One of my favourite lenses is the EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM zoom, which I often use with an extender. The lens/extender combination is great for landscapes and for wildlife. Throughout my photographic career I’ve always used extenders, but the first time I worked with Canon’s new [Mark III] generation of extenders was earlier this year in the Highlands of Ethiopia. I was there to shoot the gelada baboons who live high in the mountains, at about 3,000 feet, in large groups that can range from 50 individuals up to 400.
I was there for three weeks and my idea was to take shots of the male baboons, who have long teeth and hair like a lion. They look really angry but these guys only eat plants. They’re not aggressive, which is quite different to savanna baboons. In fact, they’re really friendly, which means they make great subjects. They’re sociable creatures, colourful and are amazing to look at.
The idea was not only to take portraits of the baboons but also to capture their behaviour. I wanted to take some group shots with the baboons walking directly towards me with the wind in their hair. Unfortunately they often do very little, so I had to wait a long time for these special situations to happen.
Because I could get close to the baboons, I mostly used an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM zoom lens with an extender, usually the new EF1.4x III extender. It gives me a great [focal length] range, which is really important when I want to concentrate on the eyes or face. For me, it’s the best option.
Because the new ‘Mark III’ extenders are designed to work with Canon’s latest generation of telephoto lenses, they operate differently when you use them with the relatively new Mark II version of the EF70-200mm lens compared to the older 300mm, 400mm, 500mm and 600mm EF lenses.
Firstly, the autofocus is faster, especially with the EF2x III extender when used with the EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, and I assume this will also be the case with the new telephoto lenses. The Mark III extenders have integrated processors that transfer all focus and lens information back to the camera. As a result, compared to the Mark II extenders, the new ones focus much faster.
When I shoot in low light, perhaps using ISO 1600, I would normally need a longer time for the autofocus to find a focus point, because of the limited contrast in the shot. My feeling is that the new extenders work much faster, even in low light, and that was really important when the baboons started doing something interesting. When I saw something happening, I was able to take two or three good, sharp shots in a couple of seconds without the autofocus hunting for a point to latch on to.
Of course, I could have used manual focus but that would have been difficult in low light and over a distance of 20 metres. When I used the new combination of the EF70-200mm Mark II lens and the Mark III extenders, it was great. I was able to get the focus point on the face of a male baboon and fire off a couple of exposures.
At longer distances, for instance when the baboons climbed up a cliff face and there was no opportunity to get close to them, I would use the EF500mm f/4L IS USM and put the EF2x III extender in front of it. With that I could fill the frame with a baboon’s head.
At these kinds of distances, the colour bleeding around the fur can be a problem, especially if the baboon is in the sun. The new converters are much better at dealing with this than the older ones, and they create more contrast, which makes the image look sharper.
With the old converters, the images sometimes looked soft – not unsharp, but soft. This happens when you’re shooting at long distances when a little bit of dust or mist can affect the contrast. Using a 2x extender means the distance is doubled but it also means the dusty environment between my lens and the subject is doubled – it looks dustier than it actually is. In a photograph, this affects the contrast.
The contrast range with the new extenders is much better. My photographs look sharper because of the improved contrast. So if I’m shooting in less than ideal morning light, or if it’s slightly misty, the new converters give me more contrast so the images look better.
In perfect light, everything looks amazing – full of contrast and colour. One hour before sunrise is a different matter, with low light and shadows. At least when I am shooting in that light, I know the new extenders will work better. I’ve seen a great improvement on the old ones. Even using them with my old lenses, I get greater contrast; less colour bleeding and you get the impression that the photos are sharper, which is wonderful.
In late May and early June this year I took the extenders to shoot some leopard pictures in South Africa, in the Sabi Sand Reserve (near to the Kruger National Park). This is one of the best places in the world for leopards and a ranger and a trekker accompanied me. We followed the treks and listened out for alarm calls from the animals. The male leopards check the territory and mark the bushes on the way. A leopard is a quick and quiet hunter and it was a good time to see these guys. The leopard is a fantastic predator and they are full of energy; they’re one of my favourite predators.
I know the new extenders have been designed to work with the new Canon EF300mm f/2.8L IS II USM and the EF400mm f/2.8L IS II USM telephoto lenses, so I assume the extenders’ performance will only be improved with this new lens technology. I can’t wait to try them out.
But before then, I’ve got a lot to get on with. In August, I am going to Brazil to shoot jaguars in the Amazon and then, later that month, I’ll launch my new book ‘Polar World’ about life in the Arctic and Antarctic. There’s plenty to do, and plenty to think about!
Biography: Thorsten Miles
© Ralf Bauer
Born in Germany, photographer Thorsten Milse has photographed wildlife around the world since 1990. He specialises in landscape and wildlife photography with a strong focus on conservation and endangered species. His images have been published in over 25 countries, including in famous wildlife publications such as BBC Wildlife magazine, GEO, and Nature’s Best Photography. He is a previous winner of BBC Wildlife Photographer of the year in the ‘Animal Behaviour’ category and has been a Canon Ambassador since autumn 2008. His latest book, ‘Polar World’, will be published in autumn 2011.