FOCUS ON: EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x

September 11, 2013

Are great images a product of the photographer, or their camera equipment? The Focus On series explores the idea that it's BOTH: Featuring a professional photographer and a Canon lens, the Canon Digital Learning Center focuses on the relationship that artists can have with their gear.

In this Focus On installment, we interview Arthur Morris, Emeritus Explorer of Light and premier bird photographer, about his use of the EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x telephoto lens.

Canon Digital Learning Center (CDLC): Tell our on-line viewers a bit about the types of work you’re known for and what you expected to encounter on your recent trips to the Galapagos and Tanzania. What types of wildlife did you end up photographing?

Arthur Morris (AM): To answer the first question, I am best known for my bird photography, my teaching skills, and my long time willingness to share everything that I have learned over the past three decades. Many of my favorite avian images feature clean, tight and bold portraits of beautiful birds set against backgrounds of pure color. When I come across birds or animals in gorgeous settings, I will work much wider. The great versatility of the EF 200–400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x allowed me to do that easily at both locations. In addition to birds, I enjoy photographing a great variety of mammals including and especially coastal brown bear. Recently I have been expanding my portfolio and my interests to include flowers, UrbEx (urban decay) High Dynamic Range (HDR) imagery, and reptiles and amphibians. My friend, Denise Ippolito, has been a great inspiration and help as far as the first two on that list.

Having been to both the Galapagos archipelago and East Africa many times, I knew what to expect. Each is a world-class wildlife photography destination. I was not disappointed by either of them.

On my eighth Galapagos voyage, the group got to photograph a great variety of seabirds and Darwin’s finches, the ancient Galapagos Tortoises, both Marine and Land Iguanas, and some wonderful scenics. The incredible tameness of nearly all the Galapagos wildlife, especially the birds, made the EF 200–400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x an especially perfect tool for the location.

On the seventh African photo safari that I co-led with my friend, Todd Gustafson, we photographed birds of various sizes from small songbirds, like the Usambara Barbet, to Kori Bustard, the world’s heaviest flying bird, and the ostrich (the males can weigh as much as 320 lbs). But the mammals were the huge attraction, especially the cats. We were blessed with many great chances on leopard, cheetah, and African lion. And we even had two excellent opportunities to photograph the usually secretive serval. We enjoyed a 10,000 strong wildebeest crossing at the Mara River in the Serengeti and photographed the African elephant, Masai giraffe, Burchell's (Common) zebra, olive baboon, and blue and vervet monkeys to our heart’s content. I used the EF 200–400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x with great success while photographing each of these animals, both singly and in groups.
 

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CDLC: What gear did you work with on these trips (camera[s], lenses, etc.)?

AM: Thanks to my Think Tank Airport Security Rolling bag, I was able to bring the same huge load of Canon gear on each trip: EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM, EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS with Internal 1.4x Extender, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, 24-105mm IS L, and EF 15mm fisheye lenses; two EOS-1D X’s and EOS-5D Mark III; two EF Extenders 1.4X III, two EF Extenders 2X III, EF Extension tube 25mm, and EF Extension tube 12mm as accessories. The extension tubes served mainly as spacers, making it possible to stack a 1.4X and a 2X TC for travel. Although I did make some really cool (“poa” in Swahili) images of muted suns with stacked teleconverters on the Africa trip.
 

CDLC: What gear would you have typically brought on a trip of this type? Having experienced it, how would the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x zoom impact the way a wildlife shooter might pack for a trip?

AM: In the past, I would have brought much of the same gear on both trips without, of course, the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x . A decade ago, I would have had the EF 100-400mm IS L zoom lens that served me so well for so many years. More recently, I would have used the EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II with the 2X III Extender. And for the past year or so, I would had the EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II along for flight photography and as a back-up in case anything happened to my big lens. But the incredible versatility of the new EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x makes those options pretty much obsolete in comparison (though I have made dozens of professionally sharp saleable images with the gear that I used before the new lens arrived on the scene).

