Reviews / Canon EF 400mm F5.6 USM L Lens Review
(Published November 2013, updated October 2014)
As I'm often asked what kit I use I thought it would be good to document my opinions in a little bit more detail. First up is my Canon 400mm F5.6 L lens.
Let's get this perfectly clear though... I'm only writing this little "review" for a bit of fun. These are just my findings/opinions of the lens when used specifically for motorsport photography. You may agree, disagree or not even care about my thoughts. That's cool.
The Canon EF 400mm F5.6 L USM lens is an unusual looking thing. My first impressions were that it appeared very old fashioned - quite long, thin and very lightweight - especially given it's focal length. This compactness makes it a very popular lens for aviation and bird/wildlife photographers - especially for panning and capturing in-flight shots. I rarely see this lens being used at a race track - that's partly why I wanted to give it a go!
400mm is certainly handy for getting close to the action, particularly at circuits like Silverstone and Donington Park. Fitted to a 7D body (x1.6 crop/sensor factor) it equates to a focal length of 640mm. At most race tracks in the UK this will get you pretty close to the action and enable you to take 3/4 or head-on shots.
Being an L series lens you would expect the build quality to be solid. I can confirm it is. One unusual design "feature" is that the lens hood is built on and cannot be removed. It slides down and screws in place. I actually think this works very well. See below:
I have used this lens with a number of bodies - 7D, 1D Mark III, 1D Mark IIN and 40D. The autofocus is fast and generally accurate. Image contrast and sharpness is excellent - even when shooting wide open at F5.6. I like to keep ISO (noise/grain) to a minimum so I tend to mostly use the lens on bright days where there is plenty of light available.
With my current camera/lens setup the Canon 400mm F5.6 L lens sees most action on an old 7D body. I think it's a great combination.
I have used the lens with a Canon 1.4 II teleconverter. On the 7D autofocus is not possible but on the 1D Mark IIN and 1D Mark III it is - although only with the centre focus point. Autofocus does feel slower but still remains fairly accurate if you adapt your technique to accomodate. Image sharpness is generally still decent. Maximum aperture with the 1.4 teleconverter is F8.
I would really only use with a teleconverter on very bright days and at circuits such as Silverstone where you often need the extra reach. It's fair to say I'm not a really fan of teleconverters.
A negative point for some users could be the lack of IS (Image Stabiliser). For me this is no problem at all as I use a monopod. In any case hand-holding this lens is no problem as it is very lightweight, you will just need hold things steady and/or use a faster shutter speed to avoid shake.
Another possible negative is the minimum focus distance of 3.5M - for motorsport though this is no concern as with a fixed 400mm lens something 3.5M away is going to be filling the frame long before that! Example:
I used to own the Canon EF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 L IS USM - which served me very well for over 6 years. A great lens. I found the sweet spot for my copy was around the 300-350mm range. Being able to react and instantly adjust focal length is really advantageous in the motorsport environment - especially when things happen so quickly!
Without doubt the Canon EF 400mm F5.6 L USM prime has noticeably faster autofocus and consistantly produces sharper results at 400mm. Obviously the fixed focal length offers no flexibility. There's a time and a place to use the lens so if you must have flexibility at all times then clearly this is not the lens for you!
I would regard the Canon EF 400mm F5.6 L USM lens as an excellent choice for motorsport photography. Other glass to consider (at a similar price point) would be the Canon EF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 L IS USM, Canon EF 70-300mm F4-5.6 L IS USM or Canon EF 300mm F4 L IS USM with x1.4 TC. All are very capable. Choose what is right for you.
Clearly if money were no object then of course there are many more options that will leave a considerably larger hole in your pocket ;-)
Below are 6 motorsport photos I captured with the Canon 400mm F5.6 L lens:
Update, October 2014:
Just thought I should mention... this lens is not motorbike proof!!!
Yes it was snapped clean in half after taking a direct hit from a flying motorbike at Brands Hatch in March 2014. It was a pretty scary moment but thankfully the rider and myself were not hurt. The lens itself didn't fair so well as you can see from the photo above. However it was actually repairable (!!!) and after being away for a few weeks came back as good as new - if not even better than before!
In October 2014, after 2 years of ownership, I sold the lens to a new home (complete with the story) and I hope he enjoys shooting with it for many more years to come!
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