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Technical

Capturing the beauty <br class="br_visual" />of birds with the <br class="br_visual" />EF100-400mm zoom

Capturing the beauty
of birds with the
EF100-400mm zoom

© Markus Varesvuo

December 2014

Professional bird photographer Markus Varesvuo is one of the world’s best when it comes to ornithological images. His stunning work is made easier thanks to Canon’s legendary EF lens system and the new EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM zoom has the potential to take his work to new heights, as he explains to CPN Editor David Corfield...

© Markus Varesvuo

Please click on the image above and run your mouse over the bird to see the detail that is achievable when close focusing. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; the exposure was 1/100sec at f/10, ISO 3200.

Finland is a country full of natural beauty. And so it comes as no surprise to discover that it’s also home to many superb wildlife lensmen, one of which is multiple award-winning photographer and Canon Explorer Markus Varesvuo.

As an ornithologist first and foremost, he is a mine of information when it comes to our feathered friends and through years of study and research has got closer than most to capturing their magnificent detail and character on camera. The new EF100-400mm telephoto zoom lens makes that task ever easier, as he explains...

“I come from a world of big prime lenses because they give me perfect sharpness. But a couple of years ago I bought the second-generation EF70-200mm f/2.8L lens [the EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM] and I could see that the sharpness was really there. It impressed me straight away. And more recently I have been using the EF200-400mm lens and that again has been more than impressive. So I have to admit, I was positively surprised with the new EF100-400mm when I took a look at the results on screen. It is almost impossible to spot the difference in sharpness between this and a prime lens.”

A flexible yet powerful tool

“The other great thing about this lens is its lightness and the power of the zoom range,” Markus explains. “When you are out all day, and have to walk long distances, this lightweight 100-400mm lens with its excellent focal length range is very useful, especially now with the close focusing. It just makes it even more flexible.”

© Markus Varesvuo

Siberian jay (Perisoreus infaustus), Kuusamo, Finland, November 2014. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 164mm; the exposure was 1/50sec at f/5.6, ISO 100.

Contrary to what you might think about a professional bird photographer, Markus doesn’t spend all his working hours holed up in a hide waiting for the wildlife. He explains: “I travel a lot, and two-thirds of my life is spent moving around; for example I am currently writing about game birds in Scandinavia so am photographing a lot of ptarmigans, willow grouse, black grouse and hazel grouse. You have to go where they are, and that means being flexible, travelling light, and being able to react quickly the moment you see them. When you are driving, for example, it’s amazing what you can often spot. To be able to stop, rest your lens on a beanbag on the open car window and shoot straight away up to 400mm is very advantageous – and this new 100-400mm lens is light enough to pick up quickly and fast enough to zoom and focus straight away.”

Helping that rapid operation is a twist zoom function, replacing the push-pull zoom operation of the older vesrion of this lens. And Markus is pleased to see this change. “The problem with a push-pull zoom is there is a risk of noise as your hand moves the barrel in and out, plus also there is a risk of introducing dust into the inside of the lens if it is not weather-sealed. So I’m delighted both these points have been thought about with the new design. Canon has always given its lenses great weather-sealing anyway, but it’s nice that the risk is totally removed.”

Designed to perform

Canon engineers did indeed spend a long time addressing the design of the new lens. After an incredible 16 years on sale, the original 100-400mm had won itself a deserved reputation for reliability and quality. But 16 years is a lifetime in terms of lens production and thanks to advances in optical designs and lens coatings, the new EF100-400 has picked up the baton in style, with additional improvements made to both the body and the stabilisation functions.

“There are many things on this lens that are excellent,” Markus admits. “I notice for example the new lens hood design, which is good now with a small window in it to adjust circular filters. This is very useful. But the thing that I like the most is the fantastic four-stop Image Stabilizer. To have four stops of stabilisation is amazing. I shot all the images you see here in this interview with no tripod. You can take shots in very low light with no problem at all. And here in Finland, in the winter, with poor weather when it snows you are often shooting with high ISO.”