Now that I am comfortable and confident using the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x , there are many trips where I would no longer be bringing a long super-telephoto like the EF 500 F/4L IS II USM or EF 600mm f/4L IS II lenses. In those cases, however, I would always bring along the EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS lens as a big lens back-up. I did just that on a recent trip to the Southern Oceans and on the third day of the trip, I stumbled on a small rock, pitched forward and ripped the mounts out of a brand new EOS-1D X and a brand new EF 500 F/4L IS II USM.

On my bear boat trip, I will be bringing only the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x as my super-telephoto lens. The same would be true if I ever return to The Falkland Islands, South Georgia or Antarctica. And on my 2015 Galapagos Photo-Cruise, the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x alone will suffice. In short, when traveling to locations where large mammals or tame birds are the main target species, the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x will enable folks to travel light.
 

CDLC: One huge difference that many will want to know about is the built-in 1.4x Extender in this new EF 200–400mm lens. First off, how did its presence influence things like your overall image composition and how quickly you could shoot — considering it’s a lot faster to activate or deactivate than adding or removing a conventional tele extender?

AM: With the lenses that I brought, I had all focal lengths from 24mm to 1200mm covered. The EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x offered the greatest versatility by offering 200-400mm with the lens alone, 280-560mm by simply pushing down the lever to engage the internal TC and 392-784mm with the addition of an external 1.4X III TC.

There are many advantages to the internal TC. At about one second, set up is nearly instantaneous. For really skilled folks who store their TCs in a pocket without the front and rear caps, adding or removing an external TC might take as little as 10 seconds. Otherwise, 30 to 60 seconds or more would be the norm for most. You can add another 10 seconds or so for those who, as they should, turn the camera off and on to prevent dust from entering the system. With the internal TC, dust is of no concern at all. After working with the lens for an hour or two, sliding the lever down to engage the internal TC became second nature; the lever mechanism is smooth and painless. There is also a locking mechanism that some might find useful. I never use it and when I hit it accidentally and do not realize it, I find myself wishing that it was not there. Additionally, there is no need to rebalance the lens in the clamp as you should do when adding or removing an external TC; that saves another 10-15 seconds.

In the wildlife photography sense of time, even fractions of a second can be of huge importance. When a safari vehicle comes to a quick stop, you need to be ready to shoot now. Anticipating the framing is done as you are approaching the animal; the time saved by being able to simply flick the lever, as compared to adding or removing an external TC, is often the difference between making a great image and walking away empty handed. Being able to go wide in an instant allows you to create small in the frame/environmental type images without having to bother to change lenses.

In short, the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x’s internal TC is a huge advantage.
 

CDLC: With and without the built-in 1.4x Extender, what was your overall impression of image quality from this lens? Did using the integrated 1.4x Extender have any noticeable impact on image quality?

AM: Image quality is superb both with and without the internal extender in place. All EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x images that do not suffer from operator error literally jump off the screen. Initial autofocus acquisition is super fast with and without the internal extender in place. It is, in fact, the only lens that I have ever used where I do not notice the difference in the speed of initial autofocus acquisition when I am in close focus range. With all previous lenses, the speed of initial autofocus acquisition is noticeably slower when you are in close focus range than when you have far focus range set.

Lens handling and performance is not affected at all by the internal TC. You need to look at the lever to find out if the TC is in place. The optics are so superb that once you are viewing the images on your computer, you never know if the TC was in place for a given image unless you look at the EXIF data.
 

CDLC: Obviously, if you use the built-in Extender, this becomes an f/5.6 lens. How often, roughly, did you flip the switch and use the Extender? What ISOs did you typically tend to shoot at during these trips?

AM: I’d guess that I used the lens at 200-400mm roughly 20% of the time, mostly for those wide habitat images. About 50% of the time I used the lens with the internal TC in place. And about 30% of the time, I used the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x with the internal TC in place and a 1.4X III TC added to the mix. I even shot some extremely sharp headshots of a sleeping American Oystercatcher in the Galapagos by adding the 2X III TC to the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x with the internal TC in place and using Live Mode AF to ensure accurate focus.

