When Canon announced the development of this lens, I wasn’t too surprized. The Nikon 200-400 f4 equivalent of this lens has long been a popular choice amongst many of the Nikon shooters that travel with me on photographic safaris, and Canon were certainly lacking representation in this segment of the market. Canon took some time developing their own EF 200-400 f4L IS 1.4x ext IS USM and seemingly held nothing back when it came to the feature set of this lens. In both physical size and cost it is most similar to Canon’s quartet of class-leading, version ii fixed telephoto lenses and with imaging performance that is of a similar standard.
ABOUT THE LENS
As it is an all-new design for Canon, there is really no other zoom in the range to compare it to. However, as this lens will likely be competing with Canon’s own range of super telephoto prime lenses for space in photographers gear bags, I have chosen to use some of those lenses as references where relevant in the review.
The lens barrel does not change size during zooming, and all moving parts are inside the barrel. This type of design is usually better at keeping dust and moisture out of the lens for longer than lenses with extending barrels.
Starting at the rear of the lens, the lens mount is standard Canon EOS L, complete with the weather-sealing rubber ring. The base of this lens barrel is not ridged, unlike many other L-series Canon lenses, likely due to the need for compact dimensions.
There is a small panel with recessed switches mounted close to the lens base, where it can easily be reached by the photographer’s left hand. It houses switches controlling AF/PF/MF and also the focus distance limit selector. All the panels and switches on the lens are closely contoured to the shape of the lens barrel, and all the switches are recessed. They require quite firm pressure to move them, and they are difficult to bump accidentally, which is something that used to happen to me often with older Canon telephoto lenses.
Above the switch panel is a drop-in filter holder, which is standard 52mm Canon. I have yet to find anybody using any filters in these slots, and for my own usage, would be quite happy to see the drop-in filters disappear in the interests of better sealing and simplification. I am sure that there may still be users who need them.
Ahead of this is the bulge in the lens barrel that houses the extender when it is removed from the optic path. The extender is optimised for use in this particular lens, and building it into the lens adds an extra dimension to the EF 200-400 f4L’s capabilities. Without the converter, the lens has a constant f4 aperture, focal length that ranges from 200mm to 400… With the converter in place, it becomes an f5.6 aperture lens with 560mm of focal length.
The 1.4x extender is engaged or removed by means of a lever, with a sliding lock-switch to prevent moving it accidentally.
The tripod collar is an integral part of the lens and cannot be removed. The tripod foot itself can be unbolted from the tripod ring, and Canon supply two different sized tripod foot fittings with the EF 200-400 f4L. One is longer with more offset from the lens barrel, and is the one pictured in my test images. The other tripod foot is a little shorter, and closer to the lens barrel. I like having the two options.
The tripod collar has a locking knob with a cover that can be opened to reveal a slot for a lock. It is positioned high on the left side of the lens barrel, where it is easy to reach without having to remove your hand from supporting the lens. There are two alloy mounts for a supplied lens strap that attaches to the tripod collar itself for carrying the lens. An alloy plate with the lens designation sits on the top of the collar.
The second panel of switches is positioned ahead of the collar. The uppermost switch is for selecting one of three IS modes, called Mode 1,2 and 3. Below that is a switch to activate the IS, and then the set of switches and buttons for the focus preset feature which I have yet to use as a wildlife photographer.
A focus distance scale is located on the top of the lens.
The focus ring for manual focus is ridged, and turns very smoothly, with no play evident. This focus ring is not as wide as those found on the EF 400 f2.8L IS ii, the EF 500 f4L IS ii or the EF 600 f4L IS ii. I much prefer the narrower ring fitted to the EF 200-400 f4L. I have to take extra care when shooting any of the three fixed lens mentioned above, to avoid accidentally shifting their oversized focus rings whilst holding them.
Ahead of the focus ring is the zoom ring which is made of broadly textured rubber. It is positioned in front of the focus ring, which is the same as the EF 70-300 f4/5.6L IS but opposite to the EF 70-200 f2.8L IS ii.
There is a knurled collar to activate the focus preset feature. In front of that, are four rubber-covered buttons on the front collar of the lens. They can be programmed to perform various functions, depending on which camera body you use.
