Canon Fixed Lenses

Canon EF 400 f/2.8L IS II USM

Canon EF 400 f/2.8L IS II USM Fixed Telephoto Lens – Field Review

Introduction

When I heard that Canon had released a new version of their 400 f/2.8 fixed telephoto lens, I was most interested to see what the long list of changes really meant. Of the four new fixed focal length lenses announced by Canon in the last year, the EF 400 f/2.8L IS II has shown the greatest weight loss. This and the other improvements have come about as a result of advances in technology that have taken place since the release of the version 1 IS lens, which came onto the scene in mid-1999. At that time digital camera technology was in its early stages and there has been marked progress in camera bodies and sensors in the interim.

The Canon EF 400 f/2.8L IS USM II lens.

What Is New?

The moment you take a proper look at the version II lens, it becomes apparent that it is indeed a completely new design that shares little with its predecessor except for its final specifications.

To begin with, the new lens is 6mm shorter than the old one. The large switch panel that was found on the side of the old lens has been made much smaller. The smaller, redesigned panel is home to the stabilizer on/off switch, the stabilizer mode switch and the preset focus mode switch. This panel is narrower, and contours more closely to the shape of the lens barrel. The switches also require slightly firmer pressure to move them. As a result of these two changes, it is now much more difficult to accidentally bump a switch and reset it. This is something that happened quite a lot to users of the older lens. Covering the switch panel with a neoprene lens protector is one way to solve the problem on the older lens.

The EF 400 f/2.8L IS II switch panel and the slimmed-down tripod foot- copyright © Grant Atkinson.

 

The EF 400 f/2.8L IS II comes with Canon’s very latest image stabilization technology. The IS provides stabilization equivalent to four stops of shutter speed, and has three modes to choose from.

The remaining two switches, to switch between AF/MF and the distance limiting switch, are now positioned in one panel that sits very close to the lens mount, completely tucked out of harm’s way.

The tripod collar is new, and is now an integral part of the lens barrel. It can no longer be removed. The new ring rotates very smoothly, and has a very distinct click to it when it is centered, or at a 90 degree angle, which is extremely useful. The old lens had a black line that could be lined up to do the same thing. The locking knob for the tripod ring has a cover that can be opened to reveal a slot for a lock. It is still positioned high on the lens barrel, where it is easy to reach without having to lower your hand far from the lens barrel. The new tripod foot is similar to the old one, but has been slimmed down as part of the weight loss program. Canon assures users that despite the weight loss, the redesigned parts of the new lens are just as strong as before, if not more so.

Black-headed heron in flight. Canon EF400 f/2.8 LIS II, Canon 1Dmk4, handheld – copyright © Grant Atkinson.

The focus ring is a lot wider on the new lens. This does make it easier to grip and turn, even with gloves on. I am not a big fan of these wider focus rings though, as I hardly ever use manual focus on these long lenses. I have found that the new wider focus ring can quite easily get shifted accidentally when holding the lens, or shooting it off of a beanbag. The bigger focus rings may be most suited to users taking video as opposed to stills photographers.

As before, there are four rubber-covered buttons on the front collar of the lens, that can be programmed to perform various functions, depending on which camera body you use. I keep mine set to the default which is AF Stop, meaning that if you are shooting in Ai Servo, and you need to compose in such a way that none of your AF points will fall on your subject, then you can compose and push in one of these buttons in order to stop the lens from focusing temporarily.

The new lens hood is identical to the old one in size, which basically means big, but it too has had some changes. The locking knob on the new hood has been redesigned and doesn’t protrude as much as before. This makes it less likely to catch on the sides of camera bags, etc. The new hood has been further improved by the complete omission of the tiny mounting screws that were found at the base of the old lens hood. Those screws were very annoying in that they used to regularly come loose and fall out. Despite these changes for the good, the single locking knob is not sufficient to firmly lock the lens hood in place. The lens hood is constructed of lightweight material, and due to its large size, has an inherent amount of flex. The single locking knob distorts the inner ring in the back of the lens hood slightly when you tighten it into place. This makes for a somewhat flimsy attachment.

