FOCUS ON: EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II

February 27, 2015

Are great images a product of the photographer, or their camera equipment? The Focus On series explores the idea that it's BOTH: Featuring a professional photographer and a Canon lens, the Canon Digital Learning Center focuses on the relationship that artists can have with their gear.

In this Focus On installment, we interview George Lepp, Explorer of Light and well-known nature photographer, about his use of the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II lens

Canon Digital Learning Center (CDLC): In general, can you talk about the practicality of the 100–400mm lens category and quickly give your opinions of how the shooting experience for a nature/wildlife shooter contrasts with longer (and more expensive) 500mm fixed focal length lenses, as well as versus the more affordable and more compact 70–200 and 70–300mm class lenses?

George Lepp (GL): I’ve been using the previous version of the Canon EF 100-400mm lens since it was introduced 16 years ago. It’s been my go-to lens for wildlife situations, of course, but it is extremely versatile for all kinds of medium-telephoto applications. The 500mm is very useful for photographing subjects at a distance, but its practicality is somewhat limited by its close-focus capability, size, weight, and single focal length, although its reach can be very effectively expanded with the 1.4x and 2x tele-extenders. While the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS and EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS lenses are excellent optics, the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II covers the range, and more, with one lens and without leaving a 200mm gap (300 to 500mm) in my arsenal.

My typical setup for intense wildlife environments is two camera systems that give me maximum reach and flexibility. The EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II, hand-held, works side-by-side with a tripod-mounted EF 500mm f/4L IS II lens to enable capture of both fast-action close-ups and portraits of more distant subjects.

With the latest version of the 100-400mm lens coupled with the new EOS 7D Mark II’s APS-C sensor, I have the equivalent capability of a 160mm to 640mm lens that can be hand-held. A 1.4x tele-extender can be added for a cropped magnification (angle of view or “AOV”), equaling 896mm. That’s a lot of reach and range for a single lens.


CDLC: Similarly, can you speak about applications where you found the previous generation EF 100–400mm IS lens to be your “go-to” lens?

GL: The EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II lens is a medium telephoto, excellent for working hand-held with larger mammals and birds. But it is surprisingly effective at telephoto lengths in isolating a subject, such as a single poppy, to render the background and foreground out of focus. And at the 100-200mm range, it’s a great portrait lens for both people and animals; it gives a nice soft background while maintaining proper facial perspectives. When working outdoors, the photographer is usually on the move; a hand-held telephoto zoom is a powerful tool in those situations. But the lens quality also enables it to be used in creative landscape applications. From a tripod, I use it to pull stationary subjects from a larger scene in a technique I call “optical extraction.” A variation on this idea is to use the lens to capture a series of images that are composited later into a high-resolution panorama.


CDLC: What were the first things that impressed you about the new EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II lens?

GL: First, I have to say I’ve been anticipating this lens for years. As good as the previous 100-400mm lens is, it did not incorporate the possibilities of the latest technology. In the new version, the hand-holdability (image stabilization) is improved from two-to-four stops, meaning that you can accomplish sharp captures at slower shutter speeds without a tripod. The power of the improved image stabilization is especially clear when the lens is combined with the new EOS 7D Mark II, where the crop factor (AOV) takes you to 640mm without any tele-extenders.

The lens’s close-focus capability (3.2 feet) is extraordinary and greatly expands its potential applications. I’ve used the new lens to photograph details of ice-encrusted seedpods, ice formations, and head-and-shoulder portraits of small birds.

I’m really excited about the new lens’ improved sharpness; it means that I can use tele-extenders with it, which was not advisable with the previous version. With the new EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II, the 1.4x tele-extender and the EOS 7D Mark II, I have single-point autofocus at 896mm (AOV) from as close as 3.2 feet. That’s versatility!


CDLC: Particularly in regard to the change to a ring-type zoom (versus the previous push-pull system), how did you find the operation and handling of this lens? Did it change the shooting experience or your ability to respond quickly to changing situations?

GL: I found the previous push-pull zoom system to be adequate, but not always as precise or as smooth as I would like it to be, especially when working with video capture. However, it was useful to be able to focus and zoom at the same time with one hand. It took me a little while to get used to the new ring-type zoom, but once mastered, it is greatly preferable to the previous system because it is more precise and it’s easier to set and maintain a focal length. As a tool for DSLR video, this new system is an advantage because it enables a much smoother transition.

I really appreciate the overall improved engineering in this lens, with its better sealing against moisture and dust. And, while it might seem to be a small thing, the positive attachment for the lens hood is actually significant, especially when working in wildlife situations, because when you’re photographing from an open vehicle above a lion, for example, you don’t want to get out to pick up something that fell off your camera!

Also, the unique addition of a “sliding door” on the hood allows the photographer to rotate a polarizing filter when in use. That’s a great feature.


CDLC: Can you talk about your impressions of this lens’ optical performance and overall image quality? Any noticeable differences versus the previous generation 100–400mm lens?

