Canon Super Telephotos – A Second Look

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Way back in December, I had the pleasure of getting to test drive two of Canon’s behemoth super telephoto lenses: the Canon 400mm f2.8 II and the Canon 600mm f4 II.  My initial findings were more favourable towards the 600mm, but I left off that review boasting that I had just opened a shiny new box with another 400mm to test (in the hopes that it was a sharper copy of the lens and would give me a more accurate read on the 400mm when compared to the 600mm) and that I’d get back to all of you with the results of said tests after the holidays.

Battle of the Behemoths — the Canon 400mm f2.8 II vs the Canon 600mm f4 II

Well, guess what?  It’s WAAAAY past the holidays and I’ve long since returned that second sexy 400mm to Canon Canada (a few tears may have been shed).

So what did I buy?  Which lens did I like best?  Did I re-mortgage my house and get both?   And will the Canucks win the Cup this year? [Editor’s Note: Neither yet, the 600, no but I might still, and YES]

This time around, I got to put the 400mm f.28 II into some serious action, as I lucked out on finding a bull moose and some mountain goats that were willing to pose repeatedly for me.

Canon EOS 5D III w/ 400mm lens at ISO 800, 1/400th, f5 (hand-held)

With the moose, I found it incredibly easy to just grab the 400mm lens and ‘go’, hiking out to where the bull moose was browsing on willows. Sans tripod, I had no problem getting sharp shots from 1/320th to 1/500th of a second with a variety of apertures.

Unprocessed, unsharpened jpg of a 100% crop of the vertical image above.

Similarly, with the mountain goats, the sharpness was superb from f2.8 all the way to f10 while shooting without teleconverters, both hand-held, off a beanbag, and off a tripod.

Canon EOS 5D III w/ 400mm at ISO 800, 1/1000th at f8

Unprocessed, slightly sharpened jpg of a 100% crop of the horizontal image above

As a result of my testing, I was happy to conclude this time around that the 400mm f2.8 II lens was just as sharp as the 600mm lens I had tested before Christmas.

However, with teleconverters on, things got a little more ‘iffy’ as far as the 400mm lens was concerned.  While I had hoped again that it would shine with them on and that I’d at least be able to get sharp, useable shots with the 1.4x TC at f4 or f4.5 and the 2x TC at f5.6 or 6.3, I found that neither TC was as sharp on the 400 2.8 as they were on the 600 f4.

That’s not to say that I didn’t get sharp shots with either TC, because I did.  Unfortunately, they just weren’t as consistently sharp as the 600mm lens with teleconverters was and they still weren’t quite as crisp:

Canon 400mm f2.8 II lens w/ a 1.4x III TC, 1/3200th at f4 — a ‘sharp’ shot, not perfect, but very useable
Canon 400mm f2.8 II lens w/ a 1.4x III TC, 1/3200th at f4 — a more typical shot, not very sharp at all and unuseable

At f4.5 with the 1.4x TC, things got sharper, but I still wasn’t impressed with the rate of sharp vs unsharp shots

At f5.6 with the 2X TC, acceptable results, but not as sharp as the 600 with the 1.4X TC

Slightly sharper at f6.3, but again, not as sharp as the 600mm is with the 1.4x TC

I was able to get a friend to test his 400mm 2.8 II over in New Zealand (a big thank you to Marcus Schoo) with and without teleconverters, and he came to the same conclusion as I did regarding the Canon 400mm f2.8 II lens: it is a beautifully, sharp lens on its own from f2.8 to f11 (I didn’t test it beyond f11).  However, it’s not as sharp with the teleconverters on, and perhaps more importantly, it’s often noticeably not as sharp (I think we all expect that images with our teleconverters aren’t going to be as sharp as with the lens on its own, but it’s usually a fairly minimal difference — in many cases with the 400, it was not minimal).

