Search This Blog

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Review: The PGD Tracker (Birds in Flight Help)

One of the biggest areas that I see new wildlife photographers struggling in is that of taking shots of birds in flight (BIF).  Birds move so quickly and in many cases erratically, that it often leaves even the most seasoned pro feeling physically and mentally drained at the end of a day.  He may go back to the hotel with only a few sharp shots and in some cases, none.  Photographers spend thousands of dollars to buy the perfect camera for birds in flight and yet still have trouble making it work.  Photo Gear Designs believe they have the product that will give you a fighting chance at making great BIF images.  I should also note that I do not work for nor am I affiliated with  Photo Gear Designs.

Firearms have had a sighting concept known as a red dot sight for many years.  This sight is used to paint a battery powered, illuminated retical inside the scope so the shooter can better where he is aiming the rifle. You can think of a retical as just a fancy, illuminated cross hair sight.  Wouldn't it be nice if we photographers had that same technology applied to what we were trying to do?  Well, we in fact do!  It is called the PGD Tracker by Photo Gear Designs.


PGD Tracker Image from PhotoGearDesigns.com



The PGD Tracker as it arrived

About 6 months ago, I received one of these devices from Photo Gear Designs for testing and writing a review.  So I finally got around to testing it at a fairly demanding location, Florida.  Specifically, I tested this in the Merritt Island area of the space coast on a couple different subjects.  I will break down the review into a similar manner to my other reviews.  First, I will look at build quality, next,  ease of use and finally the results of the test.

Build, Fit and Finish
The PGD tracker has a very sturdy build and appears to be fashioned from an alloy of some time.  Perhaps it is aluminum alloy.  It comes with a hex wrench for easily calibrating it to the camera, a small nylon pouch to carry it in, batteries, lens cover and a cleaning cloth.  

Ease of Use and Setup
Attaching the PGD Tracker to the hot-shoe of the camera was simple.  It just slides into place and is locked down by an easy to use and locate knob on the right side of the rig. Actually it locks down easier than a flash. There is a switch on the back of the device for changing which type of retical you would like to use and another rotary switch on top for selecting the intensity of the retical light in the view finder.  This switch also acts as the on/off switch.


PDG Tracker Aiming Retical

I want to be clear that you cannot simply take this out of the box, drop it into your hot-shoe and start firing away.  It must be calibrated to your specific camera and lens combo by using the windage and elevation screws on the back of the device.  There is an easy to follow PDF on how to do this on the companies web site.  It only took me about 15 minutes and I was up and running.  You can view the instructions here.  I would also take it a step further and say that you should check to make sure it is in calibration before going out each time.  I noticed it was no longer sighted in on my second trip out.  I had to make some minor adjustments.

Results/Performance in the Field
If you want to practice your flight skills, there is arguably no better place to go than Florida.  There are no shortage of birds who will line up to have their photographs made.  From challenging fast flying terns to plummeting ospreys, your patience and photography skills will be put to the test.  That is where I decided to test this device as I thought it would be the most fair and balanced testing.

Before shooting for the day, I made sure it was calibrated by focusing on a small stationary object.  In this case about a 7 inch icon on a sign at about 15 feet away. After making some minor adjustments, I was off to shoot.  Before shooting, I selected the center autofocus point in on my 7D Mark II, Case 1 in my autofocus setting and AI servo mode for constant focusing.

I primarily used the three point hold and extended hands free mode in my testing as outlined on the product website.  The beauty of shooting with this setup is you are free to pickup and track the subject in more relaxed and nature manor.  You are not looking through a 600mm lens where you can easily loose the subject.  Instead, it is like aiming a rifle or pistol.

The first subjects I tested heavily with the tracker, was a "flock" of three ospreys circling one of the lakes on the famed Blackpoint Wildlife Drive.  Here I got to spend about 20 minutes tracking with the device and shooting.  At first, I used just the center point autofocus, but found that it was not locking on quite enough for my taste, so I switched to center point expand using 8 surrounding points.  This seemed to offer the best compromise.  Below is a shot of one of the ospreys using this technique.

Osprey

Osprey, Canon 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600mm lens, PGD Tracker Mounted



Later that day, after shooting the ospreys, I moved on to the beach and began to photograph shorebirds and terns in flight.  Terns are a good bird for practicing BIF.   They are faster and more maneuverable than many birds and are generally in abundance at certain locations.  Again, during this test, I used the center point expand and also tried using the center zone approach.  Both approaches yielded good results.  Below is a tern I photographed.

Royal Tern - Canon 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 at 481mm using the PGD tracker

OK, so it worked, but not everything is perfect, right?  Well, yes, there are a couple issues with this type of setup.  One of the biggest issues you will run into is not knowing that you are actually locked onto the bird.  You may be focusing, but you are assuming you have a good lock.  I had probably a dozen images where my camera grabbed the background, but there was no way for me to know.  

