Hidden Gems – The Canon 400mm f/5.6L

Hidden Gems – The Canon 400mm f/5.6L

Here’s something that’s going to make Canon shooters looking to get started in wildlife or sports photography pretty darn happy. For years, Canon has made this often-overlooked piece of glass that, as the headline for this blog entry suggests, is a true hidden gem.

Presenting: The Canon 400mm f/5.6L USM lens.


A Great Egret catches dinner. Canon EOS 7D, 400mm f/5.6L lens.

A Great Egret catches dinner. Canon EOS 7D, 400mm f/5.6L lens.

One of the things I like doing as a hobby is photographing birds. That’s quite apart from my usual genre, so I don’t really own any gear that appropriate for photographing birds. I usually end up renting something, but those large super-telephotos (like the 600mm and above optics) aren’t exactly cheap (though they are way more affordable to rent than own).

After a bit of research, I stumbled onto the Canon 400mm f/5.6L USM lens. Surprising small and compact, it’s thinner and lighter than Canon’s 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II lens, while being about the same size. It’s got an integrated metal hood that collapses down over the lens when not in use, and, when paired with a body like Canon’s 7D, equates out to be a 640mm lens. That’s the combo that was used to make the image above.

The neat part? It’s only $42 to rent for three days. Compare that with, say, Canon’s 400mm f/2.8L, which is $300 for three days. You get an extra two stops with that lens, which is pretty handy for sports shooters shooting in stadiums (just ask Scott Kelby), but if you’re just starting out, or even if weight is a concern, the 400mm f/5.6 is a fantastic, razor-sharp lens for a fraction of the cost. In fact, it’s light enough that you can shoot hand-held all day and not feel the strain.

In fact, for that price, you could even upgrade your camera body rental and step up to the Canon 1D Mark IV, which was used to make the image below with the same lens. On the APS-H sensor of the Mark IV, the 400mm lens becomes a 520mm lens, giving you just a bit more reach with some fantastic low-light performance thrown in.

Egret coming in for landing. Canon 1D Mark IV, 400mm f/5.6L lens.

Egret coming in for landing. Canon 1D Mark IV, 400mm f/5.6L lens.

So Β – are there any downers? Well, you don’t have image stabilization, but if you’re shooting fast-moving wildlife, you’re shooting at a shutter speed of at least 1/500th of a second and above. You also have a lens that has a max aperture of f/5.6, but again, what you lose in light-gathering capability, you gain in portability and ease of use.

Bottom-line: with its razor-sharp optics, lightweight body, and diminutive size, this is a lens I see even some pros carrying around. For beginners, it’s a no-brainer; take this lens out, practice with it and get really good at shooting your subjects before you shell out for the really big glass.

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter. You can find his blog at anymedium.com and his work on 500px.

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1 Comment

  1. I have used this lens for shooting America’s Cup races and air shows, as well as for wildlife. It is incredibly sharp, especially when you use it with a monopod. I agree that it is a hidden gem.


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