Thursday, August 29, 2013

REVIEW: Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Lens with Internal 1.4x Extender

Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Lens with Internal 1.4x Extender
Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Lens with Internal 1.4x Extender

This has been one of the most highly anticipated lenses from Canon because Nikon shooters have enjoyed a big 200-400mm for quite some time. Canon upped the ante by offering a built-in extender and brilliant performance. Is this beast worth it’s $11,799 USD price tag (at the time this was written) or is it just a marketing gimmick. Read on to get my 2 cents …

Carrying the 200-400mm around

Think Tank Photo StreetWalker HardDrive with 200-400mm, Canon 1D X, 1D Mark IV and more

At 8 pounds, this lens is like carrying a baby around – however it feels much heavier. I hear girly men whining all of the time about how the 3.28 pound 70-200mm is too heavy, so when you pair this beast with a 3.5 pound pro body like the 1D X, you are going to get tired arms quickly.

As you might expect, this lens also attracts the kind of attention that is normally reserved for someone driving around in a Ferrari. As a result, I found myself wanting to hide it in my Streetwalker HardDrive bag when it wasn’t being actively used. Fortunately it fits just fine in this bag and many of my larger Think Tank Photo backpacks and roller bags (click here to see my bag reviews) can handle it just fine.

Overall I found myself really loving this lens during my testing and the ability to easily flip the extender from 1x to 1.4x was delightful. I’d pay a few extra hundred bucks to have this feature on my 70-200mm because l love it so much!

During my field testing I always had this lens attached to a Gitzo GM5541 monopod with no head when it was in use. It’s just too big and heavy to wield freehand, but I was able to get sharp shots below 1/<focal length> thanks to the brilliant image stabilization performance.

My only real complaint about this lens is that it’s a big monster to have laying around the house when it’s not in use. As you can see from my unboxing article, this thing comes in a huge box and case so it requires some space planning for the average home owner.

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II vs 200-400mm f/4L

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II vs 200-400mm f/4L mounted to a 1D X

Anyone who can afford this 200-400mm lens is likely to also own the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens. If you are like me, the big question becomes – at 200mm f/4 how do these lens compare. Well, I’m glad you asked because I did a little bookshelf test on a tripod to compare just that. Here’s what I found:

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

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

Despite being in identical conditions focusing on the same exact point, Evaluate Metering chose to create a longer exposure for the shorter lens resulting in an image that feels about one stop brighter. I see this most often with lenses that aren’t as bright, so this tells me that the optics in the 200-400 are very good and that they gather light much better, despite being a f/4 lens.

The other thing I see when I zoom in (which you can do by clicking both images to download the original) is that the 200mm-400mm is slightly sharper. I see this pattern repeated at f/5.6 as well, so I was happy to see that this is some pretty sharp glass (as one would expect at this price).

Compared to the Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II & 600mm f/4L IS II

The autofocus and image stabilization of this lens feel on par to me to the Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, which is a great thing. To add the capability of zoom and a built-in extender with the only loss being a stop of light makes this a very compelling alternative to the 400 2.8. In fact, If I had an extra $12,000 sitting in the seat cushions of my sofa, I’d most certainly choose this lens over the 2.8.

I’d also pick it over the 600mm f/4L IS II USM as well because I’d gladly sacrifice 40mm (vs 560mm when 1.4x extender is active in the 200-400mm), a little sharpness, and a stop of light to gain the flexibility of a zoom of this caliber. A little crop and sharpening makes up the biggest differences, but having the flexibility to zoom in and out (especially on a safari) makes this zoom a much more useful lens.

While I do agree that the primes offer some improvements, the reality is that when you print images that have been edited from their raw files at 100% and view them at regular viewing distance, you aren’t going to see an advantage of the primes or disadvantage of the zoom. This lens also destroys the first generation 400 & 600 primes, so if you one one of those and are trying to decide what to upgrade to the choice is simple – get the 200-400 zoom!

The Value of 560mm (400 x 1.4x) vs 200mm

With no cropping, here’s the great range you can get of this lens on the zoomed in at 560mm (1.4x extender active):

Click for Original - Copyright Ron Martinsen - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Canon EOS-1D X, f/5.6 @ 560 mm, 1/500, ISO 1600

and here’s how far you can go back at 200mm without moving your body:

Click for Original - Copyright Ron Martinsen - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Canon EOS-1D X, f/4 @ 200 mm, 1/200, ISO 320

and of course even 400mm with no extender is great, but not as significant as the 560mm maximum zoom:

Click for Original - Copyright Ron Martinsen - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Canon EOS-1D X, f/4 @ 400 mm, 1/200, ISO 320

As a result of the great 560mm performance, I found myself shooting at that focal length a majority of my day at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Sure, the 400mm images are slightly sharper, but I loved having that extra reach.