Another question you might ask is: did you have a greater amount of keepers?  Well, honestly, I did not notice any more keepers than normal, but realize I have been shooting for some time and have really honed my skills over the years.  It certainly was more convenient to shoot.

The other issue which is petty at best, is that it does not have an auto-shut off to keep the battery from running down.  I would like to see it shut off after 8 hours.


The Pros and Cons Summary

Pros
  • Easy to find and track your subject
  • Easy to mount on the camera via the hot shoe
  • A good selection of red and green colored reticals 
  • Photographer can hold the camera away from your body making it quicker for initial acquisition

Cons
  • Need to check calibration before each shoot
  • The tracker does not integrate with the computer on the camera so there is no way to know for sure if you are in focus on AI servo
  • Easy to leave the unit on and run the battery down.  There is no auto-shut off.

Conclusion
This is certainly a unique and innovative product, but can it really help, will I use it and is it worth $175.00?  In short, yes, yes and yes, but let me explain a bit more.

The reality is that there is no silver bullet.  If you are buying this thinking you are going to be the next Art Morris, then think again.  This product is a tool or aid to help us realize our vision.  It is a clever piece of machinery and when used properly could indeed help you.  Now, in my case, I would keep this mounted and ready to shoot at a moments notice.  I see this is as a tool to get quick, unexpected shots that I could not get looking through my lens.  It most likely would not replace the view finder, but be used as an aid.

For those that no longer have the reflexes or perhaps have weaker vision, I can see this being the only BIF tool they use. It does work and if you have to, you can use the entire center zone selected on your camera to aid in focusing.  I would encourage folks in this category to really think purchasing the PGD Tracker.

Now, the price. Is it worth $175?  For a tool that is this specialized and is not produced on a massive scale, I think the price is very reasonable.

In short, if you can swing the price, you should pick it up.  Even if it helps get you two or three shots you wouldn't have been able to get before, than it is worth the price.

________________________________________________

Announcements:
Check out the latest podcast episodes
I need your help to keep producing content! Consider becoming a patron to my work. Funds received from your help, will go toward keeping the infrastructure in place to keep providing free content. As you know, web site hosting, microphones and recording gear are very costly. To find out more about being a patron and how this can benefit you, head out to my Patreon site : https://www.patreon.com/mattcuda
Individual training, and honest and useful portfolio critiques available. Email me at matt.cuda@mattcuda.com
________________________________________________
My Website: http://www.mattcuda.com


Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/mattcuda
Stock Images: https://www.artvisions.com/cuda/

Newsletter
http://www.mattcuda.com/Home/Newsletter

To purchase any of my prints please use the following link:
https://www.artvisions.com/cuda/

You may also contact me directly to purchase prints: matt.cuda@mattcuda.com


 








Monday, November 5, 2018

The Canon 7D Mark III

I keep hearing many rumors regarding the possible release of the Canon 7D Mark III, but before I speculate as to what I think the new camera might look like on a spec sheet, I want to redirect you to what the Canon CEO explained to us at the beginning of this year.
Our primary management goal this year is to raise our antennas high toward cutting-edge technology. It is on this point where we lag behind other companies. We will open up a research and development center in the U.S.’s Silicon Valley, where we will actively adopt new technology.”
Furthermore, there were other quotes which talked about Canon halting development on some products in order to reevaluate and determine what the next steps were.  I personally believe that the Canon EOS 7D Mark III design and prototyping was halted in order to determine if it was cutting edge enough and what the future might look like for the camera. As far as announcements, I personally feel like we are looking at Q1 of 2019, but who knows, I may be surprised.
Canon EOS 7D Mark II (G) Digital SLR Camera Body {20 M/P}
Canon EOS 7D Mark II - the current flagship APS-C camera offered by Canon

Will it be Mirrorless?

With all the talk about Canon's new mirrorless offerings, one simply has to wonder which camera will be next.  Will the 7D Mark III be the next mirrorless?  Personally, I don't think so.  Since the 7D Mark III is the flagship APS-C camera and utilizes the same autofocus system as the 1 Series cameras, I think it will become mirrorless within the same time frame as the 1 Series bodies do.  They will be the last to go mirrorless.  

What will the Specs Look Like?

