FOCUS ON: EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM

January 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 Regis Lefebure, accomplished motorsports photographer, about his use of the EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM telephoto lens.

Canon Digital Learning Center (CDLC): You've got a great deal of experience shooting motorsports at the highest level. What is it about the 500mm focal length, in general, that makes it so special for this work?

Regis Lefebure (RL): Trackside, I might be hundreds of feet away from the cars. The 500mm lens reaches out, grabs the subject by its shoulders and yanks it large in my viewfinder; it is a serious piece of kit. With the longer reach of the 500 supertelephoto lens comes the lovely visual benefit of a shallow depth of field, even if I am a long distance from the subject. It isolates the car from its surroundings, softening the background. This aspect of the 500mm lens makes it superb for portraits too, as the lens renders the subject in crisp focus against a muted slate or a vibrant wash of color. The image sharpness with the aperture set wide open at f4 is pin sharp. Bokeh is a beautiful thing when rendered by a 500 at max aperture.

Working the lens in pit lane makes for great candid portraits of drivers in and out of their cars, since I can penetrate the shadowed interior of a cockpit and reveal the intensity in a driver's eyes, the flattened perspective the lens provides often leads to creative opportunities. Elements of design, like line, color, direction, positive/negative space, and composition are enhanced. The subject in its environment can be rendered with dramatic fashion with the 500.
 

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CDLC: What were your first immediate impressions of the new EF 500mm f/4L IS II, when you began to work with it?

RL:I was surprised by how light it felt compared to my Series I 500mm. It is approximately 1.5 pounds lighter than the older lens, but it feels three pounds less. It was immediately obvious to me that handholding the 500 would be much easier, and certainly less taxing on my left arm balancing the front of the lens. I happily noted a closer focusing distance on the focus range switch, and all the buttons, switches and knobs are in familiar locations.

The loss of weight appears to be at the front of the lens, making handholding it much easier, especially when shooting action. This is great for working in pitlane where the pit marshals discourage using a monopod. You don't want the monopod to get tangled with a pit crew's hoses, or a crewmember's feet.

On a monopod, the lighter weight at the front of the lens took some getting used to since the solid, balanced feel of the older lens was missing. However the results regarding image quality soon quelled any apprehensions I had regarding its weight distribution.
 

CDLC:How would you compare the sharpness of this lens to the already-excellent previous version of the 500mm f/4L IS?

RL:With two Fluorite lens elements replacing the prior combination of one Fluorite element and two UD glass elements, chromatic aberration is greatly reduced. The new lens delivers better contrast, more accurate color and a higher degree of sharpness. When shooting at f4 there is a bit of vignetting in the corners that clears out by stopping down a stop or more, as with the earlier 500mm. When viewing my first results with the Series II 500 I was blown away by the crisp and quick focus abilities of the lens. The focusing was nearly instant, and it was pin sharp where I wanted it to be.
 

CDLC: How do you normally set your cameras up for autofocusing - that is, what AF point(s) do you typically use; Do you change AF points or AF Area modes; Any particular custom functions you typically rely on for motorsports coverage?

RL: You never know when a driver is going to bounce a wheel into the air over a kerb, or lock up the brakes creating a cloud of smoke from the front tires. So I often use shutter button-activated focusing. These cars are coming at me at speeds up to 200mph. For years I have been in the habit of using the center focusing point to ensure sharpest focus on the nose of the car, or on the driver's eyes or helmet. The EOS-1D X's super-quick focus abilities allows me to move the focus point around the viewfinder. Oftentimes I'll place it low and focus on the air splitter, that is the front spoiler at the bottom front of the car, and increase the ISO so as to maintain an f-stop of f8 to f11. This keeps as much of the car in focus front to rear; teams and their sponsors are sticklers for sponsor decals to be sharp and readable in the image.

