Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L Lens Review
A selection of photos taken with my Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L lens.
Many of the bird photographs were taken in fairly difficult conditions, that is, hand-holding while sitting in a moving boat trying to photograph small subjects at a considerable distance. Please bear this in mind if assessing image quality.
Also, the shots taken with my old Canon 40D don't do this lens justice. Compared to current sensors the 40D sensor is small and uses old technology. There is a lot of noise at high ISOs, which there isn't with newer cameras. A lot of detail is lost, especially if images are cropped.
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L | Canon 40D | ISO:200 | Aperture: f/5.6 | Shutter Speed: 1/1250s
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L | Canon EOS 40D | ISO:200 | Aperture: f/5.6 | Shutter Speed: 1/1250s
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L | Canon EOS 40D | ISO:200 | Aperture: f/5.6 | Shutter Speed: 1/640s | Gitzo GT2541EX
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L | Canon EOS 40D | ISO:200 | Aperture: f/5.6 | Shutter Speed: 1/800s | Gitzo GT2541EX
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L | Canon EOS 40D | ISO:500 | Aperture: f/5.6 | Shutter Speed: 1/1000s
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L | Canon EOS 40D | Canon 550EX | ISO:400 | Aperture: f/6.3 | Shutter Speed: 1/250s
This lens never featured in my plans. Had Canon announced an update version with improved optics and - most importantly - the addition of IS, I would probably have been tempted but I had no plan to buy the original version.
The decision was kind of forced on me because of needing a long lens occasionally, and the constantly poor image quality from my Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS (which I sold).
Without spending a fortune on one of Canon's 'big guns', my only options were the EF 100-400mm L zoom or the EF 400mm f/5.6L. Both lenses have their fan bases and there is much heated discussion on Internet forums concerning the individual merits of each lens. However, I chose to go with the EF 400mm f/5.6L.
The image quality analysis of these two lenses using DxO Analyzer - as carried out over at the Luminous Landscape - would seem to indicate that I made the right choice: Two Canon 400mm Solutions Compared
It's not perfect but early impressions are that the image quality is significantly better than the Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS. After I ordered the lens I was a little concerned, but since it arrived I have been quite pleased.
If you search for reviews you will find mostly favourable comments, but you might also come across a guy who described it as a waste of money and the most expensive paperweight he owns.
I will just try to be factual here and - by posting some sample images - let you decide for your self.
No Image Stabilisation
Once you get used to image stabilisation - especially the latest version - it can be difficult going back to lenses without IS. Short focal length lenses aren't a problem but longer lenses are. And when hand-holding a 400mm lens (560mm on a 1.6x crop factor camera), IS would really be appreciated.
With an IS lens you get used to seeing a wobbly image in the viewfinder but as soon as you press the shutter button half-way it's as if a huge pair of hands has taken hold of the lens for you.
When I first used the EF 400mm f/5.6 it wasn't reassuring to press the shutter button half-way and to find that everything just kept wobbling.
If you are hand-holding, you need to keep an eye on the light and be prepared to use high ISO values. With fast shutter speeds it is still possible to take acceptable shots without a tripod. This lens has a good reputation for bird-in-flight (BIF) photos, which are often hand held.
I have had reasonable success hand-holding, but I prefer using a tripod whenever I can. I like to feel in control of the shot before I release the shutter, and when hand-holding this lens I never quite feel in control.
When Canon announce an IS version my current non-IS version will be sold very quickly but for the time being I will have to cope without Image Stabilisation. From what I have seen so far, the image quality of this lens is very good. Coupled with the last four-stop IS system, it will be hard to beat.
The lens isn't too heavy, and it is quite well balanced. This certainly helps with hand-holding. If you brace yourself correctly and shoot in good light, it is possible to get reasonable results.
I can take portraits with this lens but I will get better results with my Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 and I won't need to shout in order to communicate with my subject. Plane spotters and private detectives may also find a 400mm lens handy.
When people think of landscape photography they probably think of wide angle lenses, but some landscape shots work well with long lenses. Distant mountains can fill the frame; everything from foreground to background gets compressed; and there is only a narrow depth of field.
Sports photography benefits from the use of long lenses but I don't have many opportunities nowadays to photograph sports.
This lens has other uses, but it really excels at birds and wildlife. Animals, especially birds, don't like humans getting too close. Unless you hide yourself, it can be a problem getting close enough for there to be any detail in your photos.
This lens on a 1.6x crop camera is about the minimum focal length you need to get close enough to photograph birds before they decide you are too close and fly off. I bought it primarily to photograph birds.
