Use A Teleconverter Or Crop The Image?

Think fast!

You’re out searching for wildlife – your camera in hand – when you spot some critter you’ve always wanted to bag off in the distance. Sadly, you know that your lens is just not going to be quite long enough to get the shot you want on its own.

So, here’s the question – what’s going to give you the best-looking photo, slapping on a teleconverter or just cropping the non-teleconverter image to the same size back home on your computer?

Well, that’s a good question and one that comes up on a regular basis, both on internet forums and in the minds of photographers faced with the situation in the field.

The image below, I choose to crop instead of using a teleconverter. Was it a mistake? We’ll answer that at the end of the article 🙂

reddish-egret-hunting

So, which way gives better results? Well, I decided to do a few tests that will (hopefully) put that question to bed.

For this test, I used the Nikon 300PF attached to a Nikon D810, D5, and D500. I choose the 300PF because it takes a teleconverter very well and I think it’s typical of what we would see with most quality lenses and 1.4 TCs. 

Since the cropped shots are lower resolution, I had to downsize the teleconverter shots so we could compare. Also, note that I cropped to the same size as the teleconverter – a 1.4X crop, not the 1.5X DX or 1.6X APS-C crop. I currently only use the 1.4 TC, so I can’t compare other TCs.

Also, be sure to click the images below for a full-size version (they will open in a new tab). NOTE – when the image opens in a new tab, you may have to click it one more time for the full-size image.

Here’s the overall test scene:

overall-target

The results are as follows:

First, we have the D5. As you can see, the teleconverter shot has a lot more detail so a TC is definitely the way to go here.

tc-examples-cropvtc-d5

Next we have the D810. In this case, it’s a bit closer, thanks in part I think to the lack of an AA filter on the sensor:

tc-examples-cropvtc-d810

Finally, we have the D500, which is a crop camera to begin with. As you can see, similar results to what we saw with the D810.

tc-examples-cropvtc-d500-copy
So, at least ostensibly, the bottom line here looks pretty simple when it comes to optical quality. When faced with a scenario where you have the choice of using a teleconverter or cropping, it would seem that your are generally better off using the teleconverter. In each and every test above, the overall amount of detail captured was greater with the teleconverter attached than not (to varying degrees). And in my experience this tends to hold true when dealing with good optics and teleconverters.

The grizzly shot below was with my 600mm and 1.4 teleconverter on a D4. I am very happy with the level of detail.

meadow-lookout

However…

Keep in mind that not all combinations are necessarily going to behave this way. There are a ton of variables at play here and there’s really no way to account for every one of them.

For instance, the 300PF is perfectly happy with a teleconverter strapped on, but not all lenses swing that way. Some lenses are better at taking a teleconverter; others see quality diminished to such an extent that cropping can actually be the better option. (My 200-400 was like that, it never liked my 1.4TC, although others have reported better results with that combo).

Another variable is the teleconverter itself. I’m using the Nikon 1.4TC III – one of the best teleconverters on the market. So, using a lesser optic may tighten the gap.

So, this isn’t as cut and dry as we’d like it to be.

However, I can give you this guideline. Over the years, I’ve found that big glass like the 200 F2, 300 2.8, 400 2.8, 500 F4, 600F4, etc can all take a teleconverter without too much complaining, especially those TCs of the 1.4 variety. When using those lenses, I generally tend to favor using the TC instead of cropping.

The image below was captured with the 300 PF and 1.4TC E III. Sharp as you’d ever want.

ghost-crab

Zoom lenses, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. Some of them (like the 200-500) don’t seem to mind a 1.4TC coming along for the ride; other lenses don’t tolerate the TC it nearly as well. This is especially true when you mate a 3rd party converter with a slow F5.6 zoom. (There’s a reason Nikon and Canon TCs only work with certain lenses.)

So, in the end, I recommend testing your own combinations (and make sure to AF fine tune your lens and TC combos – they always seem to need it – I use LensAlign)

Of course, that said, other limitations come into play when using a teleconverter that you really need to consider.

1. You lose your ISO advantage

The first and most obvious issue with a teleconverter is that it costs you anywhere from 1 -2 stops in ISO (1 stop in the case of a 1.4TC, 2 stops in the case of a 2X). So, it’s a penalty that you’ll need to consider, especially if the light is getting low.

If adding a teleconverter would drop your shutter speed too much (and you’re not willing to go higher with ISO), it’s possible you’d be better off just cropping. After all, I’d prefer a cropped image that was sharp to a full frame image that was not.

