A field review

Introduction
Canon photographers have for many a year looked at their Nikon counterparts using their 200-400 f4 professional series zoom lenses, all the time wishing they had something similar (I certainly did); a fast high quality middle to long telephoto range zoom lens.  So for years, as a dedicated Canon user, I had to make use of the Sigma EX 120-300 f2.8 HSM lens for most of my motorsport and rugby photography, being a 300mm f2.8 lens that can zoom back to 120mm, sharp, fast and accurate autofocus, and the ideal choice for sporting events where subject distance changes continuously.  Canon did not have an offering that could match the Sigma lens, the 100-400 L being too slow and not good in lower light levels, the prime Canon 300mm f2.8 very fast and sharp but losing out on the versatility stakes. And I had no intention of jumping ship for the sake of a lens.  However, Canon has now provided us with the perfect alternative, and it’s a lens with a huge added bonus; a 200-400mm f4 lens, which with the flick of a switch converts to a 280-560mm f5.6 lens.  And this unique feature along with the excellent optical quality and autofocus capabilities makes it one of the most versatile lenses on this planet.  After nine years of using the Sigma 120-300 f2.8 lens and always admitting that I will replace it with the same should it become necessary, I am ready to convert to being a full Canon user again.  The Canon EF 200-400 f4 L IS USM 1.4 Extender should be the lens of choice for anyone covering motorsport (track racing), rugby, soccer etc on a regular basis.  Also does very nicely in nature photography as well, adding versatility where the long telephoto prime lenses sometimes prove to be a bit limited in their application. 
 

Specifications
The technical specifications and features are well known by now, but some of the most important ones are briefly discussed here.  

Mass:  For most this lens will feel big and heavy, but if you are used to the 400 f2.8, 500 f4 and 600 f4 prime lenses then it will not be all that overwhelming.  It is slightly lighter than my personal 500 f4 L IS lens, but not so that you’ll really feel the difference; 3,870 kg for the 500 and 3,620 kg for the 200-400.  

Size:  It is a little shorter than my personal EF 500 f4 L IS lens, and is also less bulky towards the business end, having a 128mm maximum diameter as opposed to the 146mm of my 500 f4 prime lens.

Image Stabiliser:  Canon’s latest generation IS system allows for three settings:
Mode 1: Normal IS in both horizontal and vertical planes
Mode 2: Panning mode – IS in the vertical plane only
Mode 3: “Exposure mode” IS (my term) – apparently aimed at the sports and action photographer where the IS is only activated on full press of the shutter button.  The “image jump” tendency (which can be quite disconcerting when following fast paced action through the viewfinder), is minimised by this setting.  During my testing it found it a nice feature, image jump was definitely more evident in mode 2. 

Focus mode switch AF/PF/MF:  Offers not only the standard auto focus and manual focus modes, but also PF, being power focus, it aids smooth focus transitions when doing video captures.  A ring type ultra-sonic focus motor combined with a high speed processor makes for a fast and quiet autofocus function.

A sturdy tripod mounting collar is supplied with click settings at right angles, enabling the lens to rotate easily to the desired orientation.  The lens tightens securely in the collar with the familiar twist knob.

The lens has the well-known focus pre-set functionality.  I did not find the need to use this feature, but it can be handy in a sports environment such as cricket where one can pre-set the focus points to the two batsmen positions on the pitch.  Using the back-button focus technique, (activating autofocus with the button on the back of the body using the thumb and disabling focus from the shutter button) works just as fast for me, but it is a handy feature that adds to the versatility of the lens.

A 52mm drop-in filter slot is provided towards the back of the lens
      
Internal 1.4x Extender: 
This is the only lens from any manufacturer that has this unique feature. A dedicated switch on the lens body, (which feels solid and can be locked in place to prevent accidental activation), swings the 1.4x Extender into alignment.  It slips securely into place, and although I did not feel the need to use the lock, it nice to know it is there should you need it.

In the hand
I use a monopod exclusively when covering sporting events or doing birding photography on foot.  All of the photos illustrated here were taken with the lens mounted on a monopod, with the tip either on the ground for cricket, or in a belt pouch for rugby, motorsport and birding.  With proper holding techniques and lots of practice this is a very stable way to handle the long lenses even at slower shutter speeds.  It also helps to keep the weight of the camera and lens combination off the shoulders, neck and arm muscles, which is very conducive to stability and endurance during extended sessions with the big, heavy telephoto lenses.  

The 1.4x Extender does add some bulk to the rear section of the lens, but it is not really noticeable when the lens is mounted on a body.  One never really touches that part of the body except to activate the various switches mounted there, so the added bulge which houses the extender goes unnoticed.

The true aim of this review is to report on the performance of the lens in the field, photographing different sporting events and also using it in a birding environment.  Lined up was a test to visually determine the influence of the1.4x Extender and at the same time check calibration of the lens to my EOS 1D MkIV body.  The field evaluation would encompass a cricket match, some motorsport, then off to a Currie Cup rugby match played under floodlights, and some birding as a final test.

1.4x Extender effect
I started my testing with a few photos to illustrate the versatility of the lens with its internal 1.4x extender, where you can literally within a second switch from a 400 f4 maximum focal length to a 560 f5.6 lens.  This makes a huge difference to in-frame size of a subject.  I took the photos of a Cape Sparrow at a distance of about 4.5 m, at full zoom, with and without the extender.  The difference is obvious.  What is impressive is the virtually unnoticeable drop in image quality. The feather detail remained excellent, even with the lens used as a 560mm f5.6.  I did not feel the need to stop down the lens for increased sharpness (for the so called sweet spot).   The photos were taken on an overcast morning in my garden, hence the slow shutter speed, but the combination of the IS in mode 2, the monopod and a subject which cooperated by not moving ensured sharp and crisp photos.
      

See how the Canon EF 200-400 f4 L IS USM lens performs in the following situations:

  • Cricket
  • Motorsport
  • Rugby
  • Birding

 

Conclusion
The Canon EF 200-400 f4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x is a serious piece of kit.  Well made, fast auto focus, crisp and clear optical quality, fast maximum aperture, up to four stops IS capability and a very handy zoom range complimented superbly by the internal 1.4x Extender.  It is a lens which is ideally suited for the sports and the wildlife photographer, professional and amateur/serious hobbyist alike.  Canon produced a winner here, filling a long-standing gap in their lens line-up and I for one, am very excited about this new addition to my Canon must-haves wish list.  

Many thanks to Canon SA for arranging and making available the test lens.