A Year with the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM

I’m using the “new” 500mm Canon for slightly more than a year now, so it’s time to share my opinions on it. During the last year I had posted a bunch of images made with this lens attached to various camera bodies (1D X Mark II, 5DS R, 5D Mark III, 7D Mark II), which further illustrate the capabilities of this gem.

Why upgrade?

I had used the Mark I version for 10 years, and it was a stellar performer, so why I decided to upgrade to the Mark II? For two reasons: weight and image quality. Let’s begin with the latter. When I tried the old 500 plus the 1.4x III extender on the 7D Mark II for the first time, I thought that something went wrong with the lens. After making several successful astrophotos during the winter of 2014-15 (using the bare lens), the lack of sharpness I encountered with the extender was discouraging. So much that I stopped using this combination completely, and ordered the Mark II after a week or so.

Once the Mark II arrived, I had the opportunity to compare it with the old one – and man, it makes a huge difference on high resolution cameras! The Mark II with the 1.4x III attached is sharper than the old one with no extender. And it doesn’t stop here. The following image pretty much summarizes the quality of images one could expect from the 500mm f/4L IS II.

tbd

Whinchat Singing

Richer colors, and complete lack of the “busy background” that was a signature of the old lens + teleconverter combinations. The transition from sharp to unsharp areas is pretty fast, just like with my Zeisses. Images coming out from the contemporary Canon super-telephotos (300 II/400 II/400 DO II/500 II/600 II) are stunning. There’s no point in talking more about image quality, since they offer the best money can buy. But there are other important aspects to discuss.

Like size and weight. The Mark II is about 800g lighter than the Mark I. This is a huge difference. I can put an additional TS-E 24mm or Zeiss 2.8/15 in the bag and still have the same total weight as before. Thinking about size/weight/reach is an important factor when you select a super-tele.

Why 500mm?

When it comes to birding, the longer is almost always better. My reasoning to get the 500mm originally, and to stick with the same focal length when upgrading to the Mark II, was the following. 300mm is too short. The 400/2.8 II is too large and heavy for the focal length. The 600 II is a great lens, but… Well, I have a rule that everything I bring into the field (with the exception of the tripod and the MacBook Air) must fit into my Gura Gear Bataflae 32L backpack. And the 600 doesn’t fit – at least with my other gear already in the bag.

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Black Tern Looking for Bugs

Sometimes I long for the 600, like when shooting the image above, but with high resolution cameras I have the freedom to crop a bit. The 400 DO II is also a great lightweight lens, but a bit short considering the locations and birds I photograph. This leaves the 500. Long enough (especially with teleconverters) for my needs, small enough to fit into the bag, light enough to handhold for extended periods of time (at least with smaller bodies like the 5DS R and 7D Mark II, with the 1D X Mark II it’s on the fence of being too heavy). The wider angle of view (compared to the 600) provides a little protection against inadvertently cut wings and feet, and it’s easier on the tracking mount (both in terms of weight and tracking accuracy) when shooting the heavens above. Not to mention that you can buy the 500 plus a Zeiss 2.8/15 from the price of the 600…

Handling

Mark II super-teles are less front-heavy than the old ones (partly due to the removal of the protective glass from the front). So you think they are lighter than they really are. With the 1D X Mark II the balance point is under the lens collar, but with smaller bodies it’s right under the focusing ring. Which is problematic if you are handholding the lens – you need to be extra careful not to turn the ring.

I really like that the focusing range selector has been moved out of the central switchboard to the neck of the lens. It’s much easier accessible place when the lens is mounted on a gimbal.

Proper technique is important with all long lenses, and the 500 is no exception. But you also need to watch for air turbulence. I’m serious. Astronomers are long aware of the fact that hot air bubbles or even wind gusts can influence telescope image quality. For example on a cold fall morning on a lake, just an hour after sunrise the air is so turbulent that you can’t make a sharp image of anything more than 20-30m away. It’s not a showstopper, just something one needs to be aware of.

Focusing is quick and accurate (if you did your homework and had properly micro-adjusted the AF), but adding teleconverters could slow focusing down. I’d recommend to check out my AF drive speed comparison with different camera bodies.

Overall, the lens is a dream to use. On tripod or off, it just works the way expected.

Accessorize!

