Canon 400mm Super-Telephotos: You Can’t Go Wrong

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer, Traveller

I am a big fan of the 400mm lenses in Canon’s lineup. I’ve shot with their venerable EF 400mm f/5.6L USM super-telephoto prime lens for almost three years and can’t say enough good things about its image quality. Its other fine qualities include: its light weight, built-in lens hood and relatively reasonable price. Some drawbacks (but not deal breakers) include: no IS-Image Stabilization, no zooming of focal lengths, no weather sealing and a long Minimum Focus Distance (MFD) of 3.5 meters (11.48 feet).

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Super-telephoto Prime Lens

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Super-telephoto Prime Lens

I think the positives of this lens far outweigh the perceived negatives. It has stellar image quality (sharpness, color rendition and contrast). I will say it again—this lens has absolutely stellar image quality (especially given its age). Many, if not most, bird shooters think this is the best birds-in-flight (BIF) lens EVER (including Nikon, Tamron and Sigma). I won’t disagree with that. As a wildlife photographer I’m usually shooting at high shutter speeds (1/500 to 1/2000s) so IS is not critical and a Storm Jacket lens cover protects against inclement weather.

Male Cinereous Harrier

Male Cinereous Harrier

I shot the above image, of a male Cinereous Harrier, from the 3.5 meter MFD of the lens with great results. This is a relatively large raptor and it adequately filled the frame of my full-frame Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera body. Capturing smaller birds is a bit more problematic on a full-frame camera but improves when using an APS-C 1.6x crop-sensor camera like the Canon EOS 7D Mark II because the Effective Field of View (EFOV) becomes 640mm (400mm x 1.6 = 640mm). So why would I switch if I’m so happy with this critically acclaimed lens? Good question.

Galapagos Sea Lion Pup

Galapagos Sea Lion Pup

Number One on my reasons list is the improved MFD of the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM super-telephoto zoom lens: 0.98 meters (3.2 feet) versus 3.5 meters (11.48 feet). That means I can get 2/3s closer (8.28 feet) and still maintain focus. I never thought that would be a big deal until I started photographing in the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon river basin and Southern Patagonia. There were times, more than a few actually, where I got too close to focus and I couldn’t take a step back without stepping off a cliff or into the water.

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Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II USM Super-telephoto Zoom Lens (Un-zoomed)

Number Two is IS-Image Stabilization. Although I’m typically shooting at high shutter speeds in excess of 1/500s this IS lens allows for 4-stops of IS. That would allow me to shoot at slower shutter speeds while photographing static (non-moving) subjects while keeping my ISO low for maximum Image Quality (IQ). Also, though I have pretty good photographic technique and know how to brace my handheld shots my old hands aren’t getting any steadier. Like autofocus (AF) IS helps me to compensate for some of the infirmities of age.

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Galapagos Hawk

Number Three is zooming. The 100-400mm focal length (on a full-frame camera) is a great FL range for shooting in Africa, the Galapagos, the Amazon and even in Southern Patagonia. On an APS-C 1.6x crop-sensor camera body (i.e. Canon EOS 7D Mark II) that extends the EFOV to 160-640mm. With a prime lens you are automatically limited to one FL (in this case 400mm). As the Lion approaches your safari vehicle you often need to dial back your FL to keep the subject within the frame. On foot you can step back (most of the time) but in a vehicle you can’t.

Galapagos Sea Lion

Galapagos Sea Lion

Number Four is weather sealing. This newer lens comes with a rubber O-Ring at the mount that effectively seals out both dust and moisture. My older lens does not have weather sealing and though I can mediate the problem by covering it with a Storm Jacket weatherproof cover that can be cumbersome. Was I able to overcome the shortcomings of my older lens? I think the photos I’ve included attest to the fact that I have. Would this newer version-II lens make my life as a wildlife photographer easier? Yes, most definitely.

Conclusion: When I get back to the States (after an absence of five years) I will be upgrading my photographic kit. Anticipated purchases include two new camera bodies: the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV full-frame body along with the Canon EOS 7D Mark II crop-sensor body. Additionally, I will be purchasing two to four newer version lenses to include the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM super-telephoto zoom lens at $1,900 USD (including $200 USD rebate). My current lens is still available and a great buy for those on a budget at $1,150 USD. Some photographers have opted for third-party equivalents like the Tamron and Sigma but I still think Canon has the best optics around (sorry Nikon and Sony). If you’re considering this super-telephoto zoom lens make sure you buy the version-II and not the version-I (push/pull). The version-I basically sucks. SFD

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