Captured with a Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon EF 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L Mark II, and a Canon Extender EF 1.4X Mark III
I spend relatively little time on this blog talking about equipment — I’m drawn more to the art than the mechanics — but there’s no denying that equipment plays a critical role. The wrong equipment can limit your creative vision. Bad equipment can cause you to miss the shot entirely.
With that in mind, I thought I would share some of my thoughts about the new Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens, which I’ve been using for about two months now. You won’t find test charts and studio comparison scenes here. There are plenty of those already that are produced under very controlled conditions. This is a Canon 100-400 Mark II review in the context of how it has performed for me as a professional nature photographer in real-world situations, which includes handling and other features that make a difference in my work.
First, some background. I was an early adopter of the previous generation of this lens. On the few occasions the lens had been serviced, the technician, after viewing the serial number, always pointed out it was one of the first off the line.
While people bashed the lens on photography forums, it was one of my favorite lenses and likely delivered the strongest return on investment of any piece of camera gear I’ve ever owned. My contribution to the book, the Wild Within, was produced exclusively with that lens. I couldn’t even tell you many magazine spreads have resulted from it. Of my most published images, at least half have been captured with that lens.
I have a longer, sharper prime telephoto lens, but I’ve always found the 100-400 much more versatile. It fits easily in a travel bag. I can take it kayaking. And with unpredictable wildlife and changing weather conditions, there’s no beating the flexibility of a zoom lens.
When the new version was announced, I had no reservations about placing an order. The original was the oldest piece of equipment in my camera bag. It earned its retirement. And I was looking forward to the creative potential of a lens that was more than 15 years newer.
How sharp is it?
One of the biggest complaints about the original lens — besides its trombone-line zooming mechanism, which we will get to later — was that it was perceived to be not sharp. I never had any complaints about mine, but if you can trust Internet forums, that perception seems to be a a widely held belief. I figured the new lens had to be better, but by how much?
As I snapped the first images with the 100-400mm Mark II, I could have sworn that a dramatic improvement was visible even on the camera’s LCD screen. After shooting a true comparison test, however, I’m now convinced the difference is much more subtle.
For this review, I tested the lenses with an outdoor scene on a cloudy day so that I would have fairly constant, even lighting. I tested three lenses: the new Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, the original Canon EF 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM, and, because people will ask, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM attached to a Canon Extender EF 2X Mark III. They were tested at full telephoto, which should be 400mm.
The three lenses were tested with a full-frame Canon 1Ds Mark III, which was set to 100 ISO with an exposure of f/7 at 1/5 of a second. The image stabilization feature of each lens was turned off. The lens foot was mounted to a tripod with a Really Right Stuff ballhead. I used mirror lock-up on the camera with a 2 second delay. There was no wind, but I shot several frames with each lens and picked the sharpest for the comparison, not that there was any real difference between the frames for each lens.
The lens was focused on the berries just below the center of the frame since they were in the same plane of focus as the leaves at the upper left. What you see here are comparisons of the berries and the leaves. You can click or tap on this comparison image to review it at full size; each square is a 100% crop.
At least to my eye, there appears to be very little difference between the two 100-400 images at the center. If I really study the crops, the 100-400 Mark II may show a tiny bit more fine detail in the texture of the leaves, but I also may be imagining that. There really doesn’t appear to be much difference. (As for the 70-200 Mark II, the extender appears to significantly degrade its performance; even at the center of the frame where the image should be sharpest, there is noticeably less detail in the leaves.)
In the corner, however, there is more of a gap between the two 100-400 lenses. The original version still performs very well, but its berries seem slightly less sharp and there is some faint fringing around the sharpest leaves in the upper left corner. The 70-200/extender combo produces sharp berries, but loses some of the finer texture of the leaves.
Wide open at f/5.6, both 100-400 lenses are very sharp and almost indistinguishable at the center. At the upper left corner, the original 100-400 performed well, but there’s a hint of distortion fringing around some of the edges that are going out-of-focus. That distortion isn’t in the images from the 100-400 Mark II, although, again, you’re only like to notice a difference between those lenses if you intently study the images. The 70-200/extender combo again loses some of the texture on the leaves.
Overall, the new 100-400 Mark II produced the sharpest images overall, but it wasn’t a mind-blowing improvement over the output from the original version. The only noticeable difference between the lenses is at the corners. If you’re using a crop-sensor camera that cuts off those corners, you may not notice any difference at all. The images produced by the 70-200/extender combo are certainly publishable, but they visibly lag behind even the first generation 100-400.
Full disclosure: Canon Professional Service replaced one of the element groups of my 100-400 Mark I lens and custom calibrated it several years ago. Due to heavy use in extreme environments and its push-pull zoom design, my lens had a tendency to attract dust inside. Every few years, I would send it in for internal cleaning. During one of those service calls, Canon decided on its own and without any prompting to replace one of the element groups. I’m aware that people complain of a huge variation in quality in lenses, so it’s only fair to point out for review purposes that my 100-400 Mark I received special attention. My 100-400 Mark II was purchased off-the-shelf from a retailer. I was not provided with any loaner or review equipment.
