Causing great excitement among Canon photographers was the February 7, 2011 development announcement of the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens. I was personally excited – a Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Lens had long been on my most-wanted Canon lens list. Finally, I would not have to envy the Nikon DSLR owners and their Nikon 200-400mm f/4G AF-S VR II Lens. My excitement was tempered when, on Nov 15, 2011, Canon announced that this lens had been delayed until an unknown future date. Probably none of us expected the official product announcement to be another 18 months away at that point.
I was confident that, when the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens finally arrived, it was going to be another incredible addition to the big white Canon telephoto lens family. And this lens has not let us down. Producing very impressive image quality even with a wide open aperture, this lens has very accurate AF, an 4-stop-rated image stabilization, best-available build quality and - a GREAT focal length range. That last part is something I've never been able to say about a Canon great white EF lens as this is Canon's first great white EF zoom lens (note that the FD 150-600mm f/5.6 L was Canon's first great white zoom lens). This lens' negative attributes are easy to discern – the price tag and the size/weight.
Since I typically start my own lens selection by determining the focal length or focal length range (FLR) that I need, I also typically start my lens reviews with the same. And any discussion about the FLR of the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x Lens requires a look at the bulge on the side of this lens.
Housed in that bulge is a dedicated, optimized, 1.4x extender (teleconverter). The large, lockable lever allows that extender's elements/groups to be included in or removed from the lens' active optical path as desired.
Throwing the lever is as quick and easy as the illustration above makes it look (click on or mouseover the labels below the image). The extender switch is lightly spring-loaded to prevent an in-between setting from being used. A dampened "thunk" can be heard as it springs into place. Resistance on the lever is just right.
If you are watching through the viewfinder while slowly moving the lever, you will see what looks like a double exposure move across the viewfinder. If you move the lever more quickly, you see the viewfinder dim modestly. An f/5.6 max aperture presents a darker viewfinder image than an f/4 max aperture.
The built-in extender is a great feature. Swapping a conventional extender in and out of use on a super-telephoto lens takes far more time, effort and inconvenience than throwing a switch. A subject can easily be gone in the time it takes to install a conventional extender. The inconvenience of installation is often enough that it does not get done.
The built-in design is also far less risky to your gear. It is not unusual to hear of extenders (or lenses) being dropped during field installation, a process that really could use three or four hands. Extender installing/removing can also allow dust and moisture into the camera and lens - removing dust from a large stack of photos can take days.
Another significant advantage of a built-in extender is that it can be optically tuned specifically for the lens it is designed for use in, giving it a potentially strong optical quality advantage. I'll talk more about the optical effects of the built-in extender below.
While this design is new to many (most) of us, it is not the first Canon lens to incorporate a built-in extender. The Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens has inherited the built-in 1.4x extender concept from the rare Canon FD 1200mm f/5.6 L Lens (see picture on PBase.com). The 200-400 L is the first "EF" lens to receive a built-in, switch on/off extender.
With the extender locked out of the active lens groups, this is a 200-400mm lens with a modestly wide f/4 max aperture across the entire range. The throw of a lever moves the extender lens elements/groups into the optical path and this lens becomes a 280-560mm Lens with an f/5.6 max aperture across the focal length range. Combined, this becomes a 200-560mm f/4-5.6 lens with an incredible range of mostly-outdoor uses.
The focal length potential of this lens does not stop at 560mm. You see, this lens, like the rest of the big white Canon lenses, is also compatible with the Canon EF 1.4x III Extender and the Canon EF 2x III Extender. Here is a chart of the resulting focal lengths and apertures of the various combinations.
|200-400mm||w/ Built-In 1.4x|
|Native||200-400mm f/4.0||280-560mm f/5.6|
|w/ 1.4x III||280-560mm f/5.6||392-784mm f/8.0|
|w/ 2.0x III||400-800mm f/8.0||560-1120mm f/11.0|
If you are shooting with an APS-C format body, you can multiply the numbers in that table by a factor of 1.6x to get the full frame AOV (Angle of View) equivalency. Those results are some very big numbers.
Keep in mind that, unless you have a Canon EOS 5D Mark III or a 1-Series DSLR, you will lose autofocus functionality when the maximum aperture reaches f/8. No Canon EOS DSLR will autofocus with an f/11 max aperture lens combo mounted.
Also remember that flipping the extender into place while using a wide open aperture means that an exposure setting adjustment must also be made (the camera takes care of this in auto modes).
Two more things Canon wants you to know. First, with any EOS bodies introduced prior to the EOS-1D X, EOS-5D Mark III, EOS 6D and EOS Rebel T4i (650D): Switching the lens’ extender lever in either direction should only be performed when Live View or Video mode is off (LCD monitor not active) and when camera is inactive (not when pressing shutter button half-way, Image Stabilization active, writing to memory card and so on).
And second, moving the extender lever on the lens is possible during LCD monitor operation with those SLR models listed above or subsequently introduced EOS cameras. Users should still make sure that the camera is momentarily inactive (not writing to memory card, etc.) before moving the lever.
When the 200-400 L IS lens was first introduced, I received many questions from people wanting to know if this was the LONG-rumored replacement for the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM Lens. That it is not. While the 200-400 L is a significant upgrade from the 100-400 L in nearly all ways, these two lenses are not in the same class – in size, weight, image quality - or price.
