Sunday, August 5, 2012

Putting the New Glass Through Its Paces: Initial Impressions of the Canon 500mm f4L II

I've been into bird photography for several years now, dating back to 2006 when I got my first SLR and a cheap 70-300mm zoom lens. While it's true that equipment does not make the photographer, inadequate gear, particularly when it comes to lenses, can hold one back--and I quickly outgrew the capabilities of that setup and upgraded to the professional 300mm f4L lens which served me well for several subsequent years. After this past fall's trip to the Bosque del Apache, I realized that I had again come to the point where I had gone as far as I could with my equipment. It was time to upgrade again, this time to the sort of glass that serious bird photographers employ.

Your faithful correspondent putting the 500mm to the test at Huntley Meadows Park in northern Virginia
Canon's supertelephotos have long been the standard for the professional bird photographer, with the superb 500mm f4L and 600mm f4L the cream of the crop by which all others are judged. Last year, Canon announced redesigned versions of both, significantly reducing weight and improving their already-stellar optics--but the horrific earthquake, tsunami, and ensuing power crisis introduced significant production delays, and it wasn't until nearly this June that the lenses began to hit the streets.

Reading the specs and early reviews on these lenses, it would seem like they were worth the wait. Regarding the Modulation Transform Function (MTF) charts for the lens, I won't bore you with the technical details--there are already some good explanations of how to read MTF charts out there--but the charts alone promise some incredible theoretical performance. Let's just say that the various lines running across the top and so close together are indicative of fantastic edge-to-edge sharpness, resolution, and contrast. Compared side-by-side with its predecessor's MTF chart, it's evident that Canon made an already-great lens even better, optically-speaking:

500mm f4L II MTF chart
Courtesy of Canon USA's site
500mm f4L (original version) MTF chart
Courtesy of Canon USA's site
Now compare that to the MTF chart for the venerable 300mm f4L I've used for a good part of the last decade, and you'll see quickly just how much better the 500mm f4L II is. Note that the 300 is indeed a fine lens with which I've taken prize-winning images--but even bare its performance is not up to that of the new 500 with a 1.4x teleconverter attached!
Canon 300mm f4L MTF chart
Courtesy Canon USA's site
And though MTF charts don't tell the entire story (they don't address chromatic aberration, for example), needless to say the new Canon lenses deliver across the board. I'm not going to even attempt to do the sort of in-depth review which professional gear junkies have already provided; for those details, I'll refer you to one of many available out on the Web, such as The Digital Picture's review. What I am going to do is share my initial experiences and some of the images I've captured in the first couple of weeks owning this fantastic piece of glass.

As I mentioned earlier, Canon ran into a lot of production delays in getting this lens to the market--over a year later than originally announced when all was said and done. I had wanted to get my hands on one in time for spring migration birding, but alas, 'twas not to be. Come the promised "late April" release, then May, and into June, and no one had the lenses in stock yet. I scoured the Net on what seemed like a daily basis for information about a firm release date when at last I came across a posting on indicating that B&H Photo had recently shipped both the 500mm and 600mm lenses to a lucky photographer. Somehow, I'd missed that the lenses had gone from "pre-order" to "backordered" status sometime in early June! I immediately placed an order with Amazon (figuring the backorder waitlist might be a bit longer at B&H).

Now, I've ordered a lot of camera gear from Amazon in the past, including one of my camera bodies (the Canon 50D), all of my lenses (including the 300mm f4L and 24-105mm f4L, both $1000-plus pieces of glass), and countless accessories. I must say that this is the first time I received a call and e-mail from a personal "camera concierge" after my purchase! Amazon followed-up with me a couple of times to provide updates on estimated delivery, as well as after shipment and arrival. I guess when you invest in something this pricey--the new 500mm is worth more than my car is at the moment!--Amazon wants to make sure everything goes smoothly. My only complaint is that though I paid the extra $3 for one-day shipping over the free two-day option I get as an Amazon Prime subscriber, they still sent it via UPS Ground on a Friday afternoon--meaning I spent an extra $3 for nothing as both would have come Monday regardless. I took off of work so I could sign for the package when it arrived; unfortunately, we've got a new UPS driver on our route who hasn't quite gotten down our address and who waited until nearly 6:00pm to swing by.

