Wildlife lens options

Started Dec 21, 2019 | Discussions thread
Tannin Senior Member • Posts: 1,397
Re: Wildlife lens options

Your friend wants a used Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS. These should be readily available at prices around that budget. This is the now discontinued 100-400 Mark 1.

The current 100-400 Mark II is outstanding, quite astonishingly good, and clearly the best lens of its type on the market. It's way out of budget though, so no point in hoping for one of these.

Because the Mark II is so very, very good, people seem to have forgotten how good the earlier Mark 1 was, and you can pick the older lens up for a song these days.

The Mark 1 was released way back in 1999 and stood the test of time very well indeed. It stayed in production essentially unchanged for 17 years. It is fairly small and reasonably light for what it is, but built as tough as old boots. The focal length range is good, and the image quality ranges from excellent at the short end through to very good at the long end.

You'll hear people say all sorts of rubbish about the 100-400. They will say, for example, that it is "soft at 400mm". Nonsense. It's not as sharp on the test bench as a 500/4 or a 400/5.6, but it's not all that far behind, and it is at very least equal and usually significantly superior to the various third-party zooms in the 600mm class (which often seem to get a free pass on Internet fora for reasons unknown to me). And they will say "it's a dust pump". Duh. Every lens made with moving elements not completely enclosed and sealed (i.e., most zooms and all telephoto zooms) suck air in and out and slowly collect dust. It's not a problem. I spent more than a decade using a 100-400 Mark 1 in the dusty Australian outback without the slightest issue. The "dust pump" thing only applies to gear fetishists who are more interested in polishing their equipment than taking pictures with it.

Because the 100-400 is much easier to hand-hold than most other lenses in its class (e,g., the Sigma 600s), in the real world it produces sharper pictures.  And unlike most others, it is a true f/5.6 at the long end, not f/6.3. Is one-third of a stop such a big deal? Yes. You don't just get slightly faster shutter speeds for sharper wildlife shots, you also get more accurate focus and a brighter viewfinder.

The Mark 1 IS system is early-generation and not to be compared with the IS on (say) a 70-300L or a 100-400 Mark II. Nevertheless, it is reliable and effective. The practical usability advantage of a wildlife lens with IS (even early-generation IS like that of the Mark 1) over a lens without IS is very significant. This is why I recommend a 100-400 Mark 1, not the sweet, sharp little 400/5.6 prime: the lack of IS is a deal-breaker.

Lots of people used to carp about the push-pull zoom mechanism, nearly all of them people who had never owned the lens and didn't understand how practical it is for a long, large-ratio zoom used for sport and wildlife where rapid responses are part of the requirement. Landscaping, there is a lot to be said for a twist zoom; for action, push-pull is much faster - and in practice, you very quickly get used to either type once you own one.

Finally, the 100-400 Mark 1 also makes a very useful landscape and general-purpose lens, though not so much on a 1.6 crop body. It comes into its own in this role with a 1.3 crop or full frame body.

It is a rugged, practical all-rounder and you'd struggle to find a better choice.

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