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Before I tell you all about this amazing piece of photographic equipment, let me start by putting your mind at ease. I will not even try convincing you into dropping $12,000 on a lens, especially a $12,000 lens that doesn’t even carry itself, or compose, capture, and process images for you. For the money they’re asking, you would expect at least that and perhaps a few more features to boot.
So you can take a deep breath, relax, and read on without any undue anxiety or pressure. I can’t promise that I won’t make you like the lens, but I do promise not to say you need it. With apologies to Robert Hunter, my job here is only to shed light, not to master.
Canon first announced this lens to the public in February of 2011 and after 2 agonizing years of delays and technical setbacks, it finally came to market earlier this spring. It was well worth the wait. This was Canon’s answer to Nikon’s comparable zoom lens, except Canon not only matched their 200-400mm with constant f/4 maximum aperture, they upped the ante by incorporating an internal 1.4x extender too.
Last month, I brought the new Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Reserve in New Mexico. Here is my mostly subjective, non-technical review and initial thoughts.
TALE OF THE TAPE
The lens is 14.4 inches (36.6 centimeters) long without the hood and weighs in just a hair under 8 pounds (3.6 kilograms) – twice as long and 5 pounds heavier than the Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 USM, in case you thinking about upgrading within that similar focal range. If you are one of these people, you might also want to consider a sturdier tripod and a gimbal head as well. In terms of physical size alone, it compares best to the Canon 500mm f/4L IS II, with the 200-400mm being a pound heavier but an inch shorter.
Since getting my hands on this lens, the question I been asked most often, surprisingly, is whether it is “handholdable.” I suppose it is, but what lens isn’t – if only for extremely short durations of time? For a quick, spontaneous grab shot of Sasquatch, I guess I could say yes. For serious, critically sharp wildlife and sports imagery, I would recommend a good tripod or monopod.
While shooting at Bosque, my new lens and I were somewhat marginalized by the insufferable birder crowd and their phalanx of mammoth 600mm and 800mm super telephotos. I paid them little mind and quietly went about my business as each of the photographers tried their best to steal a furtive glance my way in order to get a better look at this new species of Canon glass. Soon enough, one of the sports walked over and asked if he could check it out, which he dutifully did. After which, in a rather condescending tone, he declared to everyone within earshot that it was “a nice little lens.” I do have to give him some credit for withholding the patronizing pat on my head while uttering it.
My initial impression when I first lifted in from its case? Heavy, solid, stout, like a little fire hydrant.
Internal 1.4x Extender
This new feature is what separates this particular lens from all the others, including the comparable model used by my Nikon brothers and sisters. The built-in 1.4x optical extender expands the focal range as far out as 560mm with a simple flip of a lever. You can almost think of it as two lenses in one: a 200-400mm f/4 and a 280-560mm f/5.6 with an impressive total focal range of 200-560mm without a single lens change (That’s an eye-popping 320-896mm on a Canon APS-C sensor camera!).
The extender lever is substantial and not at all flimsy like I feared it might be. There’s an audible “clunk” when the extender is engaged that is solid and reassuring, unlike most clunking sounds that emanate from expensive, high tech toys. It operates beautifully.
The 200-400mm f/4L offers lightening-quick, smooth, and incredibly accurate autofocus capabilities for Canon EOS cameras. The lens focuses so fast and so effortlessly, that you literally cannot see it happening in the viewfinder. For bird-in-flight shots, I often didn’t know if the results would be in focus or not since the camera and lens locked on and fired simultaneously as well as instantaneously. Not until I reviewed the images shortly afterward was I able to confirm that they all were, in fact, tack sharp. There was no waiting for focus to be confirmed. It just happened without me knowing it!
My test run at Bosque was shot with a Canon 5D MarkIII and Canon 7D. I can only imagine the focusing speed with the venerable 1DX.
Canon claims there are four stops of shake correction incorporated in the Image Stabilization (IS) system of this lens. I can only take them at their word on this since I wouldn’t know how to accurately verify the claim anyway. At any rate, it’s useful to know that this lens has three IS modes: Standard, Panning and Exposure Only.
Standard mode (Mode 1) mitigates vibrations in every direction and is most effective when shooting subjects that aren’t moving very much. Panning mode (Mode 2) corrects vertical or horizontal shake depending on the direction of the panning. For example, when panning horizontally with a moving subject, this lens stabilizes movement vertically and vice versa. Exposure Only mode (Mode 3) corrects camera shake only at the precise moment of exposure so focus tracking is easier. This would be most useful when tracking a very fast or erratically moving subject.
Of course you can choose not to use IS at all and it can be easily disabled at anytime.
