Canon 400mm 5.6 Lens Review

This is my review of the Canon 400mm EF f5.6 USM lens, having professionally used this lens for wildlife photography for a number of years.

When it comes to choosing the right lens for wildlife there are a number of considerations. It’s important to take them all in to account and also to think about the situations you are most likely to use the lens in.

Weight

This is often not considered enough, but it’s a really important one. If you are likely to be carrying the lens for extended periods of time and in particular, hand-holding, then weight is big consideration. With a bigger more expensive lens you might find it feeling quite a burden. The Canon 400mm f5.6 is extremely light, weighing in at 1.25kg. This makes it perfectly easy to hand-hold for most people and can be carried around for hours. Being so lightweight I find it ideal for  flight photography –  no need for support, I can simply use my left hand to support the lens as I follow and fire. Comparing this to my Canon 500mm f4 IS Mark i, at a whopping 3.9kg, and you can see the benefit!

Image Quality

Of course there’s no point having a light lens if the image quality is poor. When I first bought this lens years ago I was significantly impressed with the sharpness. In my opinion it’s of professional standard quality when paired with a good quality camera body. I’ve created images with this lens with both a Canon 1D Mark iv and a Canon 1DX Mark i. A number of these photos have been supplied to professional picture libraries and been printed large on calendars and magazine covers. Sharpness is always a difficult one to describe, without providing complex tests. To get the most out of this lens try to stop down to f/7.1 or f/8 – it will improve the clarity. I rarely use it at f/5.6 but then I wouldn’t do anyway. Use this lens in good light with good technique and you really shouldn’t have any complaints.

canon 400mm f5.6 review
Robin on spade, Canon 1D Mark iv with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens at f/7.1

Speed of Focus

In good light this lens focuses quickly; you’ll have no problem for wildlife portraits. For action it performs pretty well in good light and I’ve made many sharp images of birds in flight, using a centre focus point and a small cluster. I also find changing the focus limiter switch to 8.5m – infinity can improve speed for flight photography. Where this lens begins to struggle is in poor light: in low sunlight or overcast conditions the focus definitely starts to struggle and you need to use the best technique you can. This is the main drawback of the lens for me. The minimum focus distance is 3.5m which is also a disadvantage in some situations. Note: this lens does not have any IS, however for me I don’t find it much of an issue.

canon 400mm f5.6
Arctic Tern in flight; Canon 1DX Mark i with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/1250 at f7.1, ISO 21600

Extenders and Extension Tubes

If you want to increase the magnification of the 400mm then you can attach extenders. I’ve never tried a 2x extender but have used the lens with the Canon EF Mark iii 1.4 x Extender. With older cameras you may use auto-focus completely. My current understanding is that Canon 1D and 5D bodies will accept the combination but only allow you a centre focusing option and don’t allow the choice of different focus points. You’ll also be down to f/8 once the extender is attached. Quality with a 1.4x extender is reasonable but it helps to keep the ISO low and even stop down the aperture a little more for optimum quality –  I regularly use f/9 or f/10. I wouldn’t want to use this combination in overcast light with a high ISO. 

In order to make small birds more frame-filling you can attach an extension tube. I’ve sometimes used the Canon 25mm extension tube with this lens in order to reduce minimum focusing distance and get closer. This also has the effect of diffusing the background slightly more. You lose a bit of light but still retain auto-focus and exposure control.

canon 400mm f5.6 lens
Blue Tit, Canon 1DX Mark i with Canon 400mm lens and 25mm extension tube

Price

At the time of writing you can get a brand new Canon 400mm f5.6 for close to £1000 and a used one near £500. This is massively cheaper than most competing lenses and makes it ideal for those on a tighter budget.

Other Options

There are many other options for bird photography. Heavier lenses with superior auto-focus include the Canon 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4 and the Canon 400mm f/2.8. You could also opt for a Canon 300mm f/2.8 and use with extenders. There’s also the 400mm f/4 DO – light enough to hand-hold but with very mixed reviews. The Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-f5.6 Mark ii is also a serious contender due to flexibility, quality and weight. All of these lenses however come with an increase in price.