2. Your AF sensors don’t work as well

Many shooters don’t realize this, but the simple fact is your AF sensors won’t work as well with a teleconverter attached. From an overall standpoint, the more light getting through your lens, the faster and more reliable those AF sensors are across the board. So, an F2.8 lens will have better AF performance than an F4 lens which is better than an F5.6, etc.

Besides, not all of your AF sensors are created equal. In many cameras, when you drop your maximum lens opening to something slower than F4, some or even all of your cross sensors revert to line sensors. This can make it harder to get an AF lock than without the teleconverter attached. Additionally, and again, depending on the camera and what effective F/Stop you end up with, some of your AF sensors may not work reliably at all.

For example, Nikon likes to boast about how their cameras can focus down to F8. However, that’s not for all the AF sensors. In fact, on the D5 / D500, only 15 of the 153 AF sensors support focusing at F8.

So, if you add a teleconverter and find you just can’t get an AF lock, then maybe cropping is the better option. (Hint – if you ever have a tough time getting an AF lock, try switching to the center AF point – it’s always the most sensitive).

For the image below, I left the TC in my pocket. The light was starting to fall and I needed all the shutter speed I could get. In addition, trying to catch these guys as they pop out of the water requres everything you can milk from your AF system. So, I decided that cropping would be a better choice than a teleconverter this time:

tern-catchign-a-fish

3. Your images will have lower contrast

Finally, using a teleconverter will tend to lower the contrast in your images when compared to images taken without one. However, it goes deeper than just the final image. This reduced contrast can also affect your autofocus since your camera uses areas of contrast to achieve focus. I also find teleconverters seem to make the lens more sensitive to things like heat and atmospheric distortion than when I use just the naked lens.

So, there you go. Not completely cut and dry however I can tell you what I do. As I hinted above, if I’m in a situation that comes down to a cropping or using a teleconverter, the vast majority of the time I’ll put on the teleconverter – with one exception. If I’m shooting full frame and happen to have my D500 (or another similar crop body) with me, I’ll switch to that instead. It will give me better overall image quality assuming the full frame camera is close in resolution – and I don’t have any of the teleconverter downsides mentioned above.

In fact, I did a video that examines the question of whether you’re better off using a full frame camera with a teleconverter or a crop camera. Check it out at the link below:

Comparison Test – A Crop Camera vs A 1.4x Teleconverter On Full Frame

One final thought.

I find that many people like to think of a teleconverter as a way to pull really distant subjects into view – and then crop them heavily later on in post.

However, that tends to lead to disappointment since the lens with the teleconverter isn’t as sharp as the lens without the TC attached. Plus, when you have an animal at the kind of distance that requires both a teleconverter and a heavy crop, the air itself can start to soften your image (heat haze, atmospheric distortion etc).

For me, I like to think of a teleconverter as a way to tighten up a crop on an animal that’s already in decent range. I’m usually the happiest with the teleconverter shots if using the teleconverter makes it so I no longer need to crop at all, or if I do need to crop it’s minimal. I’m never happy with a teleconverter shot that also requires a heavy crop. The image below is one of the favorites on this site and was taken with a teleconverter to help him fill the frame a little more:

cub-in-a-tree

Oh, and what about that Reddish Egret at the beginning of this article? Was it a mistake to crop instead of using a teleconverter (since the TC image would have had more detail)? I don’t think so. I had low light with rain falling and the egret was dashing all over the place. So, I needed both shutter speed and AF speed. In the end, there’s never an easy answer – you have to keep a variety of techniques in mind and use what works best for the scene at hand.

So, there you have it. If you enjoyed this article, I think you’ll REALLY like my e-book, Secrets To Stunning Wildlife Photography. It’s filled with 290 pages of information just like this. Check it out – click here (hey, it’s free to look 🙂 )

This entry was posted in Techniques, Using Your Gear, Wildlife.

23 Comments

  1. Lisa January 7, 2017 at 9:22 am #

    Steve! It is really outstanding! Could you please share a video on this useful article. Thanks in advance!

  2. steven goldstein December 3, 2016 at 8:31 pm #

    Steve: I’m currently shooting BIF with a D7200. Is there any difference in image quality shooting in DX mode and cropping in post as opposed to shooting in 1.3 crop mode? Thanks.

    • Steve Perry December 4, 2016 at 2:42 pm #

      It depends…

      If you’re just cropping to the same 1.3X crop at you computer, then there is no difference in quality. However, you will get a little more space on your memory cards and your buffer won’t fill as fast.

