Dec. 31, 2009

I get so many questions about lenses in emails I think it's about time I post my thoughts on all that here.  The question I get the most these days, by far, is about the 600mm vs. the 800mm lens and I'll get to that.

On December 29th sunshine was forecast in southern Ohio, so headed down to one of my favorite places, Shawnee State Forest, with two lenses. Free time and sunshine in the winter months in Ohio are two scarce things that rarely coincide for me. I took what are now my two favorite lenses, Canon's 14mm f2.8L , and  Canon's 800 f5.6 L IS  lenses.

I have been doing photography of some sort or another for over 25 years. Although I've been a birder for a long time, I've really only been serious about bird photography for less than 10 years. Nobody ever asks me about wide angle lenses, and I don't post photos on this website taken with them, but I've owned quite a few over the years and have taken a lot of photos with them. I played around the most with wide angles in the '90's when I was using Contax cameras with the wonderful Zeiss wide angle Distagons. At various times I owned and used Zeiss 18, 21, 25, 28, and 35mm lenses. If the 15mm Zeiss Distagon was affordable to me, I would have definitely tried it out too. The 18 f4 Distagon was my favorite. It had such amazing color saturation and contrast with Velvia film it was thrill to view the slides. I did also have what is now the legendary 21mm f2.8 Distagon that many people have adapted to fit Canon cameras, but I always preferred 18mm as a focal length, especially around Ohio. When I decided that I wanted to try and photograph birds I bought a Nikon 500 f4P with a Nikon f4 body, but that was the only Nikon lens and camera I had. I didn't want to part with my Contaxes. By the end of 1998 autofocusing was beginning to take hold for real and I was becoming more interested in photographing birds. Carrying around 2 systems isn't practical, especially if you want to travel, so I switched to Canon for everything. Parting with that Nikon lens was no sweat, but selling the Contax cameras with those Zeiss lenses was very tough for me. In retrospect is was a very smart decision, but needless to say I was completely underwhelmed by the Canon 17-35 f.28 L (the first ultra wide angle zoom Canon made for the EOS system I think) which replaced several jewels in the Distagons I had. Although that Canon lens was popular at the time, I always hated it. It lacked the saturation and contrast, even with Velvia, that I was used to. I carried it around for years, but rarely was inspired to pull it out. When switching to digital cameras, I disliked it even more since the chromatic aberrations it displayed were far more obvious on a computer screen than through a loupe. Canon has since offered two updates to that lens with a 16-35 f2.8 L and the Mark II version of that lens, the latest version is supposedly excellent although I've never tried it. A few years ago I finally ditched my older Canon and got the 17-40 f4L lens. I wasn't doing much wide angle photography anymore and didn't need the speed of the 2.8. Also since I'm using the 1D series cameras with their 1.3x crop sensor (ideal for bird photography)  I wasn't really getting an ultra wide anyway. The 17mm end of that lens becomes a not so wide 22mm. To my eyes the 17-40 f4 L is definitely a world apart from that older 17-35 f2.8 I had with much better control of the chromatic aberration. Overall contrast and saturation seem better too, but sometimes it's kind of hard to judge that with digital. One glance at a slide can often reveal more about a lens. With the 1.3x crop of my 1D cameras I'm also not seeing the edges of the lens where weaknesses in wide angles surface most, and since I use it outdoors in nature scenes I'm not seeing any distortion it might show if I was photographic straight lines in architecture. My 17-40 f4L zoom does very well for what I would use it for. I really can't complain, but it isn't a lens that I have been inspired to go out and use. I have used it mostly at the long end for ordinary things that I need to photograph. It doesn't go wide enough for my taste with the 1.3x cropping camera. Also, I just don't like wide angle zooms. When I started photography there were no ultra wide zooms. They're popular these days and a lot of people are taking amazing photos with them, but my brain just doesn't operate well with them. For me it's easier to see a potential photograph in terms of the view of a certain focal length will offer. Having one or two single focal length wide angles works best for me. With a zoom, I end up just pulling out the lens and fishing around in the viewfinder looking for a photograph instead of seeing it before I pull out the camera.

