Photography and Art

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

New Year's Resolution Number Two

My first New Year's resolution was to start writing this blog and keep at it as the year goes on. You can put a check mark beside that one with a big asterisk beside "as the year goes on".

My second New Year's resolution was to make a change to my lens collection. Up to now, my camera bag has contained a pretty conventional set of Canon gear, including a 20D digital camera body, an Elan body for film, a 17-40 F4 L, a 24-105 F4 L, a 70-200 F4 L and a 1.4X extender. These lenses worked very well together, especially for travel shoots where I could mix and match the lenses on the two bodies and have pretty decent coverage of most focal lengths.

After a three week trip to Australia, I looked at all my photos and realized that nearly all of them had been taken with either the 17-40L or the 24-105L. The 70-200L along with the extender had gathered dust in my backpack. I sat back and reflected on why that was so and came to the conclusion that it was a combination of things: the hassle of dragging out the long, white lens and wrestling with the extender, the worry that the light wasn't right to be able to have a fast enough shutter speed and also not wanting to look like a tourist dork with a big white telescope on the end of his camera.

There was one other factor: the 24-105L had become my favourite allround lens. It was sharp, fairly easy to handle and, most importantly, had IS anti-shake good for 3 stops virtually eliminating discarded photos due to motion blurring.

I thought seriously about selling the 70-200L and extender and getting something else. There were three options: upgrading to the 70-200L F4 IS (and keeping the extender), moving to something lighter and cheaper, like the 75-300 IS or buying the 70-300 IS DO. For those of you who may not be totally familiar with the latter lens, it has strong pros and cons. The pros are its small size, excellent zoom range, latest generation anti-shake, near-L sharpness and near-L robustness. It could theoretically offer solutions to all my issues with the 70-200 F4 L and 1.4 extender. On the other hand, the lens is based on diffractic optics technology that has a few downsides. It seems very prone to glare, much more so than even a cheap alternative than the 75-300 IS and testers on the Internet found that out of focus points of light had hexagonal auras around them. The lens is also pretty expensive.

I put my old lenses up on craigslist and started my online research on the options. The article that turned the tide for me was written by MatjaĆŸ Intihar and featured extensive comparison photos with other similar lenses, including the 70-200 f2.8 L, a lens with a terrific reputation for sharpness. The results, in my opinion, show the 70-300 IS DO lens to be plenty sharp enough for an enthusiastic amateur photographer and I was willing to live with the other issues, provided that I could get a good price for my other lenses.

A couple of days later, I'd managed to move my lenses at a very decent price, thanks to craigslist and hurried down to take advantage of the Boxing Day sales. I managed to get a good price on the new lens and it has now happily taken up residence in my camera bag.

So, you ask, how is it. Here are my first impressions based on a couple of weeks of casual shooting with the lens. First, it is certainly compact and easy to live with. It is pretty similar in size and weight to my other two lenses (17-40L and 24-105L), so I have no hesitation in pulling it out of the back and mounting it on the camera. The image stabilization works very well. I was able to take photos hand-held at 300mm with a shutter speed as low as a thirtieth of a second without visible shake. The build quality is not quite up to the other two lenses. For example, the zoom mechanism is pretty stiff and needs a bit of effort to get it going - almost as if it is binding a little bit. I'm hopeful that this will loosen up with time.

I haven't taken a lot of photos with the lens because of the time of year, but I did get a chance to visit the Haliburton Forest Reserve over New Year's and take some photos of the wolf pack.

As you can see from the blog entry above, the photos came out quite well, despite the difficult conditions. I was shooting through one-way glass with quite a bit of reflection and the wolf pack was not always nearby. The shot of the alpha male lying near a log was taken fully zoomed out at 300mm. The sun wasn't out, so the shutter speed was quite modest.

So far, I would declare a partial victory. The lens delivers exactly the form factor I was looking for and the sharpness and image stability is pretty good. However, these are early days and I haven't had a chance to really test the lens' resistance to flare or to see if those pesky hexagonal halos show up.

If any one out there has experiences to share with the 70-300 IS DO, let me know.

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