A Year with Zeiss Lenses

More than a year had passed since I started migrating to Zeiss lenses – and I still couldn’t be happier. This, together with the Canon 5DS R completely transformed how I approach my subjects. The resulting files reflect what I see and how I see it. Every time. No additional frills that need to be edited out in post.

Fall Morning

Fall Morning

No matter if I work slowly and deliberately under a dark cloth, tethered to a MacBook Air, or – as it was the case with the above image – shooting handheld from a moving boat. The images are always stunning. I’ve never been so satisfied with any photographic equipment. These words shouldn’t be taken lightly – I’m an extremely hard-to-please man.

The only thing I miss with this setup is movements. A few degrees of tilt/swing here and there, plus a couple of millimeters rise/fall/shift could save the day sometimes. Well, if you think that I’m exploring the possibilities in this area, you are right. But more on my findings later.

Making the Canon 5D Mark IV Soup

The following is a satirical look on how Canon designed the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV – followed by a little more serious discussion.

Sitting on the old, weathered coffee table in my office, the camera is waiting for the validation tests for Kuuvik Capture 2.5

Sitting on the old, weathered coffee table in my office, the camera is waiting for the validation tests for Kuuvik Capture 2.5. It makes a killer combo with the EF 35mm f/2 IS lens, just like the 5D Mark III did.

Ok, so let’s begin with the ingredients:

The recipe is pretty straightforward, anybody having access to these quality ingredients can cook it after a few years of making soups like this.

Take the EOS 5DS R, and replace the sensor with a new one based on the current generation design with on-chip ADC (like the ones in the 80D and 1D X Mark II). Since the sensor is a bit smaller resolution than the one it replaces, frame rate can be increased a bit. Peel the 7D Mark II and add its weather sealing and a slightly modified version of the AF point selector switch to the bowl.

Crush the 1D X Mark II, but be careful that both the GPS unit and the AF sensor remain unharmed, we’ll need them. Unfortunately crushing the body will destroy the red AF point illumination and the CFast card slot, so there’s no chance to improve our soup with those extremely fine parts. Yes, use the GPS unit from the 1D X II, since the 7D II’s unit has a digital compass, and that might cause disorientation and dizziness even in small doses.

Cut the 80D in half, pull out the touchscreen and the Wi-Fi. But be extremely careful to clean the Wi-Fi thoroughly, otherwise the soup will taste like crap. Add these to the bowl. Season to taste with Dual Pixel RAW.

— ooo —

Tech companies (and Canon is no exception, just like us) love to reuse existing components in new products. This greatly improves return on investment (good for the company) and reliability (good for the customer).

The 5D Mark IV is a premier example of smart cooking from these components. It’s a serious upgrade for anyone using the 5D Mark III and doesn’t need high resolution or high frame rate. That is, a highly versatile generalist camera.

But since I own and love a 5DS R and a 1D X Mark II, this soup is not for me. I have been using a high res + high speed combination for years, and I prefer it to a single generalist camera, or even a pair of those cameras (I had a 5D Mark III for years, but life is much better now).

Stringent Look - Canon EOS 5D Mark III with EF 500mm f/4L IS USM + 1.4x III

Stringent Look – Canon EOS 5D Mark III with EF 500mm f/4L IS USM + 1.4x III

Photos in this post were made with the 5D Mark III years ago – despite having a rental body for adding it to Kuuvik Capture, I had no time to go out and shoot (not to mention that the weather was dull). But since the Mark IV is s direct replacement of the Mark III, they illustrate the kind of images I usually make with a body like this.

There are things that I really miss, however:

  • CFast 2.0. The 1D X Mark II showed that they are in a completely different league in speed and user experience compared to CF. With CFast the Mark IV’s smallish buffer (21 shots) would not be an issue at all.
  • UHS-II for the SD card slot. UHS-II would be a lower cost alternative to CFast 2.0 (but still faster than CompactFlash: speed ratings are 633x for UHS-I, 1066x for CF, 2000x for UHS-II, 3500x for CFast).
  • USB Type-C socket. The USB3 Micro-B socket the Mark IV (and all USB3 Canons) uses is the worst connector plug I ever saw (only Apple’s 30-pin dock connector comes close). Fragile, hard to insert properly with cold fingers, etc, etc. Canon (and everyone) should use the reversible USB3 Type-C plug these days. With A-to-C cables for legacy computers only having an A socket.
  • Red AF point illumination. See my former opinion about the crappy solution used in every contemporary Canon except the 1D X Mark II.
  • Usable Wi-Fi. The 5D Mark IV shares the snail-like Wi-Fi implementation of the 6D/70D/80D. Come on Canon, 9MB/s peak transfer speed over 802.11n for a 30mp camera? In 2016? To make things worse, you can’t use a much faster WFT-E7 external transmitter to speed up wireless tethering.
Window Remnants - Canon EOS 5D Mark III with EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

Window Remnants – Canon EOS 5D Mark III with EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

Would I recommend it to a friend?

