sierra panorama

Canon 400mm f/4 DO IS II Lens
Hands-On Review & Sample Images

Unfortunately, no camera or lens manufacturer has developed a readily hand holdable super telephoto lens of more than 400mm focal length. This could easily be done if they would make a 500 or 600mm f/5.6 lens designed for small sensors. This would be an EF-S lens in the Canon line. The lens should not be a zoom for optimum performance and compactness. However, this lens may not be made in my lifetime, unless I start my own company. I think a lot of photographers would appreciate more portable, long lenses. Riglht now you are faced with carrying around at least 20 lb of gear for a 500mm f/4 lens or longer. There has to be a better way.

An intriguing possibllity is the Canon 400mm f/4 DO lens. When fitted with a 1.4X Extender, this would give you 560mm. If used with a 1.6 crop factor camera, such as the 7D MKII, the full frame equivalent focal length is almost 900mm! In other words, it would have the same reach that professional photographers have with an 800mm f/5.6 lens and 1DX camera body. This combo will set you back 20 grand without the tripod and Gimbal head, and will weigh well over 20 lb. The best part is that the 400 f/4/7D MKII duo is hand holdable at 900mm! Is this Utopia at last?

The original Canon 400mm DO IS lens was introduced in December 2001. It was the first Canon lens incorporating Diffractive Optics (DO) elements, instead of an all refractive lens design. The advantages of such a design include a more compact, lighter weight design, as well as corrections for spherical and chromatic aberrations. The original version of the lens was not well received by most in the photographic community. It was said to be not sharp, at least for a lens that cost 7k dollars and was thought to have low contrast and flare issues. Therefore, I was quite surprised when Canon announced at Photokina 2014 in September that they had redesigned this lens, and that it would be available in November 2014. The new design contains gapless dual layer diffractive elements, positioned farther to the rear of the lens to reduce flare and increase contrast. New coatings were also developed to improve the contrast and flare. So the big question is, how successful was Canon in turning this compact, hand holdable design into a high performance one that rivals the performance of Canon's other high end L series telephoto lenses?

Other Features:

I'm not going to list them all, but the IS has been greatly improved to provide up to 4 stops of correction. There are 3 IS modes: On at all times (horizontal and vertical), panning (vertical correction only), and on only during exposure. The IS does not have to be turned off when it is attached to a tripod.
A circular aperture of 9 blades provides a pleasing bokeh.

Performance:

One look at the MTF curves for this lens on the Canon suggests that the performance of this lens is greatly improved over its predecessor, and this is certainly confirmed in the test shots that I have made. I went to a local lake where I have been photographing ducks and other birds for the last 8 years or so with the Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens. The details revealed in the birds feathers is a very good test of the optical performance. When I first looked at the images at 100% on my monitor, I could hardly believe how sharp they were. The DO lens is MUCH sharper than the 400 f/5.6. I expected it to be sharper, but there is a much bigger difference than I expected.
In addition the contrast is very high, the same as my other L series lenses. I certainly do not have add an unusual amount of contrast to the files. Flare is also very well controlled, and is not a problem in any way with this lens.
It is difficult to judge the sharpness of a lens from a small file on a website; it really is necessary to see the full sized image on a monitor at 100%. However, the photograph below of the wood duck may give you some idea:

wood duck

Performance With Extenders:

My main reason for buying this lens was to be able to use it with at least the 1.4X Extender on it for bird photography. The MTF curves on the Canon website using Extenders indicated that the Extenders should have very high performance with this lens. The 1.4X Extender converts the focal length to 560mm, and correcting for an equivalent full frame focal length, it is 900mm, which is an awesome prospect in a hand holdable camera. Instrumental to this plan was the introduction of the 7D MKII camera, which proved to have very high performance to at least ISO 1600 with almost no loss of resolution, and up ISO 3200 with only a slight performance drop. This was important to use the high shutter speeds necessary.
The 1.4X Extender works extremely well with this lens. The AF remains very fast and accurate, the resulting images are extremely sharp, still much sharper then the 400mm f/5.6.
Below is a sample photo of a Vermilion Flycatcher, taken with the 400 DO II lens plus 1.4X Extender, hand held. The exposure was 1/2500 sec, f/5.6 at ISO 800 on the Canon 7D MKII. The shutter speed could have been much less, given the great IS in this lens.

Vermilion Flycatcher

The 2X Extender produced very sharp images, too, but AF does not work so well on the 7D MKII at f/8. I would often have to manually prefocus to get the focus in the ballpark, and then the AF system could provide an accurate focus. This means that I would not recommend using the 2X converter for action shots. I was still able to photograph a Vermilion Flycatcher flitting around the trees with it, but I definitely missed shots that I would have made with 400 DO II plus 1.4X extender.

Summary:

If you are looking for a portable super telephoto lens, this is the best there is. The performance is comparable to the larger super teles in the Canon line. However, to get the most out of the lens using it hand held, I strongly recommend pairing it with the Canon 7D MKII. This camera can be used to at least ISO 1600 with little or no loss of resolution, which makes hand holding the 400 DO II a breeze.