Canon 200-400mm Lens Review


A fun review of the Canon 200-400mm lens by Andy Rouse



Hello and welcome to my Canon 200-400mm lens review. This was originally published on my BLOG and I have included it here because it a good fun read, and the benefits of a 200-400mm lens apply to both Canon and Nikon wildlife photographers. In fact it goes further than that, it extols the benefits of a zoom lens for great wildlife photography composition. So no matter what your chosen system, or whether you can afford one or not, just take 5 minutes to read through this review. The pictures will inspire you and I guarantee it will make you laugh! Enjoy!


"You are going to bring out what?”

"What do you mean it will have a 1.4x converter INSIDE it?”


Not science fiction but Rouse fact. Two of the questions that I posed last Summer when I was asked to participate in the testing of a new prototype lens, the Canon 200-400mm. For years Canon users had been looking enviously to Nikon photographers, as they’ve had a 200-400mm lens since time began. In my first incarnation as a Canon photographer I was caught up in this two, reading articles by leading Nikon wildlife photographers about how they loved their 200-400’s. Several years ago, when I made my much publicised change from Canon to Nikon, one of the reasons was to use the 200-400mm lens. It stayed with me happily throughout the whole time I shot with the Nikon system, and when I decided to change back to Canon purely for the awesome 1DX I did so with a pang of regret for the loss of my beloved 200-400mm. You see the 200-400mm lens is more than just a piece of glass, it’s more than just another lens, it gives the creative long lens photographer options that we have never had before. It gives us the chance to express our thoughts without compromise.

Shooting with the 1DX I learnt to adapt with the lens range that Canon had. Of course the Canon 200-400mm has always been mooted, but nothing had ever shown up. Then one day all of my prayers were answered, BANG! a real out of the blue moment. Shakira was there at my door, begging for me to give her another chance. I thought about it and....uh, ok sorry back to the lens. One minute I was looking at a suspicious cardboard box, the next I was holding a prototype 200-400mm lens in my hands. Rumours had been rife for weeks that a 200-400mm had been available at the London Olympics for pros to use; with the proviso that images from it had to be approved by Japan before any could be used. Then, the day after the Olympics finished, my dreams came true. A Canon 200-400mm lens, yes an actual working one, arrived on my doorstep for "testing”. My brief was this. Test it, push it, stress it, use it in your everyday life.

Since then I have really really pushed it, in fact it’s been with me for 6 months, getting stress dusted in all manner of environments and totally abused in only the way that a wildlife photographer can! Give us a brand new shiny lens and it’s like a red rag to a bull, we just have to knacker it immediately so that it looks well used. It’s like a challenge to us, and I am the master of knackering lenses! So it has been everywhere with me, and been used on many occasions as my primary long lens. At times it has seemed like a clandestine M15 spy operation, we had a special camouflage cover made by our friends at LensCoats that covered it up completely, especially the 1.4x converter mechanism. Canon were rightly concerned about the mechanism being photographed at this early stage so I had to be very very careful indeed. But I had to use it, so it came with me out an about at airshows, workshops, trips abroad, you name it I used it.

I want to say thanks to all my clients who respected my wishes to keep it’s existence secret, everyone was interested but it was a prototype and I could never let anyone else take any pictures with it - no matter how much they pleaded! There were a few instances on forums where I was reported as being seen with it, amusingly these were torn apart by the usual forum geeks, all saying that I was either a) lying or b) carrying an "extended” 300mm. Right boys, well now you know the truth, I have been field testing it for Canon since September. I have also been posting many images taken with it on public forums, with the EXIF removed of course, so the images have been well seen with no bad comments. It’s been an awesome lens to use.....ooops it’s too early to say that, just hold onto that thought though.




Why use a 200-400mm lens?

Before I get into the Canon lens I wanted to take a minute to explain why a 200-400mm lens is so attractive to sports and wildlife photographers. You might think that most wildlife photographers use fixed 500mm and 600mm lenses, sports use 400mm lenses and that’s that. Well it used to be like that, especially in the days of small sensor sizes when we did not have much latitude to crop. These days the size of the image is less important, as most dslrs produce images that are perfectly big enough to either use whole or to crop to some degree. 