We can all sit here and make our predictions and let's be honest it is fun to do that.  So why should I be any different.  In light of the CEO's announcement above, here are my latest predictions.
  • 28 Megapixel Sensor
  • New AF comparable to the 1DX Mark II
  • Autofocus sensor count will not increase or will increase very little
  • 4K video at 60 fps
  • 1080p video at 120p
  • Ability to pull stills out of the 4K video 
  • 14 fps Continuous Shooting
  • Dual Digic 8 processors
  • Touch Screen LCD with touch focus on video
  • Bigger buffer to handle 6 seconds of continuous shooting at 14 fps
  • More cross point AF points
  • Ability to shoot f8 lenses/TC on the entire center cluster
  • ISO 1600 will be the new ISO 800
  • No AA filter - I would love to see this, but I am skeptical. 

Possible Additions

  • Built in wifi
  • CFast card slot(s)
  • 30+ Megapixel Sensor (unlikely but possible)

Conclusion
Personally, I think this will be the last 7D series to include a mirror.  The 7D Mark IV will be mirrorless as well as the 1DX Mark IV.  I think this will be a move that is not only expected by the shooters, but one which Canon has to embrace to continue to be a major player in the marketplace.

The 7D Mark III will not have any features that are earth shaking, but I do think that finally we are are going to see a camera that has had significant enough upgrades to be considered a win by most.  This will be the last flagship body to receive the 4K upgrade and it is needed by many.  Don't look for huge gains in image quality, but expect to see better noise performance and a huge boost to AF speed.  If they remove the AA filter, the image quality will increase also and that could be a huge win for Canon.


I do think this upgrade will be worth moving up from the Canon 7D Mark II for those who are looking to take advantage of the newer features.  I think the AF system alone will be worth the upgrade for wildlife photographers.




________________________________________________

Announcements:
Check out the latest podcast episodes
I need your help to keep producing content! Consider becoming a patron to my work. Funds received from your help, will go toward keeping the infrastructure in place to keep providing free content. As you know, web site hosting, microphones and recording gear are very costly. To find out more about being a patron and how this can benefit you, head out to my Patreon site : https://www.patreon.com/mattcuda
Individual training, and honest and useful portfolio critiques available. Email me at matt.cuda@mattcuda.com
________________________________________________
My Website: http://www.mattcuda.com


Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/mattcuda
Stock Images: https://www.artvisions.com/cuda/

Newsletter
http://www.mattcuda.com/Home/Newsletter

To purchase any of my prints please use the following link:
https://www.artvisions.com/cuda/

You may also contact me directly to purchase prints: matt.cuda@mattcuda.com


 








Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Review: The Canon EOS 1DX Mark II

I started out in digital photography with the purchase of the Canon EOS 1D Mark II many years ago. That camera quickly became my go to camera for just about everything, including birds in flight.  To this day, that body has a special place in my heart as one which could take abuse, and never fail. Of course until it did fail, and then I had to replace it, but I digress.

For those who have not been initiated into the deep line of Canon cameras, the 1 Series (as it is known), is the flagship DSLR in Canon's line.  It has been a go to camera for the worlds best sports and wildlife photographers.  Indeed, every camera I shoot with, I compare to this line.

I am taking a break today from lens reviews to review the Canon EOS 1DX Mark II.  I will look at fit and finish, capabilities, image quality and the most brutal test of all, birds in flight.  So sit back in your arm chair, grab a cup of Joe and get ready to experience the best of the best Canon has to offer.

The Canon EOS 1DX Mark II


Specifications
  • 14 frames per second (FPS) shooting (must use LP-E19 battery)
  • 21.2 megapixels
  • 61 AF points with 41 of those being cross type
  • Dual Digic 6 and Digic 6+ processors
  • 4K video up to 60 fps
  • 1080p video up to 120 fps
  • Autofocus available at f8 on all autofocus points
  • WI-FI (available via another component - not built in)
  • GPS
  • ISO up to 409,600
  • Lights which flicker (eg. florescents) can be managed with the anti-flicker mode
  • AF points now can be setup to be red instead of the darker black/gray color in the Mark I.
  • Touchscreen during video for better focusing
  • Dual card slots; one slot takes CF and the other slot takes CFast
  • Released April 2016

Build Quality/Fit and Finish

The 1DX Mark II boasts a fully weather sealed and dust sealed magnesium alloy body.  Over that body is what appears to be a rubberized type of material which includes anti-slip surfaces for gripping the camera better.

The camera felt like it was made for my hands and as I shot with it; it felt like an extension of my hand.  There is certainly no room to complain with how this body is built.  It was built for the discerning pro or advanced amateur looking for a no excuses experience in photography.  

Some may find the weight to be an issue with this camera as it comes in at 2.95 lbs.  Let's just say it weighs 3 lbs and be done with it.  It is a heavy camera, and it seems a little heavier than some previous models.  For example, my older 1D Mark II came in at 2.7 lbs and my 1D Mark III is only 2.5 lbs.  

