Review – Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS 1.4x
Many of my reviews are comparisons between lenses that have been upgraded and improved in Canon’s lineup. With a hundred years of lens technology, there’s not always too much to change, or even new ways of doing the same thing: focal lengths, apertures, primes, zooms… everything’s been done! Of course, this isn’t true: Canon blew us away with the 17mm f/4 L Tilt-Shift a few years ago, as well as the 8-15mm f/3.5 L Fisheye zoom which was unheard of. Their latest ground-breaking release is the Canon 200-400 f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x. That’s a mouthful. What does it all mean? It’s a zoom lens covering the focal range of 200 to 400mm, with a constant f/4 aperture and a built-in 1.4x extender which, when engaged, will change your zoom focal distance to 280mm-560mm and a constant f/5.6 aperture. It’s also likely that at a current retail price of about $12,000 (that’s twelve-thousand) you already know all this because, let’s face it, you’re not buying this lens unless you absolutely need it for your work or you’re wealthy and buy everything anyway.
There’s little to discuss when it comes to the excellent build on this lens. Befitting of Canon’s white-lens lineup, it’s rock-solid (and rock-heavy). Over a full foot long (almost twenty inches with the hood attached), there is nothing subtle about it. The lens is fully weather-sealed; I can attest to this as I had it out in a freak downpour. It, and my 5DMKIII, came out none the worse.
The focus and zoom rings are very wide, comfortable, and turned with the perfect amount of tension. I had a brand new copy and I assume, as with any lens, they will get a bit looser with use.
The Canon 200-400 f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x has all the features we are used to on Canon’s super-telephoto lineup. As expected, all the switches are well placed, firm, and were not operated accidentally in use. The Focus preset button runs from the full range, 2m-6m and 6m to infinity. Canon’s AF/MF/PF is here as well. If you’re new to “PF”, here’s what Canon has to say about it:
“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 two 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 and high speed focus shifting is available” [Canon USA].”
A bit on Image Stabilization
“Optical Image Stabilizer technology makes hand-held photography more practical at slow shutter speeds*” (*Canon USA). IS helps free the camera and photographer from the tripod and gives you a bit more latitude to how and where you shoot. As a guide, it’s suggested that photographers’ shutter speeds should match the apparent focal length of the lens. So ideal shutter speeds on a full frame camera like the 1DX, 5DMKIII, or 6D would be about 1/400th of a second at 400mm. Of course, this has no bearing on stopping motion or action (though in many cases this will suffice). On a crop body like the Rebel series, 70D, or 7D you’d be looking to multiply that by the crop factor of the camera (1.6x) so 400mm would be 1/640th of a second, this makes sense as the apparent focal length is magnified, so are any potential shakes. The IS advantage, then, is to allow yourself a bit more working room to achieve sharp images. The stabilization compensates for movement and shake, effectively correcting the slight changes the photographer introduces into the image through movement. 4 stops brings the 1/400th rating down to 1/25th of a second, though excellent technique is still recommended and, again, this won’t stop your subject from moving. Obvious advantages to this are for people working indoors, where lighting is limited and you don’t need sports-level action stopping shutter speeds. Personally, I was able to get some decent shots handheld at 1/60th with the 200-400, but I truly recommend you use this with a monopod or a sturdy tripod with a proper gimbal head whenever possible.
The mode switch allows for three types of stabilization:
Mode 1 is for “regular” use which corrects for vibrations in all direction
Mode 2 compensates for moving subjects or panning where there is a bit of fluidity and motion already being introduced to the lens to capture an image.
Mode 3 “Corrects vibration only during exposure. During panning shots, corrects vibration during exposure only in one direction the same as MODE 2*.” [Canon USA].
There’s a focus preset button so you can set a specific focusing distance and return to it at any time by rotating the “Playback Ring” (a grooved metal ring between the focus ring and the front rubber grip). The front rubber grip also has four equally placed AF stop buttons which temporarily pause autofocus.g
What is unique to this lens is the built-in 1.4x Extender which allows the user to immediately extend the focal range for added compression and reach without having to remove the lens and fumble with an accessory. This is especially important in fast moving situations where taking the lens off the camera may result in a missed shot or even in harsh climate conditions where separating the body from the lens could result in breaking the weather seal and damaging your system. The bulge at the side of the lens houses the optics for the extender and there’s a very secure and large switch that can be locked & unlocked in order to “plunk” the extender into place. The added glass of the extender will lose you a stop on your aperture, from f/4 to f/5.6.
