A Hobbyist's Review of the Canon 200-400mm f/4 L Lens

A few weeks ago I rented the Canon 200-400mm f/4 IS L lens with the built in 1.4x extender. This lens has received raving reviews from many nature and wildlife photographers, so I couldn't keep myself from renting it over the first cold and clear weekend I had the opportunity. The $130 rental cost for one weekend with this lens from Pro Photo Supply in Portland is a lot easier to swallow than the $11,799 purchase price tag. It was a bird intensive weekend for me with the 200-400mm lens, beginning with Saturday morning at the nearby Commonwealth Lake Park where I was lucky to have about a ten minute portrait session just 15 or so feet from a great blue heron, albeit not in the best of light. I was also fortunate to capture a beautiful male hooded merganser catching a fish. Commonwealth Lake is such a great place for photos of birds catching fish, since this lake is stocked with fish. I spent the entire day on Sunday at Ridgefield NWR, and frankly that was too much of the birds and not enough of my wife and kids for one day. I love photography as a hobby, but blowing a whole weekend day with the birds (and with this great lens) was too much of a good thing. But enough complaining. My favorite shots from Ridgefield on this bright Sunday were of a female northern harrier gliding over the fields, and of a red-tailed hawk posing on post number 12.

I really enjoyed the 200-400mm lens. It's very sharp, and the focal length range offers perfect flexibility for a location like Ridgefield. But the 200-400mm lens is much larger and heavier than the 400mm f/5.6 L lens I typically photograph birds with. The 400mm prime lens doesn't have IS, and just has one two position switch for minimum focus distance. The 200-400mm lens has more switches with more positions each, in addition to the zoom ring and the teleconverter lever. I'm not used to the complexity of such a lens, as well as the girth. My shots from this weekend certainly suffered from this increased complexity.My time with the 200-400mm lens gave me a new appreciation for the ease of use my 200-400mm lens offers.

Apart from the obvious things to love about the 200-400mm lens, the focal zoom range and convenience of the built in teleconverter, the creamy smooth bokeh from the 9 aperture blades left my jaw hanging when I processed these files on my 27" monitor, it was really, really pretty.

Some things that I wasn't as impressed with on the 200-400mm, aside form the size and complexity (I can't hold this against the lens while at the same time I enjoy its flexibility) was the sharpness and the autofocus performance. This lens is very sharp, but I felt it was no more sharp than my prime 400m lens is. The autofocus was slower than it is on my 400mm f5.6 lens, especially when the teleconverter was engaged. This really surprised me. I was not expecting my old 400mm f/5.6 L lens to autofocus faster and be no less sharp than this new lens that costs 10x more than my old prime lens, especially since the new 200-400mm lens is the envy of so many bird and wildlife photographers. Maybe I was doing something wrong with the new zoom lens, but I doubt it. I prepared and read the new lenses' user manual, and played with the focus tracking settings on my Canon 5D MkIII camera body. I just couldn't get the 200-400mm lens to feel as snappy as my 400mm lens does. 

All in all, I had a lot of fun with this lens a few weekends back. It's sharp, the improved IS is really nice to assist getting sharper images while bracing the lens without a tripod, and the bokeh is perfectly dreamy. However, I found the size and weight of the lens limiting given I'm not used to shooting with these large lenses, and the autofocus with the extender I found underperformed. Shooting with this new and already revered lens for a weekend made me appreciate my own 400mm lens more, and made me look more closely at a couple factors that aren't typically discussed often when lenses are reviewed. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to own Canon's new 200-400mm lens, but if I had $12,000 burning a hole in my pocket that I had to buy a new lens with, I think I'd look more closely at a prime 400mm, 500mm or maybe even the 600mm lenses from Canon rather than the 200-400mm. Especially since the vast majority of bird photos are taken racked right out at the end of a zoom lens. But with new budget lenses aimed right at serious bird photography hobbyists from Nikon, Canon, Tamron, soon from Sigma, and even from Olympus (for the micro four thirds system), there's never been a better time to enjoy bird photography.