When shooting birds in flight hand held, I had to stop often to let my shoulder rest.  This is a common issue with the 1 Series line, and if the situation permits, I would invest in a gimbal  head for the flight shots.  However, the weight is not all bad.  A heavy camera can produce more stable shooting as it can help balance heavy lenses.

At one point during my testing, I was able, quite by accident to discover just how rugged the housing of this body is.  During the shoot, one of my tripod legs slipped and down went the body.  It landed in the dirt with a thud.  My heart sank; I walked over to the now muddy body, cleaned off the back of it and resumed shooting.  No ill effects were noted for the rest of the shoot.  That is one tough body!

Autofocus

Let me say that I was totally blown away by the autofocus of this camera.  I was able to shoot birds in flight with little difficulty and even in low light.  The camera locked on to my subject quickly and stayed locked.  For the majority of my shooting, I stuck with the general purpose setting on the AF modes.  In this mode, I did find it would grab the background quicker, but that might be what you want.  There are many modes to choose from, and you can easily tailor the camera to what your needs are.

Huntersville, NC - Lanner Falcon,  Sigma 150-600 C @ f5.6, 1/1250th of a second, ISO 8000. Using center point expand autofocus.

Autofocus points can easily be moved using the joystick on the back of the camera, or if you prefer, using the standard wheel and dial approach.  I found both methods to be quick and painless.  It should also be noted that I did dial in a -1 micro-adjust focus correction when using my Sigma 150-600.  

If I were to complain about anything on the autofocus side of things, it would be the lack of autofocus points near the edge.  When I was shooting static subjects, I often wanted to move up past the autofocus cluster to focus on my subject's eyes. This is one area that the 7D Mark II excels over the 1DX Mark II.  The photographer almost has edge to edge autofocus points on the Canon 7D Mark II due to the smaller sensor size.

A myriad of autofocus options are available on the 1DX Mark II.  I used Case 1 for my testing.  I also primarily use this mode on my 7D Mark II.


Low Light Performance

At only 21 megapixels, Canon was making every attempt to make this camera a low light monster.  When shooting birds in flight, I started shooting at 8:00 am in a forested area.  This is a low light time in the autumn season. I was able to shoot without difficulty at ISO 8,000 and still have usable shots.  When shooting static subjects I dropped back to ISO 6400 to produce very usable shots.  Compare this to my Canon EOS 7D Mark II and I would definitely be in trouble at 3200 and above.  This camera saved my bacon on this day.  The shot below was taken at a whopping ISO 20,000.  Although I would not try to make large prints from this shot, it does show just how versatile this camera is.

Huntersville, NC - Eurasian Eagle Owl,  Sigma 150-600 C @ f5.6, 1/1250th of a second, ISO 20,000. Using center point expand / AIServo autofocus.

Image Quality

I hesitated to even write anything on image quality because at this price point, it better have astounding image quality, but I decided to go ahead with my thoughts on it anyway.

It, of course, has amazing image quality.  I found the level of detail to be more than enough and the "cropability" of the final product to be just as amazing. Meaning that even after cropping, I felt like the final product held good detail.

However, because of the low light work I was doing, I was not able to test it at 100 ISO.  I think at that level I would have been completely blown away.  Even  at ISO 3200 though, it was astounding.  Much better than my crop sensor bodies (of course). Below is a static shot of a golden eagle photographed at 3200 ISO using fill flash to bring out facial detail.  I would have no issues with making 30 inch images even at this ISO.

Huntersville, NC - Golden Eagle,  Sigma 150-600 C @ f6.3, 1/250th of a second, ISO 3200. Using single point/AIServo autofocus.

Where I found the image sensor lacked was in dynamic range.  I thought it did a fair job in the shadow detail, but I found that recovering highlights was only slightly better than my 7D Mark II.  This is something I am hoping Canon can correct in the near future.  My Canon 1D Mark III can recover highlights that would never be recoverable with modern cameras.  The newer and higher megapixel sensors simply cannot recover these highlights (with maybe the exception of the higher end Sony cameras).

Video

I did shoot three videos over the course of a weekend of shooting, but shooting video was not my primary goal with this test.  However, let me say that shooting video was much better than it is on my 7D Mark II due to the touch screen autofocus.  I could easily touch anywhere on the LCD and shift focus from one object to another.  This ability would also make special effects like pull focus possible.

This camera also supports 4K at 60 fps, which is welcome, as Canon has been slow to provide this to its non-cinema lines. Now, if slow motion is your primary style of shooting, you will only get 120 fps at 1080p. Seriously though, If you are that into video, and want to stick with Canon, either get a dedicated cinema DSLR or get one of their professional video cameras. I will address the video shooting more in my podcast and YouTube channel.

Conclusion and Wrap up

The autofocus is completely stunning and took even me a little by surprise.  For that reason alone, I highly recommend this body.  I may even pick one up on the used market myself in a few years just for flight. 

