M-m-m-megazoom: Canon 200 – 400mm f/4L lens reviewed

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R116 495. That’s what this lens costs.

“Yes. Yes. I understand. Yes, we’ll arrange insurance. Ok, thanks. Cheers.”

Pictured here without the lens hood, many photographer will envy that yours is bigger than theirs.
Pictured here without the lens hood, many photographers will envy that yours is bigger than theirs.

That’s how the phone call ended when Canon phoned us to ask if we want to play with it for a weekend. Even with corporate insurance there are certain things that need extra precautions. More so, when the plan was to take the lens – and the Canon 5D MkIII offered with it – to the Top Gear Festival in Durban, this June. With thousands of people walking  and dangerous track environments, the risk of something happening to the glass was immense.

It also didn’t help that the one we received had a serial number ending with “00000007”. Yup, the seventh production lens of its kind. No pressure, right?

To professionals, L-series glass needs no introduction. Everybody else will know these off-white monstrosities by their regular appearances at sports events. The L stands for luxury (though some argue it’s for Low Dispersion) these high-end lenses are revered by career photographers who want great image quality, speed, and durability.

And great arms, too, because this 3.6kg lens starts feeling like a lot more after 6 hours of carrying it around, especially when paired to a 950g 5D MkIII body, and all mounted on a 5kg heavy duty tripod.

Yes, that what the Saturday spent at the Top Gear Festival. Fast-moving cars, an aerial show, direct sunlight, lots of people, a huge stadium, and the unpredictable trio from the hit TV series. What better conditions to test Canon’s finest telephoto zoom, yet?

First up, the specs that matter. At f/4, this is the fastest long telephoto zoom Canon has made, to date. The 70 – 200/300mm lenses might be f/2.8, but don’t have the reach this does. There’s also the small matter of a built-in 1.4x extender. Flip the (sturdy) switch and this lens is transformed into a 280 – 560mm f/5.6 telephoto. Good enough to get shots like this Red Bull Aerial Fighter sitting high in the sky.

Hundreds of metres up in the air brought right up close, thanks to 560mm of zoom.
Hundreds of metres up in the air brought right up close, thanks to 560mm of zoom.

That sits on the extreme end of the scale, but it demonstrates what kind of magnification is on offer. Wildlife photographers – bird watchers in particular – will get the most out of this lens, but at that price it’s likely to leave most lusting after it. Sports photographers, especially in rugby and soccer, will be able to snap off brutal close-ups from right across the field. And at f/4 there’s no need to have high ISO ruining the party. In fact, image quality is incredible. We had the expert eyes of the guys at PhotoComment give a technical evaluation of the images from the lens and everything checked out. Crisp images at almost all combinations of zoom and aperture, with the inevitable vignetting being quite apparent (though pleasing, in the shot above) from f/11 and higher.

Not even high apertures can save you from the sun.
Not even high apertures can save you from the sun.

Also impressive is its focussing speed. Paired with the 5D MkIII’s configurable focus tracking (where it will follow a subject that enters the frame) the lens rarely didn’t focus perfectly. It has a huge range to focus through – doing so manually will make you spin the focus ring a few times – so that the ultrasonic motors (USM) manage to quickly do their job is highly appreciated. Filmmakers will also appreciate the inclusion of power zoom. A secondary zoom ring allows for motorised, linear focus pulls, just what you need when tracking moving subjects. That said, it’s likely not the first choice, or most versatile, when it comes to film lenses.

It might have a long focal length, but that doesn’t mean you can’t shoot handheld with it. Lugging it around on a tripod will give you a workout, and is likely to yield the best results in certain situations. Turn that tripod collar upside down and use it as a handle, though, and this gets you all kinds of new results. In this case it’ll also be helped along by Canon’s latest image stabilisation. The company claims it’s good enough to compensate for 4 exposure stops. That’s incredibly handy for a long lens like this. There’s also a third image stabilisation mode (rather than the usual two) which only works during the exposure; perfect for those erratically-moving animals and sportsmen.

Overall, it’s an incredibly good piece of glass. At the price it damn well has to be, but there’s nothing to fault here. It’s the best zoom lens money can buy, but and if you have a camera body that’ll really take advantage of its speed then you won’t be disappointed. Lower-range EOS DSLR bodies will work – those with cropped sensors will effectively have an 896mm lens) – but the fast focussing and bigger sensors on the higher-end models are where this lens will pay for itself over and over again.

Summary

Canon 200 – 400mm f/4L with 1.4x extender
Price: R116 495 at ORMS
The good: High-speed focussing, sharp images, built-in extender, image stabilisation
The bad: R116 495
Rating: 9/10

Christo van Gemert

Christo van Gemert

Eleven years ago Christo started writing about technology for one of South Africa's (then) leading computer magazines. His first review? A Samsung LCD monitor. Hey, it was hot news, back then. Nowadays he gets more excited about photography, cars, game consoles, and faster internet connections. He's sort of an Apple fan, but will take any opportunity to remind you about his Windows-powered home theatre PC and desire to own a vanilla Android tablet.   Currently uses: Apple 13-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display, Apple iPhone 5, Microsoft Laser Mouse 6000, Audiofly AF78 Earphones, Xbox 360, Nikon D50.

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