There are times when I want to place the car or subject near the edge of the frame for a more dramatic composition. I’ll switch to back-button autofocus and visually mark a spot on the circuit or in the camera’s field of view and capture the action as the car hits that mark. This is easy to do without much practice as I use the magnifying feature of the camera to check image sharpness. The Multi-Controller on the back of the EOS-1D X is a dream to use, and it's great to have one AF point for horizontal compositions and another for verticals. It allows me to quickly move the focus point around the viewfinder, and a simple press of the Multi-Controller returns the focus point to the center spot.

I am creating Custom Shooting Modes on my 1D X cameras to quickly adapt the camera to different situations. One employs shutter button-activated autofocus in shutter-priority mode for track action. Another track-action custom setting quickly switches to back button-fousing. Yet another activates Av mode (aperture priority), focus point spot metering and back button-focus for creative candid portraits in pit lane and paddock.

I use a drop-in polarizer filter 90% of the time whether I am trackside, in pitlane, or shooting atmosphere in the paddock and fan areas. I'm using it as long as the sun is fairly high in the sky and in bright sunny conditions to total overcast, no matter whether I’m shooting head-on shots, side pans or going-away shots. Using a polarizer kills unwanted reflections, allowing for more saturated color. I remove the polarizing filter when the sun is low on the horizon, also when shooting at dawn, and dusk, and night.
 

CDLC: In general, how did the focus performance of this lens work for you, especially if you had the chance to use it with the EOS-1D X?

RL: This is where the focus performance of the lens really shines. On the 1D X, the action quickly snapped into focus and stayed in focus. There are a couple of locations at Road Atlanta, specifically turn two and turn five, where the cars immediately pop over the crest of a hill. With the older Series I 500, I was forced to use back-button focusing to get a properly focused image, as the cars are just too quick. I used turn five as my first test of the new Series II lens, and foundno worries about the cars being sharp on the nose with the new Series II 500. There were no back focus issues at all. This blew my mind.
 

CDLC: The lighting in your images is spectacular. How do you tend to meter and determine exposure? Do you try to work most of the time in any particular exposure mode, such as Manual, Av, or Tv?

RL: It's all about the light, isn't it... The exposure mode I choose varies according to the scene, the weather and the time of day or night. I have two cards in the camera, the camera set to write raw files to one and jpegs to the other. When the sun is shining bright I go old-school and use the sunny 16 rule. I compensate for the polarizer, but only slightly as I prefer to underexpose a third to two-thirds of a stop to retain highlight details. When shooting track action in full sun, I'll go full manual mode and in most situations with the 500mm, I will use 1/500 to 1/1000 shutter speed. When a white car fills the viewfinder I'll vary the aperture from the sunny 16 setting, stopping down 2/3 to a full stop to retain details in the lighter areas. A darker car or predominately black car gets the opposite compensation, so I open up 1/3 to 2/3 to hold details in the shadow areas, while being careful to not blow out highlights. I'd rather get the details and proper exposure in-camera than spend time at the laptop in the media center knocking around the adjustment sliders. When the weather / lighting is variable, like a mix of fast moving clouds and sun, I shoot in shutter priority mode for track action, and let the aperture fall where it may. In pit lane I mostly use aperture priority, shooting at or close to wide open in order to get a creamy soft background. The Image Stabilization feature allows me to use low ISO settings even in low light. On a monopod I've gone as low 1/8 sec on a 500mm - just to prove to myself it can be done...
 

CDLC: Do you try to work at any particular lens apertures or shutter speeds, when shooting action images with a 500mm lens?

RL: The tried and true 1/500th of a second is often my default setting when using the 500. I'll go as high as 1/2000th to capture cars at 200MPH.. And I've gone to 1/8th second while tracking nearly head-on images of cars hurtling by at 180+ MPH. More than adequate pans can be had at 1/250 - 1/500 (at higher MPH), but the panning fun really starts at around 1/80 and lower. These 500mm lenses, both the Series I and Series II, deliver amazing image quality, especially when wide open at f/4.
 