      Now, if you can fill the frame without the crop vs. stepping back to fill the frame with the 1.3X crop, then there is a difference. My advice is to only use the 1.3X crop when you would have to crop the image to that size anyway.

  3. Michelle Maggio December 3, 2016 at 6:43 am #

    Hi Steve, I read your e-book. Thoroughly enjoyed it. I have a Nikon D-750 and several Nikon lens. Nikon 105 Macro, Nikon 18-120, Nikon 12-24, Nikon 24-120. I also have a Sigma 120-400 Zoom. I was looking to buy the Nikon 200-500 zoom. I shoot birds, otters, and wildlife. What are your recommendations for a zoom lens?
    Another question what lens of the ones I listed above would you use to take family photos.
    I thoroughly enjoy all your videos. Thank you and Merry Christmas.

    • Steve Perry December 4, 2016 at 2:40 pm #

      Hi Michelle –

      Thanks 🙂 For what you describe, the 200-500 zoom would be the way to go for sure. It’s a really good range for most wildlife. For family portraits, the 24-120 would be my choice.

      Hope that helps 🙂

      ~Steve

  4. Stephen Young November 25, 2016 at 12:58 pm #

    Sorry Steve. The question is for, you not Mike!

  5. Stephen Young November 25, 2016 at 12:48 pm #

    Hi Mike,
    For bird photography do you think an Aps-c body with the nikon 300 f4 plus the 1.4 teleconverter(630m eq) will yield better results than a micro four thirds body with the panasonic/leica 100 to 400(800mm eq) at the long end? If the Aps-c is at F5.6 with the tc attached and the image is cropped from a 24 mp sensor to get the same size as the micro four thirds camera(16 mp) at 800mm do you think the end result would be comparable? Apologies if it seems like a daft comparison

    • Steve Perry November 28, 2016 at 12:25 am #

      My experience with micro four thirds is very limited, so I can’t really give you an answer that would be much more than a guess. My gut tells me the larger sensor would yield better results, but I can’t say for sure. There does come a point of diminishing returns with the smaller sensors. Plus, I’m not sure on the quality of the 100-400 you mention compared with a typical 300 F4. Sorry I can’t be of more help on this one.

  6. Eric Bowles November 15, 2016 at 3:27 pm #

    Good article, Steve. My experience is very similar to your reported results.

    Teleconverters do vary. When I tested the Nikon TC14E II and III on my 600 f/4 AFS VR with the D800E, I found it was not edge sharpness that made the difference but micro contrast. Tonal differences such as variations on a leaf or blade of grass were easier to see with the TC 14E III than the II.

    I’ve also found that my preference is for the clean backgrounds and shallow DOF of FX images over DX images until I get to the point where I really need the DX crop. I often prefer to shoot a little looser to allow flexibility for different crops or to make sure I don’t clip a wing tip or foot.

    The D500 is an excellent camera, and it has it’s place in my bag, but to the extent possible, I selectively use the DX crop rather than defaulting to it for any wildlife.

  7. Warren Disbrow November 14, 2016 at 3:47 pm #

    Interesting article and conclusions. I’ve found photography is always about some sort of compromise and the area of TC’s is always a subject of debate. It also seems that every new generation of camera gear changes the playing field. I love the shots that you used in your article and video, will be buying your e-book shortly!

    • Hank November 16, 2016 at 8:54 pm #

      Also being 70, and more importantly wanting to enjoy the safari experience rather than blow everyone away with my astoundingly good photography, I took a D7200 (1.5 crop sensor) with just one lens, 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 on African safari. I rarely missed having a longer lens (there were those mouth shots of far off yawning hippos which I had to crop), but I wouldn’t want to swap lenses in that dusty environment anyway. You will get as close as 30 ft from the big cats; farther from the multi ton herbivores, but then they are that much bigger! From the “Jeep” (a Land Rover & a Toyota) a 50-300 would have done just as well. I only missed my 70-200 f/2.8 in the evening when f6.3 becomes useless (the 18-300 is much much better than the snobs would have you believe). You will want/need longer lenses only if you want lots of very tight shots, but then you could do that in a zoo — I wanted some habitat as well as interaction between the animals in the shots. I did bring a very foldable monopod for semi-futile attempts at low light shots. If I went on Safari again, all I would change is to bring an 85mm f1.8 for the ONCE per evening lens swap. Adjust your focal lengths if you bring a full frame SLR, but personally, I would choose slower tele lenses because of size.

