I have--thanks to the kindness of the folks at Canon Professional Services (CPS)--especially Paul Ng, been field testing the same Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS II for more than two months. I first used it on my amazing Cheeseman's Southern Oceans trip, then on the SW FLA IPT, and finally on the Japan IPT. It will be returned by Fed-X the afternoon that I get back to the office on March 13th.
I have long given the 300 f/2.8 lenses short shrift. In the original The Art of Bird Photography I wrote something to the effect that the 300 f/2.8s were favored by many of the world's best raptor photographers but that I saw little need for one. In the all new follow-up, The Art of Bird Photography II (16 pages on CD only), I totally ignored these lenses but did include a few Homer eagle images made with one that I had borrowed from CPS. I've learned recently of the incredible potential of the 300 f/2.8L IS lens/1.4X III TC as a flight photography combination.
On my recent Antarctica trip the 300 IS II with the 2X III teleconverter served as my long lens (see the image immediately below) and I used it a lot with and without the 1.4X III TC both on landings and on Zodiac cruises. Carrying it on the long hikes was a pleasure when compared to the long lenses I am used to carrying.... I used the lens sparingly on the SW FLA IPT but my erstwhile assistant Tim Kaufman made a killer image of a Great Blue Heron in flight with a large southern whiting in its bill with it while toting the lens for me at Blind Pass Beach. You can see that spectacular image here.
When I sent a dozen or so JPEGs the image above to Christopher Robinson, editor of Outdoor Photographer, as part of a submission for an article on pros' favorite Canon lenses, he commented via e-mail, "By the way...your Macaroni Penguin image, in particular, is incredible. I think it shows the sharpness of that lens better than anything I've seen. It's an awesome lens and in your hands one can see why it's so highly prized."
And that with the 2X III TC!
What's To Like?
What can I say. The lens is incredibly sharp. Sharp wide open. Sharp edge to edge. Sharp with the 1.4X And yes, sharp with the 2X. When I do everything right--which is often with this lens in my hands--the images seem to leap off the computer screen. At A.B pounds, the lens is just light enough (5.19 pounds, 13% lighter than its predecessor) to hand hold for extended periods of time even though I have had some problems with my shoulders for the past few years. When Peter Kes made the image of me above we were photographing Red-breasted Mergansers swimming and diving. For more than two hours. I held the lens elevated for extended periods of time. When I got back to the motel and took off my sweatshirt I could barely lift my arms; I was very much in pain. It was sort of like what I did by swimming too many laps when my pool was finished.... By the next morning I was fine. On the sea eagle boat trips in Rausu I made sure to rest the lens on the gunnels when I was not actively photographing; having a nice neutral rest position when hand holding relatively heavy gear is always best.
With a maximum aperture of f/2.8, the lens is very fast. There were times on each trip that I was able to keep photographing in low light without going to crazy-high ISOs. Another benefit of all that speed is being able to work with either teleconverter and still have all AF points active. The lens is very versatile as it offers three focal lengths: 300mm, 420mm (with the 1.4X III TC), and 600mm (with the 2X III TC). I have not worked hand held with the 2X much but with enough shutter speed I am sure that competent folks would be able to create sharp action and flight images. For static work, however, it makes sense to be on a sturdy tripod like the Gitzo 3530 LS that I use every day topped by a Mongoose M3.6, the latter was absolutely made for the 300 2.8 lenses.
All four of the Series II telephoto lenses have three Image Stabilization modes: IS 1, IS 2, and IS 3. Here's what Canon has to say about each:
IS Mode 1: Corrects vibrations in all directions. It is mainly effective for shooting still subjects.
IS 2 Mode: Corrects vertical camera shake during following shots (i.e., panning) in a horizontal direction, and corrects horizontal camera shake during following (i.e., panning) in a vertical direction. That means that if you hold the camera on end IS2 will realize what you are doing and stabilize in the correct manner.
IS 3 Mode: Corrects vibration only during exposure. During panning shots, corrects vibration in only one direction same as IS mode 2. They continue: Since camera shake is stabilized only during exposure, following a subject is easier such as when shooting a fast and irregularly moving player during sports photography.
With previous generation super-telephoto lenses I have I advised folks to set IS Mode 2 and forget it whether hand holding or working on a tripod and whether photographing stationary or moving subjects.
On our first day photographing the Snow Monkeys I learned that the Series II super-telephoto lenses are completely different animals. When I set IS 2 Mode and pressed the shutter button while working on a tripod the image jumped all over the place. I thought that the lens might be defective right out of the box.... So I tried IS Mode 3 and all was well with the world. Since then I have left the camera on IS Mode 3 all the time both on a tripod and hand holding and been perfectly happy. If I were photographing a static subject hand held I would try to remember to switch to IS Mode 1. And then to switch back to IS Mode 3.
I have not yet had the opportunity to test the new 4-stop IS system at very slow shutter speeds but I will assume that it will perform as well as it does on the 800mm f/5.6 L IS. (Note: I strongly advise turning IS off when working on a tripod with exposure times of 1/2 second or longer. )
The location of the AF/MF and the limit range switches is odd and takes some getting used to. On the 300 IS II these switches are located to the behind the tripod collar while on all other Canon lenses that I am familiar with they are located in front of the tripod collar. I still reach to the traditional spot when I want go from full focusing range to limited focusing range as is recommended for flight photography; initial AF acquisition is much faster when the lens does not have to search all the way back to the minimum focusing distance.
A final thought from me: for folks with 1.6X crop factor bodies like the EOS-7D and the EOS-50D the 300 2.8 II would not be a bad workhorse lens for bird photography. They would enjoy effective focal lengths of 672 mm with a 1.4X and 960 mm with the 2X TC....
My Only Wish
In an ideal world the tripod collar would be removable making the lens just a bit easier to hand hold. At my age every ounce matters!
Though it happens rarely, I never mind admitting that I was wrong. Again. The 300 f/2.8L IS lens is a superb tool for bird photography; it is light enough for most folks to hand hold, it is fast, it is versatile, and it produces stunningly sharp images with incredible fine detail.
Canon's Overview of the 300mm f/2.8L IS II Lens
A worthy successor to the popular Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 IS, the all-new Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 IS II USM super telephoto lens is lightweight, weighing approximately 13% less than its predecessor, yet offers faster operation, improved image stabilization and superior optics. Incorporating Fluorite elements for improved image quality and reduced chromatic aberration plus a number of advanced coatings to minimize ghosting, flaring, and with a newly developed Fluorine coating that keeps soiling, smears and fingerprints to a minimum, the EF 300mm f/2.8 IS II USM is ready to deliver spectacular images in an instant. With a third Image Stabilization mode (Mode 3) that activates IS only when the shutter button is fully pressed, and giving the equivalent effect of a shutter speed four stops faster, the EF 300mm f/2.8 IS II USM allows for easy panning and is ideally positioned for professional action photography. The EF 300mm f/2.8 IS II USM also features a new security slot for wire-type security locks.
You can find links to more info here.
The post was adapted from my March 9th blog post. You can read the original version and check out the eight images that accompany the post.
That's me below hand holding the Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS lens with the 1.4X TC and the EOS-1D Mark IV body alongside the fishing pier at the eastern end of Sanibel, FL. Photo copyright and courtesy of Peter Kes.