Taking the Canon 100-400mm Lens For a Test Drive

Thanks to the folks at LensRentals.com I was able to take the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 II lens out for a test drive this past weekend. I had a couple of ideas when I rented it for things that I wanted to shoot with it. I was going to photograph the bald eagles that are spending their winter in our city. I also had thought about shooting a little basketball with it as Purdue had two home games over the weekend. What I didn’t count on was the large amount of swimming that I shot pretty much at the last minute. I kind of threw the lens to the coals to see what it could do.

Testing the Lens Out at Swimming

My first test was at the Big Ten Swimming and Diving Championships. I took it the first day thinking that I would not use it very much. I had my 400mm f/2.8 lens with me to use when the 100-400mm failed. I never took the 400mm f/2.8 out of my bag. The 100-400mm really worked very well for me. During a four day championship that would have me poolside for hours it was the perfect lens. In a perfect world I could have used a little more light getting to my sensor. I shot most of the championship at 1/350th or 1/500th of a second. At times I would have liked to have been faster, but that was the price that I had to pay for the portability of the lens. I did some panning with the swimmers, and this lens was perfect for that. I could easily pan this light lens and move with them. With my bulky 400mm lens that would have been much harder. Switching from landscape to portrait mode was a bit easier as well. Maybe my 400mm is old, but the grooves that click and let me know that I am level have eroded a little. I think there was just enough light in the pool to make this lens work for me. If you have enough light at your pool to shoot at f/5.6 then why not buy this lens?

Testing the Lens Out at a Basketball Game

I took the lens to the Purdue women’s basketball game Sunday afternoon to see what it would do. I was on the far end of the baseline away from the basket so I had my 70-200mm lens for the action on my side of the court, and the 100-400mm lens for the action on the other end of the court. For some reason I was not comfortable switching between these two lenses. The slight difference in the zoom ring was just enough to throw me off a bit at the other end. I did use it for the tip, and I made a few photos at the other end, but I had to be at 1/500th of a second because of the lighting in the gym. I was not really happy with how it performed during the basketball game. It did allow me to get right in on the action as the band performed prior to the game. I got some great close ups with it. I think had a scramble occurred at the other end it would have been great as well. That did not happen though, and I only put four of the images that I made with the lens in my gallery after the game. In fact as I prepared for the second half I chose not to use the lens when I went back out.

Testing the 100-400mm Out with the Eagles

This was the main purpose of renting the lens. I was so busy during the weekend that I was not able to make it down to the Wabash river to test the lens out. On my way to return the lens I stopped by the river hoping that the eagles were out. Lucky for me two eagles were out and about at a time when I would not expect them to be. Usually I have not had much luck with a harsh sun overhead. One eagle decided to grab a late lunch, and swooped down to the river to grab a fish. It was a perfect test to see how the focus was on the lens. I picked up the eagle easy enough, and tracked it just fine. Having a camera in my hands instead of my 400mm on a tripod helped my mobility as well. I really think that this lens would be perfect for most of the wildlife images that I make. I usually have more than enough light to allow me to shoot at f/5.6, and I shoot there anyway to make sure that I get the shot. I have nothing but good things to say about this lens for photographing wildlife. On my Canon 7D Mark II it gave me an effective focal length of 160-640mm. That is quite a lens for as light and portable as this one is. Throw on a 1.4x converter, and you are in business. The downside of that converter though is that you will be shooting at f/8. A 2x converter will push you to f/11, and your autofocus will not work. On a normal day I can work with f/8 while shooting wildlife outdoors.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Lightweight and portable compared to a 400mm f/2.8 lens
  • Fast and accurate auto focus
  • Twist zoom instead of the push pull that the I had
  • The sharpness that you would expect with L series glass
  • Works well with the 1.4x converter
  • Comes with a tripod collar, but you won’t need the tripod or monopod
  • Three modes of image stabilization

Cons

  • Max aperture of f/5.6 at 400mm leaves a lot to be desired in low light
  • Barrel can roll out to 400mm while moving around
  • Price: $2100 is a step up from what version one was priced at

Conclusion

I don’t test lenses with charts and other in depth tests. I don’t shoot charts for a living so why would that matter to me? I take it out and photograph the things that I normally would to see how it does for me. In the pool this lens was a champ. I was fast at picking up the swimmers coming out of the water, and it allowed my autofocus to grab onto them. With water as my background I did not care about the bokeh that I would get at f/5.6. I think that lack of bokeh is why I was not happy with the lens at the basketball game. I needed to drop the background a bit more than the lens could. When shooting wildlife I am usually quite happy shooting at f/5.6 so that is not a problem. I would think that if you are starting off with sports photography, and you need to get a little more reach this may be the lens for you. The 70-200mms lens is the first lens you should buy. This lens could be right behind that one. You will not have an f/2.8 lens, but early on you are just trying to get the reach. For $8,000 you can get that reach at f/2.8, but that is a big gap. For the price this is a great lens that may end up in my collection at some point.

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About Pinola Photo

I am a sports and lifestyle photographer based in West Lafayette, IN home of Purdue University. I cover sports for Big Ten teams as well as other colleges. You can follow me on twitter @pinolaphoto. You can also view my website at www.davewegielphoto.net

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