Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM review







Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM Lens Review:

Here is the review of my favorite lens, Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM. It is not actually a review; I’d rather want to share my personal experience with this lens. I used Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM lens on Canon 40D body for 2 years, and now it shines on Canon 7D. I have no intention to shoot test charts, because nobody shoots test charts, print them and hang the pictures of test charts on the wall in real life, but it seems, that buying such an excellent lens for shooting test charts is especially wise decision. There are lot of places over the internet, where you can check out test charts. I will supply a link in the bottom of this review where you can check all these formal test results if desired. I want to share some real life experience here. All sample pictures shown in this review are processed for print. I don't consider this as a drawback, as I speak about practical applications, not abstract theoretical performance. In general, I prefer to use the best equipment, I can afford, and I usually choose my gear very carefully on a price/performance/handling/weight criteria. I don't like zoom lenses for some reasons. Main reason is that zooms gives you far more bulk and worse image quality at the same time, compared to primes in the same price range. I'm lazy person, and when I use zoom lens I usually just zoom and click, so get a snapshot instead of photo. A prime makes me think and compose carefully with my feet. While shooting with a telephoto lens, I never wanted to have zoom, but it’s only my very personal opinion, for you just the opposite may be true.


This high-performance lens was designed with portability and handling ease in mind. One Super UD-glass element, whose characteristics are similar to fluorite, and one UD-glass element result in sharp pictures from corner-to-corner. The lens also has a built-in hood and a detachable tripod mount. – this is a short description from official Canon web site.


If you need a relatively compact and not very expensive high performance super telephoto lens Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM can be a good choice, may be even the best. It is very popular among nature photographers, especially those, who shoot birds and birds in flight. This is highest quality but hand hold able 400mm telephoto lens. When I understood that I really want a long telephoto lens, I already had 200 f/2.8L II USM lens, so I was interested in 300-400mm range only. The choice boiled down to Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM, Canon EF 300mm f/4.0 L IS USM and  Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM. I studied tons of sample images over the internet, and tried to handle all three lenses at a store. Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM won in handling department hands down. Zoom is heavier and its AF speed is about twice as slow. Canon EF 300mm f/4.0 L IS USM is very good, but it appears to be front heavy, so Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM balances on camera body much better, AF speed of 400mm is faster than that of 300mm lens. If you attach 1.4x TC to 300mm it will became much slower in terms of AF speed. If I hadn't 200mm lens at that time choice between Canon EF 300mm f/4.0 L IS USM and Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM would be much more difficult, as 300mm lens is also excellent and probably more versatile.


Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM is the second lightest white Canon L telephoto lens in terms of weight, its heavier than Canon EF 300mm f/4.0 L IS USM Lens by 60g only. Mounted on a medium sized Canon EOS camera body it feels even lighter than it is. This is because Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM lens feels very well balanced on camera body. It is rather large, measured 257mm long and 90mm in diameter. Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM is white and it attracts attention when you walk around with it. As most L lenses it is build to last. Focus ring is very wide, covered with rubber for better grip and operates very precise and smooth, of cause without any creeks or wobble. The lens is equipped with a powerful ring-type USM for fast and silent AF operation, and allows full time manual override. AF speed is one of the best in class, Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM focuses very quickly. Remember to use range limiting switch when you shoot distant objects, it greatly improves focusing speed. AF accuracy is also very good. I never experienced a single problem concerning AF with this lens. Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM AF is so fast that it allows you to track virtually any moving target, even small birds, just look at flying titmouse or sparrow jump sample. If you cannot keep up it’s probably you or camera AF, not the lens.

Flying titmouse. Canon 40D, ISO 800, 1/800s, f/5.6.

Jumping sparrow. Canon 40D, ISO 400, 1/2000s, f/7.1.

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM is focusing internally. The lens doesn't change its size while focusing. Filter thread is fixed and doesn't rotate, so it accepts polarizing and gradient filters well. I recommend using high quality UV or protection filter, that doesn't degrade image quality, to protect the front element from accidental fingerprints, dust, water drips and scratches. Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM has 77mm filter thread. Good examples are Canon Protect filter, or B+W UV MRC filter. B+W UV MRC filters are probably the best, as they don't degrade image quality at all, and cleans very easily, thanks to special coating. I feel much more comfortable cleaning dust and fingerprints from filter than from an expensive lens, sure one shouldn't expose lens to this, but unfortunately it happens sometimes.

Unfortunately, Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM is not weather sealed. For the lens that is primary used by nature and wildlife photographers, it can be really a big plus.

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM minimum focus distance of 3.5 meters is a significant drawback. On an APS-C body you can fill a frame with a sparrow size bird, but on full frame cameras it may be too long and annoying. Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM and Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM lenses don’t have this limitation, as they focus much closer.

Lack of image stabilization on such long lens might be a problem for some people, but Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM balances on camera body so good that I never regret that IS is absent. If you feel that you need IS, get Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM instead, or you may be happy with Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM. I don’t really miss IS, at least such an old implementation as in Canon EF 300mm f/4 L IS or Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM. IS is not a panacea, it gives you from 1 to 2 stops, but it will add weight and the lens will became front heavy and balance worse on camera body, so the IS will just compensate for worse balance. Good balance seems more important to me for the lens of such weight, especially when you use it for a long time. Occasionally you can miss a shot, but this is true for IS lenses too, you should know your gear, everything has its strengths and limitations.

Sometimes using tripod or monopod is required. But if you shoot wild birds, beware, that birds get frightened with monopod, they fear a man with a stick in his hand. Camera with lens only doesn’t frighten them that much. Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM requires good light in general, but you may push the ISO sometimes and get a good result, modern cameras are so good that it is not a big problem. For example flying titmouse shot was made with my Canon 40D at ISO 800 handheld.

