Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM

The Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM. One of the best lenses for birding.

It isn't sexy but it sure will find a way into your gear bag for birding.

One of the most popular starter super telephoto lens in the Canon lineup for birding is the Canon 400mm f/5.6 L USM. The reason is that this lens is somewhat on the cheap side which makes it great when you just start taking pictures of birds. It is way cheaper than the 70-200 2.8 IS USM L but it also has double the focal length...the downside is that the 5.6 aperture is pretty slow in some situations. Of course you can step up to the 400mm f/4 DO IS USM for around $5000-$6000. It's one stop faster and it also has image stabilization, though a lot of photographers who are just starting out in birding won't spend that much for a lens. In my opinion for $5000 more I'd get something longer than a 400mm, but of course, I don't have that amount of money right now and if I did I'd buy a car instead.
Having an f/5.6 maximum aperture and no image stabilization doesn't mean this lens is a slouch though.  This is actually one of the sharpest lenses I own. It comes from Canons L line which means it contains elements that minimize aberrations and other problems. L lenses also have excellent build quality...well most of them at least. This particular lens has excellent build quality. Similar to the 70-200 L but without the weight.

The 400mm compared to the 70-200 IS USM f/2.8 without the hood attached.
Notice the difference in the barrel diameters.

I ordered mine online, got it within 4 days. I was so excited when I opened the box and found this long lens inside it. In my hand it felt really skinny. I got so used to holding my 70-200 IS that this lens felt like half of the diameter of the 70-200. Looking at it made me realize that this lens isn't sexy at all. I decided to attach it to my 5D. 

Attached to my 5D MK2 with the hood unextended.
With the hood extended you can see the size difference.

On my 5D the lens looked really long and skinny. Although you can really tell how well built this lens is. It also does not weigh a ton. That is a plus when you are carrying this on a monopod or in your backpack on a birding tour...yes it fits on my regular Lowepro Flipside 300 bag. What's also awesome about it is the built in retractable lens hood. Now I don't have to worry about carrying that with the lens and taking a quick shot without putting the lens hood first, it saves you a lot of time for those emergency quick shots. The tripod collar that comes with it is one of those quick release ones that you can take off without taking off the lens from the body. Physically here are what I noticed about this lens:

Well built. 
Long and skinny.
Built in lens hood is perfect.
Quick release tripod collar is another plus.
No weather sealing gasket in the mount.

Yes...there is no weather sealing in the mount like other L lenses do. This is basically to keep off dust and moisture from entering the camera body through the mount. I'm not really worried about that as I'm not taking this to the amazon jungle to take shots, it's nice to have though but it really does not bother me. It also has a focus limiter on the side which allows you to set the focus to a particular distance. This prevents the lens from hunting in situations where it travels a lot from near to far trying to focus on a subject. This is a plus when you take photos of birds in flight or subjects where you are going to need all the speed that you have.

The AF and the MF switch on the side plus the focus limiter.

So I attached the lens to my monopod and off I went to take bird shots. The first birds I saw where ducks flying around everywhere. So I sat in one spot and waited for one to come across my field of view. For starters I set my focus mode to ai focus just to try out the lens accuracy in locking the focus to a particular subject. I set my camera to shutter priority at 1/800 sec. And of course 3 minutes later I have a duck flying across from where I was sitting down.

One of my first shots with the 400mm f/5.6.

Capturing birds in flight with this lens is pretty awesome. The USM really does its job in tracking fast moving subjects. for a 400mm lens, the focusing speed is actually faster than some of my lenses, and it's effortless, no whining or hunting at all. You have to consider the lighting situations when you shoot this lens. The more light you have, the better chances you have of nailing those shots. I didn't even have to limit my focus on most of my shots. With the USM motor, instant manual focus override is possible without switching to mf.

  Cormorants in flight. I was hiding under a tree when I snapped this.

 This egret knew of my presence and started to take off as soon as I approached it.

 Blue Heron hunting for food. 

 This bird didn't really mind me getting that close. It was hopping from one branch to another.

That's a bird house where this bird was standing. It didn't really bothered this bird that I got a bit close.

After a couple of days using this lens I found the lens strongest points. The USM focus mechanism is fast when tracking birds in flight...faster when the subjects are stationary. 400mm seems to be the perfect range in framing birds in flight...a bit short for small birds but otherwise perfect for medium and bigger sized birds. I was trying to find faults with the focusing system by adding an aftermarket Kenko 1.4 teleconverter to the lens but the lens still focused perfectly...and still fast. I did that with the 70-200 and I felt the significant slowness of the focusing, not with this lens though. The teleconverter slowed down the maximum aperture to f8, it is slow but when you have enough light f8 still can get you a fast shutter speed for birds in flight. I heard that the Canon teleconverters don't allow you to use autofocus with this lens with the 2x teleconverter, the 1.4 will only allow af with a 1D series camera on center point af. With an aftermarket 1.4 teleconverter the af still works...on all points, although I haven't tried it still with an aftermarket 2x teleconverter.

After a while of using it I have to admit I really love this glass!

A lot of people are afraid of buying a long prime lens basically because of the fixed focal length. It all goes down to how you are planning to use the lens. I didn't have a second doubt about buying a fixed 400mm because I am pretty sure myself that I am using this for birding. Being a prime lens has it's advantages like faster focusing and better image quality with the use of teleconverters compared to long zooms. I carry this in the field on a monopod and rarely regret not having a shorter zoom attached to my body. With birding, no lens is long enough...the longer lens you can afford, the better.

The The Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM is not a perfect lens. It has its shortcomings like the slow maximum aperture and the aesthetics. If you're planning to buy this lens make sure you try out other options like the Canon 100-400 L IS USM. I went the prime way because I already have the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS USM and it's pretty much pointless for me to get another zoom within an almost similar range. Before buying make sure you understand the lens shortcomings. Attaching this to a monopod pretty much solved the non IS issue for me. That's a $50 monopod versus spending five grand on the IS version that's one stop faster. The L lens build quality makes this lens last for years basically retaining it's value till you are ready to upgrade to a longer lens.  Other than that this lens will be a great birding companion for years to come! 


  1. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)

  2. Thanks for reading it. I'm glad I can help.

  3. Thnx for the good Review, now i know, i have to get one ;-)