Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM II Review
February 4th, 2015
Great First Impressions
Confession: this was one of my most anticipated lens reviews of the year (Tamron’s upcoming 15-30mm f/2.8 VC is another). This lens has been referred to as “the unicorn” in various internet forums because it has been long rumored but never seen “in the wild”. But it has finally arrived, and my time with this excellent telephoto lens has shown me that Canon has done its homework and produced an exceptionally good lens.
The first signs were very good as I began to unpack the box from B&H Photo. I recently ripped Canon over the very lackluster presentation of the also new 24-105 STM lens that was literally stuffed in a box with bubble wrap around it. The presentation of the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM II could not be more different. It comes in a large box and is extremely well protected. It has a very nice padded case with straps for carry (why again did the 70-300L NOT come with one of these?), and the lens was very well protected inside this case.
The first generation of this lens had a somewhat polarizing push/pull design that Canon has wisely elected to abandon in the second generation. There are some photographers who love the push/pull design, but a good number of others hate it. Very few lenses employ the push/pull design, so Canon should marginalize fewer photographers by going with a more traditional twist zoom design with this lens. The design ethos most closely resembles the design of the 70-300L with a similarly dense feel, thickness, lens color, and single barrel extension. The new 100-400L incorporates a number of smart little new design features that really elevate this lens above the ordinary and right to the head of the class.
When I pulled the lens out, I immediately liked it. I like the design, the way that small details are implemented, the highly intelligent design of the lens hood with a little window for adjusting a polarizing filter (smart!!). I liked the feel of the lens in my hands, the balance and weight of it. I found it surprisingly compact. I also like the design of the tripod collar. I have a bit of a love/hate affair with tripod collars. I don’t often use tripods, and so if a collar is removable, it will be removed. If you primarily handhold lenses (like I do), tripod collars add weight and bulk. The bad news here is that the tripod collar is not completely removable, but it is designed to minimize weight and bulk. The actual “foot” IS removable, (its design actually reminds me of Canon’s design of the EF adapter for the EOS M system) and the remainder of the collar can easily be rotated out of the way. That foot is compact enough to be easily packed along for the moments when you might want to use a monopod/tripod. The 70-300L did not come with a tripod collar, but its smaller weight and bulk precludes the need of one in my experience. This lens is heavier than the 70-300L, but it is still not a difficult lens to handhold thanks to good balance and an excellent stabilizer (more on that in a moment).
This is an excellent focal length. Nikon offers an 80-400mm lens, which is an even better focal length, but this lens definitely wins in the image quality department. This quick visual comparison shows the framing difference between 100mm and 400mm:
The Canon 100-400L II finds a very good balance between build quality and portability. (Update: Since I have posted this review, Roger Cicala from LensRental has done a breakdown of the internals of this lens and concluded that it is the best and most heavily engineered zoom lens they have ever seen. This is huge!) It is not a small lens and weighs in at 55.4oz/1570g. This is marginally heavier than the MK I version of the lens (1380g) but comes in quite a bit under the Tamron 150-600 VC’s weight of 1950g. The new Sigma 150-600 Sport OS lens is in a completely different weight class at right under 3000g. The weight of the Canon 100-400L II is roughly comparable to that of Canon’s 70-200 f/2.8L zoom lens, so, in other words, very manageable for most users. Its retracted length is actually about 6mm shorter than the 70-200L, although unlike that lens the barrel of the 100-400L will extend significantly when zoomed to its 400mm length. The Canon’s retracted length (without the hood attached) is 7.6”/193mm). This is a significant advantage over the Tamron 150-600 VC, which has a retracted length (also without hood) of 10.1”/257.8mm, as I am able to carry it in my Lowepro backpack in the upper compartment on its side while mounted to my 6D body. The Tamron requires me to open both compartments and top mount the camera/lens combo, which result both in less stability and obviously less room to store other gear. Put simply, this lens is going to be a friend to those who plan to travel with it, providing them very nice reach (particularly when used with an extender) in a reasonably compact body.
