Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x - Review

First Impressions:

This is the second time I have had the privilege to shoot with this lens, and every time I pick it up I get excited!! The lens comes in the same rugged hard case, as all the “L” white fixed focal length lenses. Inside the case, over and above the lens is an additional foot to support the lens's use on a monopod, two straps, one for the lens and one for the case, a lens hood and the lens caps.

When you pick up the lens you can’t help but be impressed by the build quality. One thing that will surprise you is the size and weight of the lens. The lens weighs 3620g, just lighter than the EF 400 f2.8L IS II USM (3850g), but slightly heavier than the EF 500 f4L IS II USM (3190g). But, it is on par with the AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G IF-ED lens at 3275g without a built-in extender. The EF 200-400 f4.0L IS USM 1.4x Extender diameter is 128 mm and the length without the hood 366mm, making it shorter and thinner than the EF 500 f4L IS USM lens (146mm x 383mm) but slightly longer and much slimmer than the EF 400 f4L IS II USM lens (163mm x 343mm). What is very nice about the size of the lens is that it fits easily in any carry-on case, and the days of fighting with the airlines about carry-on luggage is over!

As with the other super telephoto lenses the EF 200-400 f4.0L IS USM 1.4x Extender has the same dust/weather sealing and the front and back elements have a fluorine coating to protect the lenses against fingerprints and dust which makes it easier to clean. The body of the lens is made out of the lighter, very strong magnesium alloy. The zoom ring is positioned towards the front, just behind the “playback ring” and is rubberized and protrudes slightly out from the body so it is easy to find without taking your eye from the viewfinder. The zoom ring is well damped and very smooth. The focusing ring is also rubberized and positioned behind the zoom ring. In front of the zoom ring is the playback ring, in the same positions as all the other super telephoto lenses. The usual AF Stop buttons are in front of the playback ring.

Controls:

For those of you that have already used one of the new super telephoto lenses, you will find the switch panels exactly on the same place. For those of you that are used to the older super telephoto lenses, the switch panel looks a little bit different! On the front panel you have the IS Modes as well as the focus pre-set switches. You will also notice that the switches are more flat and therefore much more difficult to bump and change the setting accidently. The AF/PF/MF and AF distance limiter switch are now positioned below the 52mm drop in filter towards the back of the lens. In between the tripod collar and the back switch panel is the new built in 1.4x Extender with the engaged/disengaged lever and lock switch.

The image stabilizer has 3 modes; the first two modes are the same as on previous models:

Mode 1: is used for stationary subjects. Mode 1 will compensate for any movement in any axis and is very handy when shooting out of hand at long focal lengths or at slower shutter speeds.

Mode 2: is for moving subjects and is used when you are panning with the subject. When you switch over to Mode 2, compensation will only happen in 1 axis allowing you to move in the other axis. In other words, when you are panning from left to right in the horizontal axis, image stabilizing compensation will only take place in the vertical axis.

Mode 3: This mode was introduced in the EF 300 f2.8L IS II USM and EF 400 f2.8L IS II USM lenses. In Mode 3 the image stabilizer will only activate the moment the shutter button is pressed in fully and the shutter is released. Whilst you are looking and tracking the subject though the viewfinder the image stabilizer is deactivated, it is as if you are photographing with the image stabilizer switched off and therefore you are not fighting against the image stabilizer. Mode 3 is designed to detect panning motion and once the shutter is released, image stabilizing will only take place in the opposite axis, exactly the same as Mode 2.

Mode 3 is my preferred mode to shoot any action, and Mode 1 for static subjects.

The image stabilizer in the EF 200-400 f4.0L IS USM 1.4x Extender lens is VERY effective. I shot three sport events in Mode 3 and the image stabilizing was as effective as the EF 400 f2.8L IS II USM lens. In Mode 1, I could shoot pin sharp images handheld at 1/30sec on both 400mm and with the 1.4 extender engaged at 560mm.

