As a photographer I believe that the ability of a person to capture photographic images is more important than the equipment used in the process.
However, and somewhat at odds with that ideal, I also believe that quality equipment is a vital part of the ingredients that go into producing a great image.
Put simply, high-quality equipment will both reduce gear-induced limitations as well as produce images of better quality. It is to be remembered, however, that the world’s greatest camera in the hands of the world’s worst photographer will produce an expensively bad image.
Philosophies aside, this first article of several is intended to explain the camera and lenses I use and for what applications I use them. Further articles will go into the details of other equipment such as lighting equipment, filters, supports and other accessories, as these are equally important in achieving my images.
While I love good gear and have a significant amount of it, I’d prefer to be using that equipment to capture good images than sitting here talking about the equipment; but be that as it may, many photographers are interested in knowing what gear other photographers use, so without further ado, here’s a breakdown of my camera and lens equipment.
I use only one camera: a Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR. I purchased this in May of 2010 to replace my Canon EOS 5D, a camera I had been using since 2006, and which was destroyed by a dramatic encounter with the ocean at Kiama.
The biggest feature of the Canon EOS 5D line of cameras is the full-frame sensor. A full-frame sensor is the same size as a frame of 35mm film (ie, 36mm x 24mm), and there are multiple benefits of a larger sensor than the smaller APS-C (1.6x crop) sensors in most of Canon’s other cameras; namely:
- less digital noise due to a physically larger sensor;
- easier composing due to a larger viewfinder;
- easier focusing due to a larger viewfinder;
- a brighter viewfinder due to the larger size; and
- no cropping of a lens’s native field of view.
One significant point needs to be made on the issue of digital noise. One of the critical factors that comes into play is the pixel density. Simply put, the more pixels you cram onto a given surface area, the closer they must be in proximity, and the higher is the likelihood of digital noise resulting from heat.
The 5D was known for its low noise, and likewise, the 5D Mark II also offers very low noise. I have shot a band at ISO speeds of 3,200 and 6,400 and landed very good results. Granted, at 100% magnification, the image is very grainy, but it is completely impractical to view a 21mp image at full-size. When viewed at more realistic sizes such as 1,024 x 683, the low level of visible noise is very acceptable indeed.
My first DSLR was a Canon EOS 20D, which I purchased in 2005; and prior to that, my first digital camera was a Canon PowerShot S45, which I purchased in 2002. This was a high-end compact camera, which at 4mp, had the highest pixel count available at the time. This camera also offered raw mode, video, and had manual exposure controls — all for the handsome sum of around $1,300. A current-model, entry-level DSLR can now be bought for under $1,000. How times have changed!
See my gallery of images captured with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, my gallery of images captured with the Canon EOS 5D and my gallery of images captured with the Canon EOS 20D for an insight into these cameras’ capabilities.
More important than the choice of camera is the glass in front of it. At the time of writing I have seven lenses, all being from Canon’s “L” range, and all having the widest apertures in their respective focal lengths.
I use my various lenses for different purposes, and the following paragraphs will provide some details on each lens.
1. Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
This is my seascaping lens. I use it exclusively for seascape and landscape work, and while it is a zoom, I tend to shoot it like a prime, rarely deviating from the 16mm setting. I like the ultra-wide, 108-degree diagonal field of view this lens offers at 16mm, and for ‘scapes it produces wide vistas and allows a foreground subject to be given striking prominence in the frame.
I have also used this lens for an indoor band shoot, but I tend to prefer faster primes for their increased light-gathering ability.
The 16-35 is very sharp, and with the brightest aperture currently available in 135-format lenses, it offers a brighter viewfinder which assists with autofocus. The f/2.8 aperture of this lens also allows creativity in non-landscape/seascape scenarios.
I mostly shoot it at f/8 or f/11, but as above, it can be used to somewhat diffuse the background in a photograph whose foreground subject is within close proximity. Granted, producing much background blur with an ultra-wide lens isn’t going to be easy nor practical for most of the purposes for which such a lens is used.
See my gallery of images captured with the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM for an insight into the lens’s capabilities.
2. Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM
This is a great general-purpose lens when a wide aperture is needed. On a full-frame camera the 35mm focal length is quite useful, in that it is wide, but not too wide; and it is not too long such that the framing is tight.
I use it for bands and portraiture (when I want a wider view than my usual telephoto view), and any other general indoor photography. It works well for over-the-table people images at dinner parties and the like. I also used it for a wedding shoot.
It is extremely sharp, works very well in low light and produces nice background blur at f/1.4.
See my gallery of images captured with the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM for an insight into the lens’s capabilities.
3. Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM
This highly desirable and excellent performer of a lens is desirable to many photographers, and it has a place in my rig. I consider it to be a general-purpose, fast telephoto zoom. I don’t use it a great deal, but it’s hard to beat when I do need a lens of its range.
My main uses of this lens include portraiture, bands, aviation, sports, wildlife and general photography. I’ve also used it for a wedding.
It’s hard to comment negatively about this lens, as it is tack-sharp even wide open and is quick to focus. It is also compatible with Canon’s tele-extenders, but I would not recommend using the 2x tele-extender, as image quality will invariably suffer, along with the light loss of two stops.
