Canon’s Not So Secret Weapons for Wildlife Photography

In July 2010 I wrote a couple of short articles about Canon’s two “Secret Weapons” (1, 2) for landscape photography; the EF 17-40mm f/4L USM ultra-wide angle lens and the EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM medium telephoto lens. Since these two articles got a lot of page views I thought I’d finish 2011 with an article about two of Canon’s secret weapons for wildlife photography; the EOS 7D camera and EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens.

The EOS 7D

Canon EOS 7DThere have been hundreds of articles written (including my own) about Canon’s groundbreaking (APS-C sensor) DSLR camera the EOS 7D, so I won’t bore you with yet another review here. However, I do want to point out a few key features of this camera as they relate to a favorite topic of mine; (relatively) “affordable wildlife photography”.

I have to qualify the term “affordable wildlife photography” since many will find spending anything close to $10K to photograph wildlife as completely absurd. For those of you that fall into this category, please stop reading. For the rest of you crazies out there, press on.

The Good News: A New AF System
One of the most fascinating new features found in the EOS 7D is the camera’s brand-new 19-point autofocus system that is currently the best AF system Canon has released to date! No other APS-C camera released by Canon has anything approaching this new AF system. In fact, it puts the AF system on my 5D Mark II to shame both in terms of speed and accuracy. It also gives the AF system on the new 1D Mark IV a run for its money at less than half the cost.

The completely re-designed system includes a new “multi-axis, cross-type, 19-point Auto Focus grid” which are clearly displayed through the new “Intelligent Viewfinder”. All 19 AF points are both horizontal and vertical cross-type (f/5.6) with the center point also including a diagonal cross-type sensor for f/2.8 and larger aperture lenses. The 19 AF points are arrayed in five user selectable “zones” similar to how the AF system on the Canon 1D series works.  Another cool new feature is “Spot AF” mode which reduces the size of a single AF point making it easier to select the precise part of the subject to focus on – such as the eye of a bird for example.

The new system also includes an “AF Point Expansion” mode which uses a set of AF points adjacent to the selected AF point to assist focusing on moving subjects such as birds in flight. My own results shooting birds in flight using the “AI Servo” mode with the “AF Point Expansion” mode enabled were astounding compared to results from previous APS-C models like the 40D and 50D. Focus tracking birds in flight is tough for any camera’s AF sensor but the new 7D seemed to master this task with ease. I was quite honestly amazed and astounded by how many sharp images I could achieve shooting a high-speed burst of a white heron in flight.

The (Not So) Bad News: Digital Noise & Pixelation
Before I get started let me qualify what I’m going to say. First, the EOS 7D contains an APS-C size sensor and as such, it will never be the equal of the EOS 5D Mark II in terms of image quality and clarity. The 7D’s sensor is 60% smaller than the full-frame sensor found in the 5D Mark II and its “pixels” are 32% smaller. If you “pixel peep” (100%) a raw file from the EOS 7D and compare it to the raw file from an EOS 5D Mark II you are bound to be disappointed. The raw files created by the 5D Mark II’s sensor just look “crisper” (not a very technical term I’m afraid) and seem to exhibit much less pixelation. Now before you start flaming me, please understand that this is simple mathematics and has nothing to do with the usability of this camera for a variety of uses, including wildlife photography!

However, when viewed at a more normal resolution in Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop or even Canon’s own DPP, both images look great and both images will print up to 24″ x 36″ and look great. So here’s my advice about pixel peeping high res raw files; just say No!

The Great News: Reach
I love my 21 megapixel EOS 5D Mark II for commercial, landscape and nature photography but it stinks for wildlife photography for two major reasons; its outdated AF system couldn’t track a tortoise on a sunny afternoon in Florida and it has no “Reach”. A 400mm lens on my 5D Mark II is a 400mm lens. However, on the EOS 7D that same 400mm lens offers the same “field of view” as a 600mm lens does on my 5D Mark II due to the large size difference (but small resolution difference) between the two cameras’ sensors. This phenomenon is called “Field of View Crop Factor” and its the main reason that wildlife photographers shoot with “crop body” cameras.

Here’s a more realistic scenario to drive home my point. Take an EOS 7D camera ($1700) with an EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens ($5900) & 1.4x extender ($350) and you have an incredible 900mm wildlife setup for less than $8000. Now take an EOS 5D Mark II camera ($2700) with an EF 600mm f/4L IS USM lens ($8000) & 1.4x extender ($350) and you’ve spent $11,000 for a wildlife setup with less reach and a much less sophisticated AF system. Of course you could always get a 1D Mark IV instead of the 5D Mark II but now you’re up to almost $15K for a decent wildlife setup. Not exactly “affordable”, is it?

The EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM Lens
Canon's EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM LensFor years I shot with Canon’s EF 300mm f/4L IS USM + EF 1.4x Extender as my primary bird photography setup and rented Canon’s 500mm or 600mm lenses with a Wimberley gimbal head when I needed more “reach” which was often. Believe me, for bird photography you always need more “reach”.

Unfortunately, my lower back’s ability to carry the Canon super-telephoto lenses like the 500mm (8.5 lbs) or 600mm (11.8 lbs) is long gone so my options were to give up bird photography completely (which I did for two years) or find another solution that would fit my budget and physical condition. I honestly hadn’t even looked at Canon’s “Diffraction Optics” (DO) lenses in almost ten years after reading several initial reviews critical of the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM lenses made before 2005.

Canon’s EF 400mm f/5.6L USM wasn’t really a contender since it was designed in 1993, didn’t include image stabilization and won’t auto-focus with the 1.4x extender. The Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM was both too heavy (12 lbs) and too expensive ($7200) so I didn’t even consider this lens. I did rent Canon’s EF 100-400mm f/4-5.6L IS USM “push / pull” telephoto zoom but again it won’t auto-focus with a 1.4x extender attached unless you own a 1D series body.

In fact, nothing in Canon’s current super-telephoto lineup met my criteria of light-weight, small-size and affordability other than the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens. So I got a loaner with a date code of 2008 and gave this much maligned lens a thorough workout on an EOS 7D body, without much hope of success. Boy, was I wrong!

Close Up

Up Close – Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Copyright © 2010 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 7D set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM + EF 1.4x Extender mono-pod mounted. The exposure was taken at 560mm, f/6.3 for 1/250th of a second at ISO 200 with highlight tone priority turned on. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

The Good News: Sharpness, Contrast & Bokeh
EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM Lens MTF ChartEarly reviews of this lens complain about an apparent lack of contrast inherent in the (DO) diffraction optics’ design. All I can say is “hogwash”.

I shoot entirely in raw and use Adobe’s LR3 as my primary raw-to-jpeg conversion tool and I found the raw files created by the 7D and EF 400mm “DO” lens to be very similar in contrast and sharpness to those created by my 50D and EF 300mm lens. In fact, the MTF chart for this lens is not that different from the older EF 400mm f/5.6L or the much more expensive EF 500mm f/4L lens.

Bokeh for this lens is good but not quite as smooth as the other Canon super-telephoto lenses. It’s very easy to isolate your subject with this lens when shooting at f/5.6 or f/6.3 and the shallow depth of field remains strong even on a crop body camera like the 7D.

The Great News: Size & Weight

Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM Lens Size Comparison

Canon’s breakthrough “diffraction optics” technology allows lens designers to dramatically shrink the overall size and weight of the lens as shown in this graphic. In fact, the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens is 25% shorter and 35% lighter than a conventional 400mm lens design. It’s roughly the same size as the EF 300mm f/2.8L lens but 1.5 lbs lighter.

For a wildlife photographer this directly equates greater usability and portability in the field. This lens is so much smaller and lighter than a 500mm lens that I can use a mono-pod in most situations rather than lug around a tripod and Wimberley gimbal head.

Wildlife photography is expensive and there’s just no getting around that fact. You need a high resolution DSLR with a quick and accurate autofocus system to capture the action (birds in flight) and a super-telephoto lens with enough reach to “get you there”. This is generally a very expensive setup for any photographer to afford and while I’m sure there are plenty of doctors and lawyers willing to spend $20K on their hobby, most of us just can’t justify the cost.

Fortunately, there are some alternatives worth looking into like the EOS 7D camera and the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens. Both can be purchased “refurbished by Canon” or used from my friends at Adorama. Yes, it’s still a lot of money but with some financial discipline and a bit of luck you can put together a wildlife photography rig that will won’t break the bank and will last for years and years.

The Digital Picture’s Review of the EOS 7D Camera
The Digital Picture’s Review of the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM Lens
Canon Camera Museum Technical Report on the EOS 7D Camera
Canon Camera Museum Technical Report on the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM Lens

4 thoughts on “Canon’s Not So Secret Weapons for Wildlife Photography

  1. I’ve enjoyed the AF system on my 7D while learning to shoot my children playing sports. Outdoor softball is a challenge due to the hard overhead sun, but it’s the low light fast moving volleyball I find most challenging. Even at high ISO’s and a little NR in LR, the 7D comes thru!

  2. My first time visiting your blog. I’m following you now and I’ll definitely be back! Interesting stuff. By the way, not sure if you were aware, but the 7D (body only) is selling for under $1,350 right now on sale at Amazon. And the 5D MK II is under $2,200 right now, although I saw it for less than $2,000 a few days ago. I am tempted to upgrade my T2i and buy the 7D but my wife won’t let me! 🙂

  3. A great informative article, Jeff. Makes me want to think about downsizing from my 500. That darned thing is getting too heavy for me, too. Thanks for sharing this.

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