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Canon's Forgotten 400

EF 400mm f/5.6L USM

It's not big and impressive. It's not fast. It doesn't have Image Stabilization. It's not inexpensive. It's been around for years. So what's it good for? It's good for for taking remarkably sharp photographs and it's small enough and light enough to fit in your bag and be with you whenever needed. Here's how I came to test — and then to buy the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L.

I've been using the Canon 100-400mm f/5.6L IS zoom for the past 4 years, ever since it was introduced. I was never happy with the push-pull zoom design, and the lens shade is badly designed and keeps falling off. But when used with my EOS 3, EOS 1V, D30 and D60 this zoom lens has requited itself well and produced some very fine images.

But in the fall of 2002 I started using the Canon EOS 1Ds and it quickly because my main camera, replacing all of the previous 35mm gear as well as most of my medium format camera systems. Why? Because the image quality is superb. But I quickly found that it was extremely demanding of lens quality. For the first time, in my experience at least, the lens became the limiting factor, not the film or digital sensor.


Heron Silhouette — Loxahatchee National Wildlife Reserve. April, 2003
Canon 10D with Canon 400mm f/5.6L lens at ISO 800

Two lenses which I owned became causalities of the high image quality demanded by the 1Ds; the Canon 28-135mm f/3.5 zoom and the Canon 100-400mm f/5.6L IS. The 1Ds simply revealed that they weren't able to deliver the goods. (I know that this is going to cause a lot of the faithful's blood pressure to rise. I'm not saying that these lenses are bad. I'm simply saying that the 1Ds reveals deficiencies that other cameras don't, and makes them problematic for me. Your mileage may vary, so please don't write and tell me how wonderful one of these lenses is. I know. I have portfolio grade images made with both of them. But that was then, and this is now.)

Of course this is a subjective evaluation. But if you look at Canon's published MTF charts for the 400mm f/5.6 and the 100-400mm zoom you'll see that the 400mm prime is a superior lens, at least on paper. But of course the only thing that matters is how it performs in the field, and so I borrowed a 400mm f/5.6 from Canon to run a comparison.

400mm f/5.6 lens MTF
100-400mm f/3.5-f/5.6 lens @ 400mm

The test series was simple to perform. Put both lenses on a 1Ds, mount them on a tripod, and take shots at f/5.6, f/8 and f/11 using a subject with lots of fine detail. I also did the same test with these lenses and the new Canon 10D to see if I could see a difference there as well. (I did — seeing exactly the same results as with the 1Ds).

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The Test

The frame immediately below shows the subject of the test, a cityscape with lots of fine detail. The day was overcast, which was a good thing because it allowed me to test these lenses against each other in a demanding low contrast situation. The frames were taken with a Canon 1Ds at ISO 400. This allowed for high shutter speeds, which when combined with a solid tripod mount ensured that there was no vibration likely to obscure the results.

The frames below show the performance of the two lenses near the center of the frames both wide open at f/5.6 and closed down two stops at the optimum aperture of f/11. Magnification is 100%.

Canon 100-400mm f/3.5-f/5.6L zoom
@ f/5.6

Canon 400mm f/5.6L
@ f/5.6

The difference is remarkable. the 100-400mm zoom is clearly soft while the 400mm prime shows very good definition. As you might imagine the edges of the frame show the same story, except more so, so there's no point in showing them here.

Canon 100-400mm f/3.5-f/5.6L zoom
@ f/11
Canon 400mm f/5.6L
@ f/11

As one might expect the 100-400mm zoom sharpens up quite a bit when closed down 2 stops, but at f/11 still isn't as sharp as the 400mm prime at f/5.6. Most interestingly the 400mm prime only shows the slightest improvement when going from f/5.6 to f/11. This is typically the mark of an excellent lens and is seen in Canon's 300mm, 400mm, 500mm and 600mm wide aperture super-telephotos, which typically test the same from wide open to closed down. The flat MTF charts do indeed tell the tale.

On the cosmetic side, the lens has a built-in sliding lens shade that locks open, and a removable rotating mounting collar.

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The Conclusion

As I wrote at the beginning of this review, the 400mm f/5/6L isn't sexy. It doesn't have IS and it's relatively slow. But it is very sharp and light weight. For some photographers this may be what counts the most. In looking back at the many hundreds of frames that I've shot with the 100-400mm zoom during the past few years what I see is that I use this lens at the 400mm end of its range almost all of the time. Up to 200mm I use the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS. It's a very crisp lens indeed and from 100mm to 200mm is far superior to the 100-400mm zoom, not to mention a stop faster. But then unless I have along the 300mm f/2.8L IS or 500mm f/4L IS I don't have the combination of reach and image quality that I need and want but don't always get with the 100-400mm zoom.


Wired Construction Workers
Canon 1Ds with Canon 400mm f/5.6L @ ISO 400

This is the reason that after doing this test I returned the loaner to Canon and then immediately purchased the 400mm f/5.6L for myself. This lens fits in even my smallest and lightest travel kit, and I have confidence when using it wide open that it's going to give me excellent performance. Sure, I'd like it to be an f/4, but the extra weight and bulk wouldn't be welcome. Because I now shoot digital almost exclusively, rather than film, I can bump up the ISO one notch and still get excellent quality, making the relatively slow f/5.6 aperture acceptable. I definitely miss Image Stabilization, and wish that Canon would re-issue this lens with IS, but since I will be using it tripod mounted 90% of the time it's no real hardship.

Selecting photographic equipment is about trade-offs. Price vs speed vs image quality vs high tech features vs weight and bulk. You can't have it all, at least not all at once. What I won't compromise on though is image quality, and with the Canon 400mm f/5.6L, the forgotten 400, you get image quality in spades.

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Postscript

As I expected, within a day or so of the first publication of this review the faithful started their moaning — they couldn't believe that the 400mm f/5.6L was actually better than the 100-400mm zoom. Some came to the conclusion that my 100-400mm zoom must be in some way defective (it's not), while others suggested that I had some ulterior motive for coming to this conclusion (though what that might be, since I own both lenses, is beyond me). The reality that just because the 400mm is a better lens it doesn't make the zoom instantly bad appear to have escaped them. Oh well.

Then there were those that suggested that a 300mm f/4 IS with a 1.4X would be better. Have they made this comparison themselves? No. But then what does that have to do with it? (I have, and it isn't).

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Concepts: Lens, Digital camera, Zoom lens, Canon EOS DSLR cameras, F-number, Canon EF 400mm lens, Binoculars, Canon EOS

Entities: spades, Canon, ISO, National Wildlife Reserve, Michael Reichmann, Heron Silhouette

Tags: 100-400mm zoom, image, image quality, Canon 10D, shows, lens shade, MTF charts, Image Stabilization, zoom lens, push-pull zoom design, built-in sliding lens, Canon 1Ds, wide, Canon EF, previous 35mm gear, Loxahatchee National Wildlife, lens quality, Canon EOS, medium format camera, superior lens, low contrast situation, new canon, solid tripod mount, high image quality, lightest travel kit, portfolio grade images, crisp lens, wide aperture super-telephotos, high shutter speeds, flat mtf charts, vs high tech, excellent lens, better lens, aperture, fine, sharp photographs, optimum aperture, limiting factor, subjective evaluation, blood pressure