Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM – Long-Term Review

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM

I’ve had my Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens since mid-2007. I bought a second hand model from the London Camera Exchange, treating myself to this fantastic piece of gear out of a  redundancy payment. They took my previous Sigma 135-400mm long zoom, and an old TTL Canon flash in part exchange. I think the final bill came to just under £1000 – which at the time was a bargain for this lens. It looks like you can still get one for about that now, so they’ve held their value extremely well.

At the time, I was attending lots of rugby matches, and taking photographs whenever I could.

Battering Ram
Battering Ram

During the winter, the matches would often finish under floodlights, so a lens with decent Image Stabilisation was essential. I was taking shots from the stands (not having access to the touchline), with the lens mounted on a small monopod, and supported on the edge of my seat. It worked reasonably well – the lens weighs in at a hefty 1.38Kg so holding that up by hand for 80 minutes would have been almost as brutal as playing a game of rugby myself!

By mid-2008, for various reasons, I was attending fewer rugby games and the lens was largely consigned to the back of a cupboard. Mainly due to its brutish weight. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with it ever since. I love the quality of images I get when I bother to use it. But I hate the bulk and weight of it and use it much less frequently than I should.

Fast-forward to mid-2010 and it had another outing, this time to photograph the wonderful lavender fields, mid-harvest, in Eynesford, Kent:

Stripes Of Lavender
Stripes Of Lavender

Having reacquainted myself with its image quality, I was reminded to take it out on a shoot to the Salute For Heroes event at Glemham Hall a few weeks later. It was perfect for the flypast of the B17 during the afternoon:

B17 Flypast
B17 Flypast

And perfect for getting up close and personal with the characters, whilst remaining safely at more than a pike’s distance from the action:

Lovely Plumage
Lovely Plumage

Such a long reach means you can capture images of twitchy nervous wildlife without getting close enough to upset them. Below is a Blue Tit in may parent’s garden (taken through the kitchen window):

Blue Tit With Seeds
Blue Tit With Seeds

As you can see, it gives brilliant differential focus, isolating the subject from its background. I also found the lens very useful in a butterfly house during an outing at Tropical Wings – the butterflies would flit away as soon as I tried getting close with my 60mm macro lens – but were blissfully unaware of me stalking them from a distance with the 100-400mm:

Marbled Wings
Marbled Wings

On my crop-sensor EOS 7D the lens’ longest focal length is equivalent to a whopping 640mm – that’s nearly a telescope! Which gave me an idea… One clear cold autumnal evening I decided to have a go at photographing the moon. This is a crop from approximately 1/4 of the frame, but I was astonished at the details I managed to record (it was mounted on a sturdy tripod, using a cable release and mirror lock-up to minimise vibrations):

Once In A Blue Moon
Once In A Blue Moon

And so we come full circle back to sport and action shots. Firstly, some Point-to-Point jump racing at Mark’s Tey in February:

Rumbling Down The Hill
Rumbling Down The Hill

And white-water action at the GB Olympic Canoe Trials in Waltham Cross in April:

Stripey Canoe
Stripey Canoe

It was at this event that the lens started playing up – something felt like it was snagging when you pulled the zoom ring back towards the wide end – it would “ping” and come back easily if you just exerted a little bit of pressure. Clearly it needed looking at. But sadly I didn’t have the time to get it sorted out until a couple of weeks ago – so it sat in the cupboard sulking for 7 months!

But having paid a sizeable sum to get it repaired at Colchester Camera Repair, I vowed (yet again) to take it out and use it more! Immediately after I collected it, I took it for a sunset shoot in Brightlingsea and got some great atmospheric results:

Sunset Doggy Walkers
Sunset Doggy Walkers

As you can see, the results from the lens speak for themselves. It’s a fabulous piece of equipment for wildlife, sports and action if you have the muscles to carry it about, and a strong enough tripod to set it up on. This time, I refuse to put it back in the cupboard, for it will be out of sight, out of mind – and it could then be months before I use it again!