Canon EF400 5.6L Photo Review for Bird Photography.

Let me start by saying the Canon EF400 5.6 is hands down the best value for money lens available for Bird Photography.

I am an avid Bird Photographer and have been fortunate to use a number of different lenses over the last two years. The best lenses for Bird Photography are Canon’s super telephotos such as the EF 500mm f/4L IS II and the new EF 200-400 f/4L IS 1.4x. The only issue with these lenses are they cost as much as a small car with the new 500mm retailing in Australia for $11,000 and the cheapest being the Canon EF300 f/2.8 IS II at $8,000. If you can afford one then there is no comparison in terms of IQ and sharpness.

Strangely there is no middle ground when it comes to telephotos, it’s either the expensive best or the rest which usually cost below $2000. The most popular choices being the Sigma 500mm zooms, and the range of Canon telephotos 70-200 + 2x, 70-300L,  300 f4, 400 5.6L and the popular 100-400L.

We all have different needs for our lenses and this often dictates our purchase. For me I wanted the sharpest lens available under $2000. After much research I decided upon the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L mounted on a Canon 1DX

This review will be based off my extensive experience using the lens during the last two years. I will do this by showcasing a number of photographs taken with the lens. For a technical review feel free to read the excellent review over at the The-Digital-Picture

Author in action at Lake Wollumboola, NSW - Carrying a 7D & EF 400 5.6L - Photo by Mike Toms

Author in action at Lake Wollumboola, NSW – Carrying a 7D & EF 400 5.6L – Photo by Mike Toms

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper - Lake Wollumboola, NSW - 7D & EF 400 5.6L

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper – Lake Wollumboola, NSW – Canon 7D & EF 400 5.6L

Build

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Canon EF400 5.6L

Canon EF400 5.6L – Showing the focus switches. I often use 8.5m for BIF to aquire focus quicker.

The Canon EF400 5.6L was first released way back in 1993, that makes the design over 20 years old. The fact this lens is still rolling off the shelf in decent numbers is a testament to its overall quality and ability. The lens is very light weighing only 1250g and coupled with a 7D puts it at just over 2kg. That makes this lens a very hand holdable lens and I love it for BIF(Bird in flight) especially seabirds.

Short-tailed Shearwater

Short-tailed Shearwater – Wollongong, NSW – 5dmk3 & Ef400 f/5.6

The lens with the hood extended is pretty long at 256.5mm and fairly narrow at 90mm making it look bigger than it feels. I have not had any problems with weight distribution or the lens feeling too long. I actually like the attached hood as its one less thing for me to lose. The lens feels solid and well made.

Canon EF 400 f/5.6L Showing the hood extended.

Canon EF 400 f/5.6L Showing the hood extended.

Canon EF400 5.6 comparisons with

[su_accordion][su_spoiler title=”EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM”]
The Canon 100-400L is the obvious competitor and people would ask why would you want a fixed 400 when you can get a zoom and cover a massive range from 100-400mm.
400 5.6L Advantages –
Sharpness – The prime lens is significantly sharper than the zoom lens at 400mm. The prime lens is sharp wide open at 5.6 with the zoom needing to be stopped down to 7.1 for best results. Lens Rentals scored the prime 785 compared to the zoom 655 Also view the comparison at Digital Picture.
AF Speed – The prime is extremely fast at acquiring focus and excels at bird in flight shots. The focus does not lock focus as well as the big primes but using burst mode usually overcomes that downfall.
Durability – The prime has less moving parts having only 6 groups / 7 elements – compared to the zooms 14 groups / 17 elements. I have heard several stories of people having trouble with the push pull zoom and needed repair.
IQ – The IQ of the prime is excellent with impressive detail and contrast. The zoom can also create great IQ but appears to be more variable from lens to lens.
Cost & Weight – The prime is $300 cheaper than the zoom and is marginally lighter.

Disadvantages
MFD – The minimum focus distance of 3.5m is the biggest downfall of this lens. It often results in missed opportunities when the birds come too close. This has happened to me on a number of occasions and I have to move backwards for the lens to focus.
No IS – The lack of IS on the prime means you need a SS of 1/400 to reliably obtain sharp photos hand held. You can get sharp photos at lower SS such as 1/100 but I have needed to use a tripod or some type of support. In saying this I usually strive for higher SS as motion blur in the subject is still a problem at low SS even with IS as it’s the bird moving not you. I am used to no IS but would welcome it should they update the lens.
No Zoom – Obviously a zoom lens gives people a lot of flexibility in composing the shot in camera and allows the user to zoom out should the bird get too close. From my experience in birding most people use their 100-400L at 400 90% of the time as we always want more FL for birds. My technique is I usually start further away and move closer until I have the composition I want. If the bird moves I move.