The collar on the EF 200-400L f4L is finished in black. The black colour doesn’t show scuff marks where the lens hood tightens into place.
The new zoom shares its lens hood with the EF 300 f2.8L IS ii. Designated ET -120 (WII), it is well made from either carbon fibre or a high quality plastic, with a rubber edging on the front, anti-reflective flocking within, and the new style Canon locking knob that protrudes a little less on the side. The hood attaches firmly with the threaded locking knob and provides plenty of protection for the front element. There is a padded nylon lens cover that fits over the hood once it is reversed, which attaches with a velcro tab.
Within the EF 200-400 f4L’s magnesium alloy barrel are 25 optical elements, arranged in 20 groups. There are four UD (Ultra Low Dispersion) elements and one large diameter flourite element. Flourite is highly effective at combating chromatic aberrations as well as flaring and ghosting. Both of these materials are more costly than regular optic materials. Canon also make use of Super Spectra coating, and Sub-Wavelength coatings, on some elements to help reduce flare, ghosting and unwanted reflection. It is clear from this optical specification that there is a lot of high-quality material and technology behind the optical performance of the EF 200-400 f4L.
The built-in extender is made up of 8 optical elements, and when this is in place, the lens becomes a 33 element, 280mm – 560mm f5.6 focal length lens.
The front and rear elements have a Flourine coating which helps them stay clean and free of debris. The coating also makes them easier to clean after use.
The lens is supplied in a very robust hard plastic lens case (Lens Case 200-400) that is perfect for storing the lens and for transporting it if you have the room. That would not be the case for flying. The lens case is well made, with rubber feet on the sides to stand it on. It has space within for storing two extenders, but not a dslr body. It also comes with a carrying strap for the case itself but it was easier to use the handles. The case can be locked.
HOW WELL DOES IT WORK?
The EF 200-400 f4L IS Ext 1.4x is solidly built, and all the controls just feel as they are of the highest quality. The focus ring turns smoothly, with no play. When handholding, I rested the bottom of the tripod foot on the palm of my left hand, and used my thumb and index finger to control the zoom fairly easily. I am comfortable with the location of the zoom ring where it is. The manual focus ring is closer to the camera body, but I seldom use that control when photographing wildlife anyway.
Engaging the 1.4x extender is simple, and the switch can be moved over with just one finger. When handholding, you will likely work out the best way to hold the lens as you flick the switch. I used my left arm as a cradle and then moved the switch with my right hand. If the lens is on a mount or a rest, the extender can be engaged with the left hand without even looking up from the viewfinder.
The advantages of having the built-in extender available any time you may want to frame tighter, are many. As a wildlife photographer, I have no control over my subjects proximity. When I have moving subjects, I typically like to get quite far ahead of them, and then shoot as they approach my position. With this lens and the extender engaged, I can start shooting when the subjects are further away than I can with a fixed 400mm lens. If they keep approaching, and get within 400mm range, I simply pause for a moment as I flick the switch to remove the extender, and I gain an f-stop, with 200mm of focal length range to work with. Compared to trying to achieve the same thing with a fixed lens and a separate extender just takes so much longer. Changing extenders on and off in the field wastes time, and also increases the risk of getting dust into the camera and lens.
There are a few things to keep in mind about engaging or removing the 1.4x extender whilst you are shooting. When used with a 1DX, a 5Dmk3, a 6D, a 650D or 700D, it is possible to move the extender switch whilst you are in Live View or taking videos. This will hold good for all subsequent Canon dslr bodies going forward.
If you are shooting the EF 200-400 f4L IS 1.4x on a 1Dmk4, 7D, 60D or 600D, and most earlier models in those ranges, then you should NOT move the extender switch whilst the camera is in Live View or movie mode.
On all cameras, it is advisable to NOT move the extender switch while the camera is busy writing to the card. Looking through the viewfinder as the extender switch is moved from one position to the other revealed that the viewfinder readout goes blank momentarily during this operation.
Taking the small amount of time that may be needed for card writing to happen is still much preferable to switching everything off, and adding or removing a regular extender. I did not have any trouble with this and used the lens on a 1Dmk4 and a 5Dmk3.
