This is an in-depth review of the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM with a built-in 1.4x extender, a telephoto zoom lens targeted at enthusiast and professional action photographers. For many years, Canon users shooting serious wildlife and sports photography had come to accept that the only telephoto lenses on offer by Canon that achieved top of the line performance were their prime lenses. At the time, the only Canon zoom lens in the telephoto range was the Canon EF 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS, a solid, if unspectacular lens with an outdated design. On the other hand, and much to Canon users’ envy, Nikon had given its customers something wholly different in 2003 when they released the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR, a professional-quality constant aperture super telephoto zoom lens. While Nikon’s 200-400mm had its faults (namely lack of sharpness when photographing distant subjects), it was the perfect lens to take on an African Safari or to a sports game. With fast autofocus, a constant aperture and good sharpness all packaged into a zoom lens, the Nikon lens was perfect for situations which required versatility and the ability to change focal lengths, while still maintaining high image quality. Nikon’s monopoly on professional grade super telephoto zooms would thankfully change in 2011 when Canon announced the development of its own 200-400mm f/4 lens which was also going to be the first telephoto lens of its kind to utilize a built-in teleconverter.
The announcement was met with a great fanfare among Canon shooters, as it would finally give them a lens they long had on their wishlist. When it was finally released in 2013, the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x ticked all the right boxes in its specifications, as it should have with its hefty price tag of $11,799. Since its release, the EF 200-400mm f/4L 1.4x has become a staple of Canon’s telephoto lineup and Nikon’s recent announcement of their own Nikkor 180-400 f/4E FL VR with an internal teleconverter is probably the best proof that the lens had been a smashing success with professionals and hobbyists alike. I personally obtained a copy of the lens a couple of years ago, and since then, I have been able to put it through its paces on photo trips all over the world. Overtime, the Canon 200-400mm f/4L has become inseparable from my Canon 1Dx body, and this will be the camera used in this review.
Canon EOS-1D X @ 320mm, ISO 100, 1/800, f/5.6Bison in the early morning mist in Yellowstone
1) Lens Specifications
- Versatile 200-400mm focal length range is ideal for wildlife and sports
- Fast f/4 constant aperture allows for great subject-to-background along with low light performance
- Built-in extender converts lens to 280-560mm f/5.6 at the flick of a switch
- 4 stop Optical Image Stabilization
- Canon’s professional grade ultrasonic motor for fast focusing including better subject tracking
- Compatible with an optional external x1.4 teleconverters used in conjunction with the internal extender to form a 392-784 f/8 lens with AF on select Canon bodies
Canon EOS-1D X @ 560mm, ISO 640, 1/2500, f/7.1
Rothschild’s giraffe in a sea of grass, Kidepo, Uganda
- Mount Type: Canon EF
- Focal Length Range: 200-400mm (280-560mm with extender engaged)
- Maximum Aperture: f/4 (f/5.6 with extender engaged)
- Minimum Aperture: f/32 (f/45 with extender engaged)
- Lens (Elements): 25 (33 with extender)
- Lens (Groups): 20 (24 with extender)
- Compatible Format(s): EF, APS-C
- VR (Vibration Reduction) Image Stabilization: Yes
- Diaphragm Blades: 9
- UD Glass Elements: 4
- FL Glass Elements: 1
- Autofocus: Yes
- USM (Ultra Sonic Motor): Yes
- Internal Focusing: Yes
- Minimum Focus Distance: 6.56 ft (2 m)
- Focus Mode: Manual, Manual / Auto
- Filter Size: 52mm slip-in
- Dimensions: 5.04 in. (128 mm) x 14.41 in. (366 mm)
- Weight (Approx.): 7.98 lb (3.62 kg)
Detailed specifications for the lens, along with MTF charts and other useful data can be found on the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4xpage of our lens database.
Canon EOS-1D X @ 232mm, ISO 200, 1/640, f/5.6Storm shower over the Tetons, USA
2) Build Quality and Handling
As part of Canons top of the line L series telephoto lenses, the EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x build quality is immaculate. It has a very strong magnesium alloy body that is weather sealed throughout, thus ensuring that it holds up to the rigors of professional usage. Initially, one area of concern I had was whether the extender lever area of the lens would be sealed well enough to prevent water and dirt from entering the lens through the seemingly penetrable region of the lever. My concerns were laid to rest after using the lens countless times in the rain and snow and never once did it seem as if any extraneous material was entering the lens through the area. When used in dusty conditions (like the times I have used it in Uganda) the region around the lever does tend to collect a lot of dust and sand, but once cleaned off there are no mechanical implications. The 80°-rotating zoom ring is very smooth and nicely damped in my opinion. From a handling perspective, I do have one gripe with the zoom ring and that is its location.
