18 Mar 2015 Canon EF 100-400mm Mark II Lens Review (Podcast 463)
Canon recently released a long awaited Mark II version of their legendary 100-400mm lens, that was loved by many until the resolution of our cameras out-grew it. Today we’re going to take a look at this new lens, to see if it was worth the wait.
As the megapixels of the images that our cameras record increases, the demand on our lenses to resolve light down to a finer point of light increases too. Without sharp lenses, high resolution cameras can’t maximise the benefit of having more megapixels, and this is what happened with the original version of Canon’s 100-400mm lens.
A Little History
As digital came in and cameras went from 3 to 6, 8 then 12 megapixels, the telephoto end of the lens got gradually softer, and then as the 20+ megapixel cameras arrived, it really became unusable. If you are one of the people that has or still uses the old 100-400mm then this may seem harsh, but I personally found it so soft at 21 megapixels that I stopped using it, and sold my old copy after just not taking it out for a few years after buying a 1Ds Mark III and 5D Mark II.
For 8 years since then, my long lens needs were catered for by the 600mm and 300mm prime lenses with extender combinations, and they were great lenses, but I always missed the versatility of the zoom. I sold both the 600mm and 300mm to help pay for the 200-400mm 1.4X Extender lens in 2013, and that was a revolution in itself, giving me the ability to zoom from 200mm to 560mm with the flick of a switch, but it’s still a hefty lens, and requires a tripod and gimbal head for prolonged use.
I still missed having a reasonable range in a hand-holdable package, until of course, Canon released the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM at the end of 2014. My 200-400mm isn’t going anywhere, but with the release of the Canon EOS 7D Mark II also at the end of 2014, because of its crop factor, I can effectively zoom from 160mm to 640mm when using the new 100-400mm with the 7D Mark II.
I found myself liberated once again as I shot for four weeks on my two Japan Winter Wonderland Tours in January and February 2015. Being able to effortlessly hand-hold up to the equivalent of 640mm for long periods of time was something I quickly realised I had dearly missed. I also took and used my 200-400mm as that gets me to almost 900mm on the 7D2 with the 1.4X Extender engaged, and that is out of this world!
OK, so let’s look at what’s changed. One of the biggest differences between the original version and the new Mark II is that Canon moved away from the pump-action of the Mark I. People seemed to be polarised by this on the old lens, some loving and some hating it. I was in the love-it crowd.
The problem that people often quoted was that the original lens was a “dust-pump” bringing in dust and dumping it on the sensor as you pumped the lens in and out through it’s zoom range. Personally I didn’t really find that an issue, but I loved being able to zoom through the entire range just by pushing the lens in and out.
Slow Zoom Ring
In fact, pretty much the only thing that I don’t like about the new 100-400mm lens is the zoom action. I can live with it being a zoom ring over the pump-action, but I think the amount of twist required to zoom through the entire zoom range from 100 to 400mm is about twice as much as it needs to be. I’ve become more accustomed to this to a degree over the past two months, but still, very often I find myself having to reposition my hand mid-zoom, sometimes losing shots, when I zoom out as a subject moves towards me for example.
Zoom Touch Adjustment Ring
There is also a new Zoom Touch Adjustment Ring, that can be loosened to make it easier to zoom, and I found keeping this loose certainly made it easier to zoom through the entire range without repositioning my hand. It’s also good to be able to tighten this up to stop the lens from extending when carrying the lens around if you are carrying your camera with a strap on the camera. When using the camera strap the lens dangles down, and can extend out more easily than when carrying the camera and lens attached to the tripod mount ring, as I do with my Black Rapid straps for example.
Removable Tripod Mount Foot
Another nice addition is the removable tripod mount. There is a knurled knob now between the tripod mount and the ring on the lens, to enable you to easily remove the tripod mount foot when you aren’t using it. Because I attach my strap to the foot when shooting wildlife, I didn’t take it off very often, but when using a strap on the camera body it’s nice to be able to easily remove this tripod foot, as it can get in the way a little.
Mode 3 Image Stablization
In addition to Mode 1 for static subjects, and Mode 2 for panning with moving subjects, the new 100-400mm also has the new Mode 3 Image Stabilisation mode. This basically turns off Image Stabilization while you are looking through the lens and only turns it on during the exposure. The manual says that this is good for shooting fast and irregularly moving subjects, but I honestly found it difficult to use, especially when zoomed in a lot.