Conclusion.
The prime lens is sharper, faster and less likely to need repair. For those wanting the best image quality and the sharpest images the prime should be a no brainer. Those wanting IS and the flexibility of the zoom should look at the zoom. For me I prefer to have the sharpest possible photos. I have molded my technique to suit a prime lens.

[/su_spoiler] [su_spoiler title=”Sigma and Tamron Zooms up to 500mm”]The same advantages and disadvantages mentioned above apply to all the third party zooms. If I’m being brutally honest the sigmas are often soft and lack the IQ. If used in excellent light, exposed correctly and stopped down to f8 at 400mm then the lenses are pretty good. The problem is they are often soft at 500mm wide open. People get sucked into the 500mm but are often disappointed in the result. I think you are better off with the Canon 100-400L if you really want the zoom.
There are few prime alternatives on the market at the moment. There is the Sigma 500 4.5L which I have seen create some nice images. I don’t have any experience with this lens so cannot really comment. I also look forward to how the upcoming Tamron 150-600mm performs. I can only assume you get what you pay for and a lens with that focal range for $1000 makes me wonder.[/su_spoiler] [su_spoiler title=”EF 300mm f/4L IS USM”]The Canon 300 f/4 is a very good lens and doubles as a good macro lens with its MFD of .5m. 300mm really is almost too short for birding and you will often year for more FL. Many people do use a 1.4tc with the lens effectively making it a 420 f/5.6 IS. Whilst this sounds good you do lose a bit of IQ, speed and sharpness when using a TC. I did see plenty of good shots with this setup and could be useful for someone that is also into Macro.[/su_spoiler][/su_accordion]

Sharpness

Primes are typically sharper than zooms and the 400 5.6L is no exception. It is never going to be as sharp as the super telephotos but at 1/10th the cost you would not expect it to be. It is however very close with the 400 5.6L scoring an average of 785 compared to the 825 of the 400 2.8 on the lens rentals wide open comparison. Of interest the Canon 100-400L scored an average of 655 which is substantially less.

I have to say my real world experience backs up these test results. It never ceases to amaze me the images this lens is able to produce at the cost.

Double-banded Plover Portrait.

Double-banded Plover Portrait. Lake Conjola, NSW – 7d & 400 5.6 – Click to view large.

Splendid Fairy-wren

Splendid Fairy-wren – Gluepot, SA – 7D & 400 5.6

Cape Petrel - South Island, NZ

Cape Petrel – South Island, NZ – 1dx & 400 5.6

Rainbow Bee-eater

Rainbow Bee-eater – 1770, QLD – Canon 7D & E400 5.6L

Some people say any lens is sharp in the right light and with a FF subject. The issue with birding is you are always outside in variable light and often with very uncooperative subjects. The importance of having a fast lens to acquire focus then obtain sharp photos in quick succession is very important. I used this lens extensively in the Sub-antarctic where conditions were wet with low light and the lens still performed well.

Red-crowned Parakeet

Red-crowned Parakeet – Auckland Island, NZ – Handheld 1dx & 400 5.6

Yellow-eyed Penguin

Yellow-eyed Penguin – Auckland Island, NZ – 1dx & 400 5.6

Southern Royal Albatross

Southern Royal Albatross – Campbell Island, NZ – 1dx & 400 5.6

AF Performance.

Whilst AF performance has a lot to do with the camera the lens also plays a major part. The speed of the lens to acquire focus is extremely important in bird photography and especially birds in flight. The 5.6 maximum aperture may turn some people off but I have found the lens to perform extremely well. I have no problem finding birds then locking onto them. The lens can also refocus quickly from one subject to another.

Black-winged Stilt

Black-winged Stilt coming in to land – Christchurch, NZ 5dmk3 & 400 5.6 handheld

Striated Heron

Striated Heron hunting – Orient Point, NSW – 7D & 400 5.6

I will say that the lens does seem to have a habit of losing focus at times. The superteles seem to lock focus and keep it meaning a large proportion of keepers. I currently shoot in burst mode often taking over 1000 photos in a session. Of those photos there are often several that are slightly oof. This is partly due to me moving around so much plus motion blur etc. Occasionally I will look at a sequence of images and a couple will be sharp but one for whatever reason is slightly soft. I suspect this has more to do with technique and the bird moving but I do notice it more with this lens.

