Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X Lens Review

Before I tell you all about this amazing piece of photographic equipment, let me start by putting your mind at ease. I will not even try convincing you into dropping $12,000 on a lens, especially a $12,000 lens that doesn’t even carry itself, or compose, capture, and process images for you. For the money they’re asking, you would expect at least that and perhaps a few more features to boot.

So you can take a deep breath, relax, and read on without any undue anxiety or pressure. I can’t promise that I won’t make you like the lens, but I do promise not to say you need it. With apologies to Robert Hunter, my job here is only to shed light, not to master.

Canon first announced this lens to the public in February of 2011 and after 2 agonizing years of delays and technical setbacks, it finally came to market earlier this spring. It was well worth the wait. This was Canon’s answer to Nikon’s comparable zoom lens, except Canon not only matched their 200-400mm with constant f/4 maximum aperture, they upped the ante by incorporating an internal 1.4x extender too.

Last month, I brought the new Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Reserve in New Mexico. Here is my mostly subjective, non-technical review and initial thoughts.

Sandhill Cranes in Flight, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X @ 560mm

TALE OF THE TAPE

The lens is 14.4 inches (36.6 centimeters) long without the hood and weighs in just a hair under 8 pounds (3.6 kilograms) – twice as long and 5 pounds heavier than the Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 USM, in case you thinking about upgrading within that similar focal range. If you are one of these people, you might also want to consider a sturdier tripod and a gimbal head as well. In terms of physical size alone, it compares best to the Canon 500mm f/4L IS II, with the 200-400mm being a pound heavier but an inch shorter.

Since getting my hands on this lens, the question I been asked most often, surprisingly, is whether it is “handholdable.” I suppose it is, but what lens isn’t – if only for extremely short durations of time? For a quick, spontaneous grab shot of Sasquatch, I guess I could say yes. For serious, critically sharp wildlife and sports imagery, I would recommend a good tripod or monopod.

While shooting at Bosque, my new lens and I were somewhat marginalized by the insufferable birder crowd and their phalanx of mammoth 600mm and 800mm super telephotos. I paid them little mind and quietly went about my business as each of the photographers tried their best to steal a furtive glance my way in order to get a better look at this new species of Canon glass. Soon enough, one of the sports walked over and asked if he could check it out, which he dutifully did. After which, in a rather condescending tone, he declared to everyone within earshot that it was “a nice little lens.” I do have to give him some credit for withholding the patronizing pat on my head while uttering it.

My initial impression when I first lifted in from its case? Heavy, solid, stout, like a little fire hydrant.

Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X in hardshell case (included) with Really Right Stuff LCF-53 replacement tripod foot

HIGHLIGHTS

Internal 1.4x Extender

This new feature is what separates this particular lens from all the others, including the comparable model used by my Nikon brothers and sisters. The built-in 1.4x optical extender expands the focal range as far out as 560mm with a simple flip of a lever. You can almost think of it as two lenses in one: a 200-400mm f/4 and a 280-560mm f/5.6 with an impressive total focal range of 200-560mm without a single lens change (That’s an eye-popping 320-896mm on a Canon APS-C sensor camera!).

The extender lever is substantial and not at all flimsy like I feared it might be. There’s an audible “clunk” when the extender is engaged that is solid and reassuring, unlike most clunking sounds that emanate from expensive, high tech toys. It operates beautifully.

With the simple flip of a lever on the lens barrel, the 1.4x optical extender is engaged.

 Amazing Autofocus

The 200-400mm f/4L offers lightening-quick, smooth, and incredibly accurate autofocus capabilities for Canon EOS cameras. The lens focuses so fast and so effortlessly, that you literally cannot see it happening in the viewfinder. For bird-in-flight shots, I often didn’t know if the results would be in focus or not since the camera and lens locked on and fired simultaneously as well as instantaneously. Not until I reviewed the images shortly afterward was I able to confirm that they all were, in fact, tack sharp. There was no waiting for focus to be confirmed. It just happened without me knowing it!

My test run at Bosque was shot with a Canon 5D MarkIII and Canon 7D. I can only imagine the focusing speed with the venerable 1DX.

Snow goose in flight, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, USA. Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X@ 400mm

Improved IS

Canon claims there are four stops of shake correction incorporated in the Image Stabilization (IS) system of this lens. I can only take them at their word on this since I wouldn’t know how to accurately verify the claim anyway. At any rate, it’s useful to know that this lens has three IS modes: Standard, Panning and Exposure Only.

Standard mode (Mode 1) mitigates vibrations in every direction and is most effective when shooting subjects that aren’t moving very much. Panning mode (Mode 2) corrects vertical or horizontal shake depending on the direction of the panning. For example, when panning horizontally with a moving subject, this lens stabilizes movement vertically and vice versa. Exposure Only mode (Mode 3) corrects camera shake only at the precise moment of exposure so focus tracking is easier. This would be most useful when tracking a very fast or erratically moving subject.

Of course you can choose not to use IS at all and it can be easily disabled at anytime.

