Photographing Japanese White Eyes and Taking Off the Telephoto Extender

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Bonus Reach Needed?

I often pair my 300mm and 500mm lenses with either a Canon EF 1.4X III or 2.0X III telephoto extender…both of which were designed specifically for Canon’s newest telephoto lenses. Birds are small and seemingly always out of reach..and even though I consider myself to be a stealthy stalker of birds, I regularly assume that I will need that bonus reach; that extra level of magnification when I’m out in the field.

Photo of Japanese White-eye
Japanese White-eye
The Clarity (note the relatively low ISO)
and the Background Make this Photograph
Look like an Audubon Print.
ISO 400; f/6.3; 1/640 Second

Remove the Tele-Extender

So, despite the fact that I can state unequivocally that I have achieved pro quality results on images I simply would never have captured without the extra reach of an extender, I decided (just this once) to remove the 1.4x extender on my relatively fast Canon 2.8L 300mm IS II prime telephoto lens.

I have to admit that I thought about this long and hard…felt a little trepidation thinking that some wondrous bird would come out of nowhere and perch just a little too far away from the 300mm’s reach. But I did it anyway… purposely took off the telephoto extender just to remind myself why I bought a 300mm L II lens. I distinctly remember that I did NOT buy this highly rated, fast, tack sharp, expensive and reliable prime lens to put an extender on it.

Found a Bird Close Enough

It took me awhile, but I finally came upon a couple pairs of small, quick Japanese White-eyes willing to pose close to the camera. (We visited the island of Kauai in early March, 2016. Japanese White-eyes are one of the most common birds in Hawaii.) The lens’s ultra-sonic auto-focus motor felt adept and nimble as I tracked the birds. It locked focus almost immediately on the fast moving Japanese White-eyes.

Overall, I am very happy with the quality of these images, especially the image above where I was able to maintain a relatively low ISO. Giving up the bonus reach during this photo shoot was definitely worth it.

Photograph of Japanese White-Eye
Japanese White-Eye
ISO1600; f/6.3; 1/500 Second

Disadvantages of Telephoto Extenders

To work well, a telephoto extender must be compatible; designed to physically and electronically interface with specific lenses. The main reason photographers buy telephoto extenders is so they don’t have to purchase and haul around a larger prime telephoto lenses. Attaching a telephoto extender is very convenient, but there are disadvantages:

  • Probably the most significant drawback: Image quality is impacted. Whenever you disrupt the path between a lens and the DSLR by inserting additional “glass”, you sacrifice quality in contrast and sharpness. Images look softer. Questions a bird photographer must ask:  How much clarity is sacrificed? and…Does it matter?
  • Attaching an extender will reduce the maximum aperture on the lens, and consequently decrease the lens’s potential to bring in light. NOTE: This is not usually a problem because with long lenses and bird photography, sufficient depth of field requires that you tighten up the aperture, not open it.
  • You make the lens longer when you attach a telephoto extender, and consequently, you magnify camera shake. Increasing the shutter speed may help stabilize the lens, but in low light bird photography, that is not often an option.
  • Autofocus is slower and less accurate with a telephoto extender attached, especially when your bird is positioned in low light or with insufficient contrasting background.
Photo of Japanese White Eye.
Japanese White Eye;
ISO1600; f/7.1; 1/400 Second

No Matter How Long the Lens

I complain a lot about not having enough reach to get the shots I want. The truth is that in most circumstances, no lens is long enough in bird photography. The perfect bird shot would be, more often than not, out of reach, even if I bought a Canon EF 1200mm f/5.6 L USM lens.

That’s OK.  I still plan to get out there with the bird lenses and telephoto extenders that I have and do my best.

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