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Best quality 400mm lens for under $2000


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David Stephens , Apr 19, 2011; 10:44 a.m.

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.

Randall Farhy , Apr 19, 2011; 11:20 a.m.

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.


linda jones , Apr 19, 2011; 01:17 p.m.

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.

Michael Eckstein , Apr 19, 2011; 03:56 p.m.

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.

paul f , Apr 19, 2011; 06:25 p.m.

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.

Mark Pierlot , Apr 19, 2011; 08:12 p.m.

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.

David Stephens , Apr 19, 2011; 08:28 p.m.

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.

Hadi Khademi , Apr 19, 2011; 09:07 p.m.

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.

Canon 7D, Sigma 50-500@500 f/8, 1/320, ISO 200, EV +1

Nathan Gardner , Apr 19, 2011; 09:26 p.m.

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. http://photo.net/photodb/folder?folder_id=988566

Dan Elkins , Apr 19, 2011; 10:48 p.m.

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.

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