FOCUS ON: EF 17-40mm f/4L USM

March 11, 2011

Are great images a product of the photographer, or their camera equipment? This series (formerly known as "Lens of the Month")explores the idea that it's BOTH: Featuring a professional photographer and a single Canon lens, the Canon Digital Learning Center focuses on the relationship that artists can have with their gear.

Canon Digital Learning Center (CDLC): What type of photography do you do, professionally? What field (s) do you prefer, for personal projects/as a hobby?

Jim Koepnick (JK): As Chief Photographer for Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), aviation photography is not only my job but also a passion. But working for a major aviation association doesn’t mean all my photography is about airplanes. I help supply images for five monthly magazines as well as newsletters, ads, brochures, press releases, several websites and general public relations work. My photography ranges from Morestudio portraits to location work, merchandise still life to photographs for press releases. It’s never the same each day so it’s very interesting.

Air to air photography, however, is the highlight for me. I attend three major aviation fly-ins during each year to photograph aircrafts for upcoming magazine stories. First, the aircraft is photographed on the ground. Technical details, wide shots to show the entire airplane and environmental portraits of the pilot are taken. Then, after a very thorough safety briefing, we take off for an air to air mission with the subject aircraft. The flights are generally set up for the first two hours after dawn, or the last two hours before sunset. Not only do I get the best light, but also the air is the calmest and this makes for better photos when we are using slow shutter speeds to blur the propeller in the image.

The photo plane I use is a Cessna 210. The back windows have been modified so each opens and provides access to shoot. The baggage door is also removed and this is my main opening to use for photography. The 210 has a wide speed range so I have been able to shoot slow moving J3 Cubs as well as fast P51 Mustangs.

Once we’re airborne and are in formation with the subject airplane, I start giving directions to my pilot via our intercom. My pilot then relays my directions…such as “5 feet left and 10 feet down” to the subject pilot. This allows me to move the plane around and adjust my composition against the background.

My freelance business is as varied as my work at EAA. I shoot commercial assignments as well as weddings, portraits and events. I seldom leave the house without a camera in hand because one never knows when you’re going to see a great picture.

CDLC:What are the most important features you need in the lenses you use professionally? What about for personal work (if there is a difference)?

JK: Professionally and personally, I think the most important feature in a lens is sharpness. The image has to be sharp to not only be published or sold to a client, but to satisfy myself as a professional. After that, overall quality and durability of the lens is also high on my list. I want a lens that can travel well, get thrown around in my bag a bit and still be dependable.

And since I’m trying to produce the best images I can, I also want a lens that is the best from Canon. That means an “L” lens. Not only is it great glass, but I know it will stand up to professional use.

In this day of economic challenges, I also want a quality lens that will fit into my equipment budget, both professionally and personally. The EF 17-40mm f/4L is one of the best examples by Canon for having a lens that produces great images but doesn’t carry a premium price. And that is not only great for my budget, but for producing professional images.

An additional consideration is the maximum f-stop of the lens. While I do appreciate a fast lens, I also found something very interesting when I analyzed the EXIF information from my images. And that was I very seldom shoot at f/2.8. I usually am shooting most technical images in the middle of the f-stop range. And for those environmental portraits and similar compositions where I place my subject to one side of the frame, f/4 works out great.

CDLC: What is your favorite Canon lens and why?

JK: It’s difficult to pick one overall favorite because each lens I use excels for a specific image I may have in mind. For example, when shooting an air to air mission for EAA, the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS is my lens of choice. I like the compression is gives to the image as well as the narrow field of view that helps eliminate distracting backgrounds. The zoom range is ideal for allowing me to make minor adjustments to my overall composition once I’ve gotten the subject aircraft, background and sun in the best position. While my personal choice leans toward zooming in tight for a dramatic shot, I also have to consider an art director that may want a little more “air” in the composition for adding type or other graphics. It’s easy to shoot both with a twist of the wrist. By itself, it’s a sharp lens, and with Image Stabilization my percentage of useable, sharp images increases. I’ve shot more than 1,000 aircrafts for EAA and the 70-200mm is always my main lens on the mission.

The EF 17-40mm f/4L is another favorite lens I use when working on an aviation assignment. While the 70-200mm is the main lens I use in the air, the 17-40mm is my choice on the ground. It’s perfect for any shot inside the cockpit or outside the aircraft. This versatility, combined with great sharpness, gives me a lot of “bang for the buck”, as they say. The 17-40mm is the main lens I use to shoot an aircraft panel or flight deck. It allows me to zoom wide enough to get in all of the instrumentation while still not giving me too much distortion on the sides.