Using the new EF 200-400 f4L in the field, I substantially increased the number of images that I could take, and keep, due entirely to its wide range of focal lengths, and the versatility brought about by the instantly accessible 1.4x extender. I typically make use of a fixed focal length lens for shooting at 300mm and beyond in these situations. In the real-world conditions that I used the EF 200-400 f4L, I found that approximately 20 % of my images were taken at 200mm, 60 % at 400mm and just 10% at focal lengths beyond 400mm, with the extender. Remainder of the images were shot at focal lengths between 200 and 400mm. It was interesting to break down the captures by focal length.
I shot the series of three images below at 200mm, 400mm and at 560mm with the 1.4x extender engaged from the same position. With such a wide range of focal lengths available, it becomes effortless to go from photographing an animal in its habitat to a portrait within a few seconds.
The three images give a real-world idea of just how versatile an imaging tool the EF 200-400 f4L IS 1.4x is.
The focal length range of this lens (200mm to 400mm) is virtually ideal for the kind of wildlife photography that I do most, with mammals being the main subject matter as well as birds that allow close approaches. The extender adds something extra, at no cost to the image quality of the focal lengths below 400mm when it is not engaged. In many ways the EF 200-400 F4L can do the job of several other lenses.
The tripod ring locking knob tightens and loosens quickly and easily. Rotation of the lens in the tripod ring is silky. There are four, very positive, click detents at right angles in the action, making it simple and intuitive to align the lens accurately, without even having to look. The bigger of the two supplied tripod foot fittings also provides a padded handle when used for carrying the lens.
The EF 200-400L IS Ext 1.4x weighs 3620g. That places it in between the Canon EF 500 f4L IS ii (3190g) and the EF 400 f2.8L IS ii (3850g) in weight. It is longer than the EF 400 f2.8L IS ii and a little shorter than the EF 500 f4L IS ii. The weight in the EF 200-400 f4L IS 1.4x Ext is distributed evenly throughout the lens barrel, unlike the new Canon fixed telephoto lenses, which have most of their weight toward the camera. What this means is that the EF 200-400 f4L IS 1.4x takes a little more strength to handhold for long periods than the longer but lighter EF 500 f4L IS ii.
Bigger and/or stronger photographers will be able to handhold it for long periods, whilst smaller or less strong photographers may only be able to shoot for short periods in this way. Using a tripod mount, a monopod or a beanbag will make handling the lens for long periods easier. When used on a mount, it also becomes much easier to control the zoom ring with the left hand whilst looking through the viewfinder and shooting.
Minimum focus distance on the EF 200-400 f4L is just 2.0m. This is pretty good in comparison to the EF 400 f2.8L IS ii at 2.7m, the EF 400 f4 DO at 3.5m but not as good as the EF 100-400 f4.5/5.6L at 1.8m. Once the 1.4x extender is engaged, the EF 200-400 becomes a 560mm lens, with an increase in magnifying power with no change in minimum focus distance, which then takes it just past the EF 100-400 f4.5/5.6L. Although it isn’t a true macro lens, the E 200-400 f4L is quite effective for photographing flowers, small birds and large insects at close range.
The IS system is very effective on this lens. Most of the shooting that I did with the EF 200-400 f4L was handheld, and I kept the IS switched on all the time, regardless of my shutter speeds. Mode 1 is for regular, handheld shooting situations. Mode 2 is for panning, which you are most likely to do from a tripod or mount. Mode 3 is a new mode, first introduced on the Canon EF 300 f2.8 IS ii in 2011, and is specifically geared towards photographing action. Wildlife and sports photographers stand to benefit the most from it. In mode 3, stabilization is carried out for both horizontal and vertical motion (the same as Mode 1) but instead of it being active all the time, it only activates when the shutter button is completely depressed. This is meant to counter the possibility of the image jumping in the viewfinder in Mode 1 which may occur when trying to follow fast or erratic subject movement whilst handholding.
