Canon 400mm f2.8 vs 600mm f4 – First Thoughts

Long lenses. Wildlife photographers waste their days dreaming of long glass like teenage sports stars waste theirs dreaming they’ll one day be playing alongside Sid, Kobe, or even Lionel.

The sight of them (the lenses AND the stars) is enough to make grown men (and women) weep for joy.

And so it almost seemed unfair last week when I got to march out of The Camera Store (a special thank you to Dean Rumpel and Peter Jeune for trusting that I wouldn’t have an ebay fire sale later that afternoon) in Calgary, Alberta with two brand new gigantic, sexy lenses in tow to test to my heart’s content for a weekend in the mountain parks.  I felt like a rock star walking out of the store with $10K worth of gorgeous glass in each hand.

I spent the first day of ‘testing’ with both lenses sitting in my office in plain view. On one side, the long, lean beautiful Canon 600mm f4 IS II lens, the holy grail for most bird photographers.  And on the other, the shorter, stupendous Canon 400mm f2.8 IS II lens, the holy grail for most low-light wildlife photographers.

Door #1 or Door #2? The Canon 400mm f2.8 II lens and the Canon 600mm f4 II lens

That first day of testing consisted of me staring at said lenses and ooh-ing and aah-ing.  I stroked them, I caressed them, and I generally loved them as much as a man could in a few hours time.  Did I actually take any pictures with them?  Nope, that was for the days to come….

So before I get into any kind of review of these lenses, a few disclaimers and some background info:

1. I originally owned the Canon 500mm f4.5 back in the day.  Great lens, lovely and sharp, but fairly heavy. About eight years ago I graduated to the Canon 500mm f4 Version I, which was also a very sharp lens that got me lots of amazing photos over the years.  In the past six years, I mostly shot it on a crop camera, both the Canon 1D III and the 1D IV, effectively turning my 500mm lens into a 650mm lens because of the 1.3x crop factor.

The Canon 500mm f4 IS I was hardly terrible…it captured many of my top-selling shots from the past 8 years

2. I found 650mm to be about perfect for half the things I shot, and to be too much for the other half.  I did use the 1.4x teleconverter with it quite a bit, giving me 910mm at f6.3 (I never shot it at f5.6 because it wasn’t sharp enough for my liking at 5.6).  I found the 650mm was often too much lens for photographing in the tight confines of roadways and parkways, which of course is often what you end up doing in the Canadian Rockies — my backyard.  On the other hand, it was perfect for shooting out of blinds and for photographing on the tundra or the prairies where distance became an issue more often than not.

3. I despise doing regular ‘reviews’.  All I care about is what the lens or camera feels like, how it works, and if it works for me.  So what you will not see in these initial thoughts about the Canon 400mm f2.8 II and the Canon 600mm f4 II is a bunch of linear tests showing this lens vs that one testing for sharpness and bokeh and all that crap (which of course is not really crap at all, but for the purposes of this dodgy review, they’re crap except for when I talk about them.  Got it?).

4. If you’re not a serious shooter or at least a wanna-be serious shooter and you’ve read this far, it’s time to go grab a coffee and do something else.  My Bieber-meets-Sasquatch photos will NOT be in this post (or the next one).

So, first impressions with the Canon 400mm f2.8 II and the 600mm f4 II:

They’re light!  Everyone knows that already, that a few years back Canon started spending time figuring out ways to make their big lenses less hefty (because both the original 400 and 600 were too heavy for me to own — given that I carry my lenses with me a lot out in the field, I simply couldn’t justify wrecking my back for those behemoths).

By contrast, when I first picked up the Canon 600mm f4 II, I was a bit shocked at how light it felt.  It felt lighter than my current 500mm f4 I, and that’s because it is lighter than the old 500!  So not only did Canon make the new 400 and 600 lenses much lighter than their predecessors, they also made them both lighter than the go-to lens for most wildlife photographers in the past ten years, the Canon 500mm f4 version I.