This lens uses a 9-blade circular aperture design, which creates soft, dreamy, out-of-focus backgrounds when using large apertures. This effect makes your primary subject seem to jump right off the page – or computer screen, an illusion many wildlife and sport shooters try hard to emulate. This particular claim I can see and verify with my own eyes. It’s downright dreamy.
Aside from the questions about its size and hand holding ability, the next concern on everyone’s mind is lens sharpness. Folks who are super obsessed with sharpness tend to gravitate toward primes anyway so their questions about this telephoto zoom are overtly loaded with suspicion. Now I like sharpness as much as the next guy but I’m not one of those people who toss and turn at night worrying about micro resolution, lines per inch and circles of confusion and the like. Maybe I should, but I don’t.
With that being said however, my 20-plus years of experience gives me a pretty good subjective yet accurate view of image quality and I can say that it’s pretty damned sharp – both with the extender and without. I didn’t test the lens at the smaller apertures (and who would care?) but from f/4 to f/11, it was super sharp from corner to corner at all focal lengths. Don’t trust me? Take a look at the mind blowing MTF charts on Canon’s webpage:
Then again, maybe you should just trust me on this one.
There are four ultra-low dispersion lens elements and one fluorite element that makes chromatic aberrations with this lens almost non-existent. There’s also a fluorine coating on both the front and rear lens surfaces, which is apparently a good thing too.
Like all Canon L-series lenses, the 200-400mm f/4L is impervious to almost any weather Mother Nature can throw at you. It’s moisture and dust resistant, ready for shooting in the harshest of conditions.
At Bosque, I shot in an hour-long, steady downpour one afternoon and after I wiped the lens down with a dry towel, there was no water inside the lens barrel, no condensation, and no fogging up. The same couldn’t be said of the photographer, however.
Is the lens “worth” it? Who the hell knows? It will be worth it to some photographers and certainly not worth it to others. As a professional nature and wildlife photographer, it’s the lens I’ve been waiting on for a long time. It’s the ultimate wildlife lens, period. But I already knew that two years ago before I ever got my hands on it. The only question was whether Canon delivered a clunker or hit a home run with the finished product. It appears to be the latter.
The only other worthwhile alternates to this lens are the 400, 500, and 600mm primes coupled with 1.4x and 2x extenders. But the flexibility of zooming for creative compositions and framing make the 200-400 with internal 1.4X extender a no-brainer for me. Wildlife photography is more than getting the longest focal length and tightest crop possible on an animal. Sometimes you want to fill the frame with the subject and sometimes you want to incorporate some of the environment. Sometimes the subject is too close and you miss opportunities while switching lenses, changing cameras, or adding and removing tele-extenders. This lens solves those problems.
I might be outgunned by the big boys and their 600 and 800mm lenses, but I’ll miss fewer image opportunities and I’ll have more creative compositional options with this lens, which is more than worth the tradeoff for me.
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November 24, 2013
From the Essay Archive: Nature Photographers Online Magazine, June 2008 (It Doesn’t Take a Brain Surgeon)
I’m not a psychologist, psychiatrist, nor am I a brain surgeon (obviously) and I don’t play one on the Internet. Heck, I didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.
But when it comes to photography and the creative process, I keenly embrace the principles of a concept called brain function lateralization. In a nutshell, brain function lateralization refers to how the left and right hemispheres of our brains process information in vastly different ways. The right half of the brain is where we feel emotion, use our imagination, and do all of our dreaming, while the left half is where we use language, reason, and apply logic.
This idea is certainly nothing new to most of you, but learning how to utilize this knowledge can help you, as a photographer, better understand the creative process and make images that better express your experiences in the field.
It’s important to understand that our conscious mind can only process information from one side of the brain at a time. We are able to switch back and forth fairly effortlessly, but it’s not the most productive way for the brain to operate. So in the end, authority is delegated to one half of the brain or the other when deciding what information enters our consciousness and what doesn’t. This includes visual information that is transmitted from our eyes via the optic nerve. Alas, the struggle is almost always won by our dominant left brain, while the right plays a much more passive role.
Our right brain is able to secretly smuggle information into our awareness only when the left brain is either asleep at the wheel or lulled into boredom. During these times, random emotional and visual vignettes and freely associated images wildly dance and flicker through our consciousness before the rational left brain once again regains control and restores order.
For the photographer, it’s in the right half of the brain where the creative spark is kindled, making a connection to the world we see in intuitive, emotional terms. The left half is concerned with more prosaic matters such as exposure, perspective, and compostion (I am convinced that composition is more of a cognitive process than an intuitive one although admittedly, I often simply defer to what feels right).
