Canon EF 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L USM IS – A Review

I am posting here a review of the Canon EF 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L USM IS lens as written by Niranj Vaidyanathan. A little info about Niranj – He is an out and out bird lover, and does bird photography primarily because of his love for birds. He has been using this tele zoom lens for a while now. I got to try out his lens recently and got some really nice, contrasty pictures. Here’s one of my pics shot using the 100-400 zoom lens.


Posting below is Niranj’s review. The pics used below are all his and you will find them on his flickr stream.


Most of the reviews of this beast (or beauty – depends on how you see this), on the net, are written by professionals, for professional. I am no professional, so if you intend to buy this lens, or even are thinking about something on this range – Read on.

Don’t get threatened by the long name of the lens – Now I’m assuming you shoot with a Canon system, because this lens is meant for canon users.
EF conveys that that the lens is compatible on a Full frame sensor or a 35 mm film camera.  Effectively, on an APS-C sensor, you get the equivalent range of 160-640 mm without any degradation in quality or loss of f-stop.   f/4.5 – 5.6 indicates the apperture varies from f/4.5 at 100mm to f/5.6 at 400mm.  USM is the fast focussing motor from Canon, L denotes the luxury grade lens known for its ruggedness and quality of optics, and IS denotes that this lens comes with a built in stabilizer.

What’s in the box when you buy this lens :
1. Canon EF 100-400 lens
2. Lens Pouch – Not well padded, maybe good if you are storing the lens and carrying it around in a backpack.
3. Tripod Mount Collar – Thankfully, Canon decided to give this in the box.
4. Lens Hood – Plastic hood.

One of the first things that you will notice is the weight.  At 1.3 KGs, its neither too heavy to handhold, nor exactly light for those migrating from the 300 mm range.  Then you start fiddling with the lens, and you realize that the the push-pull design is confusing – it took me a while before I could figure out how to unlock the zoom mechanism.  There are four buttons on the left of the lens – Auto/Manual focus toggle, Range limiter, IS On-off, IS Mode (Mode 1 stabilizes horizontal and vertical, Mode 2 stabilizes only vertical – useful when panning).  Mount it on the camera, and jeez, that’s actually heavy.  Viewfinder, half press of the shutter release button – surprise surprise!  Focussing is fast (even on a entry level dSLR body), and for those migrating from non-IS lenses, you have to be blind to miss it, or maybe you didn’t turn the IS button on! :-)

Now for the details – There is a lot of talk on sharpnes, Image Stabilization and Image Quality.  Apparently, there was a problem with sharpness in a few lenses that were manufactured earlier – If your copy is a recent one, you’ll most likely not notice this behaviour.  Older lenses were sharper at f/8 than f/5.6 – There are plenty of websites that tell you how to test sharpness.  I’ve not noticed a difference in sharpness in the images at f/8 and at f/5.6.  My copy of the lens has given me acceptable levels of sharpness.

Sharp enough?

Purple Sunbird | Kanva Reservoir

Or How about this?

The Moon Touches Your Shoulder....

With respect to image quality, I don’t find issues with the lens. Color reproduction is excellent, and I don’t have to spend a lot of time processing the images for color. It also gives me a wonderful bokeh.

Singing Plain Prinia | Kanakpura Road

The Image Stabilizer on this lens is supposed to be a 1.5 generation stabilizer. I don’t use a tripod, so can’t say much about it’s use or behaviour when mounted on a tripod. There have been reports of erratic behaviour as the lens tries to stabilize movement when mounted on a tripod. From what I’ve used, the the stabilizer works very well when used handheld. I’ve been able to get shots at 1/25th of a second when shooting handheld.

The photo is a little cluttered, but the sharpness at 1/25th of a second speaks for itself

Sandpiper | Bannerghatta National Park

I primarily use this lens for bird / animal photographs. It is tough to get an image of a bird with a 400 mm lens that may not require cropping, but on following proper approach or if the bird is cooperative, you’ll be able to fill up the frame with an image of the bird.

Kiss of the Sunbird | Bannerghatta National Park

Jump! | Plovers | Kanakpura Road

The other huge concern is the push-pull design and mis-informed users. I’ve heard folks telling me that UV filter is a must as the lens has a push-pull mechanism – Something that I can not understand why. While it is unconventional, I’ve not noticed any increase in dust on the sensor than what it was before I picked up this lens. While I do agree that it does take a little bit of learning to understand the use correctly, and that if careless, the lens can snap if you have not tightened the zoom lock and point the lens down, or otherwise. So take care that the first thing that you do after you fix the lens at a specific focal length is to tighten the zoom lock.

