Reinvented EF100-400mm lens wins us over

White rhino bull (Ceratotherium simum), backlit with dust,  Mkhuze game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, May 2015
The 100-400mm MkII exhibited good contrast and low flare

OK, so this is where we eat our words. After years of avoiding big zoom lenses in favour of primes, we’ve finally gone to the dark side. Canon’s latest version of its 100-400mm L series zoom has won us over – and how.

It was with considerable reservations that we decided to invest our hard earned dosh in the Canon EF 100-400L f4.5-5.6 L IS MkII zoom lens. Actually, it’s with considerable reservations that we invest our dosh in anything that costs four figures, being naturally ‘careful’ with our limited resources (he means stingy – Ann). We’d played with the 100-400mm MkI a few times, and been distinctly underwhelmed. Apologies to any proud owners out there who love the old lens, but how do you live with that push-pull zoom? Never the sharpest lens in the block, it just didn’t cut it for us, and we stuck with our trusty 500mm and 300mm primes, reserving zooms for the sub-200mm range.

African elephant bull (Loxodonta africana), Kruger National Park, South Africa, October 2014
Kruger elephant – the zoom is handy for when big game approaches your vehicle

But the constant headache of dealing with restrictive carry-on allowances on aircraft, the frequent frustrations of trying to shoot with an unwieldy 500mm on safari vehicles that simply weren’t designed for big lens photography, and the positive reviews for MKII of the 100-400mm after six months on sale, persuaded us to give it a shot. Our recent trip to South Africa, where we were shooting from vehicles, on foot, and in hides, proved a perfect testing ground, and our new baby passed with flying colours.

This isn’t a fully fledged review, there are plenty of those online already, complete with full lens specs, and detailed tests of the lens’s optical qualities. This is a brief subjective assessment, based on a month of shooting in the African bush. How a lens performs in the lab is, of course, important, but for us it’s how it works in the field that matters. Can we get commercially useable shots, consistently, under tough real world conditions? The answer to that is a resounding yes.

Young lion (Panthera leo), Kruger National Park, South Africa , May 2015
Young lion, Kruger: wielding a large lens in a vehicle can be awkward, so the 100-400mm’s compact form is a blessing

First impressions of the lens were positive. Slightly larger and heavier than the original 100-400mm, the new lens is nonetheless fairly compact – not much bigger than Canon’s 70-200mm F2.8 when not extended – and feels very well engineered. You’re certainly not likely to forget you’re carrying a lens that weighs more than 1.5kg, but it’s nonetheless eminently usable as a walk-around lens for hand-held shots, for example when stalking animals, especially given its excellent image stabilising system. Its compact form was also a pleasure to use when in a confined space, in our case a closed vehicle or a hide. So much easier to manoeuvre than the 500mm.

The rotary zoom is much more to our liking than the old push-pull, and has a zoom touch adjustment ring that allows you to easily adjust the zoom ‘tightness’. Set to the lowest friction level (‘Smooth’), it’s easy to zoom in and out with little effort. At the ‘Tight’ setting, the zoom isn’t quite locked, but there’s little chance of accidentally altering focal length. This is important, for example, when you want to keep the lens to its maximum focal length, such as when we were photographing small birds at the bird bath hides at Zimanga private game reserve.  (We were visiting Zimanga in preparation for our 2016 photo safaris  – visit www.toonphoto.com/safari if you’re interested in signing up.)

Shooting waxbills, twinspots and the like at a range of about five metres, we needed every bit of the lens’s 400mm maximum extension most of the time – until a big old warthog boar showed up for a brief drink, at which point the advantage of using a zoom was very obvious!

Warthog (Phacochoerus aethiopicus), at water, Mkhuze game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, May 2015
Warthog at Zimanga bird bath hide: the flexibility of a zoom is great when subjects change unexpectedly

Point the lens downward, with the friction ring set to ‘Smooth’, and the lens does slowly extend itself under gravity, but it only takes a slight adjustment of the ring to stop this. So even if the zoom action slackens after a year or two of hard use, it should be easy to compensate by tightening the friction ring a little more.

The lens is supplied with a twist-on, locking hood. It’s nice and compact when reversed for storage, but we found it a bit fiddly to attach in a hurry. The hood includes a small sliding window, that allows you access to any rotating filter that you might have attached, such as a circular polarising filter. This is a great idea in principle, but in practice we found the slide was a bit loose, meaning the window occasionally opened itself, creating a potential problem of flare. As we almost never use filters on our longer lenses, I suspect we’ll end up supergluing the window closed.

By contrast, the various switches on the body of the lens are anything but loose, requiring a reasonable amount of pressure to alter. This is a very good thing, as it greatly reduces the chance of accidentally switching off stabiliser mode. When we’re on safari we’ll often keep our camera/lens rigs on the back seat of our vehicle as we drive around, and with our elderly 500mm lens in particular we’ve found the stabiliser switch often gets turned off accidentally as we jolt along corrugated roads. In the heat of an exciting encounter it’s easy to not notice that you’re shooting without stabilisation.

