Irix 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone Lens Review

Irix 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone Lens Review

The Irix 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone Lens

This beautifully-designed and sharp little wide-angle lens was a huge surprise to this long-time Canon lens user. The Irix 15mm f2.4 lens is offered in two models: the Blackstone (aluminum and magnesium alloy housing, weather-resistant exterior with inner seals for dust and moisture protection, engraved focus distance and depth of field scales, an anti-scratch finish, and hardshell case) and the Firefly (lightweight plastic exterior construction, rubber focus ring, printed focus distance and depth of field scales, and soft case). The optics of the two models, however, are identical. I was fortunate to recieve the Irix 15mm Blackstone mode with Canon mount.

 Irix 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone Lens Features

  • Wide-angle prime lens with Canon EF-mount (also available for Nikon and Pentax) with 15mm focal length for full-frame DSLRs and 24mm equivalent for APS-C.
  • Aluminum and magnesium alloy housing and weather-resistant exterior, sealed against dust and moisture intrusion, anti-scratch finish, sports engraved focus distance and depth of field scales with fluorescent UV paint for high visibility.
  • A Neutrino coating has been applied to limit lens flare and ghosting for improved contrast and color fidelity.
  • Manual focus design is benefitted by a positive focus lock mechanism to secure your focus position at any point to limit unwanted shifting of focus.
  • A hard click stop indicates the infinity position on the focus ring for easy use in low-visibility conditions.
  • Large depth of field scale benefits using hyperfocal and pre-focus techniques.
  • 95mm-diameter filter threads and the rear of the lens accepts 30 x 30mm cut gel filters to lessen the likelihood of vignetting
  • Rounded nine-blade diaphragm contributes to smooth bokeh.
  • Minimum focusing distance 11 inches (28centimeters).

Bodie Island Lighthouse with approaching evening clouds, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Irix 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone Lens, 1/10 second @ f/16, ISO 100

The Irix 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone Lens In the Field

The sharpness of this lens matches any of the Canon wide-angle lenses I regularly use, which includes the primes and the zooms. I must admit this was quite a (pleasant) surprise. When used wide open at f/2.4, the image center was acceptably sharp but the corners were noticeably soft. After stopping down to f/4, however, the entire image was impressively sharp from corner to corner. There was also noticeable darkness in the corners when I used it wide open but was was mostly gone by f/2.8 and completely gone by f/4. So it’s obvious that f/2.4 is not a strong aperture in which to work. For landscape photographers, this is a non-issue. At f/16, an aperture landscape photographers are much more likely to use, the image sharpness was every bit as good as my Canon 11-24mm at the same focal length.

Distortion was minimal and glare and ghosting when shooting directly into the lens was mostly under control. I wouldn’t say it was exceptional but it was definitely acceptable in this regard (no better or worse than some wide-angle lenses costing two or three times as much).

The one item that I’m sure will cause many photographers to pass on this lens is the lack of autofocus. For street photography, this might create a slight challenge to those photographers who grew up exclusively on autofocus, but to the older guys and gals, it will be no problem at all. Still, I see this as a landscape lens and I actually prefer to use manual focus anyway when capturing landscape images. The focusing ring is smooth with just the right amount of friction when turning. This lens also has a focus lock ring which allows you to maintain the selected distance by adjusting the friction ring to the locked position to keep the distance unchanged.

For filters, the Irix 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone lens gives you two options. The size of the front element is 95mm, which is an odd filter size. But there’s also a slot near the lens mount that allows a 30mm x 30mm gel filter, which not only ensures you won’t get any vignetting with a front filter but is also a much cheaper filter option as well.

Conclusion

I can honestly say that I am pleasantly surprised at both the optical performance and the build quality of the Irix 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone lens. I can only speak for the Blackstone model and not the Firefly, however, but I understand the the optical quality is the same for each. The sharpness of this lens is on par with any wide-angle lens I’ve ever used with little distortion and only a small amount of vignetting at f/2.4. I had no problems with chromatic aberration, and when I aimed the lens into the sun, ghosting and flare were minimal. Some photographers might balk at the lack of autofocus, but for landscape photography – the application for which this lens is obviously meant – autofocus is not even a necessary feature. If you want a truly excellent wide-angle prime lens at a very reasonable price, this lens fits the bill.