It took me a while to get adjusted to the camera + lens weight combination. I’ve so far never used a tripod with this lens. I should say this lens has been my primary workhorse, and has helped me build up my arms. :-)

Other alternatives if you’re considering this lens:
1. Canon EF 400 f/5.6 L USM – Lightweight, and a few have mentioned that this lens can focus faster than the 100-400. There is no IS though. Good lens for birding.
2. Canon EF 300 f/4 L USM IS – Another small lightweight lens. You can add a 1.4x TC and get 420 mm equivalent at f/5.6

Please note that though there are third party alternatives, I’m not suggesting any as I’m not sure how compatible they are with a full frame camera or with new cameras.

Things that I would like Canon to improve on for this :
1. Better hood – Metal hood would be much appreciated.
2. The zoom lock merges with the focussing ring – This creates a lot of problems when trying to operate the zoom lock with one hand. I’m surprised that very few people have mentioned this.

In conclusion, does the price tag of this beast justify it’s performance? I’d say yes, this is one of the best lenses in the range. If you’re still thinking about making a decision, here are some images that could help you. :-)


Hope the review helps you in case you are considering buying this lens. Do feel free to leave behind any questions you may have. I can ask Niranj to reply to them.

All Rights Reserved. Images posted here should not be reproduced, published, transmitted in any forum (even via e-mails/or upload to Orkut/or any other networking sites) or in print or in any other physical or electronic forum either in part or in whole without the explicit written consent from the copyright owner. Legal action will be initiated against any individual, organisation, institution, agency, publishing house, etc. who violate the Copyright laws including but not limited to those mentioned here and use the image for any commercial/non-commercial purposes. If you would like to use any of the photographs displayed here commercially or would like to use for any other use please do contact me or Niranj. Thanks 

14 Responses to “Canon EF 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L USM IS – A Review”

  1. Those photos are truly impressive! I am more of a wide-angle shooter, but will certainly keep this in mind for future equipment expansion wishes! Thanks for sharing :)

  2. What is the price range for this lens? Thanks!

  3. Thanks a lot Chitra and Niranj for sharing the lens review. This particular lens is there in my wishlist.. :)

  4. Simply wow. The images.

  5. ur pics are accurate, better than real life..

  6. Hmmmmm… Again, your blog post (and Niranj’s pictures) is making me think about buying a DSLR…

  7. Thanks for the excellent review!
    Hmm very tempting…

  8. Great review and even better pictures. Isn’t it recommended to switch off the IS when mounted on the tripod? I have no IS lenses and am just wondering……

  9. Thanks Cindy for stopping by. :)

    Gowri, approximately around $1500 now. I didnt mention it in the post coz the price varies over time. :)

    Lijo, you are welcome. I hope you get to buy it soon. :)

    Yes Which Main, they are very goodarent they? :)

    JD, I am sure that will please Niranj. :)

    Suneel Madhekar, go ahead. Make the plunge. :))

    Murali, you are welcome. :)

    Srivatsan, yes that is the recommendation. IS lens will look for vibrations and when on a tripod, it is not likely to sense any.
    And I have no IS lens either. :)

  10. Cindy/Snid : Thank you. :-) Yes, this is one of the best lenses from Canon in this range.

    Gowri : Chitra has already indicated the price range – Around US $1500. Currently equipment prices are rising.

    Lijo Jose : There are talks of a Canon EF 100-400 f/4 or something similar, unconfirmed as of now though. It could turn out to be more expensive, you could consider waiting for a while to see if that launch has an impact on this one’s prices, though I doubt if it would.

    Which Main? What Cross? : Thank you. And yes, Hebbal Lake is rich. :-)

    JD : Thank you. :-)

    Suneel Madhekar : Well, you should. :-)

    Murali : I got tempted, and went in for it. :-)

    Srivatsan : Chitra has explained everything that you need to know. :-) I’ve never used this lens on a tripod. If the IS technology is 1st generation, it doesn’t understand that it’s being mounted on a tripod. Newer lenses come with 2nd generation IS technology, it is intelligent enough to detect that you’ve mounted it on a tripod. If you google for Canon’s IS technology, you’ll find tons of links where they will explain which lens has which technology of IS. The general idea is to leave it turned off when mounted on a tripod. :-)

  11. […] : I’d originally written this for Chitra’s blog; Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Smart Shopping: Digital CamerasSony Reveals First […]

  12. Mesmerising images. I really need to think about putting this camera on my wishlist.

  13. i own several Canon L Lenses and they have the best quality. even better than Nikon.:,.

  14. Do u have any idea where can i get used 100-400 lence

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