The Canon 200-400mm Lens Review

Let me begin with one of the easiest reviews in all of history. The Canon 200-400mm f4 lens is objectively great. It is everything it is advertised to be. End of review.

The Review

There comes a point in the world of professional gear when the evaluation technical subtleties and details should stop mattering to the working shooter. I know that we all pay attention to them, in large part to justify our decision to spend (I mean: invest) this kind of money. I certainly agonized at great length over the acquisition of this lens. However, at this level of pro gear, the amount of contrast or sharpness largely become a matter of microscopic differentiation. Discussions regarding these subtleties become the stuff of detailed assessments made by detail connoisseurs. That said, subject to the known and obvious pros and cons of this lens, the optical quality nears photographic magnificence.

Bottom line… when it comes to the purchase of this lens the factors ultimately driving the photographer’s evaluation process should be something much more simple: are the specs regarding this lens those that I desire, and is it worth the price.

So for the grand total of $12,000, you get:

  • And incredibly sharp wonderfully contrasty lens
  • An ultra-quality zoom of 200 to 400 mm at f4
  • A built-in teleconverter for 280-560mm focal length at f5.6 that can be switched on in approximately 1 second without risk of damage to gear, dust/dirt or lost shots
  • Fantastic image stabilization
  • The ability to set a focus point in transition gradually between points
  • The ability to get to nearly 800mm of focal length with an additional 1.4x teleconverter or 1120mm with a 2x teleconverter (apart from the lost light, the images as tested were completely usable)
  • Long glass that can be hand held
  • A possible focal length replacement for the 300mm, 400mm, 500mm and 600mm lenses (with a stop loss of light vs. each of these lenses)

What do you lose with this lens?  Simple, a stop of light versus the big primes.  A slight loss in focus speed versus the 300mm and 400mm lenses. Some vignetting (this was a highlighted concern of my friend Patrick Enders although other reviews have cited this as within acceptable range).  The lens is heavier and bulkier than the Canon 100-400, which lacks the light gathering, focus speed and image quality of the 200-400.

Dedicated sports photographers are largely sticking with their 300 and 400mm primes for focus speed, sharpness and extra aperture. The amazing noise free cameras, however, are more than making up for the loss in the stop of light with professional shots now going up to, and even exceeding 6400 ISO with quality cameras. The primes are likely a fraction sharper (although if you look at my 400mm shot you’ll be hard pressed to imagine any kind of sharper image).

Wildlife shooters are all over the map on this, with dedicated long glass shooters sticking with the big primes, not because of the image quality or light related to this lens, but for their trust in the use of additional and even stacked teleconverters for massive focal lengths.

Anyone else residing in a world of variation will appreciate the flexibility of this lens, ideal for both sports and wildlife as well as so many other things. Just check out the range:
Handheld at 200

Handheld at 400

Handheld at 560

Somehow price keeps factoring in, and at this price how can it not. I’m not fond of complaining about the price, however, when you really do get what is advertised. Price discussions are better reserved for moments when something does not live up to expectations. Folks don’t review the Rolls Royce with a complaint about the price. It is the cost of doing business and is what it is. You get what you get and you get one hell of a car and all of the class, prestige and quality that comes with it. Sure it still has four wheels and cannot go faster than 25 mph in a school zone, so it functions like pretty much every other car, but the cost is what it is. If it didn’t run properly then price should factor in, but that’s not the case.

The advantages listed above cannot be beat–this is the only lens of its type ever to achieve these advantages. Just two of the shorter primes and you’ve spent more than this. Just one lost shot and you may wish you had this. It is a completely flexible solution for the flexible shooter who is looking for the best of everything. Need more speed, go with the 2.8s. Need more distance, go with the 500, 600 or 800mms. Need all of this without having to buy all those other pieces of glass, go with this.

Oh, and one more thing… it fits comfortable in my Guru Gear bag with a body on (lens cap reversed). That’s pretty convenient — although I never travel with the body on, when it comes to shooting time everything is all set and ready to go.

The Quality

Let’s take a few minutes to show some hand-held shots (You may ask why I handhold my test shots.  Other sites indicate more precise tested examples with perfectly still objects, etc.  For me, I want to see what the lens is capable of at its worst.  You know what?… This lens can be handheld for several hours, and even handheld at 1120mm although I wouldn’t want to make it a habit.  The TC moves the balance of the lens back toward the camera making this a more doable shot than I’ve ever been able to do in the past).

Canon 200-400

Canon 200-400

Canon 200-400

Canon 200-400

In extreme use, the lens performed wonderfully, particularly while still being hand held.  A full crop of my dog’s eye (gross gunk and all) at 560mm (with the built in teleconverter) is extremely sharp, and a 1120mm handheld shot with the 1.4x plus an additional 2x teleconverter is included below.

@560 (crop)
@560 (crop)
Handheld at 784mm
Handheld at 784mm

The Acquisition

If you can’t afford the purchase, rental prices are quite reasonable. I sold a bit of gear to get this, and I can report that already in my first two weeks I’ve taken this lens to places that I’d never have taken the bigger glass. That means that I’m getting shots in places and situations I would not have been as prepared in the past.

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

That’s my 2 cents.  Now let’s all get off our tuches and shoot.

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