So what really counts now? Flexibility is the key these days. There is no doubt that my 600mm lens comes into it’s own with small birds or subjects that are very shy. But using it greatly limits my creative options. Once a moving subject comes too close there is nothing I can do, grabbing a second body with a 300mm attached is the usual reaction but this wastes valuable time which usually equates to a missed shot. For some of us that means money. With the big 500 / 600mm lens I can only take one kind of shot and the composition is determined for me, I am not in complete control. And, trust me, I hate being out of control.

A 200-400mm lens gives me the control back. It’s visual effect is like a 300mm f2.8, both at the 200 and 400 ends. It produces wonderful diffuse backgrounds, great facial compression and allows me to keep shooting a moving subject as it gets closer and closer and CLOSER! As a wildlife photographer I find it invaluable and I can say very honestly that using a 200-400mm has made me a better photographer. It’s made me think, it’s made me compose pictures as I want them and it’s allowed me to get shots that otherwise I would have missed. It’s been a vital part of my kit for years now, with the release of the amazing Canon 200-400mm with the BUILT-IN 1.4x teleconverter, it’s evolution has come full circle. 




The Canon 200-400mm lens

So now we come to the lens itself. You can get excited now. It’s really tough to know what to say about it in meaningful terms, I am not going to do the tech bull of physics diagrams, pictures of the lens barrel and all really really boring stuff. There is nothing that any of us can do to influence what the lens looks like inside, how it is made or anything so waste time talking about it? So that’s that, no more. No I think that the best way of showing the talents of this lens is to show you how it worked in various situations, all of which were challenging as you have come to expect with me. Hopefully they should answer some key questions, I will summarise it all at the end don’t worry. Ok let’s have a look at the AF first.....


How fast is the Autofocus?

I tell you, it’s faster than me forcing my way to the front row of a Shakira concert in my leather singlet, and trust me I get there quick!!!! Nothing of course will touch the rocket ship 300mm f2.8, but I would say that the AF of the 200-400 exceeds that of the 500/600/800mm lenses in terms of speed and lock-on. I have not tested a 400mm lens as that is for girlie sports photographers, so it’s not fair to compare it. Want some proof, ok here goes, Usain the Otter!





Both images - Canon 1DX, 200-400mm lens, ISO 2000, f5.6, 1/2000th


Ok remember the 1DX test that I did with the running otters? Usain the running otter is faster over 4 metres than the real master of the track, it’s a tough gig to get them in the frame yet alone sharp. Those first 1DX tests were taken with the 300mm f2.8, so I went back and repeated it with the 200-400mm in equally dim and awful conditions. And it worked just as well, actually perhaps better as the background was more diffuse and I could take more shots per run as I could zoom back. Both of these image were shot @ 360mm, showing the flexibility of the lens. Now admittedly the 1DX allows most lenses to perform well, but the lens still needs to be quick to do something like these little beauties running.


Canon 1DX, 200-400mm lens, ISO 1250, f7.1, 1/2500th


I did a special test with this kestrel, to push both myself and the camera / lens combo to the limits. I do it to keep my photography fresh and alive. I looked through the viewfinder and focussed on the kestrel as it came in to land, I only had a couple of seconds to get the lock on each time, but each time it snapped right on and followed it all the way in to the post. Job done, I shook my own hand...I know its strange...but I am alone most of the time...with my naughty thoughts and my vicar outfit.


What’s the AF like in difficult situations?

Ah yes, difficult situations, I remember that time with a traffic warden and the cone....oh you probably didn’t mean that did you? Well I used the 200-400 in a lot of difficult lighting conditions as I have a penchant for shooting into the light and at oblique angles.....





I know, it’s a bloody marvellous image that should have won the wildlife photographer of the year. Unfortunately the judges kicked it out, huh! Anyway this was a very difficult shot, straight into the rising sun with little contrast to focus on, but it worked out well. I had several options with the composition, settling in the end for the tightest shot @ 560mm. Yep with the 1.4x teleconverter enabled.....more later on that one. The lesson here though is that I had complete control over the composition, with the 600mm lens I would have missed it and with the 500 mm lens I would need a crop afterwards. The 200-400mm did the job.
 For the full story of this shot check out FotoStories.