I really, really like the execution of the zoom lock on this lens. Rather than a switch it employs a ring after the focus ring that allows you to rotate the ring between “Smooth” and “Tight”. Smooth simply means normal zoom action, which is very easy and nicely damped. At the extreme of the “Tight” position the ring acts as a zoom lock, preventing zoom creep from the pull of gravity. I often carry teles in either a Black Rapid strap system or a chest harness; both involve the lens facing down and invite zoom creep. The system on the lens is very effective at preventing this. But I find it a big improvement over the typical zoom lock switch for a few reasons. First of all, the design is very easy to use while wearing gloves. Since I am reviewing in Canada in January, this is a big deal. The whole process of either setting it or releasing it is also far more intuitive as a part of raising the lens and shooting. It quickly became second nature as the step right before zooming. Also, even at its tightest setting, you can still zoom the lens in a critical situation, so you should never lose a shot because the zoom lock was set again. Finally, it allows you to set the “lock” at any focal length, and there may be a situation where 300mm, for example, is the range that you want to shoot at. This lock can keep the zoom set there so it is instantly ready to shoot even if you are moving in between shots. I think this is a great bit of design.
The lens hood features a new design that includes a small window in the side that can slide open to allow a person to easily adjust a circular polarizing filter without trying to reach down the hood to get at the filter. It’s such clever, intuitive design that you wonder why someone didn’t think of it sooner! It’s a really smart feature, particularly considering that telephoto lenses tend to have very deep hoods.
One final nice touch is that this lens has retained a very modest 77mm front filter thread. The cost of 77mm filters is fairly reasonable, and it has been such a common filter size that it likely that many people will have a few in their collection already. The Tamron 150-600 VC sports a 95mm front filter thread, while the new Sigma 150-600 Sport lens has a gargantuan 105mm front filter thread. These lenses also have an additional 200mm of reach, of course, but that is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the new Canon has been designed to work far better with extenders than its predecessors.
Designed for Use with Extenders…with a Big If
One of the talking points about this new lens is that it is designed with Canon’s extenders in mind. Particularly a 1.4x extender, which changes the focal length to a 140-560mm lens with a maximum aperture of f/8 on the long end. That revised focal length allows it to compete more directly with Tamron’s wildly popular 150-600mm VC lens (which I own) and Sigma’s new 150-600mm OS Sport lens (which I will be reviewing shortly). That’s great if you happen to own one of the Canon’s body that will autofocus with one of Canon’s extenders at f/8 (1Dx, 5DMKIII, 7DII). With any other Canon body, however, you may just be out of luck, as I am with my 6D bodies. I do own a Canon 1.4x extender, but I am only able to use it with my camera bodies in Live View focus (which is, by the way, painfully slow with this combination). On the upside, the image even with the extender in place remains strong. If you have a body that allows for AF with a Canon extender you also have the very nice option to do a second AFMA adjustment with the extender to ensure the best AF accuracy.
Fortunately the same Kenko 1.4x extender (Kenko Teleplus Pro 300 DGX) that I’ve used with other lenses in other reviews (Tamron 150-600 and Canon 70-300L– click links to read reviews) also works perfectly with this lens. In use the Kenko works very nicely with the new 100-400L with the focus continuing to be fast and accurate. The Kenko has a few quirks (that make it work!), including the fact that while the camera continues to record the maximum aperture as being f/5.6 on the long end it is in fact now f/8. The camera continues to meter perfectly despite this little bit of digital trickery, but just know that your EXIF data in these settings will be incorrect. If you miss focus, the lens will hunt for a millisecond longer, but it is still effective. I would expect focus to be more accurate with a Canon extender on a body that continues to AF at f/8. Lens sharpness is still very good, however, and the bokeh also still looks good (extenders can do funny things to bokeh sometimes!).