Changes are not restricted to the outside of the lens only. Big news inside the redesigned lens is the replacement of one lens group that was made up of three elements, with a new grouping of just two elements. This is made possible by the new grouping being structured of two fluorite elements. The old lens had two UD elements and only a single fluorite element in its construction. Flourite is highly effective at combating chromatic aberrations as well as flaring and ghosting. It also weighs less than some other optic materials. It is also extremely costly to manufacture. The extra fluorite element is one reason for the higher cost of this new lens. The new EF 400 f/2.8L IS II has 16 elements in total, arranged in 12 groups, compared to its predecessor, which had 17 elements in 13 groups. The removal of the lens element, along with other changes, means that this new lens hits the scales around 1520g lighter than its predecessor. There are now 9 aperture blades in the diaphragm, which should result in smoother edges to the shape of the aperture circle.

How Does It Work?

The difference in weight between the older 400 and the new 400 is game-changing. I would never have tried to shoot the older lens handheld, but with the new EF400 f2/8L IS II it is a valid option when necessary. The new lens is so much lighter that every aspect of using it is easier. When shooting from within a vehicle, it is so much easier to pick up and position. Lifting it onto and off of a tripod is far easier than before. A large proportion of the weight was removed from the front part of the lens, and that also helps with ease of use. The bulk of the weight is now closer to the camera. The weight loss also counts more the longer you have to carry or handhold the lens.

The EF300 f/2.8L IS II stands alongside the Canon EF400 f/2.8L IS II – copyright © Grant Atkinson.

Despite the weight loss, when you are dealing in 2.8 apertures, there is a substantial size difference between this lens and the 300mm version.

The EF 400 f/2.8L IS II focuses extremely quickly. Canon list revised AF computing, as well as new AF motors all being part of the new design. On several occasions whilst testing the lens, I had the EF 300 f/2.8L II IS along for comparison. If there were differences between the lenses in how quickly they focused, those differences were too slight for me to detect in real world usage. I used the 300mm lens as a performance benchmark, and shot the two lenses side by side, with fast-flying birds for targets. For this I made use of both 1Dmk3 and 1Dmk4 bodies. The results were equally impressive, and reviewing the images did not show up a noticeable difference between the two in AF accuracy. These lenses are amongst the fastest focusing lenses I have used, and in this regard very similar to their version I predecessors.

I also tested the image quality of the new EF 400L f/2.8 IS II by shooting it off a tripod alongside the EF 300 f/2.8L IS II and the EF 300 f/2.8L IS I for reference. I used two different camera bodies, for their different sensor characteristics, on all three lenses. I made use of the 5Dmk2 for its full-frame sensor, and the 1Dmk4 for its finely detailed captures, a product of its 5.7 micron pixel pitch.

In low light the new 400 matched the new 300, which meant that they both had a slight edge when it came to detail and sharpness on the older lens, particularly at wide-open aperture settings. From f/5.6 upwards there was little to choose between the two newer lenses and the older lens, although the new lenses were just that tiny bit better with slightly finer details.

What was quite astounding with this new lens is just how good it is wide-open, at f/2.8. I was not able to really see any significant differences in sharpness and detail in images captured in low light at f/2.8 and f/8.0 using the EF 400 f/2.8L IS II.

This lens gives the most pleasing background blur. With the relatively long focal length, and the large maximum aperture, the EF400 f/2.8 IS II gives the shooter the opportunity to really blur busy backgrounds.

My evaluation of image quality was performed on a static subject, a furry toy baboon. I made use of the toy animal as there are no wild animals that I know that will stand still long enough for lens comparisons of this type. I felt this gave me a close approximation of real-world wildlife usage. I also shot a few thousand frames of birds with the new 400 and was very impressed with both AF performance and image quality. I have not used a better lens.

EF 400 f/2.8L IS II, 1Dmk4. 1/800s at f/2.8. Note the background blur at a wide-open aperture – copyright © Grant Atkinson

 

EF400 f/2.8L IS II, 1Dmk4. 1/30s at f.8.0 – copyright © Grant Atkinson

The new lens showed that it is far less likely to suffer from flare or ghosting when shooting into very bright or direct light. The old 400 was already quite good in this regard, but the new lens is better yet. Flare happens when stray light gets reflected off surfaces inside the lens and either shows up in the image as small circular, bright patches, or even sometimes as large areas of low contrast.

