Canon EF 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 L IS Lens Review
The 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 LIS is a great, sharp lens for photographers that need a range of long focal lengths, but who can't afford to mortgage their house for several of Canons multi-thousand dollar long prime lenses. As of this writing, the 100-400L can be purchased online for about $1400. This is Canon's longest zoom.
This lens is long and hefty. It's longer still, when zoomed in to 400mm as the lens extends along the barrel axis using a push-pull mechanism vs. a zoom ring. Although some photographers have expressed a distaste for this method of zooming, I find it quite handy and ergonomically smart as it allows for quick zooming while tracking moving subjects such as airplanes or even birds in flight. Some photographers have also opined that this push-pull mechanism turns the 100-400L into a dust pump sucking dust into the lens and into the camera body, but after over a year of use with this lens, I haven't seen any issues like that. All zooms displace air when zoomed through their range, so this lens doesn't seem to be any more likely to suck in dust than any other zoom lens.
As expected from a Canon L lens, the build is solid and strong. The focus ring is fairly wide and well damped. The tension of the push pull mechanism is adjustable via a separate tension ring, and I've set mine once and haven't had to change it. The lens utilizes Canon's Ring USM AF mechanism which provides a fast, near-silent focus with FTM override. The lens uses an internal rear focusing design so the front element does not rotate. The Focus Limit switch allows the photographer to choose a focus range of 1.8 meters to ∞ or 6.5 meters to ∞ to limit focus hunting.
The lens is Image Stabilized (IS) with a two-mode setting switch. Mode 1 is for standard handheld shots and Mode 2 is for panning. The IS allows for about an additional two stops of shutter speed when hand holding.
The lens utilizes an eight- bladed aperture design which makes its use as a portrait lens quite feasible. As you can see in the image to the right, the quality of the background blur (bokeh) is excellent and the lens is quite sharp, even wide open at its longest focal length. This is quite impressive to me and I haven't hesitated to use this lens for glamour and outdoor portraiture.
I have used this lens at several outdoor parties and for some winter landscapes. The focal range allows me to isolate people in a crowd, or zoom out for a wider overall view. When used with a 1.6 FOV crop camera, this lens has an excellent range for wildlife photography, allowing the photographer to stand off at a distance to capture the shot without spooking the animals. The lens does accept Canon's 1.4x and 2x EF teleconvertors, but be aware that you will lose autofocus on any bodies but the 1D series due to the reduction of the effective aperture.
The included ET-83C hood attaches easily via a bayonet style mount and is flocked on the interior to absorb light. The hood is made out of high impact plastic and extends the length of the lens by about 3.5 inches. I reverse mount my hood on the lens for easy storage. Filter size on this lens is 77mm making it easy to share filters with the 70-200 f/2.8L, the 70-200 f/2.8L, the 28-70 f/2.8L, the 24-70 f/2.8L, the 24-105 f/4L IS and the 17-40 f/4L. The lens comes with its own soft pouch for storage and protection.
The 100-400 L is, for many photographers, the lens of choice for air shows. I certainly find that it is the lens I reach for when I want to shoot planes and helicopters. At the 2007 Hillsboro Air show, I counted no less than 6 other photographers using this lens to shoot the air exhibitions.This lens used with the the 45 point AF in AI Servo mode on the 1D Mark IIN camera let me capture shots that would have been much more difficult to achieve with a lesser lens and camera combination. Even when mounted on my Canon 20D, the lens helped me to get excellent results.
I shot for nearly 4 hours with this lens, and although its heavy, the balance and ease of use did not result in any significant fatigue. The push-pull zoom mechanism was great for keeping fast-moving planes within the image frame and using it was 2nd nature after only a few minutes of shooting. The white color did keep the lens considerably color than the black 24-105 f/4 L IS I had mounted on my other camera. This lens contains both fluorite and Ultra Low Dispersion (UD) lens elements which provide the excellent color and contrast. It's said that the "Canon White" color of the lens is to help protect the fluorite elements in the lens from heat build up. If so, the color seems quite effective to me.
I really enjoy shooting with this lens. It's certainly not my most used lens, but it definitely has its place in my photographic tool box. I have much more exploring to do with the 100-400 L and I look forward to sharing the results with my friends, family and clients.
©2006 Mark Cohran, All Rights Reserved
Latest Revision: November 19, 2009