Zooming out to 100mm, the 100-400L has the wide-end angle of view advantage and matches the sans-extender 400mm long end. The 100-400 L also accepts extenders, so the two lenses compete in this regard at the long end of the FLR. But, with its native f/4 aperture at 400mm, the 200-400 L allows twice as much light into the lens as the 100-400 L's native f/5.6 aperture at 400mm. Thus, with-extender combinations also have 1-stop wider apertures on the 200-400. That extra stop can be huge – and can make the difference between active AF and MF-only with some cameras including all review-time-current Canon APS-C format DSLRs.
You could buy a pile of 100-400 L lenses for the price of one 200-400 L lens. A large number of 100-400 L lenses will fit into the case of one 200-400 L lens. It takes many 100-400 L lenses to make the weight of one 200-400 L lens.
The image quality of the 200-400 L is at a completely different level of excellence.
Much more comparable to the 200-400 L in term of performance are the big white prime lenses (200 f/2 L IS, 300 L II IS, 400 L II IS, 500 L II IS, 600 L II IS). These lenses are more comparable in size, weight, image quality and price. The primes generally have an at-least 1 stop wider aperture useful for stopping action in lower light levels and for blurring the background, but the zoom has the focal length range advantage. Unless you have a lot of control over your subject and your positional relationship to them, shooting with a prime lens often results in cropping of a significant percentage of the images from a shoot. And sometimes this cropping happens in the viewfinder – and the cropped subject is of course non-recoverable in that case. I'm not saying that there is no cropping needed when using a zoom lens (sometimes ideal in-the-camera framing must be sacrificed to hold a specific AF point on your subject), but in general, less cropping is needed.
Shooting action with a zoom lens adds another dimension to the capture. Additional mental and physical effort and skill are required of the photographer to manage focal length changes while keeping the proper AF point where it needs to be in a rapidly changing subject scenario. With practice, the zoom option is a big advantage, allowing better overall image quality solely due to the higher resolution images resulting from uncropped captures. A zoom range allows proper framing over a much wider range of subject distances. For example, if a 500mm lens properly frames a subject at 50', the 200-400 + 1.4x can properly frame that same subject from 20' out to 56'.
I spent a lot of time shoot fast action with this lens. When shooting action, it is usually favorable to shoot from the front of the subject. And since most subjects do not move fast backwards, those subjects are usually moving toward you. This means that focal length choice during an action sequence typically ranges from long to wider as the action takes place.
Let's review an example. As the horse and rider come into sight, I am shooting at 400mm and continue to do so until the subject approaches 400mm frame-filling distance. Then I rapidly zoom out until shooting tightly framed images at 200mm. Zooming out also allows me to keep the focus point on the rider as those horse ears going up and down during the galloping are incredibly attractive to a camera's AF system.
The above images were selected out of a 44-frame EOS 1D X 12 fps burst. You are probably asking why I didn't start shooting at 560mm. As mentioned above, Canon does not advise shifting the extender into place until IS turns off and all memory card writing ceases. The Canon rep I talked to strongly advised against doing this and suggested that a service visit may be required of a lens that has been used in this way. Apparently electronics are at the root of the potential problem. Since the entire fly-by shown above lasted less than 4 seconds, the horse would have been gone before the card writing completed.
I actually forgot about that advisory prior to using this lens and can tell you that switching the extender out during fast action can be challenging even if it were safe to do so. So, make the with or without extender decision before the action occurs. Hold the lens with your left thumb on the switch to insure that you can remove/include the extender fast – prior to activating IS or taking a photo.
I typically have plenty of room on a 32GB CF card when shooting the horses with the 1D X just before sundown as shown above. The first time out with the 200-400 L, I filled the card with plenty of prime shooting light still remaining. The increase in number of ideal shots captured is very real. I wouldn't be afraid to say that my take is 2x in some situations. My time spent evaluating and selecting down the best images was huge.
A range of focal lengths also provides flexibility in composition (through perspective) that primes do not afford – or they require a lens change to make possible. Having a zoom range to work with in a long focal length lens of this class will increase the variety of images able to be captured without a lens change - and without cropping.
Sports and wildlife photographers are going to represent the largest market for this lens. Sports and wildlife will also be my choice for use of this lens. The wildlife is often found in scenic locations, so landscape photography is a certain use for this lens. Aviation photographers will find the 200-400 L a key lens in their kits. These lenses will fall into the hands of more than one photojournalist. And I'm sure that more than a few outdoor portraits will be captured with the 200-400 L, but smaller, lighter lenses will be better solutions to these needs for most.
The usefulness of the focal length range is strongly complemented by the usefulness of image stabilization. The 200-400mm f/4 L's IS system is rated at 4-stops of assistance and provides three IS modes.
Use Mode 1 is for stationary subjects. Not only does IS help deliver a sharper image, you will find the Mode 1 stabilized viewfinder extremely helpful for obtaining ideal subject framing - especially when handholding at the longer focal lengths.
Mode 2 IS is used for panning with a subject. In this mode, only 1 axis of stabilization is provided – allowing a linearly-moving subject to be tracked. Note that people tend to move up and down in addition to forward when running, making successful running people panning shots difficult. Put those people on wheels and you have a much more success-likely scenario. Think bicycles, motorcycles, race cars, etc.
