I am an avid Bird Photographer and have been fortunate to use a number of different lenses over the last six years. I am often asked “What is the best lens for Bird Photography?”, I would say the best lenses for Bird Photography are Canon and Nikons 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 on Amazon US for $8,999 and the cheapest supertele being the Canon EF300 f/2.8 IS II at $6,099. 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 600mm zooms, and the range of Canon telephotos 70-200 + 2x, 70-300L, 300 f4, 400 5.6L and the popular 100-400L.
For those beginning Bird Photography they don’t want to spend a fortune and want the best value lens for Bird Photography. 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 It should be noted I purchased this lens prior to the release of the new Canon 100-400L IS II which by all accounts is just as sharp and the better choice if you can afford it.
This review will be based off my extensive experience using the lens during the last six 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
The Canon EF400 5.6L was first released way back in 1993, that makes the design 25 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 (44.1oz) and coupled with a 7D puts it at just over 2kg (70.5oz). That makes this lens a very hand hold-able lens and I love it for BIF(Bird in flight) especially seabirds.
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.
EF400 5.6L Comparison
|Lens||Advantages of the EF 400 5.6L||Disadvantages of the EF 400 5.6L|
|Canon EF100-400L IS II||1. Cost - The 100-400L is almost twice the price of the 400 5.6L at $1,990 vs $1,149|
2. AF Speed - The prime is extremely fast at acquiring focus and excels at bird in flight shots
3. Durability - The 400 5,6L has less parts and is built to last.
4. Focus limiter switch has an option of 8m - ∞ meaning you can often lock onto flying subjects quicker than the 100-400 3m- ∞.
|1. The 100-400mm focal length allows greater flexibility when framing a shot.
2. Image Stabilisation - This lens has the latest IS allowing the user to get sharp shots in low light.
3. Minimum Focus Distance of 980mm is way better than the 3500mm of the 400 5.6L. This allows for much more magnification for head shots and close ups.
|Canon 300 F/4 IS||1. Cost - The 300 /f4 is more expensive currently retailing for $1,349 plus the cost of a 1.4ext at $429.|
2. AF Speed - The prime is extremely fast at acquiring focus and would be quicker than the 300 f/4 and 1.4ext.
3. Sharpness - The 400 prime is super sharp and is sharper than the 300 f/4 and 1.4ext combo.
|1. Image Stabilisation - This lens has the latest IS allowing the user to get sharp shots in low light.
2. Minimum Focus Distance of 1500mm is way better than the 3500mm of the 400 5.6L. This allows for much more magnification for head shots and close ups.
3. Focal length - The 300 & 1.4 combo is 420mm giving slightly more reach.
|Sigma 150-600 Sport||1. Cost - Again the 400 5.6L is cheaper with the Sigma retailing currently for $1,799 which is $650 more.|
2. Weight - The Sigma weighs 2860g (101.0 oz) compared to 1250g (44.1 oz) making the 400 5.6 under half the weight. This makes the 400 5.6L a much easier lens to handhold and carry if going on long walks.
3. Sharpness - The 400 5.6L is super sharp at 400mm and blows the Sigma away at 400mm. When comparing 560mm (400 + 1.4ext) the combo is similar in sharpness to the Sigma at 600.
4. AF Speed - The prime is extremely fast at acquiring focus and is likely quicker than the Sigma.
|1. 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. This allows more creativity in creating an image.
2. Image Stabilisation - This lens has the latest IS allowing the user to get sharp shots in low light.
3. Focal Length - The Sigma can go all the way to 600mm which is 50% longer than the 400. This can be overcome by adding a 1.4 extender giving the combo a 560mm focal length.
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. The new Canon 100-400L IS II appears to be just as sharp as the 400 5.6L at 400mm.
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. It is also worth noting that getting a good bird photo is more than just the lens and how sharp it is. I am always trying to capture good eye contact and head angle which I believe are core elements in Bird Photography. I have written a tutorial on head angle and eye contact you may find interesting.
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. I have written an article on the importance of light in Bird Photography you may find interesting.
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.
Update 29/7/2018: I received an email from Rob Sherwood who commented “It is very light weight, and more important it has a longer minimum focus distance limiter selection than the new zoom(100-400 IS II). If the zoom had both the 3m and a 10m selection, the zoom might be my first choice for BIF all the time. I find that the 400mm f/5.6 is the least likely to have focus get lost in the sky and never recover without manual interaction. Once a lens hunts and focuses down to minimum focus distance, I am in trouble. I cannot find the bird again in the viewfinder, and I have to manually put focus back towards infinity.
What Rob is referring to is the focus limiter switch. When set to full, the camera will search for the subject between minimum focus distance and infinity. With birds in flight, especially large birds it is usually unlikely you will have the bird less than say 8m away. So why is the lens searching the area between MFD and 8m which is adding time to finding the bird in the viewfinder? The focus limiter switch solves this problem. By setting the switch to 8m-∞ you are saying only look for the bird between 8m and infinity which speeds up the time taken to acquire focus. The new 100-400L has a 3.5m-infinity setting meaning any birds that are 8m and further away will take longer to find than the 400 5.6l set to 8m-∞. The biggest problem with this switch is if the bird comes within 8m which often happens the lens will not focus. I don’t use the focus limit switch all that often as I often forget to switch it back to full and wonder why I cannot focus on birds that are perched in front of me. 🙂
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 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.
If you want to know how I create such smooth, clean bokeh and backgrounds be sure to read my 4 steps to a clean, smooth background.
The Canon EF400 5.6 can be used with a 1.4 extender and still focus via the middle single AF point on the later model cameras. 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.
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.
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.
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 $1400.
As you can tell I have a love affair with this lens and it has been very good to me for the last 6 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.
I believe the new Canon 100-400L IS II is the superior lens and if you can afford it should be your first choice for a fantastic all round lens. I hope to get hold of one soon to take some shots and complete a review.
Bird Photography Techniques Used To Capture Beautiful Bird Images
I always try and photograph birds when the light is good. Feel free to read my article on the importance of light in creating beautiful bird images. I am also always looking to create engaging bird images by capturing good eye contact. Be sure to read my article containing tips on head angle and eye contact for great bird images. I also always photograph birds in RAW, read my article to see why.
Ever wonder how I get nice clean, smooth backgrounds in my photos? I explain 4 steps to a smooth background here.
Thanks for reading and have fun selecting your next lens.
- This review was originally published in 2014 but has been updated in 2018.
- All links to Amazon are affiliate links and any purchases made support me. Thank you to those who use the links 🙂
Canon EF400 5.6L Gallery
Canon EF400 5.6L
- Sharp - This lens is very sharp and only the more expensive lenses compare.
- Weight - At only 1250g (44.1 oz) this lens is light and easily hand holdable. A great choice for people who walk and don't want to carry heavy gear.
- Cost - The 400 5.6L is the cheapest Canon lens that I would recommend for Bird Photography. At $1,149 US new it is very affordable.
- AF Speed - This lens is super quick to grab focus and is a great bird in flight lens.
- Build Quality - A design that is 25 years old which has stood the test of time. Well made with few parts which makes it a reliable workhorse.
- MFD - The 6m minimum focus distance means you are limited to how close you get to your subject. Can be an issue when shooting headshots
- No IS - The lack of image stabilisation means you do need to keep the shutter speed high.
- Fixed Focal Length - You are fixed at 400m meaning to reframe the shot you need to move backwards
- Focal Length - at 400mm it lacks behind the new offerings from Tamron and Sigma which offer 50% more reach at 600mm. You can use a 1.4 extender which makes the combo a 560 F/8. This slows the lens down and reduces sharpness