Field Test: Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L II

We wanted to run a field test on the new Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L II lens and see how it performs ‘in the field’. We asked Mike Bell to run the review and tell us his thoughts on general performance, here are his findings.

Handholding from a standing position like this was impossible with the Canon 100-400mm Mk I

Handholding from a standing position like this was impossible with the Canon 100-400mm Mk I

You might be surprised to find a review of a long telephoto zoom lens on a web site about landscape photography. Take a closer look at any issue of Landscape Photography Magazine or any book of landscape photographs, however, and you will begin to notice that some of the most striking images could only have been taken at a focal length of 300mm or more – in 35mm terms. This range is normally associated with wildlife or sports photography, but why not landscapes as well? I intend to write an article for publication in the magazine about my love on long lenses for landscape photography at the near future.

When Canon recently upgraded their 100-400mm L zoom lens I was excited and bought one to take on a trip to Utah and Arizona just last month. I was keen to combine it with my Canon 5D Mk III to get the best image quality possible. I have owned a Canon 100-400mm L Mk I since 2006 and had taken that with me on a previous trip to Utah in 2009. When I reviewed the images from 2009 it turned out that the 100-400 lens was used in no fewer than 30% of my keeper images.

Gear-Test-Canon-100-400mm-f-4.5-5.6L-II-Bryce-Canyon-dawn-light,-Utah,-USAWhen the Mk II arrived I compared it with my Mk I version on my 5D Mk III camera body. The main differences you notice straight away are the change to a normal rotational zoom wheel (no more push-pull dust-pumping trombone-like zoom action) and a modest increase in weight from 1380g to 1640g. I quickly established that it was sharper throughout its range, especially at 400mm, and even sharp wide open at f/5.6. The sharpness extended to the corners at all focal lengths. Most impressive of all was the much-improved image stabilisation. Canon claim 4 stops of image stabilisation and I can confirm that is accurate. I was able to handhold at 400mm with a shutter speed of 1/20th sec and get sharp images!

You can see how shallow the DOF is at f/5.6 with lovely bokeh.

You can see how shallow the DOF is at f/5.6 with lovely bokeh.

Just a minute, handholding for landscape photography, I hear you protest! If you have read some of my LPM articles you will know that I am normally an advocate of tripods, with good reason. They aid composition, allow fine tuning of filters and focus and generally mean sharper images due to the elimination of camera shake. I say ‘generally’ because long lenses test the stability of a tripod and tripod head more than any other. They are heavy and long yet are typically supported at just one point where the tripod collar meets the head. Even a slight wind can set up rotational oscillations about this support point which you can see if you magnify the image in Live View mode. In windy conditions I have found that handholding long lenses with image stabilisation can often produce sharper images than on a tripod. With this new lens being sharp wide open and having 4 stops of stabilisation, handholding becomes a very feasible alternative.

The lens performed well in the field. Because of its weight I used an across the shoulder strap attached to the tripod mount to carry it and found this quite comfortable and convenient. I found I preferred the conventional zooming and the AF worked extremely well. The improved close focusing capabilities compared to the Mk I (0.98m down from 1.8m) meant that photographing details at my feet became possible. Upon my return from Utah I downloaded all my images and was delighted at the sharpness and quality. Colour and contrast were excellent and only a tiny handful showed poor focus (probably my technique).

Highly recommended

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About Author

Mike Bell

Mike is a landscape photographer based in Perthshire, Scotland where his photographs have been used by Perth and Kinross Countryside Trust, Visit Scotland, Forestry Commission Scotland and local tourist associations.


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    Sue Leonard on

    Great review. And gives me food for thought – do I want to spend out loadsamoney on one of these lenses.

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