Shenandoah National Park and Canon Super Telephoto Lens Shootout

Field use is incredibly helpful for gear evaluation. As you likely figured out through the newsletter and the Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZE Lens review, I was able to spend some time in Shenandoah National Park last month. While wide angle landscapes were on the to-capture list, wildlife photography was my primary purpose for this trip.
To be more specific, I wanted to know which of three following big white lenses was my favorite for wildlife photography.
Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens
Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS II USM Lens
Canon EF 600mm f/4.0 L IS II USM Lens
And my answer, as you may have predicted, is "It depends." Each lens has its strengths.
From an image quality standpoint, all of these lenses deliver very high pro-grade results. It doesn't matter which lens you pick in this regard. From a "look" perspective, I prefer the more-blurred background, more-compressed look of the longest focal lengths. Again, all of these lenses have very long focal lengths available, but the 600 f/4 has the advantage. The 200-400 L's long focal length comes with the built-in 1.4x extender moved into the optical path, which sets it back one stop in the max aperture comparison. The two primes also did less focus hunting in low light, peripheral AF point scenarios.
If you can get closer to your subject and there are obstructions (trees, branches, weeds, etc.) in play, a longer focal length quickly becomes a liability. The farther away you are from the subject, the more likely that these obstructions will factor into your results. The first problem is that obstructions detract from your final image. A branch across your subject's head is not going to be welcomed. And an even bigger problem is that the obstructions can catch the attention of your camera's autofocus system, resulting in a subject that is not even in focus. Such images are throw-aways – if you can even get the photo. In SNP, I had a black bear cub run past me in the thick woods and I was not able to even capture a memory photo as the camera could not lock focus.
Because the white-tailed deer in Shenandoah National Park are relatively tolerant of humans, I was able to get closer to my subjects (at least some of the time) on this trip. And because I was shooting with LOTS of obstructions (often in relatively thick woods), getting closer was typically desirable. The 200-400 L quickly became my go-to lens on this trip and has earned permanence in my kit. Having the very long range of focal lengths immediately available when needed/desired, this lens was the ideal choice for this type of photography.
I had been pursuing a pair of buck for two hours when the larger of the two finally and suddenly walked out into a clearing. And at the perfect moment, it stopped and became alert. I had diffuse sunlight at my back. The deer's head was framed between the closest background trees and the foreground was uninterrupted. In the very short duration of time that the ideal picture remained available, I would have been very fortunate to get one acceptably-framed picture with a prime lens (due to the sneaker zooming required). But with the 200-400 L, I was able to rapidly capture a number of framing variations.
I used the 500 L IS II and 600 L IS II during the trip and they performed excellently, but when the shot really counted, I found myself going with the 200-400 L IS in this location.
Check out some images in the Shenandoah National Park gallery.
Since many of these images were captured with the big white zoom lens, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens sample pictures are also now available.
Posted: 11/18/2013 11:02:58 AM CT   Posted By: Bryan
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