Extending Your Lens

Whooping Crane Taking Off

Whooping Crane Taking Off | Beebower Productions

If only.  If only I had a 800mm lens.  If only I could get a little closer. Who hasn’t uttered an “if only” while trying to take wildlife photos?  Photography can be frustrating when you don’t have the right equipment and your subject bolts at the drop of a hat.

We have a solution for you.  Purchase an extender (also called a teleconverter).  This piece of equipment fits between your camera and your lens, increasing the focal length of your lens. 

So, for example, if you have a 400mm lens and you use a 1.4x extender, you’ll shoot as if you had a 560mm lens.  Dad used just such a set up to capture his image of a whooping crane taking off. 

He was shooting from a boat and the captain got Dad as close to the bird as possible.  But it wasn’t close enough. Dad’s shot would have been weak without the extender because he couldn’t fill the frame without the extra focal length the extender provided.

Pretty cool, right?  Let’s take a look at the benefits of using an extender.  Please note:  We shoot with Canons so this review focuses strictly on Canon products.

  • Canon Extender EF 1.4X III

    Canon Extender EF 1.4xIII | Beebower Productions

    Cost:  A Canon EF 400mm/f2.8 IS II USM lens runs about $10,500.  That’s a big hit to the bank account.  But the extender can ride to the rescue.  A Canon EF 300mm/f2.8 IS II USM lens runs $6,600.  Add the Canon Extender EF 1.4X III for $450 and you’ve got a 420mm lens for roughly $7,050.  You’ve just saved a couple thousand dollars.

  • Several Options:  Canon makes two extenders, the EF 1.4X III and the EF 2X III.  As mentioned, the 1.4X provides 1.4 times the focal length of your lens.  The 2X doubles the focal length.
  • Canon Extender EF 2X III | Beebower Productions

    Canon Extender EF 2X III | Beebower Productions

    Weight:  Compared to hauling an 8.5-pound, 800mm lens around, the Canon extenders are lightweight.

  • Quality of Image: Dad ran extensive tests with the 1.4X and 2X before going into the field.  He found both the 1.4X and 2X extenders produced clean, crisply focused images.  The quality of the image really depends upon having a super sharp lens before adding the high quality extender.

Sounds like a great deal.   There are, however, a few things to consider before purchasing an extender.

  • Compatibility:  Not all lenses and cameras work with all extenders.  You should check the fine print for compatibility before purchasing.  We actually recommend you purchase the same brand as your lens for the simple reason the manufacturer designed the two pieces to work together.  You’ll get a better quality photo.
  • Loss of Light:  You do lose some light coming into the lens when you use an extender.   As a result, you drop approximately one f-stop for the 1.4x extender and two f-stops for the 2X extender. 
  • For example, if you use a 300mm/f.28 lens with the 2X, your f-stop is reduced to f/5.6.  This can be a challenging factor when shooting a moving subject in low light.  That doesn’t mean you have to stop shooting.  Just have a “Plan B” in case the extender prevents optimal shooting.
  • Auto Focus: With older gear, you may loose the autofocus element of the lens if the maximum f-stop drops below f/5.6.  Newer and higher end cameras and lenses don’t have this problem. You can always manually focus if your lens goes on strike.
Sandhill Crane and Red-winged Blackbirds

Sandhill Crane and Red-winged Blackbirds | Beebower Productions

The extender also may slow the focusing speed of the lens.  Dad noticed a slightly slower speed of tracking with the 2X compared to a regular Canon 400mm/f2.8 lens.  However he was able to capture a great shot of moving sandhill cranes using the 2X and auto focus without any problem.

If you decide to purchase an extender, definitely buy the highest quality you can afford.  That goes for the lenses too.  If you skimp on the gear, you will, as Dad likes to say, pay dearly in the field.  You certainly won’t be happy with the results when you get home and download your photos.  The cheaper optics have issues with focusing speed and image quality.

Green Jay with Worm | Beebower Productions

Green Jay with Worm | Beebower Productions

Dad’s had a great deal of success using the 1.4X combined with his 400mm.  During his shoot at the Martin Refuge, he nailed a number of bird photos including this one of a green jay eating breakfast.

The key to success with extenders is thoroughly testing your equipment before you leave home.  Understanding how the extenders work, their limitations and possible solutions will save you a lot of grief in the field.

“Put it together and don’t wait until you’re in the boondocks with rattlesnakes.  Test it in your nice, cool air conditioned house, “ Dad says.  “It doesn’t matter if it costs $600 or $6,000.  If you don’t know how to use it, it doesn’t do you any good.”

So learn all about this handy tool and leave the “if onlys” at home.  You can start making images you love with the help of extenders.  You might just be too close to your subject this time.