Unforgiving, Yellowstone National Park in winter, Wyoming, USA, Canon EOS 5D, Canon EF 200-400 f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x @ 280 mm

Beautiful Bokeh

This lens uses a 9-blade circular aperture design, which creates soft, dreamy, out-of-focus backgrounds when using large apertures. This effect makes your primary subject seem to jump right off the page – or computer screen, an illusion many wildlife and sport shooters try hard to emulate. This particular claim I can see and verify with my own eyes. It’s downright dreamy.

Sharpness

Aside from the questions about its size and hand holding ability, the next concern on everyone’s mind is lens sharpness. Folks who are super obsessed with sharpness tend to gravitate toward primes anyway so their questions about this telephoto zoom are overtly loaded with suspicion. Now I like sharpness as much as the next guy but I’m not one of those people who toss and turn at night worrying about micro resolution, lines per inch and circles of confusion and the like. Maybe I should, but I don’t.

With that being said however, my 20-plus years of experience gives me a pretty good subjective yet accurate view of image quality and I can say that it’s pretty damned sharp – both with the extender and without. I didn’t test the lens at the smaller apertures (and who would care?) but from f/4 to f/11, it was super sharp from corner to corner at all focal lengths. Don’t trust me? Take a look at the mind blowing MTF charts on Canon’s webpage:

http://www.usa.canon.com/cusa/consumer/products/cameras/ef_lens_lineup/ef_200_400mm_f_4l_is_usm_extender_1_4x#Overview

Then again, maybe you should just trust me on this one.

There are four ultra-low dispersion lens elements and one fluorite element that makes chromatic aberrations with this lens almost non-existent. There’s also a fluorine coating on both the front and rear lens surfaces, which is apparently a good thing too.

Blast Off, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X @ 520mm

Weather Resistance

Like all Canon L-series lenses, the 200-400mm f/4L is impervious to almost any weather Mother Nature can throw at you. It’s moisture and dust resistant, ready for shooting in the harshest of conditions.

At Bosque, I shot in an hour-long, steady downpour one afternoon and after I wiped the lens down with a dry towel, there was no water inside the lens barrel, no condensation, and no fogging up. The same couldn’t be said of the photographer, however.

CONCLUSION

Is the lens “worth” it? Who the hell knows? It will be worth it to some photographers and certainly not worth it to others. As a professional nature and wildlife photographer, it’s the lens I’ve been waiting on for a long time. It’s the ultimate wildlife lens, period. But I already knew that two years ago before I ever got my hands on it. The only question was whether Canon delivered a clunker or hit a home run with the finished product. It appears to be the latter.

The only other worthwhile alternates to this lens are the 400, 500, and 600mm primes coupled with 1.4x and 2x extenders. But the flexibility of zooming for creative compositions and framing make the 200-400 with internal 1.4X extender a no-brainer for me. Wildlife photography is more than getting the longest focal length and tightest crop possible on an animal. Sometimes you want to fill the frame with the subject and sometimes you want to incorporate some of the environment. Sometimes the subject is too close and you miss opportunities while switching lenses, changing cameras, or adding and removing tele-extenders. This lens solves those problems.

I might be outgunned by the big boys and their 600 and 800mm lenses, but I’ll miss fewer image opportunities and I’ll have more creative compositional options with this lens, which is more than worth the tradeoff for me.

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| 18 Comments
Posted in Camera and Lens Reviews | Tagged , ,

15 Comments

  1. Posted November 25, 2013 at 1:06 am by Dan | Permalink

    Good photographic equipment and a good photographer can be a perfect combination. My finances are not enough to start again so I must content myself with Sony A850 and Sigma 170-500 mm. That’s good enough for me? but … I feel obvious envy when I see your beautiful photos./Dan

  2. Posted November 25, 2013 at 6:36 am by Buddy Eleazer | Permalink

    Nice overview. I’ve seen reviews by others that are in line with your comments. Based on weight, I plan to keep either my old 100-400 or my 400 DO lens when the day comes I want to make this jump. I guess the question only I can ask is “should I sell my first generation 500 f/4, my 400mm DO, 2x T/C, maybe my 1.4 T/C and throw in a few bucks and buy this?” I would be giving up a lot, but it sounds like I’d also be getting a lot.

  3. Posted November 25, 2013 at 6:37 am by Buddy Eleazer | Permalink

    Sorry, meant to say: Question only I can answer. Feel free to edit my first post.

  4. Posted November 25, 2013 at 7:34 am by Lance Warley | Permalink

    Great shots, great Hunter quote.

  5. Posted November 25, 2013 at 7:51 am by Dick Berry | Permalink

    Great review and would like your opinion.
    I have had people ask me if you had a choice between a fixed lens…lets say 500mm and this new 200-400 what would you take on an African safari? Now remember you can only take one or the other.
    Thanks and again a great review and know the new Canon 200-400 produces excellent quality images.

  6. Posted November 25, 2013 at 9:21 am by Fern Trujillo | Permalink

    Excellent end user common sense no B.S. review. Excellent pics, I can imagine what new opportunities await you out west with it. Might have to put this one on the list for the future.