The new mode available on Canon's latest super telephoto lenses is the designed-for-tracking-action mode 3 IS. In mode 3, image stabilization is active and ready for use the moment the shutter releases, but actual stabilization is not in effect until that precise time. The view seen through the viewfinder is not stabilized, and you are able to follow your erratic subjects without fighting against image stabilization designed to prevent you from doing the same. IS Mode 3 is designed to detect panning motion and, when detected, will only apply Image Stabilization at right angles to the direction of the detected movement (like IS Mode 2).
Mode 3 IS debuted with the Canon 300mm and 400mm f/2.8 L IS II Lenses. I gave mode 3 a significant amount of workout with those lenses and subsequently made mode 3 my standard action photography IS mode setting. Off was my previous choice – I usually need a faster-than-handholdable shutter speed to stop the action I am shooting. But I did see some benefits to using IS mode 3 for action. Mode 3 on the 500 and 600 L IS II lenses also worked well for me and the 200-400's IS Mode III is performing similarly.
You will hear some clicking and whirring when IS is active on this lens, but the sound is not loud enough to be a problem unless perhaps you are shooting in a dead silent environment. And in that case, your shutter release is going to cause much more of an issue. Recording sound in-camera will pick up IS noise.
The 200-400's IS system is very well implemented. By this I mean that, in part, the image in the viewfinder does not jump around when the system activates or during subject framing adjustment. Note that in Mode 3, IS sound is heard when the shutter release is half-pressed, but the image is not stabilized (including in the viewfinder) until the precise moment that the shot is taken.
Canon's big white lenses have a secondary IS mode that automatically senses a tripod being used and, at shutter speeds between 1/30th and 1 second, adjusts to compensate for mirror slap, shutter and other subtle tripod-based vibrations. The IS system automatically disables itself during tripod use when shutter speeds longer than 1 second are used.
Testing IS is never fun – especially with a lens as heavy as this one. I of course try to get everything I can out of the lens, so making this testing somewhat of a game helps. The game being to find what is the slowest/longest shutter speed I can get sharp images at. What I learned from an approaching-1,000 image stabilization test photos taken under ideal conditions (indoors with solid footing) is:
At 200mm, I can count on this lens delivering sharp images down to 1/15 sec (just under 4 stops of assistance) with a long tail of success until to 8 of 20 photos were sharp at 1/8 sec. (nearly 5 stops of assistance).
At 400mm, most photos were sharp at 1/20 sec (just over 4 stops of assistance), about 2/3 were sharp at 1/15 sec and a reasonable percentage were still sharp at 1/13 sec. I had very few successful 400mm shots at exposures longer than 1/13 sec, but this again is nearly 5 stops of assistance.
At 560mm, I had near-perfect results at 1/30 sec (just over 4 stops of assistance), most photos were still sharp at 1/25 and results at 1/20 remained very good.
What all this means is that the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens has an excellent image stabilization system – and that the versatility and value of this lens are greatly increased because of it. The with and without IS image quality difference at the mentioned above-mentioned shutter speeds is huge.
Paramount in the mind of anyone deciding to spend this much on a lens is: What image quality does it deliver?
To date, amazing image quality from Canon's super telephoto L lenses is the norm. But, we had not seen a big white Canon EF L Zoom Lens before, so ... the question many of us were asking was: Would image quality from this lens be something just less than incredible? I thought probably not – and fully expected to be impressed.
Canon's last-prior-introduced fixed-max-aperture white L zoom lens was simply amazing – and it costs far less that the 200-400 L. I would have been surprised if the 200-400 L lens delivered anything less. Canon's theoretical MTF charts for this lens also foretold of impressiveness:
The title I gave the news post announcing the image quality test results for this lens gave a strong clue of my opinion: "Is this the World's Sharpest DSLR Zoom Lens?"
That's right. You can cross bad image quality off of your list of potential reasons to not get the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens. Because the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens lens totally rocks in that regard.
The best way to share this awesomeness with you is to send you to the image quality results from two copies of the 200-400mm f/4 L IS Lens. These are among the best results I've ever seen from a zoom lens - or from any lens.
I'll let you decide if the 200-400 L bests the previous zoom lens image quality title holder, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens. Here is the 200mm comparison (use the mouseover or toggle buttons feature). Note that you are going to see some distortion differences in these results as the 70-200 is at its longest focal length where it has some pincushion distortion. Also note that the 70-200 has a 1-stop wider aperture in this comparison. I'll let you decide if they would be more-fairly compared at equivalent (f/4) apertures (you can change the comparison tool settings if you vote this way).
There are some things you need to know about the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens image quality test results. The built-in extender with external extender compatibility complicates complete image quality presentation of this lens in our tool. So, here is what I am showing:
The first tested copy of this lens is presented as two lens samples – sample "1" and "2". Sample "1" is tested at all focal lengths (including those with extenders) with the built-in extender switch set to 1.0x (not being used) with the only exception being the first of the two 560mm focal length tests – the one that indicates "1.4x Extender Int". Sample "2" results were all captured with the built-in extender in place – the switch was set to 1.4x with no exceptions. Sample "2" results showing one of the "III" extenders in use also had the built-in 1.4x in use. You will notice the ultra-high focal lengths in these results.
The second tested lens is presented identically as sample "3" and "4".
Here are some interesting comparisons that can be made:
Compare the image quality of the 200-400mm L lens at various focal lengths with and without the built-in extender in place by comparing lens sample "1" to lens sample "2". The with-extender image quality is really good, but there is a modest image quality penalty for using the extender. This is not unexpected from the addition of 8/4 elements/groups to the light path. Sharpness is impacted slightly, some pincushion distortion is introduced and some CA shows up in the corners at the 560mm end. Stop down 1 stop to eliminate most of the sharpness penalty.
