The Canon 200-400 confession of a zoomless photographer

7 Sep 2015

The confession

This is a confession. I confess that I have only ever loved fixed super-telephoto lenses. I confess that I have always told other people to buy fixed lenses, and I confess that I have made a mistake.

Two Snowy Egrets in water, one of them are taking off to fly and the other landing

Fixed super-telephoto lenses

For thirty years I have been photographing with fixed focal length super-telephoto lenses. At the moment, I use the Canon 600mm f/4, 300mm f/2.8 and 300mm f/4, but have used everything from a Novoflex 600mm and 400mm, Canon 500mm f/4.5, 400mm f/4.5, and many more. I have however, never considered using a long zoom lens. I did use a certain dust-sucking apparatus for a few months before selling it (read Canon 100–400mm), but it was more like a one-night stand than a love affair, so it was almost never used.

I stuck to fixed lenses. I like my 300mm f/2.8, because one can use it with a 2× converter getting brilliant results and really love my 600mm f/4 t. In my opinion, there is no lens that even comes close.

Then again, I don’t really trust my own opinion any more, now that I realised that I might have been wrong about zoom super-telephoto lenses all along.

Leopard running through grass
Hippo splashing in water

Zoom freedom

Recently I bought the Canon 200–400mm f/4 lens. The price knocked me over, but what got me up again was the incredible versatility of this lens. All of a sudden I can be on a game drive with only two telephoto lenses (70–200mm f/2.8 and 200–400mm f/4), both of which can be handheld, and I don’t miss images any more.

A person can become more creative when it comes to framing images, instead of zooming to the perfect length, or trying to fit a subject into the limiting lens length of a fixed lens. I no longer think about which lens to use or which converter to attach, but rather how to create a beautiful image. Suddenly I am free and this freedom is worth the price of the lens.

Two adult elephants and one baby elephant playing in the dust at sunset near water


The images created by this lens are much better than a f/5.6 lens, more like a fixed 300mm f/2.8 than a 300mm f/4. When it comes to bokeh, the large diameter of the front element puts this lens into the pro lens category and using it without the built-in converter when the extra length is not necessary, really improves the effect.

Impala running through grass

Image quality

Like everything, the lens is not perfect. If you really want to nitpick, then the quality is not as good as the higher standard fixed lens. However, for my applications (book publishing, mainly), the image quality is much better than what is required, in fact, the image quality is overkill.

Toothless Baby Hippo yawing in water
Adult Hippo running from bush into water

Maximum length

I find the 560mm maximum length inadequate at times. On a typical game drive in southern Africa, one often needs a 700mm plus lens to capture a subject. Personally, I don’t like keeping two big telephoto lenses with me on a game drive due to space restrictions. The 200–400mm, for me, cannot be a second lens. I either use it alone, or use another long fixed lens with a small zoom as a second lens.

There are definitely places where other lens combinations would work better. In the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, for instance, the action normally happens further away, so 560mm would not be enough. There, I would rather use my 600mm f/4 as my main lens, and perhaps my 300mm f/4 as a second small lens with the 70–200mm.

For general game drives in most game parks, I now prefer to have a big zoom lens like the 200–400 mm because of the ease of use and versatility.

Malachite Kingfisher with a bug in its beak
White-fronted Bee-eater


In addition, because of the advances in equipment and the changes in the photography industry, I find myself doing much more video than in the past. For video, this lens is the best you can use. The manual focus is easy to use (although I still get confused by the focus and zoom barrels, having been swopped compared to the 70–200mm lens).

So there you have it. My most important confession to date. I would like to apologise to everybody I have ever told that the only way to go with super-telephoto lenses is fixed, since I was wrong.

About the Author:
South African based photographer, Heinrich van den Berg specializes in nature, environmental and travel photography. He has spent many years in the field, capturing images of African wildlife and the natural beauty of the continent. Highly acclaimed as a wildlife and nature photographer, he has won various international photographic awards. He was the first photographer to win the Eric Hoskings Award of the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year for two consecutive years. He has also won the international Camel Trophy Photographic Competition, and was one of the official international photographers for the Camel Trophy in 1998. Additionally he was the overall winner of the international Fuji Getaway Photographer of the Year award in 2005. His photographs grace numerous books, calendars, magazine portfolios and photographic products worldwide. Apart from his photographic skills, he is experienced in the field of publishing, having photographed and published 26 highly acclaimed photographic books. To ensure that the quality of images is maintained from the field to the printed page, Van den Berg is intimately involved with the reproduction and printing process – from the colour correction to the design and final production of his sought-after wildlife books. He is the founder of the publishing company HPH Publishing.

One Comment

  1. Will Goodlet 7 Sep 2015 at 1:57 pm - Reply

    Nice post Heinrich, and an interesting confession!! (I think you will be forgiven 🙂 ) I too generally use fixed lenses, but I have a secret Sigma 300-800 zoom that I take out the closet sometimes. The versatility of a zoom at these focal lengths is phenomenal and has saved me on a few occasions. I won’t pretend it’s easy to use but it is just brilliant when supported properly. I am also really enjoying the Canon 100-400 mkii it’s so refreshingly small!

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