Cameras and Lenses

Overview. I currently use Canon products. This does not imply that I think they are better than anything else. Photographers whose work I greatly admire use a wide range of brands and if, for example, Philip Bloom thinks the Pentax 645 is the best stills camera available, who am I to argue? Point being, at some time you have to commit to a certain brand, but I would not be too concerned about which one. I think that the only real concern today is that of brand viability. With the ubiquity of camera phones, sales of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras have are low compared to historic levels of sales of DSLR cameras. This may result in some of the smaller brands to get out of the shrinking market. If you have committed to that brand, then future support may be problematic. There are many web sites that examine the technical aspects of photography equipment performance. However, one should be cautious about the conclusions that are drawn from them. My training and occupation is in science, so I tend to be inherently skeptical. What I find is that nearly all equipment reviews are either biased to one brand, make objective conclusions from subjective observations, or have evaluation methods and criteria that are not disclosed or justified. Even the few review sites that are rigorous fail in one important aspect, sample size. An evaluation of one or two copies of a lens, even if perfectly done, is meaningless. Actually, meaningless is too generous of a descriptor; deceptive would be more accurate. In fairness, even the most well intentioned reviewer does not have access to multiple copies of the same lens to evaluate; this is beyond the practical/financial limits of most individuals. However, I am aware of one site that can get around this fatal flaw. Roger Cicala at has the technical capability, the scientific background and has access to multiple copies of lenses to test. I find that his writing is clear, his conclusions are based on the data and he points out where the testing is inadequate or what the tests do not show. Overall this testing is rigorous and I find it quite useful. So on to my impressions with my current equipment.

Canon EF 11-24mm f/4 L USM  I traded in a 16-35 f4L for this lens and using it from the 16-24mm range was identical.  From 11-16 is a different story. This is by far the most difficult lens for me to get acceptable images from. It is by no means the lenses fault, but this focal range on a full frame camera demands perfect composition. When I do my part the images are unlike anything else and I am glad I have this lens in my kit. It is a heavy lens with a bulbous front element, so it is not something I am going to use as a walk around lens. My only real complaint is that using filters is not practical, although Lee has come out with a solution to this that I would be interested in trying.

Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM  This is a workhorse and it always in my kit. It is light and compact, the build quality is solid and the autofocus responds well. This focal range has so many suitable applications that I can’t really think of many instances where it would not be useful. It is also a very good focal range for a walk around lens while traveling. As far as image quality is concerned, Roger Cicala calls it the “best standard-range zoom ever made”, that is good enough for me.

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L II USM  This is my most used sports photography lens and is always on one body at a sporting event. Rugged and fast focusing, I really like this lens. This was the first L series lens that I purchased and it is the only one that shows any real wear. Some of the paint is missing but the lens functions like new. When on a full body camera it also balances well and is dynamic which is important in following fast action. Interestingly, the dynamics of camera balance is not discussed much in the photography world, however, in my opinion it is a very important part of the equation and allows for me to get on and track a subject more quickly. Recently canon has announced a version III of this popular lens. Roger Cicala did a lens teardown and comparison of the new version III lens to the version II lens and found that other than some new lens coatings, they were basically identical. 

Canon 180mm f/3.5L USM  The focal length could be useful for indoor sports but the lens is a bit slow for bad lighting and fast action and the autofocus is painfully slow. Fortunately, for macro photography, this is not important. As a macro lens this sits on my tripod and produces some sharp images with outstanding bokah. I have been using focus stacking with good results using Adobe Photoshop and that has opened up an entirely new world for me.

Canon 300mm f/2.8L II USM  This lens is ideal for basketball and volleyball and is on one camera body for all indoor sporting events. When positioned under the basket, it is great for shooting defense on the other end of the court. This lens is surprisingly lightweight and I can hand hold this lens for extended periods of time. Due to its lightweight, I generally don’t use a monopod with this lens. For football this gives a tremendous amount of flexibility in terms of where you can shoot and allows one to be more mobile. I really like this lens for shooting within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. This lens also works well with an EF 1.4x III extender and I have not noticed a degradation of autofocusing ability. However, you do lose one stop of light that, for high school football, is significant since the fields are poorly lit at best.

Canon 400mm f/2.8L II USM  This is my primary lens for field sporting events and birding. I have never held the previous version of the lens, so I can not comment on how much lighter version II it is, however, I can hand hold this for bird in flight work. I do use support for everything else though, this is a big and heavy lens. I use this lens mostly from the end zone in football and at track and field meets from various locations at track level depending on the event. Like the 300mm, this lens works well with the EF 1.4x extended III. The bokeh on this lens is fantastic. The f/2.8 is greatly appreciated when shooting football especially late in the season when one has to rely mostly on artificial lighting.