Although I cannot say that I have actually noticed the image jumping in my viewfinder on any of the more recent (2006 and newer) Canon lenses whilst using Mode 1, I decided to switch to Mode 3 with the EF 200-400 f4L. It is of course quite difficult to quantify which mode worked better for me in the field as there are so many variables to take into account. I can definitely say that after several thousand frames, at both fast and slow shutter speeds, that I was very impressed with the IS, and Mode 3 in particular.
The EF 200-400 f4L has an IS system that is tripod-sensitive, and will shut down if necessary when mounted on a tripod.
Going forward, I will be using Mode 3 as my default setting on all lenses so equipped, when shooting handheld.
Autofocus is a big deal for me in a wildlife lens. Most modern lenses will autofocus quickly and accurately in good light and with stationery subjects, but not all lenses focus well in more challenging conditions. I target action whenever I can, and I often shoot moving subjects in complex, busy backgrounds. I also shoot these same moving subjects in low light. In my experience, the very best lenses hold a clear advantage in such demanding autofocus situations.
There are always things that I take into account when I am evaluating autofocus performance, and my own expectations.
I expect that lenses with longer focal length will focus a little slower than lenses with shorter focal length, all other things being equal.
I usually find that lenses with larger maximum apertures, like f2.8, will focus faster than lenses with smaller maximum apertures, like 5.6.
The newest generations of Canon lenses,from 2006 onwards, whatever their maximum aperture, feel as if they are getting a little faster at autofocusing. This is more noticeable with lenses that have f4 and f5.6 maximum apertures and less noticeable with the f2.8 fixed lenses.
Given that the EF 200-400 f4L is a complex zoom of short-to-medium focal length, with a medium-sized f4 maximum aperture, I can say that I was not expecting it to focus nearly as well as it did for me.
Focus speed was very, very good, with both the 5Dmk3 and the 1Dmk4 bodies. If you are coming to this lens from an EF 100-400 f4.5/5.6L lens, then you will find the focus fast. If you are coming to it from an EF 300 f2.8L IS ii then you may find it just a touch slower to lock. To me, it felt at least as fast as a Canon EF 500 f4L IS ii.
Focus accuracy was exceptional, and I got my best results pairing the lens with my 5Dmk3. I found myself getting shot after shot in sharp focus, even in very low light. One particular example really illustrates my experience very well. We had located a pride of lions on the move, long before sunrise. As the sky slowly began to lighten, a couple of the big cats chased and tackled one another. It was still way too dark to photograph. We stayed with the cats though, as it got a little lighter. The sun was still not risen over the trees, but it was light enough to shoot when the two lions once again interacted. They leaped straight up, then landed and raced towards us before breaking apart as they passed by. The jump and chase had only lasted seconds before it was over. In anticipation, I had set up with a wide-open aperture, and 400mm focal length. An iso setting of 3200 only gave me a shutter speed of 1/800 sec. I tracked and fired continuously as the action went down, not even expecting to have one sharp shot, due to the lack of direct light for the autofocus to work with, and the speed and direction of the subjects. But I tried anyway. I was totally astonished to find that out of 20 frames, I had 13 that were properly focused. I have not done any better with any other lens or camera combinations before, in conditions such as this.
The lions were also too far away when I shot this image and I had to crop it to 5 megapixels to frame it as it shows above. They ran closer after this, and got closer for each subsequent frame.
The EF 200-400 f4L also focuses very well when shooting against the light, which is again something that lesser zooms sometimes don’t do well. I was able to lock focus quickly even when I had the sun in the frame, although it was filtered by atmospherics. In extremely low contrast situations the autofocus slows down, but still locked on accurately.
The EF 200-400 f4L is only significantly bettered in AF performance by the 300mm and 400mm Canon f2.8 telephoto lenses.
Autofocus with the 1.4x extender engaged
Engaging the 1.4x extender narrows the field of view, and takes the maximum aperture to f5.6. Autofocus is still accurate and reasonably fast, especially in direct light and for slow-moving or static subjects. With the extender in place, my ratio of critically sharp images dropped quite steeply when photographing fast-moving subjects, or when shooting a subject amongst busy surroundings. The lens was more likely to drop focus lock. It also struggled a little in strongly backlit conditions. I was still able to effectively capture some sharp images of fast-flying birds with the extender engaged in good light and I am sure that many users will do even better.