Compare the image quality of the 200-400mm L lens' built in 1.4x extender to the external Canon 1.4x III Extender. The first difference I notice is that the internal extender appears to add pincushion distortion while the external extender adds a touch of barrel distortion. This difference is what would account for the difference in test chart detail sizes. Otherwise, I don't think you will see a difference in image quality between these two extenders used on this lens.
While extended focal lengths up to 1120mm are supported with Canon's blessings, I doubt that many will want to go to this extreme due to both image quality and max aperture (loss of AF) reasons. Using multiple extenders (int and ext) result in a very noticeable image quality impact.
Among the thousands of other 200-400 L Lens comparisons that can be made are those with Canon's best-of-the-best big white prime telephoto lenses. For example, a wide open comparison against the EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II, what is perhaps Canon's sharpest lens. Differences are hard to detect. THe 200-400 L delivers impressively sharp image quality across the entire full frame image circle even with a wide open aperture. With the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens, you basically get best-available image quality AND a zoom focal length range.
But, as I mentioned earlier in the review, there is a 1-stop max aperture penalty to be paid when using the 200-400 L over the big white primes (f/4 vs. f/2.8). And one of this lens' biggest uses, action sports, frequently induces this penalty. When shooting sports action, a wide open aperture is typically needed. With a 1-stop-narrower aperture to work with, a 1-stop higher ISO setting will usually be needed.
A 1-stop higher ISO setting means more noise in your images. If you are shooting in bright daylight with the sun at your back, this will not be an issue. If you are shooting backlit subjects or under clouds, you will probably notice the increased noise.
With the 1/4x extender in position, you are even more likely to notice the difference. The 500 and 600 f/4 L IS II still have apertures only 1 stop wider than f/5.6, but these narrower apertures require a higher ISO setting to start with. And more penalty is paid for 1-stop changes in noise at higher ISO settings.
So, the most noticeable difference in image quality between the 200-400 L and the super primes is the 1-stop high ISO noise required for getting the same action shot.
CA (Chromatic Aberration) is basically absent in 200-400 L images. With extenders in place, you will see a small amount of CA show up in the corners at the longest focal lengths.
This lens may be the most distortion-free zoom lens I've used. Adding the built-in extender to the equation imparts some slight pincushion distortion.
Full frame corner vignetting is mild, ranging from 1.5 stops over most of the focal length range up to 2 stops at the 400mm end. Including the built-in extender in the optical path increases vignetting by about .4 stops in the corners. Stopping down one stops removes most of the vignetting. As usual, APS-C/1.6x FOVCF camera owners do not need to worry about EF lens vignetting.
As I write this review, I'm still waiting for a cloud-free sky for conducting our standard flare testing. While the optics in this lens are superb, I expect the long focal lengths and high lens element count to show some flare under the right conditions (bright light in the frame). My test light source is of course the sun. And you will not want to be looking through the viewfinder at 560mm with the sun in the frame – eye damage is sure to result (I've had the sun melt plastic in the camera).
Nine rounded aperture blades deliver excellent background blur quality. Specular highlights remain very smooth and very round through f/8. At f/11, modest blade bumps begin to take shape, but the blur quality remains excellent. This lens likes to create a strong background blur simply due to the long telephoto focal lengths.
Aiding image quality is Canon's SubWavelength Structure lens coating. "The optical elements also feature Canon’s latest Super Spectra Coatings, optimized for both the position and type of each lens element. A SubWavelength Structure Coating (SWC), which uses microscopic cone-shaped structures smaller than a wavelength of visible light, reduces ghosting caused by light bouncing back from the imaging sensor and resisting flare."
As with many of Canon's recent higher grade lenses, the 200-400 L's front and rear lenses elements are fluorine-coated to repel water, dust and dirt – and to make cleaning much easier.
This is a world class lens that will be expected to regularly deliver incredible photos at the world's most important events. Critical to these results will be AF accuracy.
Paramount for a sports action photography lens is fast autofocus. Paramount for all photography is accurate AF. All Canon super telephoto lenses turn in best-in-class autofocus performance and I expected nothing less from the 200-400 L.
My 200-400 L arrived with only 1 event remaining on my busy spring sports schedule. I of course used this lens for that entire soccer game. I also spent lots of time shooting the kids on their galloping horses. Many thousands of images later and after spending many hours reviewing the results, I was surprised to conclude that this lens slightly trailed the big white primes in action AF performance.
With the increased depth of field provided by an f/4 aperture over the f/2.8 aperture the big white primes provide, there is a larger margin for AF error. But, that additional DOF does not equate to more in-focus shots with this lens. Don't get me wrong – the 200-400 performs very well in AI Servo mode and I am not afraid to use it for important sports events. But, I do rate it a touch lower than the big white primes in regards to AF performance.
Later, testing this lens against a couple of other lenses in side-by-side comparison, I could clearly see that this is not the fastest-focusing Canon lens. For example, the 300 f/2.8 L IS II focuses noticeably faster as does the albeit-smaller 70-200 f/2.8 L IS II. These differences are easily recognized right in the viewfinder.
Driven by Ring USM (Ultrasonic Motor), the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens autofocuses very quietly (a light shhhh is heard), very accurately and with good speed. This lens' one shot AF accuracy is very good.