I'm glad the driver didn't just leave the box on the stoop (Amazon did send it signature-required, though UPS has been known to ignore that before); it wasn't in Amazon packaging but was rather in a huge Canon box saying exactly what was in it--sort of like when I ordered the Playstation II several years ago and it came in Sony's blue box. I guess these are drop-shipped (the box even had an EVA Air Cargo label still on it), but nothing says "steal me" like the original, naked packaging left on the doorstep. Needless to say, I pulled the trigger on new insurance coverage immediately, too!

Frog in Lac du Papillon (our backyard pond).
Canon 50D, Canon 500mm f4L II, Canon 1.4x II
Effective focal length of 700mm (optical), f/5.6, 1/40 sec., ISO 800
The threat of thunderstorms had left the backyard rather overcast, but I wanted to try out the new glass right away. Although I didn't catch any great birds to photograph, I did spy one of our resident frogs and pointed the lens his way. Right away, I found out just what an amazing lens the new 500mm is; under the rather poor light, I had opened the aperture all the way (f/5.6 with the 1.4x teleconverter attached) to let in as much light as possible, dialed in a third of a stop of underexposure (for a third of a stop faster shutter) and cranked my camera's ISO up--and still ended up with a rather slow shutter speed of 1/40 second when shooting in my usual aperture priority mode. The rule of thumb for sharp images free of blur induced by camera motion alone is that the shutter speed must be at least the reciprocal of the lens' focal length. For the effective 700mm of optical focal length I had set up between the lens and 1.4x teleconverter--plus the additional 1.6x magnification over full-frame 35mm due to the Canon 50D's crop-factor APS-C sensor--that meant I needed around 1/1000 of a second to ensure a sharp photo.

Note that I took the photo at 1/40 of a second--almost five full stops slower than the reciprocal rule would dictate is necessary--and that nonetheless it came out very nicely sharp. Part of that is due of course to my steady tripod rig and its Wimberley Head version II... but the lion's share can be attributed to the updated 4-stop image stabilizer inside the 500mm II. By comparison, my 300mm had the original, 2-stop image stabilizer--the 500 is able to maintain optical stability at a full four times (two stops) slower shutter speed than was possible in the 300.
Setting up for some hummingbird photography
On top of that, the 500mm II is considerably sharper wide-open (at f/4, or f/5.6 when using the 1.4x teleconverter) than either its predecessor or the 300mm f4, both of which really need to be "stopped down" to f/8 or so to achieve optimum sharpness.  This is something I'm really still getting used to, as I'm having to force myself to open the lens up to f/6.3 and even f/5.6 when with my prior setup I'd have never considered going any wider-open than f/7.1 due to the decrease in image quality. Finally, the fantastic resolution on this lens means that with a decently-high megapixel sensor, even images which fill only a small portion of the frame can be blown up without losing all detail; I was absolutely floored when I zoomed in on "ID pictures" I took of a few distant birds just to see what they were--the detail in comparison to my old 300mm was just unreal.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird in our backyard.
Canon 50D, Canon 500mm f4L II, Canon 1.4x II, and 25mm of extension tube
Effective focal length of 700mm (optical), f8, 1/500sec, ISO 800
It was a couple more days before I got enough sun in the yard to really try out the new lens. I set up near one of our hummingbird feeders and waited--then snapped the photo above. The angle of the light and a swarm of yellow jackets who kept trying to drive off approaching hummingbirds added to the challenge, but I'm quite pleased with the end result. The bird is sharp throughout and the background an almost-perfectly smooth bokeh due to the focal length and the lens' 9-bladed aperture--that darker smudge at the bottom is more my fault than the lens', as I failed to compose the shot in a way that excluded a brush pile against the fence (that pile being the darker area).

I also for one of the first times put my extension tube set to the test, adding a 25mm extension to the lens for the hummingbird shot above. Extension tubes are simply hollow metal tubes with pass-through electrical contacts to keep the lens and camera connected to each other; they contain no glass elements. Extension tubes do a couple of things to the image: first, they reduce the minimum focusing distance (MFD) of the lens, allowing you to get closer to your subject--the 500mm II has a MFD of just over 12 feet compared to the 5-foot MFD of my old 300mm lens (conversely, extension tubes also reduce the maximum focusing distance so that it is no longer at infinity and thus very distant subjects will not be able to be brought into focus--but that's rarely an issue when going after professional, frame-filling images). Second, extension tubes slightly increase the subject magnification within the frame and thus allow for composition which yields better, smoother bokeh (background blur) to separate the subject from its background. To be fair, this magnification increase is very slight unless one really stacks on several millimeters worth of extension.

