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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Iceland Photography Tour Report 2018

Iceland Photography Tour Report 2018

In June 2018 I spent seven nights in Iceland in the enjoyable company of three clients – Shelley, Nigel and Craig. Iceland’s weather is very changeable and you never quite know what to expect. Upon arriving we were treated to glorious conditions with clear blue skies and thin cloud providing beautiful light. Our first part of the tour concentrated on Red throated Divers. This special breeding site on the south of the island really is a remarkable place for bird photography. I’ve been here three times previously and captured stunning images of the divers, but you never get bored of these birds… and there’s always something new to photograph. Over three sessions we managed some quality images – often in near perfect light. At 10.00pm we were still shooting, such are the long days of Iceland’s summer. The light at this time is wonderful – just perfect for bird photography.

iceland photography tour

photographing red throated divers

red throated diver photography

Watch my YouTube video of the Red throated Divers

I set myself the challenge of Red throated Divers in flight and concentrated my efforts on one pond. Many divers would fly over, eliciting responses from below with their constant wailing calls. During two evening sessions the sky was almost completely clear, giving perfect backdrops for divers in flight. A few days before the trip my 500mm lens had suddenly failed, so I was making do with the Canon 400mm f5.6. Whilst not as fast, it certainly makes hand-holding easier – and with good light, it’s actually pretty good for flight photography. Around the pools we also photographed a range of birds including Snipe, Red necked Phalarope and Whooper Swan.

red throated diver in flight

flying red throated diver

photographing red throated loons

red throated loon photography

red throated loon tour

snipe photography

Our next leg of the trip included a long drive East, stopping at Vik. The weather was pretty wet here with murky low mist but I was determined to get some images of the beach. Despite the wind and rain (not unusual in Iceland!) I attached my Canon 50mm 1.8 lens and did the best I could hand-held. In these types of conditions I find hand-holding a good option as you can quickly put the camera away should it become too wet. The rain eased off slightly and I went for some shallow depth of field images using the church in the background. Again, hand-held. Despite the dank conditions, Redwings regularly flitted around the lupins occasionally perching on the fence posts.iceland nature photography tour

vik photography iceland

We stopped again briefly, on our return journey and in (slightly) drier conditions I captured photos of the rock stacks – again using shallow depth of field with the flowering lupins as foreground. For this image I used my Canon 100mm f2.8 and took a number of shots varying the focus. I preferred the focus purely on the distant rock stacks.

iceland photography trip

View the 2019 Iceland Photography Tour with Explore Nature

Our last part of the tour included Jokulsarlon, the magnificent ice lagoon. It’s no overstatement to say that this is a photographer’s paradise. From landscapes to wildlife, and something in between, you could shoot here all day. The landscape constantly shifts as the tide brings in new blocks of ice -and washes them away again. Every day is different – not just in the moving icebergs but also in the varying hues of blue. We all managed some landscape photographs and I was particularly pleased to get something decent from the beach – a very strange and quite baron looking environment. Craig particularly enjoyed the landscape and the opportunities to capture more environmental images of birds.

jokulsarlon photography tour

iceland photography tour

 

photographing jokulsarlon beach

Nigel was in his element, using his 600mm lens to capture Snow Buntings, Arctic Terns and Skuas. The Snow Buntings here are remarkable, allowing really close views. They would constantly hop around the rocks, including juveniles waiting to be fed. Even a torrential downpour didn’t stop these hardy little birds – the males even carried on singing! 

bird photography iceland

icelandic bird tour

Shelley was content to stay by the water’s edge photographing Eiders and Barnacle Geese as they slowly drifted by in this unique habitat. A long lens isn’t always the best option at Jokulsarlon. Switching to something smaller really allows the environment to come into frame. A 300mm or 400mm can be ideal, or even a 200mm zoom.

icelandic wildlife tour

bird tour iceland

The Arctic Terns at Jokulsarlon provide amazing photo opportunities – from perched groups on icebergs to frantic mass diving into the glacial waters. We all spent time trying to capture a range of shots, including wider views of terns in the habitat. Skuas were constant companions too – as they mercilessly harassed the tern colony!

paul miguel photography iceland

 

iceland photography guide

iceland tour guide

arctic skua iceland

We spent three nights at Jokulsarlon, thoroughly enjoying our time there. We booked our last night at Keflavik, near the airport, and our final day saw the long journey back. Still, we had many opportunities along the way for even more photography, stopping for a beautiful landscape view near Skaftafell and a small waterfall by the roadside. You could literally stop round every corner in some parts of Iceland.!

landscape photography tour iceland

iceland landscape photography tour

iceland photography group

Our final stop was Seljalandsfoss – one of the more popular waterfalls in this part of Iceland. With flowering buttercups below and flying Fulmars above it was a lovely end to our week’s photography. Check out the 2019 Iceland Photography Tour which I will be leading for Explore Nature. For other Nature and Wildlife Photography Tours visit my website at Nature Photography Tours You can watch the video of this 2018 Iceland Tour Here on YouTube

7 night iceland tour

Hopefully this blog inspires you to take your own trip to Iceland. Whilst the country has grown rapidly in tourism, you can easily find places all to yourself without too much effort. Just get off the beaten track… and enjoy the solitude and serenity this country has to offer.

iceland photography tour group

To see more of my landscape and wildlife photography view the galleries at www.paulmiguel.co.uk 

paul miguel photography tours

You can see more photography from Shelley Knight at shelleyknightphotography.co.uk

shelley knight nature photography

Watch a range of Wildlife Photography Videos on my YouTube Channel

paul miguel youtube

Paul

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