I was not able to notice enough light fall off on the edges of the image circle that would have any significance to a wildlife or sports photographer with the new lens.

The IS system is very effective on the new lens. As I usually do a lot of my shooting handheld and photograph moving subjects, I spent a lot of time shooting the lens using the new Mode 3. Mode 1 is for regular shooting, in handheld situations. Mode 2 is for panning, which you are most likely to do from a tripod. Mode 3 is for photographing action and is a new mode from Canon aimed at sports and wildlife photographers. During operation, the IS function is active but electronically locked. When the shutter is fully depressed, the camera releases the electronic lock and the IS responds to camera shake based on the running calculations. This means that the viewfinder is not stabilized during tracking, and one does not struggle with the image in the viewfinder jumping around due to the IS corrections. Canon claim that the IS system will detect when the lens is mounted on a tripod. They claim that the IS is still beneficial even when shooting off a tripod in that is will be effective against even slight camera shake or vibration. Many shooters prefer to turn IS off when they are shooting from a tripod, or at shutter speeds over 1/1000sec, and this is still an option. I generally prefer to keep the IS on and have had no reason to change this.

Alongside the IS switch panel there are also controls for the focus preset function. With this feature one can preset a focus distance into the lens memory and then recall that focus distance instantly at any time just by turning the collar on the front of the lens. A new feature is the power focus option. This feature allows video shooters to make controlled focus pulls, driven by the electronic AF motor by using the front collar as a controller.

The second switch panel is much reduced in size and is situated just ahead of the lens mount. It has a switch to change between manual focus and autofocus. The other switch in this panel controls the focus distance of the lens. The lens has a three-position focus limiting switch. By limiting the focus distance to match your shooting conditions, you can speed up focusing as the lens need only work in a smaller focus range. That said, if you are shooting in situations where you have little idea of how close or how far your next subject may end up, make sure to leave the focus limit switch set to “Full” which represents 2.7m to infinity. You really don’t want to have your closest focus limited to 7m and then have a subject suddenly appear much closer. That is a sure way to miss shots. I usually leave all my lenses on the setting that gives the minimum focus distance all the way to infinity to prevent any such surprises.

The minimum focus distance on this 400 has been improved, and it can now focus at 2.7m. This is .3m or 300mm closer than the older lens. This makes a difference when shooting small subjects from close distances.

The new 400 is fitted with seals, gaskets and O-rings in virtually every place where moisture might gain entry. This is highly desirable. It means you can shoot the lens in light rain if need be. It also means that moisture won’t easily get inside the lens if you live in or use it in damp conditions. This is dependent upon the lens being matched to a suitably weather-sealed Canon camera body though. Moisture sealing also means dust sealing, so dust will have a hard time getting inside this lens. Canon claim that weather sealing is improved due to design advances with the new lens. As the older 400 was pretty good in this regard, the new one should be even better.

Both the front lens element and the rear element (the one closest to the camera sensor) are treated with a fluorine coating, which makes it more difficult for dust particles to adhere to the glass. The coating also makes it easier for users to get rid of smudges and fingerprints without leaving any residue behind.

The new lens cover – copyright © Grant Atkinson

There have been more improvements with the lens cover that comes with the camera. The old cover was made of an artificial leather material and covered the whole lens hood. It was a bit of a chore to get on and off. The new cover is made from nylon, with a padded front end, and closes with a Velcro tab. It is effective and easy to use. It only really fitted well onto the back end of the lens hood, and is designed to be used when the hood is reversed on the camera.

The EF 400 f/2.8L IS II also comes with a high-quality carrying case that provides complete protection to the lens and can be locked. There are two compartments specially made to hold two Canon EF Extenders in the case, as well as the lens, with its hood reversed, its cover and strap. The carrying case is made of hard plastic with molded padded insides to completely support the lens when stored. It is a valuable accessory and a good way to keep your lens and extenders safe, dry and dust-free when stored or transported.

