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400mm Birding Lens Comparo | by gbrummett
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400mm Birding Lens Comparo

While out with g'pa bill we saw a lot of birds in the trees including this Great Egret. This capture is about a 50% crop of the original image using Canon DIgital Photo Professional.


We also swapped lenses, Bill tried my Canon 100-400 IS L zoom and I his 400mm F/5.6L prime. The photo above was taken with Bill's Canon EF 400mm F/5.6L prime shot wide open at F/5.6.


Mini Lens Comparo: Canon 400mm F/5.6L (prime) vs Canon 100-400 IS L (zoom) for birding


I love taking photos of birds and so the 400mm F/5.6L prime was a lens I had always wanted to try and had even thought long and hard about buying. Now was my chance to try it thanks to Bill.


First off the 400mm prime feels smaller in the hand and fits your hand just perfectly around it's slim barrel. Second it's a little lighter then the 100-400, not a lot lighter but noticable. Probably because the zoom has a stabilizer and the fact that it is a zoom it has to be a littler bigger and heavier. They both seem close to the same length on average use but the 100-400 zoom is able to collapse and be shorter when at the 100mm setting. But the prime feels like it and the camera are one and better balanced in your hand when attached to the camera then the zoom.


But then when the birding started unexpected things turned up. There is nothing like being able to pull back a little bit to be able to acquire your bird or group of birds. Acquiring a bird in flight at 400mm can be a daunting challenge. With the zoom you simply pull back to 100mm for a wider field of view, acquire your target, then zoom out further closing in on the bird as you start tracking and shooting. With the prime you have to be really good at your game and have to acquire at 400mm which can be a very narrow view especially if you are using a cropped sensor camera. The next thing I noticed was the shaky image, oh yeah I had gotten spoiled to the stabilizer on the 100-400 zoom and it's a difference you see right away just by looking through both of them. For a nesting stationary bird with the stabilized lens you can really run your shutter speed much lower and still get a sharp image which translates to lower ISO. For truly still subjects I have gotten away with as slow as 1/20 second by shooting in bursts with the 100-400. You could never shoot sharp at 1/20s without the stabilizer near 400mm.


To me on the 5D Mark II the auto focusing ability seemed about the same with both lenses which is pretty fast. And image wise with my photos the 100-400 actually seemed sharper I guess because of the stabilizer or because of my lower shutter speeds or my inexperience with the lens or all three. I did shoot most wide open at F/5.6 and I know both lenses get a little sharper when stopped down. Anyway, in more experienced hands like Bill's the photos are incredibly sharp with the prime.


The 400mm prime is still a great lens, fun to shoot, balanced in your hands and light to hold but just having the money for one of them I'm glad I picked the 100-400 IS zoom for the flexibility and stabilizer. WIth a zoom you can pull back and get a group of birds or zoom out and get one single bird without moving. Please remember these are my personal thoughts after playing with the prime lens for less then an hour and after only a few dozen shots. And there are people out there like Bill who aren't just good at their game they are phenomenal and can consistently stand right beside me him with the prime and me with the zoom and he can lock on to in-flight birds and nail the shot time after time before I can even start to squeeze the shutter on my zoom.


To see Bill's incredible birding captures with his 400m prime see


To see shots taken with my 100-400mm zoom see


Thanks again BIll for having me over, sharing your birds and letting me borrow and play with your cool 400mm prime!


Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Lens: Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM

Exposure: 0.001 sec (1/800)

Aperture: f/5.6

Focal Length: 400 mm

ISO Speed: 200

Exposure Bias: 0 EV

Flash: Off, Did not fire

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Taken on January 26, 2010