Bridging the Hap

Some years ago, my daughter bought me a book called, Mind the Gap. The Gap being that between the generations — was she telling me something ? Anyway, it was an interesting read and it clarified some of the stereotypes we tend to conjure up when speaking on this subject. It helped me bridge that gap — the one between the one I had with my own parents, and now that with my children. A useful tool in life, indeedy.

Last year I was fortunate enough to spend some time on holiday overseas. Needless to say, I took many, many photographs. I took with me my DSLR and two lenses — 28-82mm and 80-300mm zooms, and for when I could use it in cathedrals or stately homes, a tripod, which I had recently bought — a nice dinky lightweight one that was small enough to fit inside my camera bag. The usual filters, cleaning gear and spare batteries and chargers made up the balance of the gear. The bare minimum, but still, after a day walking the cities, towns and stately homes, it became heavier and heavier. A millstone, in fact.

Many articles have been written on what equipment one should take on holiday. Keep things simple, they say. Take the bare minimum — space and weight are paramount. I followed their suggestions to the T but still found it was far too much weight.

It was also a pain having to change lenses every time (especially when on a bus top tour, for instance) I needed to capture a city scene and then a distant object or a nice abstract.

Compact cameras, though small and lightweight do not always have a good zoom range, and there is not much in the way of manual override. Fine for the happy snaps, but they fall short when distant subject are one’s target or a tricky exposure situation requiring some fine tweaking presents itself.

Back to the Gap. The Gap, in this case, is the chasm between the simplicity of a Compact camera and the sophistication of a DSLR, and is rather neatly, and rather aptly forded by, and named, the Bridge camera. It is, in fact, the Cinderella of cameras; the middle child in a family that many people tend to overlook. Maybe not ignored entirely, but certainly not bestowed with as much attention as is afforded DSLRs, and the now most recent flavour, the CSCs many manufacturers are lapping up. Yes, this new member of the family is nice ‘n small and light, but one is still saddled with having to change lenses, as small as they may be, as one did with a DSLR, and, besides, the prices are still a little steep.

The Bridge camera, like the Mik en Druk, has a fixed lens; fixed in the sense that the lens cannot be removed.

What it does have going for it, is that it has most, if not all, the bells and whistles that one finds in a DSLR, and all well under the price tag of one. Bridge cameras are quite light and not as bulky as a DSLR, and what the manufacturers have rather thoughtfully done with some of their models, is equip them with a rather healthy zoom lens. Unlike the problem of carting a DSLR around with an arsenal of lenses, and having to chop and change as the scene dictates, the Bridge, with its expanded zoom range, will encompass all eventualities, and then some. All things considered, the glass too is quite spectacular and the most important feature is the price — very reasonable, indeed.

My own transition from analogue photography to digital was via an Olympus C8080, an 8Mp Bridge camera — it had a 28-l40mm, f2.4-3.5 lens, a swivel LCD screen, Panoramic shooting, TIFF files, and lots, lots more. In 2004, that wasn’t a bad little camera. Bridge cameras have been around since the late 80s and came into their own around the mid 90s, then known as Prosumer cameras, this was a distinct new breed of camera. So, while we were wowed by what this entire new family member could do, what was just over the horizon would well and truly blow our socks off.

For quite a long time Olympus cornered the market with super zoom Bridge cameras — their SP610UZ (28-616mm) then the SP810UZ (25-864mm) were all that one needed for a successful outing. All one’s bases were covered within a lightweight compact and relatively inexpensive camera.

Other camera manufacturers have not been sitting on their hands — Nikon with their L Series, Canon’s SX Series, Sony’s Cybershot RX range, FujiFilm X Series, Pentax, Samsung — the list goes on and on.

The jump, in both price and extra knobs, dials and buttons, from a compact to a DSLR, can be quite daunting for the novice. New concepts such as Depth of Field, Aperture and Shutter Priority, White Balance, ISO etc that were neatly hidden under the guise of the Scene Mode button — Beach & Snow, Night, Portrait & Night, High and Low Key, Sunset, Portrait — a list as long as your arm. You did not need to know anything about all that technical stuff; it was all worked out for you. A Bridge camera is a wonderful transition upwards in one’s journey in photography. If one is strapped by lack of mega bucks then this is the logical route to take, and as a bonus, you get all the glitz.