Extenders

In the past, the fast aperture 400mm lens has been more suited to sports use than wildlife. Even though the older lenses were extremely heavy, sports shooters had almost no choice if they needed the fast 2.8 aperture and its low-light and shallow depth-of-field benefit. Wildlife photographers tended to prefer the lighter weight of the Canon EF 500 L f/4.0 IS II. The new EF 400 f/2.8L IS II changes the situation somewhat. It does everything the older EF 400 f/2.8L IS I did, only better. It is now a much better lens for sports photographers with the possibility of handholding when things might be happening quickly. For wildlife photographers the new EF 400 f/2.8L IS II offers some options. It is light enough to be transported and deployed almost as easily as the older EF500 f/4.0L IS I. It can give the user access to the incredible low light performance that only an f/2.8 aperture permits, along with strong background blur for creative control, and it can be combined with the Canon EF extenders for more versatility. Combining the 400 with the 1.4x extender creates a 560mm f/4.0 telephoto lens. Combining the 400 with the 2x extender creates an 800mm f/5.6 telephoto lens.

Canon recently introduced two new extenders, the EF 1.4x III extender, and the EF 2x III extender. These new extenders were redesigned, and optimized to work very well with the new range of Canon telephoto lenses.

I did use the new 2x III extender on the new 400, and found that it worked very well. In good light there was only a slight quality loss in the images, when viewed at 100 percent. However, be aware that the 2x extender does slow down AF speed quite radically compared to the bare lens. This is of little consequence for photographing static subjects, but it can make taking sharp pics of fast-moving subjects quite challenging.

I did not have the newest version of the 1.4x extender, so used an EF 1.4x II attached to the new 400, and had good results from this combination. Image quality is just barely degraded compared to the bare lens and is noticeably better than the results from the EF 2x III extender. AF speed is also only slightly slowed down. Even with the EF 1.4x II attached, I was able to comfortably AF track fast-moving subjects.

 

I find that I tend to get better results when shooting with extenders attached when I am using the 1D Canon bodies. It feels to me as if the AF speed and accuracy of the 1D series is less affected by the extenders, whereas the 5Dmk2 and the crop sensor cameras give away a little more in this respect.

EF 400 f/2.8L IS USM II plus EF 2x III extender, 1Dmk4. 1/50s at f/5.6

Options

For those who find the EF 400 f/2.8L IS II too costly, which is probably the single biggest reason not to buy it, used versions of the EF 400 f/2.8L IS I are a viable option. The single biggest advantage the new lens has over the older one is the telling weight difference.

If either of these lenses are too big, or too heavy for you, Canon have two good alternatives. One of these is the Canon EF 400 f/4.0 DO IS telephoto lens. The f/4.0 version weighs around half the weight of its bigger brother at only 1940g, and costs much less. Both old and new f/2.8 lenses are sharper though, and also AF significantly faster. The f2.8 lenses also hold a significant advantage when it comes to image quality, and focusing ability in low light. The f2.8 lenses also allow one to shoot with a shallower depth of field, and will break up the background more effectively than the f/4.0 can. A second option is the Canon EF 400 f/5.6L lens, which is a very lightweight fixed lens that is highly regarded for its image quality and AF speed. It does not have any form of image stabilization. It is very light at just 1250g and is easy to carry and shoot with. It also costs just a fraction of what the two bigger aperture 400mm lenses do.

Conclusion

As at the time of this writing the Canon EF 400 f/2.8L IS II stands out as almost certainly the best fast aperture telephoto lens in its class. There have been so very many improvements made to this lens, some bigger, like the reduced weight and tucked-in switches, and some smaller, like the fluorine lens coatings and the new IS that the end result is truly deserving of the label “State Of The Art.” The EF 400 f2.8L IS II impresses in every way.

About the Author:

I am a guide and a photographer, with a deep interest in all things to do with nature. I am based in Cape Town, South Africa, but travel often to wild places whilst leading photographic safaris, and enjoying the outdoors.

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