Conclusion

Remember that the best lens for you is the one that works for you. Are you likely to be sat in hides for hours with a tripod, or are you more likely to be walking around and shooting hand-held in the field.? It’s important to take this into account when choosing your lens. The Canon 400mm f5.6 should always be a consideration. It isn’t the fastest lens; it isn’t the sharpest lens. However it does offer a high level of quality for an amazing price. That’s why I’ve used it myself. The main drawbacks are reduced auto-focus speed in poor light, minimum focusing distance and lack of IS. If you can live without these things then buy it in a heart-beat – I still believe it’s one of the best lenses ever made by Canon for pure value

To see more of my wildlife photography visit the Gallery Pages on my website.

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Long Lens Photography Technique

Long Lens Photography Technique

For a long time I didn’t own a ‘big lens’ for my bird photography. I made do with shorter lenses and extenders. Finally the day came when I received my Canon 500mm f4 Mark i lens. I’m still using it to this day, but I’ve learnt a few tips along the way which help me get the most out of it.

Having serious pulling power is great when it comes to wildlife photography, but it can all count for nothing if you don’t use your lens effectively. Big lenses, by which I would consider anything from 400mm and greater, tend to be heavy pieces of kit and need a certain level of technique to manage them effectively.

Hand-holding

You may not want to hand-hold, certainly not for extended periods of time, but there are situations where this is preferable. For birds in flight, I much prefer to hand-hold as I just feel more comfortable with my freedom and range of movement. To hand-hold with a big lens try to hold the camera and lens sideways, rather than point it in front. Place your hand under the lens and keep your elbow close to your body. Most people can only do this for short periods of time – when waiting for action you could keep the lens on the ground by resting it upside down on the lens hood. Alternatively I like to carry a beanbag then rest the camera on here whilst I’m waiting, knowing it’s more protected.

Tripods and Heads

Without doubt the best way to support a long lens is with a tripod. Carbon fibre is a great option as it is strong but relatively light. Not surprisingly, this also makes them expensive. To mount the lens I would advise two options – either a very solid ball head, or a gimbal head. Personally I think the gimbal head is a wonderful creation for big lenses. They provide a really solid base at the lens foot and the freedom of movement is perfect for following and recomposing shots. I use a Movo GH 700 Gimbal Head When attaching the lens foot to the gimbal head, slide it forward and back to find the centre of gravity – you want the lens to stay balanced without it being locked in place; this will help with balance. Once  you have it in the correct place make sure it’s tightened up in place. You can then use the two tension knobs to get the desired amount of movement – both up and down (tilting) and left and right (panning). For following birds in flight you will want to slacken it off enough to allow fast tracking of your subject, whilst for more static subjects tightening up the knobs will aid in stability and reduce camera shake, but still allow enough movement to recompose.

When photographing static subjects and particularly with lower shutter speeds you should try to reduce vibration. Long lenses will magnify even the smallest amount of movement, potentially causing blurred images so it’s worth a bit of extra technique. Drape your non-shutter hand lightly over the lens barrel – around half way down then lightly push your eye into the viewfinder. This combination will help brace the lens and can definitely reduce camera shake. You can see me using these techniques with my 500mm, photographing birds in this YouTube video Using image stabilisation is another option too but with older lenses it’s best to have this switched off anyway if on a tripod. 

Beanbags and Other Support

In my opinion the best way you can keep a long lens stable is by using a beanbag. This is ideal when shooting on the ground or on a car roof for example. Make sure that the part of the lens near the camera body is snugly into the beanbag. Use your non-shutter hand to push down slightly at this point. You can also pull down slightly on the shutter. With good technique you can achieve sharp images down to as slow as 1/15 of a second. Another option is to use a beanbag on top of a tripod. Take the tripod head off and put the beanbag on top, balanced evenly; then use the same technique. I’ve used this method successfully when photographing wild owls in Serbia – see the YouTube video and achieved sharp results at very low shutter speeds. Think out of the box too: you always have your knees with you so why not use one as a support when caught short?

A long lens is ideal for nature photography but you can’t be sure of sharp images without learning a little technique. Employ these tips and you’ll greatly increase your chances of pin sharp images!