The predecessor of this new lens has continued to be popular throughout it’s fairly long run (it was introduced back in 1998, so a 16+ year production run is pretty sweet!) The MK 1 lens is still being sold alongside this new lens at the moment, so that run may continue a bit longer. The lens has continued to sell well despite some notable shortcomings because it provides entry into a fairly long focal length at a somewhat affordable price (at $1699 it is about $500 cheaper than the MK II version). One of those shortcomings was a dated image stabilizer system that offered about two stops of assistance. That’s better than nothing, obviously, but effective stabilizers become increasingly important as the focal length increases. Canon strongly ups the ante here with a modern stabilizer that provides a rated 4 stops of assistance but does perhaps even better in the field. This is particularly handy when you add an extender into the equation and the effective focal length becomes even longer.
I have long lauded Tamron for the effectiveness of its VC (Vibration Compensation) system which I have often felt supersedes Canon’s own IS (Image Stabilization) systems. I noted, for example, that the stabilization in Tamron’s budget 70-300 VC lens was actually superior to that of the five times more expensive 70-300L. The situation is reversed here, however, as I found the IS system in the new 100-400L notably better than that of Tamron’s 150-600mm. Both of these lenses do an impressive job, but the Canon does it in a more mannerly fashion. The stabilization does a remarkable job of keeping the viewfinder stabilized even with an extender attached and the lens at its maximum zoom (560mm equivalent). The Tamron moves around a bit more and seems to require a split second to stop the sea-sick movement in the viewfinder. Both lenses had no problem producing a remarkably sharp image at 1/40th second (already impressive) with the Canon at 560mm and the Tamron at 600, but I took the Canon all the way down to 1/10th second and got a reasonably sharp image and was not able to do the same with the Tamron.
If I lock the Tamron at 400mm (its zoom lock allows it to be locked both at 150mm and 400mm for some reason…lucky me! [at the moment at least!]) and test the bare lenses side by side at 400mm both are able to produce a sharp 1/10th second image. I like the way that the Canon does it better, however, and feel like I had to be less perfect in my technique to achieve the same result. It bears repeating that image stabilization will NOT stop the movement of your subject, and longer focal lengths really exaggerate motion blur. If you are shooting moving subjects no image stabilization system will produce sharp images at low shutter speeds. Get that shutter speed up unless your subject is very still.
Some IS systems have been effective but noisy, generating a sound like some angry bees trapped inside the barrel when activated (the 70-200mm f/4L IS is a notable example). The IS implementation here is very quiet. Quiet enough, in fact, that I cannot hear it even with my ear against it in a room with ambient noise. In an otherwise silent room I can hear it, but only if I put my ear next to the lens and purposefully listen for it. Consider me impressed.
The stabilizer system also offers three different modes (1, 2, and 3). 1 is the standard mode, and probably where many users will leave it. 2 is the mode for panning, as it turns off one axis of stabilization to allow the lens to move smoothly from side to side. The 3rd mode is intriguing, as it will only engage stabilization during exposure. Some photographers that use very high shutter speeds to stop motion will often turn off image stabilization systems because they can interfere with tracking and can cause erratic viewfinder behavior. If this is you, Mode 3 is your choice, because it acts as if it weren’t on until you actually engage the shutter, and then it will help to eliminate camera shake from the equation. It is probably not a feature that I personally would use often, to be honest, but I would rather have more features than I actually use than to not have a critical feature that I want.
Focus on Focus
Other than the two switches for the stabilizer there is also an AF/MF switch for focus (the lens’ USM [Ultrasonic Motor] allows for full time manual override at any point, of course) and a focus limiter switch. The latter allows you to choose between the full range of focus or to limit that range from 3 meters (about 10 feet) to infinity. This raises two important discussions.
