Testing Canon’s 2x TC vIII with my 70-200 f2.8 vII

Redwing Blackbird in flight

Redwing Blackbird in flight

Now that I have the highly regarded Canon 70-200 f2.8 IS vII, I wanted to investigate longer focal length options, particularly for shooting motorsports and wildlife.  At the recommendation of a colleague, I rented a Canon 2x tele-extender vIII from LensProToGo for a week.  This gives me a 140-400 f5.6 with IS.  How does it work?  Follow the jump…

First off, I am new to the “super-tele” realm, so take everything I say here with a grain of salt.   That doesn’t mean my unscientific tests are wrong or have no value.  That said, I did not shoot test charts or anything like that.  I wanted to use this combo in the “real world” and see how it performed and handled for me.  But before we get into the nitty gritty, a little backgrund.

Extenders seem to have a love/hate thing going, as in you love them or you hate them.  There is no middle gound.  I did a bunch of research into options for getting 400mm of reach (without spending $5 grand or more…), and there are several:

400mm f5.6
100-400 f4.5-5.6
300mm f4 + 1.4x TC
any of the 200mm + 2x TC

That is just Canon!  There are all kinds of third party TCs and lenses to get you there, all with varying degrees of success and even individual sample variances.  Since I have a Canon 50D and a Canon lens, I decided to stick with the Canon TC.

Canada Goose in flight

Canada Goose in flight

The 400 5.6 is considered THE standard in this price range.  It is sharp, and it is fast focusing.  It has been around a long time, and has established a much deserved reputation for accuracy and consistency.  Everything else in this class will have to stand against this lens.  There are two major drawbacks to this lens.  First is f5.6, but the only way to get past that is spend a LOT of money to get into a f2.8.  But that is the case with any of the lenses in this class, so it all kinda evens out.  Second is the lack of image stabilization (IS).  Now depending of your specific usage, this may or may not be a detractor.  For birds in flight (BIF), where shutter speeds need to stay high, IS really does not come into play as far as image quality.  I will tell you from firsthand experience, IS at 400mm does stabilize your viewfinder a LOT!  But so will a good tripod and good technique.  Low light and slow shutters (below 1/500) you start running up against this limitation.  1/500 is certainly enough to freeze a walking deer or a swimming duck, but you must have good technique and steady hands or you can get blur from camera movement.  Again, this applies to any of the combinations that reach out to 400mm and beyond, and IS does come into its own here.

Take out for lunch!

Super tight crop of Osprey on final approach

The latest generation of the 2x TC has been improved and tweaked to perform significantly better than the previous generation.  From Canon:

“It features a built-in microcomputer for seamless communication among camera body, lens and extender, features careful lens placement and coatings to minimize ghosting, flare and chromatic aberration, and even has a new Fluorine coating that keeps soiling, smears,fingerprints to a minimum.”                       

Based on my research and other testing out there on the interweb, it does a pretty good job, too.  It is definitely better than the previous version.  But many old hands say, “If you want 400mm, buy a 400mm.”  In other words, a lens that is natively 400mm will pretty much ALWAYS be better than using any TC.  And my web research upholds that notion.  Which is why the 400 5.6 is considered the standard.  Anything with a 1.4x TC seems to be pretty close, and anything with a 2x TC is way back there.

Male Mallard duck, no cropping!

Osprey in a hard banking turn

So my primary consideration for my testing is the performance of the 2x TC with the 70-200.  There are a few folks out there who say it is as good as anything else.  There are a few other folks out there who say it is good enough for them, and that is all that matters.  And there are quite a few empirical types out there shooting test charts who say “NO WAY!”  Well, I’m not shooting test charts, and I live on a budget, so I am looking for the best option to get some extra reach without killing off the back account. Here is my story:

1.  You need a lot of light.  This setup puts me at f5.6.  So getting decent shutter speeds for anything in motion needs to have plenty of light.

2.  Marginal for birds in flight.  My experience shooting BIF is very limited, but I found if you lost focus, you are done.  Start over.  It will take a good 5 seconds to get back on if you are right on it and don’t go into “dammit!” mode and start thinking about throwing stuff into the lake.  It WILL track cars and motorcycles at interstate speeds and anything else that covers a decent amount of the viewfinder very well.  Granted, a 50D is not known for focus tracking, but it is no slouch either.  I also found while shooting Redwing Blackbirds it will sometimes hunt for focus even on a still bird in full sunlight.  I suspect the low contrast and the small portion of the frame the bird was filling combined to create this problem.  I have not used the 400 5.6, so I cannot speak to whether it might do the same in these conditions.  I do plan to rent one and see at some point.

A gorgeous Bald Eagle, several seconds too late for the iconic "talons out" shot

3.  I needed no adjustment to my microfocus with this set-up; it was perfect as-is.

4.  The autofocus is much slower;  using the TC is said to slow AF by as much as 75%.  I believe it.  If it is close, it will lock on fairly quickly.  If you lose focus and it starts hunting, it takes a while to come back.  See #2  above.

5.  Image quality.  This is a very subjective topic in general, and even more so in my case since I have no standard of comparison.  A week is not long enough for me to do a thorough test on something like this.  As I mentioned earlier, I am new to the long lens stuff, and I am sure it reflects in my images.  That being said, I feel the images should be sharper than they are.  Not that they are bad, but I feel that taking shutter speed, ISO and lighting conditions into consideration, many of the images should have been better.  Is that my fault?  The camera? The extender? The lens?  I don’t know, and I won’t know for sure unless and until I try out a 400 5.6 and/or get another extender and play some more.  Which I plan to do eventually.

Osprey in nest-building phase

In any case, based on my trials and my current ownership of a 1.4x TC, I will be waiting to purchase anything until I can test a 400 5.6.  The overall experience with the 2x TC was a good one, and I was able to capture some images that I could not otherwise.  However, I personally feel the missed opportunities (including a wickedly awesome and iconic Bald Eagle swooping with talons extended) weigh heavily against the TC.  For me, living in a small community surrounded by lakes and farmland that possess a plethora of wildlife opportunities, shooting at 400mm is all about those shots.  I also learned that my 1.4x TC works very well, and for my ‘other than wildlife’ shooting I currently do, I do not need any more reach than that.

Male Mallard in flight

My greatest fear at this point is trying a 400 5.6 and finding it no better.  I really, really want to be blown away by that lens.  If I can’t get a great iconic BIF shot with the 400 prime, that means one (or more) of three things: I suck, my camera sucks, or the lens sucks.  Which would mean lots more money for better bodies and lenses, or for training myself how to shoot long lenses.  I would say based on my short lens shooting results, I do NOT suck, although I am sure my technique could stand for some refinement and improvement.   However, like many other of my 50D traits, it is not considered great, but it’s not poor either.  A new body is NOT on my list right now, but I suppose that may change…

Osprey in flight carrying stick, no crop

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