Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM
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January 27, 2008
by Andrew Alexander
The Canon EF 400mm ƒ/5.6L USM was released in 1993, alongside other telephoto primes popular with wildlife and sports photographers. The 400mm ƒ/5.6 is often compared to the more recent 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L USM IS, the suggestion being that if you are always shooting at the 400mm range, it's better to go with the prime. Our review may help to shed some light on this decision.
The EF lens is compatible with both full-frame and cropped-frame Canon SLR cameras, though on the latter the lens will have an effective field of view of approximately 640mm. The lens features a built-in lens hood, and ships with a well-padded soft case. The lens retails for approximately $1,200.
The 400mm ƒ/5.6L USM produces sharp results - not tack-sharp, but certainly very good. Interpreting the results on our blur graphs is fairly easy and straightforward. On the 20D, images are evenly sharp at all apertures with the exception of ƒ/32 where it becomes just slightly uneven. Results are essentially identical between ƒ/5.6, ƒ/8 and ƒ/11, at 2 blur units across the frame. Diffraction limiting sets in at ƒ/16, but the effects are only slightly obvious on the charts; it isn't until ƒ/22 and ƒ/32 that there are obvious degradations in image sharpness.
The lens is a bit more challenging to the full-frame sensor of the 5D. Performance related to sharpness in the central region of the image is consistent with what we noted in our 20D test results - essentially even all the way to ƒ/32 and optimal between ƒ/5.6, ƒ/8 and ƒ/11. However, corner softness is evident on the full-frame sensor, most prominently at ƒ/8 where the corners are 1 blur unit softer than the center. A difference of one blur unit is fairly difficult for the eye to detect, so my suggestion here is to look at our sample images and determine whether this is objectionable to you.
In summary, very good performance for sharpness, especially considering the age of the design, and the fact that the lens uses only 7 elements.
Canon's L-class lenses typically offer excellent resistance to chromatic aberration, and the 400mm ƒ/5.6L is no exception. On both the sub-frame 20D and full-frame 5D, CA performance is practically identical: at no time do we detect more than 3/100ths of a percent of frame height of chromatic aberration. If you are really concerned about CA, performance is better with the lens wide open at ƒ/5.6 and gets very slightly poorer as you stop down.
With the 400mm ƒ/5.6L mounted on the sub-frame 20D, we detect no practical corner shading at any aperture. On the full-frame 5D, there is a slight degree of light falloff when set to ƒ/5.6; specifically, the corners are a quarter-stop darker than the center.
The 400mm ƒ/5.6L is well optimized to produce distortion-free images. According to our distortion test there is some evidence of pincushion distortion in the corners, but it's negligible on sub-frame sensors and barely significant on full-frame.
With its USM focusing system, the 400mm focuses almost instantly, and makes almost no noise in doing so. Autofocus results can be overridden by just turning the focus ring at any time. The lens 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 3.5m to infinity or 8.5m to infinity.
With a magnification ratio of 0.11x (1:8.3) and a close-focusing distance of 11 1/2 feet (3.5 meters), this is not a lens you want to turn to for macro work.
Build Quality and Handling
The 400mm ƒ/5.6L is built with great attention to detail, however, does not feature the dust- and weather-resistant gaskets of newer Canon L-class lenses. The lens offers a recessed and windowed distance scale marked in feet and meters. A depth-of-field reference is provided, but only for ƒ/32, and there is an infrared index mark. There are two command switches: a 2-stage focus limiter switch (3.5m-infinity or 8.5m-infinity), and a Autofocus/Manual Focus selector.
Interestingly, the lens features dual manual focusing rings. The first ring, positioned closer to the mount of the lens, is larger at 1 1/4 inches wide. The second, mounted on the same plane as the built-in lens hood, is smaller at 5/8'' wide. Both are composed of a soft rubber with raised bars than run parallel to the lens' length. Both rings have a very nice feel, and with a travel of almost 150 degrees through the focus range. The rings' smooth operation makes manual focusing very easy. The spectrum of focus between closest and infinity ends at a hard stop, and it is possible to focus past infinity.
As one would expect from a lens of this caliber, the front element does not turn during focus operations. The front lens element accepts 77mm filters. The hood for the lens is built-in, sliding forward and locking into position with a clockwise turn. The hood's interior is composed of a velvet-style flocking, and when extended the hood will add three inches to the lens' overall length.