Especially on a crop-factor camera, I like to see the image stabilised through the finder even when I’m composing my shot, so I only tried this for a while then went back to Mode 1 or 2, depending on my subject type.
Incredibly Close Minimum Focus Distance
The first thing I checked when I got this lens, especially as I’d bought it without checking the specs, was the minimum focus distance. Because this had been so close with the 70-200mm f/2.8 Mark II lens, I had my hopes up that it would be close, but I was blown away to find that it was just 0.98 meters or 3.22 feet.
Remember that this distance is measured from the sensor though, so we’re really talking about being able to focus on a subject just two feet or so from the end of the lens hood, even at 400mm, and that is amazing!
Because of this, I was able to get in really close for photos like this one of a Snow Monkey deep in thought (right).
Filter Adjustment Window
When I bought my old 100-400mm lens I actually had a hold cut into the base of the lens hood by laser so that I could get my finger in there to adjust a polariser filter when necessary. Well, another nice touch with the new 100-400mm is that there’s a special window at the base of the lens hood that you can open when necessary to adjust your filter. It’s nice to see Canon actually listening to their users in at least some areas.
While on the subject of the lens hood, there’s also one of those nice little locking buttons now too, so once the hood is on and clicked into place, you have to press the button before you can rotate it to remove the hood again. This is a small detail, but a welcome change, especially with a lens like this that you run and gun with. Hood falling off is a pain and can be an expensive deal if you lose it.
Above all though, the main area that has been improved with this Mark II version of the 100-400mm lens from Canon, is without doubt the sharpness of this little beauty. I was impressed by the closer minimum focus, but I have been absolutely blown away by the sharpness of this new lens.
Here for example is a photo of a Steller’s Sea Eagle opening his talons preparing for attack, and I photographed him here at 349mm, ISO 320 at f/11 for 1/1000 of a second exposure with the Canon EOS 7D Mark II (below).
And here is a 100% crop of just his head and the talons (below). Click on the image to actually view at 100% as it’s downsized when embedded in the blog post. Note that these original images are sharpened only with the standard Lightroom sharpness settings of Amount 25, Radius 1.0 and Detail 25. The 100% crops have no additional sharpening applied.
The original 100-400mm was notorious for getting softer at the extremes of its zoom range, 100mm and 400mm. So, here’s a photo of a Japanese Red-Crowned Crane that I shot at 100mm as the crane flew directly overhead during my Japan wildlife tour and workshop (below).
And here is a 100% crop of the head and a section of the body and underwings (below), so that you can see just how sharp this new lens is. It was shot at 100mm, f/10, 1/1250 of a second at ISO 320 with the Canon EOS 7D Mark II. Again, click on the image to view full size, as the embedded version has been downsized slightly for the blog post.
Here also is a photo of a Black Kite in flight shot at 400mm (below) at f/10, 1/1000 of a second, ISO 500, with the Canon EOS 1D X.
And here is a 100% crop of the Black Kite. Again, the sharpness is quite amazing for a lens with such a large zoom range. I’ve been really impressed.
Here’s another example at 400mm, this time of a Steller’s Sea Eagle just sitting on the ice (below). This one was shot with the 7D Mark II at 1/800, f/9, ISO 800.
And here is the 100% crop. Again, there has been no more than Lightroom’s default sharpening applied here, so personally I feel that this level of sharpness is pretty amazing really for a zoom lens with this range.
I haven’t shot with this lens with a 1.4X Extender on in the field, so I don’t have any example shots with the Extender, but I have just done some test shots with a target pinned to the wall in my studio, so I’ll share the results of these tests with you too.
Resolution Test Results
This test was done by pinning a resolution test chart to the wall, and photographing it at 100, 200 and 400mm, at f/5.6, f/8 and f/11 for each focal length. I then attached the 1.4X Extender Mark III for a focal length of 560mm and shot two more frames at f/8 and f/11. Note that adding the Extender causes the aperture to stop down by one stop, so there is no f/5.6 when using the Extender.
