high as 90 to extract as much detail as possible in some cases. That also necessitated considerable noise reduction for photos taken with the 100-400mm. No one single shot with the 300mm f/2.8 L II or any combination with a TC has required any sharpening of any kind, nor any noise reduction. All shots have had some basic exposure, curve and clarity tuning only.

Chickadee : Evening Sunlight : EF 300mm f/2.8 L II IS + Kenko 1.4x TC GDX – 420mm – 1/640s @ f/4 – ISO 200

 

If you are a bird photographer who is looking for a way to free themselves of the limitations of lesser gear, without losing the versability and general hand-holdability offered by entry-level telephoto zooms or even the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS lens, you can stop looking. The Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L II IS lens lists for an incredibly hefty price tag of $7999. Sadly, that puts it well out of range for the vast majority of people if your looking to buy, and is one of the greatest weaknesses of this lens. Sometimes deals can be found on eBay or Craigs list for slightly used copies of this lens, however the better the deal, the more battered the lens tends to be. If you’re lucky enough to have the cash, then I can’t think of a better kit for the roaming birder than the EF 300/2.8 L II, EF 1.4x TC III and EF 2x TC III. Even for those who don’t have the bucks to shell out eight grand to buy this lens outright, it’s relatively cheap to rent for a few days, say around a weekend, for the adventurous bird watcher and photographer. A week’s rental of the 300mm lens alone runs a little over $300 from a site like LensRentals.com, enough time to get familiar with it and take it on a vacation or bird outing. A small price to pay for excellent image quality and the ability to expand your capabilities or capture birds in the best quality possible on the infrequent bird watching trip.

The weight of this lens is about two pounds heavier than the 100-400mm L lens. This is a bit of a drawback for long-term handheld use. If you are the type who will head out for a whole day or even days in a row with your lens, you might find the 300mm f/2.8 L II to be a bit weighty and draining. It has considerably better balance than a zoom lens like the 100-400mm L (particularly when paired with a battery grip on a larger Canon DSLR body like the 7D, 5D III, or 5D III), which helps to offset the increased weight to a degree. If you do hope to use this lens for an extended period of time, I recommend either getting a shoulder strap that will rest the camera just a little above waist level. You might also want to bring along a monopod with a Custom Brackets Gimbal Basic or Full Gimbal to help offload some of the weight when your not walking. The 300/2.8 offers a wide range of versatility in focal lengths when combined with teleconverters, including 300mm, 420mm, and 600mm, as well as a range of aperture versatility including f/2.8, f/4, and f/5.6 respectively, although as mentioned before its not quite as versatile as a full zoom lens. With a 1.4x teleconverter, you have an ideal general-purpose birding and birds in flight lens offering 420mm f/4 L-series performance, stunning boke, and unparalleled image quality full of rich color and sharp details that will blow the 100-400mm lens at 400mm out of the water in every way…every single time you press the shutter button. The true quality of top-shelf glass is top-shelf photography, with unparalleled build quality, the best image stabilization money can buy (or rent), richer, deeper colors and razor-sharp detail, even at wide apertures such as f/4 or f/2.8. Free yourself from your limitations and explore the boundaries of your creativity. Nothing compares when you hold a lens like the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L II IS in your hands. But beware…once you try, you may never be able to turn back. ;)

 

NOTE: All photography posted in this blog is Copyright © 2012 Jon Rista. Please to not copy, publish, pin or otherwise share or transmit these photographs without prior permission.

2 Comments

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  • DetlevCM says:

    I just quickly glanced over the article (late and I need to get up in just under 7 hours again…) and I can say that overall I agree fully with you, good glass is very important. However there is one statement that I just cannot agree with, namely this: “Compared to my 18-55mm kit lens, which I could tell was producing soft images riddled with CA from day one” No, just no…

    I started on a 400D – with the 18-55mm kit lens, then got the Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 lens… later the 5D MK II with the 24-70 f2.8. Yes, the kit lens wasn’t a great lens, but it definitely wasn’t that bad. (Even though I later destroyed it completely having a look at every part out of curiosity.)