The lens comes equipped with a rotating tripod mount, which can easily be removed. Unfortunately there is only one alignment mark. A quality tripod is an almost mandatory accessory for long-term shooting with this lens.
Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS USM ~$1,700
The 100-400mm has two obvious advantages over the 400mm ƒ/5.6 prime: image stabilization, offering up to two stops of additional hand-held usage, and the versatility of a zoom lens. However, our experience with the 100-400mm shows there is a fair amount of sample variation with this lens. A good copy is very good, but it did take us four samples to get one. The 400mm ƒ/5.6 prime is indeed sharper, especially when shot wide open; not by much, but by just enough. Other traits are also better controlled by the 400mm prime: CA is lower, distortion is better controlled and there is practically no corner shading.
Canon EF 400mm ƒ/4 DO IS USM ~$5,500
We haven't tested other Canon L-glass in the 400mm category, but if you have the means to afford it, and a quality tripod to use it (it weights 4.3 pounds) it could provide amazing images. Curiously, the other lens in this series, the Canon EF 400mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM is available for not much more - $6,600. That lens weighs over 11 pounds.
Sigma 120-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 DG OS HSM APO ~$850
Our tests show that the strengths of this lens lie in the wider-angle end of its zoom spectrum; at 400mm, it becomes soft at ƒ/5.6, and you only get acceptable sharpness by stopping down to ƒ/11. Results for CA degrade as you approach 400mm, and there is some notable light falloff when used on full-frame. Distortion is well-controlled. It is optically-stabilized, and accepts 77mm filters.
Tokina 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 AT-X 840 AF D ~$650
We haven't tested this lens, but for the sake of rounding out your options we are including it here.
There's not much more to add that our tests haven't already shown. The lens performs well, perhaps not up to the level that more recent Canon lenses have, but considering the age of its design it still works extremely well. Image stabilization would be a welcome addition to the lens, given the temptation to use it hand-held. If you don't need the larger apertures of the 400mm ƒ/4 or 400mm ƒ/2.8, this is a very convenient and relatively economical lens.
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.
We've determined that we won't be shooting VFA target tests with lenses over 300mm, as we can't get quality results out of our current lab setup. In short: we just can't back up far enough...
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/5.6L USM User Reviews
9 out of 10 points and recommended by Revup67 (1 reviews)Great Wildlife lens, economical, very sharp, built in lens hood, limiter, lightweight 400Lack of IS (obecjtionable), not weather or dust resistant
I use this lens at least 3 times a week. 95% of the time hand held and for hours on end with a Canon 5D Mk III or Canon 7D. I hike with this lens quite a bit. I'm 54 years old and have no issues hauling this around all day. My primary use of the lens is for birding but sometimes other wildlife such as fox, rabbits, coyotes, etc. It is important to note that you must be able to exploit the features of your camera in order to get this lens to work optimumly. By that I mean knowing ISO, AI Servo, and shutter speed. I did take a while for me (mostly birds) to find what worked best. For the Canon 5D Mark III with this 400mm..I'm almost always on ISO Auto unless I know there's sufficient light in almost all scenarios then I might set it to 400 or slightly less but a static setting. if there's going to be shaded areas, then Auto ISO it is as its one less thing to worry about. Rarely do I go below 800 on shutter but 1250-1600 is my norm and almost always at 5.6 for max light. The Exposure depending on lighting ranges between -1/3 with a mostly white birds and +2.5 if a subject is backlit. I never use a UV filter. For AI Servo, the case settings I use are 2,5 and 6 depending on the bird. The lens was calibrated with Reikal's software so it is spot on. The tripod foot is off 95% of the time to reduce weight and therefore you are working with an unobstructed barrel. I have found this lens sometimes has a hard time finding the subject if a bird is off in the distance on a branch with minimal contrast. MF in this scenario is a must so get to know this lens without having to look at it is a plus as every second counts with wildlife. Take lots of shots as there will be about 30%-50% throw aways. I bought this lens over the 100-400 as when using the latter I was always on that range, 400mm. I've gotten some amazing shots in the two years I've owned the lens they can be seen here on flickr - http://www.flickr.com/revup67reviewed June 8th, 2013 (purchased for $1,150)
8 out of 10 points and recommended by Leo (2 reviews)Light, build-in hood, very nice IQ, nice Bokeh, cheap, 800 euro for a second handNo IS, F5.6 with extenders makes it F8.0
Never liked the EF 300 MM F4.0, the EF 100-400 mm was already better. But the 400 MM F5.6L surprised me. The IQ is very very good. For a short time I have had the EF 400 F2.8 ISL. The IQ of that lens is out of this world, as is the weight. You need a truck to get where you want to take your photo's. That is for professionals in sport or for bird watchers standing in one place whole day. That is not my cup of tea.reviewed September 10th, 2012 (purchased for $1,000)
I bought this lens and took it out for a walk in the park. With a monopod. I could walked for hours, the lens is light. Much lighter then the 100-400, but you can walk around with that zoom. I set my 5D mark II on autoiso, something I normally do not do. Always on AV. But the camera did not go under 1/320 second and you need that fast shutter time. I tried a couple of photo's without the monopod and it goes very well with auto iso with a some misses. Hand held makes you very very aware of the shutter time.
