Best quality 400mm lens for under $2000

Discussion in 'Canon EOS' started by dan_elkins, Apr 18, 2011.

  1. I am looking for experienced advice on a 400mm focal length purchase for bird photography. I am looking for the best IQ 400mm under $2000 (used). I have read good things about many lenses but not too much info available on lenses with 1.4x or 2x converters.
    I think this is what it comes down to (let me know if there are other contenders): 300/4 with 1.4x, or 70-200/2.8 with 2x, or 100-400 IS, or Sigma 100-300/4 with 1.4x.
    Image quality is first priority and focus speed second.
    Much thanks for your help.
  2. The best 400mm EF-mount lens that I know of (and have used) that's within your budget, Dan, is the EF 400/5.6 L. I've heard that it's IQ is better than that of the 300/4 L w/ 1.4x. And it's certainly far better than any lens with a 2x.
    A qualification is that I've never photographed birds in flight with my 400/5.6 (or with any lens, for that matter). But I do know that it's super sharp from wide open, and that it's AF is fast and accurate. And, if you can live with a prime, its IQ is much better than that of the 100-400/4.5-5.6 L zoom.
  3. Ditto to above. I use my 400 5.6 for landscape, where any barrel distortion or lack of edge sharpness would be very obvious, and I've found it very good.
  4. It may be worth considering a used early version non-IS 400mm f2.8. It's certainly more cumbersome to use in every way but it will be a step up over the f5.6 for possibly a similar price.
  5. Hello Dan,
    The majority of these bird shots on Flickr were taken with the 300/4+1.4X or 100-400, the camer bodies were 7D, 20D and 40D.
    Both lenses are very good, I would have no hesitation over recommending either. One minor irritation over the 200/4 is the lens hood, which is integral and slides along the barrel, being locked in place with a twist. On my lens, the back ring keeps getting detached from the hood. I've lost a few shots that way, but repair would probably be more pricey that the inconvenience warrants. The push-pull of the 100-400 is a little irksome given that all my other zooms twist to zoom, but you get used to it.
    Hope this helps.
  6. This one is easy to answer. The 400mm 5.6 is the choice here if IQ is the main concern. If you need 400mm, don't use a converter to get there.
  7. I agree with the others here recommending the 400mm F5.6L. It's very sharp wide open, has an extremely fast AF motor and comes in under budget purchased new.
    The two drawbacks are lack of IS and the 5.6 max aperture. However, if you slap a converter on any other lens in your budget range, you have the same or smaller working aperture, image degradation and the lens' become awkward for in flight use unless you're using a gimbal mount on a sturdy tripod.
    Re: the 100-400 zoom. It seems (from friends recommendations and scouring articles/posts on the Inet) that the earlier copies are prone to poorer IQ issues than the newer ones, which from what I've seen have extremely good IQ. You are more likely to end up with an older copy shopping used, so be careful.
    The 300F4 is a reliable lens and offers a closer MFD. It's one F-stop faster (nice) and has IS (also nice). It is also slower to focus than the 400. However, it would be a compromise using a converter to extend the reach. You will lose focusing speed, some IQ and might find it to be a little awkward to handle without a tripod.
    The 400 2.8, even the early ones, are beasts. A support only type of lens, especially on a cropped sensor body. If you're working from a tripod, and can find one-they are an option.
    Hope this helps. Regards, Randall
  8. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    I am looking for experienced advice on a 400mm . . . I have read good things about many lenses but not too much info available on lenses with 1.4x or 2x converters. I think this is what it comes down to (let me know if there are other contenders): 300/4 with 1.4x, or 70-200/2.8 with 2x, or 100-400 IS, or Sigma 100-300/4 with 1.4x.​
    I have used the three lenses (combinations) in bold:
    > The 300/4 with x1.4MkII is superior in IQ to the 70 to 200/2.8 with the x2.0MkII and a realistic alternative to the 100 to 400L.
    > I am an advocate of the EF70 to 200F/2.8L USM + x2.0MkII as a useful tool which, when used intelligently, can produce good results: , -But I DO NOT suggest this for your use. I use this combination as a light weight carry everywhere, alterative.
    > My experience with the100 to 400 is a while ago, and are mentioned here: , but as you will read, there are many who are more than satisfied with the 100 to 400L and I hold many of those opinions in high esteem. You need to decide if a zoom is what you want
    I have not used the 400/5.6L and I would take advice from those above who have. I understand it is a popular bird lens – but birds are not my subject matter.