Here’s a 100% crop at ISO 1600 (which introduces some softness) of the lion yawn shot above taken at 560mm:

imageScreen Capture of a 100% Crop (some loss in fidelity)
Canon EOS-1D X, f/5.6 @ 560 mm, 1/500, ISO 1600

I’m plenty satisfied with that – especially given how high the ISO was for this shot.

More Real World Sample Images

Click here to see my gallery of sample in-camera JPEG images that were not modified in any way. Here’s a few sample images, but you can also see images of the same shots at different focal lengths in the gallery. Click any of the sample images in this article to see the full-size in-camera JPEG original file.

Canon EOS-1D X, f/5.6 @ 560 mm, 1/500, ISO 3200, Auto White Balance

Canon EOS-1D X, f/5.6 @ 560 mm, 1/400, ISO 3200, Shade White Balance

Canon EOS-1D X, f/4 @ 400 mm, 1/400, ISO 800, Shade White Balance

Canon EOS-1D X, f/5.6 @ 560 mm, 1/500, ISO 4000, Shade White Balance

Canon EOS-1D X, f/4 @ 200 mm, 1/400, ISO 800, Shade White Balance

Canon EOS-1D X, f/4 @ 400 mm, 1/400, ISO 400, Shade White Balance

Screen Capture of a 100% Crop of the shot above (some loss in fidelity)

Canon EOS-1D X, f/4 @ 200 mm, 1/800, ISO 800, Shade White Balance

Any questions?

Simply put, if these images aren’t sharp enough for you then you are probably living a miserable life always hating everything that comes out of your camera, or you’re spending six digits on photography gear in a question to find “the best”. Any real world application of the images at this quality at all of the focal lengths this lens offers are sure to please any client – especially after post-processing.


Before this lens was released, I lusted after the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II Lens. I’m glad Canon finally has something in this range, and the inclusion of a built-in extender was absolutely brilliant. I’m not so excited about the fact that for about $1000 more than the cost this lens I could get Nikon’s 200-400 AND a Nikon D4 (review), but if you look at the cost of Canon’s big prime lenses then this pricing makes sense.

While it’s hard to say this lens is “worth it”, I do think that if I was a frequent pro sports, wildlife shooter or safari shooter, that I’d make the investment in this lens. It’s super sharp, fast focusing, versatile and offers best in class image stabilization.

Personally I wouldn’t spend this kind of money on this lens and not pair it with the brilliant Canon 1D X. For as good as the 5D Mark III is, the image quality of the 1D X (and 6D really) is far superior so I’d want to get the best results I could out of a lens at this price point. The 1D X is also better suited for the type of action that this lens would typically capture as well. If you don’t already own a 1D X then that makes this a pretty expensive investment. What’s more, the size and weight of this beast require a Wimberley WH200 Gimbal head, a Gitzo GM5541 monopod and a Gitzo GT3532LS tripod (or their respective equivalents) to support it! This means you are looking at a kit over $18,500 to make the most of this lens, so for many the economics of ownership simply don’t make sense. Renting is going to most likely be the way mere mortals enjoy this lens, and I’d say it’s worth the steep rental fees to not have to store this beast when it is not in service.

Where to order

Click here to order the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Lens with Internal 1.4x Extender at B&H. If you don’t already own a Wimberley WH200 Gimbal head, a Gitzo GM5541 monopod, a Gitzo GT3532LS tripod and a Canon 1D X then you’ll want to throw them in your cart too – seriously.

Where to Rent (DISCOUNT OFFER)

Lenses like this are crazy expensive, so it’s always a good idea to try before you buy. My friends at have this lens available to rent here, and they have a 5% off discount for my readers on my discount coupon code page. has it available here and my readers can get it from them with a 5% off from on my discount coupon code page.

lens rental

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

I just came back from a trip where I used the 200-400 for the first time. I was very pleased with overall performance, e.g. I used it in all sorts of weather conditions including rain. It held up very well and overall, I was quite pleased. This may become my go to wildlife lens.