But coming home and seeing the results, WOW! The 300 F4.0 and the 100-400 mm never gave me a WoW effect, this lens does. I do have to get used working without IS, but with a monopod you are flexibel and with a tripod you have a super lens.
9 out of 10 points and recommended by cpe1991 (5 reviews)Sharp, relatively light, very fast autofocus, reasonable price.Lack of IS
I bought this lens to complement my 70-200mm f/4 L IS for birdwatching. It made me appreciate so much the 4-stop IS on the zoom. The 400mm attached to a Canon has the image wandering all over the place in my shaky hands. At 1/2000s, however, I get superbly sharp shake-free images handheld.reviewed February 24th, 2012 (purchased for $1,050)
Why doesn't Canon make this lens with IS? The IS 400mm lenses are too expensive and are too heavy for hand-held use by us mortals.
The lack of IS is an issue for hand-held use for many shots when the light is low - the level of noise when turning up the iso makes the images unacceptable when cropping just the centre to blow up a distant bird. Because of this, I have now traded the 400mm prime in for a 100-400mm L. It is just as sharp in the centre and has other advantages of a good two-stop IS and packs up small for packing for travel.
The 400mm prime is a good sharp lens, but it can't be scored a 10 when measured against the far more expensive f/2.8 telephotos.
10 out of 10 points and recommended by Sanjeed (5 reviews)a. Lightweight b. Affordable c. Sharp d. Fast autofocusa. Lack of weather sealing
This is the ultimate best birding lens for hobbyist photographers. I agree, in theory the EF 300mm f/4L IS + 1.4x extender should be better but actually it isn't as per users' opinions.reviewed January 23rd, 2011
I have owned this lens for 17 months and shot thousands of images with it mounted on my EOS 450D and EOS 50D. It has never failed to deliver the goods. The bad images were due to my incompetence, not fault of this lens.
Issue of being non-IS is a non-issue to seasoned photogs. This technology came into being only years ago. Before that photogs captured excellent images with tele lenses. When it comes to capturing high quality images in low light; the higher end pro lenses have a role to play. However, hobbyists don’t enter thick forests every other day or shoot in dim lights regularly unlike the pros. Therefore, this is the lens that would deliver the goods every time a hobbyist shoots with it and I defend this notion as a user.
10 out of 10 points and recommended by ken billington (4 reviews)light in weight, excellent optical performance, fast focusing, sharp images, good vignetting performance
Advantagesreviewed December 6th, 2010
1. Light in Weight - the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM Lens is light in weight compared to the other Canon telephoto lenses . This is a huge advantage for bird photography, easy to maneuver when taking flight shots, not too tiring when trekking.
2. Excellent Optical Performance - as a member of the Canon L Lens Series, the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM Lens' overall optical performance is outstanding.
3. Fast focusing - thanks to the Ultrasonic Motor (USM), the 400 f/5.6 L internally focuses very fast and very quietly.
4. Sharp Images - the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM Lens performs superbly in the sharpness department. Even wide open, the 400 f/5.6 produces very sharp images.
5. Good Vignetting Performance - even the corners of full fame shots remain evenly colored without displaying any tendency to vignetting.
1. Image Stabilisation - one of the compromises of this budget lens is that it doesn't have image stabilisation (IS). It can still be very successful for "handheld" or so-called "grab-shots" provided that a short exposure time and/or a higher ISO is used. When used together with the high quality EOS DSLR's recently introduced by Canon, this disadvantage can be compensated.
2. Water Resistance - another disadvantage of this lens is that it isn't 100% water resistant like its more expensive cousins.
The Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM Lens is hugely successful for bird and wildlife photography and especially for flight shots. It offers a good level of performance at a relatively low price.
Check out my photos on http://kenbillington.ch/photobank/
9 out of 10 points and recommended by PhilUKNet (8 reviews)Reasonable price, reasonable weight, great image quality, fast and accurate AFNo IS, minimum focusing distance not that close
In theory the EF 300mm f/4L IS lens plus an EF 1.4x extender should be a better choice than the EF 400mm f/5.6L lens. Instead of just 400mm @ f/5.6, you get 300mm @ f/4 OR 420mm @f/5.6 PLUS Image Stabilisation.reviewed May 7th, 2010 (purchased for $1,360)
That's the theory. In practice, it didn't work out for me because the EF 300mm f/4L IS lens I owned never really delivered the results I was expecting. I sold it and bought the EF 400mm f/5.6L.
So far, this lens has exceeded all my expectations. The image quality is very good, and with small subjects I think the limiting factor is my 40D's sensor. I'm sure the extra pixel density of a 7D will help, and that will probably be my next acquisition.
Autofocus is accurate and very quick. The image quality is still perfectly acceptable with the Canon EF 1.4x extender but - of course - autofocus ceases to function on bodies other than 1-Series cameras.
When using an extender, manual focusing using Live View works adequately but the process is slow and not really suitable for photographing birds. The lens isn't too bad for hand-holding but after a few hours my forearms start to ache a little.
The biggest drawback is the lack of IS. After using lenses with the latest IS, it is something that I miss very much. I feel happier using the lens on a tripod but it isn't possible all the time.
I won't get into the EF 400mm f/5.6L vs the EF 100-400mm L zoom lens debate because I've never used the 100-400mm.
My buying decision was based on the theory that with the zoom I would probably be using it at 400mm most of the time. The prime was cheaper, and probably sharper - although I know some people say it isn't.
I'd love an updated version with better optics and four-stop Image Stabilisation. When/If Canon announce that lens I will upgrade, but until that happens I am happy with the old version.
It can be used for portraits or compressed landscapes, but I would imagine that most people (including myself) use it for wildlife, especially bird photography.
A few image samples at:
9 out of 10 points and recommended by Wojtek (8 reviews)Evenly sharp throughout the frame, good contrastlack of IS
For the image overall quality I'd give it a slight edge over the Canon's 400mm f/4 DO IS USM, however, more versatile is the DO brand, mainly because it has the image stabilizer. Such a relatively slow lens should have IS. The results of my tests are described on http://pikespeakphoto.com/tests/canonlens400.html (click 'back' and check its performance with the 2x Extender, if you like). It performs well with teleconverters. Personally I don't like the permanently attached hood (that darkens edges with some teleconverters), which most of the time adds only on a dead weight.reviewed February 9th, 2009 (purchased for $1,000)
10 out of 10 points and recommended by upnorthfar (3 reviews)sharp, lightweight, built in hoodno IS
Handheld it takes about 1/250s. minimum to succeed with tacksharp photos. 1/400s. is safer. With tripod anything is possible. For a wildlife photographer on a budget this is it. Pros use it for birds in flight. Amazingly compact, lightweight and balanced to use. Built in hood is a big plus.reviewed September 24th, 2008 (purchased for $1,000)
10 out of 10 points and recommended by Badmono (15 reviews)Light, Sharp, Great IQCost compared to Sigma 400F5.6 which is its equal for 1/7th of the price
I loved this lens I owned it for 4 years, the only reason I sold it was my mate was selling his Sigma 400 F5.6 which I knew was as good as my canon, we had done some serious comparisons between the 2 lenses.reviewed September 5th, 2008 (purchased for $650)
I bought his sigma for £90 [A steal] and sold my canon for £580 on ebay. I put the surplus £490 into the kitty to buy a Canon 400 F2.8 IS L. Which I've recently bought. so Now I own the ultimate Canon 400, for Action and Wildlife. and a Fantastic Sigma 400 for my Hiking & Skiing Hol's
But back to the canon 400F5.6 lens - I would thoroughly recommend it. But for the cheapskates out there buy the Sigma, you won't regret that either.
