It’s no secret that I have grown very fond of my Canon EF 400 f/2.8 mk1. It’s travelled with me extensively over the past 5 years, and the images I have captured through that lens changed the world around me, opened up opportunities in many different ways and no doubt assisted in making me a better photographer.
That is the power of great camera equipment when couples with passion & skill.
A Telephoto lens to cover all your needs is a blog I recently did on my experience with the 400mm f2.8, and it was very well received.
I got curious and soon after got the opportunity to use a special lens out in the field for a few months, thanks to Canon South Africa.
This lens, was the Canon 400 f/4 DO II. To say that I was impressed would be a complete understatement!
I’d love to share some of my experiences using the lens in the field. It travelled with me on 4 separate occasions, and in 3 very different habitats.
It visited Mana Pools in Zimbabwe, South Luangwa in Zambia, and the Sabi Sand region of Great Kruger, South Africa.
This is certainly not a technical review, there’s enough of them out there. I will however showcase to you how I was able to get the most from this innovative lens!
What does DO mean?
DO is short for “Diffractive Optics”
In plain layman’s terms, this is a new technology where Canon uses a different type of glass within the lens itself. This allows the light entering the lens to bend at a more acute angle and allowing the light to fall perfectly on the sensor, without needing a longer lens to do so.
This is typically the case with most standard lenses, such as my 400 f/2.8. There’s less bending of light, and therefore the lens needs to be longer in order for the light to fall perfectly on the sensor.
That’s one of the main reasons that makes this lens so special. Because of Canon’s ability to use DO optics, they are able to create a shorter & more lightweight lens, without sacrificing image quality itself.
In addition to this, the lens is one of Canon’s sharpest, produces fantastic true colours, and greatly reduces chromatic aberration.
When we purchase camera gear, image quality is something we are all after. It’s something that we should expect from our gear and consistently so.
The Canon 400 f/4 DO certainly did not disappoint me.
I expect a huge amount from my camera gear when out in the field. I photograph far less than what I used to when I first started. This is purely based on the fact that I am more selective with the moments that I choose to capture. Far more thought will go into each shot and based on this, I expect each shot that I take to be as good as I can possibly get it.
There are no second chances in wildlife photography. You either get it there & then, or you miss it all together.
This is one of my favorite moments from 2016, and beautifully captured by the 400 DO.
The conditions certainly weren’t easy. It was rather cold, raining & there was plenty of action in front of us all at the same time. Some lions were feeding on a buffalo, some cubs were playing on the ground & some up a tree. It was this lion though that caught my eye and the 400 DO was up to the task.
A closer look zoomed in to 100% reveals that, even at ISO 3200, the image quality is fantastic!
This was captured at first light in South Luangwa, Zambia.
This lioness was on the move & I wanted to capture her against that beautiful smooth background!
Just look at how crisp and sharp this is. That’s hand-held too!
I choose to shoot hand-held for most of the times that I am in the field. I often find tripods/monopods restrictive, and choose to use a beanbag or simply holding it as steady as I can.
The lightweight design of this lens certainly helps to hold it steady as the weight of the lens feels non-existent. At 2 kilograms it’s hardly something to notice.
Once again this lens delivered a pin-sharp image. These Meyer’s Parrots are not easy to photograph and you have minimal time to compose, achieve focus & to trip the shutter. This lens does all of that in no time at all, very impressive!
Getting down low to the ground has never been easier.
For most it’s not all that easy to get down low to the ground with a heavy telephoto lens. With this 400 DO, the problem is solved!
It was very easy to get down to eye level with these hippo’s, and at the same time I managed to keep the lens nice & steady allowing for solid composition & a sharp result.
As you can see from these images, the results speak loudly for themselves.
I spend many hours out in the field with guests by my side. As mentioned, I expect only the best image quality from the gear that I use and I felt completely confident that the 400 DO would not let me down.
Capturing animals in action is no easy task no matter what gear you have in your hands.
That said, imagine having a lens with the quality of your chosen fixed-focal telephoto, but without the bulk, length & weight!
