Lenses and Optics

Canon 200-400mm f/4 IS: Quick Comparison

Published June 6, 2013

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.


Left to right: Canon 100-400mm IS, 200-400mm f/4 IS, Roger, 400mm f/2.8 IS II, and 400mm f/5.6. All are hand-holdable. If you have big hands.

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.


The test lenses from left to right: Canon 200-400mm IS L, Canon 400mm f/5.6 L, Canon 400mm f/2.8 IS II, and Canon 100-400 IS L. In back, the Imatest target they'll be compared on.


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.


copyright Bryan Carnathan, the Digital Picture

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.

Imatest Results

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.

  Center Average Corner Avg
400mm f/2.8 at f/2.8910825720
400mm f/2.8 at f/4935865740
200-400mm at f/4910820720
200-400mm at f/5.6910835740
100-400mm at f/5.6740655540
400mm at f/5.6880785680

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.


Roger Cicala


June, 2013

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.

Posted in Lenses and Optics
  • Roger, thanks for the quick test. I’ve reserved a copy for the East Coast Surfing Championship in August. IMHO, this is an ideal surf photography lens here on the east coast. Most times there is action at the intial take-off (so you need that 400mm plus 1.4TC and 1.6 crop camera too) and then explosive moves in the shorebreak (so only want a 200mm or you end up cutting off surfer’s hands or boards). In the past, I’ve rented the 300mm with 1.4TC and 2TCs but you’re stuck with what you have on during a ride – and of course you guess wrong and miss the shot! Now, I “flip the switch” at takeoff, flip again and zoom out to 200mm at the end…add that it’s sharp as a tack with f/4 or f/5.6…the holy grail is achieved! Can’t wait!

  • NancyP

    Nquina, go get that Canon 400mm f/5.6L lens, you won’t be sorry. It is very well balanced on a non-gripped SLR (I use it on a 60D), and it is easy to hand-hold and pan all day – just a great bird-in-flight lens.

    AG Dorsey and others curious about the EF 1200mm, the-digital-picture has a fun review of this exotic lens. No doubt that at least one or two copies are owned by Uncle Sam and are based out of Langley or Quantico VA .

  • Hi Roger,
    You’re a funny guy, carrying all those lenses.
    Your approach is a nice contrast to all those “all-too-serious, pixel-peeping” photo forums out there.

    Love the chess set.

  • A G Dorsey

    You’re informative and entertaining Roger. Any chance you’ll get around to a comparative analysis between Nikon’s and Canon’s 800mm lenses? I, like many a humble but poor mensch, can only dream about buying Nikon’s interpretation of a Veyron.

    Have you ever analyzed the 1200mm EF?

    You and LR are tops by me.

  • RVB

    I’m just waiting to see a version with a x2 extender…

  • FF

    Interesting. The EF400/4 DO isn’t listed (is it the first pipe on the left side or it the EF200/2?). Are the numbers so poor?

  • Roger Cicala

    Max, it’s a Movado Bold, but I can’t say it’s held up very well. Although I’m tough on watches.

  • Vincenzo

    Thank you, for sharing the results of your valuable work.
    However, you missed a 400 mm. It would be very interesting to compare DO technology to the newest Canon lenses.

  • Hi !
    Thank you for this review !
    I also own the 400mm 5.6L and it is indeed impressively sharp.
    Also with 1.4x II TC.
    This is really a fine lens.

  • Carsten W

    I would be seriously interested in a comparison between the new Canon 200-400 and the Nikkor 200-400, at infinity. Since you don’t have a test target that large, I guess it would have to be informal, but even some crops would be interesting from similarly megapixeled cameras, like the 6D and D600.

  • Max

    Hi Roger, nice post (as always)

    Now… May I ask which brand/model is your wristwatch?
    It looks very nice in the first picture 🙂

  • Nqina Dlamini

    Thanks for this review. I’ve coming here to check if you had done it yet.
    I can’t afford such a beast, but it helps to know that getting the 400 mFG/5.6 is not such a bad idea.

  • Matt

    Thanks for another great article. I love your fun, good humor that underlies all of your writing.

  • Phoenix-Valkyrie

    The sharpness of 200-400L is amazing? 200-400L will be very a convenient lens when shooting wildlife with zoom ability and build-in teleconverter. I shot wildlife in Sino-Myanmar border recently?mounting and dismounting my 1.4X III frequently in bloody rainforest sucks. I have used 400 f/5.6L for almost 2 years and I’m very satisfied with the lens at this price but I always expecting an IS version.

