Canon EOS-ID Mark IV camera, Canon 400mm/f5.6 lens, f8 at 1/5000 second, ISO 2000

The Camera Gear Catch 22

For most professional photographers, equipment can make or break you, literally.  Cameras and lenses aren’t cheap.  When you’re shooting wildlife you really need those long lenses in the 400mm-800mm range that start at $10,000 minimum.  Yet, photography doesn’t make you rich.  But to make any money you need those long lenses.  It’s like a dog chasing its tail.  Round and round you go.  And then you find yourself in debt.

Every once in a while you find a superb gear work-around.  Dad just tested his new Canon EF 400mm/f5.6L USM lens while shooting at the Martin Refuge in south Texas.  He raved about this lens.  Best of all his photos prove his gigantic claims.  And I, for one, can’t wait to shoot with it during his upcoming visit.


Canon EOS-ID Mark IV camera, Canon 400mm/f5.6 lens

Let’s start with a mini photo lesson. 

We’ll try to keep this short and sweet so your eyes don’t glaze over.   But it’s important.  The f-stop or aperture of a lens determines how much light enters the lens and thus the camera.  A smaller number like f2.8 means a great deal of light enters the lens.  A higher number like f16 means less light enters the lens.

F-stop also determines the depth of field.  What does that mean?  The shallower the depth of field, the softer the background becomes.  A shallow depth of field makes a bird stand out from the background nicely because the background looks blurry compared to the bird.  Ideally f5.6 –f8 would produce a nice image on a sunny day.

The f-stop and shutter speed work together to make a digital exposure.  The shutter speed determines how long the camera’s shutter stays open.  This plays a big factor in stopping a moving subject so it’s still in focus.  A good exposure for a moving bird on a sunny day is f8 at 1/5000 second (shutter speed).  We’ll get to ISO, another factor with this lens, in a while.

So the 400mm/f5.6 lens that Dad tested only goes down to f5.6, but it has a couple of super features that make up for the loss in f-stop.  The more expensive and heavier 400mm/f2.8 lens that he already owns gives you more f-stop options but weighs a lot and costs mucho dinero.


So why switch?

Let me start by saying Dad is very particular about his gear.  By no means is he ditching the 400mm/f2.8 lens.  But he’s certainly open to new lenses that give him an edge in certain situations.  However, that lens must be razorblade sharp, fast and able to deal with a wide range of lighting conditions.  He has little patience for poor performers even if they are super lightweight, a rarity for long lenses.

His new 400mm/f5.6 weighs a mere 2.75 pounds compared to the Canon 400mm/f2.8 that weighs in at a whopping 8.5 pounds.  It doesn’t sound like much of a difference when you’re comfortably sitting at home.  However, rambling up hill through sagebrush while carrying your camera, a sundry of lenses and a weighty tripod sure adds up fast.

In his case, Dad was shooting birds from a photo blind at a private ranch.  He had two cameras set up.  He placed his old trusty Canon EOS-1D Mark III camera, Canon 400mm /f2.8 lens plus Canon EF 1.4X III extender on a Gitzo tripod with a Wimberley Gimbal head.  Then Dad had the lightweight combo of a Canon EOS-ID Mark IV camera with the Canon 400mm/f5.6 lens.  He was able to handhold the second camera and lens combo.  In both instances he shot available light on a bright sunny day.

Throughout the day Dad found himself reaching for the Canon 400mm/f5.6 because of the flexibility it provided.  Handholding the camera allowed him to follow the Crested Caracara action much faster than before when using the tripod.

The Wimberley Gimbal combo basically uses a specialized frame that holds large lenses on a tripod.  The combo allows you to smoothly move the lens around its center of gravity.  Without this setup, you would have affixed your camera and lens to the tripod and used jerky movements to turn the camera if the subject moved.  Instead, the camera smoothly glides to the subject helping to eliminate camera shake.

Canon EOS-ID Mark IV camera, Canon 400mm/f5.6 lens, f8 at 1/5000 second, ISO 2000

Tripod Trials and Triumphs

The Wimberley setup does have a drawback, though.  You’re still attached to a tripod.  When shooting the Greater Roadrunner (this month’s Photo of the Month), quick action is required.  This guy is fast.  Really fast.  At Martin, the roadrunner was on a mission and he wasn’t waiting for the photographer.

