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Canon 100-400 (1)

Considered by many to be the finest example of a super telephoto zoom lens, the Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens has long been the benchmark for professional-grade telephoto zoom lenses. Released in September of 1998, the lens is one of Canon’s best selling zoom lenses to date.

The Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM is classified as a super-telephoto zoom lens and has the longest range of any zoom lens in the Canon lineup. It is grouped in Canon’s “Luxury” (L-Grade) lens class and bears a red ring, a privilege bestowed to only the highest quality lenses in the Canon family.

The Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM features a number of technological advancements which, at the time of release, clearly separated it from the rest of the competition. In fact, it took nearly a decade before Canon’s competitors finally debuted a telephoto zoom lens with technology to match the 100-400 f/4.5-5.6.

Despite being released over a decade ago with no upgrades to the product since its inauguration, many bird and nature photographers still swear by this lens and claim it is the best all-round telephoto zoom lens available to date. In fact, the lens has sold so well in recent years that Canon has been reluctant to create a replacement for it, focusing instead on upgrading older lenses (like their super telephoto primes) or creating new ones (the Canon 200-400 f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4)

Paired with a full-frame body like the Canon 5D Mk III the lens produces fantastic results. When matched with a cropped-sensor SLR like the Canon 7D, the lens boasts a reach of 640 mm, making it perfect for photographing small birds. The lens can also take on 1.4 and 2.0 converters, although autofocus will not work on most Canon bodies (except on 1D-series bodies and only with a 1.4 converter) and the image quality will deteriorate a bit.

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Many amateur and semi-professional bird photographers choose to pair the Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM with a pro-grade APS-C sensor body like the 7D. It combines durability, size and reach into a reasonable package without draining the pocketbook.

There are rumors that the lens will be replaced by an upgraded version sometime around 2014 or 2015. While the new lens will undoubtedly feature many of the latest developments technology has to offer, the current Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM will still be in demand on the market due to its reasonable selling price. No doubt the lens will continue to be in use by photographers a decade or so from now.

General Specifications

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The Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM rightfully a member of Canon’s Luxury (L) lens class. It features many of the technological advances which make Canon lenses among the finest in the world and combines them with quality optics and a rugged, durable exterior, resulting in a product which is appealing to both amateur and professional photographers alike.

The Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM features 17 elements in 14 groups, including one fluorite element and one Super UD element which has similar properties to fluorite. The fluorite and Super UD elements reduce secondary spectrum and color aberrations.

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Auto-focusing is obtained through Canon’s lightning-fast USM Ring focusing system, considered to be one of the finest focusing systems found in any lens to date. The lens focuses very quickly and quietly. Like other L-series lenses, full-time manual focus override is available. Turning the focusing ring as the lens is focusing will not adversely affect the AF system or motor.

The lens has a minimum focusing distance of 1.8 meters.

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The most exciting innovation found on this lens was the decision to include Canon’s Image Stabilization (IS) system. Fairly new on the market at the time, the system offered up to two stops of shutter speed, enabling the lens to be used hand held in low light situations. The IS system, like the USM system, works quietly and quickly, and is a major reason behind the popularity of the lens.

The Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM was the first zoom lens in the lineup which received Image Stablization.

There are two IS modes available. The first (Mode 1) compensates for other vertical and horizontal shake and is best suited for general photography. Mode 2 is best suited for panning, to be used when shooting action (i.e birds in flight, fast cars on the track, etc). The lens senses when it is attached to a tripod and will automatically switch off.

The Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM also is equipped with a focus limiter, an invaluable addition which many photographers find extremely useful. This feature is, for some unknown reason, unavailable in most other  name-brand zoom lenses in this category.

All these pieces are combined in a durable metal body, bringing the total weight of the lens to 1,380 grams (roughly 1.4 kg). It isn’t the lightest lens but it sure weighs less than most of the super telephoto primes and other competitors in its class.

The Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM uses a push-pull mechanism to zoom from 100-400 mm. This type of system was a popular feature among many zoom lenses prior to the introduction of D-SLR photography. This system is popular among many photographers as it allows the user to zoom between the various ranges very quickly.

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A ring near the focusing ring allows the user to adjust the tension to prevent the lens from extending downwards too fast due to lens creep (gravitational pull).

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However, there are a few drawbacks to the design, one of which affects the weather sealing on the lens. The push-pull design sometimes acts as a pump, drawing dust and moisture into the lens. Some users have complained that using the lens has resulted in dust settling on their camera sensors. Since the mechanism cannot support full weather sealing, the lens should be protected from showers, dampness and humidity at all costs.