If you are only interested in image quality and have no need for fast action photography, I would look at the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV or maybe even an older 6D. 

So, 6,000 dollars?  Is it worth it to you? My advice to you, if money is an obstacle, is just to wait until it comes down on the used market.  In a few years, this camera will be down below $1,000 US and will be a great bargain.

If you want a camera with similar functionality and don't mind giving up the full frame sensor, consider the Canon EOS 7D Mark II which can be picked up on the used market for under $1,000 US. Although the 7D II isn't quite as performant on the autofocus side, it has amazing detail and most of the features this body has to offer.

If you want to stick with the 1 Series bodies, but can't afford this body, consider a used 1DX or 1D Mark IV.  You will have to drop down to 18 megapixels on the 1DX and 16 on the Mark IV, but I can tell you they have amazing autofocus and image quality. 

In the end purchasing a camera like this is about weighing the pros and cons for your style of photography.  No one can tell you what your needs are, but I hope this helped you to understand who this camera is for, what features it has and what kinds of trouble you might run into.

Video Review of the Camera...
________________________________________________

Announcements:
Check out the latest podcast episodes
I need your help to keep producing content! Consider becoming a patron to my work. Funds received from your help, will go toward keeping the infrastructure in place to keep providing free content. As you know, web site hosting, microphones and recording gear are very costly. To find out more about being a patron and how this can benefit you, head out to my Patreon site : https://www.patreon.com/mattcuda
Individual training, and honest and useful portfolio critiques available. Email me at matt.cuda@mattcuda.com
________________________________________________
My Website: http://www.mattcuda.com


Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/mattcuda
Stock Images: https://www.artvisions.com/cuda/

Newsletter
http://www.mattcuda.com/Home/Newsletter

To purchase any of my prints please use the following link:
https://www.artvisions.com/cuda/

You may also contact me directly to purchase prints: matt.cuda@mattcuda.com


 








Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Canon EOS R Specifications and Thoughts

Early Image of the Canon EOS R Mirrorless Camera















Canon rumors released a bunch of specs for the new Canon EOS R mirrorless camera on September 1, 2018.  I have highlighted the specs I really think will be helpful to nature photographers.  The specs are as follows...

  • Number of effective pixels: 30.3 million pixels (Total number of pixels: 31.7 million pixels)
  • Image type: JPEG, RAW (14 bit), C-RAW
  • Dual pixel RAW support
  • EVF: organic EL, 0.71 times
  • AF point: Maximum 5,655 points
  • Distance measurement range: EV – 6 to 18 (23 ° C at room temperature · ISO 100 with F1.2 lens)
  • ISO sensitivity: 100 to 40000 (extended ISO: 50, 51200, 102400)
  • Shutter speed: 1/8000 to 30 seconds, Bulb
  • Continuous shooting performance: Up to 8 frames per second (at servo AF: up to 5 frames / sec)
  • Video: 4K 30p, FullHD 60p, HD 120p
  • Rear liquid crystal display: 3.15 type 2.1 million dots touch panel
  • Recording medium: SD / SDHC / SDXC card
  • Battery: LP-E6N / LP-E6
  • Can charge inside the camera using the USB power adapter PD – E1 (only when using LP – E 6N)
  • Size: 135.8 x 98.3 x 84.4 mm
  • Weight: 660 g (including battery / memory card) · 580 g (body only)

Based on the fact that most of these are probably not just rumor at this point, I am going to put in my two cents on what I like on paper and what I think might be an issue.  I am going to cover this more in depth in a podcast coming out soon.
  1. 30 megapixels is more than enough for most applications, so I don't see any need to complain here.  Honestly, I actually applaud them for not trying to go for 40 or 50.  I think that will help keep noise down.
  2. They are claiming it has 5,655 AF points.  So that is pretty much the whole screen and is welcome.  I am sure you will be able to choose how many you want to be active as this would be a must for fast action photography.
  3. I know that Canon is going to get kick back from photographers on only having 4K at 30p, but I still think this is a good offering on their first mirrorless targeting advanced photographers.  Hopefully it will not be a crop like it is on the Canon 5D Mark IV.
  4. Some images suggest that it has a fully articulating screen.  This is going to be huge for vloggers and shooting from low angles.
  5. Only 660 grams compared to 910 grams of the 7D Mark II.  All you weight snobs should be happy about that.  Personally, the camera is always the lightest part of the equation in wildlife photography, so I don't worry about it.
  6. Only 8 frames per second, but that is more than enough for wildlife photography.  8fps or above is the sweet spot for action work.

That's really all I have to say for now on this topic.  We really need to wait a bit longer to see how everything shakes out.  This is indeed exciting news as Canon moves into the new era of photography!