The 400mm/f5.6 really stepped up to the plate in this situation.  Dad quickly grabbed this rig and follow-focused on the roadrunner as he zipped up and down tree limbs, over the ground, up on a rock and back to the tree limb.  In other words, Dad focused on the roadrunner and never lost him.  He didn’t need to reposition the tripod.  He just moved the camera (and his upper body) in the direction of the bird movements.  Dad’s lightweight, sexy new lens saved the day.

This is exciting news to me!  I suffer from a neck/back problem that limits how much weight I can carry on a photo expedition.  I found the weight limitations frustrating because I never had the right lens for the wildlife I was trying to capture.  Eventually my poor husband had to carry everything for me on our treks.  Now I’m thinking this lens might be the solution to my problem.  Hopefully Dad won’t notice the lens is missing during his visit.


Some Other Things

So what about those other pesky points Dad looks for in his lenses?  Two big ones are Sharpness and Speed.  Well, the 400mm/f5.6 appears to be razorblade sharp.  He photographed a wide variety of wildlife and then blew the images up in Photoshop.  Without fail the photos are sharp as a tack.

And the focusing speed?  Dad described it as greased lightening.  One of his more challenging subjects during this trip was the roadrunner.  Not only does the camera’s shutter need speed (10 frames a second), the lens must focus at breakneck speed too.  The duo worked so smoothly and quickly that Dad captured a mealworm suspended between the roadrunner’s beak.  It happened so quickly that he didn’t even realize he’d captured the moment until he looked at his images on the computer.

Dad only found two down sides to this lens. The 400mm/f5.6 is compatible with the Canon EF1.4xII and EF2.0xII extenders (to make your lens even longer), but you loose a little bit of speed when focusing.  He concluded if you have a stationary or slow-moving subject, that’s not really an issue.  But in the roadrunner situation it could have been fatal.  So getting closer to your subject would become more important if you weren’t able to use extenders effectively.

The second issue could arise if you were shooting in a low-light situation.  Dad had bright early morning sun and warm evening light during this shoot, so choosing f5.6–f9 was fine with a very high shutter speed of 1/5000.  That shutter speed stopped the action and contributed to the picture’s sharpness.  The f-stop was such that the depth-of-field gave nice separation between the bird and background.

But on an overcast day you would have to choose a higher ISO and that, in turn, would force you to choose a lower shutter speed.  What is ISO, you wonder?  ISO stands for International Standards Organization, and it is a standardized industry scale for measuring sensitivity to light.

Without getting too technical, the camera controls both the shutter speed and the ISO.  Back in the days of film ISO described how sensitive the film was to light.  The lower the number, such as ISO 100, the film was less sensitive to light and produced less grain.  The higher the number, like ISO 1600, the more sensitive the film was to light and it looked grainy when printed.

On a bright sunny day you’d want ISO 100. At a night football game you’d want ISO 1600.  In today’s digital age, technology has miraculously allowed us to shoot at higher ISOs with minimal grain.  That’s why even though Dad’s images were shot at ISO 2000 they still look great grain-free.

So on an overcast day you would have to choose a higher ISO and that, in turn, would force you to choose a lower shutter speed.  If you’re trying to shoot moving objects, that might result in blur or slightly fuzzy images.  At that point, you might be longing for the 400mm/f2.8 to give you a bit of an edge. (Remember f-stop, shutter speed and ISO work together to determine exposure and sharpness of an image.)

These “bad” points, however, aren’t so terrible when you look at the big picture: lightweight, sharp, fast focus and cheap.  You just need to know your equipment well and shoot within its limitations.  Oh, and bring a plan “B” for those overcast situations.

That said, the 400mm/f5.6 is a great lens!  And it’s cheap.  Yes, cheap.  The lens costs about $1,339.00 compared to the Canon 400mm/f2.8 at $11,499!  Game over.  Sign me up for the f5.6.  At that rate, my dog wouldn’t have to chase his tail and I could buy a new camera body too.  Just don’t tell my husband.

Canon EOS-ID Mark IV camera, Canon 400mm/f5.6 lens; exposure: f8 at 1/5000 second, ISO 2000

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