Image Quality Examples

We haven't spent long shooting with the 200-400mm. Indeed as we only had an hour or so with it wandering around Hammersmith in West London, weren't able to make any useful assessment of several aspects of its performance that will be critical to users (such as autofocus tracking, image stabilisation, and weathersealing). But we can, even from a handful of hand-held samples, come to the conclusion that the optics look just as special as the test results suggest.

We made a point of shooting finely detailed subjects wide open, and the lens produced excellent results right across the frame with impressive sharpness and minimal chromatic aberration. Vignetting can be visible when shooting wide open with the Extender in place, but it's in no way objectionable. The examples below should give some idea of just how good the optics are in real-world use - we're using RAW conversions with no lens corrections applied.

Without built-in Extender
Canon EOS-1D X, 200mm F4, 1/2500 sec Canon EOS-1D X, 400mm F4, 1/2000 sec
100% crop, centre 100% crop, centre
100% crop, bottom right corner 100% crop, bottom left corner

These samples show impressive resolution into the extreme corners of the frame. There's just a touch of green/magenta fringing at from lateral chromatic aberration at 400mm, but is seems churlish to complain. Now let's see if there's much image quality penalty from snapping the converter into place.

With built-in 1.4x Extender
Canon EOS-1D X, 280mm F5.6, 1/640 sec Canon EOS-1D X, 560mm F5.6, 1/1250 sec
100% crop, centre 100% crop, centre
100% crop, right edge 100% crop, left edge

Just as the test results indicate, there's little sharpness penalty to using the converter at all. The lens is still picking lots of fine low-contrast detail right across the frame at both ends of the zoom, and there's still only a small amount of CA. Vignetting is perhaps a touch more visible, but this is trivial to fix in software these days.

Close focusing

The lens has a minimum focus distance of just 2 metres at all settings - including with the extender engaged. This is quite impressive for an ultra-telephoto; Canon's EF 500mm f/4 L IS II USM, for example, only focuses down to 3.7m. You could be forgiven for expecting an obvious loss of image quality at close range - and again, the lens might surprise you.

EOS-1D X, 386mm F4, 1/320 sec 100% crop

You're unlikely to win Wildlife Photographer of the Year for a snap of a pigeon - particularly one of London's scruffy mutants - but it illustrates the point here. We've shown a 100% crop of feather detail at the point of sharpest focus, and it's really pretty impressive. Image stabilisation has kept the image nice and sharp at a marginal shutter speed (particularly given this lens's size and weight).

Image stabilisation

We haven't been able to test precisely how well the lens's stabilisation system works, but first impressions suggest that it does just as well as you'd expect from the company that first put IS into an SLR lens more than 15 years ago. Crucially it allows you carefully compose your shots in the viewfinder even when hand-holding the lens at 560mm - something that would be pretty much impossible with an unstabilised lens this size and length (it's hard enough with a 300mm consumer zoom).

EOS-1D X, 212mm F4, 1/125 sec 100% crop

Given that this is a huge, heavy lens, without stabilisation you'd expect to need rather faster shutter speeds to avoid blur compared to a lightweight consumer telezoom. But this shot was hand-held at ~200mm and 1/125sec, and is still pretty sharp.

Overall impressions

Canon has a reputation for designing spectacularly good telephoto lenses, and from the lab test results and a few handheld shots of static subjects, it's clear that the 200-400mm is exceptionally good. On full frame it's near-flawless, and there's practically no perceptible sharpness penalty for using the extender. On the more resolution-hungry APS-C format it also performs exceptionally well, suggesting it has plenty in reserve for any upcoming higher resolution sensors. This is pretty stunning stuff for a zoom.

Equally important for this kind of lens, of course, are the autofocus and image stabilisation systems. While shooting with it for an hour in one of the less-interesting parts of West London isn't an ideal way test these things, we can say that AF with static subjects is very fast and extremely accurate, while the IS system is good enough to allow you to compose shots with this monstrous lens hand-held. We can't assess how well continuous AF will work, of course, but there's no reason to believe it will be any worse than Canon's other professional super-telephotos.

The question, of course, is whether all this can justify Canon's asking price. We've got to be honest here - we're not professional sports or wildlife photographers, and therefore not best-placed to judge the value proposition of the 200-400mm, or how it compares to other top-end telephotos in real-world use. Of course it is also the kind of lens that very few individual photographers will buy for themselves; instead it's more likely to be purchased by agencies, for whom the value proposition is entirely about the saleable shots it can bring in.

In this regard the Canon's capabilities make it unique among top-end super-telephoto zooms. For example the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II doesn't have the built-in extender (but is half the price), and the Sigma APO 300-800mm F5.6 EX DG HSM is even larger and heavier, but lacks image stabilisation or weathersealing. This doesn't excuse the 200-400mm's price, but it does go some way to explaining why Canon feels justified in asking it. From our point of view, the absolutely stellar optics and innovative design earn the lens our top award.

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