  • Richard

    oh and if you need help expanding your testing range to accommodate longer lenses I know an ex rugby player with a variety of hammers that can help with an pesky walls! Will work for (l) glass.

  • Richard

    Great news! the 200-400 is on my list, but like someone above I am curious about how the siggy 120-300 stacks up. We know optically it’s pretty decent but I’d love to see some figures on reliability with the new ‘sports’ design. Once the rush has died down I’ll rent them side by side and play but your reliability stats (and copy deviance for that matter) are insanely useful as that really matters as much as IQ for an events \ weddings shooter. I can take losing a stop of light or 15% slower AF or a mild drop in sharpness, I don’t want a lens that breaks every 2 events and I’d had good and bad experiences with siggy ex lenses before. Can’t wait to try these ones out!

    Thanks again

  • NancyP

    This explains why that Canon 400mm f/5.6 L lives on my camera. 😉 The “toy lens” (Artie Morris of BirdsAsArt) acquits itself quite well when compared with lenses 8 to 10 times in price. This is a great affordable lens for a beginning or low-budget bird photographer.

  • Great picture!! Roger, only you would hold over 25k over lenses at once! Coming to this site always makes me laugh, I love the reviews! I do admit I didnt recognize you without the leather lens cap on your head 🙂

    Ps. I own the 400mm 5.6 prime. The numbers above prove that even though it’s an old lens its really sharp! I use mine with the 2x extender and have been really impressed.

  • James

    What about the 400mm f/4 DO?

  • Rahman

    “I don’t know what you’d do with them [10 copies of 100-400L], but you could.”
    I know what I’d do: Set up a rental shop and reap as much profit as I could. (cue evil laugh here)

    On a side note, it was amazing to see those numbers. This a least gave a baseline of what to expect from a so-called “real world” test. Thanks Roger!

  • Roger Cicala

    I would too, Jason, but they’re both to long for me to test.

  • Roger Cicala


    I totally agree – the 400 f/5.6 is one of the great telephoto bargains left. I use it and the 100-400 constantly.

  • A

    Gary: Get yourself a good heavy tripod, and stick a Wimberley head on it. That removes almost all of the weight from you during shooting; assuming you’re shooting from a fixed position.

    Of course if you’re wandering around a lot, you’ll need to lug it all around with you. In which case I recommend an assistant and the Wimberley 😉

    Roger: Thank you for another interesting article!

  • Gary

    Thanks for the interesting report. Love your blogs. At over 8 pounds
    the 200-400 seems too weighty for hand-holding. Don’t see
    how useful it would be for sports photography. I find the
    70-200 2.8 II heavy and hard to hold for too long at slightly over
    5 pounds.

  • I’d be interested in seeing a comparison between it to the 500 ii and 600 ii.

  • Hellie

    Really nice comparison !

    I am also curious to see how the 300mm IS II compares to these lenses, bare/1.4III/2.0III , would be interesting to see if the 300+1.4 converter @f4/5.6 comes close to the 200-400

    even tho 420mm is hard to compare with 380, as a wildlife photographer ( and previous nikon 200-400 owner) this 200-400 from canon is so attractive….

    However, the price is very steep…, I can keep my 300 2.8 and add the sigma 120-300 OS sports and a 5dmk3 opposed to trading in the 300 and getting the 200-400 , So i am not sure if it would be worth the money for me.

  • Francesco

    Hi Roger,

    thanks for another great post and interesting data: as much as I’d like, I will probably never own a beast like the 200-400… but the numbers for my 400mm 5.6 are better than I thought!

    Sure, you loose IS and one f stop… but if the light is good enough, sharpness seems to be almost up there with the biggies, and better than the push-pull. Anything else I am missing?
    If you have time, an extra word on this (almost unfair!) comparison for us birders-on-a-budget would be greatly appreciated!

  • Kufat

    I’m curious how much difference there is between, say, 200-400 at 300mm, 1.4x TC on (420mm equiv) and at 300mm, TC off, cropped to show the same FOV. (I’m sure the TC will be better, I just wonder if it’ll be enough of a difference to matter for most applications.)

  • As always, thank you for the timely tests. Unfortunately for me, it only does 2 things 1) affirms my decision to buy the 400 f/5.6 over the 100-400 a few years back, and 2) makes me want to test the “no limit” of my AMEX (or more realistically, just rent a copy from you guys!). It looks like I could do 4.5 x 90-day rentals from you for the retail price!

  • kevin

    Hi Roger,

    would you be able to throw a 1.4x tele on a Sigma 120-300 Sport model when you get them and see how that compares at 400mm?

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