Teleconverters and autofocus: What every wildlife photographer should know

Canon 60d autofocus teleconverter

Teleconverters and Autofocus

I received the following question via email and thought I should write a post here on ImprovePhotography.com to answer the question for the world.  Here’s the question: “I’m looking at buying a teleconverter for my Canon 100-400mm L f/4-5.6 IS lens but I am having difficulty determining if the1.4x or 2.0x teleconverter will still allow for autofocus with this lens. I use a Canon 60d camera.”

Background Information

First of all, a little background.  DSLR cameras utilize two methods to focus: one is phase detection and the other is contrast detection.  Despite what photographers always argue in the blogosphere, BOTH autofocus methods require contrast in order to focus.  This is why it is difficult to focus on a large white sheet of paper.  Since there is no contrast, it is difficult to find focus.

The second piece of background information you’ll need to understand teleconverters is that, no matter what aperture you set on your camera, the DSLR will use the largest aperture available to find focus.  It works like this: You set the aperture to f/8, but the lens stays at f/2.8 (or whatever the largest available aperture is) to focus.  Once you press the shutter button to take the picture, the lens quickly snaps the aperture to f/8 and then clicks the shutter.  This method allows the lens to gather as much light as possible for autofocus before closing down to take the shot.

What IS a teleconverter?

With that background, let’s take a look at teleconverters and their unintended effects.   A teleconverter looks like a short piece of a lens that goes between the DSLR and the lens.  Its purpose is to magnify the focal length of the lens by 1.4, 1.7, or 2 times–depending on which teleconverter you buy.  Beginning photographers on a budget love teleconverters because it provides a long lens at a low price.  If only it were that simple…

The Drawbacks to Teleconverters

Teleconverters destroy image quality.  Without exception, teleconverters always make lenses less sharp. While more expensive wildlife/sports lenses can do a decent job of controlling a teleconverter, it still means losing some image quality.  If you have  cheaper wildlife/sports lenses (under $2,000), then a teleconverter will bludgeon your image quality to a bloody pulp.  Seriously, it’s nasty.  Don’t do it.

I’m not at all saying that photographers on a budget are left out in the cold, but I don’t want photographers on a budget to waste their money on gear that won’t give them good bang for their buck.

If you purchase a teleconverter made by a manufacturer other than the manufacturer of your lens, some data will not be transmitted to the camera. For example, if I use a Kenko teleconverter on a Nikon 400mm f/2.8 lens, some of the data that my lens usually passes to the camera to aid in focusing will not be sent.  Remember this when you go on Amazon and see that a 1.4x Tamron teleconverter costs about $130, while a Nikon teleconverter costs about $600.  Make sure to buy a teleconverter that is of the same brand as your lens.

Unfortunately, teleconverters reduce the aperture size.  A 1.4x teleconverter makes a lens lose 1 stop of light.  A 1.7x teleconverter makes a lens lose 1.5 stops of light.  A 2x teleconverter makes a lens lose two stops of light.  What does this mean?  It means that even the shortest teleconverter, a 1.4x, will transform an f/5.6 lens into an f/8!!!

So can I still autofocus with a teleconverter?

In the question that prompted this article to be written (a Canon 100-400 f/4-5.6 and a 1.4x teleconverter), the answer is no.  Autofocus will not work, or at least will not work well.  This combination will produce a 560mm f/8 lens.  Most cameras require somewhere between f/5.6 and f/6.2 in order to focus.  It depends on the camera, but f/8 probably won’t allow for autofocus.

With this combination, manual focus is your best bet.  For untrained photographers, manually focusing a 560mm lens on a crop frame camera would be nearly impossible.  If you’re wondering why it’s tougher to manually focus a long lens, then check out this previous post.

There is a work-around to this problem by taping over three of the contacts on the teleconverter so the DSLR doesn’t know you’re using a teleconverter.  This situation will allow autofocus to work, but it will work erratically and improperly.

The bottom line

Don’t buy a teleconverter to try and make your tele-zoom a supertelephoto lens.  The results will be disastrous.  Teleconverters should only be used with high-end fast-aperture wildlife/sports lenses.  Using teleconverters in other situations is a recipe for muddy image quality.


About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. Jim travels the world to shoot with readers of Improve Photography in his series of free photography workshops. See his portfolio here.