Get yours here:

Irix 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone for Canon
Irix 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone for Nikon
Irix 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone for Pentax

For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens Review

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens Review

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens

I recently completed an overseas photography trip to Iceland-Rwanda-Congo, which included some mountain gorilla photography in the volcanoes of Rwanda. Now normally for a trip that included some wildlife photography I would bring my favorite wildlife lens, the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X. But as good as this lens can be, it’s also heavy and bulky. I didn’t want to haul it around Iceland for 2 weeks nor strap it to my back for the strenuous trekking through Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Enter the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens.

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is a significant upgrade over the first version. Look, I love Canon lenses but I don’t offer uncritical worship and fealty to Canon by any means. So let’s just say it as plainly as possible: the first version of this lens was a mess. First, it lacked the sharpness of my other Canon lenses. Every objective and subjective analysis has proven this point. Second, I hated the design, particularly the “push-pull” zoom feature. Let’s give thanks to the engineers at Canon for shelving this design blunder when they began drawing up the blueprints on the new Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM.

At left: A young mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) in a contemplative pose, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens @ 400mm, 1/800 second @ f/5.6, ISO 3200. Handheld – difficult, if not impossible with my venerable 200-400mm. 

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM was introduced in late 2014 and replaced its inferior predecessor, which had been in circulation since 1998 (!) The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is sharper (this is not even open for debate), a bit heavier (3.56 lbs. versus 3.27), and much better designed than the first version. In addition to the improvement in the awful “push-pull” zoom design, the newest version has metal filter threads on the front element – a small but important upgrade for those (like me) who do use filters. In that regard, Canon thankfully retained the 77mm front element filter size for this upgrade.

The lens is intuitive to use and it focuses very fast. This is another improvement over the previous version. I can use this lens (as opposed to a big, heavy super telephoto lens) when the need to handhold arises. See the gorilla photo above. I have handheld my 200-400mm before but only for very short periods of time. This lens makes it easy and comfortable.

At right: The lava lake inside the crater of Mount Nyiragongo, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens @ 100mm, 1/40 second @ f/10, ISO 2000. The hike to the volcano’s rim is long, uphill, and challenging so I appreciated the light weight of this impressive telephoto lens.

Here are the primary ways in which the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM has improved over its predecessor: improved optics (21 elements in 16 groups versus 17 elements in 14. It’s also noticeably sharper, as I mentioned), comprehensive weather sealing versus being only partly sealed, improved image stabilization with a 4-stop benefit versus only 2, conventional twist-ring zoom versus the atrocious old push-pull design, nearly half (!) the minimum focusing distance (98 centimeters versus 180), and a faster autofocus drive.

At left: a southern masked weaver bird (Ploceus velatus) and nest, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens @ 240mm, 1/800 second @ f/5.6, ISO 400. The ability to zoom allowed me to creatively compose this image with the bird, nest, and some negative space.

Even though I bought this lens for this specific trip, I’ve decided to keep it as a complementary piece to my 200-400mm when I need to handhold shots or don’t want to carry a bulky, heavy lens to where I happen to be traveling. If you still own the first version, there is no good reason not to upgrade. It belongs in every serious wildlife photographer’s camera bag. Get yours here: Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens.

For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.

Travel Essentials: Six Items You Should Never Leave Home Without

Travel Essentials: Six Items You Should Never Leave Home Without

With each trip comes an entirely different packing list. Warm weather versus cold weather, backcountry hiking and camping versus four-star hotels, wildlife shooting versus landscapes or street and urban photography; all of these factors, and more, need to be considered. The type and amount of photo gear can vary greatly from place to place (I can’t take it ALL with me) as does my selection of clothes and footwear. I have four different camera bags in my office, for example, and each has features and benefits that are preferred for a certain types of trips. My MindShift FirstLight 40L Camera Backpack is my standard, go-to camera bag however (I love this bag). As far as luggage, the same principle would apply. Most of the time it’s my Rimowa Classic Aluminum Roller while for other trips a duffle is best.