When mounted on a tripod (as most people using this rather heavy lens will do) the location of the zoom ring is not a problem. But for those that like hand-holding their telephoto lenses as I do, the balance point of the lens becomes very important. The EF 200-400mm f/4’s balance point is around the focus ring and what that means is that it makes it difficult to handhold while maintaining the ability to fluidly change the lenses zoom. With the left hand on the zoom ring (it needs to be there for functional reasons), turning the wide-diameter zoom ring with the left hand means that no hand is left under the lens for support. Over time, I have learned that the best approach to handholding the Canon 200-400 is to place the lens between the left thumb and with the middle finger just behind the zoom ring which frees up the index finger to adjust the zoom. This approach works quite well with practice and by now I can do it rather effortlessly, but the fact remains that the lenses zoom is much easier to use when the lens is supported by a tripod.
The built-in 1.4x teleconverter is engaged by flicking a dampened lever on the side of the barrel. This swings the optical unit out of its housing on the side of the barrel into the lens’s light path. Switching it is very easy when the lens is mounted. When handholding, you run into a similar issue as before with the zooming. Initially, I was forced to put the camera down and to flick the switch with my left hand. But after using the lens more, I have come to a solution where while the left arm is cradling the lens I can move the switch with my right hand all the while keeping my eye in the viewfinder and thus making the process of engaging the teleconverter while handholding much quicker. I think that with their new 180-400mm f/4 lens, Nikon had this issue in mind when they placed the lever on the right-hand side of the lens.
Canon EOS-1D X @ 560mm, ISO 640, 1/1600, f/6.3Grizzly Bear male, USA
The Canon has quite an array of different button sets which are placed in a couple different regions on the lens barrel. The first set which deals with focusing is found close to the lens mount. The top switch in this set allows selection of Auto, Powered or Manual focus. As usual with a top-end Canon lens, you can tweak the focus manually at any time when using autofocus. Power Focus is designed to give smooth, controlled focus pulls during movie shooting. Below this is the focus distance limiter switch. The location of the limiter switch is another problem that will arise if you wish to handhold the lens and the subject you are photographing is changing its distance from you from near to far or vice versa which creates a need for changing the limiter switch. Because the switch is located so close to the mount, it is not possible to switch it without lowering the camera to hang off the strap, allowing it to rest on your body and freeing your left hand to make the necessary adjustment.
The next set of switches are set further forward on the barrel, and deal with the image stabilizer. Mode 1 is the ‘standard’ setting that stabilizes in both dimensions. Mode 2 automatically detects panning and turns off stabilization in the direction of movement. Mode 3 only activates the IS system at the point of exposure. This mode is relatively new to Canon lenses and is especially useful for photographing erratic action because unlike in Mode 1 which can make for a jumpy viewfinder due to the constant activity of the stabilizer, in Mode 3 the stabilizer only initiates at the point of exposure. I tend to use Mode 1 if I am following a slower subject where I would rather have constant stabilization while I utilize Mode 3 when I am taking photos of more erratic subjects.
Below that is the focus preset function set. This set allows you to set a particular focus point of interest. A quick twist of the metal ring in front of the zoom ring then quickly resets focus to this preset distance. I have personally never found much of a need for this set, but I think it becomes much more useful when you are shooting sports with more predefined locations of where your subject may end up being.
Canon EOS-1D X @ 280mm, ISO 1600, 1/2000, f/6.3Red Fox, Yellowstone, USA
The tripod collar is an integral component of the lens and cannot be removed. The tripod foot itself can be unbolted from the tripod ring, and Canon supply two different sized tripod feet. While the feet are fine and well made, I personally prefer to replace the Canon supplied ones with a third-party lens foot that has an integrated dovetail built in, allowing for a much lower profile.
The lens comes supplied with the ET -120 (WII) lens hood. The hood is well made from what seems to be carbon fiber, with a rubber edging on the front, anti-reflective flocking within, and the new style Canon locking knob that protrudes a little less on the side. The hood attaches firmly with the threaded locking knob (though after repeated usage the knob seems to tighten up a bit too much for my liking) and provides very good protection for the front element.
Canon EOS-1D X @ 560mm, ISO 12800, 1/1000, f/8.0Close up of Bighorn Sheep, USA
Overall, the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x handles well and is a beautifully crafted lens. When mounted, the lens is very easy and intuitive to use. When hand-holding, the complex nature of a lens of this kind becomes apparent and some adjustments and compromises need to be made to make it work. That said, I don’t see too many people constantly handholding this lens as I do, and because of this, I think that there is very little to complain about.
