With the release of the Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS with a built in 1.4x there was a lot of enthusiasm in the photography community. But with a retail price of $12K, it really forces some serious evaluation before making a purchase. I felt that I would need the lens in my hand for a period of time to evaluate if it fit my shooting style. First of all, I’ll skip the subject of image sharpness. The lens has been put through the test by many others and it can perform with excellent results. The one disappointment about overall image quality is the degree of vignetting I’ve encountered, with and without the 1/4x (see images below). Yes, it is true, you can correct for this later in post production but it is not as easy as you might think, and takes time. Furthermore, I shoot a lot of panorama stitches and this kind of vignetting presents some significant challenges. For now, when doing panos with the 200-400, I make a much greater overlap to help out with vignetting. (By the way, the 500 exhibits vignetting too, but not quite as bad).
I was curious if the 200-400 would replace my long-loved and heavily used 500mm. Since I’m often too tight on subjects and the benefit of having a little more free space in an image for copy is lost, I felt that backing off subjects would be both more possible with the 200-400, and more probable. Well, the bottom line for me is that the 200-400 won’t replace the 500. I’ve found that while there may be some overlap of the these two lenses, there are times when I still want the reach of the 500.
Both lenses are about the same weight when you add in a 1.4x, with the 200-400 coming in a little heavier. Weight is no small issue when doing remote hiking trips. This is one reason I switched from the 1Ds series to the 5D Mark III body. Because some of my photography requires hiking and remote work, it is not reasonable to carry both of those big lenses into the field. It will require choosing the appropriate lens based on the specific type of shooting I’ll be doing. In many cases, this won’t be an easy decision. Lens selection becomes a big part of any photo trip. Especially if you are more of a generalist, like me. My basic kit has included: 16-35mm, 24-105mm, 100-400mm, 500mm. If the 200-400 is selected as the long lens, it may result in the 70-200mm to replace the 100-400.
There are other factors that influence lens choice and use. Two specific annoyances called epicondylitis, (commonly known as tennis elbow), and its brother further up the arm, biceps tendonitis effect my lens handling. I can tell you from personal experience that hefting a heavy lens all day long, has over time, exacerbated both of these tenacious little physical annoyances for me. The 100-400 is a much lighter and easier to use lens for general mid range shooting than the 200-400mm. Not to digress too far into body mechanic issues, but they are real, and do influence both function and performance, especially in today’s age of hand-holding long IS lenses.
So in summary, it seems there is no easy decision. I’m sure Canon will be happy with people like me who have at least at this point, decided to have both of those big pieces of glass in my arsenal. Now, what about that new 600mm to replace the 500???