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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
Canon 100-400mm IS Lens 
by Jim McGee

Every so often I get an email from a reader who suggests that the equipment we get for testing might be - well there's no nice way to say this - rigged.

Their logic is that manufacturers would somehow "tune" cameras and lenses before sending them to us so that their equipment will get better reviews. This couldn't be further from the truth. Oh how I wish I could have kept the Canon 100-400mm IS just so I could ship it out to the next Doubting Thomas with a note saying "does this look like a piece of rigged gear?"

When this lens arrived it looked like it had gone to Afghanistan and back - twice. It was dinged and scratched, paint was rubbed off of sharp edges, and every so often when you lifted it just so you could hear something that sounded suspiciously like a small screw roll around inside.

The reality is that lens makers assign lenses to a press pool. When an editor calls and asks about a lens it's pulled off the shelf and sent out, allowing the editor to shoot with the lens for two to four weeks (or until the media rep chews him out on the phone to send the #$%#@ thing back). It's also an unfortunate reality that some photo editors are not particularly gentle with loaner equipment. Especially pro gear which is supposed to be able to take abuse. Lenses do occasionally get "tweaked". But it's to repair damage not to soup up the lens.

The lens maintained focus well when panning making long exposures like this one possible. Elan 7e, Kodak Supra 100

Which brings us back to the poor abused zoom sitting on my desk. I wondered if someone had checked the poor beast out to confirm that it still worked. The mysterious rattle inside the lens didn't do much to inspire confidence either. "Well lets take it out and shoot with it. If we have problems we can always send it back for a replacement."

It's a testament to the toughness of this lens that it performed flawlessly while we had it on both on an Elan 7e and on the D60. It never missed a beat and we sent it back in good working order with the scars and rattles intact.

This is one of Canon's growing fleet of Image Stabilization (IS) lenses. But the measure of any lens is its optics. This one features an optical formula of 14 groups and 17 elements. The use of Fluorite and Super UD glass eliminates color fringing to produce sharp images at 400mm with accurate color rendition. Minimum focus distance is just under 6 feet, normal for a lens of this type.

Images were very sharp and contrasty at all focal lengths. We noticed some slight softness wide open but this lens should satisfy all but the most demanding photographers. For that select group we'd recommend Canon's excellent 400mm f/2.8L IS ($6,500) which has a slight edge in both sharpness and focus speed making it a great choice for dedicated sports/wildlife shooters. We haven't had a chance to compare it with the 400mm f/5.6L.

At 400mm wide open images were still tack sharp. Tripod mounted D60, ISO 200, white balance overcast, IS off.

While all that glass provides excellent quality images it makes for a heavy lens. At just over three pounds this is no lightweight. But that weight is well balanced over most of its zoom range. I say most because this is a push pull zoom. At 400mm it's beginning to feel a little front heavy, especially on a lightweight camera like the Elan 7. But this is a minor complaint. What bothered us more was the fact that it is a push pull zoom. Given a choice between a push pull and a zoom ring we'd opt for the latter. Friction when zooming is adjustable. We found that the lens would sometimes stick when zooming in and out quickly. We checked some new samples of the lens at a local camera shop and didn't experience this stickiness so we'd write it off to a hard life and we doubt you'd experience this problem. The ability to touch up focus manually is always there with a touch on a commendably wide focus ring.

This lens is equipped with dual-mode Image Stabilization for both panning and stationary subjects. The Image stabilization worked well but we found the amount of activity in the viewfinder to be a little distracting at times.

If you've never had the opportunity to shoot with an image-stabilized lens it's something of an epiphany. Shooting 100 speed film under heavy overcast and drizzling rain I was able to handhold well past the point where I'd have given up with a normal lens. IS isn't a cure for bad technique. But if your handholding technique is already good you'll be amazed at the results you can get with this lens. I'll warn you in advance. If you borrow or rent one of these lenses you'd better make sure there's room in the budget because you will buy one.

Focus speed was reasonably fast at all focal lengths and the lens worked well with both the Elan 7 and D60 at acquiring and locking in on targets. The only hunting we experienced was in very low light and occasionally when tracking birds in flight if they were small relative to the frame.

One thing that I thought was an oversight in the design was the lack of camera strap lugs on the tripod mount. I probably just worry too much about these things but whenever I mount a heavy lens on a camera body I prefer to attach the strap to the lens. This puts less stress on the lens mount.

On a positive note both Canon's 1.4x II and 2x II tele-extenders are compatible with this lens, which really extends its usefulness.

In short this is a lens I would buy with confidence. It's ruggedly built, comfortable to use, provides sharp images, and the Image Stabilization will allow you to bring back shots that you wouldn't even attempt otherwise. With street prices ranging from $1,400 to $1,600 it's not for everyone. But if it's in your photo budget and you're a Canon shooter you should be looking at this lens.

Canon 100-400mm IS versus the
Nikon 80-400mm VR 

OK we get this question a lot so I'll address it here. But let me go on record as saying it's a silly question. No one is going to switch camera systems because of one of these lenses. So the proper question is whether the lens that fits in your camera system is a high quality lens.

The answer in both cases is yes. These are both well-built quality optics. They're rugged, they provide sharp images, and they focus reasonably fast. In both cases dedicated 300mm and 400mm optics will be sharper wide open and will focus faster for shooting sports and wildlife. The trade-off is utility versus performance in a specific application.

What might make someone consider switching camera systems is the huge lead Canon has in the number of IS lenses in their lens lineup. Start shooting with IS or VR and you'll immediately see it's advantages. Nikon recently introduced it's second VR lens, the 70-200 f2.8G lens, but Canon has a significant lead in this area.


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