So does this mean I wouldn’t buy the Canon 400mm f2.8 II lens?  Of course not!  Ha-ha!  The size, weight, and ease-of-use of the lens in combination with the lovely sharpness without teleconverters makes it almost the perfect lens for low-light wildlife photography and I simply could not get over how nice it feels.  It does still have a major issue with where the focus ring is placed and with how sensitive that ring is (see my previous review on the Canon 400mm f2.8 vs the Canon 600mm f4), but my little trick of taping down the focus ring with clear shipping tape worked wonders to off-set this major annoyance (hello Canon, how about talking to some wildlife photographers the next time you design a lens!).

After five days playing around with the 600 and two and a half weeks of playing around with the 400, here are my final, final, FINAL conclusions:

1. I need to make more money.

2. The Calgary Flames suck.

3. I want to buy both lenses.  Why?  Because the 400mm f2.8 is absolutely perfect for early morning and late evening photography and gives me the flexibility of having a long lens at f2.8, while the 600mm f4 gives me the reach I’ve been dreaming of each and every time I’ve been staked out on a wolf kill, particularly when coupled with the impressive results I saw out of the teleconverters on this lens.

4. I need to make more money.

5. There is a very high likelihood that I won’t even consider the ‘supposed-to-arrive-before-2017’ Canon 200-400mm lens with a built-in teleconverter (why did they do this?!) because the Canon 400mm f2.8 lens may suit my needs better.

And that, my friends, is a wrap.  I’m now off to photograph baby lynx (I saw 7 yesterday)….

Happy shooting!

John

Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Lens Review

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[Note: you won’t find a bunch of technical jargon in this review, and you won’t find a bunch of useless close-up zooms of some box or sign or whatever to show just how ‘great’ or ‘terrible’ this lens is.  No charts, no side reviews from the Dalai Lama, no pics of the lens in 62 different shades of light, nada.  In fact, all you’re going to get is my opinion on whether the lens is sharp and whether it works well for me.  That’s it, that’s all!]

Since it was first announced almost a year ago, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of the new Sigma 120-300MM F2.8 APO EX DG HSM OS lens in the hopes that it will let me finally close the gap a bit between my primary wildlife lens, my Canon 500mm f4, and my secondary lens, which has been a Canon 70-200 f2.8.

The difference between the focal lengths of these two lenses has always annoyed me, so much so that I’ve long considered switching to Nikon to get at the sexy-looking and performing 200-400 f4 telephoto zoom (if only it wasn’t so expensive).  I’ve lost track of how many times the difference between my 500 on my Canon 1D Mk IV camera body, with its 1.3x crop, and the 70-200 on my Canon 5D Mk II, which is full frame, has ticked me off.  It means I drop from 650mm (13x zoom) with my primary lens to 200mm (4x zoom) with my secondary lens, and that has often left me less than enthused.

When Canon announced that they had their own version of the 200-400 on its way, I rejoiced.  Then I saw the price tag.  Just like Nikon’s version, I couldn’t get over the fact that I’d have to drop $7500 for this lens when I already have a 500mm that’s worth it’s weight in gold.  As if that wasn’t enough, Canon still doesn’t have a timeline for when the new 200-400 may hit the shelves.

Enter the Sigma 120-300mm lens.  When the Sigma Canada rep first told me about it and offered me a chance to shoot with it (I’m sponsored by Sigma Canada), I was excited.  I’d heard good things about the older, lighter version that did not offer OS (optical stabilization), so I was cautiously optimistic that the new lens would fit the bill and give me exactly what I’m looking for in my secondary wildlife lens: a lens that is versatile (i.e. offers up a zoom rather than a fixed focal length), closes the gap closer to my 500 (300 accomplishes that), is very sharp, has good stabilization, and can focus fairly quickly and accurately.

Now I mentioned that I’m sponsored by Sigma Canada, so let me start this review with an interesting disclaimer:  I have tried a number of Sigma lenses to date, but this is the first one I’m reviewing because it’s the first one that has truly offered me something different and desirable that I have wanted as a wildlife photographer.  I do really like the Sigma 12-24 f4.5-5.6 lens for its incredibly wide viewing angle, but I find I just don’t use it that much for any wildlife applications.  And I gave the Sigma 300mm f2.8 fixed telephoto a whirl, but I’d rather have a telephoto zoom as my secondary lens for the versatility it provides.  

