Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X review: Canon's supertele marries flexibility with quality

Fortunately, the image stabilization helps a lot. For stationary subjects, I was able to shoot at 560mm at 1/40 sec. with blur-free results about half the time, even without leaning against walls, cars, or trees for stability. When the supermoon fortuitously arrived while I had the lens for testing, I shot handheld with my own 1.4x extender attached for a 784mm f8 configuration with consistently good results at 1/250 sec.

Vignetting is a minor but noticeable issue with the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X, chiefly when shooting wide open. This shot was at 560mm, f5.6, 1/1,000 sec., at ISO 200.
Vignetting is a minor but noticeable issue with the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X, chiefly when shooting wide open. This shot was at 560mm, f5.6, 1/1,000 sec., at ISO 200. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Sharpness diminished with my second-generation Canon 1.4x extender attached, but I was still impressed. And the hassle of putting on the extender, in particular with a lens this large, made me appreciate the convenience of having one built in all the more.

The lens, a member of Canon's high-end L-series family, is admirably sturdy, with seals to protect against water and dust. The operation of all the controls is easy, with comfortable ribbed rubber grips for zoom and focus.

On the lens barrel are a lot of switches for a lens. Closest to the camera is a switch to set the lens focus range -- either the full range, 2 to 6 meters, or 6 meters to infinity. Next to that switch is the autofocus setting: autofocus, manual focus, or the newer power focus, a movie-oriented feature that uses a motor to smoothly change the focus.

Mount Canon EF
Focal range 200-400mm without 1.4x extender; 280-560mm with extender
Aperture range f4 without extender; f5.6 with extender
Minimum focus distance 6.5ft/2m
Angle of view 6.2-12 degrees without extender; 4.4-8.8 degrees with extender
Elements 25 without extender, including fluorite and ultra-low dispersion glass; 33 with extender
Coating(s) fluorine on front and back elements for dirt resistance; SWC (subwavelength structure coating) to cut flare and ghosting
Filter diameter 52mm drop-in
Length 14.4 in./366mm
Diameter 5in/128mm
Weight 127.7oz/3620g
MSRP $11,799

Farther out on the barrel is the switch for choosing stabilization modes: 1 for full image stabilization, 2 for vertical-only stabilization for panning shots, and 3 for engaging stabilization only after you've pushed the shutter release button. Here you can also set a an autofocus preset that's useful when you can predict a subject's distance -- the point on a track where a race car comes into view, for example, or the watering hole on a safari.

The lens is well suited for sports and wildlife photographers who benefit from some flexibility. Those who specialize in birds might well be better off with Canon's 500mm or 600mm f4L lenses, perhaps augmented with a 1.4x telephoto extender. Birds, unless comfortable around humans, are generally small, fast-moving, and far away. That means the 200mm end of the 200-400mm lens' range isn't terribly useful, and f5.6 is a notch slower when you're at maximum telephoto.

Just getting the lens out into the field is an ordeal. It comes with its own suitcase and shoulder strap, but I found it more convenient to reconfigure my unusually large camera backpack. Most camera daypacks won't be able to hold it, though.

The Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X can be moved rapidly from 200mm to 560mm by flipping the 1.4x extender lever and rotating the zoom ring, something that's handy as air show planes come and go.
The Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X can be moved rapidly from 200mm to 560mm by flipping the 1.4x extender lever and rotating the zoom ring, something that's handy as air show planes come and go. Click the image for a look at the sharpness of the planes. This shot was at 225mm, but moments earlier the jets were far enough away that 560mm was appropriate. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Many photographers in the market for a lens like this will already have sturdy tripods, gimbal mounts, and big packs, but if you don't, the high cost of this lens will be supplemented by some expensive accessories. Compared to the cost of the lens itself, though, it's pocket change.

The price is easier to stomach when you think about what it would cost to stretch from 200mm to 560mm so rapidly. To handle that range without the laborious process of attaching a teleconverter, you'd need two camera bodies and two lenses. Even with more affordable options, such as the $1,700 100-400mm or Canon's $1,340 EF 400mm f/5.6L USM with a 1.4x extender attached, you're talking about thousands of dollars, an aperture of f8 at 560mm, and a lack of image stabilization at the long end that puts more limits on your shutter speed.

Other options are Sigma's 150-500mm F5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM or its $1,000 120-400mm F4.5-5.6 DG APO OS HSM with a teleconverter. These are geared more for consumers, though, and come with compromises in sharpness and aperture.

Perhaps the best alternative would be to get a crop-frame camera body such as Canon's 7D or new 70D and the Canon 100-400mm. With the 1.6x focal-length multiplier, you'd be looking at an equivalent of 160-640mm, and you won't suffer the autofocus limitations of shooting at f8.

There's no question what the most desirable option is, though: the superb image quality and supertelephoto flexibility of Canon's extendable 200-400mm. It's no wonder Canon is charging a premium.

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Stephen Shankland writes about a wide range of technology and products, but has a particular focus on browsers and digital photography. He joined CNET News in 1998 and has also covered Google, Yahoo, servers, supercomputing, Linux, other open-source software, and science. E-mail Stephen, follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/stshank, or contact him through Google Buzz.