Late in 2012 I wrote a short op ed. blog piece about the pending release of Canon’s new 200-400mm F4L IS lens with inbuilt 1.4 teleconverter. At the time of my post there were only a few prototypes of this lens in existence and they were all at the London Olympics (I was somewhere between Paris and Chamonix at the time) for testing by a lucky few sports photographers. Initial feedback on the grapevine from those fortunate few was that this lens (even in prototype form) was an oustanding performer and lived up to Canon’s claims of Unsurpassed combination of versatility, first-class optical performance and an enhanced weather-proof construction.
Fast forward to today and I recently finished (in February this year) three days shooting with the new Canon 200-400mm F4L IS lens (in prototype form). To my knowledge this is the first online pre-production review of this lens anywhere in the world. During the test I was fortunate to also have on hand the Nikon 200-400 equivalent and a D800E for comparison and this may also be the first time these lenses have been used side by side. In terms of size the two lenses are almost identical although the Canon is wider in girth and does feel lighter than the Nikon. Once a 1.4 teleconverter is added the Nikon does become a longer lens than the Canon.The Nikon design is now more than a decade old and does not include an inbuilt 1.4 teleconverter although it has had some optical and vibration reduction upgrades over the years. For those looking for a direct comparison of these lenses in terms of image quality I am sorry but you are going to have to look elsewhere. It is just too hard to account for differences in lenses when they are shot on different mega pixel cameras. What I can say is that after shooting side by side with the Canon and Nikon for three days is that both are excellent lenses and that the end result has as much to do with the camera and photographer as the lens itself. Shooting dressage with the 1DX and Canon 200-400 I was able to capture images that the D800E simply could not because its frame rate is literally half that of the 1DX. Twelve frames a second makes a difference when you are photographing a charging horse or wildlife on the move. In terms of autofocus it is again to hard to account for any differences between the lenses as so much depends on the camera and the photographer so we confined ourselves to simply comparing the physical attributes of the lenses. What was universally agreed however is that having an inbuilt 1.4 teleconverter is a significant advantage. The teleconverter can be activated in less than a second in the Canon where as it takes at least ten seconds to take the lens off the Nikon and install a converter. This difference is huge and is not to be underestimated when it comes to wildlife and sports photography. The Canon can continue shooting and tracking the subject whilst the converter is slide into place. The Nikon requires taking the camera away from the eye to fit the converter and then reframing the subject and reacquiring focus. This time delay can be the difference between getting the shot and missing the shot. Included below is a short video with my thoughts and impressions on this new and very impressive lens from Canon.I know the Canon lens looks quite a lot bigger than the Nikon in this photograph however that is a function of the lens and camera used to take this photograph. The Canon is also closer to the camera and thus appears larger in the frame.
The Canon 200-400mm F4L IS is only the second lens from Canon to ever employ an inbuilt 1.4 teleconverter that could be optionally switched on or off with the flick of a switch. The first lens to do so was the extremely rare Canon FD 1200mm f/5.6 L Lens (picture on PBase.com). I have personally never seen one of these lenses in the flesh although I have briefly shot with its replacement, the discontinued and ultra expensive EF 1200mm f/5.6 L USM Lens; which did not have an inbuilt teleconverter.
The teleconverter in the Canon 200-400mm F4 L IS lens offers a magnification factor of 1.4x the lens focal length. This turns the Canon 200-400mm lens into a 280mm – 560mm lens with the flick of a switch. The switch can be locked to prevent accidental operation. After three days of shooting with the lens I never felt the need to use the lock switch as the teleconverter switch does require a fairly dedicated press to move into position.
I need to put a caveat on my comments about image quality as the lens I tested from Canon was a prototype and not a finished production model. Whilst I do not expect there to be any significant optical differences between the unit I tested and finished samples it is important to clarify that my comments relate strictly to the prototype and not finished production units (which are currently unavailable).
