12.17.2015

Bull Elk At Long Range-The Panasonic GH4 and Canon 500mm f 4.5

It doesn't seem possible, but it has been over a month since the last activity on this blog.  There were so many things I wanted to write about, but what with being preoccupied with photographing the whitetail rut and other things I have let things slide. I intended to write an article or a review long before this about how the new parking and viewing areas worked out on Dewey Road in Pennsylvania Elk Country  but that has not happened as of yet. Hopefully I will get to this soon.

To prepare for the article, I spent two weekend evenings there during the peak of the rut, documenting how humans and elk adapted to the new situation. While doing this on Friday evening, September 25th, I noticed a large 7x7 or 7x8 bull come into the food plot near the log cabin on the hill.  ( I  give these details as many if not most blog readers will know exactly where I mean) At that point I was behind the stone wall at the upper end of the upper Gilbert Farm meadow and took a photo with the full frame Canon 5D MK III and the 24-105mm F4 lens at 105mm. I have never been certain how far this is as my Bushnell range finder will not read that far.  I can usually get accurate readings with it in ideal conditions to somewhere between 300 to 400 yards so I would assume it is further than this and perhaps quite a bit further.  We can safely say as the old mountain men did that the bull was, "a right fur piece away".

Elk are barely visible on hillside in front of campers and cabin with 105mm on full frame camera
Since this was the most impressive bull I had yet seen here this year I broke out my tool of choice for extreme long range filming, which is a Panasonic GH4 fitted with an old Canon 500mm f4.5 FD lens and I walked to the edge of the new parking lot near the entrance from Dewey Road and set the rig up and filmed several clips of the action.


For me the main attractions of the GH4 are that it films in 4K mode and also features an ETC mode, which basically reads a 1080P or Full HD frame from the center of the sensor so that it has a crop factor of 5.2. This gives the 500mm a 35mm full frame equivalent of  2,600mm. There is some controversy about this figure and it varies with the source, but suffice it to say that it is powerful enough to be an extremely effective long range tool.  Many ask why one wants to shoot in 4K when 4K displays are not yet the standard or even commonly available.  The long and short is that it enables one to crop extensively in post-production and still have a high resolution image.  Is it better to use the ETC mode or is it better to crop to an equivalent size? I don't know for sure, but I often prefer to shoot in ETC as it gives a dramatic up and close image in the finder.

 I only use this rig in certain specialized situations as in many cases it is too powerful to easily find the subject.  While it is very good for filming small birds, it is difficult to locate them in the finder  unless they are perched conspicuously on a branch in the open..  The same is true of flying birds such as waterfowl, eagles, etc., so for general purpose, medium to long range use, I much prefer to use the old model Canon 100-400mm L lens.  With it one can quickly zoom wide to locate the subject and then slam the zoom back to the composition that you want to film.  Since I use an external monitor and manual focus with these lenses, I can begin focusing as soon as I stop zooming, while with the new model 100-400 you must shift your grip from the zoom ring to the focus ring.

Cheap adapters are available to mount the Canon EOS lenses to Micro 4/3 cameras, but they do not control the aperture so they are of very limited use for video. I use either a Metabones Smart Adapter or Metabones Speed Booster to attach the EOS lenses to the camera These adapters allow the Panasonic cameras to control the aperture, utilize  the image stabilization of the Canon lenses ,and permit auto-focus. I do not use the auto-focus: however, as it does not perform  acceptably well--at least with my rig.

With the Smart Adapter the focal length retains the full crop factor of the Micro 4/3 sensor of the GH4, and f stop value remains the same as the lens on a Canon body which is f4.5--f5.6 with a 100-400mm.  With the Speed Booster the crop factor is reduced, but one gains low light performance with the lens becoming a f3.2--f4.0 and it has the same equivalent focal length as when it is mounted on a Canon APS-C crop sensor camera such as the 7D MKII.

The Canon FD lenses were made back in manual focus and manual exposure days and they have aperture rings to select the f stop.  This makes them naturals for adapting to a wide variety of modern cameras for special purpose use, without having to invest in a complicated electronic controlled adapter.  In the case of the GH4 and the 500mm I use a Fotodiox Lens Mount Adapter, which is available from Amazon.com for a bit over $20.00. While the Canon FD lenses have not been manufactured for many years, most of the reputable internet dealers such as Adorama, B&H, and Keh usually have a good selection of these lenses in their used department. Although these are usually the smaller fixed power and zoom lenses, 500mm and 600mm lenses are available from time to time.

If you already have an EOS telephoto, it may be best to  buy the Metabones adapters as the current 500mm and 600mm lenses are f 4.0 vs the f 4.5 of the FD, and you are able to gain this long range ability with only the cost of the adapter,  but if you are solely a Panasonic user and own no EOS lenses, the FD lenses may be worth considering as both the adapter and the FD lenses will be much cheaper than buying the new EOS lenses and Metabones adapters.  I bought my 500mm FD because the Metabones adapters were not yet on the market and the adapter I was using with my EOS lenses left a lot to be desired. Would I buy it today if I had it to do over again?  Probably not since I already have the EOS lenses and the Metabones  adapters, but I have never been sorry that I got the lens and I continue to use it regularly for long range filming.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.