As I already mentioned, I do carry my gear with me quite a bit, so every extra little bit of weight makes a difference to me.  It’s one of the reasons I don’t own a Canon 1DX and instead opted for 5D III bodies. So the newer, lighter 400 and 600 open up a world of possibilities for me, given that I’m already used to hauling the old 500 around with me.

In short, weight no longer becomes the issue it once was for these big lenses in terms of which one I will choose to shoot with.  This means that for the first time in my career, I can choose to own either a 400 2.8, a 500 4, or a 600 4…or all THREE.  Haha, don’t I wish!

So the next step in testing these lenses was to see how the 400 and 600 held up in prolonged hand-holding.  I am 6’3″ and about 190 lbs, so I had no problem at all hand-holding the 400 2.8 for extended periods of time, and this included using both the 1.4x and 2x teleconverters while I photographed a moose in a meadow in Banff.

Conclusion for the Canon 400mm f2.8 II lens in terms of weight and hand-holdability (yes, that’s a word!): in terms of weight itself, this lens is a dream.  Because of it’s shorter length than the 500mm f4 I, I found it much, much easier to hand-hold for long periods of time than my old 500.

As for the 600 f4, I found it a bit harder to handhold because of the additional length of the lens (it’s 4 inches longer than the 400, so the balance of weight is distributed out farther from your body, even though the lens is basically the same weight as the 400).  However, it wasn’t any harder to hand-hold than my old 500 was, and I even managed to hand-hold it with the 2X TC on it for about a minute at a time (and that’s without a gym visit in the past two years, ulp).

Conclusion for the Canon 600mm f4 II lens in terms of weight and hand-holdability: it’s doable.  Not great, but not bad, either.

The next thing I took a look at was sharpness. I was particularly interested to see how sharpness was with the teleconverters on these lenses, as I determined long ago that the only way I will own the Canon 400 f2.8 is if I can get sharp shots from it at 560mm f4 or f4.5 (it’s often tough to get razor sharp shots wide open with teleconverters, so I’d already decided that if I could get sharp shots even at f4.5, I’d be happy) and at 800mm f5.6 or f6.3 (again, I’d be happy enough if 6.3 works). I wasn’t nearly as concerned for the 600mm, because I’d already be starting with a telephoto the equivalent of the 400 with a 1.4x TC.

Now, a few quick notes:

Disclaimer #1 – despite driving and hiking around for two solid days, I barely found anything to photograph other than tree trunks and signs. What can I say, it’s been an extremely slow winter so far near Banff and Canmore (the slowest one I can remember in 18+ years of shooting).

Disclaimer #2 – it appears I did not get the sharpest copy of the Canon 400mm f2.8 to test, as I had trouble getting razor sharp shots out of it even after micro-adjustments with and without teleconverters.  I was unable to get any sharp shots out of it with teleconverters, period.  There were tons of ‘pretty sharp’ useable shots, but they did not leap off my screen like the shots from the 600 did.

Unprocessed 100% screen capture of a wild, free-roaming propane sign. Canon 400mm f2.8 at 1/6400th at f2.8.

So as a result of these disclaimers, I’ve gotten another 400 to test that arrived yesterday (it was like Christmas day again in the Marriott household, opening up a cardboard box and tossing aside the bubblewrap to reveal a silver, metallic box containing sheer beauty…but I digress….) and I will not  be discussing the sharpness of the 400 any further until after I get to play with this one.

That said, the 600 was a dream (I know I already used that terminology describing the weight and hand-holdability of the 400, but I couldn’t figure out how to improve on saying that).  Super sharp at f4 for the most part, very sharp at f5.6 with the 1.4X TC on (which was more than I could have hoped for), and even occasionally acceptably sharp at f8 and f9 with the 2X TC on (note that I’m using the version III TCs for all of this).

Unprocessed 100% screen capture of the same propane sign. Canon 600mm f4 at 1/2500th at f4 (note sharper edges)

Unsharpened 100% screen capture. Canon 600mm f4 w/ 2X TC at 1/640th at f8.  Acceptable sharpness even wide open.

A 1200mm f8 machine — I honestly could not stop wiping the drool from my face after seeing this on my screen and imagining the possibilities with this combo and a little post-process sharpening.

