Tuesday, February 3, 2015

REVIEW: Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens (SIGMA 120-300 & Canon 200-400 Compared)

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens

I have been waiting for this lens for several years as I loved the original 100-400mm, but felt it was too soft for current generation sensors. With that said, I adored the previous generations reach and compact size – especially for motorsports. When Canon announced a new model, I was super excited so the second I got it in my hands I quickly started to review it. Please be sure to check out my article entitled First Look: Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens–The Wait Is Over!!! which contains a lot of my initial thoughts about this lens.

Amazing Image Stabilization

400mm at 1/13 sec - HANDHELD!
100% Zoom of the shot below - 400mm at 1/13 sec - HANDHELD!

I’ve got shaky hands after years of typing, yet without any tricks (FYI: I did not use this trick) I was able to pull off an astonishing 1/13 sec at 400mm – handheld! See the above image and click on the image to see the original. Much of the softness seen in this image is due to the ISO 1250 and f/8 aperture, not the lens. Yes, I was VERY impressed as that is the best I’ve personally ever been able to pull off at 400mm!

Here’s the full image from above - my focal point was the leaf
Canon EOS-1D X, f/8 @ 400 mm, 1/13, ISO 1250, No Flash

Canon EOS-1D X, f/8 @ 100 mm, 1/30, ISO 4000, No Flash

I was pretty far away from this log for both shots. This is the same type of shot at 100mm

I’m pretty certain that nobody is going to fault the IS performance of this lens – it is simply  incredible!

Bookshelf Test

My bookshelf tests are simple tests done on a tripod with stabilization turned off and both a timer and mirror lockup turned on. The images uploaded to the gallery are all the in-camera JPEG’s with Auto White Balance, Standard Picture mode and noise reduction set to low.  

Canon EOS-1D X, f/5.6 @ 100 mm, 15s, ISO 100, No Flash

While this lens isn’t as sharp as its 200-400mm sibling, it’s pretty darn close! When you consider that you have to spend $9600 more to get better results!

Upon close inspection you can pixel peep where it could do a little better, but it’s still excellent overall:

Copyright Ron Martinsen - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
100% Crop of f/5.6 @ 100mm shot

Only the most hardcore landscape shooters who will be getting the future super megapixel cameras which triple the megapixels of the 1DX will possibly have a reason for a sharper lens like the 200-400mm. Personally, I think sports and wildlife shooters will be plenty happy with the sharpness of this lens. Make no mistake, this is a very sharp lens!

Canon EOS-1D X, f/8 @ 400 mm, 25s, ISO 100, No Flash

At 400mm f/8 is the sweet spot which is nice for wildlife shooters. This is a great focal length to have such sharpness. In fact, when I look closely at the blue book I get really good texture and the faint pattern on the spine is even clearly visible:

Copyright Ron Martinsen - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
100% Crop of f/8 @ 400mm shot

I’ve only seen this level of detail show up a few times in my testing, so that’s super impressive. Of course, the focal length forced me to get a little closer to the bookcase than I normally like to do. However, this is still good detail that rarely shows up in photos even when cameras are much closer.

Things do drop off after f/8 for 400mm and after f/5.6 for 100mm, but overall it’s a pretty good lens up until f/11. After f/11 things get softer and there’s definitely more softness at 400mm than there is at 100mm. However, I think that is more diffraction related because my sensor has a low pass filter. If the newer models ditch the low pass filter, then this lens should be pretty amazing.

My test lens did have some minor back focusing issues at 400mm (only not 100mm). Normally I’d get addressed by sending the lens in with my camera for a quick calibration with Canon, but I can’t do that for a review. I’ve only had to do that with one lens since I’ve moved to DSLR’s in 2007 (my 24-70mm f/2.8L II), so I suspect this is because I have a first run copy. I wouldn’t expect this to be the normal behavior of these lenses from the factory.

Click here to see a full gallery of images from f/4.5 to f/32.

A Day at the Zoo

Canon EOS-1D X, f/5 @ 248 mm, 1/160, ISO 6400, No Flash

I probably could have shot this at 1/30 sec and in retrospect I wish I would have!
This lens is capable of very slow shutter speeds at any focal length thanks to the outstanding image stabilization (IS) performance

My article entitled At the Zoo with the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II goes into detail about my thoughts of this camera when photographing wildlife at the zoo. I give some initial impressions which still apply, but I do have one caveat – the trap door on the hood that allows you to rotate filters had a habit of getting bounced open while I was walk the zoo with my BlackRapid strap. A piece of gaffers tape is worth keeping in the bag for a rainy day like this!