See my gallery of images captured with the Canon EF 70-200mm f/1.8L IS USM for an insight into the lens’s capabilities.
4. Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM
This extremely fast tele is my staple for portraiture. The moderate telephoto length is perfect for portraits and the very wide aperture not only allows subject isolation, but produces a creamy background blur distinctive to this lens.
My other main use for this lens is band work or any other low-light indoor setting in which moderate telephoto reach is needed. When shooting bands, even with an aperture of f/1.2 it’s still necessary to push the ISO into four-digit territory.
I have used this lens for the odd still-life image, but I have found that the combination of the 85mm focal length and the minimum focus distance (MFD) of around 90cm does not produce ideal framing, and instead I use longer lens with an almost identical MFD.
The very narrow depth of field and slow focus-by-wire autofocus of this lens makes it more challenging to use than other telephoto lenses, but when you get it right, it delivers magical results.
Unusually for a Canon L-series prime, the objective element extends from the barrel as the focus is adjusted. The large, heavy objective element may explain the slower autofocus, as the motor has to push a very heavy piece of glass backward and forward.
See my gallery of images captured with the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM for an insight into the lens’s capabilities.
5. Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM
The 135/2L is a mind-blowing lens on several counts:
- at f/2, it is very fast for the focal length;
- it produces very creamy bokeh;
- it’s light and small (for its specifications);
- it’s one of the least expensive L-series lenses;
- it has a very short (for the focal length) MFD of around 90cm; and
- its autofocus is stunningly fast.
I’ve never experienced a lens which focuses as quickly as this one does. It’s ready before I am, and I daresay its AF is faster than that of my 300/2.8 super-tele. That’s saying something!
My main uses for this lens include portraiture, bands, weddings and general-purpose telephoto photography, but I have found it to be a very good lens for still-life photography due to its frame-filling focal length and short MFD. Quite a few of my still-life images were captured with this lens.
It would also do well for indoor sports, although a sports shooter I am not.
The 135/2L is a ridiculously sharp lens and will deliver very pleasing results.
See my gallery of images captured with the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM for an insight into the lens’s capabilities.
6. Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM
This is a specialised lens, and one I use for only one thing: macro photography. I don’t shoot a lot of macro images, so it sits on a shelf most of the time, but when I need it, it’s hard to beat. Its longer focal length provides greater working distance, but the down-side is the reduced depth of field, and macro lenses have inherently shallow depth of field in the first instance.
Even when shooting at f/11 at its MFD, this lens can be challenging to use. However, it is extremely sharp, and I’ve found that images captured with it require no sharpening during post-processing.
A macro lens (focal lengths of 100mm and greater are typical for macro lenses) can also double as a portrait lens, although given I have four other telephoto lenses which get used for portraits, I don’t find that capability particularly useful in this lens.
Unlike all of the other macro lenses in Canon’s lineup, the 180/3.5L Macro is compatible with Canon’s tele-extenders, which allows even greater magnification than that 1:1 (life-size) magnification this lens natively offers.
See my gallery of images captured with the Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM for an insight into the lens’s capabilities.
7. Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM
This is my longest, largest, heaviest and most expensive lens. It could also be considered my sharpest, but in my experience, all of my lenses are sharp!
It is one telephoto lens a lot of people want, and it sure delivers fantastic results. I use it mostly for aviation, wildlife and astrophotography, but I have used it for portraits and band photography.
I often combine it with my Canon Extender EF 1.4x II and Canon Extender EF 2x II to provide 420mm at f/4 and 600mm at f/5.6 respectively.
Despite the size and weight, I almost always shoot hand-held with it. I can quite comfortably shoot with a lens of its weight all day without issues. However, for shooting subjects like the moon, a tripod is essential. For sports, a monopod can help, but during the very little sports photography I have done, I still found hand-holding was more to my liking.
See my gallery of images captured with the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM for an insight into the lens’s capabilities.
As mentioned above, I have the Canon Extender EF 1.4x II and Canon Extender EF 2x II. I generally only use these on my 300/2.8 for the very useful and approachable reach they provide, but three of my other lenses are also compatible with these: 70-200/2.8L IS, 135/2L and 180/3.5L Macro.
I tend not to use the tele-extenders on these three lenses, as I don’t need the focal length increases the combination provides, and in some cases I can achieve the equivalent or a marginally longer focal length with a brighter aperture.
The 1.4x tele-extender is universally considered to be the better of these two units, with greater image degradation (and two stops of light reduction) occurring with the 2x tele-extender.
What convinced me to buy the 2x tele-extender was a set of images posted by someone who paired it with the 300/2.8L IS. The images were very sharp, and image degradation was very minor to the point of being unnoticeable (if it even existed). My own results with this combination have shown it to be a good match. However, I’d only recommend the use of the 2x tele-extender with the absolute fastest of super-teles (eg, 200/1.8L, 200/2L IS, 300/2.8L IS and 400/2.8L IS).
See my gallery of images captured with the Canon Extender EF 1.4x II and my gallery of images captured with the Canon Extender EF 2x II for an insight into these tele-extenders’ capabilities.
So, there’s a summary of my camera and lens equipment. I’ll discuss my other equipment in subsequent articles.