Getting right down to brass tacks the image quality of Canon’s new 200-400mm F4L IS lens is superb. My own testing shows it to be fully the equal of Canon’s mighty 300mm F2.8L IS lens both in the centre and in the corners. This is phenomenal performance in a zoom lens and goes to show how much development and engineering work has gone into the design of this new optic. During the three days I was able to shoot with the lens I shot over a thousand frames at a local open range zoo not far from my house and at a dressage training event. I also spent a good deal of time shooting test charts so that I could make direct comparisons against the 300mm F2.8L IS. I tested the lens at varying focal lengths both with and without the 1.4 teleconverter in place and have found it to offer superb image quality regardless of focal length. It is necessary to go 300% magnification in Adobe Lightroom to see any difference between a file shot with the 300mm F2.8L IS and the 200-400 F4L IS. The most noticeable difference at 300% is the significant lack of chromatic aberration in the 200-400 lens. Any resolution differences are a quibble and it could be argued that the 200-400mm lens actually has better contrast. This confirms what I have heard from other photographers who tested this lens at both the London Olympics and the Australian Open tennis early this year and have claimed it is as good as Canon’s 400mm F2.8L IS lens.
Image Quality with Teleconverter
The addition of an inbuilt teleconverter makes a good deal of optical sense since it can be specifically designed and tuned to the lens in which it is being employed. Traditional teleconverters are a compromise because they are designed to work with multiple lenses across a range of focal lengths. They are not tuned to a specific set of optics and employ more elements than they may otherwise need to in order to ensure operability between lenses. For this reason an inbuilt converter will always outperform and out-resolve a stand alone converter. In my own testing I found the in built converter in the 200-400 to offer improved image quality over the stand alone Mark III 1.4 Teleconverter.
To clear up the internet scuttlebutt I can clarify that it is possible to use a 2X teleconverter with the 200-400mm lens; which turns it into a 400-800mm F8 lens that will autofocus on the 1DX camera. Image quality with the 2X teleconverter in place is at least equal in quality to what you would expect to see using the converter on a prime telephoto lens. It is also possible to flick the 1.4 teleconverter into place and go to 1120mm although autofocus is lost and image quality takes a nose dive as you would expect with stacked converters.
The prototype 200-400mm lens I tested on the Canon 1DX camera has the best autofocus I have ever experienced with any camera – period. It is blisteringly fast and deadly accurate. This lens and camera combination never miss focused during the nearly 700 frames shot on high speed 12 frames per second AI servo at the dressage training event I was invited to photograph. The camera and lens were able to successfully track the rapidly moving dark horses irrespective of erratic and unpredictable movement. All of the files are sharp and well within what I would deem critical focus.
The new 200-400mm lens employs 4 stop image stabilisation that is virtually completely silent. Whilst I can hear the IS in my 300mm F2.8L IS when shooting with the lens in this mode I could not hear it at all on the 200-400mm lens. My tests show that the IS in the 200-400 is significantly better than that in the original 300mm F2.8L IS lens and I would have no hesitation in hand holding this lens in poor light and shooting at shutter speeds that would normally require a tripod for these focal lengths. The lens has three different modes for either hand held shooting, panning or utilisation on a tripod.Who is it for?
For Photographers who need a super-telephoto zoom in the 200mm – 560mm range with superb optics this lens is likely to be worth every cent. After spending time shooting from the deck of ships I have come to the realisation that there is no substitute for a high quality super telephoto zoom lens. For shooting wildlife such as penguins, seals, polar bears, walrus and birds from the deck of a ship where the required focal length is always different I expect this lens will likely prove the ultimate no compromise choice for ‘getting the shot’. It is the lens I have decided to take with me on the expeditions I am running to the Arctic and Antarctic in August and November this year.
With a focal length of 200mm – 400mm or 280mm – 560mm with the 1.4 TC in place this lens will also be very popular with sports photographers simply because of the extreme versatility it will provide. It is not quite as fast as a 300mm or 400mm F2.8 but I expect this small sacrifice in speed will be a small price to pay for the added flexibility this lens will bring to many sports shooters. I expect this lens to be in hot demand with sports and wildlife photographers when it is released in June this year; even with its high price tag. Despite the long lead time from initial announcement of its development to working field prototypes this lens remains likely the most hotly anticipated lens for sports and wildlife photographers in recent memory.