Nature,  Photo Gear

Testing the Canon 100-400mm Mark II for Bird and Wildlife Photography

Nature photographers have been waiting a long time for the upgrade to the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5 – 5.6 L Lens.  The original version of the lens was announced in September 1998 and the upgrade has been rumored for many years.  But the new lens comes at a high price, around $2200.  $600 higher than its predecessor.

American Tree Sparrow Feeding on Seeds

American Tree Sparrow.  Taken with the Canon 100-400mm Mark II and the 1.4x III Telephoto Extender at ISO 800.

In this blog, I’ll briefly cover the new features of the lens that are important to bird and wildlife photographers.  Then I will cover the results from my field tests using the Canon 100-400 mark II for bird and wildlife photography.

What’s new and Improved?

The Mark II Version of the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L Lens has improved optics with 21 elements in 16 groups.  Here are some other features that are important to nature photographers.

  • Closer minimum focus distance of 3.2 feet vs. 5.9 feet in the Mark I version.
  • 4 stops of image stabilization vs. 1.5 stops with the previous Canon 100-400mm lens.  This is a huge upgrade that is important when handholding the lens.
  • 3 image stabilization modes: standard, panning, and IS during exposure only. 
  • The push pull zoom of the old Canon 100-400mm lens has now been replaced by a traditional twist zoom ring.
  • Dial to adjust the tension on the zoom ring.  You can now set the zoom ring to dictate how smooth you want the ring to rotate and to avoid the zoom drifting while walking with the lens.
  • The Canon 100-400 Mark II also autofocuses with the Canon 1.4x Telephoto Extender.  With a 1.4x III Telephoto Extender on a 5d Mark III, Canon 7d Mark II, and Canon 1Dx the lens will autofocus at center focus point only.  The minimum aperture at long end of the focal length is f/8.
  • The lens will also work with a 2.0x Telephoto Extender, but with manual focus only.
  • The Canon 100-400mm Mark II weighs 3.46 pounds while the previous model weighs 3.1 pounds.  This is not too much of a weight increase given the upgraded optics and features.  I hiked for several miles with the Canon 100-400mm mark II and Canon 5d Mark III attached to a black rapid strap and the weight of the gear didn’t bother me at all.

How does it Perform for Bird and Wildlife Photography?

I have to say that I am impressed with the performance of the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5 – 5.6 lens for bird and wildlife photography.  I’ve taken the lens out several times both in good and bad lighting conditions.

Overall, the lens seems very sharp even in dull light and high ISO conditions.  The lens also remained sharp with the Canon 1.4X III Telephoto Extender attached.

I did notice that the autofocus hunted and searched quite a bit on crowded compositions such as a bird in the bushes.  This is a difficult autofocusing situation.  However, the hunting and searching in these conditions doesn’t seem quite as bad using my Canon 500mm f/4 lens. I also tried using the single-point spot autofocus selection and it didn’t seem to help.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird taken with the Canon 100-400mm Mark II and the 1.4x III Telephoto Extender at ISO 800 in good morning light.

The images in this blog were taken with the Canon 5d Mark III and in some instances the Canon 1.4x III Telephoto Extender.  Hopefully the images in this blog will give you an idea of the sharpness of the new Canon 100-400mm lens.  Below are before and after processing images of a Red-shouldered hawk.

Red-shouldered Hawk in Poor Light

The photos of the Red-shouldered Hawk below were taken in gray, dark overcast lighting conditions.  The shot was taken hand held at ISO 1250 using the Canon 5d Mark III and Canon 1.4x III Telephoto Extender.  The hawk was about 50-60 yards away.

Red Shouldered Hawk Unprocessed

In the first photograph, I didn’t do any post processing.  I just exported the photo as a jpg from Lightroom.  I post processed the second photo.  Click on the photo for a larger version of the post porocessed hawk.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Given the poor lighting conditions, I was pretty happy with the quality of the Red-shouldered hawk photo taken with the Canon 100-400mm Mark II.

Written by Martin Belan

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