1400mm with the 5D Mark II done sharply

Posted on 24. May, 2011 by in Instructional, Photography, Techniques, Wildlife photography

Purple Finch on the branch of a Spruce Tree - Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 500mm F4L IS, Canon 1.4x & 2.0x Extender II, @1400mm - Gitzo 3541XLS with Jobu Design BWG-Pro Gimbal Head

Sitting in the living room this past Saturday, I suddenly heard an extremely enjoyable and melodious tone from outside. Hearing it repeated a few times over about 15 minutes was finally enough to lift my sorry carcass off of the couch and out onto the back patio. I discovered a male Purple Finch (he of the melodious tunes) along with a female partner going about the process of building a nest in the Spruce Tree just outside of the back door of my home.

I ran to get my tripod (a Gitzo 3541XLS with a Jobu Design BWG-Pro Gimbal head attached) and set it up with my Canon 500mm F4L IS lens attached along with the 1.4x Extender II that is pretty much welded to the lens. I say welded because if you do much wildlife photography at all you know that there is rarely such a thing as too big of a lens.

I took some shots of the joyful little singer but discovered that (and as is often the case with the little song birds) that he just wasn’t filling the view finder the way I wanted. And with that 1.4x teleconverter attached to the 500mm lens I was already shooting at the maximum minimum aperture for my 5D Mark II, F5.6; assuming I wanted to use autofocus. I have a 2.0x teleconverter too and thought briefly about just throwing that on and making the best of things with manual focus.

However, I recalled an experiment I did a couple of years ago with my 500mm lens paired with BOTH the 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters (also known as stacking teleconverters) which yielded a 1400mm focal length at F11 as the largest aperture. I was able to achieve really good results shooting with enough light and stopping down about 2/3 of a stop from F11.

I set up the combination on the tripod. The main trick when you use a setup like this is focussing. And, if you’re going to need to focus on some sort of moving object, forget about it, it’s just too touch. But with a subject like this, who upon returning to the tree that his female partner is building a nest in (she does all the work; he just accompanies her on her travels lest her attentions wander to a rival) would happily choose a branch and perch on it whilst singing his little heart out. This would allow me the time required to manually focus on him.

Purple Finch singing from the branch of a Spruce Tree - Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 500mm F4L IS, Canon 1.4x & 2.0x Extender II, @1400mm - Gitzo 3541XLS with Jobu Design BWG-Pro Gimbal Head

But still, another problem. I don’t know about you, but my 45 year old eyes have a lot of trouble looking through the viewfinder and finding critical sharpness. It can look sharp in the viewfinder but that often leads to disappointment in the cruel light from my monitor while developing the images. So I used a trick I’ve used for my snowflake photography. I temporarily switched to “Live View” and then zoomed in a couple of times on the Finch’s head. That way I could dial in critical sharpness, switch back to regular shooting mode and then make my shots until the little feller decided to move.

You’ll notice that I switched back to regular shooting mode instead of staying in Live View mode. Why? It’s all about the long-lens shooting technique that I use. This technique requires that in addition to draping my free hand over the lens to dampen down vibrations, I also jam my eye up against the viewfinder to help use even more of my body mass to help stabilize the lens. If you’re interested in the technique, you can read about it in a couple of previous blog entries in part 1 and part 2 of Making Sharper Images.

So, if you’ve got one of the good primes in your arsenal of lenses (and I’d say most of the prime lenses from any of the major camera manufacturers qualify) and you’ve got yourself a pair of teleconverters, don’t hesitate to give the combination a try and see what you can achieve.  I’m willing to bet you’ll be a bit surprised by the sort of quality pictures that can be achieved with the right subject, proper gear to support the equipment along with the technique I talked about previously.  And yes, you’ll probably have to employ the three “p”‘s of photography; practice, practice, practice!

Purple Finch singing from the branch of a Spruce Tree - Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 500mm F4L IS, Canon 1.4x & 2.0x Extender II, @1400mm - Gitzo 3541XLS with Jobu Design BWG-Pro Gimbal Head

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4 Responses to “1400mm with the 5D Mark II done sharply”

  1. Grace

    24. May, 2011

    Excellent article, Paul. I use stacked teles from time to time as well, most successfully when there is alot of light. Something I’m trying for achieving ultimate sharpness, I’ve taken the eyepiece off my camera so that I can really jam my eyeball up close, and lean my head even tighter. Have you ever tried that? It works better with my glasses then the eyepiece, only problem is that the diopter adjustment gets moved easily with the eyepiece off.

    • Paul Burwell

      24. May, 2011


      I’ve definitely tried that but for my eyes, I still can’t see enough to determine critical sharpness, so when I can’t use autofocus and the situation allows for it, I use LiveView.

  2. Jan

    20. Jul, 2011

    whow, 1400 is really impressive
    and your foto look great.

    i’ve got the same problem with the manual focusing as you. i found the catch-in-focus very helpful for this problem – it is easier/faster to do and maybe you like it too

  3. Benjamin Green

    08. Sep, 2011

    Hi Paul,

    Just came across this article. Interesting technique and nice results.

    I have an improvement to suggest–rather than switching to the optical viewfinder after using live view to focus, how about using something like the Hoodman Loupe on the camera’s LCD?

    This would allow you to still use your head to brace the camera while retaining the precise-focusing ability of Live View right up to the moment the shutter opens.

    It would also eliminate the possibility of vibrations from mirror slap affecting sharpness.

    I don’t own the equipment necessary to test this out personally (my longest lens is 200mm), but I believe my theory is logically sound and ought to work if tested.

    Does this make good sense to you? Any chance you can try this out?