Canon Super Telephotos – A Second Look

Way back in December, I had the pleasure of getting to test drive two of Canon’s behemoth super telephoto lenses: the Canon 400mm f2.8 II and the Canon 600mm f4 II.  My initial findings were more favourable towards the 600mm, but I left off that review boasting that I had just opened a shiny new box with another 400mm to test (in the hopes that it was a sharper copy of the lens and would give me a more accurate read on the 400mm when compared to the 600mm) and that I’d get back to all of you with the results of said tests after the holidays.

Battle of the Behemoths — the Canon 400mm f2.8 II vs the Canon 600mm f4 II

Well, guess what?  It’s WAAAAY past the holidays and I’ve long since returned that second sexy 400mm to Canon Canada (a few tears may have been shed).

So what did I buy?  Which lens did I like best?  Did I re-mortgage my house and get both?   And will the Canucks win the Cup this year? [Editor’s Note: Neither yet, the 600, no but I might still, and YES]

This time around, I got to put the 400mm f.28 II into some serious action, as I lucked out on finding a bull moose and some mountain goats that were willing to pose repeatedly for me.

Canon EOS 5D III w/ 400mm lens at ISO 800, 1/400th, f5 (hand-held)

With the moose, I found it incredibly easy to just grab the 400mm lens and ‘go’, hiking out to where the bull moose was browsing on willows. Sans tripod, I had no problem getting sharp shots from 1/320th to 1/500th of a second with a variety of apertures.

Unprocessed, unsharpened jpg of a 100% crop of the vertical image above.

Similarly, with the mountain goats, the sharpness was superb from f2.8 all the way to f10 while shooting without teleconverters, both hand-held, off a beanbag, and off a tripod.

Canon EOS 5D III w/ 400mm at ISO 800, 1/1000th at f8

Unprocessed, slightly sharpened jpg of a 100% crop of the horizontal image above

As a result of my testing, I was happy to conclude this time around that the 400mm f2.8 II lens was just as sharp as the 600mm lens I had tested before Christmas.

However, with teleconverters on, things got a little more ‘iffy’ as far as the 400mm lens was concerned.  While I had hoped again that it would shine with them on and that I’d at least be able to get sharp, useable shots with the 1.4x TC at f4 or f4.5 and the 2x TC at f5.6 or 6.3, I found that neither TC was as sharp on the 400 2.8 as they were on the 600 f4.

That’s not to say that I didn’t get sharp shots with either TC, because I did.  Unfortunately, they just weren’t as consistently sharp as the 600mm lens with teleconverters was and they still weren’t quite as crisp:

Canon 400mm f2.8 II lens w/ a 1.4x III TC, 1/3200th at f4 — a ‘sharp’ shot, not perfect, but very useable
Canon 400mm f2.8 II lens w/ a 1.4x III TC, 1/3200th at f4 — a more typical shot, not very sharp at all and unuseable

At f4.5 with the 1.4x TC, things got sharper, but I still wasn’t impressed with the rate of sharp vs unsharp shots

At f5.6 with the 2X TC, acceptable results, but not as sharp as the 600 with the 1.4X TC

Slightly sharper at f6.3, but again, not as sharp as the 600mm is with the 1.4x TC

I was able to get a friend to test his 400mm 2.8 II over in New Zealand (a big thank you to Marcus Schoo) with and without teleconverters, and he came to the same conclusion as I did regarding the Canon 400mm f2.8 II lens: it is a beautifully, sharp lens on its own from f2.8 to f11 (I didn’t test it beyond f11).  However, it’s not as sharp with the teleconverters on, and perhaps more importantly, it’s often noticeably not as sharp (I think we all expect that images with our teleconverters aren’t going to be as sharp as with the lens on its own, but it’s usually a fairly minimal difference — in many cases with the 400, it was not minimal).

So does this mean I wouldn’t buy the Canon 400mm f2.8 II lens?  Of course not!  Ha-ha!  The size, weight, and ease-of-use of the lens in combination with the lovely sharpness without teleconverters makes it almost the perfect lens for low-light wildlife photography and I simply could not get over how nice it feels.  It does still have a major issue with where the focus ring is placed and with how sensitive that ring is (see my previous review on the Canon 400mm f2.8 vs the Canon 600mm f4), but my little trick of taping down the focus ring with clear shipping tape worked wonders to off-set this major annoyance (hello Canon, how about talking to some wildlife photographers the next time you design a lens!).

After five days playing around with the 600 and two and a half weeks of playing around with the 400, here are my final, final, FINAL conclusions:

1. I need to make more money.

2. The Calgary Flames suck.

3. I want to buy both lenses.  Why?  Because the 400mm f2.8 is absolutely perfect for early morning and late evening photography and gives me the flexibility of having a long lens at f2.8, while the 600mm f4 gives me the reach I’ve been dreaming of each and every time I’ve been staked out on a wolf kill, particularly when coupled with the impressive results I saw out of the teleconverters on this lens.

4. I need to make more money.

5. There is a very high likelihood that I won’t even consider the ‘supposed-to-arrive-before-2017’ Canon 200-400mm lens with a built-in teleconverter (why did they do this?!) because the Canon 400mm f2.8 lens may suit my needs better.

And that, my friends, is a wrap.  I’m now off to photograph baby lynx (I saw 7 yesterday)….

Happy shooting!


3 Comments on “Canon Super Telephotos – A Second Look

Nathalie Fortier
February 1, 2013 at 9:47 pm

You crack me up!

February 2, 2013 at 10:43 pm

Good shots and good lens review. It is certainly frustrating that you pay a lot of money for a lens (or a camera body), and not have the assurance that it will perform properly right out of the box. I wonder what the frequency of occurrence is for good versus bad lenses from each manufacturer. Where is their quality control? Who has the best?

At some point, it might be worth writing an article for your followers about how to properly test a lens (or camera body) so that you can determine if you've purchased a good one, and what to do if you discover that you've gotten a dud.

camera sales
April 24, 2013 at 3:29 pm

t will perform properly right out of the box. I wonder what the frequency of occurrence is for good versus bad lenses from each manufacturer. Where is their quality control


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