For extreme action photography, or when light was less than ideal, I opted to use the EF 200-400 f4L without the extender in place.
Camera Bodies Used
I used the EF 200-400 f4 L on only two camera bodies during the time that I had it.
On the Canon 1Dmk4, now discontinued, the field of view is roughly equivalent to 260mm-520mm. With the extender engaged, the field of view becomes roughly equivalent to 364mm-728mm. Autofocus was fast, and accurate and the bigger size of the body balanced well on the EF 200-400 f4 L.
I mostly used the lens on my Canon 5Dmk3, with it’s full-frame sensor. As I used the combination in the field, I found that having a real 200mm on the wide side of the focal length range was coming in very useful. I was also very happy with the way this lens and the 5dmk3 worked together, in terms of autofocus accuracy, and image quality. A battery grip would help to add some ballast to the 5Dmk3 to help balance this combination physically though I shot without one.
I did not have any Canon APS-C sensor bodies like the 7D or 60D on hand to test the lens with. I may add to this field review in the months ahead.
On a Canon 7D, with its APS-C sized sensor, the field of view would be roughly equivalent to 320mm-640mm. With the extender engaged, the field of view becomes roughly equivalent to 448mm-896mm.
I have already discussed the built-in extender’s performance with regard to autofocus, and will describe my experience with the extender and image quality deeper into this review.
The EF 200-400 f4L IS 1.4x, with it’s extender engaged, is a 280mm-560mm f5.6 lens. It is also able to work with a second, external extender attached. I mounted a 1.4xiii extender onto the EF 200-400, with extender enabled. This gave me a zoom lens with a maximum aperture of f8 and a focal length of 784mm. The centre focus point worked reasonably quickly, sometimes requiring a second focus shift before locking on properly, on my 5Dmk3 (firmware 1.2.1) and 1Dmk4 (firmware 1.1.4) in bright light. I did not try to use this combination in poor light. I was able to use autofocus and capture some images purely for testing purposes.
With both converters on, images lose a lot of fine detail. There is also quite prominent vignetting around the outer half of the frame. In my opinion if you are going to need such long focal lengths regularly, then there are better ways to get there, most notably the EF 500 f4L IS ii, the EF 600 f4L IS ii and EF 800 f5.6L IS plus extenders.
I always shoot in RAW and process my images in Adobe Camera Raw (or the Lightroom Develop module) which are almost identical, and finish them off in Adobe Photoshop CS6. My evaluation of this lens’ performance with regard to image quality is based upon that workflow.
I have included more images than normal, taken in the field in this review, in order to show just how good the image quality of the EF 200-400 f4L actually is.
A 1.1 megapixel crop is shown below this image to illustrate the level of detail available.
Up until now, I considered the Canon EF 70-200 f2.8 L IS ii to be the best zoom lens that I have used, when it comes to image quality. After quite extensive use of the new EF 200-400 f4L, my feeling is that it is every bit as good as the shorter zoom. I am hard pressed to tell the differences between images taken with these two lenses.
I found that the results that I obtained from the EF 200-400 f4L were pretty much on par with what my EF 300 f2.8 IS gives me when comparing detail, contrast and colour.
Just as important for my use, is that the EF 200-400 f4L is very sharp even wide-open at f4. I had no need to stop down the lens for sharpness when shooting. I was able to choose my aperture setting based on creative reasons, depth of field and background blur being most important of those. The maximum aperture of f4 is one that I typically select a lot, even when I am shooting f2.8 lenses of similar focal length. At f4, it is often possible to get enough depth of field to get nose, eyes and ears sharp when African wildlife is the subject, depending of course on subject distance.
A 1.1 megapixel crop (roughly 100 percent) is shown below to illustrate the level of available detail in this image.
Of course, a zoom lens needs to provide constant image quality throughout its focal length range, and the EF 200-400 f4L doesn’t disappoint in that regard.
Images taken with the EF 200-400 f4L and the 5Dmk3 also benefitted from the ultra-accurate autofocus that this combination delivered. Properly focused images are usually higher in detail, and in fine contrast than those that are even slightly out of focus.