More photos I have taken with this lens (and others), along with some basic information, can be found here: Birds of Thailand
With the Canon EF 1.4x II Extender
For more image samples of this lens when used with the Canon EF 1.4x II extender, see: Canon EF 1.4x II Extender/Teleconverter
With this lens, as with other Canon lenses, I cannot detect any noticeable degradation as a result of using the Canon EF 1.4x II extender.
However, something significant happens when using the Canon EF 1.4x II extender and this lens on a Canon body other than an expensive 1-Series. The minimum aperture goes above f/5.6 and the autofocus stops working.
You can still use the Canon extender - and the image quality will be fine - but you'll have to focus manually. The great thing now with digital is that the Live View feature makes manual focusing simple and accurate.
It's not an ideal situation but it can work. You'll need a tripod and also a stationary subject. Sometimes with birds they stay still long enough for you to focus manually, but it can be frustrating if you are trying to focus manually when your subject keeps moving.
At the time of writing I haven't owned the EF 400mm f/5.6L for very long but it seems like a very good lens.
People often debate whether they should buy this lens or the EF 300mm f/4L IS plus 1.4x extender. On paper, the latter choice looks better. However, in practice, that wasn't what I found.
The EF 400mm f/5.6L isn't perfect. I'd like it to be half a stop faster; I'd like it to have a shorter minimum focusing distance; and I'd love it to have Image Stabilisation.
But all things considered, I'm finally getting the shots that the EF 300mm f/4L IS plus 1.4x extender couldn't deliver.
To get longer and/or faster lenses in the Canon range requires spending a lot more money. Also, those big lenses are difficult to lug around and need big, sturdy tripods plus the addition of gimbal heads.
Those big lenses are in a different league and, as a keen hobbyist, it's not really a path I want to go down.
Would I Buy One Now?
Probably not, but it would depend on my available budget. This is an old lens now and with such a long lens I really want Image Stabilisation. There are rumours that Canon will update this lens in the near future and when they do it will be an incredible lens with latest technology lens coatings and IS.
The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II is also a great lens (I was never a big fan of the Mark 1 version). This lens has IS and being able to zoom from 100mm to 400mm is much more useful than just having 400mm.
However, good image quality long lenses are very expensive. If you are on a budget and need a long lens for birding or sport and find a good used version of the EF 400mm f/5.6L it will still do an excellent job.
Most original images were shot in the RAW format and converted with Adobe Camera Raw. Noise was reduced using Imagenomic Noiseware Professional. Small amounts of image enhancement were applied using Adobe Photoshop CS2 (curves, levels, saturation) before sharpening using the Smart Sharpen filter (Amount: 30% - 120%, Radius: 0.2px - 0.3px, Remove: Lens Blur).
The large JPG images that open if you click on a thumbnail were saved with a 'High' quality setting of '8' on a scale of 0-12.
Weight: 2.8 lbs; 1,250 g
Filter Diameter: 77mm
Closest Focusing Distance: 11.5ft; 3.5m
Minimum Aperture: f/32
Maximum Aperture: f/5.6
Autofocus: Ring-Type Ultrasonic Motor
Serial Number: 129111
Lens Code: UX1217
Date Manufactured: December 2009
Date Purchased: April 2010
Supplier: Chia Color Lab, Hat Yai, Thailand
Price: 43,900 Thai Baht
Lens Hood: Built-in
Soft Case: LZ1132 (included)
Tripod collar: Included
Other Review Pages You May Be Interested In
Thailand is an incredibly photogenic country, both for its landscapes and its people. Regardless of whether you enjoy large Asian cities, beaches and islands, or rice fields and mountains, Thailand has something for you and it is a dream destination for photographers.
One of the great things about visiting Thailand is that hotels are plentiful and a lot cheaper than in most other countries. Each link on the right will take you to the relevant page on the Agoda website where you can see photos, read reviews, and book on-line. I use Agoda to book all of my own hotels in Thailand and the Southeast Asia region. Agoda hotel rates are usually always the lowest and I have received good customer service, therefore I am happy to recommend the company to other people. Here is some analysis I did regarding booking hotels in Southeast Asia.
Booking.com used to be more expensive than Agoda, but when I have checked hotel prices recently I have found their rates to be quite competitive. Unlike Agoda, you don't need to pay at the time of booking with Booking.com - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, Booking.com show you total prices whereas Agoda show you a price and then add on 17% for tax and service charge.
If you want to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined.
Images of Thailand