Photography / Hands-on Review

The New Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Field Test

Since we first reported the introduction of Canon’s fast and flexible EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM with Internal 1.4x Extender Lens, we’ve had an opportunity to spend some quality time with this unique lens to see how it handles and performs in the field.

In case you missed the earlier announcement, Canon’s newest zoom lens offers extreme optical flexibility, complemented by a fast and constant maximum aperture of f/4.0. Most notably, the new zoom features a built-in 1.4x tele-converter that extends the zoom’s focal range from 400mm to an effective 560mm—with the flip of a switch.

While stalking the wilds of New York’s Upper West Side, I carried the lens, mounted on a Canon 5D Mk III. As you might imagine, this lens is large at 5.0 x 14.4”/ 128 x 366mm, and it weighs 7.98lb / 3620g even before you attach it to the camera body. A majority of the accompanying photographs were captured with the camera and lens mounted on a monopod featuring a superzoom-friendly fluid head, a quick-release system and, best of all, a set of three small feet that spring outward for additional support. But despite its heft, this lens can deliver sharp handheld images when a tripod or monopod are not readily available.

This photograph of landaus drawn by horses clopping through Central Park illustrates the resolving power of Canon’s EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM. Despite the harsh lighting of a midday sun, the advanced optical design and premium coatings used on this Canon L-series lens maintain sharp, well-defined shadow and highlight details. (f/5.6 @ 1/2000, ISO 400, AWB, Evaluative Metering, 388mm zoom setting)
Click on photos to zoom in.

The Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM features a rotating tripod collar with a long mount plate, dual thread mounts and stops at 90° intervals. When handholding this lens, it’s a good idea to rotate the collar out of the way for maximum hand contact with the lens. As previously reported, Canon’s new zoom is a card-carrying member of Canon’s premium “L”-series optics party, and features the latest coatings, tight-spec construction, and extensive weatherproofing.

Considering its size, the controls are easy to access with minimum fuss, and unlike many optics of this sort, it’s noticeably well balanced. The narrow, rubberized ring closest to the lens mount is the focus ring, which is followed by a larger zoom ring. A third rubberized ring forward of the zoom ring features four opposed AF stop buttons that allow you to pause the autofocus action when depressed. To make the lens a bit more grip-friendly, there’s a padded surface on the top side of the lens collar’s mounting plate. The filter option for the lens is via a 52mm rear drop-in holder that accepts gelatin filters, and there’s a soft front lens cap that fits over the lens and the included lens hood. A touch-tab closure keeps it in place.

These frames illustrate the imaging abilities of the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM
when it's used at the far end of its normal operating range (400mm, top) and after the
1.4x converter is switched into place (560mm, bottom).

Click on photos to zoom in.

Along the left side of the lens mount is a cluster of switches, including an on/off switch for the lens’s 3-mode image stabilization system: standard, panning, and during exposure only. According to Canon, the lens’s IS system enables a 4-stop advantage when shooting in low light. Other switches clustered on the lens barrel include a switch for toggling between autofocus, manual focus, and power focus, which is primarily intended for use when capturing video. It’s worth noting that the power-focus speed can be controlled based on the degree to which its playback ring is rotated. Below the focus-mode switch is a focus-limiting switch to set full-range focusing (2m-∞), long-range focusing (6m-∞), or shorter-range focusing (2m-6m).

The lens can also be set to focus at pre-set distances for quick AF response from one focus distance to another. This is an important feature when shooting fast action with longer focal-length lenses. Once engaged, you can have the lens snap into focus at a predetermined distance, regardless of where the lens is focused at that moment. This makes it possible to continue shooting randomly across the playing field while maintaining the ability to quickly capture the action along the finish line or at home plate. Focus preset is also engaged via a switch on the lens, and distance is set with a simple push of a button.

Taxis heading north on Central Park West create a powerfully graphic image when captured at the lens’s greatest magnification, which in the case of Canon’s EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM, is 560mm. The
combination of long focal length and wide relative aperture create a beautiful contrast between
the sharp portion of the image and the softer portions of the frame as they feather off into the
background. The light-bending effects of heat radiation rising from the roadway further heighten
the look. (f/7.1 @ 1/1250, ISO 400, AWB, Evaluative Metering, 560mm zoom setting).

Click on photos to zoom in.

The dominant switch of the bunch is the one that enables you to engage the lens’s built-in 1.4x extender, which is what makes this lens different from every other zoom out there. By toggling this switch—which can be engaged at any point in the zoom range—you instantly magnify the focal range of this lens from a 200-400mm zoom lens to a 280-560mm equivalent zoom lens. If you’ve ever tried shooting a sports or similar multifaceted, action-charged event, you’ll immediately appreciate the advantages of this innovation.

As with all 1.4x tele-converters, you lose a stop of light when you flip the switch. In the case of Canon’s EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM, the fastest aperture effectively goes from f/4.0 to f/5.6, which still isn’t too shabby, considering the zoom range of this lens. Once engaged, you can see a slight dimming of the viewfinder image, but it’s not at all jarring.

When discussing long telephotos, many photographers automatically think, "sports photography," but that’s giving the lens short shrift. One of the nicest optical effects of longer focal length optics is their ability to compress perspective, which can be used for dramatic effect when shooting landscapes and cityscapes. Canon’s new zoom is no exception.

Shooting down the avenues of Manhattan, it’s possible to capture the hustle and bustle of city life in almost any direction in which you aim the lens barrel. Architectural details are easy to isolate, and depending on where you are, it’s easy to capture layered, quilt-like images of buildings that say volumes about the architectural flavor of the city. Facial expressions are easy to capture from great distances regardless of whether your subject is still or moving, and as the images taken outside the Time Warner Building at Columbus Circle show, the lens’s flattening effects at longer focal ranges create bold, collage-like images.

These two images of water spouts “floating” among the hustle and bustle of Columbus Circle
illustrate the focal range of the lens when used in standard (1x) mode. (200mm, top; 400mm, bottom).

Click on photos to zoom in. 

As for image quality, we’re pretty impressed. The Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM offers great performance at all f/stops, including when it's wide open. The lens had little trouble keeping up with the focusing abilities of the 5D Mk III. Interestingly, shooting in manual-focus mode was easier than one might suspect, though if the subject is moving quickly towards you I'd recommend you quickly switch back to the lens’s very able AF mode. You’ll be glad you did.

200mm Shot: EXIF Data -
f/8.0, 1/500, ISO 400, AWB

Image taken with Ipad

400mm Shot: EXIF Data -
f/8.0, 1/500, ISO 400, AWB

560mm Shot: EXIF Data -
f/8.0, 1/400, ISO 400, AWB

This series of photographs, taken from the roof of B&H’s corporate headquarters in Manhattan, by
Norman Perkel, illustrates the zoom range made possible when shooting with
Canon’s EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM lens with Internal 1.4x Extender. On a full-frame Canon DSLR,
the zoom range of this lens goes from 200mm to an effective 560mm (12° - 4.25° AOV)

Click on photos to zoom in. 

For more information on this impressive new Canon lens, stop by the B&H SuperStore in New York, speak with a sales professional on the telephone at 1-800-606-6969 or contact us online via Live Chat.

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More a question than a comment. Which is better a 500 or the 200-400 for sharp pictures of birds?