Image quality was also very good when shooting against the light. This is typically not something that zoom lenses with their complexity of elements excel at but the EF 200-400 f4L delivered surprizingly good results again.
There is some vignetting to be seen around the edges of the frame. I found it most pronounced at 400mm and f4. Stopping down to f7.1 or f8 cleared up the vignetting.
At 200mm it is less noticeable, even at f4. Stopping down just one stop virtually clears it right away at 200mm.
In real-world use, it is only noticeable when photographing a clear and bright background. Slight vignetting can actually help to draw attention to my subjects which are not typically positioned anywhere right against the edges of the frame. It is also very simple to get rid of slight vignetting such as this using Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop. Canon’s own Digital Photo Professional software also takes care of it. If you like shooting jpgs, many Canon dslry deal with vignetting, or peripheral illumination correction in-camera.
The image of the hooded vulture below this text is included purely to show the extent of vignetting at 400mm focal length, stopped down one stop to f5.6.
Overall, I felt the vignetting was moderate and similar or just a fraction darker than the Canon EF 70-200 f4L IS zoom.
Using a camera with an APS-C sensor will virtually eliminate any vignetting, as those sensors use only the central portion of the frame.
Bokeh was good. With it’s maximum aperture of f4, this lens can blur backgrounds very effectively, even from a distance. The ‘shape’ of the bokeh was more pleasing than the EF100-400 f4.5/5.6 sometimes produces. Obviously the EF 200-400 f4L is not as good as the fixed telephoto EF 400 f2.8L IS ii for background blurring capability. Shooting the EF 200-400 f4L with the extender engaged, at 560mm and f5.6 will blur the background more completely than when shooting at 400mm and f4.
I found no evidence at all of chromatic aberrations whilst examining and processing images that I have taken with this lens so far when shooting between 200mm and 400mm.
With the extender in place, at 560mm, I found that I had to zoom in to around 200 percent to just find the tiniest strip of magenta colour edge on a test shot with a black shaded subject against a bright sky. So nothing really to worry about.
Flare happens when stray light gets reflected off of 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. The EF 200-400 f4L did not appear to be very susceptible to flare, and during the course of two weeks of field use, I only once experienced flare when tracking a vulture across some very dark sky, shooting in the direction of the sun. On that occasion the effects of the flare were visible on two consecutive images, and it was strong enough to interfere with the autofocus, meaning I lost focus on the subject.
On several other occasions, even when I was fully expecting to be dealing with lens flare, the EF 200-400 f4L surprized me by showing no signs of it. The image below was taken directly toward the sun, in just such an instance. Clouds of dust, generated by elephants, were layered horizontally and backlit by a setting sun, making for a pretty scene, but usually tough to photograph.
Image Quality With The 1.4 Extender Engaged
Once the 1.4x extender is engaged, there is an inevitable quality loss, which mostly comes about in the form of lowered detail in textured areas. Contrast and colour still remain pretty good. Fine edges with high contrast can look a little softer. In good light, image quality was affected less. Switching over to extender use blurs the background more strongly due to shallower depth of field, if you remain in the same relationship and distance with the subject. I have shown three crops of around 100 percent zoom level of images taken with the EF 200-400 f4L at 200mm, 400mm and 560mm. All images were taken on the same camera, from the same position, in similar light.
A 100 percent crop of an image taken at 200mm and f4, no extender.
A 100 percent crop of an image taken at 400mm and f4, no extender.
A 100 percent crop of an image taken at 560mm and f5.6 with extender.
When image quality is being compared between this lens and some of the fixed Canon super telephotos, it becomes important to take into account cropping of the images in processing. I found that I did much, much less cropping with the flexibility that the EF 200-400 f4L allowed me as I could often compose with more accuracy than a fixed telephoto might allow. This means I spend less time on changing my own position to suit my lens, and more time capturing the subject. It also means that I end up with more images that are framed better straight out of the camera that need minimal cropping, which maximizes the resolution and ultimately the final image quality I can get.