A real toughie this one, to keep the lock on to a backlit subject that is flying fast and low across a distracting background. I will be honest and say that it didn’t work every time BUT it worked enough for me to nail this really beautiful and tough shot to get. Again shot @ 560mm, worse case scenario if you like, backlit, teleconverter, fast moving subject. I cannot test this of course but I think that it would be unlikely a conventional teleconverter would have worked fast enough to capture this image, the internal one doesn’t seem to delay the AF by that much at all.




A little sequence here, I locked onto the barn owl a few seconds before and followed it right onto the perch. I was able to compose @ 360mm to give the image some space, with a 500mm or 600mm lens I would have created art by just getting a bit of the wing. Again the 200-400mm gave me control of the composition and allowed me to take an image that I could crop later if I wanted to. It put me in control again.


So tell me about the IN-BUILT 1.4x teleconverter?

Perhaps the most headline grabbing feature of the 200-400 (after all it’s ONLY a lens) is the IN-BUILT 1.4x teleconverter. Teleconverters have been with us for years and most professionals use them at one time or another, well at least the 1.4x one anyway (in my view the 2x is best used for baseball practise). The problem with using an external teleconverter is that when you add it to a lens you generally lose some AF speed plus you introduce dust, hairs and other items of a personal nature into the closed camera environment. This will find it’s way onto the sensor, which results in hours spent in front of the computer cleaning it all off in Photoshop. Joy of joys, what a great way to spend your time...not. Give me a Shakira concert anytime. Or a poster. Or a cuddly...what, uh ok I will get on with it.

When Canon first told me that the 200-400mm had an "internal converter” I was very skeptical. How would it work? Would it be a filter that flipped over the front? How quickly could I break it? The last is a valid point as I break / drop on average 2 x 1.4x teleconverters per year! When I finally got hold of the lens I was very pleasantly surprised, the mechanism is shown opposite.

Oh god that turns me on just looking at it. Whilst the mechanism looks rather bulky, when the lens is attached to the camera you do not notice it at all. The lever is firm yet very easy to flick across too, and stays firmly in place, there is no slipping. Flicking the lever whilst looking through the viewfinder gives a very noticeable transition but there is no jerkiness, it is relatively smooth. It can be locked in place too but I have never really seen why as you cannot accidentally flip the teleconverter on, it needs a firm push.

You have seen already here that having the IN-BUILT converter was sooooooo useful...provided I remembered that it was there. That’s an interesting point you know, I kept forgetting at the start that the converter was there because it was internal. In the past I’d be attaching it and using it straight afterwards, before taking it off in a frantic hurry and throwing it in the dust as my subject came too close. With the in-built converter it is there all the time and it’s damn easy to forget that! I have really pushed the converter hard, using it a lot in the normal course of my work, and one time it really came into it’s own......

I was on safari and working with my favourite leopard Olive. Working with leopards is always such a pleasure, but it requires fast and precise lenswork as they are always moving. A 200-400mm lens is perfect for the job, especially with the new in-built converter. When I first saw Olive walking through a bush she was a little distant so I flicked on the converter to take the lens to 560mm. As she walked towards me, getting bigger in the frame, I waited and waited until she emerged from the light....



I was able to nail the first image as she licked her tongue then zoom gently back to frame her emerging from the shadows before coming right back still further to get the closest shot that you see last. I have no doubt that without the ability of the zoom I would have missed the second two shots, which are the best commercially. Judging by the choice language and profanities coming from next to me in the vehicle, my friends shooting with their 500mm and 600mm lenses had rapidly come to the same conclusion as Olive had walked too close for them to get her in the frame.

The hidden benefit here of having an IN-BUILT converter is one of time. In the old days I would be faced with a mad scrabble for a shorter lens, missing everything in-between and causing myself stress. This time I just kept shooting......and smiling.

I was able to set a really nice composition too, I was in control and could set it as I wanted it rather than having it all controlled for me. But then you know that by now right?





Can you use an external teleconverter with the 200-400mm?

Since I knew I would get asked this I tested it just for you!

With a 1.4x teleconverter attached and with the in-built teleconverter OFF, autofocus works fine and all focussing points work as normal, i.e you can select them with the joystick.