Paul Miguel is professional Nature Photographer in Leeds, England. He runs a range of Wildlife Photography Workshops in the UK and Photography Tours Abroad

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Why I Switched to Fixed Lenses

Why I Switched to Fixed Lenses
17-40mm lens
Cow and Calf Rocks Ilkley Moor, Canon 1D Mark iv, 17-40mm f/4 lens at around 31mm

My work predominantly consists of Wildlife Photography but I also enjoy shooting landscapes along with generic countryside images suitable for stock. For years I used the Canon 17-40mm f/4 USM lens for my landscape photography. The results were good but the edge softness always annoyed me – particularly in the corners where at times I felt it too unacceptable. Although I had the facility to shoot at 17mm, the fact is – I never did! Simply due to the increased edge softness I always zoomed in to at least 21mm to improve things. Working professionally and submitting to discerning picture libraries I always strived to get the most out of the lens – trying to use it at a mid-range focal length where possible and keeping the aperture around f/11 to maximise image quality.

fixedlenses
I shot this image on Ilkley Moor with the Canon 17-40mm. I was happy with the overall composition but the original file shows softness at the edges and particularly in the corners. Shot with a Canon 1D Mark iv.

Upgrading to a Canon 1D X Mark i showed an improvement in my images but I still felt I needed to improve the landscape quality. I toyed with the idea of the Canon 16-35mm which has an excellent reputation and would no doubt be a step up. But I also thought long and hard about switching to a fixed wide angle. A good quality fixed lens should always be sharper than a zoom – and it does make sense. I’ve certainly found it to be the case in my experience. I already had a fixed 50mm f/1.8, giving excellent performance, so I considered switching my 17-40mm zoom for a fixed wide angle. Overall image quality was a consideration but there was perhaps a more important issue related to zoom lenses. Now, zoom lenses are great for many situations; they are flexible and mean you don’t have to stop, change lens and carry on with your shoot. But what they also do is: make you lazy! This might not apply to everyone, but for me certainly, a fixed lens is a better option and it makes me a better photographer. Why? Well, with zoom lenses you can put yourself in great surroundings and change focal point to find the best images. But’s that not how it should be: the art of Landscape Photography is to search for your images… and that means moving around.! Whilst I like to think I wasn’t falling into the trap, I probably was. Essentially I was staying more in one place and adjusting my zoom, rather than thinking about the look of the image (for a given focal length) and finding the composition to suit.

zoomlensesarebad
After reviewing this image I wasn’t entirely happy due to the mid-frame rock which wasn’t separated enough from the background. I couldn’t help feeling that with a fixed lens I would have been forced to search out a better viewpoint.

So, after reading many reviews, I opted for a Canon 24mm 2.8 lens. I now had two main lenses for landscape photography: the 24mm and my 50mm, along with a 100mm macro as an extra option for picking out sections of the landscape. I was itching to try the 24mm quickly so within two days of receiving it I headed out for a night shoot with my good friend Nik Goulthorp. We visited Millenium Bridge, Castleford – an excellent place for night photography that offers a number of compositions. I attached the 24mm and set to work. With this fixed lens I had to keep moving around to find the best viewpoint; there was no room to tweak the zoom. I had to find the very best spot. To be honest, it was refreshing and I felt more like a true landscape photographer.

canon 24mm lens
Wide angle image of Millenium Bridge, shot with Canon 1D X and 24mm 2.8 lens.

 

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For this low down viewpoint the 24mm was just too wide for the best composition. I switched to the standard 50mm f/1.8 which provided a tighter and stronger image. It also gives fantastic image quality.

Even during this one initial shoot with the 24mm I could feel myself working harder; thinking more. With one focal length on the camera I was forced to think about the overall composition and discover the best viewpoint. In fact, it’s taken me back to the old days when I used to shoot with a Bronica ETRS medium format camera – a beautiful piece of equipment. Back then, I would carry just two fixed lenses – a wide angle and a standard. I would then set about finding the best compositions that would work best for these lenses. Many of theses images found their way into calendars and a few Dalesman front covers too. Time will tell, but I think I will begin to work better with my new combination. I can’t wait til my next landscape shoot! Zoom lenses are not bad pieces of kit, just don’t fall into the trap of letting the lens do the work. The most important factor in creating the image is always – the photographer’s eye!!

Interested in joining me for a Photography Workshop? I’ve worked with hundreds of photographers over the years both in group workshops and on a One to One basis. Check out the range of Photography Courses  including the soon to be added Night Photography Workshops – planned for Autumn 2017!

 

 

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