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Canon 200-400mm lens leads supertele charge

A built-in 1.4x extender pushes Canon's forthcoming 200-400mm zoom to a maximum of 560mm. Also: higher prices but lower weights for new 500mm and 600mm supertelephotos.

Canon's EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM supertelephoto is set to debut in May with a price of about $9,500.
Canon's EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM supertelephoto is set to debut in May with a price of about $9,500. Canon USA

Canon today disclosed prices for previously announced overhauls of its 500mm and 600mm supertelephoto lenses, but more unusually, announced a new 200-400mm model that will join the company's already large lens family.

Nikon and Canon, locked in fierce competition for professional photographers, often have similar lens models, but Nikon for years has offered a highly regarded and newly refurbished 200-400mm supertele zoom while Canon stuck with its increasingly elderly 100-400mm design. Now Canon is countering with the EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender l.4x.

Some of the nomenclature should look familiar: f/4L means a continuous maximum aperture of F4 and Canon's L-series attributes of durability, image quality, and weatherproofing; IS denotes image stabilization, which counteracts lens shake and is just about essential in long telephotos; USM means a quiet, fast ultrasonic focusing motor.

New, though, is the term "Extender": the lens includes a built-in 1.4x telephoto extender that increases the focal length to 560mm but drops the maximum aperture to f5.6. Canon sells standalone 1.4x and 2x telephoto extenders, but it's not clear how exactly the built-in model works. Presumably it will be less disruptive to engage than removing a large telephoto lens and attaching the extender between the lens and camera body. And photographers doubtless will hope the fact that it's tailored to the lens will mean it provides higher optical quality than the general-purpose telephoto extenders.

Canon didn't share many other details about the 200-400mm lens besides that it'll use fluorite crystal, which helps magnify an image without as much image-marring chromatic aberration as more conventional glass lens elements.

One tidbit to watch will be whether it's a fixed-length design adjusted with a traditional zoom ring vs. the push-pull design that some photographers dislike about the 100-400mm product. And of course the price, size, and weight will help determine how deeply this lens will spread into the ranks of amateur bird and safari photographers.

Canon will show a prototype of the 200-400mm lens at the CP+ tradeshow in Pacifico Yokohama starting February 9.

Although the 200-400mm has a narrower zoom range than the 100-400mm model, a shorter range typically comes with fewer optical compromises to distortion, sharpness, chromatic aberration, and vignetting. One definite benefit: the 200-400mm has a wider maximum aperture of F4, compared to F5.6 at full telephoto on the $1,600 100-400mm lens.

New 500mm and 600mm models
Closer to the here-and-now are the revamped 500mm and 600mm models, which Canon announced last August. Brace yourself here for some prices only a professional or very serious amateur can handle.

The EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM is due to ship in May with a price of $9,500, and the EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens is due in June for about $12,000.

That's a big step up from the first-generation models, which at B&H Photo today cost $6,700 and $8,650, respectively. But the second-generation models come with several improvements: new optical ingredients Canon says produce better image quality; improved image stabilization that Canon promises will counteract shaking to the tune of 4 F-stops (enough, at least in theory, to shoot stationary subjects at 1/60 of a second vs. 1/1000 of a second); new and an anti-smear coating on the front and rear lens elements; and new internal lens coatings to reduce ghost and flare problems.

Helping in the new era of video SLRs is quieter image stabilization and the new power focus mode that enables smoother mechanically controlled focus changes. Finally, the new lenses get a new image stabilization mode that engages IS only when the shutter is pressed, which is convenient to avoid the jerky side effects of tracking a moving subject.

Image quality is front and center. "Both lenses will outperform their predecessors through the use of two fluorite elements over the previous one fluorite and two UD [ultra-low dispersion] glass elements. More fluorite results in better image quality as it reduces chromatic aberration to a greater degree than UD glass," Canon said. "The reduction of chromatic aberration contributes to superior resolution, contrast, and color fidelity."

Most noticeably, though will be the dramatically lower weight for these monster lenses through use of lighter optical elements and more magnesium and titanium in the lens barrel. The 500mm model drops 18 percent from from 136.5 oz to 112.5 oz, and the 600mm drops 27 percent from 189.1 oz to 138.3 oz, Canon said. You'll still need a tripod or monopod, but at least carting these lenses will be easier with 1.5 pounds pared off the 500mm model and more than 3 pounds pared off the 600mm.

Canon has just overhauled its 300mm and 400mm F2.8 models with comparable weight reductions.

Also today, Canon announced it's built 60 million lenses for its SLR line. The vast majority of those, of course, come along with mainstream camera models such as Canon's new Rebel T3i and T3 entry-level SLRs also announced today. Those cameras come with a new second-generation 18-55mm kit lens with improved image stabilization, Canon said.

Canon's EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM supertelephoto is due to ship in June with a price of $12,000.
Canon's EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM supertelephoto is due to ship in June with a price of $12,000. Canon USA