Most zoom lenses are not parfocal – the subject does not stay in focus as zoom ring is moved from wide to long or vice versa. With a non-parfocal lens, AI Servo AF while zooming in or out further challenges the camera and lens AF system. A Canon rep advised me to not zoom during AI Servo focusing with this lens, but I have not found this practice to make any noticeable difference in focus accuracy rates. And, this lens is close enough to being parfocal that you can use it as such – even with extender moved into place. Though Canon does not say so, the 200-400 L may be a true parfocal lens.
Note that, as usual, an AF speed penalty is paid with the built-in 1.4x (and external extenders) in place. Also note that my usual AI Servo AF settings strongly favor approaching action vs. departing action where the in-focus rate drops very noticeably.
All Canon super telephoto lenses focus internally and have FTM (Full Time Manual) focusing available.
These lenses also include a Focus Preset feature. Set the Focus Preset to a specific distance and when your shooting needs require that specific distance, simply turn the white spring-loaded knurled playback ring on the end of the lens. The Focus Preset switch settings include an audible focus confirmation setting.
The Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Lens' manual focus ring is nicely sized, is very nicely damped, has a very nice rate of adjustment (224° of rotation) and also as expected, is very smooth with no play. Video shooters should take notice that the subject size remains very stable while focusing this lens. Long focus pulls can be made without your subjects growing or shrinking other than going into or out of a smooth blur.
New on the 2010 and later-announced super telephoto L lenses is the third focusing mode: "PF" or Power Focusing.
"Helping moviemakers achieve smoother and more appealing focus shifts when filming on EOS DSLR cameras, Canon has included a new Power Focus (PF) mode on the Company's new super telephoto lenses. This mode allows manual rack focusing to be operated smoothly by turning a playback ring that is normally used for the focus preset function. Both low-speed and high-speed focus shifting are available." [Canon USA]
The direction the ring is rotated determines the direction of focus distance change. Turning the ring also imparts motion in the camera and lens combination unless you are very careful or, better, have a very solid tripod setup. The feature works nicely (and quietly), but I doubt I'll ever use it.
A 3-position focus limiter switch allows focusing distances to be limited to a specific distance range - or to be unlimited: 6.56' - 19.69' (2m - 16m), 19.69' - ∞ (6m - ∞), 6.56' - ∞ (2m - ∞). Limiting the focus distance range can improve focus lock times and reduce focus hunting.
Autofocus Stop buttons near the objective lens allow autofocus to be temporarily stopped. I use AI-Servo focusing mode for shooting sports and other action, but like to shoot a focus-and-recompose portrait at times during the event. The Autofocus Stop feature makes it easy to obtain focus lock, turn off autofocus and recompose for a framing that places the active focus point(s) off of the subject. Alternatively, changing the camera setup to rear-AF button focus only can enable this functionality.
This site supports my family, but my family also supports this site. Brittany, my 13 year old (as of review time), frequently provides support through subjects she raises or finds. This time, it was an at-least 54" (1.4m) black rat snake that she carried home.
Black rat snakes are rather common here. They are non-venomous and usually docile after a short initial fright. This one, however, was anything but docile. It was out to strike anything near it.
Of course, an angry snake provides a more dramatic picture than a friendly one. So, with the just-arrived Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens looking for subjects, Brittany and I had a short photo session with the snake.
I usually have specific shots I am looking for at any given time. For this session, I was looking at the 200-400's maximum magnification and AF accuracy at minimum focus distance. Both proved to be quite good.
This snake was not about to pose in a more-woodsy environment, so we shot right in the front yard. Groomed front yard grass is not ideal for nature subject backgrounds, but getting down very low (only my hand between the grass and the lens plate), using a long focal length (560mm, f/5.6) and moving in close allowed the background and foreground to be completely blurred. This position gave a nice perspective of the always-ready-to-strike snake. It was not too hard to focus the snake's attention on us (and it was incredibly fixated on the dog), so I was able to position myself in relation to a nice background.
The highlight of this shoot was the snake moving toward Brittany and suddenly striking her front lens element. Brittany squealed. I laughed (knowing that she was not at risk as her hands were farther back from her extended long lens – I was closely monitoring). My 200-400 also took a snake bite to the hood during this shoot. LOL - this was probably the first 200-400 L ever bitten by a snake – the first snake-tested copy of this lens. No visible damage was done.
Note that longer focal lengths do allow you to stay farther away from situations more dangerous than this one.
Sorry to those of you who are troubled by snakes. I'll work on a "No Snakes" button for the site. :)
Here is a table showing how some of Canon's longest lenses compare in regards to minimum focus distance and maximum magnification.
|Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM Lens||70.9"||(1800mm)||0.20x|
|Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens||78.7"||(2000mm)||0.15x, 0.21x|
|Canon EF 200mm f/2.0 L IS USM Lens||74.8"||(1900mm)||0.12x|
|Canon EF 300mm f/4.0 L IS USM Lens||59.1"||(1500mm)||0.24x|
|Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens||78.7"||(2000mm)||0.18x|
|Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS USM Lens||98.4"||(2500mm)||0.13x|
|Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM Lens||137.8"||(3500mm)||0.12x|
|Canon EF 400mm f/4.0 DO IS USM Lens||137.8"||(3500mm)||0.12x|
|Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens||106.3"||(2700mm)||0.17x|
|Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS USM Lens||118.1"||(3000mm)||0.15x|
|Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS II USM Lens||145.7"||(3700mm)||0.15x|
|Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS USM Lens||177.2"||(4500mm)||0.12x|
|Canon EF 600mm f/4.0 L IS II USM Lens||177.2"||(4500mm)||0.15x|
|Canon EF 600mm f/4.0 L IS USM Lens||216.5"||(5500mm)||0.12x|
|Canon EF 800mm f/5.6 L IS USM Lens||236.2"||(6000mm)||0.14x|
Evaluating a lens with a built-in extender complicates this site's various charts and tools. Where previous lenses have one value, I feel the need to share two values – one with the built-in extender in use and one without.