Know your subject - as well as your equipment

Of course, all the technology in the world can’t help you if you don’t know where and when to look in the first place. And that, says Markus, it the secret to successful photography of any genre – especially birds.

© Markus Varesvuo

Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) feeding on berries, Kuusamo, Finland, November 2014. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; the exposure was 1/5000sec at f/7.1, ISO 3200.

“One of the prime considerations for my bird photography is to know the subject and that is one of the things I do really well,” Markus affirms. “This time of year, right before winter takes a grip, with the leaves just fallen from the trees and the early snow on the ground, it makes it a lot easier to find birds and create nice images with all the attention focused on their colours and plumage.”

A recent test of the EF100-400mm focusing speed came when Markus used the lens – in combination with his EOS-1D X DSLR – to photograph waxwings feeding on winter berries. This subject is a true test of both photographer and equipment, as Markus explains...

“They are really fast in flight and I took a series of five or six shots and all were sharp. Timing is all-important, especially to show them feeding. They feed typically by tossing the berries up in the air and catching them in their bill. That’s where the fast motordrive burst from the EOS-1D X and the quick reaction of the lens really pays off. You have to keep the focusing point on the bird’s head but even more challenging is to track it as it flies away. The autofocus has to follow it very quickly, and because you are shooting with a shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second, good performance with high ISO is also crucial.”

The performance of a lens is measured by the quality of the results, and getting those results means every part of a lens has to work brilliantly. The function of a zoom, especially, has to be perfect. Which is why Markus is pleased to see the addition of a torque lock on the twist ring. “When you are tracking a bird in flight you need to have full confidence in your lens and, so, to be able to tighten up the lock so the focal length remains constant is an excellent feature, and for this new EF100-400mm it is a perfect result.”

“This is a totally different lens to the first generation model,” he concludes. “It is perfect for serious amateurs looking to get into wildlife photography and I would definitely recommend it to professionals too. It was a big surprise for me and gives a great range of options for the nature photographer.”

Markus Varesvuo’s top tips for bird photography


  • Get to know your subject and its characteristics and habitats. Go out with a pair of binoculars and learn to recognise flight patterns and calls.
  • Let birds approach you, not the other way around. By nature birds are shy and wary, especially game birds that are used to being hunted.
  • Be there! Go out with your camera and lens and learn to shoot in all conditions; weather changes all the time when you are shooting birds and you need to cope with whatever the clouds throw at you!
  • Study the work of more experienced bird photographers and try and go out on a shoot with them. Many will be glad to impart their wisdom and experience – wildlife photography can be a lonely business.
  • Find your own style. Think about new ways of taking pictures and don’t just take the basic kind of shots. Experiment with framing birds in landscapes, different lighting, and so on. Never stop learning.

EF100-400MM F/4.5-5.6L IS II USM – KEY FEATURES


  • 100-400mm focal length with zoom torque adjustment.
  • Shoot in low light with 4-stop Image Stabilizer.
  • High image quality thanks to Fluorite and Super UD elements.
  • New ASC coating to prevent ghosting flare.
  • Highly weather resistant for use in the toughest of conditions.

Biography: Markus Varesvuo

Markus Varesvuo

Following a 25-year career in business in 2005 Canon Explorer Markus Varesvuo made the leap to become a professional wildlife photographer. Born in Helsinki, Finland, Markus Varesvuo has been fascinated with birds since childhood. He has now won himself a deserved reputation for the high quality of his photography, often sitting in remote hides in freezing temperatures for days at a time to get the perfect image. Markus has had several books published in his native Finland, and since 2011 he’s published two more with New Holland Publishers: ‘Birds Magic Moments’ (in seven different language editions), and ‘Fascinating Birds’. In February 2014 it was announced that he had won second prize in the Nature Singles category of the 2014 World Press Photo Contest.



Showcase

Pine grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator) feeding on berries, Kuusamo, Finland, November 2014. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens with an EF1.4x Extender III (effective focal length 560mm); the exposure was 1/1250sec at f/8, ISO 2500.