 ______________________________________________

Announcements:

Check out the latest podcast episodes


I need your help to keep producing content! Consider becoming a patron to my work. Funds received from your help, will go toward keeping the infrastructure in place to keep providing free content. As you know, web site hosting, microphones and recording gear are very costly. To find out more about being a patron and how this can benefit you, head out to my Patreon site : https://www.patreon.com/mattcuda


Individual training, and honest and useful portfolio critiques available. Email me at matt.cuda@mattcuda.com
________________________________________________
My Website: http://www.mattcuda.com


Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/mattcuda
Stock Images: https://www.artvisions.com/cuda/

Newsletter
http://www.mattcuda.com/Home/Newsletter

To purchase any of my prints please use the following link:
https://www.artvisions.com/cuda/

You may also contact me directly to purchase prints: matt.cuda@mattcuda.com



Monday, September 3, 2018

Review: The Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM

After reviewing the Canon EF 300mm f4 IS USM, I felt like it was time to take it up a notch and review a lens that is really at the top of the Canon lineup for sports and wildlife.  This lens has been engineered with the most discerning photographers in mind.  Some might even say the Canon EF 400 2.8 II is the best telephoto lens Canon has ever made.

Because this may be the "baddest" lens Canon has ever made, I vowed put this test through its paces.  From initial impressions to micro focus calibration to field work, I wanted to see if this lens really was the best.  Of course there are several other lenses which are famous for being amazing lenses in the telephoto "L" lens lineup.  Among the best are the EF 500 f4 L, the EF 600 f4 L and the EF 200-400 L.  Make no mistake, I will not let lenses in this price category and fame get by with anything!


The Canon EF 400 2.8 arrived in a hard case with a strap 

As with my other reviews, I will be holding this lens up against the modestly priced, but highly effective Sigma 150-600 C.  Since I shoot with this lens on a weekly basis, I am thoroughly familiar with all the pros and cons this lens has dealt out. Will the 400 2.8 really blow away the Sigma?  Read on to find out! 


Canon EF 400mm 2.8 L
Canon EF 400mm 2.8 L IS USM

Overall Specifications of the Lens

  • Weight - 8.4 Pounds 
  • Length -13.5 inches
  • Image Stabilized - Mode 1 Stabilizes X and Y axis.  Mode 2 Stabilizes during horizontal and vertical panning. Provides roughly 4 stops of image stabilization.  Mode 3 detects which axes to stabilize and only stabilizes at the time the images is taken.  There is no preview.
  • Lens Construction -16 Elements in 12 Groups 
  • Focal Length - 400mm (prime) 
  • Image Magnification - 1:5.8 
  • Aperture Blades - 9
  • Closest Focusing - 8.86 feet (2.7 m)
  • Filter Size - 52mm (Drop In)
  • Lens Hood (reverses for stowing ET-155)
  • Removable Tripod Collar
  • Aperture - f2.8 to f32
  • MSRP - $9,999 US
  • Used Price - $7,000 US?  (not readily found on the used market)

Micro-Adjusting to the Canon 7D Mark II

I think a big mistake some reviewers make is not micro-adjusting the lens to the camera.  How can you sincerely test the lens in the field without making sure the auto-focus of the camera is calibrated to the lens?  I figured this lens would be spot on when calibrated to my Canon 7D Mark II, but it was not.  I ended up making a -2 adjustment in order to get it perfectly in focus.  Below is the actual final calibration shot.




Build, Fit and Finish


Canon began manufacturing of the 400 around 2010, and it was officially released in August 2011.  It was an upgrade to it's sister lens the Canon EF 400 f2.8 L IS USM.  The latter no longer being in production.  

The first word that comes to mind when looking at the build of this lens is "WOW!"  The engineers set out to produce an astounding lens and they met their goals with breath taking precision.  From the moment I opened the box, I knew I was viewing an unusual product.


The most obvious and striking feature when viewing the lens from any distance, is the large diameter of the front elements.  This accounts for the majority of the weight of this lens and also the extreme cost.  Having a front element this large is amazing, but it is also a target for all manner of possible ways to get damaged.  The more surface area of glass on the front, the easier it is to scratch and the more front heavy it becomes.  8.4 lbs is no joke!  It weighs more than the average new born baby and lugging this around all day is likely to be taxing on the body.  



One Massive Front Element


At the rear of the lens are are myriad of buttons and switches.  There are some you would be familiar with such as the image stabilization switch and some you may not be.  Since this is the best of the best, it comes with a few more bells and whistles that are worth explaining throughout this review.  Included among the controls is a new button to me, the focus preset "Set" button.  That's right, you can set a pre-focus area and return to it over and over again.  More on that later.  As with most Canon L lenses, the manual focus ring is a good size and smooth to operate.