400 isn’t quite 400 anymore
While there isn’t much of an image quality difference between the two 100-400 lenses, there is a difference in the magnification they deliver at 400mm. Both lenses claim to zoom to 400mm, but this animated image shows the original version reaches a bit farther than the new lens.
Both lenses are rated as having the same angle of view, but in my test, the older version appears to reach about 2% farther. I cropped the image from the Mark II lens to match the view of the Mark I; measured horizontally, it was just under 98% of the width of the file from the older lens. The Digital Picture conducted tests of its own and found 100-400 Mark II really only zooms to about 383mm or so.
I doubt I would have even noticed the difference had I not been trying to produce direct comparisons and it doesn’t concern me at all for the work that I do. The 70-200 with the doubler produced an image that was much closer to the Mark I.
Subjective thoughts on image quality
The 100-400 is primarily used for wildlife and sports photography, which makes real-world image comparisons difficult. Unlike landscapes, the types of scenes it is used to photograph can be entirely different one second to the next. Aside from the one scene in the section above, I don’t have any other direct comparisons involving multiple lenses to show you.
My impression is that the 100-400 Mark II captures wonderful color tones and contrast, as is evidenced by this stormy landscape. As I pan through the image at the pixel-level, there just seems to be more detail in the trees and the storm clouds than I am used to seeing. If you look close, there’s a bald eagle in the tree near the bottom right corner of the frame. It really pops when the image is printed large. It may not show in an absolute resolution test, but there is a special, rich quality to the images it produces.
The new 100-400 Mark II has one more aperture blade than the previous generation — nine versus eight — which makes for beautiful backgrounds. I’m sure somebody can provide more detail than me, but here’s a quick-and-dirty explanation of why this is a big improvement.
Out-of-focus highlights in an image take the shape of the aperture, the variable-sized, iris-like part of the lens that controls the amount of light that passes through. So if each blade has a straight edge, you can’t make a perfect circle with just eight blades. The best you can make is an octagon. As you add more blades, you still don’t get a perfect circle, but since each line is shorter, the appearance becomes more rounded and less like a stop sign.
The additional blade may not seem like much, but it does make a difference, especially since the aperture blades in the 100-400 Mark II are rounded. Backgrounds with the 100-400 Mark II can appear almost dreamlike.
…with a hint of onion rings
With some lenses, bright out-of-focus circles in an image can produce a phenomenon known as onion rings. The term refers to bright circles that aren’t solid circles of light, but rather made up of layers of concentric circles. If the phenomenon is especially pronounced in a lens, it can produce highlights that actually look like a cross section of an onion.
As this image shows, the 100-400 Mark II does exhibit a mild onion rings effect. It’s more visible if you click or tap to enlarge the image. Many of the bright highlights in the image have a thin, bright outer ring, a thin dark ring, and then three to four rings of various widths and intensities.
I don’t find the rings unsightly, and they are similar in appearance to the rings produced by the much more expensive 600mm f/4 IS lens that I also use.
One of the new features that I am most excited about is the new lens’s ability to focus close. I don’t have a macro lens, but like to do close-up photography from time to time. The new version of the 100-400 lens has a minimum focusing distance that’s about half that of the old version, which is a tremendous improvement.
At 400mm, the Mark II can focus on objects that are just three feet away. The Mark I needs to be at least nearly six feet away (71 inches or 180 cm) from anything it photographs.
Given that I primarily use the lens for wildlife, a close focusing distance may not seem like much of a feature. Who can get within 3 feet of a bird? Actually, it is possible, as this image shows. This hummingbird image was captured at near the 100-400 Mark II’s minimum focusing distance at 400mm.
This setup allowed me to capture an image where the bird’s head is very sharp, but the background branches, even though they were only several inches away, where attractively blurred away. This image simply wouldn’t have been possible with the previous version of the lens.
And situations like this aren’t unheard of. Especially with remote cameras, getting within three feet of a bird may be a rare occurrence, but it’s no longer an impossible one. The 100-400 Mark II opens up more options.
Modern image stabilization
Image stabilization technology has also improved over the past decade and a half. The rule of thumb is that for sharp images from a handheld lens, you need to shoot at a shutter speed that is the reciprocal of the focal length or faster. So for a 200mm lens, you’d need to shoot at a shutter speed of 1/200th of a second or faster.
The original 100-400 IS was rated at two stop of stabilization, so at 200mm, it could produce sharp images with a shutter speed as slow as 1/50th of a second. The new 100-400 is rated at four stops of stabilization, so it should be able to produce sharp images at that focal length with a shutter speed as long as 1/12th of a second.