  7. Posted November 25, 2013 at 9:23 am by Jerry Alt | Permalink

    I had the pleasure of holding and very quickly shooting with Richard’s lens, and I am convinced. I had the 500mm f/4 first generation L series and sold it to help buy the 400mm f/2.8 L (gen II) earlier this year because the 200-400 wasn’t available yet. Like Richard, I worried that the delivered lens would not live up to the hype. I also own the 300mm f/2.8 and have used all these lenses on a variety of subjects and conditions. This is the lens for me, and I’m in the process of selling both the 300mm and 400mm now.

    As to the question from Dick about Africa… I haven’t been but the answer is easy. If you have one lens you take the new 200-400 so that you can capture as many different scenarios as possible without fumbling to take converters off or put them on. I can think of nearly a dozen situations in the past year where I have missed a shot or lost the best composition because of having to change lenses or grab a second camera. For me, I would carry the 70-200 on one hip and the 200-400 on the other and feel confident at Yellowstone or on the plains of the Serengeti. Even an afternoon at my local zoo will be complete with just this one lens.

    • Posted November 25, 2013 at 9:25 am by Richard Bernabe | Permalink

      Great points, Jerry. I couldn’t agree more!

    • Posted November 25, 2013 at 9:46 am by Dick Berry | Permalink

      Jerry,
      Thanks for your suggestions….I think you have confirmed what I have been knocking around in my head for some time now. I have been to Africa and know first hand what you mean by fumbling around and missing shots. Thanks for the input!

  8. Posted November 26, 2013 at 1:31 am by Shariq M. Bijli | Permalink

    After going through your review, I’m convinced that the lens must be worth the price if one can afford it. I certainly feel that the zoom ability and the in-built extender is certainly the USP of this lens. In wildlife photography, especially when photographing from a 4WD, as is the case in India’s National Parks, this lens would be sweet. As of now I prefer using Canon’s 100-400, as it gives me the ability to quickly zoom in or out. I have photographed elephants and tigers at 100mm from the Jeep. Fixed focal length of 500mm would have made it really difficult to get the shot because the subject was too close. So, a 200-400 f/4 is certainly a big plus, especially in the shooting situation I mentioned. Thanks for the helpful review Richard, and as always a pleasure it is to view the images you have created. Cheers :)

  9. Posted December 18, 2013 at 9:01 am by Chris H | Permalink

    Excellent review Richard. Thanks for taking the time!

  10. Posted January 22, 2014 at 10:20 am by Jared Lloyd | Permalink

    Richard, your review and assumption of this lens is spot on in my opinion. As you know, I shoot Nikon. When Nikon came out with their 200-400 VR lens, the possibilities of instantly recognizable. I like so many others dumped my 400 f/2.8 and picked one of these up and never looked back. This was the absolute BEST big mammal lens on the market hands down, no questions asked. That is, until Canon introduced their version with the built in TC. Now Nikon’s 200-400, after so many years of standing head and shoulders over anything else on the market for this type of photography, is playing second fiddle.

    The 200-400 is pretty much the absolute best range possible for large mammals. Sure, there are times when I want something longer and will go for my 600. But most of the time, the 200-400 isthe go to lens for mammals.

    As for bird photography, this lens is ideal for shooting flight shots, working rookeries, or a great walk around lens in places like the Galapagos Islands. For portraits and for smaller birds, its tough to beet the 600 prime with f/4.

    But then again, here is the genious of the built in TC. . . from 400mm to 600 with the flip of a switch.

    Nikon or Canon, I get excited when new technology comes out because I know that it only raises the bar for all players involved. So I jumped at the opportunity to spend a day shooting with the new Canon 200-400 while down in the Galapagos this past summer. I can honestly say this is one incredible lens.

    When Canon shooters ask for recommendations on lens rentals now for the workshops, this is the first lens I suggest to them.

  11. Posted February 25, 2014 at 12:50 am by Jim Scarff | Permalink

    I have the 100-400 IS L, the 400mm DO, and the 500mm f/4 IS L and a 1.4X TC. The 100-400 and 400mm DO lenses are easy to carry around all day and hand-hold while shooting at 3-4.5 lbs. The new 200-400 w/ TC weighs MORE than my 500mm f/4. IF you are going to be doing 90% of your shooting from a tripod or monopod, there is no doubt that it is great. If you have to carry this and hand-hold it to photograph, you are going to miss a lot of shots. Before folks rush out to plop $12K down on this lens, they owe it to themselves to carry and shoot with an 8 lb lens for a day or two.

  12. Posted February 25, 2014 at 12:54 am by Jim Scarff | Permalink

    Oops, here is my website above. At the other end of the $$ range, I just bought a Tamron 150-600mm lens for $1,069 and only 4.3 lbs. Very impressive quality, particularly at that bargain price. It may be the lens I take on my African safari along with a tripod/monopod this coming summer.

  13. Posted May 20, 2014 at 8:57 pm by Sandra (@SandalsDown | Permalink

    At that price, I can but only dream for now. However, it is definitely on my wishlist. Great photos! And you certainly succeeded in making me like it!

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