Photography 101: Shootout Between the Canon 400mm Prime and the 100-400mm Zoom

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Two GREAT lenses: which one is the best? Sorry folks, there is no definitive answer to that question. I’ve owned and shot with both extensively (as a Canon shooter) and I can honestly say I love them both (but for different reasons). If you’re a Nikon shooter you might be questioning the choice between their 200-500mm zoom and their 500mm f/4 prime.

I love, love, love the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM prime lens. But. There’s always a but isn’t there? And the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM super-telephoto lens is nothing short of spectacular. But. Yeah, another but. The 400mm prime produces excruciatingly sharp images but so does the 100-400mm zoom.

The prime lens is older technology and is non-IS (non-Image Stabilised) but has blisteringly fast autofocus and is very lightweight for a 400mm super-telephoto. It also lacks weather-sealing (no rubber ass-gasket) but a smart photographer can work around those limitations. Typically, you’re shooting wildlife at higher shutter speeds which automatically eliminates camera shake and a Storm Jacket takes care of the weather-sealing concern. In the old days there was no such thing as IS or weather-sealing—there is always a workaround if you just think it through. I think the biggest drawback to the prime is its MFD (Minimum Focusing Distance). Its MFD is 3.5 meters or 11.5 feet which can be problematic in certain situations. Yes, it is possible (if rarely) to get too close to wildlife—it happened to me in the Galapagos Islands and again in Southern Patagonia.

Galapagos Sea Lion Pup – Galapagos Islands, Ecuador (Photo: Canon EOS 5D Mark II with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Super-telephoto Lens)

What are its biggest advantages? Price is number one, this lens is a real bargain at $1,179. Price is followed closely by IQ (Image Quality), build quality (all metal construction) and light weight (44.1 ounces or 2.76 pounds) which makes all day handholding very easy. It even features a built-in metal lens hood. This is an exceptional lens and is rated as one of Canon’s sharpest lenses EVER (and that’s saying a lot). Throw this stellar lens on a APS-C crop-sensor body (like the Canon EOS 7D Mark II) and you have an EFOV (Effective Field of View) of 640mm and that’s some serious reach. If you’re a serious wildlife photographer on a budget you should seriously consider buying this lens before it’s discontinued. You can still buy it brand spanking new at Adorama, B&H Photo or Amazon. So, then, why did I recently upgrade this lens?

Harbor Seal – La Jolla, CA (Photo: Canon EOS 7D Mark II with Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Super-telephoto Zoom Lens)

That’s a fair question. Awhile back Canon refreshed its EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM push-pull super-telephoto zoom lens. Years ago I had this lens and frankly I thought it sucked. I couldn’t get a sharp image to save my soul and even sent it back to Canon USA twice for calibration—no luck. I sold it after a few months with complete disclosure. When the new version II came out I was skeptical but they seem to have resolved all of my concerns. The new version is listed as the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM super-telephoto zoom lens and now sells for $2,049. What sold me on this lens? First, it’s razor-sharp like the prime (in photographer jargon we call that tack-sharp). It has a reduced MFD of just 3.2 feet (unlike the prime’s 11.5 feet).

Galapagos Hawk – Galapagos Islands, Ecuador (Photo: Canon EOS 5D Mark II with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Super-telephoto Lens)

Also, I can zoom from 100mm to 400mm making it much more flexible in the field. As I mentioned before (unlikely as it seems) I actually got too close to the critters in the Galapagos Islands and again in Southern Patagonia. A good zoom lens would have been a godsend. It’s fully weather-sealed and comes standard with 4-stop IS and though that isn’t a critical feature it does come in handy on occasion when photographing static subjects handheld. What are the downsides? Well, price of course. It’s almost a thousand dollars more than the prime ($2,049 versus $1,179) and the size and weight difference is also significant at 55.4 ounces or 3.44 pounds versus the 44.1 ounces or 2.76 pounds of the prime lens. Photography is all about tradeoffs and compromise.

Great Blue Turaco – San Diego Zoo, CA (Photo: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Super-telephoto Lens)

There are some good third-party alternative lenses from both Sigma and Tamron in the 150-600mm zoom range but if you’re a Canon shooter (like me) I would strongly recommend one of the two Canon lenses I’m reviewing here if you can afford it. The Sigma and Tamrons are bigger, heavier and don’t quite match the Canon’s IQ performance. They’re also slower lenses with a maximum aperture of f/6.3 and frankly they don’t really sharpen up until about f/8 (that’s really slow especially in low light). Also, their best performance is at about 400mm to 500mm. I had the Sigma for about a year and although I got some decent shots with it I finally upgraded to the older Canon 400mm prime lens and never regretted the switch. And so far I love my new Canon 100-400mm zoom even with its added weight and cost (and it’s no longer a push-pull zoom but has adopted a traditional twist zoom ring).

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 responses to “Photography 101: Shootout Between the Canon 400mm Prime and the 100-400mm Zoom

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