That adds up to having the TC switch flipped about 80% of the time.

On clear days, I always work at ISO 400. On both trips, we were blessed with lots of cloudy bright ISO 800 days. Late in the day, I do not hesitate to work at ISO 1600 or 3200. My general rule is that when you must have a minimum shutter speed to produce the image that you want, do not worry about working at a high ISO. One of my favorite images from Tanzania was of a serval licking its paw, which was made in pre-dawn light at ISO 4000. In such situations, we teach folks to work in Tv mode, set the minimum shutter speed that they need, dial in the exposure compensation that will give them a good exposure and let the camera set the ISO. You can do that either by using Auto ISO or by setting ISO Safety Shift. The latter is what I do.
 

CDLC: Handling is, of course, a very subjective and personal thing. How did you work with this lens most of the time (monopod, hand-held, etc.)? How would you compare its overall handling with, for instance, the popular EF 500mm f/4 lenses often used in wildlife shooting?

AM: I have never used a monopod. I worked off the tripod quite a bit in the Galapagos, in part because as soon as I got familiar with the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x, I wound up leaving the EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM on the boat most of the time. My tripod is always topped off with the Mongoose M3.6 – a lightweight, efficient and side-mounting gimbal head that renders big lenses weightless. When I needed to get low, I often took the lens off the tripod and used my knee-pod technique: resting the bottom of my upper left forearm near the elbow on my bent left knee. For flight photography, I always do it hand-held.

In Africa, we photographed from a three-roof hatch safari vehicle – it was great to have both big lenses within arms’ length at all times. I supported the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x in a variety of ways. Once in a while I mounted it on a Todd-Pod with the Mongoose on it. A Todd-Pod is a custom support designed by Todd Gustafson that is used when photographing from the roof hatches of safari vehicles. Much of the time I supported the camera body on a BLUBB, the Big Lens Ultimate Bean Bag, that I designed. The lens was supported by my left arm with my left hand on the zoom ring. When using any big lens on any type of bean bag, it is important to avoid having the focusing ring rest on the bean bag as that will often throw off the focus, especially when using rear focus and attempting to recompose. At times, resting the lens barrel on the railing that topped the vehicle was a quick option. For flight and action, I almost always did it hand-held.

Working from atop a safari van often leaves you looking down on your subjects, especially when photographing wildlife that is close to the vehicle. To avoid steep angles of declination, it is best to figure out a way to shoot from an open window. The versatility of the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x with the internal Extender turned out to be perfect for such applications. I was able to engage the TC when needed and to zoom in or out to achieve perfect framing while getting down to the animal’s eye level. The vehicle windows opened from side to side and, though they did not open very wide, the relatively compact build of the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x allowed me to make some wonderful images in difficult situations.

Though the lens weighs just under a pound more than the EF 500mm f/4L IS II, I was shocked at first to find that hand holding the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x was a lot easier than hand holding the EF 500mm f/4L IS II. Why? Because of its smaller size and compact build. That said, some folks may find hand holding the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x for extended periods of time to be difficult at best. It does weigh just a shade less than eight pounds.

While I initially wished for a faster zoom ratio speed (more zoom with less twist of the zoom ring), I quickly learned to place my left hand on the zoom ring whenever I raised the lens into shooting position and to anticipate and zoom to the approximate focal length that I wanted. That said, I still feel that a faster zoom ratio speed would be an improvement.
 

CDLC: How did the 400mm maximum focal length, raised to 560mm with the built-in 1.4x Extender, work for photographing small subjects like birds? Did you at any time add either the accessory EF 1.4x III or EF 2x III Extenders, to further boost focal length? If so, how’d they perform with this lens?

AM: In the right situation, as with the Usambara Barbet image (knee-pod technique at 560mm), the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x with the TC in place can be deadly on small birds.

I often added an external 1.4X III TC to the lens with the internal TC in place. Due to the incredible optical advances made with the internal TC, the resulting images are so sharp that they defy belief. Though initial autofocus acquisition is slowed just a bit, I found the 392-784mm combo quite useful on both trips. It even worked well as a flight photography rig when I needed the extra reach. Check out the Black-shouldered Kite image that was shot hand-held at 747mm.