    Standard zooms are fairly easy to build and even the lower priced ones aren’t a catastrophe. In fact, I got a very sharp image from Sheffield with my kit lens which might actually be amongst the sharpest images I have ever taken! (Single pixel line pattern on sandstone on a building.) Where a cheap lens will show significant shortcomings is at the more extreme ends of the focal lengths, especially on “long lenses” where tiny flaws are amplified and hence more expensive glass has more merit than on the more standard focal lengths. Someone who starts out with photography is perfectly fine with a kit lens and definitely does not need an L lens. Now if one knows one wants to stay in photography, and L lens is definitely a good investments in terms of future proofing equipment, but very good photos can be shot with a kit lens as well.

    I think what you have fallen victim to is just additional experience rather than such a huge difference in lens quality. (Unless you got a really bad copy of the kit lens.) If you were to start out with two cameras to chose from and no experience, identical except for the lens, I am reasonably certain you would not see the difference – at least not immediately. Only once you know what to look for (colour reproduction, colour fringing) will you become more critical – but then most colour fringes are removed perfectly with the click of a button. (And even lenses coasting several thousands aren’t immune to colour fringing.)

    • jrista says:

      Well, perhaps I had a bad several copies, I’m not sure. My first 18-55 was a terrible lens. It produced some horrid CA at the periphery, and there was even CA present in the middle. That one broke, and I got another one off a friend. Theirs had the same CA problem, and a lot of my landscape shots were very soft, even when focused perfectly with 10x Live View and a high aperture (usually around f/11-f/16, straddling the DLA of the sensor on my 450D).

      Friend needed their lens back, so I got another. Lot of CA was still present around the periphery, not so much in the center. Again, the lens was soft even when perfectly focused. It should be noted that I purchased my first L-series lens the same year I purchased my 450D, the EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II. The difference between that lens and any 18-55mm lens I’ve had is night and day, always has been. Barely any CA, razor sharp photos, cleaner boke. I had plenty of experience with both lenses within months of buying my 450D to be able to confidently say that the 18-55mm lens that was current at the time I purchased my 450D was a rather poor quality lens. Its been replaced now with a newer model that seems to correct most of the previous model’s deficiencies, namely the CA. How well it stands up to the 16-35 L I can’t say as I’ve never directly compared the two.

      Now, its entirely possible I just got three lenses that weren’t aligned well with my camera body…my body may have had an (acceptable, but still non-ideal) manufacturing error in placement of the sensor. That could account for the softness, and the lack of any kind of AFMA on that body prevented me from addressing it. However CA is not the result of poor focus…its simply the result of cheaper lens design. Wouldn’t matter how well matched the body was to the lens, CA is still going to burn through every shot adding a cyan and magenta haze around every sharp edge.

      I should also note that my argument is not that good photos can’t be shot with a cheap lens. Sure they can. I think anyone who has used one knows that. My argument is they are a limiting factor. They are simply not as good as an L-series lens (or the counterpart from your preferred brand). They limit resolution, their aberrations are not as well controlled. If you are intent on producing high quality photos, and you run into a wall in terms of IQ, and you know your doing everything else right…well, time to get a better lens!

      The difference in quality between my 100-400 and the 300 is huge, and all I had to do was pick up the 300mm lens and use it. That’s not a difference in skill…my skill did not immediately expand simply by the act of touching the 300mm lens. I already had the skill, and something else…my old lens…was holding me back. Its no surprise, given that the 100-400mm lens is a design about 14 years old, and the 300mm II lens is less than a year old. That is an eon’s worth of technological improvement, and I have no doubt that the IQ of the 100-400mm lens is a bit wanting by today’s standards. Back in 1998 we had cameras with only a few megapixels…and each pixel was huge, larger than 10 microns. Today we have cameras with dozens of megapixels, where each pixel is a tiny fraction of what we had in 1998. Cameras simply demand more today, and in my opinion…having used the 100-400mm lens extensively on a very demanding sensor…it is a critical limiting factor.

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