First of all, the autofocus in the lens is very good. It is fast and accurate. It rarely hesitates before achieving focus lock. It is not the absolute fastest that I have experienced, but it is certainly very, very good. Its focus behavior with a 1.4x extender (Kenko) attached continues to be good, with only a slight tendency to hunt a bit more if initial focus is missed. Many of you know to be a strong proponent of Canon’s EOS 6D bodies, which I use almost exclusively. For the types of photography that are my forte they are great cameras. The one place that they lack, however, is in the robustness (or lack thereof) of the AF system when it comes to tracking action. AF Servo mode is not necessarily a strength. It’s fine for wedding work but leaves something to be desired when it comes to BIF (bird in flight) tracking or something similar. I realized partway through the review that I really should have asked B&H to supply me a 5DIII to use with this lens for the review. That aside, however, I have used the 6D’s AF system with a very large number of lenses, so I have a pretty good sense of where the camera’s shortcomings leave off and a lenses shortcomings become manifest. I feel like this lens is doing a good job with AF Servo tracking, and, unsurprisingly, that effectiveness is slightly diminished when using an extender but the lens continues to perform quite strongly here. This series with my dog in high speed running towards the camera are a pretty good stress test for AF servo tracking and I felt like the lens quite well even with the limitations of my camera’s AF system.
One area that I did find disappointing with this lens’ focus was when I tried using it as an event lens indoors. Yes, I recognize that a variable aperture zoom lens is not going to be often used in this setting, but I wanted to test it in this kind of setting because it likely that for many owners of this lens it will be their only telephoto option. How will it work when they take it to their kids basketball games or school performances? I found the Canon 70-300L actually performed quite well in that kind of setting despite being “slow” in an aperture kind of way. The good news is that the focus of the 100-400L II continued to be exceptionally accurate and the sharpness was very impressive. The bad news is that I found the focus to be fairly slow in that kind of setting. I am a very experienced event shooter, and shoot at least 25 events a year. I’ve used a wide variety of lenses in that kind of setting and have a very well defined sense of expectations. I was surprised at how long it took the lens to lock focus in that setting. The ISO range (due to the slow aperture) was ISO 10,000-20,000, so the light was challenging. My feeling is that the lens is programmed towards accuracy rather than speed when in challenging lighting. The great news is that it didn’t miss…once, but the bad news is that I felt like crucial shots would be missed in a dimly lit gym, for example, due to the lens simply not locking focus in time. This performance might be better on a 5DIII or 1DX, but I was using only the center focus point on the 6D, which is the most sensitive and accurate focus point on a Canon full frame body. My takeaway – this isn’t the situation this lens was designed for. My f/2.8 zoom variants (unsurprisingly) handle low light better. The good news is that the accuracy remains intact, even if the speed doesn’t. It could be used in a pinch for these situations.
The second point to raise is one of this lens’ great strengths. Many telephoto lenses have unimpressive minimum focusing distances, and accompanying low maximum magnification values. The bigger issue, however, is that sometimes wildlife or bird shooters encounter situations in the field with the bird or wildlife actually comes closer to them than their lens can actually focus. Those missed moments can be incredibly frustrating. It is not unusual to see a minimum focus distance of 3m (10 feet) or even longer. Even the Tamron 150-600 has a minimum focus distance of right under 9 feet. The new 100-400L has an amazing minimum focus distance of less than a meter (3.5 feet), meaning that you will almost never miss a shot because your subject is too close again! Furthermore, it achieves a maximum magnification of around .31x, which is close to 1/3rd life size, a figure rarely seen outside of a true macro lens. I can think of any number of useful purposes for that, and even more impressively the lens continues to resolve well at minimum focus. The great working distance (3.5 feet) and the long focal length means that blowing out backgrounds (even relatively close ones) is very easy, leading to some great looking shots. Note also that the use of either extenders or extension tubes will enable even more magnification, so it is certainly a factor to consider in the price. You are getting enough “macro” performance to satisfy a lot of photographers, particularly with the options above.