Canon EOS-1D X, f/5.6 @ 400 mm, 1/160, ISO 3200, No Flash

Despite a pretty good rain (for Seattle), the AF worked flawlessly 99% of the time

Compared to the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM 

Canon EF70-200mm f-2.8L IS II USM , f/4 @ 200 mm, 10s, ISO 100, No Flash

To my eyes, I find the new 100-400 to be sharper than this benchmark lens. This was shocking and is really starting to make me disappointed in my 70-200 2.8!!!! Just kidding, I still love that lens but it’s awesome to see the new lenses blowing it away!

To see my review of this lens when I first got my hands on it in 2010, see First Look: Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II – Perhaps Canon’s greatest lens!

Compared to the SIGMA 120-300mm

Sigma 100-300mm @ f/4 ~200 mm, 6s, ISO 100, No Flash

The SIGMA 120-300mm is a super sharp lens, but the 100-400 feels slightly sharper to me. It was definitely closer than I thought which reminded me how sharp this lens was. However, the stabilization and autofocus of this SIGMA lens were nowhere even close to the being in the same league as the Canon 100-400.

To see my review of this lens, check out my article entitled REVIEW: SIGMA 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM | S with the Canon 1D X at the Zoo (vs 200-400mm).

Compared to the Canon 200-400mm 

Canon EF200-400mm f-4L IS USM, f/4 @ 200 mm, 8s, ISO 100, No Flash

Surprisingly this mega expensive 200-400mm lens is just slightly sharper, but only if you really pixel peep. This is definitely not a $9600 sharper lens, but if you need a constant f/4 and built-in extender then perhaps it’s worth it to you. The 200-400mm is a phenomenal lens, but I’d save the $9600 and get the 100-400 plus other toys if I had nearly $12k to spend!

To see my review of this lens, check out my article entitled REVIEW: Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Lens with Internal 1.4x Extender.

Real World Images

The following images come straight from in-camera JPEG’s using the low noise reduction settings. Most camera settings are the default with the exception of RAW+JPEG, a desired White Balance (only Shade or AWB), and a desired focus point. , The default creative style was used for all of these photos.

Click here for a full gallery of unedited images.

All images are copyright Ron Martinsen – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. You may not save, print, edit, modify or otherwise use any images featured in this article or the gallery without expressed written permission.

Canon EOS-1D X, f/5 @ 135 mm, 1/100, ISO 12800, No Flash
, Handheld
Outdoor shooters will appreciate that even at high ISO’s
there’s enough sharp detail that you can save a shot as shown here

Canon EOS-1D X, f/5 @ 158 mm, 1/100, ISO 10000, No Flash
, Handheld
You don’t get much bokeh at f/5, but what you get isn’t too bad

Canon EOS-1D X, f/22 @ 100 mm, 0.5s, ISO 400, No Flash
, Tripod
Focused on the foreground rock on the left side. Net result?
I probably wouldn’t consider this a strong landscape lens but I’m
jaded after my SIGMA 50mm and Otus 55mm tests!

Canon EOS-1D X, f/8 @ 100 mm, 10s, ISO 100, No Flash, B+W VND MAX Position

Same shot as above with a variable neutral density filter, and equally unimpressive
See COMPARISON: Variable Neutral Density Filters (Singh-Ray, B+W, Hoya, Tiffen & Bower)

Canon EOS-1D X, f/8 @ 100 mm, 1/6, ISO 100, No Flash
, Tripod
Focused on the tree in the back but a pretty inconclusive result

I’ll admit these shots kinda suck but I was so smitten with the a6000 I was testing at the same time that I didn’t get as many test shots as I should have. I actually enjoyed photographing moving objects with this lens much more, which is why I did the zoo test. Be sure to see the full zoo article for more shots.

Click here to see the complete gallery of test shots.


Ultimately I love this lens and strongly recommend it. While I do wish it was sharper at 400 and my unit definitely needs calibration, nothing I noticed during testing gave me cause for concern. The AF was brilliant for everything except one shot (see the wolf peeking shot in this review) and I loved the new hood design. I do think the new tripod foot sucks – badly, but I don’t expect Canon really gives a hoot what we think about that. While your existing brackets for tripod feet will work, I would advise one custom made for this new foot design for best results.

With sharp images, brilliant image stabilization and fast/quiet AF, there’s really nothing to say but order now and be prepared for a long wait – this lens is going to be in serious demand for quite some time.

After having spent time with this lens, I’m wishing I had the money to buy one for myself. If I had the available funds, I’d definitely buy this lens.

Where to order

Click here to learn more or order on the B&H web site.

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