Comments

    1. Rob ONeill

      This article is antiquated. It’s speaking to the reader in a language of the past. Today, 2016, many camera’s auto focus down to f/8. For instance there is a newish Nikon 200-500 f/5.6 lens available that can be used on any Nikon camera DX or FX. Let’s use the D7200 D500 and the D5 as examples. Two DX and one FX cameras. All will minimum focus to f/8 and the results that users are getting using the 1.4 III teleconverter with this lens are sterling. These users sing the praises of the high quality pictures they are making using this lens with the teleconverter on any of the three cameras. Time marches on, and technology with it. If you are shooting Nikon 1.4 teleconverter with one of the current batch of cameras, (2016) pick up the 1.4 teleconverter without fear of soft images and shoot away! You’ll love the results.

      1. Shelly Wolf

        Hi Rob, I have a D5 with a new model Nikon 500 mm f45. With the 1.4iii teleconverter, autofocus is erratic. Sometimes autofocus is quick and accurate, sometimes difficult, and a few times, the focus indicator dot showed even when the image was blurred. Appreciate your thoughts. thanx for replying to email.

  1. joephoto

    I have to disagree too. To tell you the truth, I am so sick of “pro photogs” essentially putting down amateurs because they are trying to find a way to make due with budget equipment and are told they are wasting their time unless they spend thousands on overprices equipment. Screw that. Buy what you can afford and have fun with it. To all of the elitists, stick with the photo.net jerkwads and their “holier than thou” attitudes.

    1. John Dutton

      I am not a pro but this guy is talking sense. I bought a 1.4 teleconverter for my 100-400mm IS lens and got no useful results whatsoever so I took it back. Had I read this review before I could have saved my money for something useful!

  2. Ted

    I’d suggest you are a little too gloomy in your conclusions. For Canon users, both the 300 mm and 70-200 mm f/4 lenses will retain autofocus with the 1.4 teleconverter making the 70-200 plus the 1.4 converter a way to get great flexibility with top notch glass. I have also found that for stationary subjects, the 400 mm f/5.6 with the 1.4 teleconverted can autofocus beautifully in Live View via contrast detection mode. This is pretty slow to focus, so isn’t practical for moving targets. Nice intereste range of topics you post!

  3. Michael DuPree

    Pentax K3 with Pentax 18 – 270mm by itself and with added Pentax 1.4x teleconverter…how do I upload images showing that WITH the teleconverter is sharper than withOUT??? I’m baffled…

  4. Ron Jones

    G’s guy take it easy on each other. I am one of those guys that can’t afford thousands for a camera body and a lens. But I do not hold that against someone who can. I just have to work a little harder to get in position to take a great shot. I use a Nikon camera with a Nikon 18x300mm1:3.5-5.6G ED VR2 with a 77mm optics. This thing will focus at 18″ and show you things on a bug that you never knew they had until you put it on screen. I try never to take a shot beyond 50 yrds. even though I can. I chose this lens because I needed one that would do whatever I needed without changing lens, and having to carry multiple lenses. I take pictures of Bighorn Sheep large whitetail and mule deer at 20 and 30 yds. It takes a lot of patience and hard work to put yourself in these positions. But it can be done. The pics are so detailed it will scare you. But the point is we all love the art. If you are one of these that want to try a teleconverter and not sure what it will do or not do for you, rent one for a few days and find out for yourself. Lets all keep shooting and enjoy ourselves. Ron

  5. Bonnie-Lou Ferris

    I need a telephoto lens for wildlife! I would love the Nikon 400mm, it’s almost $8000. Not in the budget . I have researched and was considering the Sigma Sports model 150-600mm, 5.6 this will cost between $2600-2900 plus tax Canadian. I need a lens to supplement before the 150mm. .. Maybe a 24-120mm?? What would you suggest. I was told if I put a teleconverter Nikon 1.4 this will give me more reach and it will be very sharp? It would be al last a 1260mm?
    I also like it it
    S sealed , made of metal and built like a tank. The weight is a little issue. I am small but tough Have! lol, I will also be attachi g this to a Nikon D 7200. Since this is not a full frame, it’s a 1.5 crop I should get that extra reach! Can someone help! I have expeditions soon. The bears are waking up and birds are migrating through soon! Time is of the essence.
    Please help!
    I am buying the d7200 as well.

    You can see a few shots on my website! My site is under co structuring at the mo ent. I am working at this f/t and need sharp images.
    I also have the d5100
    I bought the new Coolpix p900 due to all the hype! Of course I do t get the results! Sensor ,buffer…it’s a point and shoot. Can’t compare the two.
    Cheers
    Bonnie-Lou Ferris

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