Lenses and Optics
Canon 200-400mm f/4 IS: Quick Comparison
Yeah, it costs almost $12,000. You could buy a Canon 400mm f/2.8 IS II and a 2X teleconverter for that. You could buy 10 copies of the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS for that. I don’t know what you’d do with them, but you could.
I sure can’t tell you if a lens is worth $12,000 by running a few Imatest numbers, but I might be able to tell you if it sucked. So when we got our first 200-400 f/4 IS lenses in, they went straight back to the lab, along with some other lenses for comparison purposes.
First, I need to be clear we have some limitations in our Imatest lab. Because of space and target size we’re limited right now to a maximum testing focal length of 400mm, so I can’t do a 560mm test with the teleconverter in place. But we had some reasonable options for testing at 400mm: the 400mm f/2.8 II, which is probably the sharpest telephoto lens made right now; the Canon 100-400mm, an older but classic design; and the 400mm f/5.6L prime lens, another oldie-but-goodie lens. My thinking was at this price the 200-400 should be nearly as good as the 400mm f/2.8 and clearly better than the other two lenses.
Or to give you a better perspective, here’s the entire current Canon Supertelephoto lineup (reproduced with permission from TheDigitalPicture.com). The 200-400 is the 4th from the left, with the 400 f/2.8 II on it’s left and the 500 f/4 on the right.
Tale of the Tape
The Canon 100-400 and 400 f/5.6 lenses are both considered ‘hand holdable’, weighing 3 pounds and 2.7 pounds, respectively. The 400mm f/2.8 IS II at 8.5 pounds is not, except for purposes of showing off. I’d have to say the 200-400 is not, either, at just under 8 pounds. Canon doesn’t quite charge by the pound, with the 200-400 the most expensive at $11,800, the 400 f/2.8 II at $10,999, the 100-400 IS L $1,500, and the 400 f/5.6 $1,219. For those of you hang out in supermarkets, that puts the 200-400 at $1,475 per pound, while the 400 f/5.6 is only $451 per pound.
I shot around with all of them and thought that, perhaps, the 100-400 was just a bit slower to autofocus than the others, but it wasn’t a dramatic difference. Since I shoot the 100-400 frequently and find its AF speed quite acceptable, they certainly all pass in my book. Shooting handheld around the office, there is no question the IS on the 2 big lenses was far better than that on the 100-400. Despite their weight I actually got sharper pictures at 1/30 or so with the big lenses.
I’ll cut to the chase and post the MTF50 results from all of the lenses in table form. Because of time constraints (all of the first copies of the 200-400 we received today had customers waiting for them, so they had to be in the shipping department by lunchtime) I could only test at one focal length – setting up Imatest for telephoto work is quite time consuming. Results are, as usual, MTF 50 measured in line pairs / image height on 5D Mk II test cameras. They are given as center point, weighted average over the entire lens, and average of the 4 corners.
|400mm f/2.8 at f/2.8||910||825||720|
|400mm f/2.8 at f/4||935||865||740
|200-400mm at f/4||910||820||720|
|200-400mm at f/5.6||910||835||740|
|100-400mm at f/5.6||740||655||540|
|400mm at f/5.6||880||785||680|
The numbers for the 200-400 are basically as good as anyone could possibly hope. At f/4 it is virtually indistinguishable from the 400mm f/2.8 at f/2.8. That’s an amazing thing for a zoom lens to do. To look at it another way, the highest MTF 50 numbers we’ve had for a zoom on 5DII cameras is the 70-200 f/2.8 IS II which has peak MTF50 of 875 LP/IH and average of 755.
As I mentioned, I wasn’t able to test the built-in 1.4X teleconverter at maximum range, but we could dial the zoom back to 290mm, add in the 1.4X, and repeat our tests at our 400mm testing setup. The resolution numbers for the 200-400 and 1.4X combination at 400mm equivalence were 835 LP/IH in the center, 750 average, and 660 in the corners.
Of course resolution decreases with a teleconverter, it always does. But even with the teleconverter active the 200-400 still resolves about as well as a 70-200 f/2.8 lens, which is really excellent. I also suspect that if we had the ability to test at infinity the numbers would be even better; teleconverters are designed to work at longer distances, not the 35 feet of our test range.
Now, for one little bit of rain on our parade. The 200-400 isn’t quite 400mm at the long end. We measured the focal length of the 400 f/2.8 II and 400 f/5.6 as identical, while the 200-400 reached 95% of that focal length. (Assuming the other two are exactly 400mm, the 200-400 therefore reaches 380mm. For those interested, the 100-400 would be a 390mm.) Again, this is measured at 35 feet, it might be slightly different at infinity.
I can’t say whether it’s worth the price or not, but I can certainly say it’s the sharpest zoom lens I’ve ever seen (correction – as Rick pointed out, the 200-400 is roughly tied for highest resolving zoom with the Canon 24-70), with image quality rivaling the most expensive primes.
Author: Roger Cicala
I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.