    In regard to the also mentioned two first generation 400/2.8L’s: one was released in 1991 and the other in 1996.
    I suspected that spare parts might be an issue; but here this is a recent thread with commentary from many folk, whose opinions I trust and it seems there are other issues to consider also:
  9. I own the 100-400 L coupled with the 1.4X TC and get satisfactory results for my type of shooting. The 100-400 can be used with both the 1.4X or 2X Teleconverters, but best results with the 1.4X TC.
    I personally do like the versatility of the zoom in many circumstances.
    But, I would really like to have either a 300 or 400mm prime!
  10. I've been using the 400mm f/5.6 for a couple years now, and I love it for bird photography. Now My father uses the 800mm lens, which in some ways is ideal for birds--he gets shots I could never get with my equipment (one day....). But one thing I've noticed is that, since the 400mm lens is so much smaller, it's far more maneuverable, and therefore I'm more likely to get birds in flight. It also can focus closer, so if you happen to have birds up close, you can still get the shot. Personally, I'd stay away from zooms, and I wouldn't use tele-converters to get to 400mm. On rare occasion I'll manual focus a 400mm+2x for birds that are far away, and I can still get sharp pictures, but there is a drop in IQ. I'd hate to have that drop in IQ just to get to 400mm. Even without IS, of the other lenses you've listed, I think the 400mm f/5.6 is the clear winner.
  11. I've owned the 400/f5.6 and currently use the 500/f4 as my birding lens. The 400/f5.6 is fast focusing and sharp, but really needs IS. In your price range I'd go for the 300/f4 IS with the 1.4x TC, yielding 420mm of focal length.
    When you get into these super-tele focal lengths, IS becomes very important. Even with my 500mm, I shoot around 90% handheld. Others use a tripod, and I did for many thousands of clicks, but I find that my keeper ratio for birds in flight is much, much higher when I hand hold. With the IS, I can successfully hand hold down at 1/500th second, where without IS I'd be wanting at least 1/1000th.
    The IQ of the 300/f4 plus 1.4xTC is going to be very close to the 400/f5.6 when mounted on a tripod, shooting at a newspaper on the wall. In the real world, chasing birds and animals through the woods, in all kinds of light and then cropped down, there want be a iota of difference in IQ. Looking at flat test patterns at 100% is useful information, BUT it doesn't reflect real world performance, handholding while shooting a fast moving subject.
  12. David- IQ issues aside (not arguing against your point, image to image conditions and situations will likely yield different results, and perceptible differences may well be negligible on most subjects. Whole heartedly agree the 400F5.6 would benefit from IS and an optics overhaul (CA), but that would likely cut into Canon's sales of the 500F4 IMHO.)
    -there will be a noticeable (by all accounts I've read) loss in focus speed of a lens due to the addition of the TC. This, IMHO will further restrict the ability of a 300F4+TC to aquire focus and land a keeper of a bird in flight when compared to the very fast focus speed of the 4005.6. Heck, even without the TC, my 300F4 lands far fewer keepers (in flight) than the 400F5.6.
    The 300F4 With IS is far better in low light and "up close" where focusing speed usually isn't an issue, mainly due to the extra Fstop, closer MFD and IS.
  13. If you shoot from a tripod or monopod the 400 5.6 is your best bet. Tad sharper than the 300f4+1.4x [which I shot with for years]. However, I loved the fact I had IS, 300f4 IS and 420 IS going for me with one lens. And the choice of hand holding in not so perfect light. You could probably say the same thing for the 100-400IS. I shot alongside a person for two years with the 400 5.6 and me with the 300f4+tele, and we both pretty much had undetectable differences in the images, very similar except I had the 300f4IS option and image stabilization. In that case my slower shutterspeed photos were always better image quality than hers because of the IS, and of course I could always take the teleconverter off and shoot f4 in lower light as well. The 300f4IS also makes a fab macro lens with a 12mm tube [for use up to 15 ft. away] and lovely clarity for hummers where you need stabilation and quickness. I learned to get closer.
    Think about the type of photography you are doing now and apply these situations to decide if you really need IS.
