BIRDER'S JOURNAL
March 27, 2012

SUBJECT: The Great 400mm f/5.6 Shoot-Out

One of the more frequently asked questions by Canon bird/nature photographers is which 400mm f/5.6 lens is best? I hope to at least give photographers some insight as to the differences between three different L-class lens combinations that are available today.

In this comparison, I'll be evaluating three different lenses side-by-side:

  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Telephoto Zoom Lens + 2x III Teleconverter
  • Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM Autofocus Lens
  • Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Autofocus Lens

In this comparison, I'll be testing the following:

  • Sharpness
  • Autofocus
  • Bokeh
  • Physical Attributes
  • Versatility
  • Price

Please Note : Test results will vary from lens to lens. The three lenses that were used for the purpose of this test were in good working order and to the best of my knowledge, good copies of all three lenses.

All tests were performed using the Canon 5D Mark III and is currently Canon's highest resolution, full-frame camera on the market. A full-frame camera was used to make sure that the entire lens was tested—not just the center portion. Using a 1.6x cropped body would only test the center part of the lens and not out to the edge of the lens.

All images were taken with mirror lockup and a remote control with IS turned off on the lens. The lens was mounted on a sturdy tripod which was positioned on a concrete floor. As far as I can see, there is no degradation in any of the samples due to camera/lens vibration.

All images were taken as RAW images and processed using Adobe Photoshop CS5.


Sharpness:
Sharpness was tested using a high resolution test chart and multiple images were taken at various f-stops. f/9 to f/13 appeared to be the sharpest before diffraction started to degrade the sharpness. The following images were taken at f/11:

Center
Edge
Corner
70-200
100-400
400

Real World Examples: In the following test, the camera was mounted on a tripod approximately 40' from a peanut feeder. In addition to the sharpness, this test also reveals the bokeh (background blur) of all three lenses. No post-processing was applied to these raw images:

  Cropped Actual Pixels
70-200
100-400
400

Sharpness Conclusion: Reviewing the test chart images, all three lenses are excellent at the center. Using a 1.6x cropped body, differences between all three would probably be indistinguishable. Out at the edge and corners, is where differences occur. The 70-200 with the 2x III TC is not as sharp. Both the 400 and the 100-400 are very good. The 100-400 does have some CA (Chromatic Aberration) which can be corrected with software. Considering that the 100-400 is a zoom lens, it does an excellent job of keeping up with the 400 prime.

Using real world examples, all three are indistinguishable. There may be some variance in the above 100% cropped images, but they are by no means indicative of the overall sharpness of all three lenses. All three lenses are excellent at resolving feather detail.


Autofocus: During this test, I took all three lenses to a heron rookery and tested the lenses using the Canon 7D DSLR. Although the camera body can certainly have an effect on how a lens will autofocus, you can still gather meaningful information when comparing lenses side-by-side using the same DSLR. For this test, I chose the 7D.

Acquisition of Focus
For the purpose of this test, I physically set the focus-limit switches on all three lenses to their full-autofocus range. By doing this, a worse-case scenario would present itself. In other words, the lens would be forced to move through its entire focus plane in order to obtain focus. If there were to be any differences in focus acquisition speed, they would be most noticed using this scenario. I purposely set each of the lenses to their minimum focus distance and attempted to focus on near-infinity subjects.

The results were that the 400mm was the fastest, followed very closely by the 100-400mm. They were close enough not to have any real meaningful difference. The 70-200 with the 2x teleconverter was however noticeably slower, but still quite useable.

Real World Birds-in-Flight

Great Blue Heron
Attempting to focus on a heron-in-flight is not too terribly difficult to do unless you are obtaining autofocus while it is flying in front of a busy background. All three lenses did quite well with this, but it's probably more of a function of the Canon 7D's autofocus system than the lens itself.


At a Great Blue Heron rookery, I tested all three lenses with birds-in-flight. Performing this test, all three lenses had their focus-limiting switches set for long range. All three lenses did an excellent job and there was no real meaningful differences. The focus acquisition of the 70-200 with the 2x teleconverter was slightly slower, but since it was not hunting through the entire focal plane, the differences were minimal and I did not fell I missed any shots because of this.

Once focus was obtained, they all worked identically without any meaningful differences.

Autofocus Conclusion: All three of these lenses do an excellent job at focusing. The camera body will more than likely have more of an effect on the focus ability of the lens, than the lens itself. If you want to get nit-picky about it, you could conclude that the 70-200 with the 2x teleconverter is slower and therefore not as good as the two other lenses. In my opinion, I do not feel I would miss very many action shots due to the slower focus acquisition speed of the 70-200, it's still quite acceptable.


Bokeh: Bokeh is a Japanese word meaning pleasing background blur. It refers to the part of the image that is out of focus. Bokeh for all three of these lenses are indistinguishable. and I will not delve into comparing all three at various apertures. Instead, the image below demonstrates how the bokeh changes with various depth-of-field with all three lenses. Move your mouse cursor over the f-stops to reveal the blurred background at various depths-of-field:

 

f/5.6 f/6.3 f/7.1 f/8 f/9 f/10 f/11 f/13 f/14 f/16 f/18 f/20

Physical Attributes : There are some differences with the three of these lenses.

Size: The 100-400mm lens has a push-pull zoom that changes the length of the lens depending upon the intended focal length. Pictured below are all three lenses, side-by-side. (Canon 400mm, Canon 70-200mm w/ 2x TC, Canon 100-400mm @ 400mm):

Move your mouse over me

Roll your mouse over the above image to see the 100-400mm lens
contracted @ 100mm.


