Thursday, March 19, 2015

My real world review of the new Canon 100-400mm II lens

I know, I know...many of you have been waiting for me to review the new Canon 100-400mm II lens for quite awhile. I have had the lens for more than 2 months and have not written a review until now. Why have I waited so long? Because I wanted to put this lens to the test in numerous real world scenarios before coming to any conclusions. Unlike other sites where they do all types of scientific tests of lenses and show graphs and charts, I wanted to try it out to see how it feels and how it performs in the real world!

Let me start by saying that the older 100-400mm lens from Canon is a good lens, and one that I relied quite often. Since I use this focal range so often and consider it vital to my business when shooting events (generally from the back of a temple or church), there was no doubt that I would purchase a new and improved version.

The original lens (which is one of the oldest L series lenses in Canon's lineup without an update) was a "push-pull zoom lens" which had its advantages and disadvantages. It was really easy to zoom from 100mm to 400mm or vice versa with a quick push or pull of the lens. But this same design created a vacuum effect, drawing air into the camera's sensor area. Some people referred to this lens design as the "dust pump". The other drawback of this design is that the focus would change slightly when you zoomed in and out. If you focused on a subject at 400mm and then pulled out to 150mm, there was a chance that your focus would drift off.

The new version of the Canon 100-400mm lens uses the more common twist method to zoom in and out. And, as it turns out, this too has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of the rotating zoom is that the lens holds focus through most of the focal range. If you are zoomed to 400mm and lock focus, then zoom back to 100mm, the sharpness stays. This design also makes the lens less likely to extend to its longest length when carrying it around. With the older model, unless I locked the lens down with some force, it would slide out when I walked around. This was a bit of a pain. The one drawback of the new design is that it takes slightly longer to zoom from 100mm to 400mm. Instead of a quick push or pull, I now have to turn the zoom ring a long way. Many times, this involves 2 twisting motions to get the lens zoomed all the way in or out. Is this critical? Not in most situations. But there are times when that split second can be the difference between getting the shot or not.

Before we get into the sample images, let me tell you why I love the 100-400mm focal range. The fact is, I like zoom lenses! They allow me to shoot wider or tighter without having to change my position, and in many cases allow me to get in close to a subject which might otherwise be impossible.

OK, let's take a look at some images that I took with the newer 100-400mm lens.

I received the new lens one day before leaving for our family vacation in Mammoth Lakes, CA. So I used this trip to test out the lens for the very first time.

These first two images are a great example of why I like the 100-400mm zoom.

This first image was taken at 100mm. If you look closely, you can see the bird at the top of the rocks.

This second image was taken at 400mm (zoomed all the way in) and you can now see the bird much better.  I did not move my shooting position at all, but the subject is totally different in these two shots.

It was late in the day when I was taking these images. I looked up and saw the sun setting behind the nearby rocks and quickly changed the aperture of the camera to f/18 to test the sunburst effect from the new lens. I was very happy with the results.

These first three images were taken with the lens attached to the Canon 7D Mark II, effectively extending the range of the lens due to the smaller crop sensor. This brings up another point. This lens does work well with either a crop sensor or full frame camera.

Since we were in the snow (what little we have had in California this year), and I was anxious to test out this lens, I decided to shoot images of our dog Cooper. For this shot, I wanted to test the clarity of the lens. This photo was taken with the Canon 1DX and the lens at 340mm, and the sharpness was excellent.

This is a tight crop from the image above. The detail in the pinecone is excellent, even with the lens zoomed close to it's full range.

And then...with my dog in full action, it was time to test the focusing speed of the new 100-400 lens. Once again, the lens performed well.

Not having any scientific data, but looking at the images captured, I would say that this newer lens focuses at least 20% better than the original version.

Back home in the Bay Area, the weather conditions were a little different and it was time to try the lens for sports.

Firstly, I should say that I really like the compact size of this lens. Some people would look at this lens and think that it is really big, but for a sports photographer who is used to carrying around a 400mm f/2.8 or a 500mm f/4 lens at all the Olympics, this lens seems compact and easy to carry around.

I was asked to photograph my daughter's high school swim meet, so I popped the new lens on the Canon 7D Mark II to test both together in this environment. This first photo was taken with the lens zoomed all the way out to 400mm, and the lens worked perfectly.

You can see the level of detail in this swimmer's face. For those people who say that zoom lenses do not give you acceptable clarity, I would disagree.

Here are another couple of examples. The camera was in AI Servo focus mode and tracked with no problems, from the side...

...and with the swimmer coming right at me.

Just for the fun of it, I slowed the shutter speed down to 1/80 sec and panned with this swimmer to see how the lens felt with motion panning. Once again, I was happy with the results. Canon says that the image stabilization is substantially better in this newer version and I have no reason to doubt them. I did not spend much time testing this feature to see how it worked when purposely moving the camera, but it was turned on to mode 1 for all of these photos (even on this shot at a slow shutter speed) and the images speak for themselves.

But the real test for me was not with sports and family photos, it was putting the lens to test at an event. Remember, this is where the lens has to work well. I was waiting to photograph a wedding or Bar Mitzvah inside, with much less light, before making any final judgement. In the last couple of weeks I photographed a couple of Bar Mitzvahs with the lens and had a chance to see how it stacked up against the older model in this tougher environment.

