Fast and Long

 This month I’ve been lucky enough to aquire two new prime lenses, a canon 400mmf5.6L and a sigma 50mmf1.4 EX HSM.

Canon has a range of very good long fast primes, non of which are remotely affordable, but luckily they also do a few affordable ones, a 200f2.8, 300f4IS and a 400f5.6. For some reason the 300 gets IS and weather sealing, the 400 doesn’t, though this is partly because its a 1993 design and a very simple on at that, with only 7 elements.

The 400f5.6L one of two options canon have for affordable 400mm shooting, the other being the much more versatile (tho still not weather sealed) 100-400L. I’ve tested one of those before and whilst its sharp enough at 400 in the center of the frame and the versatility makes it one of the best lenses for longer shooting (airshows etc) the focus is slowish and the bokehsuffers from the extra elements , IS and simpler aperture.  Its also heavier and 50% more money than the 400L. In addition the subjects I intend shooting with the lens often require higher shutter speeds than would make IS a requirement, and if not there’s always the tripod/mono-pod option.

Canons 400mmf5.6L

Shooting at 400mm on a crop camera takes a whole new skill setthan normal every day shooting. You have an ‘effective’ focal lengthof  640mm coupled with an 18mp sensor and a rather slow lens (f5.6). This all adds up to being very critical on technique. I started shooting this lens at 1/1000th and over ( typically Tv/Shutter priority) and letting auto ISO do its thing, luckily the 7D retains a fair amount of detail even at higher ISO.

As new lens requirements state a kitteh pic be the first, here’s our boy Merlin , shot at ISO 3200 with no noise reduction.


At 400mm/5.6 you also dont have much depth of field if the subject is close by, withing 5-10m focus has to be accurate and I spent a lunchtime at the Groynes shooting small birds and generalytrying to tune the focus with Manual Adjstment in the field, I further tuned this shooting Herons at the estuary and whilst testing in controlled conditiosn the +2 I had set seemed to be spot on.

A Sparrow

This Sparrow is actually not quite sharp at 100% but downsizing for web hides a lot of problems for images. The lens deals with a rather harsh background quite well.

Another very difficult technique to master is shooting flying birds, often they move at random and fast, a 400 gives you a very limited view through the eyepiece and you have to either find very consistent flight paths or be very good.

Gull in Flight

I’ve shot BIF before but it still remains a skill that mostly remains out of my grasp. I cant imagine how you manage with an 800mm lens though a wimberly head helps I hope.

Another trip to the Groynes , lots of good sharp sparrow pics and a very nice black swan was posing for me too.

Black Swan

The following lunchtime Jason and I head out to Willowbank Wildlife park, took quite a few pictures in the bird enclosure but mostly the smaller native birds were playing hide, apart from the Kakariki , luckily though we had some Keas willing to pose, the 400L has a minimum focus distance of 3.5 meters so I had to back away quite some distance, this is a wise idea with these willy birds anyhow!


If you want to shoot closer, for smaller birds etc then its best to add an extension tube or two to the 400L.

Finally for now from this lens I stopped at Ferrymead by the Heathcote & Avon Estuary to shoot the White Faced Herons. I used my car as a blind and shot braced on the window, this seemed to work well and I shot down to 1/200th at times. For this I was rewarded with beautiful sharp pictures of the Herons and even managed to capture some ‘peak action’ with one catching a young freshwater crayfish.

White Faced Heron

Unlike the Canon the Sigma 50mm f1.4 EX HSM is a relatively new lens design incorporating 8 elements including aspherical and a full time manual hypersonic (silent wave) focus motor. It also has a 9 bladed aperture diaphragm which is one of the keys to its design.

Its a large lens, with a 77mm filter thread, much larger than other 50/1.4’s and dwarfs the nifty fifty (canons 50mmf1.8).

I’ve now dialed in the focus needing +6, though with this lens there’sprobably some focus shift or inconsistencies that I’ll likely have to deal with. The bokeh fringing made dialing in the correction quite simple in the end, green = front focused, purple = front focused. Yeah this lens has some funky fringing on harsh contrast OOF areas, but that’s utterly typical of f1.4 lenses. When focused OK it seems usable  wide open but I’ll probably spare myself the hassle most of the time and shoot a little stopped down, DOF, even on a crop frame camera, is minuscule.

At lunchtime I poped out in the midday harsh sun to shoot some quick test shots, this lens refuses to flair, its going to need muck and a filter to get it to go (hehe) CA isn’t too bad (apart from the fringing..) and the bokeh is utterly butterly smooth. Good thing, thats the lenses party trick, backgrounds should just melt away.

Not realyhad much chance to shoot other stuff with it yet but heres a few more from today out in the garden,  first the requisit kitteh shot. Amber being unusualy co-operative for this picture.

Not your usual pretty model..

Its certainly delivering on the bokeh and opticaly its very decent, just crossing fingers its OK  focusing more often than not!  Looking forward to putting it to some real use.

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