4) Optical Quality
All these features wouldn’t be of much use if the EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x wasn’t able to produce very sharp images and thankfully this is where this lens really shines. It is tack sharp in its native range from 200mm to 400mm with very little difference in sharpness throughout that range. Just as important, it is very sharp even wide-open at f/4 and so there’s no need to stop down the lens for extra sharpness when shooting. As the images below highlight, the EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x is truly exceptional in its native range.
I will start with a rather unassuming image of a log cabin from the area around Yellowstone. As you can see, there is a sign on the left of the cabin with a name on it. Hard to see the name when you see the full unedited photo below but looking at a 100% crop shows that the name can be read quite easily which highlights the level of detail that the lens can extract from a scene. Do remember that this is with an 18-megapixel body that has an AA filter (albeit a rather weak one) and so the level of detail is limited by the camera sensor rather than the lens itself.
Now for a slightly more interesting image, here is a young bull Moose peeking through the woods in Yellowstone National Park. This was taken handheld in the very early morning hours and so the ISO setting was rather high, but you can see that even at these low light settings, the sharpness is fantastic.
With the internal extender engaged, the image quality takes a slight dip, mostly in the form of slightly lower contrast and lesser refinement in the textures of detailed areas. This is less obvious when there is good light with good contrast and more pronounced when the light is lower. That said and as the below images illustrate, the image quality with the internal extender engaged remains on a very high level.
When an external extender is used alongside the internal one the lenses sharpness takes quite a nosedive. Contrast is much lower, and the quality of textures is lowered by a significant margin. Luckily, the lenses starting point is so good that even with both extenders the image quality is still very usable, especially so when you are close to the subject. The sharpness improves when the lens is stopped down from f/8 to f/11 but even at f/8 the sharpness is really quite good with still subjects.
5) Vibration Reduction
The EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x comes with Canons best lens stabilization system which is rated at 4 stops and it doesn’t disappoint. I have found the vibration reduction system of the lens to be very good and it has enabled me to take some handheld shots that shutter speeds that are far below what I would usually go for with the older generation telephoto lenses which only had 2 stops of stabilization. There are three stabilization settings to be found on the EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x. Mode 1 is for stationary subjects and it does a phenomenal job of both reducing vibrations in the viewfinder as well as the actual image itself. This is my go to mode when I am handholding because it makes it much easier to frame and keep track of your subject because even when I am doing my best to be still as I hand hold the lens, there is little hope that I will turn into a tripod anytime soon. Mode 2 IS is used for panning with a subject. In this mode, only 1 axis of stabilization is provided – allowing a linearly-moving subject to be tracked. Finally, there is Mode 3 which was created to offer stabilization for fast action photography. The way that it works is that the stabilizer only turns on when the shutter is released and so the image in the viewfinder isn’t stabilized, thus allowing you to keep track of fast moving action. I find this mode very useful for fast action and I use it when I am photographing birds in flight. Overall, the image stabilization system on the lens is excellent and makes an already versatile lens that much more flexible.
The Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x exhibits a very pleasing bokeh. It’s certainly not as smooth as the EF 300mm f/2.8 IS, but I find it on less nervous than my EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II and better than most telephoto zooms I have used before. With a maximum aperture of f/4, this lens can blur backgrounds very effectively, even from a distance and when the extender is engaged you are able to achieve a very pleasing separation of your subject.
The lens exhibits some vignetting around the edges of the frame, especially so at 400mm at f/4. At 200mm it is less pronounced and stopping down virtually clears it away. The only time the vignetting has been obvious to me in the field is when I am photographing birds in flight with a blue background and even then, it is not something that can’t be fixed quite easily in Capture One or Lightroom.
8) Ghosting and Flare
The EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x isn’t very susceptible to ghosting and flare and I have often taken photos where I expected to see some form of flare but when I reviewed the images no flare was to be found. Of course, flare will creep up in certain situations and is dependent on the angle of the sun, but, I would rate the lenses flare resistance as very good. As always, make sure to keep the lens hood on the lens to avoid light from directly reaching the front element of the lens.
9) Chromatic Aberration
Modern lenses have become increasingly good at mitigating chromatic aberration and the EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x is no different. When using the lens without any extenders I have seen little to no chromatic aberration, even when shooting high contrast situations with strong highlights transitions. Adding the internal teleconverter adds a very narrow strip of magenta to high contrast images. This is only seen in very specific situations and even then, it is only when you zoom into the image well above 200%. With two teleconverters used in conjunction, there is an obvious increase in chromatic aberration with hints of magenta and cyan popping up in high contrast areas but it is still very acceptable.
10) Lens Comparisons
Honestly, there aren’t really any other lenses in Canons lineup that can genuinely be compared to the EF 200-400mm f/4L. It just does things that no other lens in Canons lineup can do. That said, the closest comparison is to the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II. The EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II has very high image quality though it isn’t quite on the same level as the EF 200-400mm f/4. With the EF 200-400mm f/4 you have a significant maximum aperture advantage, which makes a very big difference in low light and for blurring backgrounds. The EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II also gives up 160mm on the long end to the 200-400mm f/4 when it’s extender is engaged. In the 100-400mm’s favor, it is much lighter and easier to work with for handholding purposes and has a price tag that is a fraction of its bigger cousin. I think that while these two lenses cover a similar range they are meant for different purposes. The EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II is for those that wish to have very good image quality, good focusing and a relatively light and mobile setup that can easily be taken anywhere. The EF 200-400mm f/4 1.4x is all about getting the highest image quality and focusing Canon can offer and its price tag reflects that. I personally see these two lenses more as companions that offer different features rather then two lenses that go head to head.
The other options in Canons lineup are its prime lenses. Namely the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II, EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II and EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II. Both the f/2.8 lenses have a one-stop light gathering advantage, slightly faster autofocus, and image quality that is a hair better and they take teleconverters a bit better as well. The EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II is much cheaper, lighter and easier to handhold and I am particularly fond of it and the previous generation 300mm f/2.8 for bird-in-flight photography. The 400mm f/2.8L IS II has a similar price tag and weight, but it feels much bigger due to the diameter of its front element. Lastly is the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II, one of Canons newest additions and it’s a fantastic lens. Its very light weight and probably Canons best handheld bird photography lens. The lens is very sharp, and I would say that the 200-400mm is similar in sharpness and bokeh. The EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II is also a bit sharper with an external extender than the 200-400mm is with its internal extender. Probably its biggest advantage is that it is a bit faster to focus than the zoom and combined with its lightweight, the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II holds an advantage for photographing erratic subjects. Overall, Canons telephoto prime lenses are fantastic and offer exquisite image quality and focusing capabilities, but the EF 200-400mm f/4L 1.4x holds a versatility advantage of being able to compose at focal length ranges from 400mm down to 200mm along with having an internal extender.