There are a few things I immediately replace on/add to a super-tele. First I add a LensCoat. But I don’t put all the pieces on – leaving the focusing ring and the lens collar out. I prefer to focus with the original ring, and don’t like the sticky tape on the collar. This also makes my lens unique, and can easily tell which is mine when shooting with friends.

The second thing is a custom lens foot. I wrote about the 4th Generations Design foot (and a few other accessories) in a previous piece, and albeit a different one, I use a 4GD foot on the Mark II. This time the CRX-5L (the “low” version). It fits nicely, and also allows storing the hood in the reversed position. Speaking of the reversed hood and storing the lens. The Don Zeck cap I bought for the old 500 works nicely with the new one.

sdf

5DS R + 500mm f/4L IS II + 1.4x III on a Skimmer Ground Pod and Mongoose M3.6 Head

Another piece of equipment I grown to love is the Skimmer Ground Pod. I use it when photographing from a boat or otherwise need to be close to the ground. You can see on the picture above the complete rig I used for photographing great crested grebes last fall. What’s the camo thingy around the lens? It’s the part of my ghillie suit that normally goes over the gun.

The only thing I don’t like about the Mark II (well, besides the balance point being under the focusing ring) is that Canon does not include a screw-on filter holder any more. The lens comes with a gel holder, which I can’t use to mount my light pollution suppression filter for astro work. For this kind of price I’d expect Canon to include both with the lens, but had to purchase it separately (it’s somewhat hard to find: you’ll need the 52WII holder).

Conclusion

I always loved the old 500, and love the Mark II even more. You get splendid images, huge versatility (did I mention that I also use it for long lens landscapes a lot?) in a light, travel-friendly package. If you can afford (or want to lug around) only one super-telephoto lens, this is the one to buy. Highly recommended.

1D X Mark II or 7D Mark II for Reach?

This was an important question for me. But let me rephrase it more precisely: given the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens and 1.4x III and 2x III teleconverters, which camera produces more real pixels per object? Empty magnification does not count. The 7D Mark II with the 500 and the 1.4x, or the 1D X Mark II with the 500 and the 2x? (The 7D Mark II + 500 + 2x combination was ruled out since its image quality is not up to my standards.)

You may think that the 7D configuration with its 1120mm effective focal length will beat the 1D configuration with only 1000mm effective focal length. Well, you shouldn’t make a decision based on specifications only! Thus I did a little test, a result of which you can see below.

500comparison

Click the image for the actual pixels version on non-Retina displays.

Air was a bit turbulent, and it impacts telephoto imagery with high resolution sensors, so I made a series of shots with each combination in Kuuvik Capture, and selected the sharpest from each batch for this comparison. Also converted the images to black and white because it’s easier to see the sharpness difference this way. 5DS R shots were the same resolution-wise that the 7D II shots, so only included the ones from the 7D Mark II.

The bottom line is that the 1D X Mark II with the 500mm f/4L II and 2x III produces more usable pixels than the 7D Mark II with the 500 and the 1.4x TC. The 500 with the teleconverter is simply unable to feed the resolution-hungry 7D II (as well as the 5DS R) sensor. This is in line with my experience in real-world images.

Tern with Angel Wings. 1D X Mark II with 500mm f/4L II + 2x III @ ISO 800.

Tern with Angel Wings. 1D X Mark II with 500mm f/4L II + 2x III @ ISO 800.

I prefer the overall look from the 1D X II (not just the higher effective resolution, but better dynamic range, better colors, less plasticky, etc.) to the 7D II, so it pretty much seals the deal regarding which camera will stay in my bag. And with the ability to autofocus using all AF points with the 2x converter at f/8, the 1D X II + 500 II + 2x III is a killer combination. You may need to renew your gym membership though…

Looking for more info on the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II? You may find my review and the AF drive speed comparison useful.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II Review – Part 1

The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II is a huge topic, so I decided to slice the review. I also don’t want to reiterate specs or things that you can find on popular photography sites, instead I’m going to talk about aspects that are important to me.

So first of all let me put all I’m going to write into context.

I buy cameras for two purposes: as development and test hardware for my Kuuvik Capture and ShutterCount apps, and of course to take pictures. While I have two bodies in my bag, three or four additional cameras are sitting on the shelf to cover each and every firmware variant and operation paradigm Canon produced since 2008. Well, who said developing software is a cheap undertaking?

