Handling a three pound lens

Canon 400mm L lensI rented the superb, highly respected Canon 400mm L lens, a favorite among birders and wildlife photographers. I enjoy photographing wildlife and thought I’d give this lens a try. Whenever I nailed focus, the clean, crisp images it produced were simply amazing.

Less amazing was the time it took me to learn to handle the lens.

The lens is over 10″ long and weighs in at just under three pounds. That’s a lot longer and  heavier than the consumer level lenses I own.

Handling the 400mm L lens

Unfortunately, I don’t like using a tripod or monopod. For me, it lacks the spontaneity when hand-holding a camera.

For support, I steadied myself against something: a tree, a fence, whatever. Or I sat or crouched and braced both elbows against my thighs. I also propped up the underside of the lens at the far end with my left hand.

After a lot of practice and tips from users of this lens, I finally got some decent shots. Since the lens has an aperture of  f 5.6 and no Image Stabilization, my most successful shots were taken on bright days.

While taking photos, I made a frequent check of camera settings, particularly shutter speed and ISO. I needed the shutter speed fast enough to eliminate camera shake.

Finding a moving subject in the viewfinder can be difficult because the lens doesn’t zoom. But once in view, a subject is relatively easy to lock focus because of the incredible focus speed and accuracy of the lens.

Camera settings used with the 400mm L lens

I set my camera, the Canon XSi/450D, as follows:

  • Evaluative metering
  • Single, center focus point
  • Aperture priority mode
  • Exposure compensation: change according to the scene
  • AI Servo mode
  • High speed continuous mode
  • Shutter speed and ISO – to help minimize camera shake, I set the camera to the highest shutter speed possible, 1600th of a second or above, even if it meant raising the ISO.
  • Highest quality JPEG – RAW is out when shooting in continuous mode with the XSi shooting because of the slow buffering.

The Canon 100-400mm L

Canon 100-400mm L ISI also tried a friend’s Canon 100 – 400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS lens, both  hand-held and on a tripod. Hand-held, I found it even more difficult to hold than the 400mm L. Though shorter in length, the lens is slightly heavier and felt more bulky.

Some photographers prefer the Canon 100 – 400mm L. While it’s not quite as sharp as the 400mm L prime lens, it’s certainly much sharper than consumer lenses. It’s also more versatile because it  zooms and has image stabilization.

Weight an issue only for some

It should be pointed out that some photographers consider these lenses lightweight and, with practice, have no problems hand-holding them. I am not among those who think they are lightweight. However, if I ever decide to buy a heavy lens, I’ll need to build up more strength in my hands and arms.

Besides handling, one needs to keep in mind the high prices of L lenses. The two mentioned in this article cost over $1200 each at the time of this writing, unless you buy one used. Both lenses have a high resale value though.

Visit the Canon 400mm L Photo Gallery for sample photos taken with the lens.

For anyone serious about using a lens like the 400mm L or 100-400mm IS L for wildlife and bird photography, I highly recommend reading a thread I started in the Nature and Wildlife forum at the Fred Miranda site. It contains wildlife photos as well as outstanding advice from experienced and expert users of super telephoto lenses.

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