That’s something I enjoyed tremendously out in the field with the 400 DO. You never know what will happen next when you are on safari. This is even more true for predators, in particular the African wild dog.
With the 400 DO in your hands, you’ll be able to move swiftly and put yourself in a better position for that award-winning shot!
Many of us love photographing these dogs! They are incredibly active & given a little patience will likely present you with great action photography as well as good opportunities to view them on the hunt.
The image above left me with a massive smile on my face, and was once again captured hand-held.
Have a look at the image below just to see how good it looks at 100%…
The colour, contrast & lack of abundant noise is extremely impressive and leaves me with little doubt that this lens is a serious contender for anyone’s kit bag!
Shooting at f4 also allows for a great smooth background, a strong feature of my photographic “style”.
I am so used to the ability to shoot at f2.8 and at times did miss it, but in hindsight the f4 on the DO was plenty and certainly left me happy enough!
This image was well anticipated. We spent a good time with the big male on the right. He eventually happened upon his pride & clobbered one of his sons in dramatic style!
Once again the 400 DO stood up to the challenge & not only rendered a great sharp image, but also a beautiful background.
I had very, very little time to capture this image!
We had just left our camp in Mana Pools when we spotted a pack of wild dogs feeding on the remains of an impala carcass. The dogs were about 200 meters off road so we left our vehicle behind & approached on foot.
Just as we arrived on the scene the dogs attacked a nearby hyena intent on scavenging a meal. Most of my guests and I had kinda adjusted our settings, but none had as of yet photographed the scene. My settings were spot on though and the fact that I was able to comfortably pan along with my quick-moving subjects meant I was able to get some really good sharp images, even at ISO 5000!
It was an incredible sighting and the camera shutters just kept firing!
It’s in moments like these that you want gear that’s capable of standing up to the test!
The little 400 DO was perfect for it and delivered in every regards.
This was a stand-out sighting from my 2016 safari year!
I have always dreamt of seeing something like this – lions attempting to hunt & kill elephants, the battle of the giants! More than ever I needed a lens that would ensure the very best results.
At ISO 16 000 this was always going to be a challenge. There was very little light to speak of and I dialed the ISO rather high on my Canon 1Dx mk2. When it came down to action the 400 DO locked focus perfectly and did a fantastic job at capturing these scene the way I remember it!
Yes, there’s some noise & grain, but the images are as sharp as any other lens out there would have captured.
Would I have enjoyed the little bit of extra light that my 400 f2.8 would have given me? Sure! But this little lens went a along way towards capturing a beautiful moment for me!
Here’s another image captured at ISO 16 000!
Have a look at just how clean it looks when zoomed in to 100%. It was shot in combination with the Canon 1Dx mk2, so that certainly helped as the 1Dx2 handles low-light exceptionally well. That said, the lens & quality of glass goes a very long way towards attaining striking results such as this!
If you’ve ever photographed hippo’s at eye-level, you will soon realize two distinct things.
Within a large group of hippo’s, it’s extremely difficult to pick out who will be active ones versus those who remain docile, and secondly your elbows take a severe beating from waiting for the action to happen. while digging them into the rough sand below.
The light-weight design of the 400 DO is a huge bonus for this kind of photography.
It focuses extremely fast, captured pin-sharp moments & allows you alot more freedom of movement!
Birds in flight has never felt this easy!
I am not exactly known for my stellar bird photography, but this lens made it simply & easy. Once again, compared to my mark 1 400 f2.8, this lens felt like a feather & I was easily able to photograph birds in flight!
This was another sighting that went from 0 – 100kmph! There was plenty of action to capture and the 400 DO was spot on every, single time!
One can only dream of sightings like this and there’s so much that could go wrong, especially with lenses that tend to under-perform. Weaknesses in glass & autofocus will be quickly exposed and you’ll pay the price for it!