Recently Zeiss has begun to make Distagons with the Canon EF mount including an 18mm. The Contax cameras are no longer made, but Zeiss is again offering lenses in the 35mm format for Nikon, Canon and others. They are all manual focus, but who cares at the wide end. When I heard about those it awakened my long dormant interest in having a real wide angle lens.  I am primarily a bird photographer and love the 1D Canon cameras. I used the Mark II for years, then got the Mark III. A lot of people apparently had problems with that camera, but mine always worked well. The Mark IV is just out and I will get one of those soon and will be using it with its 1.3x crop sensor for the foreseeable future.  Getting a Distagon for a 1D series camera isn't really worthwhile. I could buy a full frame camera specifically for one or even for the 17-40 like a 5D, but I don't want to lug around another camera with different batteries just for one lens. The 5D camera is really of no use to me for my bird photography. I also like to stay as minimal as possible with my equipment since I travel a lot with it. Considering that I often need to carry an 800 (or 600) and a 300 on a plane there isn't room or weight allowances left for much else. I also don't even like making two trips from my front door to the car when going out to photograph at home in Ohio. With a lot of hesitation because of the price, I made the only choice that made any sense for me. That was to get the newest version of Canon's 14mm f2.8. Even with the 1.3x crop sensor I get a still the view of an 18mm lens that I can use on my camera, and not a zoom, but an honest to goodness high quality single focal length wide angle lens. Now that I have it, I'm sorry I waited so long.  It's a blast to use and filled a big void in my camera bag.

He are some photos from my first trip into an Ohio forest with it on Dec. 29. There is nothing stunning or amazing here. In fact they look rather ordinary, but that is the whole point. Unlike the wide open vistas of the American west, Ohio forests are cluttered and cramped places but no less beautiful. The best way to get any perspective in them is to use a wide angle.

Canon EOS 1D Mark III, Canon 14mm f2.8 L II lens
f16, 1/200th sec., ISO 320

Canon EOS 1D Mark III, Canon 14mm f2.8 L II lens
f18, 1/100th sec., ISO 400

Canon EOS 1D Mark III, Canon 14mm f2.8 L II lens
f13, 1/200th sec., ISO 400

Canon EOS 1D Mark III, Canon 14mm f2.8 L II lens
f16, 1/85th sec., ISO 320

And now the answer to the question I get the most.  Which is better, Canon's 600 f4 L IS or the 800 f5.6 L IS ?  I bought the 600 f4 L IS soon after it came out about 10 years ago, as I did with the 800 last year.  I have fired off tens of thousands of bird photos with both lenses on the 1D Mark III alone.  Now after a full year of use with the 800 and examining photos of actual birds taken in the field with both lenses on the same camera I think I can finally and conclusively answer that question about which one is best : I just don't know. Is the 800 better for birds than the 600 + 1.4x ? I don't know. Is the 800 + 1.4x better than the 600 + 2x for birds? I don't know. Of course, the day I got the 800 I took all my lenses outside and set up a subject to test everything out. That was well over a year ago now, but I think I took my dart board and placed feathers of different sizes on it and tried out all the various lens and teleconverter combinations at different apertures. That was the only time I tried the 800 and the 600 + 1.4x wide open, and the 800 was marginally sharper in that artificial situation. In the field I always stop them down at least a little bit.  At f8 the results to my eyes are indistinguishable. I couldn't tell you if in the field on an actual bird the 800 or 600+1.4x at maximum aperture is best because I have never used either lens that way and I have nothing to compare. Both are amazingly sharp.  The differences between the 600+2x and the 800+1.4x are even less, and at all corresponding apertures. This is where the quality of the lenses are pushed the most and where I have spent the most time trying to figure out if one lens really has the upper hand over the other. Both are pretty soft wide open at f8, but can both be excellent stopping down just a bit, even to f10. When light and shutter speeds allow for it, both lenses seem to peak around f13, but f10 is more than just OK if you can't afford to stop down that extra bit. Optically I can't tell any across the board differences between the 600+2x vs. the 800+1.4x. I am judging only by the two lenses that I own and have used extensively.  I own several each of both 1.4x and 2x teleconverters, and they're not a factor. On paper the 800+1.4x should be better than the 600+2x optically, but I honestly can't see it one whit in my bird photos taken in situations where I actually use them no matter how hard I look. I use those combinations the most on songbirds at fairly close range. Maybe from a longer distance there is a noticeable difference. I just don't know, and I can only relate to how I use these lenses. Maybe someone who uses the same lenses to photograph surfers riding a big wave will tell you something different. Again, I just don't know.