Another frog from Lac du Papillon
Outside of migration (late February through early June, and September through early November), the birds in our backyard aren't super interesting, so despite the oppressive heat and humidity, I eagerly made two early-morning treks down to Fairfax County's Huntley Meadows Park to take in some of the wetlands fauna.

Unlucky duet for these mating dragonflies--lucky breakfast for this Green Heron
Canon 50D, Canon 500mm f4L II, Canon 1.4x II
Effective focal length 700mm (optical), f/8, 1/1250 sec, ISO 400, -2/3 exposure compensation
My first morning, I came across several Green Herons hard at work filling their bellies with breakfast.  I caught the image above just after this one had scarfed down a red dragonfly--the pair of mating dragonflies drifted a bit too close in their throes of passion. Not to be too greedy, the heron did release one of the two before swallowing its hapless mate.

I really like the action in this image; for years, I'd done some very good perched bird shots, but truly great bird photos involve some aspect of behavior: flight, foraging, mating, defending one's territory, and so forth. These images are obviously much more difficult to bag due to the challenges of gaining and maintaining good focus as well as the simple fact that birds do not perform on command--you just have to be there and hope that everything comes together correctly to yield a great shot. That's also where having the absolute best gear plays a significant role: I don't want to have to worry about problems with focus, with contrast or light, etc.; I want to simply record the action I see and get great images.

For the Green Heron shot above, in retrospect I would have gone with my 25mm extension tube mounted and would have opened the aperture up to f/6.3 or so to give a bit better bokeh, but I'm still not quite used to the ability to shoot at full-open or nearly-so and still get nice, sharp images.

Juvenile Barn Swallow at Huntley Meadows Park
Canon 50D, Canon 500mm f4L II, Canon 1.4x II
Effective focal length of 700mm (optical), f/8, 1/500 sec, ISO 400, -2/3 exposure compensation
I also managed to stake out a pair of juvenile Barn Swallows who'd perched on a snag near one of the boardwalks. A couple of years ago, I captured images of slightly-younger babies begging for food from the adults who zoomed around constantly, but these two birds were old enough to get by on their own. Still, I held out for some sort of a behavior shot instead of just plain perching, and after about 15 or 20 minutes caught this one stretching. Even without perfect light--he was turned a bit into the sun verses being well-sidelit--the contrast and detail delivered by the 500mm II are quite nice, and it would be tough to ask for smoother bokeh.
I wrapped up my photo shoot by about 9:30am each morning, which is when the influx of rowdy children out with their parents for weekend nature walks typically begins at Huntley Meadows, making bird photography much more challenging as the day winds on. Too, it was already stiflingly-hot and muggy, and my shoulder was just about worn out carrying my tripod and the 500mm. Yes, Canon did reduce the weight of the mark II by a good pound and a half over the original version, and yes, it's possible to handhold it for short periods for getting good bird-in-flight shots, but this lens still comes in at over seven pounds and does necessitate a good tripod with a gimbal head like the Wimberley. I've had to order a new camera backpack--my Think Tank ShapeShifter doesn't have any capacity for such a large piece of glass!--and went with a Gura Gear Kiboko 22L+ which I'll talk more on once I've had a chance to break it in. I also need to pick up a used "baby jogger" stroller, which seems to be the normal method of wheeling around all one's big photo gear when out at the park.

Canon 500mm f4L II (left), compared with the Canon 300mm f4L (right).
Both lenses shown with lens hoods extended.
I haven't tried out my Better Beamer flash extender yet, but I do expect to get much better results using it in tandem with this lens than I did with my 300mm--hmm, that's probably something I can test out in the backyard, in fact.

Next week, I'm taking a brief mid-week trip down to Fort Meyers, Florida, to try the new glass out in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and will surely post the results of that expedition. I really can't wait until the fall comes and I get a chance to really put this lens to work; besides covering our own migrating birds in the backyard and at Huntley Meadows, I already have trips planned to Idaho and Monterey, California, for some serious birding, and may try to work in a southern California outing as well--and don't forget that Beth and I are going to Thailand for a week where we'll go on a grand birding adventure with Tony Eagle Eye, and where I hope to capture a shot of the critically-endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper (I didn't even try with my 300mm previously--the bird was small enough in Tony's spotting scope that I knew there was no chance to record even an ID photo with my old lens).

Look for much to come as I enjoy this fantastic new birding lens!