After 6 years of birds being my main shooting subjects I got somehow “saturated” (or simply bored?) and felt like dedicating my interest to rather more solid themes like the cultural and historic heritage of Europe (old stones to say so). Parallel to that I concentrated on one of my passions which has always been the reptile world.
As for different personal reasons I sold my longtime and trusted Canon 300mm f2,8 IS lens and the two converters, 1,4 II and 2,0 II (both Canon). During the following time I used mainly a Canon 40mm f2,8 “pancake lens” and recently a Canon 100mm f2.8 IS L macro but at least I still kept my main camera, the Canon 5D MK III).
It was during the last weeks that I began to flirt again with bird-photography and therefore turned my eyes back on long ,fixed telelenses. Getting my old 300mm back (it is still in the second-hand department at Casanova Foto in Barcelona) was economically unthinkable and I concentrated my attention and my wishes on the second-hand offers at Ebay.
Many read reports, many studied opinions and many compared reviews later and dismissing any Canon lens above 1000 euros (always second-hand evidently) I filtered the possible options and ended up “focusing” (newer better said) on only one lens: the Canon 400mm f5,6 L.
Always comparing it with my former 300mm I considered pros and contras but always assuming that both lenses had a similar final optical quality.
Pros of the Canon 400mm f5.6 L compared to the Canon 300mm f2.8 IS
- light and relatively reduced in it´s dimensions which makes it pretty portable in the field (remember, compared to the 300mm). Weight: 1,25 kg, length: 25,6 cm, maximum diameter: 9 cm, filter: 77mm. (The 300mm f2,8 reaches a weight of 2,5 kg!)
- sharp, as sharp as it´s aristocratic sister the f2.8, at least from a subjective point of view and without entering into professional and scientific measuring methods.
- built-in hood, extendable and easily fixed with one hand. (the f2.8 has a huge hood which needs to be fixed and removed and that takes it´s time).
- price: 1200 to 1400 euros new, compared to the 3500 euros it takes to buy the 300mm f2.8 IS.
Contras compared to the 300mm f2.8 IS
- no IS image stabilizer, when used handhold this makes quite a difference.
- 5.6 is it´s maximum aperture, this means less light coming in and therefore less shutter speed and consequently increased risk of blurred pics.
- minimum focusing distance is 3,5 meters, the result is a lesser magnification ratio (macro) and possible problems when shooting from a hide which is too near to the bird feeders (this happens quite often!).
As for me, I have tried this lens handheld in the field without a tripod and from a hide using a not very good and sturdy one. It is clear that you need good ( I mean bright) light to achieve high shutter speeds and avoid blurred images when shooting handheld, otherwise you will have to increase the ISO value and that means grain in our images. Having said that it is also true however that the new Canon cameras, specially the full-frames, are rather tolerant to higher ISOs, nowadays, 2000 to 3000 ISO doesn´t mean necessarily a throw-away pic, even for professional use.
The use of a tripod will allow you to keep the camera still and to shoot under low-light or at dawn and sunrise. Let´s also remember that the best Image Stabilizer is useless when you shoot for example birds in flight, in this situation it doesn´t matter if you have the very expensive or the affordable lens in your hands (but the weight of the expensive one does matter indeed!). The experience I had during the trial was that the advantage of the portability of the 400mm overpassed clearly the disadvantage of the narrower aperture, the lack of IS and the MFD. The sharpness and accuracy of the autofocus is outstanding and on the same level as the one of the 300mm!
I am now the proud owner (after a last test with a rented one) of a second-hand 400mm which is in mint conditions, I finally bought it at Casanova Foto.