01 October 2017

An affordable / fast Autofocus lens for Birds in Flight Photography

Canon EOS 7D Mark II /  EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Lens
Canon EOS 7D Mark II /  EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Lens
I was recently asked for my opinion on an affordable, light and reasonably sharp 300mm or 400mm prime lens (for Birds in Flight and some wildlife photography) by one of my Birds in Flight Photography Cape Town workshop delegates.

The workshop delegate is a Nikon D500 user / photographer and although I could not comment directly towards her requirement for a Nikon 300mm or 400mm prime lens I shared with her my own Canon EF 300mm / EF 400mm prime lens decision-making process (from a few years ago).

My response (edited for the website with more content and context for assisting other / new Canon Birds in Flight photographers as well).

I use the Canon EF 400mm f./5.6L USM lens for my Birds in Flight photography at Woodbridge Island Cape Town. A cost-effective Canon EF 400mm prime lens with no Image Stabilization (IS), with very fast Autofocus (AF) and surprisingly light for carrying around for long shooting sessions (up to three to four hours at times). A simple and effective design with many good reviews over the years.


Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Lens for Birds in Flight Photography
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Lens for Birds in Flight Photography

This lens is exclusively paired with my Canon EOS 7D Mark II and I'm satisfied with the all-round AF performance, sharpness and mobility (paired with the APS-C / Crop Canon body). 

Canon EOS 7D Mark II /  EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Lens
Canon EOS 7D Mark II /  EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Lens
The Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM lens performs very well with the Canon EOS 700D, Canon EOS 70D, Canon 7D Mark II and the Canon EOS 6D.

I'm of opinion that the AF performance is slightly faster when compared to the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM zoom lens of which I have tested extensively on both the Canon EOS 7D Mark II and Canon EOS 80D in exactly the same shooting environment. Not bad for a Canon Super Telephoto lens that was designed / released in 1993.

I did not consider the Canon EF 100-400mm lens options as I already have the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens - a lens that in itself is very fast and sharp and offers a great zoom range when required.

My original Canon prime lens decision-making lens selection
When I originally decided on a birds in flight lens I looked at three prime options:
  • Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM lens
  • Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens
  • Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM lens

Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM lens
I decided the 300mm f/4 (with image stabilization) was a tad short and not really optimized with a tele-converter on the Canon bodies at the time. With a tele-converer the reach is good - 300 x 1.4 - 420mm, but the AF would be a tad slower at f/5.6 for birds in flight (and I was concerned about the image quality when paired with the converter). And I already have a reasonably fast and sharp 70-300mm zoom. I have seen some great images from this lens and it was a serious consideration for me, but personally don’t really like shooting with a converter on a crop body i.e 7D Mark II.

Canon EOS 6D /  EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens
Canon EOS 6D /  EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens
The EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens (with image stabilization) at 3x the price the price was not something I could justify from a cost / benefit perspective, I tested it, very good and at f/4 (without converter). With a 1.4 converter the lens would probably just as fast at f/5.6, but an expensive option for birds in flight. Very sharp and not that heavy.

I've deliberately tested it on my Canon EOS 6D (Full Frame) at f/4 in the same shooting environment I use the Canon EF 400mm f/4 USM lens. A high-end professional Canon super telephoto lens that is comfortable on both APS-C and Full Frame bodies (with / without the 1.4x / 2x tele-converters), just a tad expensive and not convinced it will justify the price / value / performance ratio in my Birds in Flight photography workflow and shooting at my Woodbridge Island, Cape Town shooting environment. Birds in Flight images with the EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens

Canon EOS 7D Mark II /  EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Lens
Canon EOS 7D Mark II /  EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Lens
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM lens
I researched this lens for three months in terms of the following criteria:
  • For Birds in Flight photography only
  • 400mm focal length for pairing with APS-C body
  • Autofocus speed and image quality
  • Weight (mobility for carrying long periods)
  • Cost of ownership (Budget / ROI)

From the first morning I've added this lens still on my Canon EOS 700D I knew it was the correct decision. It ticked all the researched criteria boxes and although I've added a few newer Canon EOS bodies to my bag this is still my lens of choice for Birds in Flight photography. Its not a f/2.8 300mm or 400mm lens, but with enough good Cape Town light I am still without any doubt that this lens will perform very well against the more expensive Canon Super Telephoto options.

Canon EOS 6D /  EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Lens
Canon EOS 6D /  EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Lens
My training studio and home office apartments are literally on the doorstep of my shooting environment at Woodbridge Island and have a birds view of the the lagoon, sun and wind speed before venturing down for a shoot. 

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM lens Release Date
The Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM lens was released in May 1993 and as far as I know somewhat before Canon's IS implementation (according to Canon 1995). It became a very popular lens for bird / birds in flight photographers mainly due to low cost, light weight, image quality and fast Autofocus.

Canon EOS 7D Mark II - Birds in Flight Photo Gallery
Canon EOS 7D Mark II - Birds in Flight Photo Gallery

Starting out with Birds in Flight Photography Cape Town
Starting out with Birds in Flight Photography Cape Town

Two Canon 400mm Lens Options for Birds in Flight Photography
Two Canon 400mm Lens Options for Birds in Flight Photography

Birds in Flight Photography Cape Town
Birds in Flight Photography Cape Town

Sample images with two Canon zoom lenses
Have a look at Birds in Flight Photography Cape Town with the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens (paired with Canon EOS 7D Mark II) and the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens (paired with Canon EOS 70D).


Canon EOS 7D Mark II /  EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Lens
Spotted thick-knee in FlightCanon EOS 7D Mark II /  EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Lens