Conclusion on the sharpness of the Canon 600mm f4 II: fully drool-worthy.

So what else could I test?  Well, from a practicality standpoint, a big issue for me was whether or not either lens could fit into my main gear bag, a Kiboko Gura Gear 30L bag, or into my main backpacking bag, a Satori f-Stop bag with an XL insert. I currently use half of the Kiboko to store my 500mm f4 lens with one of my 5D III camera bodies when I travel and when I drive around, so this was important to me to be able to still be able to contain all of my gear to one camera bag when needed.

The 600 fit in, but without the camera body attached to it.  Despite the fact this is how many photographers travel with their gear (it’s safer to travel with your cameras not attached to lenses in terms of accidental breakage during transit), I prefer to travel with my gear ‘ready’ and attached, but once I finagled the rest of the Kiboko around, I was still able to fit the 600, two 5D III bodies, a 70-200 f2.8, the 1.4X and 2X TCs, and a 17-40 (along with memory cards, batteries, and rain covers) in the bag.  The 600 still wasn’t attached to a body, but I can live with it if this is the lens I end up going with. 

The 400 also fit in, this time with a body attached to it.  Problems?  Nope, basically good to go.

The f-Stop Satori bag was more of a challenge, and I never did get all of my gear to fit in their XL insert, but I had the same issues with my 500mm with this bag.  Still, it’s an excellent bag when I just want to carry the big lens and go off into the backcountry with it, as it’s far more comfortable as a pack on my shoulders than the Kiboko is.

The next part of my testing involved shooting from a bean bag in my car to see how the lenses performed in terms of functionality and comfort.  This is also a fairly big issue for me, as I shoot a lot from my vehicle when photographing things like wolves and grizzly bears, my bread-and-butter as a wildlife photographer.

YAY!  Some actual wildlife to shoot…Canon 400mm f2.8 at 1/2500th at 2.8 off a beanbag

Both lenses proved to have some issues in this regard when compared to my current 500 f4 I. First, the added length of the 600 makes it much harder to ‘store’ on the seat beside you or in the back seat.  It’s not as readily accessible for quick wildlife shooting in the heat of the moment in that rather than just grab and shoot with it like I can with my current 500, I continously found myself grabbing, making-sure-I-didn’t-slam-it-against-something-inadvertently-while-I-was-bringing-it-to-the-beanbag, and then shooting.  However, I think I could work around this and get used to it over time.

The 400 proved to be even more of a challenge because of where their focus ring is situated (more about this in the next few paragraphs).  It is almost impossible to shoot off of a beanbag with this lens without having the focus ring rub on the bag and override your autofocus, whether you’re shooting in One Shot or AI Servo modes.  What does that mean in layman’s terms?  That you miss shots because of it, getting more soft, out-of-focus shots than you should in a shoot.

So this brings me to my biggest complaint about both the 400 f2.8 and the 600 f4 (and even the new 500 f4): they all still have FTM focus override that you cannot disable.  So what the heck does that mean?  It means that at any time that you are shooting, if you accidentally touch, move, feel, nick, or blow on the focus ring (that giant black ring that is dead center on all the lenses, right where your hand wants to go to hold, balance or temper the lens), you risk having the full-time manual focus override kick in, ruining your autofocus.

A quick example using the 400 f2.8: you are using perfect big lens technique (hand on the lens, lens on a tripod) shooting a big bull elk.  The elk shifts a bit, so you refocus (One Shot, Servo, shutter button, back button focus — it doesn’t matter) using autofocus, but at the same time, your hand moves just a smidge on top of the lens, accidentally nicking the focus ring, which is super sensitive on the 400 2.8.  The result?  The focus ring will override your autofocus, even if just for a split second, and you might miss that amazing moment when the breath comes out silhouetted against the dark background.