Thankfully, as with all other L-series lenses, Canon engineers have treated the lenses with a special coating to inhibit the growth of mold, reducing the need to sending the lens to the cleaners on an annual basis.

The Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM comes in white, a color which is quickly recognized by photographers as a professional-grade Canon lens. Some users don’t like the way the lens stands out in a crowd. The real reason behind the choice of color was to help reduce the amount of heat the lens exhibits when used in direct sunlight. The fluorite element is sensitive to heat and the white color helps to protect the lens element from damage.

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The Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM utilizes the ET 83C lens hood. I personally prefer the petal-shaped hoods, but that’s just personal preference.

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The tripod ring is the same one found on other Canon white lenses. Unlike the Sigma tripod ring which offers some grip, the Canon ring is a little small and is impractical to grip in the field. Holding the lens in the hand and rotating the shoe upwards while on the move is a much more preferred option among users.

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The lens ships in a padded nylon bag. It is the same bag which the Canon company issues with other telephoto lenses such as the Canon 70-200 series and the 28-300 lens. Notice how compact the lens is once it is retracted to 100 mm?

For more detailed information on the lens, please refer to the sites listed in the links section below.

Focal Range Sample

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Focal lengths follow the guide numbers imprinted on the lens.

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In the Field

Before we begin, we would like to extend our sincere appreciation to Mr. Hans Van den Brink for allowing us to use his excellent copy of this lens for this review.

For our test we paired the Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM with a Canon 7D as well as the older Canon 40D. We photographed birds in a number of forest and open-country habitats throughout southern and western Thailand over a period of 10 days. Here are our thoughts on the lens:

FACT: In the field, the Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM is a lens which comes very close to hitting all the right buttons.

– To start things off, we absolutely LOVE this lens! It’s everything it was touted to be and more. The lens performs as expected; it focuses very fast and accurately, making it perfect for bird photography.

For our first test we chose a stable setting under the most favorable conditions possible: shooting birds from a hide. The USM focusing system operated quickly and quietly and we had no trouble capturing our subjects, be it the cumbersome Blue Whistling Thrush or the erratic Streaked Wren Babbler.

Blue Whistling Thrush -Photo by Ike Suriwong

There was no need to adjust the color or contrast settings on the camera; set on neutral or faithful, the lens rendered the colors accurately and beautifully.

Our next test was to see the functionality of the focusing system and IS in panning mode, without a tripod. We attempted to photograph Grey Treepie flying from one tree to another. We found the lens’ autofocus system accurately focused on the moving subject (flying birds) on almost all occasions when shooting in burst mode. My “keeper” rate for this lens was very good; I’d reckon at least 94% of the photos I took in Al Servio mode were in focus all the time.

Photographing birds in an open area or just snapping photos from the car window was a breeze. With proper lighting (sunny day or slightly overcast) the lens worked well. Pictures were sharp and clean and background blur created by the 8-blade aperture was sensational.

Blue Rock Thrush -Photo by Ike Suriwong

Our next test was the toughest of all: photographing under the canopy in the forest.

Photographing under the canopy on a sunny day is not too bad. However, we find that in most circumstances, we end up shooting birds under the canopy of a Southeast Asian rainforest, which is usually dark and murky, making it a challenge for any photographer. Even more problematic is the fact that some provinces in Thailand face rain and overcast skies for up to 10 months out of the year.

As was expected, we experienced grey skies with hints of rain during our test period.

Wide open at 400 mm the lens has an aperture of 5.6 – slow by most standards. In order to get decent shots I was forced to switch to full manual and pump the ISO to 800 while kicking the speed to a minimum of 1/160 of a second, just to get focused shots of my quarry.

Remember, IS increases hand-holdabilty; it does not freeze the subject. You need a fast shutter speed for that.

Looking at my photos after a day in the hides, most of my pictures turned out looking like this:

A Siberian Blue Robin "in the dark".

-That’s where we had to turn to our photoshopping abilities for help.

In some situations we were forced to crank the ISO up to 1600 to get a shot “for the record”. –Like this one of the Red legged Crake:

Red legged Crake -Photo by Ike Suriwong

As you can see, the result is not something you’d want to post on your wall for friends and relatives to gaggle over.

This issue however, should not be blamed solely on the lens. While the lens is a little slow for shooting in darkened forest interiors or under poor lighting in a tropical jungle, the weather certainly won’t always be bad. –And a little help in the photoshop department always helps to mellow things out.

However, the issue of poor lighting is a problem which many photographers coming to Southeast Asia will face. The jungles and forests of Thailand and Malaysia are often very dark and murky and the birds are very active. Many seasoned photographers claim that the best solution is to stick with large-aperture lenses such as the Canon 300 or 400 f/2.8L IS USM.