Without the extender in use, the 200-400 L lens turns in average telephoto prime lens MFD and MM specs (0.15x). Move the extender into the optical path and the specs go into best-available range (0.21x).
Of course, the entire family of Canon super telephoto lenses (and all lenses listed in the table above) are compatible with the external extenders – the Canon Extender EF 1.4x III and the Canon Extender EF 2x III. Extenders have no effect on the minimum focus distance of a lens, but they do increase maximum magnification by their 1.4x or 2.0x factor. So, a lens without a built-in extender may be able to match the 200-400 L's MM if an extender is mounted behind them.
For example, the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens has a native MM of 0.17x. Adding a 1.4x extender to this lens increases the MM by 1.4x for a 0.24x.
As indicated earlier in the review, the 200-400 L is also compatible with external extenders. With external extenders added, the 200-400 L lens' MM increases to 0.21, 0.29x and 0.30, 0.42x for the 1.4x and 2x extenders respectively. Those are rather impressive MM figures – especially for the resulting focal lengths – which are also impressive (see table near the beginning of this review).
All Canon super telephoto lenses are compatible with the Canon EF 12mm Extension Tube II and the Canon EF 25mm Extension Tube II. Using the ETs improves the 200-400 L IS lens' MM specs to 0.20-0.03, 0.36-0.02x and 0.26-0.07, 0.52-0.05x respectively (comma separating the without and with-extenders figures). I use extension tubes behind super telephoto lenses more than with any other lens type. I have macro lenses to handle the wider focal length close-up photography needs, but sometimes I need more working distance than these lenses provide. Butterflies and birds are two subjects that like ETs and long focal length lenses. You need to be aware that infinity focus distance is not available when ETs are mounted.
As I've said before, everyone should have the opportunity to use one of Canon's big white lenses. Using one of these lenses is a simply awesome experience. And part of that awesomeness comes from the pro-grade build quality.
The latest of these lenses, the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens L included, have a weight-saving but very strong magnesium alloy body. This solidly built, weather-sealed lens is ready rigors of professional outdoor use – which often includes abuse.
Canon has eliminated the protective meniscus front element from their recent big lenses, including the 200-400 L. While that protection is gone, weight savings is one of the benefits. Use the hood to protect your front element. The 200-400 L lens shares the Canon ET-120(WII) Lens Hood (included) with the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens. This hood is sufficiently large enough to afford very good protection (from bright light, rain, dirt, impact, etc.) to the front lens element.
I was asked if water and dirt were going to funnel into and pool in the extender switch area. It certainly looks like dirt and water could get trapped in this area, but it doesn't look like problems beyond the need for a cleaning should be experienced. My expectation is that Canon's engineers have thought of this issue and that we will not have functional problems in this regard.
The 80°-rotating zoom ring is very smooth and nicely damped. The zoom ring components sound and feel like they running on a machined metal track with the growl/fine vibration such creates. The bump-out to a modestly wider diameter on the zoom ring makes it easy to locate – without taking your eye from the viewfinder.
As many of you know, I prefer focus rings to be positioned forward of the zoom rings for usability reasons. And for this reason, I have been asked what I think about the 200-400 L's rear-positioned focus ring. My answer is that I think it is OK – but still not my preference.
Since I don't expect to be handholding this lens a lot of the time (it weighs 8 lbs/3.6kg), my left hand usually rests on the zoom ring. The focus ring location is not an issue for mounted use.
More problematic is handholding the lens. The 200-400 L's balance point is around the focus ring.
For functional reasons, it makes sense to have my left hand on the zoom ring located just slightly forward of the balance point. But, turning the wide-diameter zoom ring with the left hand means that no hand is left under the lens for support. Cradling the lens between the left thumb and index finger just behind the zoom ring frees the finger tips to adjust focal length. The weight remains supported by the left hand while focal length adjustments are made (in small increments unless you have very large fingers). Unfortunately, this ideal support location has a focus ring located on it.
Ideally, focusing should be done after the focal length is selected, but it is still easy to inadvertently adjust focus while framing your photo with your left hand on the focus ring (especially when leveling the horizon). Moving the focus ring to a new position would provide a solid area of the lens to cradle between the thumb and index finger, freeing the finger tips to adjust focal length. Of course, design requirements do not always align with my wish list.
The size and weight of the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens are considerable – this lens will not be considered small or light by anyone. Weighing in between the Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS II USM Lens and the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens (and Canon EF 600mm f/4.0 L IS II USM Lens), the 200-400 L is hand-holdable, but not comfortably hand-holdable for long periods of time. I can definitely say that handholding this lens for the image stabilization testing was not fun. Much more fun is shooting the 200-400 L from a quality monopod or a tripod. And of course the zoom ring is easier to use when a tripod or monopod is providing the needed third hand.