With the optics question hopefully answered, there are a lot more important factors that contribute to the sharpness or apparent sharpness of a bird photo. Focusing is the most critical. With big telephotos at close range your depth of field is minimal. I just try to get the eye the sharpest and hope for the best really. If the focusing is off it doesn't matter what lens you use. I personally never use manual focusing on birds. My eyes can't focus critically enough through the dim viewfinder. None of the Canon cameras I have owned ever had any focusing issues. I know that some people have had problems specifically with their 1D Mark III's, but the one I have has never given me any problems.  Any out of focus photos I have taken with it I will take full blame for. The angle and quality of light can also play a big role in how much detail contrast can be seen in the feathers of a bird photo. We're talking mostly about the sun here, but a little pop of fill flash on an overcast day can add a lot.  You can't overlook the tripod either. Yes, Image Stabilization makes a huge difference in getting sharp photos from a long telephoto lens, but the tripod still is important. I have two Gitzo 1548 Carbon fiber tripods. They don't make that model anymore, but at the time they were the biggest in that line. The reason I have two is to keep one clean on terra firma. The other I let get dirty and take it where ever I want into silty salt water or mudflats. I do hose it off and grease up the joints regularly, but it is dirty. I also have some left of a third one that I scavenge for parts when needed. I know that others might tell you how much they like their spindly little tripods, but I personally would never put my 600 or 800 on anything but the biggest carbon fiber tripod that I can carry with a full Wimberly gimbal head. Don't ask me about the current Gitzo tripod models. I've never tried any of them and they're just a bunch of numbers to me. Another key factor in getting a sharp photo should be obvious, and that's using a fast enough shutter speed on the camera for the situation you're in whether that be freezing a fast flying gull or keeping your rig steady on a tripod for a portrait of a sparrow. My final thought for now about judging the sharpness of a bird photo is how you apply sharpening and noise reduction when converting your RAW files. That's the trickiest part. (I'm talking here about viewing full sized files on your monitor. You can't tell anything about the sharpness of a photo from anything resized for the web.) I still haven't come up with a one size fits all solution for every photo. Maybe others have, but I'm still looking. Ideally it would be nice to have incredible detail in feathers with creamy noiseless backgrounds as a particular photo demands. In photos of birds in nice light with a lot of contrast you can add more noise reduction to the background without losing much feather detail. But a photo of a gray bird in overcast light might need more sharpening to bring out all the details that are actually in the file. Adding too much noise reduction then will help with background noise, yes, but it will also start to have an effect on how much feather detail will show up on the bird. Or you can just use film and not worry about it.  In reality there is a lot more to a good bird photograph than sharpness, but that's what everyone obsesses about when choosing a lens.

The real differences between Canon's 600 f4L IS and 800 f5.6L IS aren't in the quality of the photos you can get from them. But they're different lenses with their own advantages and disadvantages.

The biggest deciding factor for many people favoring the 600 I think will be the price. The 800 is $3000 more expensive. That's a lot of money and you can take a couple of trips to some great places with that sum. There are also a lot more used 600 f4's out there these days that can give results no different than a brand new one.  If shopping for a used 600 f4 and you see an unreal price,  just make sure that it's the Image Stabilization version.  IS is too much of advantage for bird photography to consider buying a lens these days without it. The 600 f4 of course is a great 600 f4 lens first and foremost. If you want that focal length and speed, you can't take any teleconverters of an 800 f5.6 to get it. The Canon "prosumer" digital cameras (50D, 7D, etc.) don't offer autofocusing with lenses with an effective maximum aperture smaller than f5.6. They crop the sensor of a full frame 1.6x.  You do get more bird on the image with the same lens from the same distance than a 1D series will, but they won't autofocus with the 600+2x or 800+1.4x. The 1D (and 1Ds) series cameras will with the central focusing sensor. Having the ability to change focal lengths without moving is a big advantage in bird photography. Let's say you're sitting in a mudflat and you've worked your way to into camera range with a Least Sandpiper with a 600+1.4x on a 7D and a yellowlegs shows up. All you have to do is remove the teleconverter and photograph the yellowlegs. If you had an 800 on that 7D you would have to get up and move back, probably flushing all the birds. Personally I wouldn't get an 800mm lens if I couldn't also have the option of using it with a 1.4x, but that is just my opinion.