  8. Dan Brown November 12, 2016 at 3:17 pm #

    I am going to Africa and will be shooting from a “jeep” type vehicle most of the time. At 72, I cannot hand hold my 500 f4 anymore. Will my 80-400 with and without a 1.4 be acceptable ? The jeep and other photographers will not allow me to use a tripod. I am planning on bringing a Nikon 70-200 f2.8 also.
    I will be using a Nikon D800 and D7000. Also, should I use my wife’s D7100 instead of my D7000?

    • Steve Perry November 12, 2016 at 3:40 pm #

      It’s hard to say for sure. I know if it were me I’d want the 500mm, but when you’re in a vehicle there is real value to having a zoom. The 80-400 without the TC is pretty good, however, I’m not a huge fan of using it with one. It works, but doesn’t take it as well as I’d personally like. I think your best bet is to try to shoot the 80-400 without the TC as much as possible, switching to the D7100 you mentioned instead of using the TC.

  9. Mark November 12, 2016 at 12:02 am #

    Hi Steve,

    Thank you so much for the article. It helps a lot! just a one more question, if you don’t mind, have you tried to combine the TC 1.4 III with a 200 ~ 500 mm lens on your D500? what will the results be in terms of sharpness and AF sensitivity?

  10. steve williams November 11, 2016 at 5:25 pm #

    hi steve great article ,has got me thinking of buying a nikon 200-400 mm f4 zoom ,i already have the 200-500 zoom but as its a f 5.6 i think the f4 would be better glass ,sorry forgot to say I’m using the nikon d500 any thought would be a good help
    regards steve

    • Steve Perry November 12, 2016 at 12:27 am #

      Thanks 🙂

      I had a 200-400 and I really wanted to like that lens (and I might try another one down the road). My biggest issue was that my copy (and others as I understand it) just wasn’t very good at a distance. However, at closer range (say less than 100 feet) it thought it was a prime – just super sharp. And, like you say, it’s an F4. It’s funny, using the 200-500 has started making me think that maybe I should give the 200-400 another go (and just shoot within its limits). I love faster glass 🙂

  11. Mike G November 11, 2016 at 2:33 am #

    Thanks for a great article. Plain English, cut to the chase explanation of a very confusing subject, at least to me.

    Your article was just in time for me. I am embarking on a trip where I will be able to take very limited gear, and have been agonizing if I should take my 80-400 nikon and bring a teleconverter or just bring my Tamron 150-600. My 2 bodies are a Nikon D5200 and a D7200. Both of those will come with me as well as my 28-300. After posting questions on a couple of photography forums, I made the decision to take my 150-600 and leave the 80-400 behind. Hopefully, the decision I have made will prove to be the correct one. Everything is packed and ready to leave day after tomorrow first thing in the AM.

    • Steve Perry November 11, 2016 at 2:36 am #

      Hi Mike –

      That seems like a solid decision to me. Thing is, no matter what you do, there will always be times you’ll wish you had gone the other way with lens choice. So, you have to figure out which lens you’ll likely miss the least 🙂 Seems like between the 28-300 and the 150-600 you have it covered nicely. Have a good trip!

  12. James Bianco November 11, 2016 at 1:51 am #

    I have a nikon D 5200 I shoot with all vintage lenses some nikon and some minolta,sologar,.takamar and so on.I have a few tele conv. also 3xand 2x vivitar and minolta. what can you tell me about these types of setups.I wish you could write some articles on vintage lenses all types, and all makes you are always talking about high end equiptment. I can’t afford that.I shoot all manual and and those vintage lenses aren;t to bad at all.I am not complaining I just want to know your take on this, thanks James Bianco

    • Steve Perry November 11, 2016 at 2:09 am #

      The truth is, I just don’t use that type of gear in my photography. I’m mainly focused on landscapes and wildlife, so I tend to lean towards more modern gear. I have played with vintage lenses from time to time with landscapes, but they never really seemed any better than my modern zooms. However, your post has got me thinking about it again (I do enjoy vintage, manual focus glass) 🙂

  13. Richard Cohen November 10, 2016 at 7:57 pm #

    Steve, as always, another really excellent article..explained in detail, yet in a way that any photographer at any skill level can relate to. Thanks!

    • Steve Perry November 11, 2016 at 2:07 am #

      Thanks Richard 🙂 Good to hear from you!

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