But there are some non-photography items I would never leave home without – they are just too essential. I traveled to 13 different countries last year and they made my travel easier, my travel gear lighter, and my life on the road much more simple. These six essentials are by no means exclusive and they have nothing to do with photography specifically.

My Six Travel Essentials

JW Hulme Overnight Briefcase – No, its not cheap but it’s one of the best-made briefcases you can buy anywhere. There’s ample space for my laptop, books, phone, passport, wallet, extra underwear and socks, and still plenty of room to spare. It’s all leather with real brass hardware and zippers with a lifetime warranty from a company making leather goods since 1905. Mine has been all over the world and the older it gets, the better it looks.

Think Tank Photo Cable Management 30 V2.0 – I need to keep my computer power cord, iPhone and iPad charging cables, power adapters, and other cords and accessories neatly organized and stowed safely away in my briefcase for when I need them. I know myself all too well. If I don’t stay organized while on the road, I’ll lose stuff. This little organizer has been priceless to me.

Bose QuietComfort 20 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones – Noise cancelling technology is essential for long flights. Airplane noise, loud talkers, and the wail of crying babies will disappear with this device while your sanity is restored. But unlike bulky headphones, these earbuds fit into a nifty little carrying case just slightly larger than a deck of cards.

ExOfficio Men’s Give-N-Go Boxers –  Why is this man sharing his underwear with us? Look, I pack just 2 or 3 pairs of these boxers on a trip of any length and they’re all I need. I can wash them in the sink and they dry in 2 or 3 hours. They’re also extremely light and comfortable to wear while sitting for hours on a plane or hiking in the hot desert.

The North Face Paramount Convertible Pants – These lightweight, fast-drying pants can easily be washed in the hotel room’s sink if necessary and the legs unzip to produce instant shorts. The belt and clasping mechanism are built into the pants and they’re made of cloth and plastic so no issues during airport security. Take three pairs, roll them up tightly, and fit them into a corner of your suitcase. Neat and efficient.

Buff Original Headwear 12-in-1 Headband – I never go on any photography trip without at least one of my Buffs! This featherweight (less than 3 ounces) microfiber headband can be used as cover for sun protection, around the neck and collar like a scarf to keep warm in cold weather, and as a drying towel in a pinch. Buff claims there are 12 different uses for one and I guess it just depends how creative you want to be to find all 12.

For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.

BenQ SW2700PT Photography Monitor Review

I have to be honest. When BenQ reached out to me to use and comment on their new BenQ SW2700PT photography monitor, I had never even heard of BenQ. I was quite happy with my 24-inch Eizo display, which had been serving me well for the past two years. I had no reason to test the market for something else and change what was already successful for my image processing. For the professional photographer, the computer display is the critical link between the image, the artist, and his or her interpretation of what that image represents.

Then I did a quick online search on the BenQ SW2700PT and (wrongly) dismissed it out of hand. The retail price was half of what my Eizo monitor cost. How could it even compare? I agreed to accept shipment of the display and used it side-by-side with my Eizo for two months. Here are my thoughts.

BenQ SW2700PT Specifications List

  • Product Color: Black
  • LCD Size: 27″
  • Aspect Ratio: 16:9
  • Resolution: 2560×1440
  • Brightness: 350 cd/m2
  • Native Contrast: 1000:1
  • DCR (Dynamic Contrast Ratio): 20m:1
  • Display Colors: 1.07 Billion
  • Color Gamut:  AdobeRGB 99%
  • Input/Output Connectors:  DVI-DL+ HDMI 1.4 + DP1.2 + Headphone Jack ‎
  • Dimensions: H:566.7 x 652.8 x 322.8  – L:445.2 x 652.8 x 322.8‎
  • Net Weight: 8.3kg (without hood)
  • Gross Weight: 11.88kg‎
  • VESA Wall Mounting: 100x100mm‎
  • USB Hub: USB 3.0 (Downstream x 2 (side), Upstream x1)‎
  • Other Features: Palette Master Element Software/ 14 bits 3D LUT / HW calibration / Delta E≤2 (avg) /Black and White mode/ Black Level/ Built-in SD card reader‎
  • MSRP: $599 USD