Some people may swoon over ultra-shallow depth of field lenses and yes, I do love me some wide-open f/2.8 bokeh. But at 400mm, f/4 isn’t so bad either, maintaining a decent level of detail on a subject while blurring out (and compressing) the background and creating lovely bokeh.
Focusing was quick and accurate, though maybe not as fast as something like Canon’s 70-200 f/2.8 L IS II. But considering the amount of glass that has to be moved, it was still impressive. Between AI Servo and AI Focus, I rarely missed a shot. The ability to track and zoom at such telephoto lengths was also very useful.
Because the aperture increases from f/4 to f/5.6, some Camera’s will lose their ability to focus completely, but the centre focus point. If you add another 1.4 extender (which you can, and I did), you will lose AF on all but the latest Canon bodies, and it will be centre point only since your aperture will now be f/8. Check the compatibility chart over on Canon’s website to see if your camera and lens combo is compatible: http://gdlp01.c-wss.com/gds/2/0300011592/01/ef200-400f4lis-e14-im-eng.pdf
For this kind of money, you’d expect good… nay, great image quality. As I mentioned, it’s not quite as crisp as any of the primes, nor, without any testing, did it seem as sharp. That isn’t to say it’s not better than 90% of the glass out there, and any softness I experienced while using it was completely my own fault. But just looking between files I shot with the Canon 300mm f/2.8 L IS II and this one, I have the feeling of a difference. Also note: adding extenders (even the internal one) will further reduce image quality. The built-in extender is optically matched to this lens and the results are still fantastic.
I did notice that, when switching on the extender, from f/4 to f/5.6 – and even correcting for the stop of light by lowering my shutter speed or increasing my ISO sensitivity, there was a loss of light either through vignetting or T-Stops that appeared to be almost a full stop. Here are some images illustrating this:
It is a minor inconvenience which can easily be compensated for. It’s also great that today’s cameras have such great low-light performance in order for us to achieve fast shutter speeds, at high ISO’s with still very clean results.
I also found there to be very little chromatic aberration, though it was present and was exaggerated when the extender was engaged. However it was nowhere near enough for me to notice at anything other than at a pixel-peeping level. Truly, the 200-400 will get its users the images they paid for.
Just for fun, I wanted to see what the range was like shooting on an APS-C sensor camera (1.6 crop), with the extender engaged, and an added Canon 1.4x III extender, giving us a focal length of 784mm and an apparent length (crop) of 1254mm. See below left at 24mm, and the full zoom.
Who’s it for?
A lens of this size, cost and focal range definitely isn’t for everyone. But once you know your needs as a photographer, undoubtedly you will covet the 200-400.
Wildlife photographers may still prefer their primes for the wide-open apertures and smooth out of focus backgrounds, but may embrace the versatility this zoom will bring them, especially when it comes to larger subjects. I don’t consider 200mm an especially good wildlife lens, but not all images need to be on-the-nose tight portraits either. The ability to add other extenders and use this lens with crop bodies will give any wildlife shooter a single lens to cover most of their needs. Of course, they’ll have to manage to carry it, but it’s still lighter than many of the super-telephoto primes.
As a commercial and editorial shooter, I played around with the lens and had some fun with portraits. The cost, however, is ridiculously prohibitive for this. While the level of compression 400mm gets me is unique, if I really needed that focal range I may just opt for a prime and live with my 70-200 f.28 L IS II and an extender.
Sports shooters, including motorsports, and anyone else who needs the reach over a 70-200, will likely already have this lens on order. The ability to zoom in and out of fast moving subjects will allow for better framing and more “hits” when shooting in these challenging environments. It may be trickier to use indoors and at close ranges due to the shallower aperture, but outdoor sports like football and baseball will allow someone to cover the whole field with almost a single lens.
If you were to buy Canon’s 600mm f/4 L and the 400mm f/4 L, you’d be getting pretty close to $20,000 worth of glass. If you were to buy several of the faster primes, that number would double. If the versatility of a zoom is what you need and f/4 doesn’t bother you (and for many of us, it really doesn’t), then the Canon 200-400 f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x is, in itself, a bargain. Quality build and optics and the unique advantage of a built-in 1.4 extender will help keep photographers working with a single lens, yielding them more shots, more keepers, and better work.
- Versatility of a zoom
- Extra versatility of a built-in extender
- Quality build and top-of-the line glass
- Cost is in-line with the value when considering purchasing all primes.
- Heavy as hell
- Conspicuous: everyone will know this lens is worth money
- Cost of a small car