The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens

I recently completed an overseas photography trip to Iceland-Rwanda-Congo, which included some mountain gorilla photography in the volcanoes of Rwanda. Now normally for a trip that included some wildlife photography I would bring my favorite wildlife lens, the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X. But as good as this lens can be, it’s also heavy and bulky. I didn’t want to haul it around Iceland for 2 weeks nor strap it to my back for the strenuous trekking through Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Enter the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens.

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is a significant upgrade over the first version. Look, I love Canon lenses but I don’t offer uncritical worship and fealty to Canon by any means. So let’s just say it as plainly as possible: the first version of this lens was a mess. First, it lacked the sharpness of my other Canon lenses. Every objective and subjective analysis has proven this point. Second, I hated the design, particularly the “push-pull” zoom feature. Let’s give thanks to the engineers at Canon for shelving this design blunder when they began drawing up the blueprints on the new Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM.

At left: A young mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) in a contemplative pose, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens @ 400mm, 1/800 second @ f/5.6, ISO 3200. Handheld – difficult, if not impossible with my venerable 200-400mm. 

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM was introduced in late 2014 and replaced its inferior predecessor, which had been in circulation since 1998 (!) The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is sharper (this is not even open for debate), a bit heavier (3.56 lbs. versus 3.27), and much better designed than the first version. In addition to the improvement in the awful “push-pull” zoom design, the newest version has metal filter threads on the front element – a small but important upgrade for those (like me) who do use filters. In that regard, Canon thankfully retained the 77mm front element filter size for this upgrade.

The lens is intuitive to use and it focuses very fast. This is another improvement over the previous version. I can use this lens (as opposed to a big, heavy super telephoto lens) when the need to handhold arises. See the gorilla photo above. I have handheld my 200-400mm before but only for very short periods of time. This lens makes it easy and comfortable.

At right: The lava lake inside the crater of Mount Nyiragongo, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens @ 100mm, 1/40 second @ f/10, ISO 2000. The hike to the volcano’s rim is long, uphill, and challenging so I appreciated the light weight of this impressive telephoto lens.

Here are the primary ways in which the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM has improved over its predecessor: improved optics (21 elements in 16 groups versus 17 elements in 14. It’s also noticeably sharper, as I mentioned), comprehensive weather sealing versus being only partly sealed, improved image stabilization with a 4-stop benefit versus only 2, conventional twist-ring zoom versus the atrocious old push-pull design, nearly half (!) the minimum focusing distance (98 centimeters versus 180), and a faster autofocus drive.

At left: a southern masked weaver bird (Ploceus velatus) and nest, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens @ 240mm, 1/800 second @ f/5.6, ISO 400. The ability to zoom allowed me to creatively compose this image with the bird, nest, and some negative space.

Even though I bought this lens for this specific trip, I’ve decided to keep it as a complementary piece to my 200-400mm when I need to handhold shots or don’t want to carry a bulky, heavy lens to where I happen to be traveling. If you still own the first version, there is no good reason not to upgrade. It belongs in every serious wildlife photographer’s camera bag. Get yours here: Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens.

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