In practice, I was able to achieve more than five stops of stabilization with the new lens, although not constantly. I shot several handheld burst sequences of a scene at approximately 200mm. With the 100-400 Mark II, about half of the frames were acceptably sharp even at shutter speeds as slow as 1/5th of a second. At that shutter speed, all of the images from the original 100-400 were, shall we say, impressionistic.
Technique matters greatly. In that test, the lens was held horizontally and braced against my body. If the lens was held at an angle, such as photographing a bird that is slightly above me, the image stabilization was much less effective. I tried photographing a bird that was at a 30-40 degree angle above me. At a focal length of 400mm, I was not guaranteed a sharp image at even 1/80th of second, which is barely two stops of stabilization. But then at that angle, I was not able to brace by elbows, and therefore the lens, against my body.
The image stabilizer in the new lens also detects when it’s attached to a tripod and adjusts the stabilizer accordingly. That’s hardly new technology, but it is new to the 100-400. My old 100-400 would jump erratically when image stabilization was on while it was on a tripod, resulting in blurry images. It is nice not to have to remember to turn the stabilization off, although you should still turn if off if you are using the lens for long exposures from a tripod.
The new 100-400 also feature a new stabilization mode. The new mode 3 engages the stabilization only while the shutter is open. It’s intended to make it easier to compose images, since the stabilization won’t affect the view in the viewfinder, but I’ve honestly never seen that to be a problem.
New lens hood
Another favorite new feature of mine is the new lens hood, which features a sliding door near the filter threads that you can open to adjust a circular polarizer or variable neutral density filter.
More often than not, I use my 100-400 for wildlife photography, but occasionally, I also use it to photograph scenics. I used to have to stick my finger in the hood and adjust the filter by actually touching its glass, and then clean my fingerprint off the glass without moving the filter. The filter access door is a stroke of brilliance. I wish they would have thought of it years ago.
New zoom design
The old 100-400 had a zoom mechanism that was quite polarizing. To zoom in, you’d actually pull the barrel of the lens out, a lot like a slide trombone. People either absolutely hated that or didn’t mind it. I didn’t mind it.
The new 100-400 works like every other zoom lens. There’s a ring that you turn to adjust the zoom. This is probably an improvement, since it allows you to keep your hand in the same spot, but what annoys me is that the rings are in the opposite position that they are on the Canon 70-200 IS Mark II, another lens that I commonly use.
The lenses are so similar that I turn the outer ring on the 100-400 Mark II thinking that I am adjusting the focus, when I’m actually causing it to zoom. The focus ring on the new 100-400 is very thin and half buried under the tripod collar, which makes it difficult to adjust. Canon’s assumption is probably that people who use this lens rely on auto focus almost exclusively, but I do like to fine tune my focus and I strongly detest the placement and small size of focus ring. One day I may get used to it, but even after two months, it’s the only part of the new lens that I absolutely hate.
You can also adjust the tension of the zoom ring, just as you could with the zooming mechanism on the original 100-400. I generally leave the tension of my lens at the loosest setting. The zoom ring is easy to turn and it generally holds its position if you’re even mildly supporting the zoom ring with your hand.
In the image here of the murder of crows in flight, the crows were passing directly overhead. Just the weight of the lens resting against my supporting hand kept the lens at 400mm, even though the lens tension was at its loosest setting. If you’re using it on a tripod, you will probably want to adjust the tension to lock it into place when shooting at extreme angles, but otherwise, you don’t need to worry that the zoom ring will slip.
So, should you buy one?
I’m not going to use this review to belabor the point about how much the new version costs. The new 100-400 costs about a third more than the lens it replaces. It’s not cheap. But it costs what it costs and whether you should buy it or not depends on whether the improvements are worth it to you.
Image quality wise, I don’t see a significant leap in sharpness between the two generations. If you go looking for differences, you will see that the new version is better in the corners, but there’s not a lot of improvement at the center of the frame. If you plan to use the image on a crop camera, you may not notice as much difference in the files between the two lenses. I use the 100-400 lenses most often on my Canon 1D Mark IV, which has a smaller sensor that crops off some of the sides. Subjectively, it seems that there's some improvement in sharpness with the new version, but it's not a mind-blowing improvement.
Beyond image quality, however, there is a dramatic, measurable improvement in the image stabilization and the reduced minimum focusing distance. For me, both of those improvements are worth the investment in the new lens. The 100-400 has always been my go-to lens for photographing from boats or tight spots, and these new capabilities simply open up new possibilities for me.
Besides, as I look at the images from the 100-400 Mark II, there is something about the files that looks noticeably better, even if it’s not immediately apparent on a head-to-head comparison.
Even two months after the launch, the 100-400 Mark II can be hard to come by. It remains in short supply at many retailers. They seem to come through Amazon on a regular basis, and if you order through this link, it helps support this blog and you still get the low price.
Have questions or comments about the new lens? Feel free to leave them in the comments and I will respond as I am able.
(Learn more about Kevin Ebi's new book, Living Wilderness, the first comprehensive portfolio of his fine-art images and download a free preview. Follow his photography on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.)