Yellowbilled stork (Mycteria ibis), Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, May 2015
Yellowbilled stork catching fish at Zimanga lagoon hide: with mobile subjects at close range, the flexibility of the zoom really came into its own

You can’t remove the tripod collar, but you can unscrew the tripod foot without the need of a tool. We preferred to keep the tripod foot attached, even when shooting on beanbags, as we often do when in a vehicle. Resting the lens on the tripod foot reduces the chance of unintentionally altering the zoom or focus rings when you pan on a bean bag. The tripod ring is well engineered and easy to rotate when using a tripod.

One thing that took a bit of getting used to was the orientation of the manual focus ring and the zoom ring – they’re the opposite way round to those on our 70-200mm f2.8, with the manual focus ring near the camera body, and the zoom ring in front. Not a big issue, we just had to retrain ourselves.

The IS system on the lens claims a 4 stop effectiveness. The slowest handhold speed we tried was 1/40 sec at 100mm, and the image was pin sharp. This was using IS mode I, which damps movement in all planes and is our default setting. Mode II reduces shake during panning, while Mode III corrects vibration only during exposure (and only in one direction if you are panning). We need to experiment more with these modes, and at slower shutter speeds, but initial impressions were certainly favourable. IS is very quiet, to the point that we sometimes had to double check that it was switched on.

Pink-throated twinspot (Hypargos margaritatus), male (left) and female, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, May 2015
Pink-throated twinspots at Zimanga birdbath hide: 100-400mm with 1.4x extender attached, and the images were remarkably sharp

Focus is fast, accurate and quiet, and while the lens is never going to snap onto a subject as quickly as, say, a 300mm f2.8, it is more than proficient for the vast majority of wildlife situations, including moving subjects in decent light. There’s a focus limiter switch with two choices, full or 3 metres to infinity. We used the 3 metre setting when shooting from the Zimanga bird bath hides, where subjects were always more than 3 metres away, and the full setting in Zimanga’s new lagoon hide, where waterbirds often approach much closer. In truth, focus acquisition isn’t noticeably slower on the full setting, so I doubt we’ll often use the limited range. Close focus on the lens is an impressive 0.98 metres, which is great for us, as we often use a long lens for close-up shots of small subjects such as rodents, lizards, large insects, flowers and fungi, where we specifically want shallow depth of field and narrow field of view.

Of course, all of this counts for nought if the images produced by the lens aren’t sharp enough. And in this respect the lens considerably exceeded our expectations. It’s fair to say that shooting from the hides, with the lens firmly held on a Manfrotto tripod with gimbal head, the sharpness of the images it produced were indistinguishable from those produced by our 500mm used on the same subjects at the same time. Images were not only pin sharp, but had excellent colour and contrast. Image sharpness is maintained throughout the zoom range, and whether stopped down or opened wide. Bench tests may tell you that certain apertures will deliver optimum sharpness, but for practical purposes (in our case shooting mainly for editorial use, where images may be cropped and printed as double page spreads in magazines) this really isn’t an issue. This is great news for us, as we’re often shooting at the ends of the day, in very low light, when maximum aperture is essential to get a realistic shutter speed.

Banded mongoose (Mungos mungo) drinking, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, May 2015
Banded mongoose at Zimanga bird bath hide: with the 500mm we could only fit four animals into the picture.

We expected image quality to be very good, having read a few reviews, but what really surprised us was when we stuck a 1.4x extender on – just out of curiosity, and with no expectation of getting a satisfactory image. We never use extenders on zoom lenses. Correction, we never used extenders on zooms. In good light, and with a stable platform, the lens plus extender delivered very sharp images, certainly good enough for print. On our 1DX and 5DIII bodies autofocus was maintained, though only the central AF point works. Of course, with the 1.4x extender attached, the maximum aperture becomes a rather slow f8 at the 400mm end, which can be problematic in low light. When we need reach we’ll still be using our 500mm as our first choice over the 100-400mm plus 1.4x pairing, but where we can’t use the 500mm, for example if travelling with restricted baggage, we’ll be happy to use the zoom with extender if there’s reasonable light.

The lens produces a little vignetting, particularly at the 400mm end, but this is easily rectified in Lightroom. There’s minimal chromatic aberration in most circumstances, and again where it does appear it’s easily dealt with in post processing.

Overall, we’re definitely in love with the 100-400mm version II, and it will be seeing a lot of action. It’s perfect for safaris, with a zoom range that covers many eventualities, and a compact form that makes it suitable on vehicles, boats and in hides, and easy to pack in carry-on baggage. If, like us, you’re keen on photographing birds, then you’ll still want a longer lens such as the 500mm or 600mm, but if your budget or baggage allowance won’t stretch that far, then a 1.4 extender is certainly a viable alternative. Pack a short zoom (say a 24-105mm) alongside the 100-400mm and a 1.4x extender, and you’ve a highly portable and very practical pared-down kit for travelling with your camera.

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