Below the Image Stabilizing switches are the Focus Preset buttons. This allows you to preset a focus, for instance, if you photograph football you can preset the focus on the goalpost. When you need to get focus on the goalpost, all you need to do is turn the white spring-loaded knurled playback ring on the end of the lens, and the focus will jump to the preset setting and the goalpost will be in focus.

If we now move to the next switch panel, close to the lens mounting ring where the AF Modes and AF distance limiter switches are located, you will see that there are three AF Modes, namely AF – Auto focus, PF – Power focus and MF – Manual focus.

AF – Auto focus: This mode is the normal auto focus mode.

PF – Power focus: This is a new focusing mode introduced in the new super telephoto lenses in 2010. This focus mode is designed for the photographers that use the video function of the DSLR cameras. When PF mode is selected, the focus preset playback ring can be used to do the manual focusing. This function offers a quieter and more smooth manual focusing method than using the focusing ring.

MF – Manual focus: This mode is the normal manual focus mode. To focus you will use the well damped, very smooth, nicely sized and positioned focusing ring.

As with all the other super telephoto lenses, the EF 200-400 f4.0L IS USM 1.4x Extender also has FTM (Full Time Manual) focusing available.

Below the AF Mode switch is the AF distance limiter switch. The switch allows you to limit the focusing distance. The switch has three options: Full, 2m – 6m and 6m to ∞ (infinity).

Full: Full means from 2m - ∞ (infinity). That will let the lens use the full focusing range, handy if you switch between very close focusing and distant subjects. The negative of this mode is that focusing can take longer and can hunt.

2m – 6m: This limits the focusing from 2m to 6m, handy when you know that the subject you are going to focus on will fall in that range. The advantage of this is very fast focus and very little hunting.

6m - ∞ (infinity): This limits the focusing distance from 6m to ∞ (infinity). The advantage of this is very fast focus and very little hunting, my default setting when shooting sport. The disadvantage of this setting is that if your subject comes closer than 6m to you, the camera will not focus.

As mentioned previously between the two switch panels is the world’s first built-in 1.4x extender in a zoom lens.

The extender engages with a lockable lever, see images below:

There are several advantages having a built-in extender: by just switching the lever the extender is engaged in a split second operation. No more removing the prime lens, chance of dropping the lens and dust/moisture getting into your camera and lenses. How many times have you gone through the exercise of changing to an extender and after completing the exercise, your subject is gone or you have missed several important shots!!

The other very big advantage is that the built in extender is built only for this lens and, therefore the optics can be designed accordingly.

Performance:

The EF 200-400 f4.0L IS USM 1.4x Extender lens is in a different class in comparison to any other Canon zoom lens in the same focal length range, and I am referring to EF 100-400 f4.5-5.6L IS USM and EF 70-300 f4-5.6L IS USM lenses. You can compare the EF 200-400 f4.0L IS USM 1.4 Extender more with the super telephoto lenses, like the EF 300 f2.8L IS II USM, EF 400 f2.8L IS II USM and EF 500 f4L IS II USM. The above lenses are cheaper, but more importantly in the same optics class!! There are not many zoom lenses that can compete optically with prime lenses but the EF 200-400 f4.0L IS USM 1.4 Extender is one of them. Another zoom lens that could compete is the EF 70-200 f2.8L IS II USM and the EF 200-400 f4.0L IS USM 1.4x Extender is better than the EF 70-200 f2.8L IS II USM.

As mentioned earlier, I had the opportunity to test the lens at three sport events, two of the events during daylight and the final test under floodlights. The floodlit game’s lighting was not the best; I had to use ISO’s in the range of 5000-6400, but a very good test for the lens and how well the AF tracking could track. With all the tests I used a 1DX and the camera was set-up as follows:

Mode: Manual

Shutter speed: 1/1600 – 1/2000

Aperture: f4, unless the extender was engaged then it was f5.6

ISO: Auto

Focus: AI Servo

Drive: Continuous High

Metering: Evaluative

White balance: AWB

Image type: RAW

AF Case: Case 4 with 4 Expanded AF points

Before I start with the performance, there is something that I need to mention. Shooting with this lens is a complete new mind-set. All my previous sport events were shot with the fixed EF 400 f2.8L lens. Shooting with the EF 200-400 f4.0L IS USM 1.4x Extenderallows you to zoom whilst the action taken place. This allows you to properly frame and compose the subject as it approaches you rather than shooting and cropping the image after the event, which you will do with a fixed focal length lens.