CDLC: For shooting with a monopod, did you notice any change in handling of the newest 500mm lens, compared to previous versions? Was the lighter weight noticeable as you worked with the lens? How was the balance of this new lens - any sense that it was front-heavy, when working with the cameras you usually use?

RL: Oh, its definitely noticeable and there is quite a change in the handling of the new lens. It's 1.5 pounds less in weight, but it feels much lighter, which may be due to the front of the lens shedding most if not all of the 1.5 pounds. The balance threw me off at first, just in carrying the lens on a monopod. The weight distribution of the older lens with camera attached balances well on a monopod as I carry it. The new lens/camera has its weight distributed heavily to the camera side. At first I found this to be uncomfortable since I am used to carrying the rig over my shoulder or across my shoulders, and the unbalanced feel was awkward. I wound up carrying the lens/camera by the tripod mount, much as if it were a handle, and carried the lens hanging at my side.
 

CDLC: Can you describe how you typically work with tele extenders and 500mm lenses? Did you use extenders with this newest version of the EF 500mm f/4L IS II? If so, any preliminary thoughts on how they combine with the new lens?

RL: I've always found the series I and series II extenders to work best in flat light or overcast conditions. The high contrast of full sunlight for some reason would degrade the image quality when I use my series 1 and series II extenders. That said, I've gotten amazing quality regarding sharpness when using my series II 2x extender in flat light and low light, even at dusk. I did not have the opportunity to use extenders with the new lens.
 

CDLC: This new-generation super-tele lens now has three different Image Stabilization possibilities. Have you use Image Stabilization in the course of your work up to now? Did you gain any impressions of the IS system in this new lens during your time working with it?

RL: On my Series I 500mm, I use Mode 1 when shooting anything other than panning shots, whether shooting from a monopod or hand-held. When using the same lens set to Mode 2 while panning, I had issues with the jerky look seen through the viewfinder. It is disconcerting to the point where at times I've panned with IS off. It makes me wonder if this jerkiness is being transmitted when the actual image is being made. As an aside, I was shocked to hear from friends who always turn off image stabilizers when panning. What's the point of image stabilization then?

With the new Mode 3 utilized on the newer Series II lens, I had no problems with this in Mode 3, as stabilization doesn't kick in until the exposure is being made. This goes a long way toward inspiring confidence in the IS. The results speak for themselves. Panning with the new 500 is more fun, it inspires more confidence, and it's satisfying to use.
 

CDLC: In general, as a working pro, would you offer any summary advice to any serious enthusiast or fellow pro who was considering stepping-up to this latest version of the Canon 500mm f/4L lens?

RL: The lighter weight alone makes this lens very desirable. Once I got used to feel and the balance, the lens was a joy to use both handheld and on a monopod. The closer focusing translated to less shuffling of feet when working close to the subject. Adding another Fluorite element that replaces the two UD glass elements not only reduces the overall weight dramatically, the two Fluorite lenses give less chromatic aberration than the UD lenses. This makes for greater contrast and better color, thus giving an image more sharpness than previously attained with the older Series I 500mm.

The quick focusing capabilities are superior to the older lens. I was stunned when I viewed the results in the field, on the back of the 1D X. Cars can be cresting a hill while entering the camera's field of view, and accelerating at an ever higher rate. The lens locks on focus and stays there. I was literally amazed by the results in this situation. I repeated the same test at another part of the circuit, similar to the first where the cars are cresting a hill. However, at this second test, the fastest cars are traveling at 160+ miles per hour rather than 100+ mph. I removed the polarizer and I again had great results, with 50% to 75% of the images in sharp focus. I was able to instantly make pin-sharp images. With the polarizer removed, I placed the AF point low, where it would pick up the "splitter" or leading front edge of the car. The point of focus stayed locked onto the splitter in a motor drive sequence shot in servo mode. This blew my mind!

The EF 500mm f/4L IS II is the best lens I've ever worked with. It is superior in every aspect - nothing comes close, except maybe the new 600mm Series II super-tele!

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