For those not really fussed about mega-zooms but do want absolute control over their shots then cameras like the Canon G Series, Nikon’s P Series, Olympus’ XZs, the Pentax MX-1 or Sony’s little DCS-RX1 all have the sophistication of a DSLR and are as pocketable as a Compact camera. All great means of bringing home sharp dear, crisp photos of your holiday. If you can’t wait ’til you return home, many of these cameras have Eye Fi so you can share your special photos with everyone back home immediately after you’ve taken the pictures.

So, in future, take more notice of that middle child -you’ll be pleasantly surprised just how talented it is.

COMMENTS ON HANDLING:

The design of the Sony A58 is based on classic SLR systems even though the camera uses an electronic viewfinder system. Due to its fixed semi translucent mirror, it is able to generate an electronic viewfinder image to use a phase detection AF system at the same time. This AF system is used by standard SLR cameras and is not only very fast, it is also able to work continuously when shooting in burst mode and even when recording video. Standard SLR systems have to use a contrast metering AF system when recording videos or when the mirror is flipped up to generate the electronic view finder image with the image sensor because the additional phase detection AF sensor is covered/screened when the mirror is in its up-position.

The Sony has a large mode dial on the top, which allows the use of standard exposure modes (P, S, A and M), scene modes, automatic modes which can detect the required scene modes by analysing the viewfinder image, panorama mode, effect modes and the special burst rate mode. In this mode the camera is able to shoot up to eight frames per second (sequence of 16 images max.), but doesn’t allow manual exposure settings.

The Sony can record full HD video and uses a stereo microphone on the top of the body (directly in front of the flash/accessory shoe). It offers a 3.5 mm jack to use external microphones for better sound quality.

COLOUR:

The automatic white balance system of the A58 worked well and showed only minor shifts in our test images. Brighter nuances tend to be shifted into the yellow and green area (see gray pattern in the centre of the result chart sony_a58_gretagmacbeth_colorerror.png), but most gray patterns are located nearly in the centre of the image. There is only a minor over saturation observable, only the red nuances are boosted by a very high orange/ yellow rate. The differentiation of red colours is good as you can see in the red spool in the upper right of the standard testbox shot.

SHARPNESS:

The camera created soft looking images. They are smoothed by the intense anti noise filtering (see ‘Noise:») so that the ISO 12233 chart was reproduced with only 2606 of nominal 3632 lines per picture height (see sony_a58_iso12233_YAlO_cpp.png). The overshot effect is low, which is a good result for an SLR system because it helps to use a systematic and targeted USM sharpening in Adobe Photoshop or other imaging software. The image of the standard text box for instance should be sharpened by USM filtering with 80 percent/1.5 pixels to achieve nearly the same crisp look created by Canon SLRs, for example.

NOISE:

The camera showed a good performance in lower ISO speed settings up to ISO 3200 to 6400. The luminance noise factor is very high for a camera with APS-C sized sensor but remains below 1.0 percent (y-factor in sony_a58_stouffer_iso00100_Step_2.png to sony_a58_stouffer_iso001600_Step_2.png) due to an increasing anti noise filtering.

Images taken with higher ISO speed settings show noise artefacts, and the typical ‘anti noise filtering impressionist look». Images taken with ISO 16000 are ‘destroyed» because the extreme filtering causes nearly a total loss of image details. The gray patterns of the Stouffer 4110 gray pattern test chart lose their differentiation and the gray patterns are nearly transformed into a gray gradient.

The results of the dynamic range tests are a little bit low for an APS-C camera (maximum 10.3 f-stops), but remain on a ‘more than 10 f-stop level” up to ISO 1600, which is quite good. Using higher ISO speed settings will reduce the dynamic range dramatically.

WHAT IS NEW?

Once you take a deeper look at the make-up of this lens, it becomes clear that Canon have chosen to showcase virtually all of their latest lens technology in the EF 200-400 f4L.

The new lens took a long time for Canon to bring to market after a development announcement some time ago.

The lens body does not change size during zooming, with all moving parts inside the magnesium-alloy, weather-sealed barrel.

At the front end of the lens is a bulge in the casing, which is home to the built-in 1.4 extender that is an exciting feature of this lens. The extender is engaged by means of a switch and there is a lock if needed.

The EF 200-400 f4L is fitted with Canon’s latest 4-stop image-stabilization (IS) system, with three different shooting modes. Recessed switch panels on the side of the lens control the IS system, as well as focus distance limiters, focus preset and AF/MF/PF selection (PF being a powered focus for video).