GL: The original EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS had excellent optical quality in the center, especially when stopped down 2-3 f/stops. The outer edges were a little soft at wide-open apertures and at the extremes of the zoom range. The new lens is even better in the center and my observations are that the corner sharpness has greatly improved at all focal lengths and f/stops — so much so that I have no problem adding a 1.4x tele-extender and still maintaining superb resolution. I’ve run a few tests with a 2x tele-extender, but due to the loss of autofocus and light, this won’t be one of my routine combinations.


CDLC: One of the biggest changes is the improvement in close-focus performance… how did you find this impacted your time with the lens? Can you talk about some instances when you were able to take advantage of this?

GL: I’m very excited about the close-focus range of the new EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II, lens and I’ve been using it extensively on anything I can get close to. I set up a blind next to a bird feeder and keyed on just the heads of a number of small birds. I added electronic flash in order to stop down to f/16 and get as much depth of field as possible. At a close focus distance of 3.2 feet and with an EF 1.4x tele-extender attached, the feather and eye details of the small birds are incredible.

In another situation, when working on intricate ice formations that could not be approached closely, the ability both to close-focus and to extend the magnification gave me much more creative capability in terms of framing. For such subjects, I would normally use an EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM lens, but its single focal length would not have gotten me close enough and would have limited the variety of compositions I was able to achieve.


CDLC: Can you talk about working from a monopod or tripod with this lens? Considering the improvements in the new lens’ image stabilization (for hand-held shooting), what types of situations (if any) would incline you to work from a monopod or tripod? And, if you used it this way, how did you find operation of the new tripod mount design?

GL: As I mentioned earlier, the excellent image stabilization of this lens is a great advantage in hand-held capture. However, I’m still inclined to mount the lens on a tripod to maximize image quality, especially when working on time-lapses or videos, or at extreme focal lengths, for landscapes, and when working at slower shutter speeds. I typically use monopods only when working from boats and vehicles.

While the previous tripod mount design was fairly quick to remove, it had the disadvantage of requiring that the lens be disconnected from the camera body, which could allow entry of dust or moisture. The new tripod mount design is as stable as the previous version and works well with quick release plates on tripods and monopods. The removal of the foot from the new lens has the advantage of not requiring separating the lens from the camera body; however, it takes a bit of time to accomplish. My preferred method is to leave the tripod collar in place on the lens, then loosening it to rotate the shoe out of the way for hand-held shooting.


CDLC: Did you shoot in any situations that challenged the AF system of this lens (birds in flight or other action situations, or subjects you had to latch onto and focus upon quickly)? Any comments about how it performed here and whether you noticed any significant differences between this and the previous generation 100–400mm lens?

GL: To test this very aspect, I set up a shoot using the new EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II and the EOS 7D Mark II in a wildlife refuge, where I was able to photograph waterfowl repeatedly rising from water. The action was unpredictable, as different species of birds reacted differently to our presence, exploding off the water without warning and making tracking their flight very difficult. I tried several focusing methods. Using the center third of the 65 AF sensors (Large Zone AF Area) best achieved and maintained the focus on the fast moving birds as they flew past backgrounds busy with foliage and tree limbs. Alternatively, the autofocus option with nine center points worked well for larger birds and mammals when I wanted to key the focus on a particular part of the animal, such as the eyes. Even though the system is greatly improved, it still takes skill and practice to attain consistent results in these difficult conditions. It was considerably easier to lock onto and maintain focus with slower flying birds against a clear sky.


CDLC: Overall, what did you think? For a nature or wildlife shooter who may already own the previous 100–400mm lens, is this one worth the step up? And for either those who are well heeled and work mostly with long, fixed-focal length lenses (EF 500mm f/4 IS II, EF 600mm f/4 IS II, and so on) or, for those getting started, will this lens open doors to them in different types of imagemaking?

GL: In reviewing my image portfolios, I was surprised to see how productive the previous 100-400mm lens has been for me. Considering all the advancements in the new version — improved autofocus, sharpness, close focus, and reach (ability to use extenders) — I can’t imagine a serious nature photographer who would not covet the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II. If they used the previous version to any extent, then upgrading to the new EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II would be a no-brainer. But there’s more to the new lens than its technical improvements. Its amazing versatility has already changed the way I think about my photography and the range of subjects I might attempt to capture. Even in this age of rich technological advancements, I don’t often encounter a new tool that is as conducive to creative reinterpretations of such a wide variety of subjects.

While in no way would I suggest that this new lens replaces those excellent long fixed-focal length of the EF 500mm f/4 IS II, EF 600mm f/4 IS II and even the EF 800mm f/5.6L IS telephoto lenses for those who need them, the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II combined with the EOS 7D Mark II offers extraordinary versatility and the much wider range desired by nature photographers. I think it will allow all photographers to become more creative; that is, we’ll be looking for new problems that it will solve!

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