Could the Canon 400mm f5.6L be the best lens for wildlife photography?
In this video we review the Canon 400mm f5.6L and decide if it is the best lens for wildlife photography.
What is a lens like the Canon 400mm f5.6L for? It's a long lens that is going to find its natural use with wildlife photography and sports. It is for times when you want to get closer to your subject when you are physically not able to get any closer.
This lens has been around for a long time but it continues to be a great lens and demand attention and it is easy to see why. The price is now also extremely competitive for a lens like this.
When deciding which long lens to buy, it is important to think about what you are going to be shooting and where. Currently there is no perfect long lens. If top image quality is your main priority, you are going to be looking at an extremely expensive piece of glass that is very large and heavy. This is generally fine for sports. You find a good spot, setup a tripod or monopod and then the action happens around you enabling you to capture it.
With wildlife though, most of us are not high end wildlife videographers and we just want to capture nice shots. It is therefore about finding the right balance between quality, size, cost and whether you can hand hold it.
For me, the Canon 400mm f5.6L lens gets that balance bang on. Let me tell you why.
Firstly, the weight of this lens makes it portable enough to carry pretty much anywhere. At under 2kg almost any adult can handhold this lens for a decent length of time. For me this is vital, especially if you want to shoot birds in flight. On my recent trip to Scotland we went to shoot the sea eagles on the Isle of Skye. We were on a boat that was swaying about and there would have been no way I could have captured the same images using a bigger lens on a tripod or monopod. I also just prefer the versatility of handholding and being able to swing around in a different direction at a moments notice.
Secondly. The image quality. The lens is a prime lens with the quality to match. It's nice and sharp and chromatic aberration is well handled. There are, however, better lenses out there in terms of image quality. The 500mm f/4 mkii is about as good as it gets but the cost of this is astronomical and equal to a small country.
Thirdly is the cost. At around £900 in the UK and $1200 US for a new one it is cheaper than many other lenses, especially Canon L lenses. It is an older lens though so there are many examples out there. Second hand you can pick up a good one for under £700. If you do buy second hand be sure to check the serial number to establish the age of the lens as this could effect the cost further.
Next up the auto-focus of this lens is nice and fast. Again, it is not as good as the higher end lenses but is better than other lenses in a similar range, such as the Canon EF 300mm f/4.0L IS. The focus of the Canon 400mm f5.6L is accurate and generally locks on well.
The Canon 400mm f5.6L lens is not perfect however. Although the f/5.6 aperture allows canon to keep the weight down, it is not the best low light performer. To capture birds in flight and other wildlife you generally want a nice fast shutter speed to freeze the action so a bigger aperture can be a great help in keeping your ISO and noise down. However as time moves on cameras are becoming better and better in low light so you can safely increase your ISO without introducing a massive amount of noise. Effectively this mean this lens just keeps getting better and better.
The lens also does not have image stabilisation. At first thought this may seem a big loss but for me, because I am working most of the time with high shutter speeds, the IS really wouldn't have any effect other than helping me a bit when tracking a subject. The shutter speed alone will freeze all the movement.
The closest focal distance of this lens is also quite large so if you get too close to your subject the lens won't focus. At 3.5 meters you will not get much use out of the lens indoors although the lens clearly is not designed for that.
The lens can be used with full frame and Aps-c cropped sensor cameras. Used on a cropped sensor camera you get an effective focal length of 640mm. This is nice but is certainly not something I ever worry about. I have achieved good quality images with both a full frame camera and a cropped sensor. Also the Canon 400mm f5.6L is not ideal when used in conjunction with a tele-converter. Adding the 1.4x teleconverter will push the maximum aperture up to f/8 which would reduce auto-focusing capability to the 1Dx, 5Dmkiii and the 7Dmkii. You would also need some seriously bright conditions or high ISO’s to get well exposed shots at f/8. In both scenarios better images will always be captured by getting just a few feet closer to your subject.
Overall the Canon 400mm f5.6L is an amazing lens for wildlife photography. The balance between cost and image quality is just about perfect. With the ability to carry all day and hand hold comfortably, this lens is perfect for wildlife photography and still deserves serious attention after all these years. This is without doubt high up, if not top, of the rankings for ‘best lens for wildlife photography’
Buy now Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L - in the UK
Buy now Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L - in the US
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Several images from the post and video were contributed by Lyle McCalmont, a very talented wildlife photographer from the North of England. Check him out on Flickr.