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Showing its age, but well worth the money
Written: Mar 24, 2009
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:Typical "L" quality standards, and a very usable focal length. Great for cropped frame bodies.
Cons:Dated design, lack of weather sealing, heavy, and expensive.
The Bottom Line:
This is a great speacialized lens for the landscape/wildlife photographer, and is likely to be very good for the sports photographer as well.
Canon is known for their world class "L" Series optics, and the reputation is well deserved. In fact, it was that red line on the end of the lenses that drove me to choose Canon over Nikon. My initial purchase included three "L" Series lenses (17-40mm f/4L, 24-70 f/2.8L, and the 70-200mm f/4L) and a 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 to round it all out. For a year this has served me very well, and has allowed me to capture a wide range of subjects, however, as most photographers end up doing, I wanted more than I had.
My want for more, was not that I am a techno junky, but rather there were specific needs that I was developing that weren't able to be addressed by my current collection of lenses. On of these shortcomings was my telephoto reach. With my 70-200mm, I was able to get a fair amount of reach, but when it came to wildlife photography, and even some sunrises/sunsets, I was wanting more reach. I had a couple of options available to me, that I spent some time researching.
My first option was to invest a couple hundred dollars in an extender that would increase my 200mm reach by 1.4x, but with a stop's worth of light loss. Being that my camera body is a Canon 40D with a 1.6x cropped frame, I was already getting to 320mm in 35mm terms. I would have elevated my reach to 600mm on the long end which was very respectable.
Another option was to invest in a 400mm prime lens. The cost was about the same as the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L, but was limited to one focal length. Being a landscape photographer, I value having zoom lenses over primes for exacting control over my compositions.
My last choice was the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L zoom lens. This lens had several things going for it over the prime. The very wide zoom range (allowing for a 640mm focal length in 35mm terms) gave me a lot of flexibility when it came to what kind of subjects I could use this lens on. At the wide end, this could actually be a decent lens for grand landscapes at a distance. Throughout the zoom range, I could capture wildlife and very intimate portions of the landscape. In addition, the zoom lens had the benefit of having Image Stabilization built in, while the prime did not. This is a necessity for handholding a telezoom lens in my opinion.
The only decision that was left was to decide between the extender and the new zoom lens. There was a lot of difference in price, but not much difference in focal length reach. I read reviews that went both ways as far as which setup gave the best quality image. Even that was a toss up. The decision came down to one aspect of the telezoom that actually gets mixed reviews....the push/pull zoom. This actually sounded like a good idea to me for wildlife photography. I'll get into that more in a minute.
What's in the box?
As with all of Canon's products, the packaging is great with lots of protection. For those that are familiar with the "L" Series lenses, you will know that the "L" stands for luxury, and these lenses come with all sorts of nice additions. Included in the box is a very high quality Canon lens case that is padded, zippered, and has a belt loop on the back. This case can be used to store the lens, or even take it into the field. There is a lens hood, which fits on the front of the lens via a bayonet mount. Of course, there is warranty documentation, as well as a very well written instruction manual.
As I said, the "L" Series lenses are known for their optical quality, and they are also known for their build quality. While this is an older design lens, it is still very well built. There are some things that could stand to be updated, but overall, this is a solid piece of equipment. The lens mount is metal, and attaches to Canon bodies that take an EF mount lens. One of the shortcomings on this lens is here at the mount. While the newer "L" lenses all come with a rubber gasket that seals the lens to the camera body, this one does not. It mounts like a standard EF-S (digital only) lens. While this will not likely cause the average user any problems, it is something to keep in mind if you shoot a lot in inclement conditions.
Moving forward on the lens, you will see two sets of switches on the left side of the lens. The first set is for the auto focus, and there are two switches that control that. The first one sets the focus to either manual or auto/manual. In manual mode, you control the focus, and there is no input from the camera's AF system. If auto is selected, the lens will auto focus on the point chosen by the photographer, and you can fine tune the focus manually after focus has locked. This will not harm the clutch mechanisms within the lens, and is how it is designed to work. Below that switch is the distance preset. While this is not a mandatory selection it will make auto focusing much quicker since the lens will know if the subject will be close or far away.
The other bank of switches deal with the IS (Image Stabilization). There is a toggle that turns this feature on or off, and another one that tells what mode the IS will be operating in. In mode "1", the IS works in both the up and down and side to side modes, correcting for camera shake. Mode "2" will allow for panning and will sense which direction the panning is taking place and not correct on that axis, but will still steady on the other axis. Here is another example where this lens shows its age. The IS is not as good as the current generation IS systems in Canon's lenses. While the newer ones are good for about 3-stops of correction, this one will only allow 2 stops of slower shutter speed. This is still better than no IS at all.
In the area of the switches, you will find the tripod ring, which comes standard with this lens. When you pick it up, you will understand why it comes with a ring. I would not recommend mounting this lens to a camera that is mounted to a tripod. The weight of the lens will put too much pressure on the tripod mount. By mounting the lens instead of the camera body, the weight is very well balanced, and you will actually have a very stable platform. An added benefit here is the ability to rotate the lens/camera from landscape to portrait orientation without changing the lens' position. Just loosen a screw and rotate the lens however you need to.
