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.

Morning on the Marsh, 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 @ 200mm

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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New FREE Photography Ebook

My new FREE eBook, Creative Photography: 10 Easy Pieces is now available for download. You can get your copy HERE.

As I state in the introduction, this small book will not make you a more creative photographer overnight. Instead, it will help you use your use your camera in more creative ways, instilling habits that can eventually make you a more creative photographer. Using these tools, practicing, and making these habits is up to you. Enjoy.

 

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Vignettes from Acadia

“Under a Blood Red Sky”
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 @ 16mm, 4 seconds @ f/16, ISO 200

“Vermiculations on Duck Brook”
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon 70-200mm f/4 @ 98mm, 1/50 second @ f11, ISO 800

“Monument Cove”
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8, 30 seconds @ f11, ISO 320

“Lower Hadlock”
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon 70-200mm f/4 @ 126mm, 1/8 second @ f8, ISO 100

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CPCD #8 – Low Hanging Fruit in the Tetons, Wyoming

Too easy

If you’re unsure what a CPCD actually is, read this.

This crappy phone image isn’t from THE Schwabacher Landing in Grand Teton National Park, but it’s certainly close enough (actually, it’s better). Still, it’s easy, unoriginal, trite, unimaginative, and uber-conventional. It didn’t require working the scene very hard nor any extraordinary vision on my part. Some might argue that it required no vision at all, in fact. You could also make the assertion that I didn’t expend any hard work or energy here, that I simply reached for the low hanging fruit. Okay, fair enough. But the low hanging variety can often be just as sweet as the reward waiting at the top of the tree too.

This was captured this morning with my workshop group in the Tetons. It was fun, the light was sublime, and I was honored to share the moment with some awesome photographers with whom I’m spending this week. I really doesn’t get much better.

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Livin’ La Vida Fotografia: Part One

Despite mostly bad weather, we did have a few opportunities to get out and explore Chingaza National Park, which lies just southeast of Bogota, Colombia

When returning to the United States after an overseas trip, the first required task ahead of you – prior to going through customs or baggage claim – is a screening at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency’s passport control area. Think long lines and a pod of glass encased booths with unsmiling border agents. The purpose of this formality is to have your passport and documentation checked out as well as having agents possibly ask you a few questions about your trip. For me, that sometimes includes an inquiry as to why I was visiting the country from which I am arriving. This always irritates me a little. Why? If it’s legal, it’s none of their damn business. You just can’t say that.

My reply is always truthful, yet vague. If you offer too much information it only invites a more intrusive set of questions that feel like a dangerous game of “gotcha” even though you have nothing at all to hide.

Then again, you can’t be too vague either. An answer along the lines of, “because I felt like it” will likely land you in a small room, under a hot lamp with a few stone faced, humorless inquisitors and a missed connection to boot.

“For photography,” I say and this reply satisfies quite often enough. I might even get a genuinely friendly response such as, “Oh I imagine (insert country name here) is a beautiful place for that” or something along those lines.

Upon arriving from Bogota, Colombia that answer left the Miami agents less than convinced.

“Photography? You mean, like taking pictures?”

This calls for mucho self control on my part.

“Yes, exactly like taking pictures.”

They then want to know of what and where I was practicing photography; if I know people in Colombia; how did I come to know these people in the first place; did I buy any photo equipment there; if not, what did I buy?

I can’t tell you how tiring and banal these overtly loaded questions are, not to mention slightly insulting. We are all aware of Colombia’s mostly unfair reputation so why don’t we avoid any further delay and just ask where I’m hiding the blow?

Then again, their lack of good faith could rightfully be forgiven seeing that not too many gringos travel to the Land of El Dorado for the sole purpose of photography. But that could be changing soon. Photographers can draw inspiration from a varied set of natural environments and climate zones: the Amazonian rainforest with it’s dizzying array of biodiversity; the snowfields and glaciers of the northern Andes mountain range with the highest peaks reaching over 18,000 feet; the tierra caliente of the lowlands and tropical Caribbean islands; and the wet Pacific coastline. This makes Colombia one of most naturally diverse countries on the planet, ranking third in the entire world in the number of total living species and number one in bird species.

So I arrived in Bogota with high hopes after receiving and accepting a speaking invitation and separate weekend teaching assignment with La Bloom Photo School, where a group trip to nearby Chingaza National Park was planned. But first, I wanted to explore the city and countryside and I allowed an extra week on my own for this purpose.

After checking into the hotel, I took a leisurely walk around the block to get a feel for the sights, sounds, and rhythms of this new place. It didn’t take long for me to notice that something was obviously wrong here. The armed guards at nearly every intersection and restaurant didn’t give me much pause at first but the explosive-sniffing dogs at the entrance to each hotel, parking deck, and government building was, I admit, a bit unnerving.

I tried to have a taxi take me to Bogota’s historic city center right before sunset for some twilight and long exposure photography. When asked for a destination, I just said, “oh, just drop me off anywhere here” as I pointed to a location on the map I was holding. He refused, for my own good. My Spanish comprehension is at best passable, but I know a good scolding when I hear one, no matter the tongue. It was beyond foolish to be downtown at night alone, was the message in so many words. Yet undeterred, I tried another and was refused once more.

On my return to the hotel, I was struck by a man on a small motorcycle while crossing one of Bogota’s chaotic streets. Famously chaotic or not, he shouldn’t have been swerving through and around stopped traffic at an intersection and then fail to stop at all once he arrived at the light. For this, he paid dearly as the forward motion of his bike was immediately arrested by contact with my body while he, now separated from said bike, continued airborne in that same forward direction unabated until terminal impact with the pavement.

This traffic-stopping scene drew many awed looks from nearby drivers and pedestrians, as I stood over the wreckage virtually unscathed. He was okay as well, just bloodied up a bit, but still was taken to the hospital in an ambulance as a precaution. After a very short interview with police, I continued my walk back to the hotel, all the while mulling the inauspicious start to the trip.

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