At the rear of the lens, is a drop in filter holder.  This allows you to drop a smaller filter into the rear of the lens.  With a massive front element, buying a filter that big would be difficult if not impossible.  I really wish all telephotos had this feature, but I can see the difficulty this would introduce into the manufacturing process.


View Showing the Drop-in Filter

So it can't all be roses, right?  Well, yes, there are a couple drawbacks on the build with this lens.  First, the lens hood is so massive that it was actually difficult for me to push the lens through the opening in my blind's camo netting.  In small spaces look to be a bit frustrated by this design.  The other obvious issue is the weight of this lens.  Because of the 8.4 lb weight, it is almost impossible to lug this 4 miles through rugged terrain.  If you are thinking about this lens as your primary wildlife lens, I would recommend against it.

Finally, when the lens arrived to me, the hood was actually stuck on the lens.  I was able to loosen it up, but eventually the little knob to tighten down the lens hood stuck in the open position.  At that point, I had to wedge a piece of cardboard between the hood and the lens to keep the lens hood from falling off.  Now, I want to ask you.  Should a $10,000.00 lens have a fault in the lens hood knob?  After researching it online, I found it was a fairly common problem with this lens and the other big Canon primes. This is not something you want to find out after spending this kind of cash on a lens.


Sharpness and Optical Quality

What you are not going to find in this review is a sharpness test pointing at some lens chart.  There are plenty of those available on the web.  What you are going to see is how this lens performs against real subjects.  My working genre in the photography world is wildlife and I specialize in bird photography.  So that is where I will concentrate my tests.  Always stick with what you know when testing a lens.  

When I began testing this lens sharpness, I knew it was going to be very sharp.  This lens is well known for its sharpness and speed of focus. Because of that, were I decided to spend all my time was comparing this lens with my Sigma 150-600.  I wanted to answer the question, "Is this lens' sharpness worth almost $10,000 US?  I honestly believe that as photographers on a budget, we owe it to ourselves to find out what makes a 10K lens a 10K lens. Even if most of us never buy this lens, we need to answer that question.

Indeed the lens was sharper than my Sigma 150-600, but I did not feel like the difference in sharpness was worth spending that kind of money.  With modern post processing software, the sharpness difference can easily be compensated for.  Don't forget, I could buy 10 of the Sigma lenses for the price of one Canon 400 2.8 II.  However, if price is not an issue for you, then you will be getting a very sharp lens with plenty of resolution.  Below is a 100% crop of a mourning dove with default sharpening applied.


Mourning Dove
Mourning Dove - 100% Crop

I could definitely see where there was more resolution provided by this lens when compared to other lenses I have photographed with.  In the above 100% crop, the beak details were quite amazing.  Below, I have a fully processed image of the mourning dove with added clarity, sharpening, contrast and noise reduction.


Mourning Dove Fully Processed



Auto-focus

Out of the gate, this lens is a thoroughbred.  It can focus faster and better than any other lens I have ever used.  This is due, for the most part, in thanks to the large front element gathering light at f2.8.  It is a light sucking hog and that is exactly what your DSLR's AF sensor is hungry for.  Having said that, for basic action, I don't think you need a lens of this caliber.  If you are making a living as a sports photographer, then a lens like this will make a difference in what is in focus and what is not.

Personally, as far as wildlife, I thought this lens was  overkill and I really don't think that is what Canon designed this lens for, specifically.  My feeling and the feeling of others was this lens was designed for fast action sports photography for the discerning professional. It is heavy and was designed to be put on a monopod at a baseball or football game.

With my backyard birds, I didn't feel like it snapped into focus any faster than my Sigma, but it did focus faster when using AI servo.  The incremental focusing done in this  mode was so fast, that it made a totally different noise as the focus motor zipped back and forth finding focus as the birds moved their heads and bodies.  Had I taken this out for birds in flight photography, I believe it would have been a stellar lens.  With the weight of this lens though, I honestly didn't feel like lugging this up to Pilot Mountain.

One of the subjects I photographed during testing was the red-bellied woodpecker.  Woodpeckers are very agile and difficult to focus on.  The 400 did a great job of keeping up with the woodpecker's bobbing head. I felt like it did a better job than my Sigma here.  Note that this time of year is terrible for photographing songbirds.  This is their time to molt, and this poor female red-bellied woodpecker has lost a great deal of her head feathers.