  14. [​IMG]
    I owned and used the 100/400L for 10 years . I was quite happy with the results until I tried a friends 400 f5.6 L. The auto focus locks on much quicker and the image quality is superior wide open vs. the 100/400L at any f stop.. I've taken hundreds of images with 100/400L + Canon 2x and never got an image worth printing. Here's an example of the results using the 400 f5.6 L and the Canon 2 x converter.
  15. Dan, I'll add another vote for the 400/5.6 L.
    If you want a zoom, however, and want to consider an alternative to the Canon 100-400 L (which most people report to be excellent), the Sigma you might want to consider may be the 120-400mm APO OS (rather than the Sigma 100-300 with a 1.4x TC you mentioned in your question). But I doubt many will find either Sigma superior to the Canon 100-400 IS (except in price). Darwin Wiggett's review finds the Sigma 120-400 the equal to the Canon 100-400 at focal lengths up to 300mm, but falling off slightly at 400mm. But for birds, 400mm is where you want to use it. And at 400mm the Canon 400/5.6 prime betters both zooms (except regarding IS/OS).
    Since you mentioned birding, and that your primary concern is image quality and not focus speed, it may be worth mentioning that there are two 500mm alternatives with superb image quality within your price parameter......IF you are willing to forego AF altogether and adapt older manual focus ED or L glass. The first is the Nikon 500mm/4.5 P IF-ED......The second (somewhat of an unrecognized sleeper) is the Canon FD 500mm/4.5 L, adapted with a glassless thin DIY FD to EOS macro adapter, as described by Jean-Bernard Fischer.
  16. Michael, all I can say is WOW!, and also that I take back most of what I said about using the 2x extender. It's patently obvious from your image that it works well with at least some lenses.
  17. Remember, shooting dragonflies, is way, way different then shooting birds in flight. You'll never successfully use a 2x TC on a 400/f5.6 to shoot anything moving at any speed at all. You might have some success with the 1.4x TC, but I never had any success with it on my 7D. If you have a 1D MkIV, then maybe it'll be useful to you.
    I think that buying a MF lens would be a huge mistake. I DO successfully use MF to catch a warbler amongst the branches, but, in general, you'll appreciate AF for keeping up with birds.
  18. Dan,
    I have a Sigma 50-500 mm OS and you can take decent bird photos with that (like this one). Pricewise it is within your budget (~ $1600)and you don't need a teleconverter. I never used 300mm or 400mm primes so I cannot compare those with Sigma.
  19. Seems like the 400mm f/5.6L is your lens. Now when you say absolute best IQ, that's a loaded question whenyou talk
    about real world use. A 300mm f/4L IS with teleconverter may not yield the same IQ as the 400 prime from a tripod
    under controlled conditions, but that IS may help you get a better quality image than the 400 if you are handholding at
    shutter speeds of less than 1/500. I have the 400 prime and love it, but to take advantage of it's sharpness you have to
    have a fast shutter when handholding, I mean 1/800 and above. All things considered, I love my 400 L, you can
    browse my gallery as many photos are taken with this lens. Just look at the exif data to see which ones.
  20. Thanks to everyone for your advice and experience. Originally I was thinking about the 300/4L IS with 1.4x, but now am considering the 400/5.6L. I will try to find both for a hands on test before deciding. I have seen great images from both lenses – appreciate it.
  21. the other good thing about the 400mm is that (with the 1.4x being the converter that more people are willing to use) at 400 you haven't yet used a converter and can add the 1.4x to get a 520mm f/8. You'll lose AF with non-1 series bodies, but if you do own a 1 series its a nice combo.
  22. I don't believe you said what your end purpose was, and you did ask for the best image quality, so I will throw in my usual recommendation. IF you can live without autofocus and auto aperture then consider one of several Nikon manual focus lenses using a simple mechanical adapter for your Canon body. If you are patient all of these are available for under $2000 USD: Nikon 300/2.8 AIS, 400/3.5 AIS, 400/2.8 AIS, 500/4 P AIS, and 600/4 AIS.
    For used Canon and Nikon lenses check
  23. The OP did say "bird photography." His IQ with those old, clunker Nikkor lenses will be magnifide by a horrible keeper rate. I doubt that any of those will have superior IQ to an old Canon 500/f4.5, if you want to start throwing in old lenses. I will admit that the IQ of my 500/f4 is superior to my old 400/f5.6, but for the price difference, the 400 is quite a bargain.
    For birds in flight, the MF will be useless unless the focus screen is also replaced.

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