The New Canon 100-400 mm f/5.6 IS II Lens

Author: Bruce Taubert

Butterfly -- © Bruce Taubert
Butterfly — © Bruce Taubert

I know that equipment reviews are booooring but I have not been so excited about a new lens in, well forever. Canon just released the 100-400 mm f/5.6 IS II lens and I want to let you know about my experience with it. The older 100-400 mm f/5.6 IS lens was built in the late 1990’s and was, at best OK. For decent images it has to be stopped down to f/8, the close focus is 6 feet, the push-pull zoom mechanism is a dust magnate, and the Image Stabilizer old school. It was a great lens for high-speed hummingbird photography and, because of its utility, I did take it on plenty of trips. The results were just fair! I ended up purchasing the new (at that time) 70-200 mm f/2.8 IS II and using it with a 2X teleconverter. The results were MUCH better but the autofocus was rather slow-too slow for much of the flying bird photography I do.

Snail Kite -- © Bruce Taubert
Snail Kite — © Bruce Taubert

When Nikon came out with the new 80-400 f/5.6 lens I contemplated purchasing a Nikon camera just so I could get the advantages of the new telephoto zoom. My mother would have turned over in her grave? Then Canon offered the 200-400 f/4 with built in 1.4 teleconverter. The test results were wonderful. The lens was touted as being as sharp as prime lenses throughout its range and it only lost a little quality when the teleconverter was injected. I really wanted that lens until I saw the price tag-an amazing $11,000. Again, I thought about the Nikon!!!!

Ptarmigan -- Bruce Taubert
Ptarmigan — Bruce Taubert

Finally, Canon, without hardly any fanfare announced the new 100-400 mm f/5.6 IS II lens. I found out via an email announcement from B&H. I pre-ordered the lens that same day. And, amazingly, Canon met their production date and soon the man in the brown vehicle delivered it to my door.

Was my $2200 well spent?

Great Blue Heron -- © Bruce Taubert
Great Blue Heron — © Bruce Taubert

My first opportunity to give the new lens a trial was an April trip to Florida where I was going to take images of osprey at Blue Cypress Lake and then lead an Arizona Highways Photo Workshop in the Everglades. Since I would be photographing the osprey from a boat I needed a lens that I could handhold but would give me a decent telephoto reach and on the workshop I was assisting and training participants so I was forced to catch images when there was a break in my other duties (it was impractical to carry a tripod and 500 mm lens).

Osprey -- © Bruce Taubert
Osprey — © Bruce Taubert

The light was great, I was shooting fast shutter speeds at f/7.1 and the resultant images were fantastic. Ninety percent of my shots were tack sharp, the lenses autofocus was amazingly fast, and the zoom mechanism quite easy to use. But, I was not always able to work in great lighting conditions so I was still wondering how the new lens would operate in my “normal” bad or variable lighting.

The following month a few of my friends and I went to Colorado to photograph sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, and greater prairie chickens at their leks. A lek is a place where all of the male birds gather to attract the females to their beds. The action is hectic, fast moving, and about half of the ritual begins one half hour before sunrise in really bad light. Because we never knew how close the grouse would be to our blinds I needed a telephoto zoom, and a good tripod, to take maximum advantage of these conditions. We had great lighting conditions on the second, third, and fourth days. The first and fifth days were dismal. Predawn I was shooting at f/5.6, around 1/200 sec., and high ISO. After sunrise life was better.

Greater Prairie Chicken -- © Bruce Taubert
Greater Prairie Chicken — © Bruce Taubert

Wide open, low light, and slow shutter speeds did not did not phase this wonderful little lens. My images were sharp, the autofocus handled the low light great, and, again, the zoom was easy to use. Depending on the camera body I am using I now have a lens that operates from 100-640 mm, can be shot wide open when necessary, is sharp at all focal ranges, and has an image stabilization that is beyond my dreams.

Give this one an A+++


Bruce Taubert is a biologist and Wildlife Photographer and instructor for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.