Another option would be to pair the lens with a full-frame body like the Canon 1DX or the 5D Mk III. Full-frame bodies tend to fare well at higher ISO settings in contrast to APS-C sensor bodies.

Throughout the 10 days of testing, we learned a lot about the versatility of this lens. However, sitting in a blind at Baan Song Nok and photographing the wide range of species which gathered at the watering hole really helped to highlight the flexibility this lens offers.

 -Photo by Ike Suriwong

Having a range of 100 – 400 mm to work with allowed us to go from shooting tiny birds such as Arctic Warbler, Puff throated Babbler and Black naped Monarch to capturing frame-filling shots of large birds such as Red Junglefowl and Silver Pheasant. A fellow photographer armed with a 400 mm prime found himself moving between the forward and rear binds due to the varying sizes of the birds we shot.

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On some occasions we found ourselves chasing after a bird or relocating from one blind to another. The compact size and weight of the lens made it easy to move about, especially in situations when we were forced to run with our gear.

Speaking of weight: combine the weight of the lens with a Canon 7D body and I can testify that I did feel the strain on my shoulders – especially when I was also carrying a backpack with field guides, raincoat a tripod and a pair of binoculars. However, this was far more enjoyable than my previous experience of lugging around a Sigma 50-500 f/4.5-6.3 EX DG OS HSM or a Canon 300 f/2.8L IS USM with the same combination of bags, books and birding gear.

I’d say the best combination would be to lose the backpack, tripod and other paraphernalia and just stick with the camera, lens and binoculars. However, that’s a luxury not all of us can afford, especially in this part of the world!

I would not recommend this lens for photographers who specialize in shooting owls or other night birds after sunset, unless you plan to torch your subject with lighting solutions fit for a football stadium. However, after capturing reasonable photos of a Javan Frogmouth with a Sigma 50-500 f/4.5-6.3 EX DG OS HSM and two 550 lumen flashlights, I would agree that this lens should be able to do a better job in the same scenario, especially if it were paired with a sturdy tripod.

Last but not least was the issue of dust: some critics of the lens nickname the Canon 100–400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM the “dust bunny”. We photographed in a number of very dusty environments (dirt roads, sand-swept ridges, etc.) and I was quite concerned about the issue as I’d just gotten my camera sensor cleaned. We found that with a little care and precautionary measures in place, the issue wasn’t as bad as some had touted it to be. A test showed one speck of dust on the sensor after ten days of use – and we can’t even be sure if that got there from use or from when we were switching lenses on the camera body.

In a Nutshell

Canon 100-400 (3)

The Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM is currently the best pro-grade zoom lens available on the market to date. It combines fast focusing, image stabilization, and top-tier optics to produce sharp, contrasty images, all at a fraction of the price of a prime lens. The lens is fairly lightweight and built with mobility in mind, perfect for birders who want to add photography to their outing without giving up any of their other essential birding gear (binoculars, scope, etc.)

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On the downside, the lens design prevents the lens from being weather sealed; the push-pull mechanism may also inadvertently suck dust into the barrel and camera, resulting in a dirty sensor. The 5.6 maximum aperture at 400 mm is slow when subjected to the dark interior of Southeast Asian jungles, forcing photographers to go with a high ISO to compensate or switching to a full-frame sensor body.

We would like to extend our sincere appreciation to Mr. Hans Van den Brink for allowing us to use his excellent copy of this lens for this review.

Purchasing

The Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM can be purchased from a number of authorized dealers in Thailand. Big Camera has outlets in almost every mall or department store throughout the country and offers a wide range of Canon products. Many serious photographers like to purchase their gear at distributors such as Fotofile or World Camera, both of which offer excellent service and an incredible range of professional photographic gear and studio equipment.

Canon Thailand is well-respected and has a strong following due to the helpful and intuitive demeanor of its staff. Canon service stations are present in every major city and the company honors warranties from products purchased abroad as long as proof of purchase from a certified Canon distributor is presented.

Repair or cleaning of large lenses will take up to three months due to the shortage of specialized repairpersons.

In the thriving grey-market lens department, a number of stores offer the Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM between 15-25% cheaper. These stores offer a store warranty as opposed to a Canon Factory Warranty, an option which fares well among local users but will surely turn off most international buyers or users. Popular stores which offer grey-market lenses include EC Mall and Digilife Thailand.

Links

The Official  Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM page on the Canon USA website
– A review of the Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM by Bryan Carnathan at The Digital Picture
– User reviews of the Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM on FredMiranda.com 

Categories: Gear Reviews

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