Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II Review
With apologies to Mark Twain, the coldest winter I ever spent was two weeks in July, Summer 2023 in Shropshire!
I’m over in the UK for a couple of weeks attending a family funeral and the weather is appalling! I say this at least partly as an excuse for the miserable selection of photographs accompanying this recommendation of the Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II, as a good lens for landscape photography! Honestly, conditions have been dire, dark but featureless clouds, light but constant drizzle and what would be a testing shot handheld at the best of times with the Wrekin around three miles away in the background.
The prevailing wisdom is that every landscape photographer goes out with a wide angle, in my case 16-35mm, a mid-range lens, 24-70mm and a long lens, usually 70-200mm. In Shropshire, where horizons are not generally distant and the sky can rarely be described as ‘Big’, this selection makes a lot of sense. However, Spain, where I live is a different beast. The landscapes can be huge, the skies enormous. I realised I need something a little longer to pick out detail. If I want to pick out detail in the Sierra Nevada for example, I need more reach.
I got a lot of good use out of my ancient 70-300mm lens, but I have to say I never really warmed to it in the way that I have my much newer 70-200mm f/4 IS II, which is lighter and produces pin-sharp pictures with no fuss at all. But that lens, as good as it is, is not the subject of this article.
So, I’m going to take a closer look at the Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II as a good lens for landscape photography in this article. It’s not a new lens, announced in 2014, it is well known as a wildlife/sport photographer’s lens. However, it has a lot of advantages for landscape photographers facing a big landscape. Sharp and even focus, minimal vignetting, rapid autofocus, IS amongst them. I’m not a lens tester, so I’ll refer you to the review at DXO Mark for technical details while I focus on the more subjective view of what the lens brings to me as a landscape photographer.
The 100-400mm is not a cheap lens but after surfing the second-hand sites, and after a little rudimentary maths, I decided to upgrade some lenses and let others go to a new home where they would get more use so that I could afford this upgrade.
Table of Contents
Why I think 100-400mm is a good lens for landscape photography?
Looking at my requirement, I needed to extend the range of my longest lens without losing any utility in the mid range. So I’m covering 16-35mm, 25-70mm, 70-200mm with my go-to selection, what would I lose by swapping out the 70-200mm for a 100-400mm?
Well, the figures tell me there would be a gap between 70-100mm, but how much do I use that focal range for landscape photography? The answer is barely at all. So if I need the extra length for a particular shot, I’m not losing anything significant by switching these two lenses, bringing the 100-400mm instead of the 70-200mm.
Now this decision is heavily influenced by the way I approach my photography. I am increasingly deliberate, taking longer framing the shots and producing fewer, hopefully, better photographs. Typically I will approach a new landscape with a single lens, taking records of shots to revisit with a plan. This approach enables the sacrifice of the 70-100mm range as I know when I don’t need it. There is no business sense in this approach, it simply delivers what I consider to be my best shot at the time.
I very rarely get massively excited about lens upgrades, which is unfortunate considering how much they cost, but the two Canon lenses I’ve upgraded recently have both hit the nail on the head. The Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II in particular, is a substantial upgrade and one that, to me at least, is worth the cost.
Budgeting to Upgrade
As you may have noticed, I’ve been offloading kit recently; some of my lenses were over a decade old, and while they functioned perfectly well, a couple were not being used at all. I tend to use MPB to sell my lenses, you’ll get a little less than E-Bay, but the process more than makes up for it, simple, cuts out tricky customers and all transport is paid for and insured.
What I Sold
My Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS Mark 1 was a lens I never really got on with, the push-pull manual zoom arrangement being tiresome at best in the context of landscape photography. So I sold the Mark I and the even older 70-300mm lens and upgraded to the Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II.
What I Gained
The most obvious difference is the change of zoom from a push/pull to a conventional zoom ring. So much better. Additionally, there is a friction ring that can be used to hold the lens in place at any given focal length. This is a big lens and carried facing down, the weight of the lens quickly extends the reach to 400mm,
Not so obvious but much more significant is the redesigned image stabilisation mechanism. This gives a massive four stops of stabilisation compared to two in the previous model and adds Mode III Stabilisation to the picture too.
There are three modes of stabilisation available on the Mark II. Image stabilisation brings two advantages, a sharper image at lower shutter speeds and more accurate auto focus. This lens has IS that is tripod aware. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d still recommend turning IS off when using the tripod.
Mode 1 IS is the standard IS mode and is designed for use with stationary subjects.
Mode 2 IS is used for panning with a subject. In this mode, a single axis of stabilization is provided – allowing a linearly-moving subject to be tracked, eg. Cars, Aeroplanes, Birds.
Mode III IS is a different beast altogether. In Mode III IS doesn’t kick in until the shutter is pressed to half way, meaning that the image in the viewfinder is not stabilised. This is actually a good thing if you are tracking a fast-moving object as you simply need to know where the object is in the frame. Landscape photographers are used to checking focus before pressing the shutter release, wildlife photographers rarely have that luxury.
The Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II has a completely redesigned internal focusing system which to my eye at least delivers excellent results. Sharpness is a much-debated quality, and I tend with my landscape work to go with ‘sharp enough’, but the difference between this and the Mark I is noticeable. Bearing in mind the thirteen years that have elapsed since I last updated my lenses, I’m seeing the performance I’d previously associated only with prime lenses.
Focus limiting helps achieve this better performance and this manifests in the shape of a switch offering either 9.84’/3m – 8m focus range or unlimited autofocus. There is a speed advantage in using the limiter for comparatively close focusing.
Tripod Mount Ring
The lens comes with a redesigned Tripod Mount Ring. This will screw onto any baseplate. I’ll attach an Arca Swiss compatible baseplate so that I can quickly mount this lens. It is simply too heavy to use handheld for any appreciable length of time.
So Which Lens is Best for Landscape Photography?
In the spirit of not wanting to mislead anyone, I will make clear that the 100-400mm would not be my first choice of lens for landscape photography. It weighs a ton. If I’m grabbing a bag and hiking into the mountains, the 70-200mm is a lot lighter, but I find opportunities for a longer length most times I go out. Usually, that means a second trip with a more deliberate focus.
In addition to the compression of the perspective that you get with all long lenses, where the 100-400mm lens really stands out for a landscape photographer is in simplifying chaotic and busy scenes where you don’t have a lot of time to frame your shot.
I like the 100-400mm better than my old 100-300mm, and if it was of equal weight to my 70-200mm I might even favour it over that, but in terms of landscape photography, it is the length I’m after. I already cover 16-200mm between the three lenses I usually carry, it’s that extra 100mm where the value lies.
There are cheaper and lighter alternatives, Sigma and Tamron both do equivalent focal lengths, second hand the value of the Canon lens is unrealistically high at the moment, but Sigma at f/5-6.3 can be picked up for under £1000 and Tamron for around £700.
In conclusion I’d say that 400mm is a more useful focal length than 300mm and supplements a 200mm nicely. Some lenses are lighter than others and if you go down this road, choose the one that suits your budget best. I can’t honestly say I followed this advice myself, but I do like the L class Canon lenses!
If you’re tempted, before you splash out, check out my post Beating Gear Acquisition Syndrome!
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