This photo was taken in a rather large temple, where photographers are required to stand in the back. Of course, no flash is allowed during the service, so I am typically cranking up my ISO between 2000 and 3200 in order to achieve a relatively fast shutter speed. Whenever I shoot with the lens mounted on a tripod, I turn off the IS, so that is not a factor here. I also use back button focusing to lock in the focus and sometimes use Live View to zoom in and fine tune the focusing. Taken at 400mm, this lens lets me get up close and personal with my subjects while staying far away and inconspicuous.

For this shot, I pulled back to 330mm to make sure I had mom, dad and son in the frame.

This shot was taken a week later at another temple, which is slightly smaller. This photo was taken at 220mm. If you have followed my work for awhile, you know that I like trying to find unique photos from every event that I shoot. Here I pulled back to include some of the crowd and focused on the family watching the bar mitzvah boy. I shot this at f/5 to make sure that the focus was off on the boy and tack sharp on the family, thus drawing the viewer's eye to the family.

At some parts of the service, the congregation is asked to rise. I used all 400mm of the new lens to get in between the people to show the happy young man.

Here is a tight crop from the same image. Yes, there is some noise because I was shooting at ISO 3200 on the Canon 5D Mark III (in silent mode), but the detail is definitely there.

Speaking of getting in close, I love the fact that this newer version of the 100-400mm lens lets me focus much closer to objects.  The minimum focus distance is now approximately 35 inches which is almost half of what the older lens could achieve. I could have really used this in Costa Rica! There were so many times when I was trying to photograph a critter and could not get far enough back to achieve a good focus.


I can tell you that the new Canon 100-400mm II lens is well worth the upgrade. Here is why it is better than the previous model:

* It is sharper (all the way from 100mm to 400mm)
* It focuses faster
* It holds focus better when zooming in or out
* The image stabilization is newer and better
* The minimum focus distance is half of what the older model could achieve
* Better weather sealing
* The new lens hood has a retractable door for rotating a filter

If anyone is interested in buying my older version, it is now for sale. :)


If you are interested in purchasing any camera equipment, please click here to go to B&H Photo, as I get a referral from them if you enter this way. I would really appreciate that.


And also, remember that you and your friends can enter your email address at the top right of this blog to get an email any time I write a new blog post.



Unknown said...

Very complete and well done review. You answered many questions I had regarding the lens and the test photos were most beneficial. Looks like Canon has another winner!!
Thank you for reviewing this for us as many have learned to trust your opinion - I remain most grateful.



Al Foote III said...

Hey Jeff --

Question for you. You say:
"Yes, there is some noise because I was shooting at ISO 3200 on the Canon 5D Mark III (in silent mode)"

Was the "in silent mode", just for flavor, or do you find that it actually affects the noise level?

Unknown said...

Great review. My only complaint I have is that I'm now tempted to go buy one.
Since funds are a bit tight after upgrading my camera body I'll have to stick to the old one for now.

Unknown said...

AI Foote III
I would say it's more as a flavour mostly, however, by pointing at that Jeff is telling us how important it is to shoot in silent mode when a very important ceremony is going on and they need all the audience to be silent (which includes our cameras shutter!!! ;)
Another fact is that since the lens is zoomed all the way to 400 which possibly is more sensitive to vibration noise, a silent shutter can help reduce the vibration and to result a slightly better quality photo (noise wise)...

Jeff Cable Photography Blog said...

Al, I was just reminding people of silent mode when shooting in a quiet location. It shouldn't affect the ISO at all.

Elise said...

How much are you asking for the old lens?

Anonymous said...

at 400mm the quality looks the ame as on my 150-600mm tamron.

only that the tamron cost only half of what canon wants for the 100-400mm.

Unknown said...

Love the review, and now I desperately need this lens, of course. However, considering that my old 100-400 is only worth about $850 now, is the new lens $1,349 better than the old one? I suppose my old lens isn't getting any more valuable, so I might as well get what I can for it now, but I just hate to sell such am amazing lens for $850. It hurts.

Unknown said...

Was wondering if you could elaborate on how the ring zoom design is superior to the previous push pull design. The optics are still moving relatively the same amount for zooming, thus the same amount of air needs to be displaced. Wouldn't the dust pump effect more or less be the same? Or what am I missing?

Thanks for your hands on review and comparison of new vs old.

Anonymous said...

I greatly appreciate your insight into the quality of this lens. For those of us that cannot afford the high end $10,000 lenses this sounds like quite the option and I appreciate the church examples as those are very indicative of lower light venues that many of us work in and I am leaning toward purchasing this great new version of the Canon lens.

My other question would be in regard to the Sigma 2.8 120-300 lens and how you would rate the performance of that lens in this type of environment. I have seen where you evaluated your 120-300 in the past in a school sports venue and was wondering if 300 mm would get us in tight enough to our subjects and if the quality of that lens was good enough to warrant its use in a low light venue such as in a church wedding. I have no experience with Sigma outside the 85mm prime I purchased after seeing your examples a couple of years ago and have had great luck with that lens but a prime and a zoom are far different lenses. If it isn't much trouble and you could share your experience with the Sigma 120-300 lens in this type of environment it would be very cool and greatly appreciated.

Thanks again for all you do,

Anonymous said...

+jeffcable can I try I mean rent this lens for a well lit msg kickboxing match iso 4000 - possibly 8000max ? I shot bfor at iso 4000 1/1000 f4 on 70-200 2.8 ii and 1/1000 on a 1dxii.. is this not a good ap for 300-400mm.