Canon started the development of the EF 200-400mm f/4L lens over two years ago. When the Canon EF 200-400m f/4L IS official announcement came on May 14, 2013, I immediately put my order in even though the weight and price are higher than I have expected. The lens finally arrived and this hands-on review will not have charts, graphs and technical details. You can read that in Canon's announcement above. It assumes the reader already has a familiarity with Canon cameras and super telephoto lenses. All opinions and observations are my own and from the standpoint of a wildlife photographer out in the field.
I am a wildlife photographer and have been using Canon equipment for almost twenty five years. My subjects range from tiny Hummingbirds to Blue Whales, the largest animal on Planet Earth, ever. Over the decades, I have used and owned many L series prime, zoom and Super telephoto lenses. When the Series II versions of the Super Telephoto lenses came out in 2011, I refrained from upgrading until I have a chance to use the EF 200-400mm f/4L lens. Generally I am not overly excited by any new piece of Canon equipment, the Canon EOS-1D X was the last exception but this new lens carries all the promise of a zoom lens with a built-in extender, all packed into a Super Telephoto lens barrel.
The debate between prime and zoom lens is over for me long time ago. The image quality of the current generation 'L' zoom lens are comparable to their prime cousins. I cannot emphasis the flexibility of having a top quality super telephoto zoom lens. For years, I have suffered through missed opportunity when using prime super telephoto lens on wildlife. Once the animal comes too close, there is a mad scramble to back up or try and grab another camera with a shorter focal length. Invariably, I would end up missing crucial shots.
The most annoying thing about Canon's Super Telephoto lenses is their factory lens cap and the EF 200-400mm is no exception. I immediately substituted it with the Don Zeck lens cap. The DZ caps are on all my Super Telephoto lenses. My first impression of the EF 200-400mm is a rock solid, semi-large and heavy (7.98 pounds) but manageable lens. It measures 5 inch in diameter and 14.4 inch in length without the lens hood. The lens hood is interchangeable with the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS lens. Most of the controls are located at the rear of the lens - extender control lever, IS modes, focus modes, focus limiter and focus preset control. The lens takes 52mm drop-in filters, which are inserted in the rear of the lens via the included drop-in filter holder. Rubberized zoom and focus rings are on the lens barrel, the textured playback ring, and the front-most grip ring that incorporates four AF Stop Buttons. I have examined in detail the area where the extender control lever is located because this is a place where dirt may accumulate and moisture can seep into the lens out in the field. However, after having taken the lens to Africa and the high Arctic (hot and cold), I am comfortable the lever will stand up to field use provided regular cleaning is maintained.
The front and rear lenses elements are fluorine-coated to repel water, dust and dirt. When used with the Canon EOS-1D X and Mk IV cameras, the package is weather-sealed and make cleaning easier on photo shoots. The built-in 1.4x extender is specifically designed for the lens and there are three IS modes, like all the other Series II Super Telephoto lenses. Mode 1 is for stationary subjects. Mode 2 is for panning subjects, like bird in flight. Mode 3 is only available on Series II super telephoto lenses. In Mode 3, IS sound can be detected when the shutter release is half-pressed, but the image is not stabilized until the precise moment when the shot is taken. When I use a Canon IS equipped lens, I always leave the IS on and set to Mode 1. To be honest, most of the time, I find there is a difference without a distinction between Mode 1, 2 and 3. After handholding and panning for so many fast moving wildlife shots over the years, I have developed a rather good technique for myself already.
Up to now, no Canon Super Telephoto lens comes in a zoom. Adding a built-in 1.4x extender and a fixed f/4 aperture over the entire zoom range is a game changer for me. By the way, the minimum focusing distance over the entire zoom range is only 6.6 feet. This means I can get closeup to the wildlife action. Although this lens is revolutionary for a 'L' design, Canon actually experimented with the FDn 1200mm f/5.6 Lens with a built-in 1.4x extender back in 1984 during the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
To say the EF 200-400mm lens' zoom range is flexible is an understatement. In addition to the built-in 1.4x extender, the lens also accepts the EF 1.4x and 2.0x III extenders. This means the lens can have a possible zoom range of 200mm to 1,792mm, when used with a combination of full frame, APS-H and APS-C cameras. EOS-5D Mk III and the EOS-1 bodies will allow AF down to f/8. Auto-focusing with apertures smaller than f/8 is not possible but this lens is well designed for that with FTM (full time manual) focusing built-in. I am not a big fan of the 2.0x extender but the 1.4x is another matter. With the EOS-1D X or Mk IV cameras plus the EF 1.4x extender mounted on the EF 200-400mm f/4L IS, my focal length starts out at 280mm and ends at a little over 1,000mm. This immense focal length range encourages creativity and open up endless possibilities for my long lens photography.
When the EF 1.4x extender is attached and the EF 200-400mm internal extender set to 1x, any AF points can be selected with the joystick. When the internal extender is set to 1.4x, only the center AF point works. When the EF 2.0x extender is attached and the internal extender is set to 1x, AF slows down and only the center AF point works. If the internal extender is set to 1.4x, manual focusing will be required. This works well for me since I like to add the 1.4x extender sometimes and work mostly with the center AF point anyway. AF is lighting fast, even with the addition of an external 1.4x extender. It took me a little while to get used to the fact I can actually zoom in and out with this Super Telephoto lens and finding the extender lever by touch without having to take my eye off the viewfinder. After that, it was rather instinctual in changing the zoom range, landscape to portrait mode, AF points, ISO setting and exposure control, all in quick succession, without ever taking my eye off the subject.
Hand-holding my camera and traveling light on photo shoots are my preference. Despite the weight of this lens and the EOS-1 camera (about 11 pounds), I am able to hand-hold (with proper technique) the combo for a short while even though I am of average height and build. When I do use support, my pick is the SLIK PRO 824 CF carbon fiber tripod and the SLIK SBH 550 ball head. SLIK equipment is the best value in my opinion and highly underrated. The combination weighs about 5 pounds and can support the EF 200-400mm f/4L lens plus the EOS-1 camera with ease. Visit my Equipment Bag page on my website to see all the gear I use on photo shoots.
So far, I have taken the lens to Alaska, the sub and high Arctic and Africa to photograph Polar bears, Brown bears, the Big Five and other wildlife. The lens is rather cumbersome in bouncing zodiacs, small boats and jeeps but on a stable platform, it works flawlessly. Will be taking the lens to more locations worldwide in the next few months and putting it through further testing. You can see many more wildlife photos taken with the EF 200-400mm lens on my website and follow me on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with my travels and subscribe to my Blog for the latest news and development in photography.