FIELD REVIEW: Canon EF 200-400 F4L IS 1.4X

WHAT IS NEW?

Once you take a deeper look at the make-up of this lens, it becomes clear that Canon have chosen to showcase virtually all of their latest lens technology in the EF 200-400 f4L.

The new lens took a long time for Canon to bring to market after a development announcement some time ago.

The lens body does not change size during zooming, with all moving parts inside the magnesium-alloy, weather-sealed barrel.

At the front end of the lens is a bulge in the casing, which is home to the built-in 1.4 extender that is an exciting feature of this lens. The extender is engaged by means of a switch and there is a lock if needed.

The EF 200-400 f4L is fitted with Canon’s latest 4-stop image-stabilization (IS) system, with three different shooting modes. Recessed switch panels on the side of the lens control the IS system, as well as focus distance limiters, focus preset and AF/MF/PF selection (PF being a powered focus for video).

A tripod ring with click-detents at right angles, and two optional tripod feet, a shorter one and an extended one, is standard.

Other components of the lens exterior are the zoom ring, focus ring, focus Preset collar and a set of four AF-stop buttons that can be customized, along with strap attachments and a deep lens hood. The hood can be reversed, and comes with a nylon cover to help protect the front of the lens when in this configuration.

Optically, the EF 200-400 f4L has a 25-element lens design, including one Fluorite element and four UD {Ultra-low Dispersion) elements. The built-in extender is an 8-element design and engaging it makes for a total of 33 elements.

HOW WELL DOES IT WORK?

My first impression of the EF 200-400 f4L’s handling was one of high quality. The zoom ring, focus ring and the tripod ring all turn in a smooth and controlled manner. The 1.4x extender switch can be moved with just one finger, and it engages with a soft but solid-feeling clunk. There is a lock switch to prevent accidental switching.

It is so very convenient to be able to switch instantly to using the extender when you wish to frame tighter than 400mm focal length. Maximum focal length is 560mm at an aperture off/5.6.

With normal, external extenders, it is all too easy to miss shots due to the time it takes to mount one in the field. That risk is no longer a factor when using this lens. It also minimizes the risk of allowing dust into the camera during changeover.

The EF 200-400 f4L weighs 3620g, and is roughly the same size and weight as an older Canon EF 500 f4 L version 1. Big and strong photographers will be able to handhold it for long periods, whilst smaller users will perhaps find it on the heavy size. Using a tripod mount, a monopod or a beanbag will make handling the lens for long periods easier. Having the lens on a mount or rest will also make it easier to control the zoom ring with one hand whilst shooting. The image stabilization works as it is meant to and helped me get some sharp images at very slow shutter speeds whilst handholding.

AUTOFOCUS

Using the lens without the converter engaged, anywhere between 200mm and 400mm focal length, produces very fast and accurate AF results. It focuses as well as lenses such as the Canon EF 500 and 600 f4 fixed telephoto lenses. Even with fast-moving subjects, and in very low light, autofocus was surprisingly good.

I used the lens mostly with the Canon 5Dmk3. On one occasion, shooting two lions leaping and running towards me, in pre-dawn light,this combination delivered eleven out of fifteen, sharply-focused images, which was way more than I was expecting. The autofocus also worked well in low-contrast and backlit situations.

With the 1.4x extender engaged, AF was still accurate and positive, especially in good light scenarios. When using the extender, it was a little more difficult to track very fast-moving subjects, and there was a greater tendency for the AF to hunt.

It is also possible to add a separate external Canon EF 1.4x extender to the lens. Using both converters makes for an effective focal length of 784mm but there are better ways to get to that focal length.

Minimum focus distance is 2m, which makes this lens very effective for photographing smaller subjects close-up, if not quite 1:1 macro equivalent.

IMAGE QUALITY

The Canon EF 200-400 f4L is a zoom lens that has imagequality almost indistinguishable from fixed lenses like the Canon EF 500 f4L IS ii, when used between 200mm and 400mm. with the extender removed. Most importantly. the lens delivered its great image quality wide open, at f4. The EF 200-400 f4L allowed me to select my apertures as I needed them, with the confidence that I was not paying any significant penalty in image quality even wide open, which is where I often shoot.

I was impressed by the fine detail, great contrast and colour in images taken with this lens.

Engaging the 1 Ax extender allows for tighter framing, at the cost of a slight loss of fine detail. Images taken with the converter were still usable. It is important to note that framing well with the extender in place means less cropping, which also has a positive impact on imagequality.

I found little evidence of chromatic aberration. During the course of capturing over 3,000 wildlife images with the lens, I have only encountered lens flare on one occasion. The lens would seem to be better than some earlier zoom lenses when it comes to resisting lens flare.

I noticed minimal vignetting, and nothing serious enough to warrant correcting in post¬processing.

Overall, I found the lens to have excellent image quality when used without the 1.4 extender, almost as good as Canon’s class-leading fixed telephoto lenses.

CONCLUSION

Canon have produced a class-leading telephoto zoom lens with great image quality, and powerful focus performance enhanced by the flexibility brought about by the built-in extender. Superior build-quality and effective image stabilization complete the package. The EF 2CO-400L f4L 1.4x IS USM sells for a high price, but for the money you get prime lens image quality and performance with the added flexibility that only a zoom lens can bring.

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