Canon EOS-1D X @ 560mm, ISO 1600, 1/400, f/5.6Black and White Colobus Monkey, Uganda
3) Focus Performance and Accuracy
As a professional wildlife photographer, autofocus is one of the most important things that I look for in a lens/camera combination. These days even the most basic lenses have quite decent focusing performance, especially in good light, but where the top of the line lenses really come into their own (along with the better camera bodies) is in being able to focus accurately under challenging conditions. Conditions such as low light, fast moving subjects and complex backgrounds require lenses that make the most of the cameras tracking capabilities and this is where top tier lenses such as the EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x come into their own.
An important aspect to consider when judging a lenses focusing ability is that the camera body plays an integral role in the quality of the autofocus and because of this, it is important to match your lenses with high quality bodies that can deliver good focusing performance. As I have stated previously, the brunt of my experience with the EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x is on the Canon 1Dx body, an incredibly capable camera, especially in low light and when it comes to tracking moving subjects. What this means is that my experiences are based on being able to use the EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x on a camera body that makes the most of what it has to offer, and not all of what I say here is applicable to every Canon camera.
Canon EOS-1D X @ 526mm, ISO 5000, 1/2000, f/8.0Great Horned Owl, USA
Before I started using the EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x, my main wildlife lens was the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 IS. An exquisite lens that still doesn’t show any signs of aging and one of its key qualities is its ability to focus in low light. Due to its larger maximum aperture, the EF 300mm f/2.8 IS lets a lot of light reach the cameras focusing sensors and from my experience with telephoto lenses, the ones with an f/2.8 aperture tend to have a distinct advantage over those with an f/4 maximum aperture and even more so than those that are f/5.6. Prime lenses, especially telephoto primes are usually much faster to focus than telephoto zooms due to having far less moving parts inside the lens and so when I first received the EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x I wasn’t expecting it to focus nearly as good as it does.
On my first day with the lens I took it out to shoot some local migratory birds here in Philadelphia and I was really caught off guard by how snappy the focus seemed. Equally satisfying was how well the lens locked onto the incoming ducks and geese. Since that day I was able to test it on all manner of fast moving wildlife species and in challenging lighting conditions and my impression is that the focus speed feels on par with Canons top of line f/4 aperture primes like their EF 500mm f/4 IS II. It is a touch slower than my Canon 300mm f/2.8 IS (mostly in low light situations) and easily as good as my Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II except for very low light situations. The focusing accuracy is also exceptional and I was blown away by how good it was able to keep track of moving subjects. Paired with the Canon 1DX, the EF 200-400mm f/4 has no problem keeping up with fast moving birds in flight which is something I have found to always be a challenge with even the best zoom lenses. Another positive note is that I have had a better hit rate (number of consecutive frames in good focus from a sequence) with the EF 200-400mm f/4 than my older 300mm f/2.8, something that I wasn’t expecting. This might be due to Canons newer lenses working better with the newer camera bodies due to the more advanced electronic communication between the lens and the cameras. For example, the EF 300mm f/2.8 IS II has a definite advantage over the EF 300mm f/2.8 IS in focus tracking consistency and so I believe that Canon’s newer lenses are better able to utilize the cameras focus tracking.
With the internal extender engaged, autofocus is still accurate and reasonably fast, especially in direct light. In such situations you will see very little drop-off from the bare lens. When photographing moving subjects, the ratio of critically sharp images dropped vs the bare lens, but it is not significant. When the background is busy or in low light, the lens was more likely to drop focus lock with the extender engaged. Overall, the EF 200-400mm f/4 remains a very good focusing lens even when the internal extender is engaged.
Here is a sequence with the teleconverter of a Black Tailed Shoulder Kite that shows the lenses ability to track even with an extender:
Canon EOS-1D X @ 412mm, ISO 2000, 1/4000, f/7.1
Canon EOS-1D X @ 412mm, ISO 2000, 1/4000, f/7.1
Canon EOS-1D X @ 412mm, ISO 2000, 1/4000, f/7.1
What about the focusing capabilities of the EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x with both the internal extender engaged and an external 1.4 teleconverter? This option is only available for those using Canon’s more advanced bodies, such as the 1Dx, 1Dx Mark II, 5D Mark IV. Surprisingly, this combination is quite decent, especially given that now the maximum aperture is f/8. When used in conjunction with the focus limiter, this combination can track slow moving subjects and remains a solid option for when the light is good.