For photographers, the features that really jump out at you are 1) AdobeRGB 99%, 2) 2560x1440 resolution, 3) native contrast of 1000:1, 4) and the nice little feature of having a built-in SD card reader – on the monitor! Yes, this display is built for photographers

Build Quality and Ergonomics

The BenQ SW2700PT is solidly built and very impressive. The ergonomics of this monitor are also top notch. It has a wide range of motion with regard to display height, tilt, and rotation, which should allow all users to find their perfect setting. You can even spin the display 90 degrees to the vertical position. As mentioned earlier, there is an SD card slot on the monitor, a perfect feature for photographers, and four USB ports for plenty of peripherals. The menu buttons are intuitive and easy to navigate. The SW2700PT ships with a shade hood, another nice touch with photographers in mind, DVI, USB, and DisplayPort cables, a Quick Start Guide, a OSD Controller, and a resource CD containing drivers and a User Guide. The menu buttons are intuitive and easy to navigate. The BenQ SW2700PT is covered by a three-year warranty on parts, labor, and backlight.

Calibration

Color calibration is essential to all photographers and the BenQ SW2700PT includes its proprietary Palette Master Element calibration software. With the use of the software and a calibrator (not included but you can use Datacolor Spyder5PRO or X-Rite ColorMunki Display, (among others) you can tune and maintain the color performance of the monitor at its most optimal state.

WHY YOU SHOULD CALIBRATE YOUR MONITOR

If the question is whether you should or should not calibrate your computer monitor, the answer is yes. If you are a photographer, you should. But why? Learn More >>

Performance

Wide gamut monitors like the BenQ SW2700PT can display a much wider range of color than most off-the-shelf consumer displays on the market. Most monitors display a range of colors that approximate the sRGB color space, which is a narrow one as well as the default color space of the internet. The BenQ SW2700PT covers 99 percent of the much wider Adobe RGB color space. In the real world, it means that monitors like the BenQ SW2700PT reproduces deeper, more saturated colors, better renditions of color tones, and better gradations in color as well. This is a tremendous advantage for image processing and printing.

During my trial use of theBenQ SW2700PT, I was involved in professional image editing in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, printing of digital images, and additional work in Adobe In-Design and Premiere Pro. Images in Lightroom and Photoshop were reproduced extremely well on the BenQ SW2700PT. Resolution, sharpness, and clarity were excellent. When soft proofing images for print, the BenQ also offered excellent performance, particularly for a display at this price. Honestly, the performance of this display is what you would expect from a monitor twice its price.

Conclusion

After an extensive trial period, I’ve decided to keep and use the BenQ SW2700PT in my office alongside my trusty Eizo display. The BenQ SW2700PT has proven itself to be solid, professional, consistant performer that will complement my workspace and make my processing tasks easier and professional-looking.

Get yours here: BenQ SW2700PT Photography Monitor

For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.

Canon 5D Mark IV Camera Review

Canon 5D Mark IV Camera Review

Over the past 10 years, I’ve had the pleasure of shooting with the entire Canon EOS 5D series of DSLRs: the original 5D (often referred to as the 5D Classic), 5D Mark II, 5D Mark III, and now the new Canon 5D Mark IV.

The Canon 5D Mark IV offers some impressive initial specifications, including quite a few new features: a 30.4-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor with a Digic 6+ processor (an improvement over the 22.3 megapixel count of the Mark III); a 3.2-inch touch-screen LCD, Dual Pixel RAW mode for fine-tuning focus in post-production; a burst rate of 7 fps; built-in wifi and GPS plus a lot more. Some of these new features would prove to be valuable to me, others not so much. The improvements in the sensor’s dynamic range and high ISO performance, however, are what really impressed me the most about this camera.

My Canon 5D Mark IV’s maiden voyage was a week I spent shooting autumn color in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee while leading photo workshops and doing some personal shooting as well. Here are some of my initial thoughts and some sample images with the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV from the trip. I am offering a subjective, in-the-field, results-oriented evaluation of the Canon 5D Mark IV here in this review. For a comprehensive description, list of features, specifications, and purchasing information on the Canon 5D Mark IV, please visit the Canon USA website.

