Tuesday, 9 June 2009

200mm f2.8L Canon Prime

In choosing the 400mm f5.6L prime lens for Nicki (see previous post), I had to give her some strong reasons as to why she should consider a prime lens over a zoom.

Most photographers starting out have a zoom lens that comes with the camera, and they never consider anything else. If they ever look at getting another lens with a different focal length, they almost always look for another zoom. Why would you only want a single focal length when you can cover a wider area with a zoom?

Well, probably the most compelling (and damning) reason - and the one that should really be paramount with most photographers, is image quality. Prime lenses are sharper, quicker, brighter (in most cases), and optically better than almost all zooms - period.

Zoom lenses, by their very nature and design, require much more complex lens arrangements, which allows for more image quality compromises. Primes, on the other hand, can function more quickly due to less moving parts, and a simplified lens construction. This also means there's a greater chance of the engineers getting it right.

So Nicki was sold and went with the 400mm f5.6L super zoom for her bird photography. I am also sold on primes - and already own two; a 50mm f1.8 (cheap, lightweight and plastic, but what a sharp lens), and an 85mm f1.8 - my favorite portrait lens when shooting weddings.

Since selling my 70-200mm f4L lens last year, I wanted something to give me some more reach beyond the 24-105mm f4L which is my 'main' wedding lens (yes, it is a zoom...). I only really used the 200mm end of the 70-200mm, which is why I parted with it in the first place. So after waxing lyrical to Nicki about primes, and doing quite a bit of research on the net about them, the 200mm f2.8L caught my eye. I hunted one down second-hand at a camera retailer, and am now the proud owner of a Canon EF Mark 1 200mm f2.8L.

I'd read some really positive reviews about this lens before getting it - and let me tell you - every word of it is true! What a great lens! The above photo of my son, Joshua, was taken the day I got the lens. It was a pretty overcast and dull day, but even so the image has some pop to it. Wide open at f2.8 this lens is stunning, and creates beautifully creamy out-of-focus background blur. The front eye (what the focus was set on) is incredibly sharp - even blown up over 100%. Many users claim that it gets even sharper at f4 and above - and if that's true (which I have no doubt it is) then this lens will be sharp enough to cut glass!

It's a reasonably solid, metal and glass construction lens, while still being light-weight enough to have on the camera and carry around for long periods comfortably. It does have a space for a tripod fitting, although it doesn't come with one (shame on you Canon - this is an 'L' lens after all). The focus is fast and silent, and the front element doesn't rotate, allowing for easy use of polarising filters. My version (Mark I) comes with an in-built lens hood which simply extends out over the front. It's not a very deep lens hood, and as such has been 'fixed' in the Mark II version by the use of a separate (and much deeper) snap-on lens hood. Even so, my built in one should be adequate enough.

Using primes becomes a bit of a drug once you see the results they bring to your images. Once you get you first one, you have to get more. Even if it seems impractical when they overlap with zoom lenses you may already own. Use a prime lens, print the results, and you'll be hooked. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

The 'ideal' birding kit?

Over the last week I have been helping a friend spend some serious (for her) money on a 'birding/wildlife' kit.

With the unfortunate passing of a close relative, came the fortunate inheriting of some money that was unexpected. So she decided to splash out on herself and get 'seriously' into her passion for shooting birds.

Now bird photography ain't my thing - largely because it's so darn hard! You have to have stealth, patience, and an almost uncanny understanding of your subject to get halfway decent images - none of which I possess. I've tried, and failed, to get any decent bird images, until finally I've come to the understanding that it just isn't me.

So when she (Nicki is her name and I don't think she'd mind me saying it) - so when Nicki asked me to advise her on a birding kit, I had some serious research to do.

From her own experiences with bird photography, she knew she was heading into 'super-telephoto' territory to help get her close enough to the 'action', while still maintaining good distance so as not to alarm her subjects. Trouble is, 'super telephoto' lenses are horrendously expensive - and her budget wasn't 'that' big.

Naturally, then, Nicki was considering a Tamron 200-500mm f4.5/6.3 (or something like that - I forget 'exactly'), pointed in this direction by a well-meaning sales person at a camera store she had called. These lenses (Sigma does one as well) by the 'third party' lens manufacturers, seem to offer the best of both worlds - a rather impressive zoom range, reasonably low price, and relatively light weight (from all that plastic).

Trouble is (and maybe it's just me) I've never really been impressed by any third-party lens I've ever used/owned, over an equivalent lens made by the camera manufacturers (i.e. Canon/Nikon/Olympus/Sony/Pentax etc). In Nicki's case it happened to be Canon, as she already owns a 450D with standard kit lens and 70-300mm f4.5/5.6 that she had been using for her bird photography previously (and highly successfully I might add).

My advice to her (he said, cutting to the chase), was to go for a Canon lens - and within her budget there was really only one choice that kept coming up time and again on internet reviews - the 400mm f5.6 L. Many call it the ideal 'bird in flight' lens, because it's the start of the super-telephoto range, is 'relatively' light and so can be hand-held in good lighting, is super fast to autofocus, and it's also super sharp - all the ingredients you want in a lens.

So that's what I advised her to get - and that's what she got. Together with a new Canon 50D for increased ISO use, faster and more reliable autofocusing, a more rugged chassis, and more megapixels (15+) so she can crop in more seriously on the final image. The 50D also gives her an extra x1.6 cropping factor on the lens as well, giving her an equivalent 640mm f5.6 lens! pretty cool.

Is she happy with her new kit. Well, by all accounts she is. I haven't seen her since she got it - I guess she's been too busy out taking photos. So yeah - I'd say she's on to a winner.