4) Optical Quality
All these features wouldn’t be of much use if the EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x wasn’t able to produce very sharp images and thankfully this is where this lens really shines. It is tack sharp in its native range from 200mm to 400mm with very little difference in sharpness throughout that range. Just as important, it is very sharp even wide-open at f/4 and so there’s no need to stop down the lens for extra sharpness when shooting. As the images below highlight, the EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x is truly exceptional in its native range.
I will start with a rather unassuming image of a log cabin from the area around Yellowstone. As you can see, there is a sign on the left of the cabin with a name on it. Hard to see the name when you see the full unedited photo below but looking at a 100% crop shows that the name can be read quite easily which highlights the level of detail that the lens can extract from a scene. Do remember that this is with an 18-megapixel body that has an AA filter (albeit a rather weak one) and so the level of detail is limited by the camera sensor rather than the lens itself.
100% Crop of Barn
Now for a slightly more interesting image, here is a young bull Moose peeking through the woods in Yellowstone National Park. This was taken handheld in the very early morning hours and so the ISO setting was rather high, but you can see that even at these low light settings, the sharpness is fantastic.
Canon EOS-1D X @ 400mm, ISO 6400, 1/800, f/4.0 – Unedited original
Canon EOS-1D X @ 400mm, ISO 6400, 1/800, f/4.0 – 100% Crop
With the internal extender engaged, the image quality takes a slight dip, mostly in the form of slightly lower contrast and lesser refinement in the textures of detailed areas. This is less obvious when there is good light with good contrast and more pronounced when the light is lower. That said and as the below images illustrate, the image quality with the internal extender engaged remains on a very high level.
100% crop from center
When an external extender is used alongside the internal one the lenses sharpness takes quite a nosedive. Contrast is much lower, and the quality of textures is lowered by a significant margin. Luckily, the lenses starting point is so good that even with both extenders the image quality is still very usable, especially so when you are close to the subject. The sharpness improves when the lens is stopped down from f/8 to f/11 but even at f/8 the sharpness is really quite good with still subjects.
5) Vibration Reduction
The EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x comes with Canons best lens stabilization system which is rated at 4 stops and it doesn’t disappoint. I have found the vibration reduction system of the lens to be very good and it has enabled me to take some handheld shots that shutter speeds that are far below what I would usually go for with the older generation telephoto lenses which only had 2 stops of stabilization. There are three stabilization settings to be found on the EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x. Mode 1 is for stationary subjects and it does a phenomenal job of both reducing vibrations in the viewfinder as well as the actual image itself. This is my go to mode when I am handholding because it makes it much easier to frame and keep track of your subject because even when I am doing my best to be still as I hand hold the lens, there is little hope that I will turn into a tripod anytime soon. Mode 2 IS is used for panning with a subject. In this mode, only 1 axis of stabilization is provided – allowing a linearly-moving subject to be tracked. Finally, there is Mode 3 which was created to offer stabilization for fast action photography. The way that it works is that the stabilizer only turns on when the shutter is released and so the image in the viewfinder isn’t stabilized, thus allowing you to keep track of fast moving action. I find this mode very useful for fast action and I use it when I am photographing birds in flight. Overall, the image stabilization system on the lens is excellent and makes an already versatile lens that much more flexible.
Canon EOS-1D X + Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USMRed-Tailed Monkey, Uganda
The Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x exhibits a very pleasing bokeh. It’s certainly not as smooth as the EF 300mm f/2.8 IS, but I find it on less nervous than my EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II and better than most telephoto zooms I have used before. With a maximum aperture of f/4, this lens can blur backgrounds very effectively, even from a distance and when the extender is engaged you are able to achieve a very pleasing separation of your subject.
Canon EOS-1D X + Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS with 1.4x TC, ISO 1000, f/6.3, 1/1000 sec
The lens exhibits some vignetting around the edges of the frame, especially so at 400mm at f/4. At 200mm it is less pronounced and stopping down virtually clears it away. The only time the vignetting has been obvious to me in the field is when I am photographing birds in flight with a blue background and even then, it is not something that can’t be fixed quite easily in Capture One or Lightroom.
Canon EOS-1D X + Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM @ 747mm, ISO 2000, 1/2000, f/9.0Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, Kidepo Valley, Uganda
8) Ghosting and Flare
The EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x isn’t very susceptible to ghosting and flare and I have often taken photos where I expected to see some form of flare but when I reviewed the images no flare was to be found. Of course, flare will creep up in certain situations and is dependent on the angle of the sun, but, I would rate the lenses flare resistance as very good. As always, make sure to keep the lens hood on the lens to avoid light from directly reaching the front element of the lens.