BASIC SPECIFICATIONS

30.4 Megapixels
Digic 6+ processor
Weight: 31.4 ounces
Native ISO: 100 – 32,000
Shutter: 1/8000 – 30 seconds
Sensor Type: CMOS
Frame Rate: 7 fps
61-point AF system
Built-in GPS and WIFI
4K Video

The Canon 5D Mark IV is Familiar

The looks, handling, and ergonomics of the camera are extremely similar to the Mark III. So much so, in fact, that I didn’t even shoot or practice with the new camera in my office or around my home before traveling to the Smoky Mountains. I just grabbed the camera, inserted a battery and CF card and started shooting. There are no new significant or reconfigured or reassigned buttons to learn and the menu bank is nearly the same as well. I could work the Mark II and Mark III in the dark – without the aid of a light, that’s how familiar the cameras were to me – so now the Mark IV is seamlessly integrated into my field work with nearly a zero learning curve. I’ve always loved the handling of the 5D series of DSLRs so this is a good thing.

One minor but convenient addition that I noticed right away, however, is a small, rectangular-shaped button right below the multi-directional joystick control. Canon calls this the “AF Area Selection Button.” This small customizable control provides a quick-access method of toggling through the camera’s many AF point arrangements. Nice.

Canon also added a touch screen LCD to the 5D Mark IV. To be honest, I’m indifferent about this feature but I’ll give it a couple of months before I decide if this is really useful for me or not. My initial impression is that my fingers are just too big and the menu items are too small, causing me to miss my mark more than a few times. Either way, you can disable the touch screen in the custom menu if it’s not your cup of tea.

There have been some complaints that an articulating LCD was not included with the Canon 5D Mark IV. I often do photography is some pretty rough and difficult conditions and the articulating LCD just looks like something that can be too easily broken. I know I’m in the minority on this one but I’m fine without it.

A Load of Megapixels

Most of the rumors over the summer of 2016 pointed toward 25 to 28 megapixels for the Canon 5D Mark IV so when it was announced that the count was 30.4, it was a nice surprise. 30.4 is still quite a bit less than some of Canon’s competitors (and Canon’s 5Ds and 5Dsr models) but the number of pixels was never the biggest concern for me. I wanted to see improvements in dynamic range and high-ISO performance (more on that later). Still, all things being equal, more is better. I’ll take it.

Dynamic Range

According to tests conducted by the DXOMark website, the Canon 5D Mark IV sensor was the best they’ve ever tested on any Canon DSLR. Tests at 100 ISO revealed an eye-popping 13.5 EVs of dynamic range and it remained above 10 EVs well past 3200 ISO. My personal, subjective evaluation in the field last week – and the image reviews later – only validated those tests. High-contrast sunrise and sunset situations often needed only a single exposure in order to capture the full range of tones in the scene. Exposure blending and HDR, which were almost always necessary with the Mark III, were not needed. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am with the results. This is what I’ve been waiting for from Canon!

Great Smoky Mountains Sunrise with Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
Both images above were captured with my Canon 5D Mark IV and are processed in Lightroom using only one exposure. No exposure blending or HDR was needed to expand the dynamic range. In situations where I wanted to open up some needed shadow detail, the Mark IV files were responsive and didn’t introduce any heavy noise, even where I expected to see it.

ISO Performance

This is another area where I was looking for some significant improvement from Canon with the Canon 5D Mark IV and I was not disappointed. Properly exposed files were perfectly acceptable at 3200 ISO and even 6400. The Mark III topped out at 1600 for my high standards. With the Mark IV, even a few images shot at ISO 12,800, previously unthinkable, look pretty amazing (see below).

The image above was shot with my new Canon 5D Mark IV at 560mm, 1/10 second @ f/5.6 and ISO 12,800. It’s certainly not perfect but I’m pretty happy with the results. No noise reduction has been applied either in-camera (it was shot in raw) or in post processing.

Autofocus and Frame Rate

The autofocus system on the Canon 5D Mark IV is very accurate and locks onto any bit of available contrast, even in low light. I purposely used autofocus and its 61 focus points during the low light of dawn and dusk shooting landscapes, just to see how it would perform. I was not at all disappointed.