Weight: Anyone who has carried around telephoto lenses for extended periods of time will agree that gravity gets stronger the longer you carry a lens! (Age seems to increase gravity as well!) Comparing all three lenses, the 70-200mm with its 2x teleconverter is the heaviest. The 70-200mm with the 2x teleconverter weighs 4lbs, (1.82kg). The 100-400mm lens weighs in at 3lbs (1.38 kg), while the 400mm prime weighs in at 2.75 lb(1.25 kg). The difference between the lightest and heaviest is nearly 1.25 lbs and the difference is quite noticeable. The 100-400mm and 400mm prime are close enough in weight not to be of any real consequence.


Minimum Focus Distance: In most cases, wild birds are at least 10' (3m) from the photographer and all three lenses will focus from that distance. But what if you want to photograph butterflies, flowers, etc.? Or tame birds up close? Being able to photograph at closer distances would be a real plus. The 400mm prime's minimum distance is 11.5' (3.5m) while the 100-400mm lens will focus down to 6' (1.8m) and finally, the 70-200mm with the 2x TC will autofocus down to 4' (1.2m) .


Image Stabilization: For those who primarily do bird photography, chances are your minimum shutter speed will be at least 1/500 sec or greater. In those instances, image stabilization does not effect image blur to any great extent. In this scenario, having an image stabilizer is not a big deal.

If on the other hand your intentions are to photograph inanimate subjects at low shutter speeds, having image stabilization will be a plus. In this scenario, the 70-200mm or 100-400mm lenses have image stabilization while the 400mm prime does not.

Comparing the two image stabilized lenses, the 70-200mm IS II lens has a newer image stabilizer compared to the 100-400mm. The 70-200mm IS II lens is rated at 4 stops of assistance while the 100-400mm IS lens provides 2 stops of assistance. In theory, the 70-200mm lens will provide sharp, vibration-free images in darker conditions compared to the 100-400mm lens.


Versatility: The Canon 100-400mm has my vote for versatility. The advantage to this lens vs the 70-200mm is that you do not need to attach/unattach teleconverters in order to use the lens. The lens is ready-to-go at a moment's notice.

The Canon 70-200mm IS II lens provides good versatility as well but you will need to change teleconverters. Based on whether you choose to use teleconverters or not, you can adapt the lens to be one of the following lenses:

  • 70-200mm @ f/2.8
  • 100-280mm @ f/4
  • 140-400mm @ f/5.6

Granted, as you add teleconverters image quality will be slightly reduced, but because the lens is so sharp the differences are minor.

Finally, the 400mm prime is not a zoom lens. It is always 400mm. For someone that does wild bird photography, this should not be a deal-breaker since 99% of the time, you'll be shooting at 400mm.


Price: The prices listed below are standard retail prices for these lenses as of March, 2012. They will vary based on sales/rebates but they do offer insight as to their comparative costs:

  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM: $2,500 + 2x III Teleconverter: $500 = $3,000
  • Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L USM: $1,700
  • Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM: $1,340

 


Based on the above discussion, here's a chart showing how I rate all three of these lenses. ♥♥♥ is the best , is the least favorite. Please take into consideration that doesn't mean that the lens is necessarily bad. It just means that the other lenses were better in that particular field.

 

  70-200mm 100-400 400mm
Sharpness ♥♥ ♥♥♥ ♥♥♥
Autofocus ♥♥ ♥♥ ♥♥♥
Bokeh ♥♥♥ ♥♥♥ ♥♥♥
Size ♥♥ ♥♥♥ ♥♥
Weight ♥♥ ♥♥♥
Min. Focus Distance ♥♥♥ ♥♥
Image Stabilization ♥♥♥ ♥♥ (N/A)
Versatility ♥♥ ♥♥♥
Price ♥♥ ♥♥♥
       

 

Final Thoughts: First things first, you cannot go wrong with any of these lenses. They are all more than capable of producing excellent images. As in most instances, it really boils down to your intent.

If cost was an issue and/or my goal was to primarily do bird photography, the 400mm prime lens would be my choice. (I have this lens and I have a 7D combined with this lens at all times for spur-of-the moment, flybys or other grab-quick-and-shoot photography. )

If I were planning on doing all sorts of wildlife photography and not just birds, the 100-400mm lens would be the lens I would use. It is extremely versatile and as long as you can find a sharp copy (see below), it's a winner.

If I did occasional wildlife/bird photography but also did indoor sports and/or portrait photograph and money was no object, the 70-200 f/2.8 II lens would be my choice because of its low-light capabilities and dreamy f/2.8 bokeh. This lens is quite a bit more expensive than the other two, but your paying for a lens that offers f/2.8 capability and an enhanced image stabilizer.

It's all a matter of personal choices as to which lens meets your needs.

Please Note: For whatever reason, it appears there is a rather large variance in the optical sharpness of the 100-400mm lens. There have been reviews done on the Internet that show this lens as not nearly being as sharp as the other two in this comparison.

The first copy (brand new) that I received from a friend to use, was substandard. It was optically not sharp. The lens was tried on multiple camera bodies and tested directly from the sensor, taking the camera's autofocus completely out of the equation. It was returned and replaced with another new copy. This lens turned out to be extremely sharp and as the above tests have shown, did quite well compared to the 400mm prime. Only some slight CA differentiated it from the prime. I was very impressed with this copy and it changed my views on this lens. The bottom line is that if you receive one of these lenses and the sharpness isn't there, send it back for a replacement and always be sure to buy it from a camera company with an excellent return policy.

—Alan Stankevitz

 

 

 

Web design © 2012, Alan Stankevitz
All photographs © 2002-2012, Alan Stankevitz

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