Common Redpoll at White Spruce Grove, Chignik Lake, Alaska: The extra reach provided by a 2.0 teleconverter was crucial in getting this capture of a redpoll feeding high up on cone seeds.
The questions: Can sharp images be consistently obtained with a long lens and a 2.0 teleconverter? Does autofocus work with such a setup? And what about losing two full stops of light?
Dissuaded by some of the lackluster – even negative – reviews for Nikon’s TC-20III teleconverter in particular and for 2.0 teleconverters in general, I put off adding one to my gear bag for quite a while.
Black-capped Chickadee in Salmonberry Brambles, Chignik Lake, Alaska: Filling the frame with a tiny passerine can be challenging even with a long lens; a teleconverter can make a big difference.
Claiming that the TC-20III teleconverter only works with lenses with an aperture of 2.8 or greater, one reviewer states: “…(I)f you have an f/4.0 lens, forget about autofocus – you will have to resort to manual focus.” Another reviewer seconded this opinion, claiming that “(The TC-20III) only works well if you start off with an f/2 or f/2.8 lens…” This same reviewer went on to opine that, “2x teleconverters have always been too much. They’ve robbed too much sharpness, and made autofocus poor. I’m not a fan of 2x teleconverters. 1.4x ,and maybe 1.7x converters give much better results, but since they offer negligible extra magnification, why bother?”
Great Horned Owl, White Spruce Grove, Chignik Lake, Alaska: Shot at a distance and cropped in, there’s still enough clarity in this photo to see shimmering frozen droplets of breath on the fine feathers around this owl’s nostrils. Owls work hard obtaining enough calories to keep themselves and their chicks healthy. The last thing you want to do is spook one off its daytime roost. Teleconverters can help you keep your distance and still get the shot.
There are a lot of reasons to “bother” with teleconverters, as just about any serious wildlife photographer knows. Consider, as an example, a 200mm lens. Adding a 1.4x teleconverter means that you’ve increased the lens’s reach by a factor of 1.4, thus converting it to a 280mm lens. (1.4 x 200mm = 280mm). Take that same 200mm lens and add a 2.0 teleconverter, and you’ve doubled the lens’s reach to 400mm. (2.0 x 200mm = 400mm). Like a pair of binoculars, this extra reach brings wildlife closer and can often mean the difference between no shot, a poor shot and a great shot. So, while teleconverters may not have much application for portrait, landscape and studio photography, they can be game-changers in the world of wildlife photography. Meanwhile, it never ceases to amaze me how some people with some modest amount of expertise in one niche of their hobby or profession think nothing of making wildly inaccurate blanket statements based on their own limited experiences.
Mallard hen and drake, Chignik River, Alaska
For the past week, I’ve been shooting almost exclusively with Nikon’s AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4E FL ED VR lens coupled with Nikon’s TC-20III teleconverter. I didn’t know what to expect. Here’s what I discovered:
1. In most conditions, losing two full stops of light – meaning that wide open the aperture is at f/8 instead of f/4 – isn’t as big a deal as I thought it would be. With quality DSLRs, the ISO can be pushed up to 2000 or even slightly higher without introducing too much noise into the picture. That means you can still shoot with a fast enough shutter speed to, for example, freeze a pair of mallards in flight in soft morning light. (See above photo.)
Common Merganser hen feeding on a Three-spined Stickleback, Chignik Lake, Alaska
2. While autofocus works less efficiently, it still works well and, in most situations, is a much better option than manually focusing. At times it seemed like the “brains” of this system had trouble keeping up. The lens had a harder time finding the subject, especially if it was small or if the background and surroundings were busy – such as when shooting birds in bushes. Capturing birds in flight was particularly challenging. At one point while I was out on the ice on Chignik Lake, a Common Merganser that was fairly close caught a stickleback. As it repositioned the fish to swallow it head first, it gave me opportunities for captures of this dynamic moment. I had to remind myself that patience with the lens, rather than swearing at it, would probably be the better course as I attempted to focus on the bird while the “confused” lens searched and searched. However, I did get two good frames. One is above. In the other, the stickleback’s three spines can clearly be counted.
Pine Grosbeak male (red) and female feeding on willow buds, Chignik Lake, Alaska
3. Shooting at f/8 and even at f/11 I could still achieve a nice background canvas of bokeh. I was concerned that with the aperture stopped down, I wouldn’t be able to get the kind of agreeably blurry background necessary to, for example, allow a pair of colorful Pine Grosbeaks to stand out from the background of winter-brown willows and alders where they typically feed. What I hadn’t fully appreciated was that with a reach of 1200mm (2.0 x 600mm), it would be fairly easy in most circumstances to “clean up” the background.
Tundra Swans, Chignik River, Alaska: Hunted for food in some parts of Alaska, Tundra Swans are notoriously wary. In early morning, we found a group of 18 swans, approached methodically and slowly, and waited quietly for them to ignore us.
4. The reason I added a 2.0 teleconverter to my gear comes down to one word: Reach. There are certain species of wild animals that are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to capture without serious magnification. But with a solid tripod, a camera that can handle high ISO values, patience and an understanding of your gear and the species you’re seeking to photograph, frames that otherwise would have been unobtainable can be in reach.
Final recommendation: Lenses vary. So do 2.0 teleconverters. So I can’t make a blanket statement. What I can say is that as I did my own research on 2.0 teleconverters, I discovered that some of National Geographic’s top wildlife photographers have, for years, regularly been using 2.0 teleconverters. Joel Sartore includes them in his Nikon-based gear bag; Tim Laman utilizes them as part of his Canon-based gear bag. So, whether your subject is monkeys in a rainforest canopy, Tundra Swans on an Arctic lake, or a sleeping owl you don’t want to disturb, 2.0 teleconverters can give you the extra distance necessary to get really special captures.
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