I believe that if your goal is to have others inspired and moved by the images you make, you must be inspired and moved by what you see in the field. If you want to evoke a strong emotional response from others with your photography, you must have a strong emotional connection to what you are photographing. How can you expect others to be moved by your images if you were ambivalent about the scene yourself? How can you possibly expect someone to feel power, awe, tranquility, melancholy, or heartache in your images if you, an actual witness to the scene, felt nothing at the time of the capture?
Intuition, feelings, and emotions are all hallmarks of right brain processing. We must bypass the left brain to allow the right side to extract emotional meaning from the scene or subject we are photographing. Making that emotional connection is the first step to creating those meaningful images we seek.
I try to use the following photographic approach when I’m in the field prospecting for images. In discussions I’ve had with other successful photographers about their approach to image creation, I have found similar processes with some variations.
While in the field, I often forget that there is a camera with me. I am not thinking about composition, light, or any pressure to make a single image whatsoever. I simply try to savor the experience and totally immerse myself in the present time and place with heightened senses and awareness. I’m not looking for anything in particular, nor do I really expect to find anything. Instead, I am fostering a state of mind where I am completely receptive to something finding me.
The late fine-art photographer, Ruth Bernhard, once explained how she approached her craft.
“I never look for a photograph,” she explained. “The photograph finds me and says, ‘I’m here!’ and I say, ‘Yes I see you. I hear you!’”
The key is being completely open and receptive to your environment while passive with your thoughts. I find this to be the most effective way for allowing the right brain to temporarily gain the upper hand. The worst thing you can possibly do is rush into the field with preconceived ideas or images in your head that you want to create. That includes the pressure to create any image at all. Trying to force things only reasserts the left brain’s dominance and ultimately leads to photographic clichés, old concepts, and emotionally barren results.
When something in the field does speak to me and I am emotionally drawn to a particular scene, I don’t want to immediately reach for the camera and start shooting either.
Too many times, I have aborted the creative process at this point and started to take the photograph. As I fired frame after frame, my hands would shake with excitement as I imagined how gripping the images would look later on the computer, as a large print, or magazine cover. How could I miss? I am really feeling it, aren’t I?
Later, however, all I am shaking is my head in disappointment as I repeatedly ask myself, “What the heck was I thinking?” Far removed from the emotional high experienced in the field, the images failed to trigger the same response later. This is exactly how another viewer of the images – one who is emotionally and physically separated from the original scene - might see your images as well. Whether they will actually tell you this or not, their sentiment might be, “I just don’t get it” or “It doesn’t do anything for me.” Your right brain thinking provided the creative, emotional spark, but something was clearly missing in the translation.
Instead of instinctively grabbing the camera, ask yourself some fundamental questions: Why do I want to photograph this? What is drawing me to this scene? What emotion – specifically – is this scene eliciting from me and what ultimately do I want to communicate here? What elements within the scene are contributing to this emotional sensation I am feeling?
If you can verbalize some of these answers, they will be easier to act on. Language is the domain of left brain thinking and processing and verbalization provides the catalyst to the left-brain image execution. Remember, we cannot process information from both sides of our brains simultaneously, so this verbalization should jump start the transition from right to left.
What emotional sensation did we verbalize? Tranquility? Strength? Power? What elements – specifically – were contributing to this emotional response? The motion of the water? The stately tree branches? The ominous-looking sky?
Now, what tools do we possess that can help emphasize and accentuate these elements? Those tools can be found deep within your camera bag or deep in the well of your accumulated technical knowledge and experience. Where is the focal point of the image? Do these elements lend themselves to a wide-angle composition that merges the focal point gracefully with the surrounding environment, or does a more simplified presentation communicate this better?
Well, you get the idea here. We are creating a concept, which is all left-brain processing.
If we remain in only right-brain mode without crossing over to left-brain processing, we are likely to create images with strong emotional content, but with little or no meaning to anyone but ourselves. Your emotional response to the scene must be conceptualized in order for others, who were never there at the scene, to “get it.” I know. I’ve done it far too many times myself.
If we stay only in left-brain mode and never establish any emotional connection to the scene, the results will likely be technically adept, well-crafted images that are essentially emotionally sterile. Unfortunately, I’ve been there too.
I’ve always wanted to make other people feel, through my photography, the same emotional highs and lows that I experience in the outdoors. Sometimes an image succeeds using this model and sometimes it doesn’t. Not every image will resonate the same way with every human being.
But ever since I began to understand how my two brain hemispheres function and then learned to coordinate the two, I’ve experienced more creative energy in the field while more images have hit their mark. If it can help my photography, certainly it can help yours as well. After all, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to make this work, only a brain.
January 3, 2011