10 out of 10 points and recommended by chrcapi (8 reviews)outstanding optical quality, superbly fast AF, very easy to handlenone
This is a great lens, it simply performs flawlessly in every situation. Its optical quality is outstanding, and with pro-grade SLRs you can use it with 1,4x extender by maintaining a good quality and AF. AF is lightning fast and accurate; the focus limiter is useful. The build quality is really good: my lens still survives, after years of demanding usage and some... abuse! It isn't sealed, unlike more recent L class lenses. This prime is very well designed: easy to handle, it features a built-in lens hood that I've always found really useful. The lens collar is sturdy and very well built, but I'd like the possibility to lock at 90° and 0° the lens within its collar, with the help of some preset lock system.reviewed December 3rd, 2006 (purchased for $1,000)
An upgrade of this lens could be a good idea, if it would bring IS, a better lens collar and last generation sealing techniques. Anyhow, IS could be not such interesting on APS-c cameras, where the 400mm focal length is equivalent to 640mm, making hand-held photography nearly impossible: rely on a good tripod, instead. On the other hand, IS design would be more complex, getting the lens heavier and probably making worse its optical quality.
10 out of 10 points and recommended by ddesimoni (12 reviews)sharp, light weight (as compared to 2.8 or 4.0), built in hoodno focus with 1.4 canon extender.
Great lens, purchased it used and every lens I tested prior we're equally sharp.reviewed November 18th, 2006 (purchased for $950)
the only disappointment was when using a 1.4 canon extender and the focus mechanism is disabled
10 out of 10 points and recommended by Ross T (4 reviews)Extremely SHARP...Lightweight!!None
A FANTASTIC Lens...Extremely SHARP...Lightweight...I've had mine for over 10 yrs...Very Fast Autofocus....Very Happy with this Lens!!reviewed October 13th, 2006
10 out of 10 points and recommended by Mlr8081 (3 reviews)Compact and beautiful image qualitynone
I live in the Yellowstone area and this is my "normal" lens. Used on a Canon 20D at ISO 100 - 400 depending on light, the image quality is sublime.reviewed November 2nd, 2005 (purchased for $1,069)
The images are tack sharp with great color rendition and pleasing bokeh. I almost always use F5.6 and have never seen a trace of softness in any image that wasn't related to motion.
I don't try to handhold this lens although I frequently rest it on the car window or fender with great results.
The built in lens hood us another great plus. Very functional and convenient. This lens is built tough to last.
10 out of 10 points and recommended by mdbassman (5 reviews)Exceptionally Sharp! Light in Comaprisonnone at this time
Exceptionally sharp and crisp images from this lens. Relatively lightweight compared to 500-600 and IS lenses(my 300 mm). very happy with this lens.reviewed November 2nd, 2005 (purchased for $950)
10 out of 10 points and recommended by photographist (2 reviews)Sharp, Bokeh, versatility and weightNo major (5.6 isn't great, but doesn't hinder either)... IS would be nice
The Canon 400 mm, f5.6 L Prime Lens is a fine example of the cream of Canon’s lens crop. It is one of my favorite lenses, and combined with the Canon 1d Mk2, it’s makes a formidable toolset. (For the record: I work with both Canon and Nikon lines in my work, so I do have a fairly wide swatch of experience. My preference for one piece of equipment is based more on the occasion, then a brand.)reviewed October 20th, 2005
I use the 400 for both birding and micro-scape/landscape photography, and the lens excels at allowing the creation of superb images in both areas! In fact, the 400 is “stored” on the Mk II body and is my normal lens for that rig. My overall impression is that the lens is quite lite for it’s focal length, yet the quality of the images are wonderful. I’ve seldom experienced any CA, and that has been under the most extreme circumstances. The lens is sharp from wide-open to fully stopped down. I primarily use the range from f5.6 to f 9, and the images are usually razor sharp. When they’re not, it’s my fault, not the rigs!
More important to me is the quality of the image. A lens can be sharp but cold in the images it produces. The 400 produces sharp images with a wonderful, smooth bokeh. Though I use a tripod as much as I can, I don’t hesitate to use this rig freehand either. Those of you who work with birds, know the importance of being able to move quickly and respond to the changing mood and behavior of the subject. The 400 enables this flexibility well. The tripod mount is solid and it utilizes a “turn and pull” release mechanism.
To sum it up, I highly recommend this lens for anyone who is serious about birding. It’s not cheap, nor is it anywhere near the cost of it’s larger and more expensive siblings. Frankly, IS would be nice, but if it’d cost any of the characteristics of the current version of the 400… forget it!
Feel free to write with any questions or thoughts you may have.