At the beginning of this month, I rented the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L II IS lens from LensRentals.com. I scheduled the arrival date for today, the 23rd, and will be keeping it for a week…it has to go back on the 30th. I’ve been pretty excited about the arrival of this lens, as I feel I’ve really been pushing the limits of my current Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS lens a lot lately. A lot of birds only come out to feed early in the morning, and a little before sunset. I’m rarely up early enough in the morning to observe their morning behavior, so I spend a fair amount of time photographing birds in the evening after work.
Light becomes so scarce at that time of day, and I usually shoot at 400mm…so I have an f/5.6 maximum aperture to work with. Not much light at all, requiring high ISO settings which inevitably introduce a lot of noise. I’ve become quite skilled at noise removal, but it can be quite time consuming and tedious. I’ve also been pushing the limits of 400mm worth of focal length as well. Its just barely enough to get just barely good enough shots of some of the more skittish birds I like to photograph…such as herons (Great Blues, Night Herons, and Snowy Egrets to name a few.) These birds tend to jump at the first sight of intrusion into their comfort zone.
I decided to start looking for a new lens a couple months ago. I’d been drooling over Canon’s new top of the line supertelephoto lenses that were released in 2011 (well, “released”…which really means “announced” with actual on-shelf-in-store (OSIS) dates TBD). This includes the 300mm, 400mm, 500mm, and 600mm Mark II L-series lenses. The 300mm and 400mm showed up on shelves last year, the 500mm and 600mm showed up on shelves barely in time for the Olympics this year.
All four of these lenses are about as good as optics can get…they offer superb optical quality, extremely low optical aberrations, providing nearly perfect resolution at almost all apertures. They all have brand new, state of the art image stabilization systems as well, allowing what Canon calls “4-stop handholdability”…or the ability to reduce the shutter speed by four stops from what would be indicated by the reciprocal rule (1/focalLength). At 300mm on my Canon 7D, the reciprocal rule would require a 1/480th second shutter speed (when factoring in the 7D’s 1.6x crop factor) at a minimum for a stable shot…however with 4-stop IS, I could (theoretically) shoot as low as 1/30th second shutter. In my experience, achieving the maximum handholdability that an IS system can theoretically offer is quite difficult outside of nearly perfect circumstances (or if you have unbelievably steady hands), so we’ll see how low I can go in a real-world situation once I get the 300mm out into the field. I suspect it will start to falter around 1/80th or so.
Along with the 300mm lens, I also rented the Canon EF 2x TC III, a teleconverter with a 2x multiplication factor. The ultra wide maximum aperture of the 300mm f/2.8 lens should allow me to use the 2x TC to achieve 600mm f/5.6, and still be able to autofocus with my Canon 7D. I’m hoping this extra reach will allow me to photograph the numerous Snowy Egrets that hang around Cherry Creek State Park’s wetlands in more clarity and detail. With my 100-400mm lens, I’ve had to resort to slowly sneaking into view so as not to scare them off, then I usually have to spend some time relatively still so they get used to me, as to get close enough to really photograph them in any detail, I’m within their comfort zone. It tends to be quite time consuming, something I don’t have much of in the latter hours of the day. Subject size in the viewfinder grows as the square of the increase in focal length. A 600mm lens is 1.5x as long as my 400mm, which means the birds should be 2.25x times larger in frame. An 800mm lens would double the size of a given bird in frame! (I might have to rent the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6 L IS lens, released in 2008, at some point in the future…I hear its stellar, and a favorite of world renown bird photographer Arthur Morris).
Anyway… Between the 2x TC I’ve rented, and my own Kenko 1.4x Teleplus Pro 300 DGX teleconverter, I’ll have a fairly versatile set of focal lengths at my disposal over the next week: 300mm, 420mm (1.4x TC), and 600mm (2x TC). I doubt I’ll be able to track any birds at 600mm…not enough room to keep a bird fully in the frame at all times. I’m pretty skilled at tracking birds in flight with my 100-400 @ 400mm, so I figure the 300mm + 1.4x TC @ 420mm will do quite nicely. Given the resolution of the bare 300mm f/2.8 lens, I think the resolution of the lens+TC combo will still be higher than my own lens…hopefully I’ll have some good opportunities to test that assumption.
One thing I am a bit worried about is timing. It was a blessing to be able to rent this lens via a special program made available by StackExchange, the company behind a photography Q&A site I moderate called photo.stackexchange.com. For the better part of this year, the administrative staff at StackExchange have had a “Photography Gear Grant” library running, which allowed members of the site to rent photography equipment on StackExchange’s dime, in return for certain compensation. That compensation was usually in the form of asking targeted questions about the gear rented on the site, writing a blog entry or two on the companion blog for Photo.StackExchange, or both.
There was a budget of $400 a month, which had to be spread across all participants. I put off renting anything, as I was only really interested in renting a couple things…all of which would have consumed the entire budget. This month was the last month for the Gear Grant program, so I finally threw in my lot…and lo and behold, I was allowed to rent the 300mm f/2.8 L II lens and the 2x TC III all in one go…in return for writing at least three blog entries. ;P I was hoping to put off renting for one more month, though, and by renting early, I believe I may have missed the most opportune time to try out a top-grade lens like this. Colorado is not really a big bird state. Its actually in kind of a dead zone, with few birds that reside here for full seasons, let alone year round. We get a variety of birds as they migrate north and south, which usually occurs in early and mid spring, and early to late fall.
Its still late summer, and I think Colorado is at its lowest point ever for birds in general, with a minimal variety of species. I was also hoping that the odd weather and slight shift to the seasons this year (probably due to Solar Maximum…lot of sun activity and sunspots) would mean the birds would be migrating sooner than normal…and in a sense that is the case, many of the more well-known migrants such as ducks and geese are indeed starting to migrate already. A lot of other varieties of birds are conspicuously absent. I’m not sure if I’ll have enough material to write three full blog entries as compensation for this rental…but hopefully I can find enough birds or other subjects to make everything worthwhile.
Well, I start playing with this wonderfully gargantuan lens tomorrow. Looking forward to it!