Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM
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December 15, 2011
by Andrew Alexander
In August 2010, Canon announced the next iteration in its super telephoto primes; the 300mm and 400mm ƒ/2.8 II lenses. These optics appeal to nature, wildlife and sports photographers, and the new lenses feature updated technology with these users in mind.
The 400mm ƒ/2.8 lens was designed to fit on the EF (35mm) frame, and is therefor compatible with all of Canon's recent film and digital bodies. On a camera equipped with an APS-C sensor, the lens will offer an equivalent field of view of 640mm.
The lens accepts 52mm drop-in filters, and ships with the ET-155(WII) lens hood. The lens is available now for around $11,000.
With the price tag of this lens, you would expect top-tier results - and pleasantly, there's no surprise here. On either the sub-frame Canon 7D or the full-frame Canon 1Ds mkIII, we noted excellent results for sharpness from ƒ/2.8 all the way to ƒ/8. At ƒ/11 diffraction limiting starts to set in, but even then there's no practical impact on sharpness until ƒ/16, where there is a very slight reduction in overall sharpness. Things are slightly soft at ƒ/22, and while the lens will stop down to ƒ/32, we note quite soft results at this aperture.
Again, results for tolerance to chromatic aberration are excellent, with extremely low testing results. Looking at our sample images, I'm hard-pressed to see any form of color fringing in high-contrast areas.
On the sub-frame 7D, there is no corner shading to speak of at all with the 400mm ƒ/2.8 II mounted; on the full-frame 1Ds mkIII, there is a slight amount of corner shading with the lens set to ƒ/2.8; in this case, the extreme corners are just under a half-stop darker than the center.
Canon has clearly spent a lot of time on the design of this lens: on a subframe body such as the 7D, there is no distortion to speak of. On the full-frame 1Ds Mark III, there is a slight amount of pincushion distortion in the corners.
The 400mm ƒ/2.8 II focuses extremely fast, and also very quietly. As a USM lens, you can override focus results at any time by just turning the focus ring. The lens is also equipped with a focus preset system, which allows the lens to ''memorize'' a given focus distance, and return to that focus distance when the dedicated present ring is tapped. The lens also is equipped with a focus limiter switch, enabling the focus performance to be improved by limiting the range of distance being focused upon. Focus limiting options are 2.7m to 7m, 7m to infinity, and 2.7m to infinity (this represents an improvement of 30cm for the close-focusing distance over the previous version of the lens). There are several focus 'hold' buttons on the front collar of the lens.
If that's not enough, the new lens now includes a PF ''power focus'') mode, which is designed for use with video shooting. The mode is designed for constant speed focus pulling, and there are two speeds available in this mode.
Out of the box, the 400mm ƒ/2.8 isn't very useful for macro style shooting, offering just 0.17x magnification and a minimum focusing distance of 2.7 meters (just under nine feet). However, with extension tubes the lens could be used reasonably well in this capacity.
Build Quality and Handling
The 400mm ƒ/2.8L IS II USM epitomizes the saying of something being ''built like a tank''. Like all L-series glass, the 400mm is dust- and weather-resistant, built with great attention to detail. The lens ships in a hard case about the size of a trunk, complete with a padded interior, and given the price of this lens, it is indeed a welcome part of the kit. The trunk even has cupholder-like cutouts for teleconverters. There's no front cap for this lens - rather, there is a leather-like lens hood to protect the whole front half of the lens.
At over 13 inches in length, and widening to over six inches in diameter, the lens is very large and is properly used on a sturdy tripod. Given the weight of the lens - eight and a half pounds - hand-holding it is best done in moderation. Given the weight of the lens, handling the camera-lens combination is best done from the lens, as the weight will provide serious strain to the body mount. The lens features strap lugs for just this purpose.
The lens offers a recessed and windowed distance scale marked in feet and inches. A depth-of-field marker is not provided, and nor is there an infrared index. Given the focal length of this lens, this is hardly a surprise (the depth-of-field for any aperture even fully stopped-down at ƒ/32 would be hard to register on such a limited scale). The lens uses a new optical design: 16 elements in 12 groups, including 2 fluorite elements. It uses nine rounded blades to form the aperture, instead of eight standard blades, so we should be seeing some nicer results for out of focus elements.
The focus ring on the lens is hard to miss, being a generous three inches in width. The ring is composed of raised rubber ribs and has very nice feel, with a ''stepped'' design that feels good in the hand. Its smooth operation makes manual focusing very easy. The turning radius is the around 180 degrees and ends in soft stops on the close-focus and infinity ends. The will focus past infinity. As a USM lens, you can override autofocus results by turning the lens at anytime. The lens uses 52mm drop-in filters, so front element rotation isn't an issue (nor would you want to use front-mounted filters - it's a huge element) and a glass filter that can accept gels is included: others, including a polarizing filter, are available separately.
There are an impressive amount of switches and buttons at the disposal of the shooter, the majority of which are inset into two command panels along the left side of the lens barrel. While we did not have the opportunity to test the previous version of this lens, on the 300mm ƒ/2.8, this was a welcome change from a single group where all the controls are grouped together. The group closer to the lens mount deals with focus: the focus mode selection (AF / MF / PF) and the focus limiter selection, leaving the focus preset, and image stabilization selection switches in the second group's location a bit futher down the lens barrel. I think this change alone will make the lens much easier to get up to speed with, as the user will not have to check the side of the lens as often to make a quick change.