So is it a major oversight on Canon’s part?  Absolutely.  I can’t think of a single time I have EVER used the focus ring and manual focus override to ‘fine-tune’ my focusing after autofocus has already locked on to a spot.  If I think autofocus has locked on to the wrong spot, I simply refocus using autofocus on a slightly different part of the animal.  What I do not ever do, is then manually refocus to fine tune things…why not?  Because viewfinders these days are extremely difficult to manually focus through, and because most of these manual focus rings are so sensitive to the touch that it’s very tough to manipulate them precisely. 

If I really need to use manual focus, I will flick the switch from AF to MF and go to town.  End of story.  There are those that will argue that if there’s a branch or blades of grass in the way that it’s necessary to be able to override autofocus, but for those rare cases, I simply switch over to manual focus completely.  Takes me a millisecond to flick that switch.  The bottom line?  I was extremely disappointed that this FTM focus override cannot be disabled on these new lenses, as it’s a serious impediment to wildlife photographers who find themselves shooting off of beanbags with any regularity.

Will this FTM focus override stop me from buying one of these new lenses?  No, likely not.  I used clear plastic tape as a workaround for my current 500 (which also has FTM focus override) to ‘tape’ the focus ring in place so that it couldn’t move when I didn’t want it to, and I’ll likely try the exact same thing with the 400 I’ll be testing over Christmas. 

I did also find that the 400 2.8 had one other flaw in its design: the lens foot is not positioned very well for balancing the lens on a gimbal-type ballhead like a Jobu or a Wimberley.  This holds particularly true when you’ve using either TC with the lens, as the center of weight for the combo is quite a bit further back on the lens from where the center of the lens foot is.  I do think it’s workable if I can find a long enough lens plate, but for a $10K lens, I shouldn’t have to worry about stuff like that.

However, if my taped-down focus ring works on the new test 400, and if I can get sharp shots with it with and without TCs, then I’ll be down to decision time.  Which will it be, the 400? 500? or 600?

My decision will be made somewhat easier by the fact that there don’t seem to be any new 500s available anywhere in North America right now, and there’s no ETA on their arrival.  That’s why I didn’t test a Canon 500mm f4 version II.

Regarding the 400 and the 600 that I have been testing, I’m not sure which way I’m leaning yet.  Truthfully, driving around with both lenses ready-to-go on my back seat was incredible, despite the fact I hardly saw a thing to photograph.  I was ready for low-light close-to-the-road action with the 400 f2.8, yet I was also ready for a pack of wolves to cross a river at 400m out to my side with the 600 f4.  Can I afford both?  Probably not.  Will I try to afford both?  Maybe 🙂

I’ll post some results from my 400 2.8 testing in the New Year.  Until then, happy shooting everyone, I hope you have a wonderful holiday season and that at least a few of you gleaned some interesting information from this quasi-review.

[you can now view the second part of this Canon supertelephoto lens review here]

Merry Christmas,


5 Comments on “Canon 400mm f2.8 vs 600mm f4 – First Thoughts

Mitch K
December 21, 2012 at 4:59 am

Great article.
Valid testing, loved how you got into the weights and other non standard test stuff.

Interested to hear what you decide on!!

Richard Seeley
December 23, 2012 at 6:24 pm

Excellent piece. Interesting approach and very informative comparison.

I shoot with a 500mm, 7D, 5D2, 1D4. Agree with the manual focus ring issue on a beanbag. But I also shoot with a door/window mount attached to my Wimberly attached to my 500, so maybe less of an issue for me.

How have you found the performance of the Extender 2x III as compared to the II on the 500? Do you use it much?

Looking forward to the rest of your review.


Christine Duchene
December 27, 2012 at 6:24 pm

thank you for that very interesting comparison. I am still with my 500 f4 I and 300 2,8 II and quite happy. Looking forward to your final decision
Merry Christmas and an lot of good shots

December 27, 2012 at 6:24 pm

Enjoyed the commentary and the information. I enjoy this type of review much better than the technical focus.

December 27, 2012 at 6:33 pm

Ill have to disagree with you on the focus ring :D, I manual focus all the time for large game, then again im using a 5d mark ii and don't have the luxury of owning a behemoth.70-200 2.8 is ii with a 2x iii converter gets the job done until I can afford a behemoth :D.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *