FOCUS ON: EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM

March 13, 2013

Are great images a product of the photographer, or their camera equipment? The Focus On series explores the idea that it's BOTH: Featuring a professional photographer and a Canon lens, the Canon Digital Learning Center focuses on the relationship that artists can have with their gear.

In this Focus On installment, we interview George Lepp, Explorer of Light and Field Editor of Digital Photo and Outdoor Photographer – where he has been a columnist for the past 28 years–, about his use of the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM telephoto lens.

Canon Digital Learning Center (CDLC): Historically, serious wildlife and nature photographers have used slower lenses, like 500mm f/4s, because of their combination of power and reduced weight. What does having the faster f/2.8 lens aperture bring to a nature photographer's shooting experience?

George Lepp (GL): When photographers work in field conditions, the size and weight of equipment becomes really important. Slower lenses, such as the 500mm f/4L, give lots of reach while being light enough to be hand-held when necessary. But autofocus is also a critical factor, especially in wildlife photography, and the main limitation of these lenses has been the inability to use optimum autofocus settings with the pro camera bodies when the camera required an f/stop in the area of f/2.8 to employ all of the autofocus sensors. Now, with a smaller and lighter EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II, we have the AF advantages of the faster lens along with a brighter image in the viewfinder.
 

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CDLC: 400mm f/2.8 lenses have traditionally rarely been used by nature shooters, because of their weight – and one of the highlights of this latest Version II IS lens is the significant reduction in its weight. How was this lens to transport and work with on-location? How was the handling, when tripod- or monopod-mounted?

GL: The reduction in weight and size is significant with the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II lens. Nature photographers disregarded the previous EF 400mm f/2.8 lens because of its weight and bulk. It was impossible to hand-hold that lens. The new MK II lens is very close in weight and size to the EF 500mm f/4L lens and is easier to transport on airlines as well as carry in the field when using mono-pods and tripods. I used the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II in a number of venues in my test and found it to be very similar in handling to my favorite EF 500mm f/4L telephoto.
 

CDLC: What camera bodies did you work with when evaluating this new 400mm f/2.8L IS II lens?

GL: For some of the evaluation projects, I chose the EOS 5D MK III for its lower weight and excellent file quality. I used this combination to photograph butterflies at 4.5 feet; even with a flash attached, I was able to manage the weight and bulk hand-held over the course of several hours. I also attached the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II to my EOS-1D MK IV when needing extra reach in photographing shy wildlife, because I liked the additional 1.3X crop factor the combination offered me (1040mm w/the EF 2X III). With the new EOS-1DX and its extremely fast capture speed of 12 frames per second and optimum autofocus, I had great success with fast-moving birds. All of the cameras worked perfectly with the lens.
 

CDLC: One of the most challenging subjects to an autofocus system is birds in flight... how did you find the combination of the new 400mm lens and the cameras you used, in terms of focus tracking capability, and low-light focus performance?

GL: I traveled to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico so I could put in a lot of flight time with the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II and the EOS-1DX. At this time of year, the NWR hosts many hundreds of over-wintering sandhill cranes and thousands of snow geese. From before sunrise until after sunset, the reserve offers photographers an enormous number of opportunities to photograph flying birds throughout the day. This camera/lens combination is as good as it gets for fast AF because of the f/2.8 (f/5.6 with the 2X tele-extender – 800mm). The extra f/stops of the f/2.8 lens were an advantage over slower telephotos. The results shown here are examples of the speed of focus, fast frame rate, and the brighter viewfinder that the combination offered me.
 

CDLC: When you looked closely at your image files, how did the new 400mm f/2.8 lens stand up optically? Any specific areas where it was noteworthy, such as back-lit scenes, wide-open image quality, and so on?

GL: Different subjects tend to highlight features of a particular optic. With the new 400mm f/2.8L IS II the feather detail on the birds was excellent. When I photographed butterflies, I was amazed at the detail in butterfly wings; I could see the individual scales on the wings as well as if I had used a dedicated macro lens! Photographing the backlit geese was interesting, in that the lens maintained excellent contrast and little flare. In all respects I was impressed with the lens's sharpness.
 

CDLC: Can you speak about how you used Image Stabilization during the time you had this lens? Did you notice any real-world improvements in how stabilization worked, vs. previous-generation Canon super-tele lenses you've used? What do you think IS brings to the nature and wildlife shooter during super-telephoto shooting?