This gives me a great freedom to try different bodies and put those into the bag that fit my photographic needs the best possible way. But at the end of the day I make a living using these cameras, this way or that, so all of them should contribute to the bottom line.

There was only one missing piece in this set: a 1-series camera. I loved and used a 1D Mark II for 8 years or so, but skipped the following generations. The Mark III generation because of the autofocus issue, and because I still think they are the worst digital EOS-1 bodies ever made (you may disagree, but I’m sure you haven’t spent any time developing for them in this case). Just mentioning the 1Ds Mark III gives my better half the shivers… And the Mark IV because we needed funding for other things that time.

Then the 5D Mark III came along, and I haven’t felt the urge to purchase a 1D X for myself. For neither purpose. We started using loaner and rental units for development and testing. As time passed, things started to look less rosy: arranging rentals and loaners could be time consuming and costly (not to mention that they almost always screw up our schedule), so the decision to get a 1D X Mark II was made well before even the camera was announced. We just didn’t want to invest in outgoing technology and waited.

On the photography front, my main interests are landscapes and birds, with a bit of architecture and product photography spread along the way. My photographs either end up in commercial use or in large fine art prints, and high resolution is an advantage in both cases.

My A camera is an EOS 5DS R, which I found to be a great choice for everything I photograph. Yes, I could use a few more frames per second and faster buffer write speeds, but the camera proved to be perfectly usable even for action. Before the 1D X Mark II arrived, the B camera was a 7D Mark II. But because the images coming out of the 5DS R are way better, I haven’t used the 7D for months. Now the 1D X Mark II is the B camera, and I’m curious how it performs.

Ok, with this background let me begin discussing the 1D X Mark II.

Oh, one more thing. Since I have no financial interest in talking you into buying a camera (unlike most of the review sites), I’ll be honest. Just like with a friend talking about the 1D X Mark II over a drink.

TL; DR

It is a good camera, image quality is among the best I’ve seen from Canon (surpassed only by the 5DS R). There are some quirks and stuff that bugs me, though. Some of them can be worked around, but you’ll need to live with others. As always, if you fancy buying this beast, I’d recommend to rent it first to see whether it fits your working style and needs.

Lovely colors – even at higher ISOs

This is something you’ll notice even on the camera’s LCD (on which all images look disturbingly soft in 100% magnification, just like they did with the 1D Mark II).

Long Lens Landscape. 1D X Mark II with 500mm f/4L IS II + 1.4x III

Long Lens Landscape. 1D X Mark II with 500mm f/4L IS II + 1.4x III.

The image above was shot at ISO 1600, and it looks gorgeous on a wide gamut monitor. Sadly, part of the depth and brilliance of colors was lost when I converted it to sRGB for web display.

CFast 2.0 is really fast

You really want to use a CFast card with this camera. But be sure to get a fast one. I’m using a 64GB Lexar Professional 3500x card. Not because of the capacity (32GB would be my preferred choice for a 20 megapixel camera), but because of the 445 MB/s write speed. Smaller cards (including the 64GB SanDisk bundled with the camera) usually have lower write speeds around 240 MB/s. This is hugely important: with the faster cards you have virtually no buffer limit when shooting RAW. The 170 frames limit mentioned in the tech specs is what you get with the slower cards.

But be aware that moving images at this speed generates a lot of heat. The card, and even the camera’s grip becomes hot after extended use.

Being a young technology, CFast 2.0 could cause some compatibility headaches. I selected the 3500x card based on Lexar’s compatibility chart – while the 1D X Mark II is not listed explicitly at the time of writing, it seems that only 3500x cards are compatible with Canon cameras. For downloading images, I use Lexar’s Professional Workflow CR2 CFast reader (the one that has a Thunderbolt port in addition to USB3).

$650 for a power supply and coupler?!?

Someone at Canon has clearly lost his medicine. The AC adapter sells for $400 and the dummy battery for additional $250. To put you in perspective: you can buy a good laboratory-grade power supply for $400. And asking $250 for a dummy battery is outright arrogant. While writing my apps, I prefer to power the cameras from AC power, but these prices are simply unacceptable. Fortunately the good old ACK-E4 adapter made for previous 1-series cameras (around $95) works perfectly. The only downside is that you are limited to 8 fps.