So when I finally got the box from Sigma three weeks ago, the day before I was about to leave for my grizzly bear photo tours in the Chilcotin in BC, I ripped it open and ooh-ed and aah-ed at the beautiful black beast inside.  It was bigger and heavier than I had thought it would be, but it felt extremely solid, like a good quality product.  And it didn’t feel as heavy as advertised (it’s listed at 10 lbs) when I put it on my 5D II and moved it about.  Certainly far less wieldy than my 500 on the 1D IV, though of course heavier than the 70-200 on the 5D II.

That was about it in terms of available time I had for testing (and no, holding the lens up and pointing it at something in my house doesn’t count as testing), so I loaded up the car and zipped off to do my grizzly trip.  Since my grizzly tours are fairly intensive, I still didn’t get a chance to test out the new lens during the first week to make sure it was sharp, so I let it lay on the floor of my room for the week, taunting me with its’ good looks and promise.

And then, my first ‘break’.  A plane delay on Day 7 opened up my afternoon, so I hauled out the 120-300 and hit the river in a kayak (you can read about my mis-adventures in said kayak on my Dear John Lowman post from a few days ago).  There was no way I was going to attempt to lug the 500 and 1D IV along in the kayak, so instead I grabbed my new ‘trial’ secondary system, the Sigma 120-300 f2.8 on my Canon 5D II body, stuffed them inside my rain jacket, and took off.

Fortunately for me, I found an accommodating grizzly bear fairly quickly and was able to stay with it for almost an hour as I snapped off shot after shot after shot with the new camera-lens combo.  It felt easy to use, the autofocus seemed to lock on quickly, and the camera didn’t weigh me down as I flitted about on the water in the kayak.  I was particularly impressed with the optical stabilization, which seemed even better than on my Canon lenses.  Anyways, 495 shots later, it got too dark to photograph, so I kayaked a kilometer back to the lodge.

That night I took my first look at the new lens’ files.  My first reaction?  “Wow!”  Sharp, sharp, sharp, and sharp.  Lovely colours and great bokeh (if you have no idea what that is, keep it that way!) —  I was thrilled, to say the least.

From that first day onwards, the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 slowly took over from my Canon 70-200mm f2.8 to the point where I didn’t even take the 70-200 out on the final two days of the tours.  The Sigma was sharp at f2.8, 3.2, and beyond, and ridiculously accurate even in low light (which was a minor miracle in itself, as the Canon 5D II does not feature a particularly strong autofocus system).

And while I have yet to test it with a teleconverter and I didn’t give it a hard run through the paces on action stuff, the fact remains that this is now going to be my new go-to secondary lens, replacing the 70-200 f2.8.  At $3,150, it’s less than half the price of the upcoming 200-400 f4, and it offers a full extra stop of light to play with.   Plus, I found the autofocus to be fairly fast (though not as fast as the Canon 70-200 f2.8) and the stabilization to be a step above that of the Canon 70-200 f2.8 (even though the 70-200 is smaller and lighter).

Take a look at the images and let me know what you think:

Grizzly bear – handheld Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 300mm, ISO 1250, 1/800th, f4, -2/3rds exp comp.

Grizzly bear – handheld Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 206mm, ISO 1600, 1/500th, f2.8, +2/3rds exp comp.

Grizzly family – handheld Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 300mm, ISO 1250, 1/400th, f2.8

Grizzly bear – handheld Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 300mm, ISO 1000, 1/500th, f5, -2/3rds exp comp.

Grizzly bear – handheld Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 300mm, ISO 1250, 1/320th, f4.5, -2/3rds exp comp.

Black bear – handheld Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 235mm, ISO 1600, 1/1000th, f2.8, -1 exp comp.

Unedited 100% view of black bear file (21 MP) from Lightroom 3 w/ default sharpening, no noise reduction

All in all, I was extremely impressed with Sigma’s latest offering.  I would highly recommend this lens to anyone looking for a good, sharp lens that offers a telephoto range from 120-300mm, particularly given that it’s sharp wide open at f2.8.

Happy shooting!

John