Long lenses are fun to use. There’s something appealing about being at a distance and still able to capture high-quality images. The Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM is one such lens which has fantastic optics and is built for the wear and tear of outdoor life. It may have some caveats like no image stabilization and is a good few years old, but for action shots or moving wildlife this lens has been a long stay contender.
In this way, oldies can still be goodies. Weighing less than a 100-400mm zoom lens, the lenses goes for a reasonable price which adds up to a long telephoto lens which can still compete.
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Design
Firstly, the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM statistics. The lens houses 7 elements in 6 groups, with one element being UD glass and another Super UD glass to increase sharpness. There are 8 straight diaphragm blades with an aperture range going from f/5.6-f/32. The lens can also be used on a crop sensor camera which comes out at a 650mm focal length.
The Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM is quite straightforward as an L-series offering, with a 77mm filter thread, built-in telescoping metal hood and included tripod mount ring. Not surprising for an older lens which is no-frills but gets straight to the point. The manual focus ring on the lens has two gripping parts, dependent on where you are holding the lens barrel. The lens also has a distance scale, an auto and manual focus switch, and a switch for limiting the focus range.
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM in Use
The sharpness of this lens is fantastic considering it’s been around since 1993. Even when wide open at f/5.6, corner sharpness is very good. Basically, no complaints at all with image sharpness throughout the aperture range. There’s also little visible distortion and what is apparent can be easily corrected in software.
As for background blur or bokeh, the 400mm focal length is great for giving a smooth background. Portraits or any other subjects are easily punched out from the background, which is a trait of longer lenses. The usual adjectives apply here: creamy and a pleasant transition of colors.
The 8-bladed diaphragm is well adept at producing nice highlights at night and sunstars when called upon. Even at smaller apertures, the lens manipulates interesting points of light very consistently.
As for the autofocus system, the USM snaps into position reasonably fast. Maybe not to the speed of most modern lenses, but in reality, you only notice the difference in very low light. Once you’re in very low light levels, the lens goes out of its comfort zone anyway, so lowlight performance is almost a moot point.
On the whole, the lens produces images which have great depth of color and contrast and are very pleasing throughout the aperture range. Once the lens is stopped down past f/22, it will start to suffer from diffraction, but this is common to most long lenses when stopped down.
How Does the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Compare?
Back when this lens was first released, it easily stood head and shoulders over the rest at this focal length, especially for Canon users. Since then there are other options on the market, but there are always caveats depending on the subjects you are shooting. The Canon EF 300mm f/4 IS USM as a shorter focal length, goes slightly wider, and features image stabilization. As for build quality, the 400mm feels more solid being made out of metal and is also sharper.
Another comparison can be against the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM. A little unfair on the surface, the 400mm is a prime lens going up against a zoom lens and the 100-400mm is also newer. The 400mm is lighter, older, and just as sharp, but the 100-400mm focuses faster, has next-generation image stabilization, but also costs twice as much, and is far heavier. The decision here would be down to budget, weight-saving and how much you really need a zoom over a prime lens.
At the cheaper end of the spectrum, Sigma produces a 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens and an AF 400mm f/5.6 HSM APO Telemacro lens. Both have the focal reach, but they are not in the same class as the Canon lenses.
|Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L||Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM|
|Aperture Blades||8 straight||9 rounded|
|Elements||7 elements in 6 groups||21 elements in 16 groups|
Canon got a lot right when they produced the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM. Even now, it’s reasonably fast, lightweight for its focal length, built like a tank and does exactly what it says it does. It’s a great solution for nature photographers at a reasonable price and still has great optical quality.
If you don’t mind the lack of zoom or image stabilization on the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM, then it’s a great long lens for the money. It also weighs much less than its counterparts, which can be a big deal when you are lugging a camera and lens set up around all day. A 70-200mm f/2.8 can be a favored long lens, but it also weighs a lot more, same with the 100-400mm zoom. Once you get the 400mm out on assignment, capturing images of moving wildlife, you will see why it has stood for so many years.
In total, the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L is still a great performer and can be picked up for a reasonable price. It may be seen as an aging lens, but it offers excellent image quality and costs even less than some of its counterparts. Definitely worth a second look for a high-quality, telephoto lens which stands the test of time.