G. Dan Mitchell: Thoughts About the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS Lens:
I’ve used the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS lens for a lot – for things as varied as handheld shooting of bicycle races and tripod-based shooting of landscapes. Over time I’ve developed a few thoughts about the performance of this lens and some of the comments that I frequently hear and read about it.
The performance at the long end is also an interesting topic about which experience has taught me a bit more. We often hear that the lens is “soft at 400mm.” However, when I shoot the lens in good conditions and am careful about what I do, it performs very well at 400mm. (I think that a very, very careful inspection at 400mm might reveal that 400mm is not the focal length at which its performance reaches its optimum level, but that is most certainly not to say that it is”soft” at 400mm or otherwise poor.)
So, what could explain the reports of poor or soft performance at 400mm? I suppose it is possible that I have a miraculous copy of the lens that doesn’t exhibit a problem that really does afflict lots of other users, but I’m convinced there are other explanations in at least quite a few cases. From using long focal lengths for critical work – again, I do a lot of landscape shooting – I have learned that there are a number of issues that become more acute when shooting at 400mm and which make it much harder to get a “sharp” image than might be the case with other lenses.
Like Dan, the 100-400 was my go to lens for a long time. It has had a lot of supporters over time as well as a lot of critics. It was the go-to lens of Art Morris for many years and he’s someone who won’t tolerate a lens that won’t hold up in the image quality department.
That said, I ultimately decided to retire it out of my kit (as did Art Morris) in favor of carrying other lenses.
In my tests, my 100-400 was acceptably sharp at 400mm. If you’re doing nature/wildlife type work or looking to start doing it at a reasonable cost, there aren’t many options in the Canon family that let you grow your lens capabilities out to 400mm at a reasonable cost. You can start out with a T4i body and kit lens and add the 100-400 and have a very powerful and flexible camera kit with full overage from wide angle to 400mm for $2600. That’s not cheap, but you aren’t going to get many useful pictures of birds if your camera kit stops at 200mm unless you visit a zoo.
Why did I retire my 100-400?
My last visit to Yosemite, it got dropped. Twice. Oops. But that trip wasn’t my most successful ever in many ways. The lens, however, ended up having to go in for repair with Canon twice. When I got it back the first time, it clearly was soft and not functioning right, and they found further problems with the zoom on the second repair.
When I got it back the second time, I did more tests with it, and found that it was — okay — but not as sharp as it was before I dropped it, but in discussion with Canon, it was clear that the repaired lens was within specs for sharpness.
While it was out for repair, I started shooting with the 300F4+1.4x teleconverter and found I really, really liked that combo. When I went and did pixel peeping sharpness tests against my 100-400 (using pre-breakage photos) I found the 300F4 setup to be noticeably sharper than the 100-400 at 400mm. Not too surprising, all things considered. I was considering upgrading my lenses anyway, and I ultimately decided to push the button on a couple of lens upgrades, the 24-105F5 and the 70-200F2.8IS.
So I now had a sharper lens in the 100-200 range, and I had a sharper lens that covered 300mm (at F4) and 420mm (at F5.6). And my lens kit was already really, really heavy — none of these lenses are small and light. I just didn’t see a reason to carry the 100-400, so I sold it off.
Going through this process taught me a lot about the 100-400 and I think that might explain some of the “softness” complaints about it. First, at 400mm it is softer than a dedicated 400mm prime (duh!) or the 300mmF4+1.4x. This should not surprising anyone that a $1500 zoom is softer than a $7000 prime, or the $1500 400mmF5.6 prime, yet putting the 100-400 against the F400F5.6 and declaring it not so sharp seems to be some of the source of this “softness” claim from my research.
This is a lens that can handle some abuse, but it is susceptible to being dropped (trust me), and being whacked out of alignment, and that alignment loss may not be obvious. In my case, the lens seemed to work fine, but beyond 340mm, I couldn’t get any sharpness. It’s likely there are lenses out there that need repair that users grumble at but haven’t figured out they’re off.
And, this is a lens that has been manufactured for a long time by Canon — it’s about a ten year old technology. In my experience with getting mine repaired, I think that Canon has gotten very good at building this lens to a consistent sharpness well beyond “the spec” — that our view of “acceptable sharpness” has changed during the lifetime of the product. Older and “well loved” versions of the lens are probably not as sharp as newer ones, but still might be within the specs. It wouldn’t surprise me if you grabbed half a dozen lenses built in the last 3-4 years and compared them in sharpness to lenses from the first 2-3 years of manufacturing that we’d see a statistically significant increase in sharpness with this lens. that’d explain a lot about some of the controversy over it’s sharpness, especially given the very good results many of us have seen with it.
(for an interesting take on this issue of product variability, check out Ctein on TOP).
So my take is that this “softness” criticism is a combination of unrealistic expectations (compare a 100-400 zoom against a 400mmF4DO and declare it not worthy? okay…), some of it is tied to this lens having been in production a long time, and the quality of this lens today is probably higher than when it was first released, and some of it is likely because this is a lens that I believe is susceptible to damage from rough handling that isn’t necessarily noticeable.
If you’re considering this lens, should you get it?
I think it’s an awesome lens. Almost everyone I know who’ve used it likes it (or loves it). There’s no reason not to buy this lens, but if you do, I’d be careful (and do sharpness testing) if it’s a used lens, just to make sure you know what you’re getting. It’s a lens that you should treat with respect (but you don’t need to treat it gingerly — mine took 5+ years of being slogged about before it got dropped enough to cause problems) especially when fully extended.
But before you buy it, there are other options to consider. If you already have lens coverage in the moderate telephoto range (say a 70-200), then this lens may not be the best choice. A great combo is the 24-105 and the 100-400. A not so great combo is 24-105, 70-200, 100-400. That’s a lot of glass to carry around with overlapping ranges.
So if you’re happy in the 100-200 range, Consider the 300F4+1.4x combo. That gets you 300F4 and 420F5.6, for about the same cost as the 100-400, and you’l find it’s sharper at 300 and 400mm. the 400F5.6 is cheaper than either the 100-400 or the 300+1.4x, but you lose the 300mm range. If you’re seriously looking at bird photography, though, you won’t need the 300mm range very often.
If you don’t mind spending somewhat more money, another option is what Art Morris is using instead of the 100-400: the 70-200F2.8ISII and a 2x tele. That combo will cost you around $2600 new (and probably $2300 used). Note that the 70-200F2.8IS isn’t sharp enough to do this, it has to be the ISII.
With all of these combos, realize these are big (and heavy) lenses. There are three disadvantages to my decision to carry the 70-200IS and 300F4 instead of the 100-400:
- The net cost of the lenses is about $1000 more than the 100-400.
- I’m carrying three lenses instead of two (including the 24-105), and they are not small lenses. that implies bigger bags and sagging shoulders at the end of a long day.
- You’ll spend more time swapping lenses, or going with a two-body camera kit. This is the essential advantage of zooms, and it’s the tradeoff we always have to make: convenience of a zoom vs. sharpness of a prime. That’s not going to go away any time soon.
I made a decision that the sharpness of the 300F4+1.4x was more important to me than the the convenience of the zoom. I don’t regret that one bit. But I also recognize it complicates my life and shooting a bit, and so I want to make sure you understand the tradeoff before you make that decision.
And at some point, I expect I’ll make the decision to upgrade to that 70-200ISII and retire the 300mm — but when I do, I expect I’ll also be seeing what I can do to stretch me gear out to 500mm or beyond, too. Just because when you do that kind of photography, whatever lens you have isn’t big enough…