This lens also works excellent for remote photography on an aircraft. At times when I want to show a different perspective of an aircraft I may mount a camera on a wing strut. This is a lot more up close and personal than shooting from the ground or from another aircraft. The lens keeps distortion low while still allowing me to shoot wide enough to show the aircraft in its environment. I can not only give the viewer an “up close and personal” view of what it’s like to land, for example, but by using a slow shutter speed can make them feel the motion by the blurred ground below.

To round out my favorites, the EF 50mm f/1.2L USM is a little gem of creativity. I started using one in the studio while working on a “1940’s Hollywood” portrait series. In trying to recreate the look of some of the old portraits, I found I liked the uncompressed look the 50mm gave me with portraits. In addition, I can open the lens to give just the right amount of depth of field to produce an effect similar to when using a view camera. With that project completed, I now find I use my 50mm as my “street” lens whenever I’m out and about.

CDLC: If the lens you used this month is one of your favorites, what is it about the lens that you love?

JK: The EF 17-40mm f/4L is the best “utility” lens in my camera bag. There is usually a need for this lens on every magazine assignment I shoot. I use it in any situation where quarters are tight and I need to show as much information as I can to tell the story.

On an aviation story, for example, it’s the lens I’ll reach for to shoot a cockpit and interior. The lens will zoom out wide enough to cover most of an aircraft interior, which I want to give a relationship to size and layout.

I’ll position for a straight on shot of the panel to show the arrangement of controls and instruments. In most cases I’ll mount my EOS 5D Mark II on a small Gitzo tripod so I can pick an f-stop to give me more depth of field (say, f/11 or f/16). Since cockpits have limited space and I can’t always reposition the tripod as I would like, it’s really a help to be able to zoom in or out to get the perfect framing.

Then, to add a little more creativity to my panel images, I’ll take the camera off the tripod and move in close, concentrating on one instrument as my main point of visual impact. By shooting at f/4, I can keep the specific instrument in sharp focus as well as have the focus fade for the rest of the instruments on the panel that are still within my frame.

I find I use the same technique of shooting a standard wide-angle shot of my subject, whether I’m covering a wedding, shooting a home interior or even a landscape. When I’ve got the basic shot, I then move in on my subject to put something of interest in the foreground and then let the focus trail off for the background.

CDLC: What type of assignments do you think this lens will really excel at, and why?

JK: For me, it works great in an assignment where I have to tell a story as well as produce photographs that show the technical aspects of my subject.
In my field of aviation photography, it’s the perfect choice for shooting the cockpit panel or flight deck. It’s wide enough to show the entire panel and does not create excessive distortion. While in some ways this is a pretty straightforward type of shot, it’s one that is needed in almost every aircraft article we publish and therefore one that needs to be crisp and clear. Whether it’s lit with available light, flash or even painted with flashlights, I’ve used the 17-40mm on hundreds of cockpit shots with outstanding results.

The lens also works great for aircraft interiors. When on assignment to shoot a corporate jet, the EF 17-40mm f/4L is a great choice because I need a lens that will zoom out wide enough to show how roomy the interior is but will also keep distortion from becoming too extreme. And, I need the image sharp.

The 17-40mm is not only a great work lens, but it’s a fun lens to carry around when I’m just out looking for photos on the street. It gives me a chance to not only show the “big picture” by shooting wide angle, but allows me to get close to a subject while not isolating the subject from the background. If I can only carry one lens around when I’m out shooting on the street for fun, it will be the 17-40mm because of the wider focal range. When I want to shoot wide to capture the graphic architecture of a building, this lens will do it. When I want to move in for a portrait of someone while still showing their surrounding, this lens will do it.

CDLC: What, if any, challenges did you experience working with this lens?

JK: For me this lens provides more solutions than challenges. From aviation to weddings to most any other freelance assignment I shoot, there is usually a need for wide-angle images to help tell the story. The EF 17-40mm f/4L fills that need with sharp images and little distortion.

I also found little problem with this lens being an f/4 instead of an f/2.8. Since much of my shooting with this lens is with strobes or on a tripod at an f-stop selected to give me a lot of depth of field, I’ve had excellent performance with this lens.

If there is a challenge I could say I experienced with this lens, it is not a technical one, but more of a psychological one. When I’m exploring a big city and on the street for some fun shooting, I often times find it’s too easy to sit back with a long lens and photograph people from a distance. I find I have a tendency to not want to get involved with my subject right away and that telephoto helps isolate me. But then I’ll put on this wide angle zoom and realize that if I’m going to make an idea turn into a photograph, then I’m going to have to move outside my comfort zone and move in closer to the subject. And in doing that, the EF 17-40mm f/4L helps me create new opportunities for creativity.

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