Red-bellied Woodpecker

Image Stabilization (IS)

In case I didn't mention this several times already, let me say it again.  This lens has all the bells and whistles and so I was not surprised to see three different modes of image stabilization.  That's right, not two modes, but three modes!
  • Mode 1 - This is the traditional IS mode which stabilizes both the vertical and horizontal axes.
  • Mode 2- This is also a traditional IS mode which only stabilizes the vertical axis.  This is used for panning purposes.
  • Mode 3 - This mode is new and will only stabilize the lens when the shutter button pressed all the way down and at the time of taking the image.  It does not "preview" the stabilization in the view finder.  This mode is more effective when shooting action.
View of Stabilizer Modes and the Unique Focus Preset Switch


My Sigma 150-600 also has the Mode 3 feature, but it is not a switch.  It is configured through the doc.  You can choose whether you want to preview the IS or let it lock it down at the moment of taking the photo.  So I can not say that this is a great win for Canon, although  with Canon it is immediately available with a switch.  So maybe a slight advantage from that perspective.

Among the other switches near the image stabilizer switches is the focus preset switches.  When the focus preset function is engaged, the photographer can focus on a particular area in the image and make it a focus preset.  This is primarily useful for sports photographers who are shooting in a particular zone on a ball field.

Uses for this Lens

Again, one of the most obvious uses of this lens is professional sports photography.  I would say that it should be exclusively used by this group, but I think that would be short sighted. 

As a secondary use, I could see this used for wildlife photography.  Specifically as a go to lens for low light, flight photography or blind photography.  I think its strengths would be best utilized in a stationary manner.  From a car, a popup blind, or on a sturdy tripod with a gimbal head you would have a killer setup.  I can see pairing this with the Canon 7D Mark II to give you a 640mm effective focal length.

However, I do not see this as a run and gun lens.  If your style is moving stealthily through the woods and using cover and concealment as you move, this lens will be heavy and with the big white lens hood, will give away your position.  If you insist on using this lens in this type of setup, consider buying a lens coat and a gym membership.  

Final Verdict

Obviously from a technical perspective this lens is going to work extremely well for you.  It has amazing auto-focus, amazing build quality and at 400 mm can handle most of your wildlife and sports photography needs.  However, and this is a BIG however; is this lens the best choice for you?

Big features make for a heavy and expensive lens.  There is a reason that many photographers opt for the 300 2.8 instead of the 400 and that is simply the raw economy of the matter.  On the used market, I can pick up a Canon EF 300mm 2.8 IS for only $5,000. Furthermore, since the 300 is so sharp, I can put a 1.4x teleconverter on the lens.  For a few hundred dollars more, I have an f4, 420mm effective focal length.  Or, how about a 2x teleconverter giving you a whopping 600mm effective focal length. 

There are also other third party options which also bear mentioning here.  How about the Sigma 120-300 2.8?  A sharp and more versatile lens which also supports using a teleconverter.  This lens is only $3,313 US.  With the money saved, you can take a trip to Alaska to photograph brown bears and eagles.

It used to be that the major manufacturers were the only companies that frankly could make the glass needed by semi-pros or pros, but those days no longer exist.  Today, the 3rd party lens making world is growing rapidly and producing some astounding glass. They are turning the heads of even the most discerning professional.  Finally, I think Canon needs to understand the changing world of photography.  No longer do professional photographers make the money they need to purchase a lens for $10,000.  We are expected to do a whole lot more with a whole lot less money.  The days of newspapers owning a couple 400mm 2.8 lenses are gone along with the large staffs of in house photojournalists.  

Having said all that. You are in control of your own destiny.  If you have the extra money, than by all means go for it.  Buy that EF 400mm lens!  You will not be disappointed.

Quick Summary

  • Great build quality
  • Image stabilized
  • f2.8 aperture makes shooting in lower light easier
  • Sharpness is excellent
  • Best in class auto-focus.
  • Extremely expensive at $9,999.00 US
  • Large, clunky lens hood with a problematic tightening knob.
  • White color could draw unwanted attention from your subject
  • Focusing ring was great when hand holding, but slips when resting on a bean bag
  • Weight makes it difficult to use in run and gun wildlife photography

Check out the accompanying video for this review!

________________________________________________

Announcements:
Check out the latest podcast episodes

I need your help to keep producing content! Consider becoming a patron to my work. Funds received from your help, will go toward keeping the infrastructure in place to keep providing free content. As you know, web site hosting, microphones and recording gear are very costly. To find out more about being a patron and how this can benefit you, head out to my Patreon site : https://www.patreon.com/mattcuda

Individual training, and honest and useful portfolio critiques available. Email me at matt.cuda@mattcuda.com
________________________________________________
My Website: http://www.mattcuda.com


Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/mattcuda
Stock Images: https://www.artvisions.com/cuda/

Newsletter
http://www.mattcuda.com/Home/Newsletter

To purchase any of my prints please use the following link:
https://www.artvisions.com/cuda/

You may also contact me directly to purchase prints: matt.cuda@mattcuda.com