Every bird photographer has experienced “lens envy” and I’m no exception. I was the happy owner of the Canon 400mm f/5.6L for many years. This extremely sharp lens was introduced in 1993 and is still available at a reasonable price. I have taken many exquisite photos with it and have recommended it to others. It’s about the largest and heaviest telephoto one can carry comfortably while birding. I’m no fan of the huge lenses one sees on tripods being transported through the woods and across sandy beaches in baby carriages.
Then along came the new Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II. I reluctantly read the reviews, as I didn’t want to be tempted. They were all stellar. I stiffened my resolve and refused to upgrade and spend more money–“if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”. Then one of my birder/photographer friend bought it and began applying subtle pressure. I saw that it was quite good, albeit slightly heavier than my old standby. His photos were beautiful and sharp, but not really that much better than mine. I carried on with my 400mm for another 6 months, but slowly came to recognize the capabilities of this new lens.
The zoom feature is a big plus. With the fixed 400mm I would often miss a great shot if the bird was too close. By the time I backed up to get it in focus, the bird would be gone. The ability to shoot down to 100mm with the zoom feature also makes the lens much more versatile. You can actually take some people and landscape shots while birding without changing lenses.
Also the old lens did not have image stabilization (IS). I learned to compensate for this by keeping the exposures fast, 1/000 or faster but that, in turn, often required grainy high ISO settings, especially when shooting in low light. IS allows slower shutter speeds and lower ISO settings, if the bird is still, resulting in sharper pictures. It also lets you to see the bird more clearly through the viewfinder facilitating a difficult ID. Additionally it allows you to place the point focus exactly where you want it on the bird.
So as the title suggests, I finally succumbed and made the purchase. Non-birders may not understand this, but waiting for the UPS truck to deliver a new lens brings to mind “visions of sugar plums” dancing in children’s heads on Christmas Eve. You can even track the delivery across the country on the internet right to your front door. I was ready and waiting when “Brown” arrived. I carefully unpacked the new baby, screwed on the new UV filter, and attached it to the camera–in my case the Canon 7D Mark II. Remember to always save the packing.
The first shots taken around the house seemed OK on the camera LCD, but the acid test would be bird photos. A trek to the mangrove swamp yielded numerous shots of wading herons and egrets. My anticipation grew while the images loaded into the computer. Disappointment. These were not sharp and crisp images. When you zoom to maximum on a bird’s eye, the glint of light should be perfectly sharp with a good lens and camera. It was not. I rechecked my exposure factors and they all seemed OK. Maybe it was just a cloudy day. I decided to try again the next day in better light but began to wonder if I should have been content with the old lens.
The next day in bright sunshine things were no better. I took hundreds of shots and there wasn’t a sharp one in the bunch. More doubt crept in. Was it me, the camera, or just a bad copy of this lens? I knew it wasn’t the camera since it produced great photos with the old lens. That left me and the lens. I explained my issues to B&H Photos in New York. They tactfully told me a bad lens would be highly unusual, but asked if I had checked the focus micro adjustments? Dead silence from me as I wondered what he was talking about. Again, tactfully they explained that camera setting and how to check it.
There is a great You-Tube video available describing how to check and make micro adjustments on your camera. Sometimes a lens focus plane can be slightly in front of or behind the autofocus point you see in the viewfinder, leading to unsharp images. This is tested by placing the camera on a tripod and aiming at a precise spot on a grid or ruler from a 45 degree angle. Use a delayed shutter release to eliminate camera shake. When you review the picture the best focus point should be exactly where you aimed. If it is not spot on, you can adjust the camera. I did this many times and got very inconsistent results–some focused behind the point and others too far forward. It must be a bad lens. With another call to B&H, they immediately agreed to replace the lens.
This time I awaited “Brown’s” arrival with apprehension. Bad news. It was deja vu all over again–the pictures were still not sharp. I couldn’t possibly have received two lemons of this revered lens and I can’t call B&H again–they’ll think I’m crazy. My friend with the identical camera and lens made a sympathetic house call to calm me down and compare our settings. They all matched. So we headed out into the field for some birding shots, swapping cameras and interchanging lenses. Finally, he suggested I remove the lens filter and shoot “naked”. I have always used a UV filter primarily to protect the lens from dust and scratches. EUREKA! Problem solved! The pictures were tack sharp. There is order in the universe! It was always the filter.
So what have I learned from all this? First, Canon makes great products and B&H gives exceptional customer service. Second, do not cover your great lens with a cheap filter and always listen to the advice of a friend who knows more about photography than you. Next, be aware of the camera micro adjustments even though you’ll probably never have to use them. And finally, always save the packing material, even for the UV filter.
Most of the photos in this post were taken with the new lens minus the troublesome filter. The Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L II is truly a great lens.