Optically Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM is nearly flawless.  Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM is also excellent, but when stacked with 1.4TC it becomes no more than just good 420mm lens. Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS is a very good quality zoom lens, and many people are happy with the results, but I see a visible difference in image quality here, especially wide open. Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM is insanely sharp even wide open. So I almost always use it wide open. Color reproduction is very accurate; saturation and contrast are excellent, what is common for Canon L glass. It captures almost all fine details, look at feather details on sample shots!

Vulture close up portrait. Canon 40D, ISO 400, 1/400s, f/5.6:

Vulture eye 100% crop.

Eagle close up portrait. Canon 40D, ISO 200, 1/800s, f/6.3.

Eagle eye, 100% crop.

Chromatic aberration on Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM may be noticeable only in extreme conditions, but in real life shots there is nothing to worry about. I found only one scenario when they are visible. It renders purple fringes on the extremely bright out of focus highlights, like sun reflections from the water, see duckling sample below. These artifacts don’t get corrected easily with software. Duckling was shot in a very bad lighting, at noon with the sun high and bright, only in such lighting the lens shows its flaw, but in general such harsh lighting conditions should be avoided.

Duckling with bad lighting.

Purple fringing 100% crop .

Vignetting is not field relevant, at least on APS-C bodies with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM. I never noticed it on any of my shots. Distortion is not noticeable in real life too. This is common for telephoto primes, even inexpensive ones don’t suffer from it.

Bokeh, or how the lens renders of out of focus areas, is a very important characteristic of any lens. Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM bokeh is very good, thanks to 8-blade circular aperture. Quality of bokeh was one of deciding factors in favor of Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM, when I was choosing between these lenses, Canon EF 300mm f/4L USM and Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM. Canon EF 300mm f/4L USM has very good bokeh when you use bare lens, but when combined with TC it unfortunately goes worse. Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM has too harsh bokeh to my taste, especially on a busy contrasty background like grass lit with bright sun. I’m not bashing the lens but compared to primes the difference is obvious.

little egret in flight

Little egret in flight. Canon 7D, AI-Servo AF, ISO 400, 1/6400s, f/5.6, Canon 400mm 5.6L

Pair of pigeons in flight

Long eared owl in flight, Canon 7D, AI-Servo AF, 19points, 1/1600s, f/5.6, Canon 400mm 5.6L

Starling in grass, bokeh sample. Canon 40D, ISO 400, 1/1600s, f/5.6

Long tailed tits

Long tailed tits. Canon 7D, ISO 800, 1/640s, f/5.6

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM lens ships a tripod collar and nice padded Canon LZ1132 case.  Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM lens resists flare quite good, I always use very nice integrated hood, so I have no shots where it is an issue. Integrated hood is a wonderful feature, you can pull it forward and lock with a twist, very simple to use and comfortable to carry. Tripod collar fits to Canon EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM and both Canon EF 70-200mm f/4.0 L USM (original and IS version).

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM lens can accept 1.4x TC and become 560mm f/8 lens. I tried it with Canon EF 1.4x II Extender on Canon 40D body. The AF is lost, some people get AF working with pins taped or with non reporting third party 1.4x extender, but AF speed and precision may be lost significantly. AF on this combo works reasonably good on 1D series bodies only. I found Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM lens + Canon EF 1.4x II Extender image quality to be good, but hand holding 560mm f/8 lens is a very challenging task even in a bright daylight, so I recommend using such combo from a sturdy tripod to get good results.

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM can be used whenever you need high quality telephoto lens.  The most obvious use for this lens is wildlife photography. It is very popular among bird photographers, especially for birds in flight photography. It is lightweight, has very fast AF speed, and nothing in this weight or price class even come close to it optically. Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM can also be used for outdoor sports.

There some alternative lens on the market, but I must conclude that Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM  is the best performer among affordable 400mm options without any significant weakness in any area, unless you absolutely need IS. Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS USM is better, actually it may be the world’s best telephoto, but for it price you can easily get 7 (seven!!!) Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM lenses. Even much more expensive Canon EF 400mm f/4.0 DO IS USM lens is optically inferior. Canon EF 300mm f/4 IS USM is also a very good lens, it is faster and has image stabilization, but it is shorter. It can accept 1.4x teleconverter, and became a 420mm f/5.6 IS lens, but the combination is inferior to Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM. It is slower in AF speed; actually, even bare 300mm f/4 lens is slower.  Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM seems to be much sharper than Canon EF 300mm f/4 IS USM with 1.4 TC attached. While bare 300mm lens has very pleasant bokeh, but stacked with TC it looks not so good. For me it’s the most significant drawback of using teleconverter, it spoils bokeh.  Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM is a very popular lens, as it is very versatile. But when I was choosing long telephoto lens for birding, I already had descend 100mm and 200mm f/2.8 lenses. So I was interested at performance at 400mm only. At this focal length zoom has only two advantages over Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM, they are image stabilization and shorter minimal focusing distance. Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM weights more, costs more, has about two times slower AF speed. Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM is not only lighter, it also balances superbly on camera body. Optically prime is better, it is razor sharp wide open, has virtually none CA and smoother bokeh. I consider Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM the best birds in flight photography lens ever made.

There are many shots with this lens in my gallery:

You can buy Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM here (use these links to support this site) :

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Super Telephoto Lens at Amazon.com

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Super Telephoto Lens at Adorama

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Super Telephoto Lens at B&H Photo

Rebates awailable for this lens!

You can read some Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM reviews here:

www.the-digital-picture.com

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