When using fixed telephoto lenses for wildlife photography, it also happens that a subject comes closer faster than I can change cameras, and I end up shooting too tight or even cutting off parts of the subject. That doesn’t happen nearly as often when using the zoom lens.
Still staying with image quality at differing focal lengths, I purposefully shot the EF 200-400 f4L IS 1.4x ext at some very far-off birds in flight. I did this to be able to compare how well the lens resolved distant subjects as opposed to nearby subjects. At 400mm of focal length and wide-open at f4, the results were about what I would expect from any of the fixed telephoto Canon lenses that I use.
I also did the same, distant subject test with the 1.4x extender in place. Some loss of detail results from using the extender, but the lens still resolves well. I have included one such image in the review as an example of what may be expected. I took the photo in hard, late-morning light purely for testing purposes, not for its aesthetic value.
The only other Canon zoom lens that has a somewhat similar focal length range is the Canon EF 100-400 f4.5/5.6 L IS. The EF 100-400 f4.5/5.6 L cost much, much less. It is also much lighter, and easier to manage. It has a 100mm focal length advantage on the wide end of the zoom range. What you get if you choose the EF 200-400 f4L over this lens is significantly better image quality, faster and more accurate autofocus, much better low-light performance as well as a one-stop maximum aperture advantage throughout, better image stabilization, weather-sealing and an extra 160mm of focal length.
The Canon EF 300 f2.8L IS ii has a one-stop light gathering advantage, slightly faster autofocus, and image quality that is just ever so slightly better, although that may only be true at 300mm, which is the only focal length range where the two lenses overlap. It weighs 1270g less, and is shorter, and easier to manage. It also costs significantly less, although if one intends to use it with extenders, the extra cost, size and weight need to be taken into account. In its turn, the advantages that the EF 200-400 f4L holds over the fixed telephoto 300 f2.8 are mainly its much wider focal length range, which brings with it flexibility of composition. Both lenses have equivalent image stabilization. It is also much more comfortable and effective using the zoom ring and built-in extender on the EF 200-400 f4L than it is trying to manage the EF 300 f2.8 IS ii L and two extenders, and changing them in the field whilst shooting.
The Canon EF 400 f2.8L IS ii has a one-stop light gathering advantage, slightly faster autofocus, and image quality that is just ever so slightly better, although that may only be true at 400mm, which is the only focal length range where the two lenses overlap. The EF 400 f2.8L IS ii can also blur backgrounds more effectively when shot wide open. The two lenses are similarly priced, although if one intends to use it with extenders, the extra cost, size and weight need to be taken into account. Adding a 1.4x extender to the fixed 400 will result in a lens that will outperform the EF 200-400 f4L when it is being used with the extender, at similar focal lengths. In its turn, the advantages that the EF 200-400 f4L holds over the fixed telephoto 400 f2.8 are mainly its much wider focal length range, which brings with it flexibility of composition. Both lenses have equivalent image stabilization. It is also much more comfortable and effective using the zoom ring and built-in extender on the EF 200-400 f4L than it is trying to manage the EF 400 f2.8 IS ii L and two extenders, and changing them in the field whilst shooting. The zoom lens is also a little smaller and lighter (230g) than the big fixed 400.
I did not think that the EF 200-400 f4L really warranted direct comparison with the Canon EF 500 f4L IS ii. If you are going to be needing 500mm of focal length for the majority of your shooting needs, then the fixed lens 500 is a far better choice.
Best available image quality at the time of writing from a zoom lens
Accurate and fast autofocus
Wide range of focal lengths, with the bonus and convenience of the built-in extender
Very effective, quiet and fast image stabilization
Excellent build quality
The Canon EF 200-400 f4L IS 1.4x extender is one of the best zoom lenses, if not the best, that I have ever used. Although I fully understand that much is made of the built-in extender from a marketing perspective, my own feeling is that the real strength of this lies in its exceptional image quality (virtually as good as an equivalent prime lens) and it’s very accurate autofocus, between the focal length ranges of 200mm and 400mm. It is an expensive piece of equipment, but it delivers some of the best available image-making performance in its class. Using this lens enabled me to increase the number and quality of the kind of images that I take for a living, and it is hard to put a price on that.