The biggest advantage to the 800 over the 600 is in its newer design and construction. The 600, while revolutionary at its introduction with its IS, is now a 10 year old design. The 800 is nearly 2 lbs. lighter than the 600. That can make a big difference if you have to carry the lens for any distance. The new design of the 800 is also slimmer and trimmer than the 600 as can be seen by clicking on the links above. Even though the two lenses are roughly the same length, the 800's supplied lens hood is shorter. The 800 overall is less bulky and easier to travel with. I can fit my 800 and 300 f2.8 both in a backpack along with a couple cameras, short lenses and binoculars that can be used as a carry on on a plane. When traveling with the 600, it is so bulky I either have to leave the 300 at home or bubble wrap it and stick it in a suitcase. The IS on the 800 is also improved over the 600. To be honest I can't tell a whole lot of difference when using good tripod technique on a good tripod, but I do see a big difference on the rare occasion when I photograph from a car window. My favorite aspect of the new design of the 800mm is the tripod collar. If you've never used both lenses you can't appreciate it.  The movable part of the tripod collar on the 800 is about 3 times wider than the older design and it's silky smooth to rotate at any tension setting. It has a luxury feel to it and is a pleasure to use.  Even though I still own my 600, when it's time to head out with the camera I always grab just the 800.

It probably won't be long before Canon comes out with newer versions of all their classic big white telephotos including the 600. You will have to assume that it will incorporate the same trimmed profile and tripod collar as the 800 with the same improved IS. The price of a new 600 would also probably go up and if Canon can knock off even one pound, choosing between the two lenses will be even more difficult.

There is one last thing that I think is important in the discussion involving the 800 vs. the 600 and that is the use of the 800 with extension tubes. The 600 focuses roughly two feet closer than the 800. The 600 goes down to about 18 feet and the 800 to about 20 feet. For medium and large sized birds, that probably doesn't make a whole lot of difference. Sticking a 12mm tube on the 800 can make a difference in close focusing without a whole lot of light lost for small birds at close range.  I also like to put the 12mm tube on the 800+1.4x combo because it gives virtually the identical field of view as the 600+2x that I am used to. The difference between the 800+1.4x (1120mm) vs. the 600+2x (1200mm) is significant to me. After years of using the 1200mm combo on the 1D MarkII and then the MarkIII I pretty much have become accustomed about where to stand for what size of bird. You have to be a big step closer to a small bird with 1120mm than 1200mm which was disconcerting to me at first. Put the 12mm tube on the 800+1.4x and it becomes virtually the same as the 600+2x with about 1/4 stop of light lost. To me that's a fair trade off especially considering how Canon consistently improves the quality of faster ISO's with each 1D model. Why does the small tube increase the focal length?  I don't know 100% of the story, but I do know that with internally focusing (IF) lenses (pretty much every telephoto now made today) a lens' focal length decreases as you focus closer. The 600 and 800 aren't really 600 and 800 at their minimum focusing distance.  In the days before IF became standard, telephotos racked outward as you focused closer but retained their focal length. They were a pain to use because the balance of the lens shifted as you focused, they didn't focus very close anyway, and IF became the standard with focal length loss at closest focus being the trade off. So when a small tube is added to an 800mm lenses you're not really gaining magnification at close distances as much as you're not losing focal length. If you don't believe me or don't know what I'm talking about, take a new macro lens with IF and focus at 1:1. Then add a tube and focus so the same subject occupies the same amount in the frame. You'll find that you're a bit further away from the subject. Maybe you have noticed that I have only mentioned using a 12mm tube. Yep, I also have a 25mm tube and it gives even more apparent magnification (i.e. less focal length lost) and  lets the 800 focus even closer than the 12mm tube, but I leave the 25mm tube at home. An odd distortion to telephotos happens when tubes are added. The edges of the photos start getting an ugly smeared and spread look. I don't really notice it with the 12mm tube, especially with the 1.3x crop of the 1D series cameras, but it becomes very obvious with the 25mm tube. If the smeared look doesn't bother you then go ahead and stick a 25mm tube on your long lens, but I personally hate it.

On the 29th I also took my 800 to the Shawnee forest. In the afternoon the sun came out for real. I took a break from my fun with the 14mm and pulled out 800mm at a thicket to see what was around. Among the usual wintertime birds in the area, an Eastern Towhee briefly popped into view out in the open. One of several Hermit Thrushes in the area was ridiculously unwary and remained close by me for a long while, but true to it's nature it never ventured out in the open.

