Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM [REVIEW]

0Comments

As I normally shoot travel and landscape, with occasional product shots and weddings, it’s not often I play with the big guns. You know, 400, 500 and 600mm lenses.

But with the help of BorrowLenses.com, I was able to borrow and shoot with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM in Alaska for two weeks. I tried the camera on a Canon 7D. I was there primarily to gather product shots of one of InnerSea Discoveries’ new vessels and teach photography.

If you are interested in the fine details and laboratory results from this lens, DXOMark will have that information out soon. My goal today is to give you my impressions using the lens hands-on. How useful and portable is it? How practical is it? And what can we expect from image quality?

Specifications

Here are some of the raw stats from Canon’s website.

Focal Length & Maximum Aperture 400mm 1:2.8
Lens Construction 16 elements in 12 groups (Including drop-in rear filter, Fluorite: G2 and G4, UD Lens: None)
Diagonal Angle of View 6° 10′
Focus Adjustment Inner focusing system, with focusing cam
Closest Focusing Distance 2.7m / 8.86 ft.
Filter Size 52mm Drop-In
Max. Diameter x Length, Weight 6.4 x 13.5 in, 135.8 oz. / 163.0 x 343.0mm, 3850g

The Controls

Beginning with the controls of the lens, you may not have seen so many buttons and switches. Indeed, the 400mm II has more than your average lens, but they all serve important purposes. On the main section of the body are these switches.

From top to bottom:

  • Image Stabilize Mode allows for full image stabilization or stabilization while panning. Mode 3 offers some battery savings by only correcting for vibration when the exposure is made, rather than while the shutter is half pressed.
  • Stabilizer On/Off is self explanatory.
  • The Set button allows the use of Focus Preset below. This is used to pick a point of focus, hit the set button, then use the playback ring (the white ring with the ribs in the top photo) to snap to that focus.

Near the back of the lens are these buttons.

They are:

  • Focus Mode selection: AF for Auto Focus, PF for Power Focus and MF for Manual Focus. Power Focus allows the playback ring to be used to power focus the lens instead of manually, at a consistent speed. This is useful for video applications and not so much for stills.
  • Range Limiting selection: A time saving device, the range limiting switch helps define ranges for the focus to stop at. If all objects are further than 7m, for instance, the lens will not hunt all the way back to its nearest focus point when it can’t find a lock. This saves time and battery.

In The Field

Let’s start with the weight of this monster. It’s a monster. If you’re not accustomed to using such a large lens, it takes getting used to. The lens has its own neck/shoulder strap which I used often on my shoulder. Adjusted properly, this made the lens relatively comfortable to carry.

Lugging this lens from location to location, via transport, is best done with the 400C carry case, pictured here (click image for larger version). The only problem is it is slightly too long to fit in the overhead bin of the Boeing 737s I flew in. I could fit it overhead when laid sideways, but be warned, it’s over the official length.

The lens hood seen in the top picture thankfully inverts for easy transport and comes with a cloth cover. I found it best to leave the hood attached most of the time and use the cover that way instead of directly on the lens. The lens has its own mounting point with two locations for screws depending on the type of head used (I would suggest a gimbal head to help stop the lens from falling over). This foot has padding on one side to double as a convenient carry handle.

I tested this lens without any special filter but it does have a slot near the rear to accepted selected Canon filters, such as a polarizing filter.

In use the camera is excellent. I handheld the camera most of the time because I was on a boat and often the railing was an excellent place to place the lens. You do not need to use a tripod with this lens. That being said, you better start working out now if you plan to do this. I am not someone who is super fit, I’m just not bright, so I handheld the lens most of the time. It made me more mobile.

Although, when on a tripod for a few occasions, I enjoyed that the lens could swivel on the mount to shoot portrait. Not only that, it had the most obvious detentes of any lens I’ve used. Easy to tell when it was leveled out and locked.

Focus was swift, but not lightning fast. I was testing it alongside a Sigma lens of similar, but lesser, range on a Sigma SD-1 and teh focus of the Canon was much faster. The large focus ring (it’s that black band in the middle) made manual focusing a breeze as I wasn’t having to hunt for a small ring. It is well positioned as well. This lens is built for wildlife and it focuses fast enough to catch whales as they breach.

Below are some examples of the lens in use with corresponding exposure info. A number of the shots are cropped versions of the original. Click on an image to bring up the original, full size image.

NOTE: Almost every picture is taken from a moving object, be it a 170′ long vessel (as pictured) or from the smaller skiffs. The larger aperture allowed for fast enough shutter speeds to overcome the vibrations found on boats.

ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/2000

ISO 800, f3.5, 1/8000

ISO 100, f/3.5, 1/4000

ISO 320, f/3.5, 1/2000

ISO 800, f/4.5, 1/1600

ISO 800, f/4.5, 1/1600

ISO 800, f/3.5, 1/2000

ISO 800, f/3.5, 1/2000

ISO 500, f/2.8, 1/320

ISO 320, f/4.5, 1/2000

ISO 400, f/4.5, 1/2500

ISO 640, f/4.5, 1/2000

ISO 400, f/3.2, 1/2000

ISO 400, f/3.2, 1/2000

ISO 400, f/4.5 1/1250

ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/1600

ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/1250

ISO 500, f/4, 1/4000

ISO 500, f/4, 1/4000

ISO 500, f/4, 1/3200

ISO 500, f/4, 1/2500

ISO 400, f/3.5, 1/3200

Conclusion

The Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM is a treat to use but not a treat to carry around. It is best used when a base of operations can be established, like a boat or near a campsite. The sharpness from side to side is impressive but needs to be balanced with thegeneral aspect of it being a fixed focal length lens. This is fairly easily overcome with cropping final images, especially as the pixel count on future cameras climbs.