Next on our tour is the feature that made me decide to get this lens. The zoom is not a ring like is on most other zoom lenses. On this lens it is a push/pull design, meaning that the front portion of the lens actually slides over the rear portion when it is at the wide (100mm) focal length. You slide the lens forward to zoom it in, which makes for very easy control. There is a ring that adjusts the tension of the zoom that gives a very good range of adjustment. The focus ring is right in front of the tension adjustment ring which I have found to work out very well. I usually use full manual focusing, and with my hands on the focus ring, I can rotate for focus and push/pull for zoom. My hand never has to leave that part of the lens. Ahead of the focus ring is the much thicker rubber faux ring that is designed to be the zoom hold. This works well for auto focus times, but I still like my focus ring hold for the zoom.
At the front of the lens barrel is the front element. It is a fixed element with internal focusing so that filters can be used without them being rotated as the focus is being adjusted. This is very handy when using a polarizing filter, or a graduated filter. The filter mount is 77mm, which is the same as the majority of the "L" lenses.
The build materials are very good. The majority of the lens is metal with a very nice speckled finish on it. The plastic parts are of good quality, and give a great solid feel to the lens. The lens is painted white, which has become a status color for Canon Lenses. This is not for cosmetics though, and it does serve a very important function. With a lens this long, if heat were to build up on it, there could be some slight warping of the materials which would cause the internal elements to get out of line and affect image quality. By painting the lens white, the temperatures are kept down on those hot and sunny days.
In the field
This lens does great in the field. I have now used it a few times, the most recent time, it stayed on for a full four hours, and helped to capture almost 200 images of animals at varying distances. The lens works as advertised, and doesn't miss a beat. As I mentioned, the push/pull design works great for adjustments on the fly. Instead of having to twist a ring, you just move the lens to where you want it...its just that simple. By keeping your hand on the focus ring, you can adjust focus very quickly after composing the shot.
This lens is heavy at three pounds. Attached to a 40D with vertical grip, you will feel like you have had a workout at the end of the day, but it is very easy to use. I have found that the added weight helps me to steady the lens, which is very important since camera shake is so easy to come by at long focal lengths like this will cover.
I can't say it enough about Canon "L" Series lenses....these things are sharp....razor sharp. While the 100-400mm is a little soft at the long end, overall, this is a stunningly sharp lens. Many tests have been performed on this lens by magazines, and online sites. I recommend that you check out those tests for more information on the subjective qualities of this lens. I just know that my pictures require very little if any sharpening in post production.
I also have to say that the push/pull design is much better than the reviews lead you to believe. It takes a little getting used to, but once you become familiar with it, it will be second nature for you.
There is not really anything bad about this lens, but there are some things that should be updated by Canon. The first thing is the rubber weather seal on the lens mount. This is a great feature to keep the sensor clean in dusty conditions, as well as dry in the rain. Its omission is not a deal breaker, but is something that I would like to see.
The next item that really needs updating is the image stabilization. With the newer versions, there is the benefit of an addition stop of slower shutter speeds before camera shake is a problem. Again, this is not a deal breaker for me, because most of the time I will be using this lens on a tripod.
One other area that has received some critique is the push/pull design. It is possible that the expanding and contracting lens could pull in dust that will get inside, and on the inner elements. I have not had this lens long enough to test that, but don't really see it as being that bad of a problem unless you are shooting out in the desert, or on the beach for long periods of time.
One other consideration is the speed of the lens. It runs between f/4.5 and f/5.6 which is not that fast, but for this type of lens it is very respectable. It will be hard to use in low light situations unless you are able to really boost your ISO levels. Depth of field is not that much of a concern at these focal lengths, because it is so narrow to begin with. Even at f/5.6 there is a very pleasing blur in the background that is similar to an f/2.8 at closer ranges.
This lens is expensive at around $1400.00, and it is heavy. It is also in need of some updating from Canon, but when it comes to what really matters...the photograph, this lens can't be beat. It is built like a tank, so it will last for a long, long time. When the lens is stored at 100mm, it is not much longer than the 70-200mm f/4L. At 7.4 inches in length, this lens will fit in most camera backpacks without a problem. I have it stored in a Tamrac Expedition 7x with a 40D body behind it, and a 10-22mm in front of it.
This lens is great for wildlife photography, and would probably work out pretty well for sports photography. Anything that includes motion will more than likely require an ISO in excess of 400 to keep the shutter speeds up. It would be nice to have a bit faster lens, but the size and weight would become a serious issue for those that carry a lot of lenses.
For a landscape photographer, this is not a mandatory lens, but it is a very good addition to your kit. The range allows a good deal of flexibility which means that you won't have to change lenses all that often, unless you really get into broader landscapes. I still like my 70-200mm f/4L lens for general purpose landscapes which need a telephoto, but if there is the chance of wildlife in the near future, I will keep the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L mounted up.
I would love to give this lens a 5 star rating, as it is a very fun lens to use. There is a lot to like about this lens, but there are some glaring shortcomings that may or may not be a deal breaker for the buyer. Because of this, I have to drop this fabulous piece of equipment down to a 4 star rating, but I still would recommend it to anyone.
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