If using a tripod, head selection is important. I most often use only a quick release clamp on my monopod, but a head is required for tripods. Even though a quality tripod head such as the Arca-Swiss Z1 is rated to hold far more weight than that of this, lens flop is a scenario that can easily occur when such a lens is mounted. When adjusting the tripod head, a heavy lens can quickly fall forward – which then can topple the entire tripod and result in serious damage.
I recommend using the Wimberley Tripod Head II with this lens. When properly attached to the excellent Wimberley Head, the 200-400 L can be positioned using only two fingers (or only one if you are good).
Here is a table of comparable Canon telephoto lenses with the size and weight specifications included.
|Model||Weight||Dimensions w/o Hood||Filter||Year|
|Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM Lens||3.04 lbs||(1380g)||3.6 x 7.4"||(92 x 189mm)||77mm||1998|
|Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM 1.4x||7.98 lbs||(3620g)||5.0 x 14.4"||(128 x 366mm)||DI 52mm||2013|
|Canon EF 200mm f/2.0 L IS USM Lens||5.56 lbs||(2520g)||5.0 x 8.2"||(128 x 208mm)||DI 52mm||2008|
|Canon EF 300mm f/4.0 L IS USM Lens||2.63 lbs||(1190g)||3.5 x 8.7"||(90 x 221mm)||77mm||1997|
|Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens||5.19 lbs||(2350g)||5.0 x 9.8"||(128 x 248mm)||DI 52mm||2011|
|Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS USM Lens||5.63 lbs||(2550g)||5.0 x 9.9"||(128 x 252mm)||DI 52mm||1999|
|Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM Lens||2.76 lbs||(1250g)||3.5 x 10.1"||(90 x 257mm)||77mm||1993|
|Canon EF 400mm f/4.0 DO IS USM Lens||4.28 lbs||(1940g)||5.0 x 9.1"||(128 x 232mm)||DI 52mm||2001|
|Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens||8.49 lbs||(3850g)||6.4 x 13.5"||(163 x 343mm)||DI 52mm||2011|
|Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS USM Lens||11.85 lbs||(5370g)||6.4 x 13.7"||(163 x 349mm)||DI 52mm||1999|
|Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS II USM Lens||7.04 lbs||(3190g)||5.7 x 15.1"||(146 x 383mm)||DI 52mm||2011|
|Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS USM Lens||8.54 lbs||(3870g)||5.7 x 15.2"||(146 x 387mm)||DI 52mm||1999|
|Canon EF 600mm f/4.0 L IS II USM Lens||8.65 lbs||(3920g)||6.6 x 17.6"||(168 x 448mm)||DI 52mm||2011|
|Canon EF 600mm f/4.0 L IS USM Lens||11.83 lbs||(5360g)||6.6 x 18.0"||(168 x 456mm)||DI 52mm||1999|
|Canon EF 800mm f/5.6 L IS USM Lens||9.86 lbs||(4470g)||6.4 x 18.1"||(163 x 461mm)||DI 52mm||2008|
For many more comparisons, review the complete Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens Specifications using the site's Lens Spec tool.
Like most of Canon's super telephoto lenses, the Canon 200-400 f/4 L IS utilizes 52mm drop-in filters. Included is a drop-in gel filter holder with a glass filter installed. I have also found this glass filter to be useful in catching dust before it drops deep inside the lens. A Canon 52mm Drop In Circular Polarizer Filter is available. A small wheel on top of this filter is used to adjust/rotate the polarizer inside the lens.
Drool warning: Below is a Spring 2013 Canon big white L lens family picture.
Featured in this picture from left to right, are the following lenses:
Canon EF 200mm f/2 L IS USM Lens
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens
Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens
Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS II USM Lens
Canon EF 600mm f/4.0 L IS II USM Lens
Canon EF 800mm f/5.6 L IS USM Lens
The same lenses are shown below with their lens hoods in place.
Now, showing only the 400mm, 200-400mm and 500mm lenses.
What is easy to see is that the 200-400 is rather long, but much thinner than its nearest neighbors. With a weight falling between those two lenses, you probably have guessed that this is a dense lens – heavy for its size. The smaller size is an advantage, but the heavy weight is of course not often welcomed.
The 200-400 L's tripod ring is very smooth with detents at even 90 degree rotation settings. This ring is not removable (without tools).
As with the other recent super telephoto lenses, a Kensington-type wire security lock slot is provided in the tripod ring. Flip open the cover on the tripod ring tightening knob to reveal this slot.
The included lens strap attaches to the tripod ring, which allows the camera to be rotated without the neck strap following the rotation. If I'm working with only one camera and lens, I most typically remove all straps from the camera and lens. I carry the setup by the tripod ring.
Two tripod ring feet are included for use on tripods or monopods – the monopod foot is delivered as the optional attachment and is shown above. I use the originally-installed padded (for carry comfort) foot for all of my uses. This foot has two differently-sized threaded inserts (1/4" and 3/8").
As you see in the product images on this page, I have a Wimberley P50 Lens Plate attached to my 200-400 f/4 L IS for quick attachment to my Arca-Swiss compatible monopod and tripod head clamps. This long plate also provides a longer range of balance adjustment than either smaller plates or directly-attached monopods/tripod heads. This lens plate setup requires a bushing/thread adapter to allow the two same-sized screws to be properly attached (two-screw attachment prevents twisting of the lens plate).
