DSLR Lenses

Canon 400mm L lens

Written by Gail Bjork

The Canon 400mm L lens is one of the most popular lenses used by seasoned birder and wildlife photographers. But it may be too heavy-.

400mm L lensAfter realizing the 400mm equivalent focal length of my Canon 55-250mm IS lens isn’t always long enough for wildlife photography, I rented the Canon 400mm L lens. At a cost of over $1200, I figured it was worth renting and trying  before buying.

With a focal lens multiplier of 1.6, the 400mm L gives me a 640mm equivalent when mounted on my Canon XSi.

It’s big and heavvvvvvvvvy!

I wasn’t prepared for using a lens with a weight of 2.8 lbs and 10.1 inches in length! This isn’t a concern for those who use a tripod or monopod, but I like to hand hold a camera when taking photos. To reduce the weight slightly, I removed the tripod collar mount.

First days out with the 400mm L lens

The lens, unfortunately, has no Image Stabilization so holding it without shaking it was solely up to me. The first few days out with the lens, I just plain couldn’t hold it steady. Looking through the viewfinder was dizzying. Every photo was blurred.

My back and hands ached for a few days carrying the lens. But I suppose that was more an indictment on me being out of shape and not the lens. 😉

I became discouraged but wasn’t about to give up either. After all, I was holding one of the finest and respected lenses used by seasoned birder and wildlife photographers.

Getting better

Gradually, I learned to hold the lens steadier. I steadied myself by leaning against a tree or by crouching or sitting down and bracing both elbows against my thighs.

I soon learned that to capture sharper images, I needed to use very fast shutter speeds even if it meant upping the ISO. The lens has a fixed aperture of f/5.6 so taking hand-held shots on well-lit days is important.

Finally I was able to get some keepers. When I got a decent shot, I was utterly amazed at the quality of the images produced by the Canon 400mm L lens. The accuracy and blazing focus speed of this lens are amazing too.

Before I knew it, my two week rental period was up.

Heavenly vs. Heavily

The lens, as one forum participant put it, is “heavenly.” It is also, “heavily” and is one of the main reasons I decided not to buy it. It costs over $1200 as of this writing and I’m just not sure I want to spend this amount of money for a lens. It also doesn’t have zoom, which can be helpful when photographing birds in flight.

Still, I think of this lens every time I go out for a walk with my camera. I know the 400mm focal length is great for photographing wildlife. But I need to answer some questions before purchasing a lens of this type:

  • Will I get enough use out of the lens to justify the high cost?
  • Am I willing to build up arm strength, or forgo some spontaneity and begin using a tripod or monopod?
  • Will I be satisfied using a lens with a shorter focal length that produces fine images, but does not have the same quality of an L lens?

Right now, the answers allude me. I need more time to decide!

Visit our Canon 400mm L Photo Gallery for sample images taken with this lens.

About the author

Gail Bjork

Gail Bjork, who is passionate about digital photography, is the owner and editor of Digicamhelp.Gail is the author of three illustrated ebooks about digital photography. A number of her photos and digital photography related articles appear at other websites.In 2006, a series of her photos, People in the Louvre, were exhibited at the Underground Photo Gallery
in Iisalmi Finland. Eight of her photos taken in the Florida scrub are on permanent exhibition at Parrish Medical Center in Titusville, Florida.Gail served twelve years as an elected member of The School Board of Palm Beach County, Florida, one of the largest school districts in the U.S. She has also been the editor of a small town newspaper and a free-lance writer. Gail and her husband owned and ran several small businesses.

4 Comments

  • It’s a very fine lens and, for many, it just takes a little practice getting the right hand-holding technique. In low light, the lack of IS may be somewhat of a detriment, but most wildlife shots are taken in good, outside light. The lens focuses fast and is sharp as a tack.

  • Hello, Gail,

    I just bought this lens and while I haven’t had much chance to use it yet, I’m looking forward to it.

    I have been digiscoping for the last 2 years so I’m spoiled as to how far in you can zoom on a spotting scope. Also, I haven’t had to hold a big lens in a while. This lens is a tad heavy at first. I took some quick shot yesterday after I came home from UPS  and they were blurry. But this morning I tried a few more. Better light and my stability is improving. I do weight lifting and am planning to throw in a set or two for the left arm holding a weight at the same level as my lens.

    I read a bunch of reviews on this lens and most people seemed to feel that lack of IS is not as much of a detriment as you might think.  I’m hoping that’s true. Also, most of the bird photographers I know use some type of 400mm.

    So, I think it’s a good deal.  For the quality tack sharp photos this lens is up to it and the cost for it is as low as you can go for this quality.

    I’ll be interested to hear if you end up getting one and what you think.

    Can’t wait to get home from work now and go play with it.

  • Probably you have already made your decision by now.  I bought this lens last Oct09 and couldn’t be happier.  There’s noticeable difference in IQ produced by the L series and consumer lenses.  I still use my first consumer telezoom which is same as yours 55-250 IS.  But this 400mm f/5.6L is a gem and some images look same as high quality pro images.  I made the purchase decision after reading numerous articles on this lens.  For a hobbyist, 1,200 dollars is a high budget but there’s isn’t anything like it at this price point.  The 5k or above lenses produce almost same image quality as this one.  The main differences are; those have IS and are faster.  With mine, IS is not an issue and f/5.6 is fast enough.  BTW, I use the same body as yours.

  • My answers to your three questions are yes, yes, yes. I’ve got my heart set on getting one of these babies as my 200 f/2.8 L is never long enough for the (big) birds when I find them. Many are fairly tolerant and let me get as close as 15 or 20 yards but while the 200 is a fine lens it just doesn’t get me there. Informative article Gail.