I used a 21mm extension tube for this little series, which I think shows a pretty impressive result for a 400mm telephoto lens! The detail in the stamp and the two dollar coin are pretty impressive, and while this won’t rival the performance of my favorite macro lens (the EF 100L Macro IS), it is certainly good enough to produce a number of fascinating images while out in the bush waiting for the “game” to materialize. They may even turn out to be your best images of the day! I also added an image and crop of a leaf at minimum focus distance with a 1.4x extender attached (minimum focus distance remains the same with the extender attached, but the focal length increases…and so does the magnification.)
When I did a side by side comparison of AF speed with the Tamron 150-600 VC, I noticed that when the lens was defocused towards the minimum focus distance it took a little longer to focus than the Tamron. This is not surprising, as it has a tremendous amount of additional focus points because of that very close minimum focus distance. If you are situations where this is a liability, however, Canon has included a focus limiter that has the lens focus from 3m to Infinity, and this certainly helps in the focus speed. This video examines the AF performance in much greater detail.
Opinions on the image quality of the MK 1 100-400L vary from person to person. People have varying standards, of course, and there may have been some sample variation as well. There is a strong consensus that this new lens improves on the image quality of its predecessor in just about every way. It is true in the center, but even truer as you head out towards the periphery of the image circle. It stands head and shoulders above the MK 1 at the most important position of 400mm. It has a demonstratively superior performance with a 1.4x extender attached as well, meaning that the 560mm reach it can achieve is very useful. It favorably compares to the bare Tamron lens and slightly betters it at similar apertures. I have been very impressed with the image quality in every situation I have used it in. It achieves prime-like sharpness at most focal lengths, and furthermore it exhibits next to no optical shortcomings. It gives an excellent performance near minimum focus distance.
It exhibits no real chromatic aberrations or fringing in field use, and continues that excellent performance even with a 1.4x extender attached (there will be marginally more CA, but nothing really to be concerned about). The vignetting is extremely mild, and I have scarcely noticed it despite there not yet being a standard profile for it in Lightroom/Adobe Camera RAW yet. There vignetting moderately increases as you go deeper into the zoom range, but at no point is it any great than 1.5 stops in the extreme corners. It seems to handle flare quite well, and while I did notice a bit of ghosting at times I was easily able to position the main ghosting pattern out of the frame.
This side by side comparison with the Tamron shows the Tamron does frame a little tighter (600mm vs. 560mm), the color is more neutral with the Canon, and there is a bit more vignetting with the Tamron. This is not a scientific test, but I don’t see a strong advantage for either lens in sharpness here. You are welcome to pixel peep for yourself. (Hover over the thumbnails to get the specifics).
Over its native focal length I would give the advantage to the Canon over the Tamron in overall sharpness, particularly towards the periphery of the image. The Canon 70-300L might have a mild advantage on the wide end but is mildly eclipsed by the 100-400L on the long end. Put simply, I seriously doubt that anyone is going to be disappointed by the optical performance of this new lens. There is, put simply, nothing to complain about. I love it!
Lens distortion is minor, with a bit of barrel distortion on the wide end and an almost imperceptible trace of pincushion distortion on the long end. This is not going to be an issue. Even the bokeh looks pretty nice to my eye, with none of the “nervousness” that cheaper telephotos often exhibit. Canon knocked this one out of the park!
My only regret here is that Canon (like Tamron last year) decided to release this lens during a season here in Canada where wildlife is near impossible to find. I would have loved to shoot more birds and other wildlife, but my review month (January 2015) saw almost exclusive subzero temperatures where little was moving. I look forward to using this lens in the future during seasons where there are more natural targets.
That being said, this is an extremely versatile lens. I used it for near macro work, and it did great. I used it for landscape shots, and it did great. I even used it for portraits, and it did great. My animal shots were mostly of my dog, but I got a number of shots of her that I love during this review period having fun in the snow. She is an animal, and she was moving fast, so I have no doubt that the lens will do equally good in capturing “real” wildlife. Here are just a few of the things that I’ve enjoyed shooting with this lens over the past month. If you want to see many more images, check out the image gallery here.