The 200-400 gets the now-typical for this lens class Velcro-released, nylon wrap-around lens cap. The cap is protective and stays firmly in place on a reversed lens hood. The lens cap has a padded-but-hard back to protect the front lens element. It will attach to a mounted hood and also to the bare lens, but the fit is tight and loose respectively. Apparently this specific cap is now used on a couple of other lens models (note the lens names printed on it).
The 200-400 L ships in a very large, heavy cardboard box (and sometimes that box is packaged in a huge box). Large pieces of heavy duty foam packaging hold the also-large Canon 200-400 Lens Case in that box. And of course, the 200-400 L arrives in that lens case (with additional protective packaging inside). Here is a quick tour of the case:
The Lens Case 200-400 is nice. But it is large and heavy. Is measures 13 x 11 x 24" (330 x 279 x 610mm)(DxHxW) and weighs more than the lens – 9.7 lbs (4.4kg) empty. It is very protective, it is lockable (keys included) and it holds a pair of extenders (though not tightly – they rattle around). And it costs as much as a nice lens to replace ($700 USD at review time).
The 200-400 L, 400 L IS II, 500 L IS II and 600 L IS II hard cases share the same case design with different inserts to provide for a custom interior fit. These cases all stack neatly for storage - but new models do not stack with old models. The latest Canon large lens cases feature two side-mounted carry handles and feet on three sides of the cases including those opposite of the carry handles. Missing to me is the handle that lifts the case straight up from the most-flat storage position (the older Canon hard cases had this handle).
A removable shoulder strap (as seen below) is included with these cases. But don't think that big, heavy, hard case is going to feel good when carried for any distance or length of time.
Unfortunately, I don't find these lens trunks very useful and rarely use the Canon hard lens cases for more than storage. This case especially is far too large and none of these cases hold a camera body. My 200-400 L has been living in a Think Tank Photo Glass Limo. It is a much more functional case, holding the lens with a pro body mounted with no problem.
Without a doubt, price is going to be the biggest roadblock for those desiring to own this lens. If the price makes the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens unobtainable for you, consider renting one for your special events/trips.
If you are shooting action in low light, shooting extremely fast action or only need one specific focal length, you will likely be better served by one of the big white prime lenses such as the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens or the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens.
If the f/4 max aperture is not an issue for you, the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens, by virtue of its focal length range, can replace several other lenses in your kit.
When I initially published this review, I used the 200-400 L for almost everything I shot post lens arrival, but I was still integrating this lens into my kit. Field use is incredibly helpful for gear evaluation and spending some time in Shenandoah National Park taught me just how useful this lens is.
For this trip I packed the following three big white lenses (200-400 L IS, 500 L IS II and 600 L IS II) with plans to determine which was my favorite for wildlife photography. More specifically, for white-tailed deer photography. And my answer, as you may have predicted, is "It depends." Each lens has its strengths.
From an image quality standpoint, all three of these lenses deliver very high pro-grade results. It doesn't matter which lens you pick in this regard. From a "look" perspective, I prefer the more-blurred background, more-compressed look of the longest focal lengths. Again, all of these lenses have very long focal lengths available, but the 600 f/4 has the advantage. The 200-400 L's long focal length comes with the built-in 1.4x extender moved into the optical path, which sets it back one stop in the max aperture comparison. The two primes did less focus hunting in low light with peripheral AF points selected.
If you can get closer to your subject and there are obstructions (trees, branches, weeds, etc.) in play, a longer focal length quickly becomes a liability. The farther away you are from the subject, the more likely that these obstructions will factor into your results. The first problem is that obstructions detract from your final image. A branch across your subject's head is not going to be welcomed. And an even bigger problem is that the obstructions can catch the attention of your camera's autofocus system, resulting in a subject that is not even in focus. Such images are throw-aways – if you can even get the photo. In SNP, I had a black bear cub run past me in the thick woods and I was not able to even capture a memory photo as the camera could not lock focus.
Because the white-tailed deer in Shenandoah National Park are relatively tolerant of humans, I was able to get closer to my subjects (at least some of the time) on this trip. And because I was shooting with LOTS of obstructions (often in relatively thick woods), getting closer was typically desirable. The 200-400 L quickly became my go-to lens on this trip and has earned permanence in my kit. Having the very long range of focal lengths immediately available when needed/desired, this lens was the ideal choice for this type of photography.
I used the 500 L IS II and 600 L IS II during the trip and they performed excellently, but when the shot really counted, I found myself going with the 200-400 L IS in this location. I had been pursuing a pair of buck for two hours when the larger of the two finally and suddenly walked out into a clearing. And at the perfect moment, it stopped and became alert. I had strongly-diffused sunlight at my back. The deer's head was framed between the closest background trees and the foreground was uninterrupted. In the very short duration of time that the ideal picture remained available, I would have been very fortunate to get one acceptably-framed picture with a prime lens (due to the sneaker zooming required). But with the 200-400 L, I was able to rapidly capture a number of framing variations (two shown below).
Obviously, I wasn't thinking "Oh, I should make a focal length comparison from this situation", but hopefully the two images give you an idea of the potential from this zoom lens.
The bottom line is that I expected awesomeness and the 200-400 L delivers it. The Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens will stand up to the rigors of the huge range of professional uses this lens is suitable for and it will deliver stunning image quality while doing so.
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