Bokeh

Bokeh is basically the smooth background created by the lens and aperture setting. The lower the aperture number the more OOF the bg becomes. So a lens that can shoot at 2.8 will be able to create better bokeh than a lens at 5.6. There is also no doubt the big Canon primes smoke the 400 5.6 in terms of bokeh but that again is to be expected.

In saying that the 400 5.6L still creates lovely bokeh and I have no trouble isolating the bird from its background. There are a few keys for creating bokeh such as getting eye level with the bird and ensuring there are no distracting elements in the background.

Double-barred Finch

Double-barred Finch – Capertee Valley, NSW – 7D & 400 5.6L

Red-backed Fairy-wren

Red-backed Fairy-wren – 1770, QLD – 7D & 400 5.6

Teleconverters

The Canon EF400 5.6 can be used with a 1.4 extender and still focus via the middle single AF point on the 1 series bodies and the 5dmk3. This turns the lens into a 560 f/8.  Whilst using a teleconverter the AF is noticeably slower and takes longer to find the subject. Once you find your subject the focus locks on and operates as usual following the subject.

The single AF point is a little annoying as I usually change the AF point to help compose the image in camera. I may have to look at using one of the rear buttons to focus then move the camera to compose. This is ok with stationary birds but problematic with birds on the move.

The images do appear to be a little softer than the native prime which is to be expected but appear to sharpen up ok in pp. The maximum aperture of f8 means you need lots of light and the bokeh suffers as you use f9/10.

Overall I think it works well and gives you that extra reach you wouldn’t have had before. If you have good light and need the extra FL than it is really handy. 

Royal Spoonbill

Royal Spoonbill – Lake Wollumboola, NSW – Canon 5dmk3 & EF400 5.6L + 1.4ext

Disadvantages of the Canon EF400 5.6L
MFD – The minimum focus distance of 3.5m is my biggest gripe. It can result in missed opportunities if the birds come to close. This has happened to me on a number of occasions and I have to try and move backwards for the lens to focus. It is not a deal breaker and you are still able to obtain detailed portraits. Here is a photo of a Red-necked Stint taken right on the MFD of 3.5m. These birds are tiny little waders.

Red-necked Stint

Red-necked Stint at MFD of 3.5m – Lake Wollumboola, NSW – Canon 7D & EF400 5.6

No IS – The lack of IS on the prime means you need a SS of 1/400 to reliably obtain sharp photos hand held. You can get sharp photos at lower SS such as 1/100 but I have needed to use a tripod or some type of support. In saying this I usually strive for higher SS as motion blur in the subject is still a problem at low SS even with IS as its the bird moving not you. I can’t say it has really bothered me and I am used to needing higher SS and adjust my settings to accommodate it. Below is a photo of Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters taken at 1/125 on a tripod.

Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters

Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters photographed with a shutter speed of 1/125 at West Nowra, NSW – Canon 7D & 400 5.6L

No Zoom – Obviously a zoom lens gives people a lot of flexibility in composing the shot in camera and allows the user to zoom out should the bird get too close. From my experience in birding most people use their 100-400L at 400 90% of the time as we always want more FL for birds. My technique is I usually start further away and move closer until I have the composition I want. If the bird moves I move.

Suggestions for an updated 400 5.6L

If Canon were to upgrade the lens the obvious improvements would be to reduce the MFD to 1-1.5m and to include the latest IS technology. The IQ of the lens at its price point is already excellent but if newer technology can improve the lens so be it.

The attractiveness of this lens is its cost and its weight. It would be a shame if adding IS and improving IQ were to add extra weight and cost. I think a fair price for an IS version of the lens would be $2000.

Conclusion

As you can tell I have a love affair with this lens and it has been very good to me for the last 2 years. I am extremely impressed with the IQ and sharpness this lens produces at the sub $2000 price point. Yes it has some flaws in the MFD and lack of IS but to me these rarely impact on the ability to take excellent sharp photos. I know I would be disappointed if my images were constantly soft or just lacked that punch that this little gem produces. If you cannot afford one of Canons big whites and want the sharpest lens possible than the EF400 5.6L is the obvious choice. If flexibility and IS is more important then look at one of Canons Zooms.

There are rumors that Canon maybe updating both the 400 5.6 and the 100-400 in 2014. I hope they do and I will be one of the first in line to give them a go. I also look forward to seeing reviews of the new Tamron 150-600. If that lens is sharp at 600mm it will be very attractive to those who want that extra reach but don’t want to spend $10,000.

Thanks for reading and have fun selecting your next lens.

For many more photos taken with the Canon EF400 5.6L visit my gallery