The return of red AF point illumination

For this camera Canon (almost) returned to their former AF point illumination system, where AF points are red, while all other information in the viewfinder is black. You may remember my post about the irritating and unusable illumination system found in the 1DX/5D3/7D2/5DSR, so this is a big relief for me.

But the system is still far from being perfect. The red illumination is too bright (no option to make it dimmer, only brighter), which is rather distracting in some situations. And the inability to switch it back to black is something beyond me.

Cleaner shadows

I’m not the kind of guy who tries to fix badly underexposed images in post with an 5-stop push, but you know, sometimes I screw up. And having the ability to rescue otherwise good images is always appreciated. The image below was a grab shot of a purple heron flying overhead, without paying attention to compensate for the bleak sky – resulting in an underexposed bird.

Purple heron. 1D X Mark II with 500mm f/4L IS II and 1.4x III teleconverter. ISO 400, pushed 3 stops.

Purple Heron. 1D X Mark II with 500mm f/4L IS II + 1.4x III. ISO 400, pushed 3 stops.

A 3-stop push was used, and there is no visible color deterioration and noise even in the dark parts under the wings and body – something that was a stretch for older Canons. It was shot at ISO 400 (my base birding ISO).

A few missing functions

There’s no intervalometer and bulb timer. The shutter count feature is also missing from the external interface (although it’s available in the system information menu). And you can’t set bracketing from the menu. With the exception of the shutter count feature I can’t understand why Canon left these out, despite all their current cameras have them.

Well, you can use Kuuvik Capture for executing exposure sequences and bulb timer, in a more user friendly and effective way than Canon was ever able to implement these, so I’m not really complaining.

Remote release socket on the “right” side

Finally! This is something I wanted for more than a decade. I tend to use L brackets on all my cameras, and the N3 socket is something that needed to be worked around with these brackets – resulting in unwieldy left sides. Unfortunately both Kirk and RRS sell the same 1DX plate for the Mark I and II, but I still hope that some company will make a sleek bracket for the Mark II.

Since the tripod screw was ripped out from my 1D Mark II, I don’t trust single point bracket attachments. Kirk’s two-point attachment for their 5D Mark III/S/SR plate (reviewed here) is way better. Unfortunately there’s no such thing as a sleek 1DX plate with two attachment points, so I’m sticking with a normal plate. Especially because this is a B/wildlife/action camera and not planned to be routinely used tripod mounted with heavy lenses like the Otus 1.4/28 – with the 500mm it’s going to be mounted by the lens.

The USB sleep bug

This is a serious issue if you are planning to use the camera tethered.

If your computer goes to sleep while the camera is plugged in, you’ll permanently lose the connection – until the camera is powered off and back on. This happens with each and every tethering app. And there’s no workaround. Hopefully the bug is in the firmware and not in the USB hardware. All previous EOS cameras I used to date work as expected in this regard.

To be continued…

1D X II, 5DS R and 7D II AF Drive Speed Compared

I’m currently waiting for Capture One to support the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II. RAW converter options available at the moment (Canon DPP and Photoshop/Lightroom) do not cut it. Their output is seriously underwhelming compared to Capture One, so I’m trying to avoid to check the camera’s image quality now. That leaves other operational aspects to examine.

My current main camera is the EOS 5DS R – it will definitely remain in this position even with the 1D X Mark II at hand. I highly doubt that the 1D X will be able to challenge its superlative image quality. On the other hand, slow frame rate and especially the small buffer are a headache from time to time.

Swan

Swan – 5DS R with the 500/4 IS II and 1.4x III teleconverter

That’s why I had been carrying a 7D Mark II in my bag for the last year and a half. But now the 1D X Mark II casts a shadow on the 7D Mark II’s future…

Today I did a little test to compare the AF drive speed of these three cameras with my Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM – naked lens, as well as with the 1.4x III and 2x III teleconverters.

The measurement was simple: recorded a video of the focus distance scale during a full stroke “infinity to minimum focusing distance to infinity” focus drive operation, and then counted how many frames the operation took.

It took a tad less than 0.8 seconds for the 1D X Mark II to execute this operation regardless of whether a converter was attached or not. What surprised me is that the 5DS R produced the exact same result. I must conclude that stories about the 1D’s more powerful battery in connection with the AF drive speed are marketing bullshit. The 5DS R with a weaker battery can do the same. Even with a teleconverter attached.

