Canon 100-400 F4.5-5.6L IS USM Mark II Review

The king is dead, long live the Mark II. After 15 long years, Canon finally upgraded one of the biggest-selling telezooms of all time - the 100-400mm F4.5-5.6L IS USM. The Mk II version has the same headline specifications but with enhanced features and improved performance all-round. While the new model is better for sure, when comparing the Mk I and Mk II side by side it quickly becomes clear just why it took Canon so long: the MkI version was, and still is, a decent lens. It's always been very popular too, and known for holding its value well on the used market, so Canon was in no rush to change a winning formula.

The 100-400mm Mk II retains the same focal length and F4.5-5.6 overall maximum apertures as the original model. Both lenses change up to F5 at around the 125mm mark, and the Mk I then goes to F5.6 at 250mm while the Mk II holds on slightly longer, making the final switch at just over 300mm. Apart from a little extra weight, the physical dimensions are basically unchanged, but everything else is new and upgraded. There's a totally new state-of-the-art optical design with more elements, a much-improved image stabilization system, a minimum focusing distance that's been cut in half and faster autofocus drive. Build quality has been taken up a notch, now with a full set of weather seals, and the push-pull zoom control (unloved by some) is swapped for a more conventional twist-ring. It's finished in Canon's newer light gray L-color, as opposed to the old creamy-white. 

Headline features

  • Improved optical design with 21 elements in 16 groups (versus 17 in 14 for Mk I)
  • Upgraded image stabilization with 4-stops benefit (vs. 2-stops)
  • Twist-ring zoom control (vs. push-pull)
  • Extensive weather-resistant seals (vs. partly sealed)
  • Faster USM autofocus drive
  • Close focusing down to 98cm, 0.31x magnification at max focal length (vs. 180cm, 0.2x)
  • Same size as Mk I, though slightly heavier at 1570g (vs. 1380g)

Canon now offers the broadest selection of telezooms of any brand, at a variety of price points. In the premium sector, there are four 70-200mm L-grade zooms, with a choice of F2.8 or F4 maximum apertures, with and without image stabilization. The 70-200mm F2.8 L IS USM Mk II is relevant here as it works well with 1.4x or 2x extenders, as an alternative to something longer.

More recently, Canon added a third lens to its options in the versatile 70-300mm category, with the 70-300mm F4-5.6L IS USM being an excellent zoom that is essentially a scaled-down version of the 100-400mm Mk II (and considerably cheaper, too). There is also the Canon 200-400mm F4L IS USM with its unique built-in 1.4x extender, though the stratospheric price puts it in a rather different class, and Canon has a couple of excellent prime telephotos in this focal length range, too. The image-stabilized 300mm F4L IS USM and 400mm F5.6L USM both hail from the same era as the original 100-400mm Mk I, and have also stood the test of time well.

Looking at other brands, the Nikon AF-S 80-400mm F4.5-5.6G ED VR is a close rival to the Canon 100-400 II in terms of specification, design and high performance. Likewise, the Sony 70-400mm F4-5.6 G SSM II for A-mount is another proven performer. Both lenses feature a slightly wider angle of view at the short end, but have notably longer minimum focusing distances than the Canon 100-400 Mk II. Compare Nikon vs Sony performance data here.

Surprisingly, no third-party manufacturer currently offers anything similar, though anyone in the market for an extra-long lens should be sure to check out the trio of 150-600mm F5-6.3 superzooms from Sigma (which has two versions) and Tamron that have caused quite a stir, bringing new standards of performance to this market segment at an affordable cost. But while they might appear to cover much the same ground as the Canon 100-400mm Mk II on paper, they're very different in the hand - much bigger, much heavier, and arguably, harder to get the most from. The new Nikon AF-S 200-500mm F5.6 E ED VR and as yet unproven Pentax D FA 150-450mm F4.5-5.6 ED DC AW also fall into the larger/heavier category, and with longer minimum focusing distances compared to the Canon Mk II.

Angle of View

100mm F4.5, full-frame (Canon 5DS R)

400mm F5.6, full-frame (Canon 5DS R)

Shire Hall, Cambridge, UK, is one of my favorite subjects for comparisons (also used for the Tamron 16-300mm VC review) though unfortunately it was partly obscured by scaffolding on this occasion.  Sharpness is very high, and unusually consistent - throughout the zoom range, at all apertures, and across the frame. It's at larger apertures where the Mk II shows most sharpness improvement over the MkI. The images above are both at maximum aperture, F4.5 at 100mm and F5.6 at 400mm, using a Canon 5DS R (full-frame), and are shown without any software corrections applied for chromatic aberration, distortion or vignetting.

The 100-400mm zoom range, with a generous 4:1 ratio, provides a 24.4° to 6.2° angle of view on full-frame, measured across the diagonal from corner to corner. It's very versatile and well suited to a wide range of popular subjects, including all kinds of field sports, and wildlife from safaris to zoos. At a motor race or air display, the spectator fences are often lined with Canon 100-400mm zooms. Compared to a fixed focal length lens, when photographing sports or anything where the shooting distance varies, you can zoom to pull in subjects from a distance, then zoom back when the action gets closer. Longer focal length settings are also perfect for sniping candid portraits, say at a wedding or other social occasion. At the shorter end, while it may not be the obvious choice for portraiture, at around 100-135mm it's just about perfect on full-frame.

ABOVE: With a broad 4:1 zoom range, unusually close focusing, and excellent image-stabilization, the Canon 100-400mm Mk II can turn its hand to more than just sports and wildlife. It's sharp at all focal lengths and apertures. Check the fly on the flamingo's beak - the fine veins on its wings are barely more than 1-pixel wide (Canon 5DS R, monopod, 400mm F5.6, 1/250 sec, ISO 400).

The Canon 100-400mm Mk II goes very well on APS-C cameras like the Canon 7D Mk II, with its excellent AF and fast frame rate. The 1.6x crop factor gives more effective reach and creates a megazoom 160-640mm equivalent angle-of-view. The Canon 100-400mm Mk II is also compatible with the Canon 1.4x extender, though it will only autofocus on higher-end Canon DSLRs that retain AF up to F8 (currently 7D Mk II, 5D Mk III, 5DS/R, 1DX/II). The 2x extender will physically fit, but all AF functions are disabled.