GL: Image stabilization is imperative when hand-holding any telephoto lens – I don't care if you use a 1/1000th second or shorter shutter speeds. As it turned out, I used the camera/lens combination hand-held at speeds from 1/30th second up to 1/750th second. On several occasions when I was tracking deer the useable shutter speed in the woods was 1/125th to 250th second because of lower light with cloud cover or shaded habitat. I achieved many perfectly sharp images.

It's very important to be able to hand-hold a long lens while tracking a subject in conditions where a tripod is not practical. It just offers more possibilities for capturing the subject and the moment. Based on this evaluation, I would have to say that the IS function on the new 400mm f/2.8 lens is better than any lens I've used in the past.
 

CDLC: Did you work with either the 1.4x or 2x Canon tele extenders during your time with the 400mm f/2.8L IS II lens? Any comments on their performance, and did the option of extenders increase this lens's usefulness compared to the 500mm lenses you're accustomed to using?

GL: Nature photographers never have enough reach (read mm's). I probably used the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II more with the EF 2X III attached than without it. I also used it on occasion with the EF 1.4X III. I never worried about losing sharpness with the 2X combination, even though I know some quality is lost with any tele-extender. The fact is that if the base lens is very good the slight loss of quality will not be noticed, and I didn't notice any quality loss in my final images.

On a full-frame camera body, the EF 2X III with the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II offers a final focal length of 800mm at f/5.6. On my EF 500mm f/4L IS the 2X provides a final focal length of 1000mm, but at a fairly slow f/stop of f/8. On occasion I add both the 1.4X and the 2X II tele-extenders to the 500mm for a total reach of 1400mm at f/11. Not the best of methods, but sometimes you just need to maximize the focal length. The new 1.4X and 2X III tele-extenders will not stack together, so it was not possible to test them in this way on the new 400mm. Another way to reach out, of course, is to use one of the APS-C sensor cameras like the EOS 7D that offers a 1.6X crop factor. In that case, the 400mm lens with the 2X tele-extender offers an angle of view equivalent to a 1280mm telephoto with a maximum aperture of f/5.6!
 

CDLC: The new 400mm lens weighs virtually the same as Canon's previous-generation 500mm f/4L IS lens, which many nature shooters consider a "portable" long telephoto lens. How would you compare the handling of these two, as well as the ease with which they can be carried on-location?

GL: I changed from a 600mm f/4L to the 500mm f/4L IS a number of years ago because I needed a lens that I could hand-hold when necessary and that was easier to transport on airlines. I was willing to give up 100mm to accomplish these two objectives. When tracking animals the weight and mass of a lens becomes a factor, and as I get older this factor becomes more important. The reduced weight and bulk of the new 400mm f/2.8L IS II definitely makes this lens a player in the nature photography area. Photographers will have to decide if they are willing to give up another 100mm in reach for the extra low-light capabilities and the resulting better auto focus.
 

CDLC: What's your preferred method for actually shooting with this lens: working from a tripod with special head, from a monopod, or another method?

GL: My preferred method is always from a tripod, but we have to adapt to the reality of the environment. I'm often photographing from boats, or tracking a subject in an area where a tripod is not practical, and that's why the ability to hand-hold is so important. In most locations, I'll attach the lens/camera to a tripod and place it over my shoulder to transport it around. In Africa I use a small tripod in the open vehicles, and from a car in a refuge I often work from a window mount that has a ball head. I typically use ball heads as the main base on a tripod. I find the larger gimbal units to be too heavy and not beneficial when I have to change to a lens that doesn't have a tripod collar. But these are choices made by the individual photographer, of course, and many wildlife photographers use the gimbal heads.
 

CDLC: What types of nature subjects, in particular, do you think a 400mm f/2.8 lens would be especially useful for? Is this now a lens that the serious, dedicated nature photography enthusiast should consider?

GL: In my evaluation I found the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II to be especially useful in bird photography when paired with the EF 2X III (800mm f/5.6) because of the close focus capability, excellent AF potential, and low-light advantage. Much bird photography occurs at dawn and dusk. Couple this with the high ISO possibilities of the pro camera bodies, and the lens is very viable for nature work. The incredible sharpness of this MK II lens and others in the series makes them useful for general nature photography as well, such as landscape and even the butterfly application that I tried.

Early in my Canon-based nature/outdoor photography career, my go-to lens was the EF300mm f/2.8L lens with the EF 1.4X and 2X tele-extenders. This gave me an ultra-fast 300mm f/2.8 telephoto, a moderately fast f/4 420mm lens and a lightweight f/5.6 600mm ultra-telephoto that focused very close for the small birds. With the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II, we again have this same utilitarian combination. It's more expensive, but it yields 100mm more focal length and some great sharpness at all focal lengths.
 

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