With a 1.4x teleconverter attached and with the in-built teleconverter ON, autofocus works fine but you can only use the centre focussing point If you are totally desperate, like on a desert island and need to focus the suns rays through the lens to light a fire, then you may attach the 2x teleconverter. With the in-built teleconverter OFF, autofocus works slow but you can only use the centre focussing point. With the in-built teleconverter ON you are limited to the joys of manual focus. To be truthful, a better method here is to take the 2x converter, place it gently on the ground so that it is bathed in lovely soft, evening light. Then paint your teeth red and smash it violently to pieces with a large baseball bat, cackling maniacally all the time. I don’t have an issue against Canon 2x converters, I have always hated ALL 2x converters with a passion and consider them a waste of space. Of course that’s just my view!

Personally I would forget using an external converter at all. With the 200-400mm you have a beautiful lens that focusses really fast and true, why would you spoil it? I think that using any external teleconverters with the 200-400mm as it is pointless. You already have an internal teleconverter that gives you 560mm, personally speaking that has always been enough for me and you can always try this new thing in Photoshop called...cropping.


A word about dust

I have to say, in all honesty, that my time cleaning dust spots after the safari has been noticeably reduced. When I shot Nikon I actually stopped taking the 200-400 on safari as my constant habit of adding / removing teleconverters just gave me too many dust issues on the sensor. This time, with the integral converter of the Canon jobbie, there was no access for dust other than when I changed lens and camera combination. Since I had two 1DX bodies and the 200-400mm was my prime long lens for the trip, I never changed it once. A lesson for us all. Remember I have better things to do than to clean dust, Shakira needs me and she is a very demanding woman.


A word about composition

I have said many times that the 200-400 really helped with my composition and that is totally true. The ability to fiddle with the zoom to get exactly the composition that I want in-camera is vital, check these out....





This Capercaillie was intend on doing me some actual harm, you can see that look in it’s eye! It’s an awesome bird by the way, we should do everything that we can to ensure that it continues to survive, such a plucky character. Anyway as it was constantly changing position around me to get a better attack angle, one minute being at 500mm, the next at 200mm. Other photographers with me were using fixed 500mm lenses and getting frustrated, I just stood my ground and let the 200-400 do the talking. The above shot is a lovely portrait in very very low light, a testament not only to the high ISO capabilities of the 1DX but the low light performance of this lens. Oh yes and I hand-held it, but we will come onto that in a minute....





I worked this encounter very well, taking a variety of shots with the zoom throughout the whole 200-560mm range. In the end I settled for this one shot @ 200mm that I like the most as it showed the whole window. Another example where shooting with a fixed focal length 500/600mm lens would greatly limit the shot choice and actually cause you not to make the best of the situation.



Simple composition @ 330mm but made perfect by the fact that I could control it from the lens and not by constantly starting up the vehicle and moving it to another spot. That would just disturb the cheetah, which is hardly the point. The cheetah was involved in a spot of eco-tourist watching and I did not want to disturb it!



Tight composition this time to take advantage of the beautiful light. I already had the 1.4x converter engaged when she got up and walked towards me. When she was @ 420mm she stood and looked straight into the lens. Stunning low light and those beautiful eyes makes this shot so compelling. Again composing with the zoom allowed me to get the exact image that I wanted in camera, such flexibility is wonderful. The quality of the lens really shines through here, you can see every single hair and I had the 1DX set at ISO 2000.



I know, it gives hope to all us ugly blokes on the planet, a Marabou Stork. We were very close to a fresh kill and after a few minutes the storks and vultures started to appear, pirouetting down out of the blue sky. With the 200-400 I could lock on to each bird in turn and follow it all the way in to the kill, zooming back as they came closer. I still on picked one from each sequence in my edit, but I had a range to pick from that I chose, not what the lens dictated for me.


Airplanes

I really enjoy photographing all kinds of things and apart from wildlife, planes are one of my favourites. Now I may be a professional wildlife photographer and a reasonable snapper of things with legs, but when it comes to things with man-made wings / rotors I am a complete novice. I just enjoy it, but I did find that the 200-400mm was ace for it and I will be using it at several air shows this year. I’ve found that the combination of the f4 aperture, fast AF, in-built teleconverter and flexible zoom has been invaluable for my aircraft photography.

