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Writer’s Favorite Lens – the Canon 400mm f/2.8

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Being a sports photographer, covering things ranging from soccer (football) and rugby, to horse racing, I often have the Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM on one of my camera bodies. It’s this lens’ focal length and fast aperture that is most helpful. I love this lens for its image quality and performance, but also its versatility.

Fig 12

Image courtesy of Canon.

So let’s have a look at the specs of this lens:

  • Focal length: 400mm (560mm APS-C approximate)
  • Maximum aperture: f/2.8
  • Maximum diameter x length: 163mm x 343mm (6.41 x 13.50″)
  • Weight: 3.85 kg (8.48 lbs)
  • Image stabilized? Yes, four stops
  • Minimum focusing distance: 2.7m (8.85′)
  • Weather sealed: Yes

PROS

Ideal Sports Lens

The 400mm focal length of this lens is ideal for many field based sports such as soccer (football) and rugby as it’s not too long, such as a 500mm for example, but at the same time it’s gives more pull than a 300mm. Its fast f/2.8 aperture is very handy when photographing in low-light situations, such as at night matches where the light is often quite low, as it allows me to use a lower ISO and still be able to maintain a shutter speed that is fast enough to freeze the action. This maximum aperture is also ideal to nicely isolate the subject from a busy background and make them pop more. Although I don’t always shoot at f/2.8 (generally hovering around f/3.5-f/4) having the ability to use f/2.8 is quite handy.

As far as focussing speed goes, this lens is blazingly quick and spot-on accurate, especially when coupled to a 1D X, for example. It easily locks on to a subject without any search or lag whatsoever.

In the following images, the 400mm focal length has been fantastic at pulling the subject in closer than what a 70-200 or 300mm for example, would be able to offer. These images have still been cropped, but not as much as would be needed if I had used a shorter focal length.

© Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

© Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

© Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

© Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

Versatility

Being quite heavy and long, with no zoom, you may think that this lens would only be suited to use on the sidelines of a sports field, attached to a monopod. However, this lens is much more versatile than that. Being the series two version of this lens, it is significantly lighter than its predecessor. This reduction in weight means that I am now able to use this lens hand-held (if I’m using it for extended period of time, I do use a monopod; it’s not that light!) which opens up more options. For example, I have photographed live concerts with this lens; a lens that is rarely used because of its long focal length. But it’s this focal length, coupled with an f/2.8 aperture, that I love. Photographing through the crowd is fantastic, as I am able to create abstract shapes through the silhouettes created by the audience, and use them to frame my subject.

The longer focal length can also be great when covering conferences, as I am able to photograph further back. This is especially helpful if the speakers are on a stage, as standing further back will reduce the angle in which you look up, and enable you to reduce the distortion that looking up can cause.

Fig 3

This was taken from further back. The speaker was on a stage. By standing back I was able to photograph the speaker and be closer to his level. The aperture also provided some great bokeh with the lights in the background.

Fig 1

400mm, 1/500sec, f/3.2 ISO 6400. The singer raising her hand is made stronger by the abstract hand being raised by the fans.

Fig 2

400mm, 1/500sec, f/3.5 ISO 6400. Shooting through the fans with their hands in the air adds some great foreground interest to this image.

In addition, its fast f/2.8 aperture lends itself to use with teleconverters if extra reach is needed. When adding one, you multiply the aperture and focal length by the strength of the teleconverter; so if you are using a 2x, it would make this lens an 800mm f/5.6. And because its image quality is so good, the degradation to image quality when using converters isn’t really noticeable with this lens. Its AF also does not really take much of a hit, either. So for the price of a couple of teleconverters, I potentially have three lenses in one:

  • A 400mm f/2.8 as it is
  • A 560 f/4 with a 1.4x teleconverter
  • a 800 f/5.6 with a 2x teleconverter

CONS

Cost

This lens is not the cheapest lens on the market; Amazon has it listed at $9,999 USD, so this lens is definitely not something many photographers would consider purchasing.

An alternative to this would be the Canon 400mm f/5.6L USM which sells for a much more affordable $1,199 USD. The biggest drawback with that lens, however, is its maximum aperture of f/5.6, which would not be very useful in low-light situations, where a wider aperture is much more beneficial.

Image courtesy of Canon.

Image courtesy of Canon.

Size

This isn’t the smallest lens either, and you will generally be very noticeable with it. Using this as a street photography lens would not be ideal, and would make you quite a target! You will also need quite a large bag to carry this in, although it does come with its own hard-case as seen here.

Weight

Even though this is the series two, and much lighter that its predecessor, at nearly 4kg (almost 8.5 pounds) this is definitely not a light lens! You will need a monopod with this lens if you intend to use if for long periods of time. Transporting it also requires quite a large bag; a roller bag being ideal as you don’t have to carry it. I transport all of my equipment in the one bag generally – a ThinkTank Photo Airport Security V2.0 roller bag. This makes carrying not only this lens, but all of my equipment much easier, and saves injuring my back.

ALTERNATIVES

This lens is not for everyone, primarily because of its high cost. If you would love to have one of these in your kit but don’t have the finances available, going second hand is an option. A used 400mm f/2.8L IS USM (non-Series II) is still a fantastic lens and can be found relatively (compared to the new version) cheaply at around $4,000-$5,000 USD.

If that’s still pushing the financial friendship a little consider these:

CONCLUSION

While this is the heaviest lens it my kit, the image quality and performance from it is unmatched, and definitely make it worthwhile carting around. With a little practice using a prime super-telephoto, you can create some striking images that you just cannot achieve with shorter focal lengths. The large aperture and the bokeh it produces at 400mm is dreamy, too!

I really enjoy using this lens in areas that it typically would not be used. It doesn’t always work in those situations, but is a lot of fun nonetheless. Do you have a long telephoto lens? What do you shoot with it? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Daniel Smith is originally from Melbourne, Australia, but now resides in the UK. He specializes in sport and editorial photography and is a photographer with Getty Images. You can see more of his work at Carbon Photographics, and by following him on Instagram.

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    For Nikon, check out the old 400 f3.5 AIS. Manual focus, but sharp and reasonable weight – not much slower than the f2.8. Can be found for $500-$1000 used.

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  • Sarah Burton

    My dream lens!! For American Football, Jr. Rodeo and Wildlife. Currently using the Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens on an APS-C body. It works good enough for ‘amateur’ shooting in good lighting. Not quite to the L series level yet…but someday!!!

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    My dream lens!! For American Football, Jr. Rodeo and Wildlife. Currently using the Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens on an APS-C body. It works good enough for ‘amateur’ shooting in good lighting. Not quite to the L series level yet…but hopefully will be someday!!!

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    I dedicate myself to nature photography and I use the 100-400 ll and It gives very good results (You can see some pictures on the following link) https://www.flickr.com/photos/124996875@N02/ When I have to be all day or even several days walking in the mountains, carrying my stuff on my back, I appreciate that the lens does not pass the 2kg, but really lacks aperture for when I have to shoot in low light, in the middle of a dense jungle and that forces me to add the weight of a tripod or flash, and in my opinion there is nothing like natural light and although the tripod stabilizes the camera does not make the birds remain motionless

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