Given the weight of the lens (8.5 pounds) there is some discussion about the usefulness of image stabilization; there is only so long that most of us are going to hand-hold such a lens. The image stabilization system on the 400mm ƒ/2.8L is designed to work with tripods as well, especially useful as even on a tripod camera shake can be a problem with such a long focal length. Image stabilization comes in three flavors: modes 1, 2 and 3, which allows stabilization to be introduced to counteract movement in both directions (mode 1) or just in the vertical, or for panning actions (mode 2). Mode 3 is designed for shooting ''irregularly moving subjects.'' The practical implication for this mode is that the image stabilization system is only active during the time the exposure is made. Normally when using image stabilization there is a very brief moment where the system starts up; in theory, using mode 3 would mean that the user won't even see the effect in use, because of mirror blackout.
There has been some discussion about the focus preset system, in that the preset ring can be too easily depressed, leading to an inopportune re-focusing to the memory setting. Apparently it is possible to increase the friction of the switch to increase the pressure required to activate the system, but you'll have to take apart the panel to do so.
The 400mm ƒ/2.8 doesn't use a forward filter ring system, as the front element is huge. Instead, it employs a 52mm drop-in filter system, which can accept an internal polarizer as well as gelatin filters. The lens hood for the 400mm ƒ/2.8, the massive ET-155, is a plastic cylinder, 6 1/2 inches long by 7 inches wide. It attaches by means of a rotating locking knob. Don't lose this: it will set you back just under $600 if you need a new one!
The lens comes equipped with a rotating tripod mount, which features click-stops at ninety degree positions. The lens includes two tripod feet: a larger tripod foot with 1/4'' and 3/8'' size sockets, and a smaller foot that can replace the larger foot for use with monopods, with only a single 1/4'' socket. As well, the lens has a security slot under a flap on the tripod locking knob to allow you to use a wire type lock (laptop style) to secure the lens to something immovable. Shooting with this lens demands some serious tripod legs to support the whole package. This is the high-class problem with owning anything expensive of high quality; the accessories to use them properly also expensive, as well, but are almost required to get optimum performance.
Speaking of accessories, some allow you to get closer to your subject in a variety of ways: the 400mm &131;/2.8 is compatible with Canon's EF12 and EF25 extension tubes, as well as 1.4x and 2x tele-extenders. With a 2x tele-extender attached, on a subframe body, the lens could produce an effective field of view of 1,280mm (but having a maximum aperture of ƒ/5.6).
At the time of writing, no other manufacturers produce a 400mm ƒ/2.8; the closest available is a 300mm ƒ/2.8.
Canon EF 400mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM ~$?
The former version of the 400mm ƒ/2.8 has now been discontinued, so the only place you're likely to find one is the used market. Make sure you're getting a good deal on one of these if you can't afford the version II, as the new version of the lens features a variety of technical improvements. We didn't have a chance to test the previous 400mm, but if it's the same case as the Canon 300mm, there is a noticeable improvement.
Canon EF 300mm ƒ/2.8L IS II USM ~$7,000
If you don't need the extra 100mm, you can save yourself $4,000 and get the 300mm instead: optically it provides the same excellent quality, and the same amazing control features as the 400mm, and is smaller and lighter at the same time.
Sigma 300mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG HSM APO ~$3,200
At less than half the price of the Canon, the Sigma 300mm ƒ/2.8 presents a very attractive option for shooters on a budget. However, there is an indication of what the extra price gets you: the Canon is better than the Sigma in almost every category except distortion, where the Sigma matches it. Where the lens really falls short is in the control options, where the Canon lens offers focus presets, image stabilization, and focus limiters.
There's not much to add here that the technical report doesn't make abundantly clear: for the price this lens commands, it provides the ultimate telephoto lens experience, with quality second to none, a feature set with a learning curve, and a suitcase to carry it in.
The VFA target should give you a good idea of sharpness in the center and corners, as well as some idea of the extent of barrel or pincushion distortion and chromatic aberration, while the Still Life subject may help in judging contrast and color. We shoot both images using the default JPEG settings and manual white balance of our test bodies, so the images should be quite consistent from lens to lens.
As appropriate, we shoot these with both full-frame and sub-frame bodies, at a range of focal lengths, and at both maximum aperture and ƒ/8. For the ''VFA'' target (the viewfinder accuracy target from Imaging Resource), we also provide sample crops from the center and upper-left corner of each shot, so you can quickly get a sense of relative sharpness, without having to download and inspect the full-res images. To avoid space limitations with the layout of our review pages, indexes to the test shots launch in separate windows.
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM User Reviews
10 out of 10 points and recommended by cmosbum (1 reviews)Tack Sharp, even with the 1.4x and 2X III TC'sPrice, Even Less Weight would be nice
The long wait was definitely worth it. I just got the lens and it matches my expectations based on Canon's MTF curves. Each of my Canon bodies (5DMkII & 7D) require microfocus adjustment to extract full sharpness down to f/2.8. I am stunned by how sharp this lens is with either of Canon's latest teleconverters (III). While the price should demand it, I'm feeling the fact that I now have a sharp 800mm lens is a bonus. Great job, Canon. Price, OUCH! Love the smaller sized case with its slots for the two teleconverters.reviewed September 5th, 2011 (purchased for $11,500)