As a fully accredited media photographer with Cricket South Africa, I decided to throw this lens in at the deep end and used it to cover the first test match between the South African Proteas team and the visiting West Indies played at Supersport Park in Centurion. As a rule I will use my 500mm f4 prime lens at cricket matches and then mostly with my 1.4x Extender fitted to achieve a 700mm f5.6 effective focal length (lets ignore the 1.3x crop factor from the body for now) so the 600mm f6.3 that I could achieve with the test lens will be good enough on reach when taking photos from higher up in the stands. When working lower down, closer to the field of play it can easily frame batsmen more than tight enough, and bowlers from a side-on view for that matter. More important was checking the ability of the lens to focus and track the running batsmen and bowlers in panning mode as well as head-on, and to check the image quality (IQ) of the lens at maximum zoom and aperture, especially after the results I got from the initial birding and wildlife sessions. After the first few morning hours I downloaded the photos onto my laptop, and was pleasantly surprised (and happy) to see that this lens performed very good indeed when used wide open, confirming my initial assessment that there is no need to stop down 2/3 or a full stop to achieve better sharpness. The IQ was very good indeed, good colours, sharp and showing sufficient fine detail. A little light fall-off was noticeable in the corners of the frame, but I would not regard this as an issue; my Canon 500 f4 L IS also has some fall-off in the corners.
Being an f6.3 maximum aperture lens at 600mm, I always knew the speed of the AF will be slower than what I am used to from my Canon 500 f4 L IS lens. With cricket test matches played only in day-time with good light conditions it wasn’t a problem to achieve a high enough shutter speed at a low ISO setting, but I have my reservations using this lens for night-time matches lit by floodlights. The 1.3 stop slower lens implies pushing the ISO and/or dropping the shutter speed to get to the typical 1/1000, f/4, ISO 2000 setting I use for matches played under floodlights, which will push the camera’s boundaries on high ISO noise and risk motion blur in faster moving subjects. More on this to follow as I was able to test this later during a One Day International played by the two national teams in a day-night format match.
The AF performance of the lens on the batsmen, who are really static subjects, was as good as can be expected, 90% and better with similar keeper rates and IQ than experienced with the birding and wildlife sessions. The panning shots of the bowlers were also very good, no real problems there. Fast lock-on with accurate tracking the hit-rate on these shots were very good, certainly better than 70% which is really good going for a lens in this price range of the market. Refer to the shot of master batsman Hashim Amla in action for the Proteas, who scored a double century in this match.
I did, however, notice the same considerable drop in keeper rate when shooting the bowlers running head-on towards the camera, more so than when using my (admittedly) professional prime Canon 500mm f/4 L-series lens. Also the closer I was to the bowlers, the lower the keeper rate would drop. Bowlers at more of a distance, such as Morne Morkel in the bowling action shot, yielded more acceptable results, around 50-60%, which is not spectacular, but workable.
For the closer to camera head-on bowling shots the keeper rate dropped to below 40% on pin-sharp images, confirming the results from the first birding tests where it also offered the same and lower keeper rate on fast flying birds head-on towards the camera. Refer to Part 1 for the results of the birding tests.
The focus accuracy was still good when used under the floodlights, but the 1.3 stops drop in exposure from my usual f4 lens which requires ISO 1600 to reach 1/1000, means that the ISO needs to be pushed too high to achieve the proper shutter speed at f/6.3. Yes, it can be done and can be used under these conditions, but expect a drop in image quality after serious noise reduction is applied to images. Obviously different manufacturers with various models on offer will have varying degrees of digital noise at high ISO settings, with the professional camera bodies doing a better job at handling higher ISO settings. The user will have to decide what is acceptable to him.