In short, the great image quality, reasonable size and heft, strong autofocus performance, and amazing minimum focus means that there is very little that this lens cannot do. Its flexibility is a big part of its appeal to me. In fact, it even did a great job capturing other lenses for me!
I’m not finding much to criticize with this lens. It isn’t cheap, but it is a pretty killer optic with a pro grade build quality. It’s expensive ($2199), but no more so than Canon’s 70-200 f/2.8L or 24-70 f/2.8L variants. When compared with the higher end telephotos, however, it is a great bargain. It offers great reach in a compact package that most users should be able to handhold due to its manageable weight and excellent image stabilizer. It has amazing image quality with next to no real shortcomings. I love my Canon 70-300L and have enjoyed my Tamron 150-600 VC, but this lens has left me in a conundrum. I am strongly considering selling both of these lens in exchange for the new Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM II. I like it that much. It is versatile enough to take the place of them both. Congratulations to Canon for producing a lens full of innovation, toughness, and quality. Telephotos lenses are often restrictive lenses in the sense that their size, weight, and minimum focus distance limit the kinds of things that you can do with them. I don’t personally feel that the 100-400L MKII suffers from any of those restraints. If I could put it this way, this lens feels less like a telephoto and more like a multipurpose lens that just happens to have more reach than any other multipurpose lens in your bag.
- Excellent, robust build quality with weathersealing
- Strong optical performance throughout the focal range that rivals prime lenses
- Outstanding IS system that is both flexible, mannerly, and exceeds rating
- Innovative designs in the lens hood, tripod collar, and zoom lock
- 77mm filter size
- Superior minimum focus distance and maximum magnification figures
- Excellent performance with extenders* (provided you have the right camera body)
- Fast, highly accurate AF system
- Nice case included
- Three Stabilizer modes gives added flexibility
- Zoom lock easy to use when wearing gloves
- Price tag is fairly high compared to competition (Tamron) and $500 premium over MK1 (though cheaper than the Nikon 80-400mm)
- Lens with Canon extender will only AF on select bodies
- AF system slows dramatically in low light situations
If you aren’t sure, then consider a rental of the lens first and try it out!
Compared with the Tamron 150-600mm VC
Superior build quality
Slightly faster AF and better AF Servo quality
Somewhat better image quality, particularly toward the edges
Store more compactly
More Stabilizer Modes
Much smaller filter thread (77mm vs. 95mm)
Much better minimum focus distance (.98m vs. 2.7m)
Better maximum magnification
Better hood design
Higher price (plus the cost of an extender if you want longer reach and don’t own one).
Smaller zoom range
Requires extenders to reach somewhat similar focal length
Will not AF on most camera bodies with a Canon extender attached
Slower aperture speed when combined with extender
Tripod collar not completely removable
Compared with the Canon 70-300L
Includes tripod collar and protective bag
Marginally better optics at end of telephoto range
Designed to work with extenders
More Stabilizer Modes
Better lens hood design
Better maximum magnification
Better IS performance
Larger size (cannot stand upright in camera bag)
Slightly slower aperture at wide end
AF performance slightly slower in dim lighting
Compared with the Canon 100-400L MK 1
Noticeably superior optical performance
Much better image stabilization
Less polarizing twist zoom vs. push-pull design
Much better performance with extenders
More accurate AF
More stabilizer modes
Better lens hood design and zoom lock
Closer minimum focus and maximum magnifcation
Higher price tag
Some prefer the push-pull design
NOTES: I tested a retail copy provided to me by B&H Photo of New York (thank you!!). Photos in the review are primarily those with minimal processing and are representative of the lens performance. I have striven, as always, to be as objective as possible.
Canon EOS 6D DSLR Camera (Body Only)
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 Software for Mac and Windows (Boxed Version)
Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud 1-Year Subscription
Alien Skin Exposure 7 (Use code “dustinabbott” to get 10% off)
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