The 7D Mark II is a different story, though. The naked lens produced the same 0.8 seconds result, but extenders took their toll. The 1.4x slowed focusing time by some 17%, and with the 2x the full stroke took twice as much time as with the naked lens.

In today’s test the 1D X Mark II scored a win against the 7D Mark II, but the true winner for me is the 5DS R… I expected 7D Mark II level performance from the camera, and being on par with the 1D X just makes me to admire it even more.

Kuuvik Capture 2.4 Released

The latest update to Kuuvik Capture is now available on the Mac App Store. First and foremost, we’ve added support for the brand new Canon EOS-1D X Mark II. This seems to be a great camera with a few quirks – more on the camera itself in a later post. You can connect it to Kuuvik Capture with USB, using the built-in Ethernet connection or via the WFT-E6 or WFT-E8 Wi-Fi transmitters.

We also changed the way shadow and highlight clipping warnings look. In the past we had a hatched pattern that become denser as more channels got outside the exposure range of the camera. The problem was severe moiré and aliasing when you zoomed in and out. Beginning this version the exposure warnings are solid colored, getting more opaque as more channels are affected.

Multi-channel highlight clipping warning

This is an image from last fall, and shows how channels get clipped towards the sun in the frame. First green (the largest patch), then blue and finally red. The more channels are overexposed the less chance to do effective highlight recovery.

Last but not least, I’ve continued the multi-platform code removal process (mentioned in my former post), which brings performance improvements (and battery usage improvements) here and there. For example loading 20 megapixel images from the 7D Mark II got up to 0.1 seconds faster on a 11″ MacBook Air. And overall camera communication is a bit faster and smoother.

The update is free for existing Kuuvik Capture 2 customers. New users can download Kuuvik Capture 2 from the Mac App Store for $79.99 / €79.99 / £59.99.

For more information about the app, please visit it’s microsite, or check out my posts.

It’s All About Color Contrast

Why do I prefer shooting purple herons in the reeds? It’s all about color contrast. During evenings this location is perfectly front-lit, so blue sky and deep yellow foliage is a given. Mix it with the browns and reds of the heron and you’re almost ready.

Descent

Descent

The only fly in the ointment is that you’ll have to shoot through the reeds. This had been quite a challenge before the 7D Mark II – this fantastic little camera has an AF system that can track the birds even when they fly behind the reeds. No camera before that was able to do it with such a good success rate. I had to spend an afternoon to fine tune the system, but was well worth the effort. (Tracking sensitivity: -1, Accel./decel. tracking: 2, AF pt auto switching: 2 is what I use in case you are curious.)

A Great Reed Warbler from 2012

From time to time I scroll through old images. Especially ones from the same location and same time frame. And usually end up in a ruthless editing session. Technical imperfections, suboptimal compositions – you name it, I delete it. But once in a while I find a gem.

Great Reed Warbler Singing

Great Reed Warbler Singing

Just sit back, and enjoy the song of the warbler on a late spring morning.

The Ballet Has Begun – With a Little Extra

Herons finally arrived and I spent the afternoon with warming up for the season. This year will be radically different from the previous ones because of the rig I use. The issue with photographing herons at this specific location is that they land at varying distances. This usually means frequent teleconverter and body changes, and lots of inadvertently cut wings and feet.

But not this time. The 5DS R has more than enough resolution for cropping if the bird lands further away while I can avoid truncating vital parts with closer landings thanks to the full frame sensor. I’m using the EF 500mm f/4L IS USM with the 1.4x III teleconverter.

Purple Heron Landing Ballet

Purple Heron Landing Ballet

Images are also much better from the 5DS R than they were from the 7D Mark II and 5D Mark III used for the last couple of years. Not to mention the ancient 1D Mark II… Frame rate is a bit slow sometimes, but still manageable. The real problem is that emptying the buffer to the card may take a lot of time even with a speedy 1066x Lexar CF. This is one point where I expect the 1D X Mark II to do wonders.

Besides the herons, a bunch of bearded tits were also hanging out in the reeds. They are funny little birds and I really enjoy working with them. So much that I missed quite a few heron landings.

Bearded Tit - Another Take

Bearded Tit – Another Take

The light was great, so why not take advantage of the situation and the cooperating birds? Heck, I already have a ton of great heron landing images…