Yes of course it is not a light lens and some may prefer to use a monopod with it, personally speaking though I much prefer to carry the lens on a sling by my side and handhold it for all my shots. Anyway check these out that I did with it....



Not bad for a muppet!


Usability

I have mentioned before that the 200-400, although well balanced, is not as light as you might think. Therefore you might be surprised to see me using it whilst hanging out of a Cessna taking pictures of flamingos...



I seem to be smiling although on closer inspection you might wonder why. I am facing backwards in the Cessna with the door off, held in by a single belt and two pieces of rope attached to the ceiling! Gulp! I decided to take the 200-400 along for this as I knew that we would have to be quite high to avoid disturbance to the flamingos. I knew that I could easily hand-hold it, as that is what I had been doing for weeks and it’s very much my style. Usually I would take a 70-200 f2.8, perhaps with a 1.4x teleconverter on a job like this as it’s smaller and lighter to handle, but I figured that the 200-400 deserved a shot and I knew that the in-built 1.4x converter might come in useful.

Now I am not saying it was easy to use the lens in this situation, but it worked out well, I was able to use the zoom to compose the shots and the 1.4x did come in useful several times when we were quite high. Again it was sooooo cool to have the IN-BUILT 1.4x teleconverter otherwise I would have been fiddling trying to fit an external one whilst hanging out the door....that is only going to end one way and that’s badly.
I’m going to be honest with you, the 200-400 is not a light lens, you should not expect it to be. It weighs in between the 500mm series II and the 600mm series II. It’s the addition of the teleconverter that probably causes this and I feel it’s about right. If you are a tripod beardie then you will have no issues, using it on a beanbag is simple too but I have tended to hand-hold it quite a lot for much of the time I have been using it.


Conclusions

It’s not secret that I am in the Shakira fan club, you know that by now. It’s even less of a secret that I am in the 200-400 fan club, in fact I am a fully paid up lifetime member. I just love this lens. As you have seen above, I have really used it in a variety of situations during the 6 months I have had it, and it has simply done everything that I have asked of it. No failures. Nothing to complain about. I have inspected all of the images that I have taken for any distortion, chromatic aberration or lick marks and I can say, hand on one of my two Vulcan hearts, that I did not find any. And remember I have been using a prototype.

The flexibility of having an effective range of 200-560mm is a wonderful tool for the creative photographer. It’s helped me get shots that otherwise I would have missed. It puts me in control of the composition, it makes me think about it. Having an IN-BUILT 1.4x teleconverter has not only helped me get more range, but I would warrant that the AF speed suffers very little slowdown compared to a normal converter. Of course this is all subjective, but it comes from someone who uses (and destroys) converters on a regular basis. It’s certainly had an effect on my workflow, less time cleaning damn sensor dust in Photoshop means...yep you know it by now!

The big problem with lens is getting used to the fact that a) you can zoom it and b) there is a 1.4x teleconverter built in. Of course these are not really problems but benefits, but since I encountered them at the beginning I thought it only fair that I mention them here. And since we are on the subject I just wanted to talk briefly about the weight again. As I mentioned before the weight is in between the series II 500mm and 600mm lenses. When you first pick it up it’s heavier than you might think for it’s size, but it’s very well balanced. Of course a few photographers will bitch about the weight, but then again they probably don’t like Shakira either, preferring posters of robots. I am not built like Alfred SchwarzerKnickers, I do not have Iron Man muscles, I am more lean than mean. BUT I have no trouble using the 200-400 for hours at airshows or in the field, so nor should anyone else. It’s all about technique.

My final words. The new 200-400mm is just great, that’s all I can say. In fact you know what, we should start calling it the 200-560mm lens because that is really what it is. Using the teleconverter is so seamless now that I don’t even think about it, in fact most of the time I have it engaged and am using a 280mm - 560mm lens, perfect for wildlife, sports and aviation photography. My prototype will soon be on it’s way back to Japan for destruction, to be replaced by a shiny new one. It will have a real baptism of fire with me as I have a busy Summer ahead, with two trips to Svalbard to see polar bears and one to Kenya for the migration. On all of these the 200-400mm will probably be my no1 long lens, and I know that it will never let me down. Just like the 1DX I trust it completely, and as a photographer you cannot surely ask for more than that.....

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