I am thankful to BorrowLenses.com for the lends of this lens, without which, these shots would less crisp and further away.

Interested in buying this lens? Check your bank balance first – it’s not cheap. Get an up to date price on the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM II Super Telephoto Lens at Amazon here.

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM
Author Rating
3

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Panama, Alaska, Seattle and Los Angeles. He is also the creator of 31 Days to Better Photography & 31 Days of Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

  • I borrowed this lens from Canon Professional Services to use in Alaska this past July. It is a MONSTER!
    I had no idea what I was getting into. I used it one day at our hotel in Homer to photograph Eagles. There is no way I could take it on a hike or on a boat. I sent it back a few days later. I was worried I would drop it , or it would get stolen.

  • peter
  • peter
  • Martin

    Nice results from the lens. Those whales are beautiful.

  • This is a beautiful lens. I borrow one to shoot sports on occasion. My one comment would be: Don’t spend 10 grand on a lens like this (or the high rental fee), breaking your back to schlep it around, to shoot it at f/4. It’s very sharp wide open at f/2.8 and gives beautiful bokeh — I don’t think I ever moved if off of f/2.8. Open it wide and use it how it is intended to be used!

  • Great review! I totally agree that this lens is a must have.Lately I’ve been asked about what equipment I use when shooting weddings and other types of photoshoots. As we all know a nice camera and lens doesn’t make a photographer; the way a photographer utilizes his/her equipment is what single-handily separates a professional from a amateur. On the other hand, I feel that it’s very important to have good equipment. For example a fast lens (2.8 and faster) will make low-light situation a lot more manageable for a wedding photographer. So with that said, I wanted to share what type of equipment I use.

    This lens is the holy grail of all telephoto lenses. I purchased this lens about six months ago and it’s absolutely sick! The sharpness of this lens rivals any prime lens out there. The IS, although pricey, is definitely worth the $1,000 upgrade. I’ve taken hand held shots at 1/15 and they are sharp! The IS claims to add 4 stops and it’s true! It also has two different stabilization settings; one is for your standard shooting but also the lens sports another setting that works great for panning. Typical of Canon L-series lenses, the optics of this lens are superb. For any type of wedding photography, this lens is a must have! I use this lens for wedding ceremonies, portraits, senior photos, infrared, etc. Another benefit is that you get a workout when you use it because of its weight!

  • Great review but even better images!
    Now to buy a winning Lottery ticket :).

    Andy

  • deborah

    WOW, those are some beautiful shots there!!!

  • Johan Bauwens

    price ?

Some Older Comments

  • deborah October 2, 2012 11:21 am

    WOW, those are some beautiful shots there!!!

  • Andy Keeble September 30, 2012 07:23 am

    Great review but even better images!
    Now to buy a winning Lottery ticket :).

    Andy

  • Jim Woolsey September 28, 2012 05:16 am

    Great review! I totally agree that this lens is a must have.Lately I've been asked about what equipment I use when shooting weddings and other types of photoshoots. As we all know a nice camera and lens doesn't make a photographer; the way a photographer utilizes his/her equipment is what single-handily separates a professional from a amateur. On the other hand, I feel that it's very important to have good equipment. For example a fast lens (2.8 and faster) will make low-light situation a lot more manageable for a wedding photographer. So with that said, I wanted to share what type of equipment I use.

    This lens is the holy grail of all telephoto lenses. I purchased this lens about six months ago and it's absolutely sick! The sharpness of this lens rivals any prime lens out there. The IS, although pricey, is definitely worth the $1,000 upgrade. I've taken hand held shots at 1/15 and they are sharp! The IS claims to add 4 stops and it's true! It also has two different stabilization settings; one is for your standard shooting but also the lens sports another setting that works great for panning. Typical of Canon L-series lenses, the optics of this lens are superb. For any type of wedding photography, this lens is a must have! I use this lens for wedding ceremonies, portraits, senior photos, infrared, etc. Another benefit is that you get a workout when you use it because of its weight!

  • Jeff W September 26, 2012 01:14 am

    This is a beautiful lens. I borrow one to shoot sports on occasion. My one comment would be: Don't spend 10 grand on a lens like this (or the high rental fee), breaking your back to schlep it around, to shoot it at f/4. It's very sharp wide open at f/2.8 and gives beautiful bokeh -- I don't think I ever moved if off of f/2.8. Open it wide and use it how it is intended to be used!

  • Martin September 24, 2012 10:27 pm

    Nice results from the lens. Those whales are beautiful.

  • peter September 24, 2012 10:26 pm

    http://i.imgur.com/0ef8s.jpg

  • peter September 24, 2012 10:26 pm

    http://i.imgur.com/tijfs.jpg

    http://i.imgur.com/0ef8s.jpg

  • Sue Liberto September 24, 2012 04:04 pm

    I borrowed this lens from Canon Professional Services to use in Alaska this past July. It is a MONSTER!
    I had no idea what I was getting into. I used it one day at our hotel in Homer to photograph Eagles. There is no way I could take it on a hike or on a boat. I sent it back a few days later. I was worried I would drop it , or it would get stolen.

Join Our Email Newsletter

Thanks for subscribing!


DPS offers a free weekly newsletter with: 
1. new photography tutorials and tips
2. latest photography assignments
3. photo competitions and prizes

Enter your email below to subscribe.
Email:
 
 
Get DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS feed