Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM Lens

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) Study: Portrait
Pelican (170mm, f/5.6, 1/1250th, ISO: 160)

Earlier this year, we went on a trip to the Galapagos with Linblad (National Geographic) with a goal of immersing our 9 year old son, Roger, in the natural laboratory that is the Galapagos Archipelago.

And, no surprise, one goal was to bring back tons of pictures as it is exceedingly unlikely that we will ever re-visit the Galapagos.

I don’t remotely pretend to be a competent photographer, but I do OK and I have dedicated some time to understanding the science of photography and learning the limits of my equipment. One limit, in particular, was no really long lenses of great quality. The 55-250 is a great lens for the price, but isn’t that long, nor of the world class quality that a world class trip demands.

Thus, I picked up the Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS USM Lens
. That is, a zoom telephoto L-series lens with a minimum zoom of 100mm @ f/4.5, a maximum of 400mm @ f/5.6 that features image stabilization.

I.e. one serious piece of glass.

All images taken with a Canon T1i
and, obviously, the aforementioned lens.

Juvenile Greater Flamingo  (Phoenicopterus ruber) Feeding
Juvenile Flamingo (400mm, f/14, 1/500th, ISO: 500)

Of course, with such a long lens, the first question is “How well did it perform in capturing images of things really far away?!?”

In short, the lens performed very well in this regard. The flamingo at left was, maybe, 80 meters away; 200+ feet.

The lens focuses quickly at that distance and the camera + lens generally do a good job of selecting an appropriate aperture and ISO to achieve a pleasant picture (I generally use a fast shutter speed when shooting wildlife that is moving about).

Common Dolphin (Delphinus)
Dolphins (400mm, f/5.6, 1/1000th, ISO: 250)

Of course, less than 100m is still pretty close. One morning, we awoke at about 6:30am to find the boat completely surrounded by dolphins swimming, jumping and doing the occasional tail walk.

However, the dolphins weren’t coming any closer than more than 1/2 of a mile away!

The 100-400mm let me capture several great photos of these magnificent creatures going airborne.

One neat advantage that I hadn’t thought of initially was that the lens acted as a very good quality auto-focusing 400mm (640mm, really, with the compact sensor) binoculars with the ability to quickly save anything of interest!

Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) Wading
Stilt (375mm, f/5.6, 1/1000th, ISO: 1600)

The T1i performs well at high ISO. Certainly, many times better than the Rebel XT (my prior body). Combined with the 100-400mm, I was able to frame and capture photos in low light quite effectively, too.

While I would rather have the luxury of taking such photos with the 300mm or 400mm f/2.8 lenses, they are both heavier and significantly more expensive than the 100-400mm.

And it isn’t like the 100-400mm lens is any kind of a light weight. At ~3 pounds, I was definitely feeling the weight of hiking all day with said lens hanging at my side.

Aside: I used a Luma Loop throughout the trip and will never ever use any other strap. It is the perfect strap, leaving the camera hanging comfortably in the most natural reach-and-grab position I could imagine while also staying out of the way when shooting. Brilliant addition to anyone’s kit.

I actually didn’t bring a tripod, knowing that we would be moving around on a regular basis and it would just be a pain. The combination of excellent image stabilization with the high ISO performance of the T1i meant I could get away with it.

Moon (400mm, f/5.6, 1/80th, ISO: 200)

One night, I was standing on the top deck of the boat under the moon and asked, “I wonder if I can photograph the moon”.

So, I grabbed my camera and did.

This image was taken from the top deck of a moving ship with a handheld camera.

Unbelievable. I’m still amazed that the technology has evolved so much that someone with relatively little clue can pull off an image like that.

Note that when shooting the moon, I have found that you pretty much have to put the camera in full manual mode. Lock the ISO at 200, go for about a 1/80th of a second exposure and leave the aperture as wide open as possible — the moon is relatively flat from N bazillion miles away, after all).

Galapagos Fly Catcher (Myiarchus magnirostris) Stares Back
Fly Catcher (275mm, f/5.6, 1/1000th, ISO: 250)

The 100-400mm lens can both focus closely enough and is sharp enough that it can be used as a sort of long range macro lens or long range portrait lens.

This little Fly Catcher (maybe 4″ tall) was pretty far away, hanging out near the top of a tree. It let me grab one frame in this pose before flitting off somewhere else.

The result is pretty darned good! Sharp, with pleasant background blur.

And that particular image was a crop of about 1/5th of the original frame.

All in all, the Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS USM Lens worked flawlessly on the Galapagos trip and enabled me to capture many wonderful and memorable pictures that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Since the trip, the lens developed a fault with the image stabilizer. The IS would kick in and make the image “jump” every second, eventually crashing and causing the camera to show an error. Canon is repairing it under warranty and I’m entirely confident I’ll have a fully working copy of the lens back shortly.

Alternatively, the 70-200mm f/2.8L
lens is absolutely fantastic (and one that I’ll get someday) and combined with the 2x extender
, it probably would have performed well, though not as sharp as the 100-400. As I have the 100mm f/2.8 macro, I already had a “fast” lens in that range that works exceptionally well. Having the longer reach of the 400mm and the larger aperture in the mid-range of the 100-400mm was ultimately the deciding factor. That and also that the 70-200 + extender would have been nearly $1,000 more expensive!

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5 Responses to “Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM Lens”

  1. tfrey says:

    Great timing on this post. I’m just looking for my first L series glass and you mentioned the two I’m looking at. I was leading towards the 70-200mm f/2.8L, as we do a lot of sports and most things are in reasonable distance. Any opinions on one over the other? I don’t have any other fast lenses, so was thinking the 70-200 would give me more utility.

  2. bbum says:

    If you don’t need the 400mm’s reach, get the 70-200mm. The 70-200mm lens is, by far, the most positively reviewed piece of glass Canon makes. It is a stunning lens. I look forward to owning one some day.

  3. jpo says:

    Awesome shots. Any thoughts on the merits of the zoom vs. a fixed-length lens at the long end of the spectrum for this type of trip? It looks like most of your shots are from the 400mm end of the range.

  4. bbum says:

    Well…. your choices (assuming genuine Canon lenses) are 400mm f/2.8L @ ~$7,000, 400mm f/4L @ ~$5,000, or 400mm f/5.6L @ ~$1,200. The 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L comes in around $1,600. I would expect the f/5.6 prime (fixed length) to be a bit sharper, maybe. But for ~$400, the added flexibility was worth it.

    If I had a bottomless well of cash, I would have jumped on the 400mm f/2.8L in a heartbeat. Of course, the 600mm or 800mm primes would have been pretty attractive, too, if money were no matter (nearly $20,000 in lenses between the two).

  5. Eric L. says:

    I have a Canon T1i, and I’m trying to figure out which lens to get the EF 700-200mm f/2.8l IS ll usm, or the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6l IS usm. I’m primarily going to use it for my sons soccer games, but will also use it for wildlife, and distant mountain shots. If you HAD to pick one, which one would you buy? I’m only going to buy one or the other. Thanks!

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