The Canon 5D Mark IV also features a new technology called Dual Pixel Raw. Here’s a description and excerpt from Canon’s promotion material:

“The EOS 5D Mark IV’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF system enables capture of Dual Pixel Raw (DPRAW) files. Images shot as DPRAWs have conditional adjustment possibilities when processed with Canon’s Digital Photo Professional image processing software, which enables pixel-level adjustment and refinement for still photographs and includes Image Micro-adjustment to help maximize sharpness in detail areas, Bokeh Shift for more pleasing soft focus areas and Ghosting Reduction to help reduce aberrations and flare.”

Among other things, you can correct focus issues or shift the focus after the capture – at least a few millimeters. The downside is that you need Canon’s proprietary processing software to take advantage of this feature. I never tried this any of this during my shoot last week in the Smoky Mountains but it sounds intriguing nonetheless.

The Canon 5D Mark IV offers a modest improvement in its frame rate or burst rate, besting the 6 fps in the Mark III with a 7 fps rate in the Mark IV. It would still be difficult to tout this as a serious wildlife or sports camera (currently the Canon 7D Mark II and the 1DX Mark II are much faster) but an improvement is an improvement. On an assignment where I’m traveling light and need a versatile backup to my primary wildlife body, I would have no qualms at all bringing my 5D Mark IV as a viable insurance policy.

WIFI and GPS Enabled

The addition of GPS and WIFI on the Canon 5D Mark IV have made a lot of Mark III users very happy. As a photographer who travels a lot, especially to remote places, I can see tremendous benefits accruing with the GPS feature. During my trial run in the Smoky Mountains last week, I didn’t try it out (in all honestly, I forgot to enable the GPS receiver) but it’s something I will be using in the future. I don’t see me ever needing the WIFI connectivity function for my type of photography work.

4K Video

A long-awaited feature the Canon 5D Mark IV offers that videographers have been clamoring for is 4K video (DCI 4K, 4096 x 2160), albeit with a 1.64x crop. The camera also offers full audio controls with headphone and mic jacks. My guess, however, is that serious video shooters will continue to gravitate toward the EOS C line, which feature large sensor cameras that shoot true high quality video. This is still a nice added feature to this model, especially for those of us who only casually shoot video from time to time.

CREATIVE COMPOSITION

Image Design Masterclass by Richard Bernabe $9.95 USD 74-page PDF E-book on photographic composition theory and practice by photographer Richard Bernabe. Add to Cart

Conclusion

The Canon 5D Mark IV is a game changer for me. The improvements are exactly what I had hoped for – better dynamic range and high ISO performance – among many others. The results I was able to see with my own eyes this past week have me super excited about my travel schedule for 2017 and the prospect of taking this camera along with me. I suspect the Canon 5D Mark IV will be my landscape, nature, and travel workhorse DSLR for at least the next two or three years.

Get yours here on Amazon: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV Full Frame Digital SLR Camera Body.

For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.

Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X Lens Review

Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X Lens Review

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.

My initial impression when I first lifted in from its case? Heavy, solid, stout, like a little fire hydrant.

At left: Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) fly over the Magdalena Mountains at sunrise, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, USA. Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 IS USM Extender 1.4X @ 560mm, 1/640 second, f/7.1, ISO 1000.

HIGHLIGHTS

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.

Amazing Autofocus

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!

At right: Snow goose (Chen caerulescens) in flight about to make a landing, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, USA, Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 IS USM Extender 1.4X @ 381mm, 1/2000 second, f/4, ISO 100.

Improved IS

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.

Beautiful Bokeh

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.

Sharpness

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:

http://www.usa.canon.com/cusa/consumer/products/cameras/ef_lens_lineup/ef_200_400mm_f_4l_is_usm_extender_1_4x#Overview

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.

Weather Resistance

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.

CONCLUSION

Is the lens “worth” it? Who the heck 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 waiting on for a long time. It’s the ultimate wildlife lens, period. But I knew that 2 years ago before I ever got my hands on it. The only question was whether Canon delivered a clunker or hit the 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.

Get yours here on Amazon: Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x.

For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.