Lens Review: Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM

I refer to this lens as my “Critter-lens” because it’s the lens I use most often when shooting the critters.  It is Canon’s EF 400mm f/5.6L USM super telephoto lens.  And its been around for a long time, and is still in demand for some very good reasons.

Canon 400mm

Reason #1 is build quality.  It’s a Canon L-lens, which denotes professional level construction.  It’s all metal construction, and built like a tank.  It does lack a weather seal at the mount, but includes a built-in in lens shade.  Reason #2 is its superb optical quality. Images are critically sharp.  What we call “tack-sharp” in photographer jargon.

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1/500s @ f/5.6 ISO 1600

Just check out the detail in this image of a hawk, even after a tight crop in Photoshop the feather detail is amazing.  Click on the image to see even more detail.  Reason #3 is its reasonable price of $1,250 USD.  Expensive you say?  Yes, I suppose.  But compared to the next step up, Canon L-lenses in the 500mm, 600mm and 800mm range, at prices of $15,000 to $20,000 USD per copy, this lens is a bargain.

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1/250s @ f/5.6 ISO 320

Any professional photographer knows, and will tell you if asked:  spend your money on lenses, not on cameras.  Whereas the camera is the brain, the lens is the eye—and we look through our eye, and not through our brain.

With any piece of photographic equipment there are tradeoffs.  Some will lament the lack of Image Stabilization (IS) on this lens.  I think it’s a moot point, because shooting moving critters requires higher shutter speeds (typically 1/focal length or higher) to stop motion blur (and if you’re shooting fast enough to stop motion blur, then you are likewise shooting fast enough to stop most camera shake).  Image Stabilization is no substitute for photo discipline and technique.

Photographing this Blue and Gold Macaw I broke my own rule, with good photo technique (bracing my camera & lens, and controlling my breathing) I was able to reduce my shutter speed to 1/250s.  As you can see the image is “tack-sharp” even without a tripod.

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 1/500s @ f/5.6 ISO 1250

The other criticism I most often hear about this lens is that it shoots slow (with a maximum aperture of f/5.6), in other words it doesn’t let in enough light.  However, lenses in the f/4 range (allowing for more light) are big, heavy and prohibitively expensive.  I am usually shooting critters in open shade, because that’s where they like to be.  With today’s digital cameras you can easily shoot at higher ISO’s.  The hawk and jaguar were shot at ISO’s 1600 and 1250 respectively.

In the old film days we typically shot slides at ASA 25, 50 and 100.  Anything much over ASA 400 was a disaster due to the unacceptable “graininess” of the image.  Look at the images of the hawk and jaguar with their higher ISO’s (click on the images to enlarge for better viewing).  I defy you to find any objectionable graininess.  I’ve recorded images, with ISO’s as high as 3200, with great results.  This lens also has the advantage of producing stellar results when shooting wide-open at f/5.6 (where most lenses benefit by stopping them down 1-stop to f/8, it is not necessary on this lens).

No lens, no matter how good, will compensate for bad photo technique; it is up to the photographer to learn his or her craft.  At minimum, all images must be tack-sharp, properly exposed and well composed.  Even with all of today’s technological advances:  Auto-focus (AF), Auto-exposure (AE) and composition overlay grids it is not always easy.  But if you’re a Canon shooter (like me), and you like to photograph the critters, you should really consider purchasing this lens if you have the wherewithal.  It is a GREAT value.

Note:  I don’t usually endorse products, or do product reviews, and I certainly don’t get any financial reward or consideration when I do.  These opinions are strictly my own, based upon my own personal experience.  SFD

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer and World Traveler

Reporting from Quito, Ecuador


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