January 17, 2011

Canon's new 70-200/2.8L IS II & 2.0 TC III... good?

On a recent trip to Yellowstone I had the chance to do some real world testing of Canon's new 2X Telephoto Converter III.

The old 70-200/2.8L IS and 2.0 TC II was never something I would choose to use, as the quality was not good enough to trust on for real world use. The last time I really "used" my old 2.0 TC II was when shooting the 300/2.8L IS, Canon's sharpest lens to date, a lens that was more than good enough to loose some image quality, something the old 2.0 TC II was infamous fo. My testing/use of the new TC IIIs is only in its early stages; but I have added my new 2.0 TC III to my field bag, so it is going to be something I carry whenever I leave my vehicle, aka it will get plenty of use into the future.

Now for the 1:1 (aka 100%) crops. These are 1:1 crops from images that I processed in my normal way for display on my site, printing, and stock use. Let me paint the scene... A Ruffed Grouse was feeding within sight of the northern road in Yellowstone National Park. I parked at the nearest plowed pull out and had to decided what to hike back into the area with. The snow depth was thigh deep in the area and I have photographed this bird before, so I knew that it would likely approach very near me. I thus decided that this would be an ideal test of the 70-200/2.8L IS II and the new TC IIIs rather than luging the 500/4.0L IS out of the car. I carried and used my tripod as it was relatively dark, snowing and under a conifer forest canopy. I was shooting with the 7D at ISO400 at f/7.1 and 1/320th of a second for the second image, the first (tighter image) was captured at the same settings except that it was captured at 1/250th of a second (both were captured at 400mm). Please notice that I used the lens set to f/7.1 the entire time, as I have found that to be a good setting for the lens/camera, and for a pleasing depth of field for my subject at the working distance.

I took about 100 images of the grouse. Two were clearly out of focus, over 25 were lost to motion blur (many of the shots were at 1/100th of a second), some 50 were just off being "good enough," and 36 made it to my site. From my experience the two being out of focus says nothing about the quality of the lens nor the TC's ability to AF accurately (if it was 22 it would be a different story). As I was shooting I felt that the combination performed very well and to accuracy/speed levels beyond what I expected. The bird was moving consistently, so I was quite impressed with the combinations ability to keep up with my demands while using the Canon 7D's spot focus mode. Who really cares about the focus though, the old 2.0 TC II was not "bad" in terms of autofocus, right? Wrong the old 2.0 TC II, for me, often left much to be desired in terms of AF accuracy, speed was also less than suitable; but this new 2.0 TC III, in this situation, proved itself fast enough for trusted use and more than accurate enough to be considered, by me, "good."

"What about the thing that really matters," you ask? Image quality (aka sharpness, contrast, and bokeh) is a, if not the, big factor we look at when determining if a piece of gear is good enough for us to trust for regular use. Telephoto converters (extenders) are know thieves of image quality even when pared with the best of lenses, "can these new TCs be better or different?" In terms of bokeh I would call the TC suitable, with this image as my evidence, I need to do more specific test to see if I can give it a higher rating than that; but suitable for me is "good" for most. Contrast was surprising "good," for a TC, and on par with many prosumer telephoto zoom lenses, especially considering the fact that the TC was placed on a zoom lens and zoomed to its furthest reaches (I would put it on par, with my memory, of the 100-400L IS at 400mm). Sharpness... well we all have our own ways to judge that, I for one have default sharpening settings in Lightroom 3 that I apply to all of my images when I batch process, then load full size previews, and judge the image's sharpness at 1:1. After looking at these results I would call the combination of 70-200/2.8L IS II and 2.0 TC III "good" not "great" or "amazing;" but "good" is better than "suitable". I would not put it to the level of the lens bare; but within 10-15% of the lenses ability (for me the old 2.0 TC II was in the 20-30% range).

I am impressed with the image quality and can hardly wait to see what the 2.0TC III will look like when pared with a lens with image quality levels like the new 300/400. Many thought that Canon was not telling the truth when they published the MTF charts for the new 400/2.8L IS II when pared with the new TC IIIs; but to me it looks possible that these TCs can deliver at the level that they claim. I think the fact that I have added the Canon 2.0 TC III's weight of 325g (plus caps) to my shooting bag should be enough to prove my belief in this telephoto converter's ability to help extend the range of a given telephoto lens while retaining enough quality to prove itself as a useful tool even when paired with a zoom lens (although the 70-200/2.8L IS II is one of the best zoom lenses I have had the privilege of using, in terms of image quality). As always your milage may vary, and this is all simply my humble opinion, also note that, if you choose to open the image in its own window, you want to keep it at 100% or smaller (it is a file compressed to JPG for the web).

I have written about some of my other thoughts on the new TCs in the past; but... I did not get it on my blog??? odd... well here it is:
I have one of each of the new Canon TC IIIs and have only begun intitial testing; but here are some of my thoughts:
  • One thing that will surprise TC II users is that these new TC IIIs cannot stack together. I am more bothered by this for storage purposes than for real world use; but still it would have been nice to know. (I can't find where Canon told us about this; but I could just be blind).

  • The quality is significantly better in the 2.0 TC III, and the 1.4 TC III is slightly better than their predecessors.

  • The AF speed (with the new 70-200/2.8L IS II) is quite fast when pared with the 1.4 TC III; but the 2.0 TC III almost seems slower, marginally, than the 2.0 TC II (I don't have my old one to really test it).

  • When looking at the MTF charts of the new 300 & 400/2.8L IS IIs, when pared with TCs, it is clear that the new TCs retain more contrast, clarity/sharpness, better color and bokeh. My initial tests are showing much of the same thing (on the 70-200/2.8L IS II with 5DII and 7D).

  • The build quality seems similar; but the seals seem like they are more substantial, and don't look like they will fall apart as quickly as the TC IIs. (the seal to the body)

  • The body side of the TC IIIs now have 6 screws where the TC IIs only had 4, the TC IIs were prone to having screws come loose.

  • The new white seems to smudge/get dirty less easily than the old white; but only field use will confirm that.

  • The coating on the elements of the TC IIIs really do seem smudge resistant (at least from my current fingers).

  • The new release button seems to operate more smoothly, and feels to lock better than the old ones. The new buttons also seem to be less likely to get bumped/released on accident.

  • Canon claims an image quality improvement with all comparable lenses; but only version "II" lenses will see significant AF speed/accuracy and IS quality improvements. The optic formula is also specially designed to give the most significant image quality boost to II lenses. One of the white papers, from Canon, says the new II super telephotos; but when I called CPS they said all present and future "II" lenses comparable with the TC IIIs will show "significant improvements."
More to come... (as I have time to test)

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