Don’t misunderstand me, you still crop using the 200-400 but with the zoom you do not cut off body parts as you would do when shooting with a fixed focal length lens when the action comes too close to you. When you shoot sport with a fixed focal lens like the EF 400 f2.8L, you also need a second lens, like an EF 70-200 f2.8L to shoot the closer action. The EF 200-400 f4.0L IS USM 1.4x Extendercovers close action very well, so you only need one lens. So back to the mind-set, DON’T FORGET TO ZOOM!! With practice it becomes second nature, but it is something you need to get use to!

Let’s start with the extender not engaged, so I am photographing 200-400 at f4. During daylight conditions the lens performed exceptionally well, I shot over 1500 images of which 90% of the images were pin sharp, the other 10% was made up of operator error (me missing the focus) or obstruction/interference from other players.

Below are 6 images out of a sequence of 28 shot over 3 seconds. I started with the focal length at 300mm with the final image at 200mm. The image below the sequence is a screenshot of one of the images at actual pixels.

 

This was a school match so the action was not as fast. The next shots were taken at an International match and, here the intensity is much higher. The 6 shots are taken from a 45 shot sequence starting at 400mm and end at 230mm over a 4 second period. The image below the sequence is once again a screenshot of one of the images at actual pixels.

The final sequence is shot under floodlights, and as I mentioned previously, the lights were not very good, but really tested the lens’s ability. Due to the lower light conditions, the lens performance also dropped. I shot just under 800 images and the success rate drop from 90% to 77%. When the subject was ± 35m and closer, the lens performed very well, it was when the subject was further away, the focus became not so accurate.

I unfortunately could not compare the performance with another f4 lens, but did change to the EF 400 f2.8L IS II USM and the performance improve dramatically. All of that said the f2.8 will perform better than the f4 as it allows a full stop more light in, helping the AF, plus the focusing hairs change to dual cross focusing hairs, so it is an unfair comparison. Below are again 6 images from a 19 shot sequence starting at 380mm and ending at 225mm over a 4 second period. The image below the sequence is a screenshot of one of the images at actual pixels.

Before we look at the 1.4x extender’s performance let’s look at the extender a bit closer. If you look through the viewfinder and flip the lever to engage the extender, you can physically see how the elements move into place and how the view in the viewfinder darkens as the f-stop goes from f4 to f5.6. The lever is spring loaded, and at a very comfortable tension. When you engage the extender you will hear a dampened “thunk”.
One thing that did concern me was, how finicky must you be with the switch over, because when action starts to happen, switching over (whether it is engage or disengage) in my operation will be fairly aggressive. Canon SA quickly reassured me that there are dampers on both the engage and disengaged sides that will protect the extender from any damage. What I was told after I tested the lens is that you should only engage and disengage the extender when the IS stops and any writing to the card is completed. Well zooming and keeping the AF point on your subject is already challenging, trying to switch the extender during this is nearly impossible.

Fortunately I used Mode 3 as my IS selection so IS would not be a problem; the only problem I would have had was that the card would have still been writing. Canon says it is all to do with electronics, and you don’t want any electronic operation in progress whilst switching the extender. Another mind-set shift you need to do is to make up your mind when you need the extender engaged or not, and because of the above mentioned point about the electronics, you will need to do it before you start shooting.
I made a mental note and always tried to disengage the extender once I reached 300mm on the zoom (420mm with the 1.4x extender engaged), and that meant I did it whilst the card was still writing (my excuse, I didn’t know that I shouldn’t have done that) J<span >. The reason for this is, although the image quality with the extender engaged is very good, I was losing one stop of light and therefore, using a higher ISO to achieve my shutter speed, but more importantly also 1 stop of light less to help the AF system to track the action.