Canon EOS 1D Mark III, Canon 800 f5.6L IS lens + Canon 1.4x + Canon 12mm tube
f13, 1/250th sec., ISO 320

Canon EOS 1D Mark III, Canon 800 f5.6L IS lens + Canon 1.4x + Canon 12mm tube
f10, 1/640th sec., ISO 320

Update April 2010 : since writing this I have been using the Canon 1D MarkIV with the 7D as a 2nd camera body.  I have had Canon replace the tripod collar mechanism on my 600 f4 making it as good as new. I have preferred using the 600 recently since it is more versatile for my purposes. I can't travel easily with both lenses and certainly can't carry both in the field. It is nice to own both lenses, but I can't justify it and the 800 is the one to go.

Yes, there are a lot of other lenses available between 14mm and 800mm. I have owned and used many of them over the years. Again,  I like to travel light with what I really will use, need, and like.  I have already mentioned my 17-40 zoom. Besides a big telephoto, a bird photographer needs to have some sort of lens in the 300-400mm range that can be easily handheld. Canon makes a good assortment to choose from with a 300 f4L IS, 300 2.8 L IS, 100-400 L zoom, a 400 f5.6L (non-IS), and the 400 f4 IS DO lens. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. Some are more useful with teleconverters than others and they cover a wide price and weight range. I have used all of them at one time except the 400 DO, which to me is not worth the price for how much I would use it.  Everyone has their own needs which is why Canon makes and sells all of them. I have the 300 f2.8L IS which I have owned for about 4 or 5 years now. It's a popular and versatile little lens for a wide range of subjects. It is well known as one of Canon's finest. I don't think I have ever used it wide open for birds because of its shallow depth of field, but for other things, namely people at a moderate distance that lens can't be beat wide open. It has a beautiful quality. With the 1.4x teleconverter it is still an amazingly sharp 420mm f4 becoming a great lens for photographing flying birds and other large birds at close range without a tripod. The lens also does fairly well with the 2x as a 600 f5.6. It is easily still handholdable like that for flying birds. For flying birds stopping down about 2/3 stop does fine at 600mm, but I do think it needs to be stopped down a full two stops with the 2x for really critical feather detail and used on a tripod. I have read often on the web how great the 300 2.8 is with a 2x and how terrible the 600 f4 is with a 2x, but for me and the lenses I have owned, the 600 does better with it. At least the 600 f4 doesn't need to be stopped down as much to get really sharp. All that aside, the 300 f2.8 is a wonderful and versatile lens. I don't use it too often, especially at home in Ohio, and often leave it at home if I want to travel light.  When I do need it, it is useful for many things.

Between the 300mm and the 40mm end of my zoom I currently own only one other lens, and a fantastic lens it is, Canon's  100 f2.8 L IS Macro .  It is also a very versatile lens and is very small and lightweight. The 100-135mm perspective is a very natural one to me for photographing scenes, people, places, and things. I also like having a macro lens around. I had the previous Canon 100 2.8 macro  USM (non-IS) before this one, which was also an excellent lens. This one is handier for handheld photos, especially when traveling by plane, since I usually only take the Wimberly head for the big lens. Here at home I always have a small tripod with a small ball head in the car so I can pull it out for macro stuff whenever I feel like it. While this 100mm macro lens does well hand held for everyday service, for real serious macro work it still has to be done the old fashioned way on a tripod with a cable release and mirror lock up. The IS does a good job of handling motion up and down and side to side, but it can't handle back and forth motion because of the focusing and shallow depth of field at high magnifications.  If I was more seriously into outdoor macro photography I would have Canon's 180 f3.5 L macro for the increased working distance. I used to have that lens, and it is fantastic, but it takes up a lot of space in a camera bag. Canon makes some excellent 70-200 zooms, but I have never felt the need for one or wanted one. The single focal length 100 works just fine for my needs without weighing me down.

Here are two photos from a couple of weeks ago in back yard in Columbus with the Canon 100 f2.8 L IS Macro.

Canon EOS 1D Mark III, Canon 100 f2.8 L IS Macro lens
f11, 1/60th sec., ISO 250

Canon EOS 1D Mark III, Canon 100 f2.8 L IS Macro lens
f13, 1/15th sec., ISO 400

What I say here is based only on my tastes and experiences. I'm a professional musician who sells bird photos to fund birding travels and camera equipment and no more. I'm not a formally trained professional photographer or optics expert. Everyone has different interests and needs with photographic equipment. I'm only stating why I own what I do right now and what I like about it.