Here first, just for illustration, is the 11 resulting photographs. Because I had to move my camera for each test shot, each image moved slightly, so I’ve aligned the images in Photoshop and trimmed a little bit off around the edges to make it easier to see the relationship between each frame. Note that I added the focal length and aperture labels in Photoshop as well.
You’ll notice that there is a little bit of distortion at 100mm that disappears by the time you zoom in to 200mm. This isn’t a problem and you can’t see it in the images shot in the field. You will only notice this when doing tests like this.
Here now is a 100% crop of the centre of the above animation (below). You’ll have to click on it to view the larger image with animation.
Basically, you’ll see sharp images throughout the entire range, and even the 1.4X Extender images are acceptably sharp, especially if you need an extra bit of reach without splashing out for the 200-400mm with the integral 1.4X Extender, at pretty much five times the price of the 100-400mm.
Here also is the top right corner of the tests at 100% (below). You’ll see that there is a little bit of chromatic aberration in the corner at 100mm, while the lens has that bit of distortion at 100mm, but that also clears up as we zoom in.
It’s not perfect, but all in all, the new 100-400mm lens from Canon performs exceptional well in the field, really across the entire zoom range. Tests will pretty much always show up some minor flaws, but my experience from the field over the last few months really tell me that this is a winner.
Lightening Fast Autofocus
Apart from the zoom action which I really would have liked to see Canon make much snappier, the lens handles incredibly well. I haven’t yet mentioned that another area that has been greatly improved is the autofocus speed. It’s been so long since I used my old 100-400mm, that I can’t remember just how slow it was, but I was never overwhelmed with the speed of the autofocus, and I recall thinking just how fast my other lenses started to become as I bought more telephoto lenses. The 100-400mm Mark II is totally stress-free when it comes to the speed of autofocus. It just snaps onto the subject as quickly as you can operate the camera.
OK, so here’s my verdict on the 100-400mm. If you are a Canon shooter and in the market for a lens for hand-held wildlife or sports, you can’t go wrong with the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens. There really isn’t anything that I can think of that would make me think twice about picking up one of these little babies.
In fact, I was so confident that I was going to love this lens that I ordered it before I’d even read the specs. Of course, you know me though. I am not giving this lens a rave review because I have committed to liking it. If I didn’t like this lens, or anything else that I review for that matter, you know that I’d tell you. Sure, it has a few quirks, but honestly, the versatility, sharpness and speed of this lens far outweigh any of the little issues I’ve mentioned in this review.
Why Keep the 200-400mm?
As I mentioned, I also own the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4X Extender lens, so I’m sure some of you are wondering if I’ll be selling that. Well, as I mentioned earlier, I won’t, as it is certainly nice to be able to add that 1.4X Extender just with a flick of a switch. The image quality, honestly, is pretty much the same as the 100-400mm Mark II. You don’t see that distortion at the wide end, but then you can’t go to 100mm anyway. In many ways, the 100-400mm is more versatile, and hand-holdable, but the 200-400mm is just too good a lens to let go.
Would I have bought the 200-400mm if the 100-400mm lens was released first? Now that’s a tough one. I think probably yes, but it would have been a much harder decision. Especially when you consider that the 200-400mm is five times the price of this 100-400mm, and requires a tripod and gimbal for prolonged use, the 100-400mm starts to become even more appealing.
OK, so as is often the case with gear reviews, this has been quite a big job to put together, so if you decide to pick up your own Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens, and you shop at B&H, my favourite online store, you could help me to continue these reviews by buying with our affiliate link, which is http://mbp.ac/100-400ii or click on the icons below. The product of course stay the same price to you, but we get a modest payment from B&H if you buy with this link. Thank you!
Namibia Full Circle
Before we finish, I’d just like to mention that we have had few cancellations for my Namibia Full Circle Tour with Jeremy Woodhouse, so if you’d like to join us to visit that extraordinarily beautiful corner of Africa for an amazing landscape, wildlife and cultural tour, from August 10 to 26 this year, we’d love to hear from you. You can see details on Jeremy’s Web site at http://mbp.ac/namibia2015, and if you sign-up, don’t forget to tell Jeremy that I sent you.
The Canon EF 100-400mm Mark II on B&H: http://mbp.ac/100-400ii
Namibia Full Circle: http://mbp.ac/namibia2015
Music by Martin Bailey
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