Birding with an L

Having not long picked up the Canon 7D I wanted to give it a try out with wildlife with a borrowed EF 100-400L

I’ve been looking for a long lens specifically for wildlife and surf photography for quite some time, and having picked up a canon 7D my 70-200f2.8 and 2.0 teleconverter just wasn’t delivering the optical quality I was hoping for. Adam was kind enough to loan me his Canon EF 100-400f4.5-5.6L for a couple of weeks.

The canon 100-400 is an L grade lens, its big and (off)white with a push/pull zoom action some people detest, it has a relatively old 2 stop Image Stabilization system but also has a mode 2 for panning. There’s quite a debate around on actually how good these lenses are. This one was manufactured in about 2003 (all L lenses have date codes stamped on), this is before an Internet rumoured behind the scenes quality upgrade.

There’s a number of choices to get 400mm but only a hand full of really affordable ways. the 100-400 is about $3,000NZD, the 400f5.6L prime which is $2000 or so, a 70-200 with 2.0 teleconverter or a number of Sigma lenses (50-500/Bigma or one of the shorter f2.8 or f4 zooms).

The 100-400 is considered the king of utility zooms and also quite a quality landscape lens. Its not weathersealed, but neither is the 400/5.6 prime. Its IS is old, but the cheaper prime has none.

My first outing with the 100-400 produced only barely acceptable results. I shot some Herons at a local wetlands in soft morning light. After checking the images I knew this was going to be quite a learning curve.

I micro adjusted the focus back at home and fired off some test images. The IS system seems to ‘kick’ in and need some time to settle, using it seemed detrimental if you were snapping off a quick shot. Focus is tricky because f5.6 at 400mm with a subject within about 10m gives quite a shallow Depth of Field. Coupled with this the 7D’s 18mp images are very demanding on technique and glass, the ‘1/focal length’ rule once you take into account the APS-C crop factor needs to be at least doubled (if not using the IS). Moving subjects also need fast shutter speeds to freeze them if that’s what is required for the shot.

A visit to the Styx Mill reserve resulted in some good quality shots for a very windy day and my very unstealthy shooting techniques.

This is a heavy crop of the above picture, I could never achieve this quality with my 70-200 and teleconverter.

After several other short trips out I went to The Groynes, a local park near the Waimakariri river with plenty of bird life.

First I shot a Duck, ease into the subject matter…

This shows the 100-400 to be quite a decent lens when examined closely, the contrast and colour is good, its quite sharp (still working on the technique with it here) and the bokeh, the main worry for me with this lens, is quite pleasant.

I slowly moved from ducks and geese to smaller birds, at this point I had disabled the IS system nad wa sshooting at higehr shutter speeds, luckily plenty of light even then I had to up the ISO values at times.

This shot was from only a few meters away from the bird and it almost fills the frame, luck and a bit of technique picked up so far turned in a tac sharp image. The bokeh is looking fine with quite a unbusy background.

Later on in the week I headed out to the Waimakariri river mouth to practice tracking fast moving birds, the lens and 7D makes this achievable, my old 350D would never have stood a chance!



Overall I’m convinced the 100-400 is a quality lens. Its price is rather steep, the IS isn’t so great and often a hindrance. Its also a heavy and large lens. I still think I prefer the 400/5.6 prime for edge to edge sharpness , bokeh quality and lightness.

 Since I took these shots there have been endless rumours of the 100-400’s imminent upgrade. None of which seem based in reality. Also Sigma have released the 50-500OS and 120-300f2.8 OS. Canon themselves have a new 70-300L which may be worth a look once it starts filtering out to people.

One comment

  1. Wonderful shots. Thanks for the suggestions for places to go. May see you crawling around some of those places some time. Really appreciate your blog. I could write on every one of them. They are all amazing. Thanks for sharing with us mere mortals.

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