It boils down to a pair of points: if you need ultra high resolution and are willing to spend a small fortune on lenses that actually can deliver the resolution, then no. In this case get a 5DS R, which is prominently usable even for birding. Or if you need a high-fps camera, then don’t fret about the Mark IV’s frame rate, go get a 1D X or 7D II for yourself.

But in all other cases I can recommend the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV – it’s a really nice camera and a joy to use. Well, it’s not a surprise as all professional Canons I happened to use since (and including) the 5D Mark III were exceptional tools. And I totally agree with Canon’s philosophy to please actual photographers and not tech journalists and bloggers (you know, the kind harshly complaining about “lack of innovation”).

Shameless plug

If you are upgrading from an older camera, such as the 5D Mark II, 5D Mark III or either 7D, you’ll probably need my ShutterCount app to let the buyer know how many shutter actuations your old camera has.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II Review – Part 2

This is the second installment of my ongoing EOS-1D X Mark II review. You can read Part 1 here. My other posts comparing effective reach of the 1D X II with the 7D II and focus drive speed of different cameras including the 1D X II may also be useful for you.

Dynamic range

You may already saw at the usual camera testing sites that the 1D X Mark II has a dynamic range that’s practically identical to the competition, so “Canon is back in the game”. While this is true, let me approach the topic of dynamic range from another angle. Which is prints. I know that only a few of us print anything at all, and that may explain the number of people obsessed with the extreme dynamic range of today’s sensors. But in reality it is a double-edged sword.

Ink on paper has about 6 or 7 stops of dynamic range, so if you have anything with more range, you may need to be careful when preparing the prints to keep pleasing tonal relationships and prevent posterization. Too much contrast after setting the black and white points could also be an issue that needs to be mitigated. So the saying “be careful what you wish for – you may get it” is really holds in this situation.

Puffin Portrait at Látrabjarg

Puffin Portrait at Látrabjarg

Of course it helps in exposing naturally high dynamic range subjects, like the blacks and whites of puffins. But the dynamic range collapses quickly with increasing ISO, so you may not have that much to work with.

All in all, the 1D X Mark II is state of the art, but I had no complaints about the 5DS R either.

High ISO

As I mentioned in Part 1, I print large, and thus resolution is an important aspect of all images I keep. And despite the hype (may I call it marketing bullshit?) of the camera seeing in the dark in those extremely high ISOs, I consider 6400 the maximum usable ISO. Fine details are starting to get eradicated at 3200, though. The only use I have for the higher values is for preparing long exposure compositions.

I use the camera a lot with the 500mm f/4L IS II and the 2x III teleconverter, and my base ISO in this case is 800 – resulting in very clean images. The following image was taken with this combo at ISO 3200 during the Icelandic summer night.

Redshank at Night

Redshank at Night

RAW file bit depth changes a little with ISO changes. You get the highest usable bit depth (13.81 out of the theoretical maximum of 14) between ISO 125 and 200. At ISO 100, you get 13.71 bits, and 13.65 bits between ISO 320 and 51200. Higher bit depth meaning better tonal separation. I still have a habit to only use whole stop ISOs to avoid the ill-effects of digital compensation when using third stop values. At low ISOs (100 and 200) you have to make a tradeoff between dynamic range (better at ISO 100) or bit depth (better at ISO 200) based on what you photograph.

CFast 2.0 image corruption

Firmware 1.0.2 has been released yesterday to address the possible image corruption with SanDisk CFast 2.0 cards. I also experienced a corruption on my Lexar 3500x card. It looked different than the SanDisk issue, the image was cut after a few kilobytes. I don’t know whether the culprit was the card or the camera, but installed firmware 1.0.2 nonetheless. Should the problem happen again, I’ll let you know.

Resolving fine details

While shooting a couple of long exposure images, picked up the 1D X Mark II with the Zeiss Apo Sonnar T* 2/135 lens to make some detail shots, just like the following one. Handheld, since the tripod was already occupied by the 5DS R.

Landmannalaugar Detail

Landmannalaugar Detail

The camera is prominently useful for landscape work. While not in the realms of the 5DS R in terms of sheer resolving power, the images are full of fine details. It seems that Canon opted for a weaker anti-aliasing filter in this case (unlike my old 1D Mark II, which had a pretty strong blurring filter).

Due to the relatively low resolution, less shooting discipline is required. Shooting a 135mm manual focus lens handheld is not a problem (something I failed to do successfully with the 5DS R quite a few times). It is also less demanding on lens quality (although using high quality glass pays off), and you can stop down to f/11 without diffraction becoming an issue. All these add up to a more casual shooting experience than the 5DS R.

So I arrived to a very interesting point. While both the 5DS R and the 1D X Mark II have their strengths in different areas, and I prefer to choose them based on these strengths for each image, the other one could do almost as well. I would be in deep trouble if I could keep only one of them.

To be continued…

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.


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.


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…


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.


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.


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).


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.