FOCUS ON: EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x

November 12, 2013

Are great images a product of the photographer, or their camera equipment? The Focus On series explores the idea that it's BOTH: Featuring a professional photographer and a Canon lens, the Canon Digital Learning Center focuses on the relationship that artists can have with their gear.

In this Focus On installment, we interview Kevin Wing, a motorsport photographer, about his use of the EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x telephoto lens.

Canon Digital Learning Center (CDLC): What sorts of professional work are you known for with motorsports? Can you tell our viewers a bit about your photographic style? Roughly how much of your work is action shooting on location?

Kevin Wing (KW): The core subject matter of my business is street motorcycles, but I also shoot off-road motorcycles, prototypes, cars, airplanes, ATVs, watercraft, snowmobiles, etc. on location and in the studio. I cut my teeth in the editorial world and my work has been featured on more than 300 magazine covers worldwide. I also work directly for major motorcycle, tire and apparel manufacturers on their brochures, national advertising campaigns, etc.

My photographic style is atmospheric, graphic and clean – I’ve been told my work is immediately recognizable. I enjoy the challenge of creating a unique composition based on the interplay between light and the background. My goal is to get the most dramatic, razor sharp, peak action image possible. If I’ve hit the mark, then the viewer has escaped for a few seconds -- if I’ve hit the bullseye, then I’ve taken the viewer on the road.

The majority of my shooting involves action photography on location, but I also enjoy the challenges of shooting in studio with complete control.

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CDLC: Up to now, for location-type work, what lenses do you typically use most frequently?

KW: I’ll typically bring everything from a fish eye to an EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens. But, the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens is really my “go to” lens for action work. I also frequently use the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM and the EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM for track photography.
 

CDLC: One fundamental new aspect of this lens for you is that it’s a zoom, versus the fixed focal length super-telephotos you’ve relied on. Did zooming change your work — locations you selected, where you positioned yourself, the compositions you were able to achieve and so on?

KW: Being able to zoom from 200-560mm is a complete game changer. It allowed me the freedom to quickly change my shooting angle/location and get the exact crop I desired. Typically, when I set up a shot with a fixed lens, the sweet spot is a very narrow area. With the zoom function, I could shoot a long atmospheric shot, a medium range shot and a full frame close-up – all in a ten second window. These shots would not be possible in this amount of time even with three bodies and three lenses. Also, it is very common to encounter many obstacles (ditches, trees, bushes, rocks, fences, etc.) on mountain roads so you can’t always be in the most ideal spot with a fixed lens. I’ve passed up shots because I needed a 250mm, 350mm, 450mm or 550mm and could not get the framing I wanted.
 

CDLC: Was the fact that the maximum aperture was f/4, instead of the f/2.8 that some fixed-length telephotos offers, affect any of the shooting you did? In general, with the moving subjects you photograph, what speeds/apertures do you try to work with? And did this lens allow you to achieve those without any problems?

KW: The f/4 versus f/2.8 fixed lens did not limit me in any way. I was still able to blow out the background when needed. The low noise of the current digital cameras allows you to get the extra stop or two you need with no problem. Shutter speeds and apertures are completely dependent on what you are trying to achieve. As a general rule, I rarely shoot above 1/500 of a second because it freezes the motion in the wheels, road and background too much. The slower the shutter speed, the more dynamic the image.
 

CDLC: How did you find the AF speed and responsiveness, and overall AF performance in general, with this lens versus the fixed focal length super-telephotos you usually use? How do you normally set up your AF in-camera when shooting street bikes on mountain roads?

KW: The AF was very fluid and fast, very comparable to my 500mm. It had no problem tracking high-speed subject matter. In particular, while shooting a head-on action shot silhouetted against a sunset, the AF never got confused – even when there was a bright headlight blasting into the lens.

I generally use an EOS-1D X, and most often expand the center AF point with the camera's 8-point AF Area Expansion option for full frame action, or to trap/manual focus for images in the extreme edges of the frame.
 

CDLC: What was your overall impression of the lens’ optical performance? In the back-lit and sunset images, did you observe any problems with loss of contrast, flare and so on? And, did you do any shooting at its widest f/4 aperture? If so, how did the images look there?

KW: The optical performance of this lens is extremely close to a fixed lens throughout the whole focal range. This could be the ultimate combat style super-tele. I was very pleased with the sharpness when shooting wide open in late light.
 

CDLC: How do you normally support your super-telephoto lenses with moving subjects — monopod, tripod with a specific head, hand-held or is there a different method? Did you work with the EF 200–400mm f/4L IS lens the same way? Overall, with moving subjects, how did you find the handling of this lens, especially compared to the EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens so often used in motorsports?

KW: 99% of the time I shoot hand-held and I did the same with this lens. I immediately liked the feel of the smaller diameter lens hood as compared to the EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM. This lens is a monster, but worth the weight for what you can achieve. If you shoot with a monopod, then the weight is not as much of an issue.
 

CDLC: The built-in 1.4x extender has the potential to change the entire character of the EF 200–400mm f/4L IS lens for some photographers. How did you use it? Do you think that with the availability of this built-in extender, it could potentially reduce the amount of long-lens gear a motorsports shooter would need on-location?

KW: The 1.4x extender is amazing because, with a flip of a switch, you have an f/5.6 560mm lens locked and loaded without having to take your eye off your subject. There’s no need to change lenses in less than ideal conditions, while possibly missing the best shot of the day.

It absolutely would cut down on the amount of gear a photographer would have to drag around on-location or on an airplane. Every pound you can shave off is huge!
 

CDLC: As a practical matter, for your type of work, would the effective maximum aperture of f/5.6 with the extender in use limit the way you could use it? How was optical performance, in your opinion, when the built-in extender was used? Were there any instances when you combined the built-in extender with a separate accessory EF 1.4x or EF 2x Tele Extender?

KW: An aperture of f/5.6 is fine all day long, but in fleeting low light I would prefer to switch back to an EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM to obtain slightly enhanced AF, sharpness and standard ISO settings. I did notice some mild vignetting in the background of one of my shots that had a continuous tone background.
 

CDLC: Overall, did your time with the EF 200–400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x lens give you any new impressions of the use of long zoom lenses for the types of vehicle photography you do? Could you see this lens being used by a motorsports photographer?

KW: This lens really won me over after I took it out on several shoots. I could shoot action photos all day long with one lens and one body. This really frees you up to concentrate solely on your next composition, rather than changing your equipment. There is nothing worse than changing lenses 20x per day and contaminating your sensor with dust particles. This EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM lens could be my “go to” action tele lens. It was pretty telling when I went back to shooting with the EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM and I inadvertently tried to zoom. Shooting high-speed motorcycles really challenges any AF system; this lens passes the test in my book.

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