Folks do, however, need to understand that with the size of the bird in the frame, proportionate to the square of the focal length, that the EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM and EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lenses with the 2X III Extender offer far more reach than the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x even with an internal and an external Extender in place. The maximum practical effective focal length with the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x is 784mm. That pales in comparison to 1000mm (the EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM with the 2X) and to 1200mm (the EF 600mm f/4L IS II with the 2X). Remember that the size of the bird in the frame is a function of the square of the focal length. Proportionately, the maximum practical effective focal length subject size math looks like this: 6.15 (for the 200-400mm) to 10.00 (for the 500mm) to 14.40 (for the 600mm). When you absolutely need reach, the EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM with the 2X III cannot be beaten.

But for folks who cannot consistently produce sharp images with the series II super-telephoto lenses and the 2X III TC, the focal length advantages of the EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM pretty much disappear.
 

CDLC: How was the lens’ AF performance for challenges like focus-tracking birds in flight? Any particular AF or camera set-up you found worked especially well for this?

AM: Amazing. For those who can hand hold it, the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x is the world’s best flight photography lens. The ability to zoom out as a bird gets closer is a great advantage over all fixed lenses. And as mentioned previously, initial focus acquisition is lightning fast. As long as you do not get too greedy, clipped wingtips will become a thing of the past. With the EOS-1D X, AF tracking is superb and the camera’s blazing frame rate enables you to capture poses and wing positions that the naked eye could never see.

Though the younger, stronger guys with better hand eye coordination than me like to use central sensor only AF, I find that using central sensor/Surround helps me to keep an active sensor on the bird and yields a high percentage of sharp images. When photographing flight and action, be sure to be in AI Servo AF.
 

CDLC: Another optical performance question: in general, how did you find this lens’ performance in situations like heavy back-lighting? Would you compare the results, in general, to what you’d have expected with a fixed focal length super-tele, like an EF 500mm f/4 IS II USM? Did you ever feel it needed to be stopped-down to gain extra contrast and sharpness?

AM: When I do work with backlit subjects, my preference is to use strong backlight. As these situations usually provide lots of light, I often go to a smaller aperture without thinking much about contrast and sharpness. From what I’ve seen so far, the resulting images match or exceed what I would expect when using a Series II super-telephoto lens. See the backlit acacia tree sunset silhouette as an example. It was shot at 300mm at f/8 and is stunningly sharp.
 

CDLC: Is there anything that you’d like to add? What is your overall impression of the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x?

AM: For sure. The four-stop Image Stabilization system is fabulous. It allows competent folks to create sharp images at ridiculously slow shutter speeds when working with relatively long effective focal lengths. The Minimum Focusing Distance (MFD) of 2 meters (6.6 feet) is quite respectable. With a magnification of 0.15X at 400mm and 0.21X at 560mm (with the internal TC in place) the lens does well with medium-sized and larger flowers, butterflies and other insects and with small lizards and frogs as well. I love close-focusing telephoto lenses for quasi-macro work as they offer narrow angles of view that help produce clean backgrounds of suffused color.

One of the huge advantages of the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x, something that we have touched on only a bit, is that you can be working tight with the lens zoomed to 400mm and the Internal Extender in place one moment and then a moment later you can flip the lever on the internal 1.4X, zoom out to 200mm or so and begin creating totally different images that depict either the whole animal or the animal in its habitat. For folks like me who love to work tight and tighter, the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x can breathe some fresh new life into their nature photography.

Depending on where folks live, where they travel to, what they like to photograph and how tame their subjects are, the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x can serve either as an incredibly versatile one-lens-fits-all super-telephoto lens or as an incredibly versatile supplementary lens for folks who own either the EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM or EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lenses. The incredible sharpness of the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM, the built-in Extender, the two meter MFD and the great 4-stop IS system makes it a dream lens for many nature photography applications.

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