Canon EOS-1D X + Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USMCape Buffalo at sunrise, Kidepo Valley, Uganda
9) Chromatic Aberration
Modern lenses have become increasingly good at mitigating chromatic aberration and the EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x is no different. When using the lens without any extenders I have seen little to no chromatic aberration, even when shooting high contrast situations with strong highlights transitions. Adding the internal teleconverter adds a very narrow strip of magenta to high contrast images. This is only seen in very specific situations and even then, it is only when you zoom into the image well above 200%. With two teleconverters used in conjunction, there is an obvious increase in chromatic aberration with hints of magenta and cyan popping up in high contrast areas but it is still very acceptable.
Canon EOS-1D X + Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM @ 454mm, ISO 8000, 1/1000, f/5.6Grizzly Bear at dusk, Yellowstone, USA
10) Lens Comparisons
Honestly, there aren’t really any other lenses in Canons lineup that can genuinely be compared to the EF 200-400mm f/4L. It just does things that no other lens in Canons lineup can do. That said, the closest comparison is to the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II. The EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II has very high image quality though it isn’t quite on the same level as the EF 200-400mm f/4. With the EF 200-400mm f/4 you have a significant maximum aperture advantage, which makes a very big difference in low light and for blurring backgrounds. The EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II also gives up 160mm on the long end to the 200-400mm f/4 when it’s extender is engaged. In the 100-400mm’s favor, it is much lighter and easier to work with for handholding purposes and has a price tag that is a fraction of its bigger cousin. I think that while these two lenses cover a similar range they are meant for different purposes. The EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II is for those that wish to have very good image quality, good focusing and a relatively light and mobile setup that can easily be taken anywhere. The EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x is all about getting the highest image quality and focusing Canon can offer and its price tag reflects that. I personally see these two lenses more as companions that offer different features rather then two lenses that go head to head.
Canon EOS-1D X + Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM @ 784mm, ISO 3200, 1/1600, f/9.0Sheobill, Uganda
The other options in Canons lineup are its prime lenses. Namely the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II, EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II and EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II. Both the f/2.8 lenses have a one-stop light gathering advantage, slightly faster autofocus, and image quality that is a hair better and they take teleconverters a bit better as well. The EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II is much cheaper, lighter and easier to handhold and I am particularly fond of it and the previous generation 300mm f/2.8 for bird-in-flight photography. The 400mm f/2.8L IS II has a similar price tag and weight, but it feels much bigger due to the diameter of its front element. Lastly is the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II, one of Canons newest additions and it’s a fantastic lens. Its very light weight and probably Canons best handheld bird photography lens. The lens is very sharp, and I would say that the 200-400mm is similar in sharpness and bokeh. The EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II is also a bit sharper with an external extender than the 200-400mm is with its internal extender. Probably its biggest advantage is that it is a bit faster to focus than the zoom and combined with its lightweight, the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II holds an advantage for photographing erratic subjects. Overall, Canons telephoto prime lenses are fantastic and offer exquisite image quality and focusing capabilities, but the EF 200-400mm f/4L 1.4x holds a versatility advantage of being able to compose at focal length ranges from 400mm down to 200mm along with having an internal extender.
When the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L 1.4x was first announced it set a lot of buzz within the Canon universe and thankfully the lens doesn’t disappoint. After testing it in many environments and under many different situations around the globe I can say that I have yet to be disappointed by what this lens can produce. Optically, it is extremely sharp throughout its range, telephoto prime level sharp which isn’t something you can say about most zooms. Even with the internal extender engaged the image quality is superb. There is virtually no chromatic aberration, very little flare when shooting against the light and the vignetting is well controlled. Probably the most surprising element is how well the lens can keep focus when photographing erratic subjects as well as shooting in low light situations. In fact, it does so in a way that makes you completely forget that you are shooting with a zoom lens. From my point of view, the EF 200-400mm f/4L is the best lens I have in my bag, one that gives me the kind of flexibility and durability in the field that no other lens has ever given me and for that it receives my highest recommendation.
Canon EOS-1D X + Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM @ 560mm, ISO 2500, 1/800, f/5.6
Male Elk, Yellowstone, USA
More Image Samples
Canon EOS-1D X + Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS with 1.4x TC + EXT TC, ISO 12800, f/8, 1/1600 sec
Canon EOS-1D X + Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS with 1.4x TC, ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/1000 sec
Canon EOS-1D X + Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS with 1.4x TC, ISO 3200, f/6.3, 1/800 sec
Canon EOS-1D X + Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS with 1.4x TC @ 560mm, ISO 640, f/6.3, 1/1600 sec
Canon EOS-1D X + Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS with 1.4x TC @ 560mm, ISO 2500, 1/800, f/5.6
Canon EOS-1D X + Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS with 1.4x TC @ 560mm, ISO 1250, 1/1250, f/5.6