FOCUS ON: EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM & EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM

January 31, 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 Peter Read Miller, Explorer of Light and veteran staff photographer for Sports Illustrated with over 100 SI covers to his credit, about his use of the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II and EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM telephoto lenses.

Canon Digital Learning Center (CDLC): Over the years, the 400mm f/2.8 lens has evolved in the minds of pro sports photographers from a super-exotic lens to almost the standard lens on the sidelines today. What are some of the situations and applications where the 400mm f/2.8, in general, is your primary, go-to lens?

Peter Read Miller (PRM): When Canon introduced the first 400mm f2.8 lens for the New F-1 system in 1981 it was exotic and revolutionary. Now 30 plus years later the 400 has become the standard all-around sports lens.

Fast enough to shoot in low light indoors for basketball or hockey, yet with the reach to cover outdoor sports like football and soccer. Add a 1.4 extender and you can really go tight.


CDLC: Up to now, the 400mm f/2.8 has been the heaviest lens a sports shooter relies on. Talk about your impression of the weight reduction on the newest 400mm f/2.8L IS II lens, and what this might mean to you and other sports photographers.

PRM: When I took the Series II 400 f2.8 out of its case for the first time, I was amazed. Reading about a percentage decrease in weight is one thing, picking it up is another. What its meant to me is more mobility on the field, better tracking of the action and easier travel. I imagine it has meant the same to other sports shooters.

CDLC: Related question: we know that motorsports aren't necessarily your specialty, but lenses like the 400mm f/2.8 were traditionally passed-over by pro shooters because of their weight and difficulty working with moving subjects when using a monopod. How do you find the handling of this new Version II lens when it's monopod mounted?

PRM: The 400 f2.8 Series II is a breeze to handle on a monopod. In fact it's very possible to shoot this lens hand held, although I wouldn't want to shoot an entire event that way. Not only is it easy to track action with the 400 f/2.8 Series II on a monopod, it sure makes easier to move when you have to follow the action.

CDLC: Have you noticed any optical difference between the already-excellent 400mm f/2.8L IS lens, and this latest, lightweight Version II lens? Any specific things, like differences in how the images look in heavily-backlit situations, sharpness wide-open vs. stopped-down a make it easy to track action on a monopod bit, performance with extenders, or anything else you've observed?

PRM: The 400 f2.8L IS lens has been the gold standard of fast telephoto lenses in terms of AF performance and sharpness. Now there is a new king. The Series II 400mm f2.8 is amazing in backlit situations. Check out the shot of the guys playing football shot directly into the sun. Wide-open sharpness is unsurpassed as is sharpness slightly stopped down. The performance with the series III extenders is the best I have ever seen of any lens/extender combination.

CDLC: Could you envision sports scenarios where up to now, you would have resisted taking a 400mm f/2.8 lens, because of its size/weight (perhaps downhill skiing, or some other application where light weight becomes a real priority), and now you might consider it because of this lens's new lightweight design?

PRM: Golf, motor sports, skiing, sailing to name a few. Any sport or event where getting yourself and your gear to the right spot to shoot is an important part of getting the shot.

CDLC: Talk to our readers about how high-end sports shooters like Sports Illustrated staffers typically use the 600mm f/4 lens, and what some of the differences are in the way you think about it vs. the 400mm f/2.8 (in general terms).

PRM: Shooting sports with a 600mm lens means you are going for it big time. It makes a statement that you are willing to risk missing a play or cutting off a limb (in the photo) for the chance to capture that intense, tight moment that makes an award winning photo, or better yet a Sports Illustrated cover.

CDLC: Any initial impressions of the image quality of this new 600mm Version II lens, compared to its predecessor?

PRM: As in the case of the 400 f2.8's, the 600 f4L IS was a great lens, but the series II tops it. Sharpness, AF and backlit performance are all improved. Especially when shooting with the EOS-1D X. The Canon Series II telephotos are setting a new standard.

CDLC: Again, the same impressions of super-heavy weight and sluggish handling are in most shooters' minds when the 600mm lens is discussed. How was this new 600mm to handle, especially when working off of a monopod? And another thing: How would the new-found light weight impact your ability to bring both lenses to an event, especially if you were working without an assistant?

PRM: The new 600mm F4 handles great on a monopod. As someone who has shot the legendary Canon 1200 f5.6 off a monopod (I don't recommend this!), I can say without a doubt-lighter is better. Shooting football without an assistant has typically confined a shooter to one long lens. With these new lighter lenses it is definitely doable.

CDLC: How about AF performance: especially when teamed with the EOS-1D X camera, do you notice any changes or benefits in focus tracking of moving subjects with these new lenses?

PRM: The EOS-1D X auto focus is world class with any lens you put on it. I consider this camera to have far and away the best AF system of any DSLR I have ever used. With the Series II 400 and 600 the EOS-1D X really shows its stuff. It is clear that these lenses and the EOS-1D X were designed to work together.

CDLC: Can you mention some other sports where you've shot with these new Version II Image Stabilized lenses, and how you found them in those situations? Did you work with them during the London Olympics at all, or have you had the opportunity to shoot football with them?

PRM: I used both the 400 and 600 to shoot a number of the sports I covered at the London Olympics including gymnastics, field hockey, swimming, handball and track and field. I have been shooting football with the 400 since last season and I have been using the 600 since October this year.

The combination of these two new lenses and the full frame EOS-1D X camera has made this year my best and most enjoyable shooting season in a long time.

(6 Images)


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