A tripod ring with dick-detents at right angles, and two optional tripod feet, a shorter one and an extended one, is standard.

Other components of the lens exterior are the zoom ring, focus ring, focus Preset collar and a set of four AF-stop buttons that can be customized, along with strap attachments and a deep lens hood. The hood can be reversed, and comes with a nylon cover to help protect the front of the lens when in this configuration.

Optically, the EF 200-400 f4L has a 25-element lens design, including one Fluorite element and four UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) elements. The built-in extender is an 8-element design and engaging it makes for a total of 33 elements.

HOW WELL DOES IT WORK?

My first impression of the EF 200-400 f4L’s handling was one of high quality. The zoom ring, focus ring and the tripod ring all turn in a smooth and controlled manner. The 1.4x extender switch can be moved with just one finger, and it engages with a soft but solid-feeling clunk. There is a lock switch to prevent accidental switching.

It is so very convenient to be able to switch instantly to using the extender when you wish to frame tighter than 400mm focal length. Maximum focal length is 560mm at an aperture of f/5.6.

With normal, external extenders, it is all too easy to miss shots due to the time it takes to mount one in the field. That risk is no longer a factor when using this lens. It also minimizes the risk of allowing dust into the camera during changeover.

The EF 200-400 f4L weighs 3620g, and is roughly the same size and weight as an older Canon EF 500 f4 L version 1. Big and strong photographers will be able to handhold it for long periods, whilst smaller users will perhaps find it on the heavy size. Using a tripod mount, a monopod or a beanbag will make handling the lens for long periods easier. Having the lens on a mount or rest will also make it easier to control the zoom ring with one hand whilst shooting. The image stabilization works as it is meant to and helped me get some sharp images at very slow shutter speeds whilst handholding.

AUTOFOCUS

Using the lens without the converter engaged, anywhere between 200mm and 400mm focal length, produces very fast and accurate AF results. It focuses as well as lenses such as the Canon EF 500 and 600 f4 fixed telephoto lenses. Even with fast-moving subjects, and in very low light, autofocus was surprisingly good.

I used the lens mostly with the Canon 5Dmk3. On one occasion, shooting two lions leaping and running towards me, in pre-dawn light, this combination delivered eleven out of fifteen, sharply-focused images, which was way more than I was expecting. The autofocus also worked well in low-contrast and backlit situations.

With the 1,4x extender engaged, AF was still accurate and positive, especially in good light scenarios. When using the extender, it was a little more difficult to track very fast-moving subjects, and there was a greater tendency for the AF to hunt.

It is also possible to add a separate external Canon EF 1.4x extender to the lens. Using both converters makes for an effective focal length of 784mm but there are better ways to get to that focal length.

Minimum focus distance is 2m. which makes this lens very effective for photographing smaller subjects close-up, if not quite 1:1 macro equivalent.

IMAGE QUALITY

The Canon EF 200-400 f4L is a zoom lens that has image quality almost indistinguishable from fixed lenses like the Canon EF 500 f4L IS ii, when used between 200mm and 400mm, with the extender removed. Most importantly, the lens delivered its great image quality wide open, at f4. The EF 200-400 f4L allowed me to select my apertures as I needed them, with the confidence that I was not paying any significant penalty in image quality even wide open, which is where I often shoot.

I was impressed by the fine detail, great contrast and colour in images taken with this lens.

Engaging the 1.4x extender allows for tighter framing, at the cost of a slight loss of fine detail. Images taken with the converter were still usable. It is important to note that framing well with the extender in place means less cropping, which also has a positive impact on image quality.

I found little evidence of chromatic aberration. During the course of capturing over 3,000 wildlife images with the lens, I have only encountered lens flare on one occasion. The lens would seem to be better than some earlier zoom lenses when it comes to resisting lens flare.

I noticed minimal vignetting, and nothing serious enough to warrant correcting in postprocessing.

Overall, I found the lens to have excellent image quality when used without the 1.4 extender, almost as good as Canon’s class-leading fixed telephoto lenses.

CONCLUSION

Canon have produced a class-leading telephoto zoom lens with great image quality, and powerful focus performance enhanced by the flexibility brought about by the built-in extender. Superior build-quality and effective image stabilization complete the package. The EF 200-400L f4L 1.4x IS USM sells for a high price, but for the money you get prime lens image quality and performance with the added flexibility that only a zoom lens can bring.

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