Below are 4 images from a 20 shot sequence starting at 480mm and ending at 350mm over a 2 second period (yep, I did say that I try to disengage the extender when I reach 420mm, but when the action happens there is no way you can do it, never mind in a 2 sec burst). The image below the following sequence is a screenshot of one of the images at actual pixels.

Here is another set of 4 images from a 27 shot sequence starting at 500mm and ending at 340mm over a 4 second period. The image below in the sequence is a screenshot of one of the images at actual pixels.

 

In the previous set every image out of the 20 image sequence was pin sharp, but in fairness the action was happening fairly parallel to me. In the sequence above, the success rate dropped dramatically, even in good light. Out of the above sequence, only 56% of the images were pin sharp. Over the entire exercise, of shooting over 1000 images with the extender engaged, and I must add in good and not so good lighting conditions (before sunrise), the success rate of pin sharp images was just below 60%.

I mentioned earlier that the image quality of the EF 200-400 f4.0L IS USM 1.4x Extender is very close to prime super telephoto lenses. I don’t have the fancy testing charts that most labs have when they do their testing, so what I have done is take 4 images one with the EF 200-400 f4.0L IS USM 1.4x Extender at f4 on 400mm zoom and then compare it at actual pixels with the same subject shot with the EF 400 f2.8L IS II USM lens also at f4. See the two actual pixels screen shot images below:

The image on the left is the 200-400 and the image on the right is with the EF 400 f2.8L IS II USM at f4. As you can see that the prime lens is slightly sharper.

The above images were shot with 1.4x extenders. The image on the left was shot with the EF 200-400 f4.0L IS USM 1.4x Extender with the 1.4x extender engaged and on the right the EF 400 f2.8L IS II USM with an EF1.4x III Extender at f5.6. The image on the right is again slightly sharper.

When I did the comparison, I noticed that the EF 200-400 f4.0L IS USM 1.4x Extender images at 400mm were not the same size as the EF 400 f2.8L IS II USM images. The EF 200-400 f4.0L IS USM 1.4x Extender was more towards 380mm, see images below, left image shot with the EF 200-400 f4.0L IS USM 1.4x Extender set at 400mm and the right image with the 400 f2.8L IS II USM lens.

Below is a comparison with the extenders on:

Conclusion:

This lens will appeal to wildlife and sport photographers, and I am sure the majority of the users of this lens will fall in this category. I can also see photojournalists walking around with this lens.

Let’s start with the negatives; the only two I could find was the price and the weight. The lens is very expensive, and fixed focal lenses that this lens will compete against are cheaper, and I am referring to the EF 400 f2.8L IS II USM and EF 500 f4.0L IS II USM. The weight of the lens is an issue when you want to shoot with it out of hand, a fairly strong individual will be able to deal with the weight for a short period of time, but someone else would struggle.

The advantages outweigh the negatives easily. The versatility of the focal length is a major plus, 200mm to 560mm, and it doesn’t stop here, because you can add a conventional 1.4x teleconverter, even if you have the built in extender engaged or add a 2.0x teleconverter without the built in extender engaged. This will take the zoom focal length from 400mm to 800mm, although it will be at f8 and will only AF with 1D cameras and the 5D MkIII.

Combined with the focal length is the very effective Image Stabilizer that lets you shoot handheld images 4 stops below recommended shutter speeds (I am referring to the inverse focal length vs shutter speed rule). The image quality of the lens is superb, even with the extender engaged, and will please any professional. I did complain about the weight, but the physical size of the lens is nice and compact and will make traveling with the lens a pleasure. The AF tracking without the extender engaged is as good as any of the f4 prime lenses and the One Shot focus is very fast and accurate.

Canon users have been waiting for this lens a very long time. Once they announced the lens it felt like a lifetime for it to arrive!! The moment I picked the lens up I knew I had something special in my hands, and the lens did not disappoint!! This must be the best zoom lens Canon has ever built. If you can’t afford the EF 200-400 f4.0L IS USM 1.4 Extender lens, hire one because every photographer must have the experience of shooting with one of the best lenses on the market!

Manus van Dyk