Animals in Environment
One of the reasons I love the 400mm focal range above the other longer telephoto lenses, is that I am able to capture more of the surrounding landscape. I love presenting to the viewer the environment that my subject inhabits. It’s a big part of my photographic “style”, if you could call it that.
What I really enjoyed about the 400 DO versus my 400 f2.8, was that the DO naturally included more detail into my shot. It’s a natural effect since the lens is much shorter & there’s far less distortion, which is the case with the 2.8. The 2.8 creates incredible backgrounds, very soft & smooth, but at times you want a little more detail when including the environment, and the DO excelled!
There’s little time spent trying to stabilize your lens for a steady shot, as the 400 DO is so lightweight! It’s purely a matter of seeing the moment, framing & firing. The lens is so sharp & there’s fantastic detail rendered in this images.
Buffalo are often difficult to photograph.
If you step back and include a little environment around them though, more opportunity starts to open up and an “ordinary” subject becomes a part of a extraordinary story.
If shot with say, a 500mm f4, you’d have a hard time getting back far enough without your subject moving away, or distracting elements entering your frame.
If I were given the opportunity to get closer to the leopardess, I would have declined.
It’s so striking to see them high up in the branches of a fig tree, and it tells a far more interesting story than just another portrait shot.
How about this scene here? Would I have wanted to be a little closer to this leopard? Absolutely not!
This leopard did not show up for more than an hour. We knew exactly where he was hiding and we knew that if given a little time, he would eventually build the confidence to climb back up this tree to lay claim to his kill.
I had the vehicle positioned at a distance suiting all my guests, and we carefully composed the scene to show the leopard climbing the the gnarled tree trunk, a stunning feature of this shot at first light.
How interesting can a single elephant be?
Well, add some environment and you’ll soon see a very different image & story!
The 400mm focal range is stand-out in the telephoto lenses, bar the 300mm, and captured beautiful scene’s in nature. The additional detail added by the DO makes it a winner!
Here’s another stunning story-telling moment captured with the 400 DO.
The background is beautifully blurred & brings the attention of the viewer right on to the face and the paw, and leaves you almost instinctively wondering what she is thinking about. It’s such a dreamy shot & stunningly made possible by the 400 DO.
Night-time photography often leaves people in total disarray. It no doubt presents several challenges that are not only lens-related, but it sure helps to have the best quality glass in your arsenal when tackling night-time photography.
I selected two images to show you, the leopard captured in South Luangwa, and the Wood Owl in our Mana Pools camp.
Both show brilliant quality, colour & sharpness. Both were photographed using a spotlight only. The owl was photographed hand-held and the leopard captured using a bean bag for support.
Only the very best lenses perform to this extent at night, and the 400 DO is undoubtedly one of them!
Incredible Detail, colour & contrast
One aspect that really stood out to me, was just how much detail & texture I could capture with the 400 DO.
I did not have the f2.8 abilities of its larger cousin, but heck, I was not complaining! There was alot of contrast on offer in all my images, and the level of clarity was brilliant!
The more of these factors are taken care of by your lens, the less post-processing you need to occupy your time with afterwards.
The two images above were captured on cloudy days in Hwange, and this also helped to create contrast and emphasized their rough, textured skin.
Once again, the rich colour & contrast is very visible in the image above.
Look at the colour in the eyes, and look at the texture on the edge of the river bank itself. It’s stunning, without doubt!
A lioness at first light up a small tree in South Luangwa.
The tones, colours & soft background make for a very appealing image. Her eyes are beautifully lit and the image as is a sharp as can be. This was also taken hand-held.
Given a good distance between the subject & background, it’s possible to achieve beautiful soft backgrounds almost as if shot with the larger 400 f2.8.
The even detail across the sleeping elephant is captivating!
Look at the pretty feet, all tucked up and together. The contrast & details of the skin & even the leaves in the foreground gives this image a near 3-dimensional feel.
The darker shadows & the brighter sunlit areas are also very well balanced, more signs of a top-quality lens!
Captured in relatively harsh light, an elephant bull throws some sand & mud onto his lower half.
Even with strong light & dark shadows, the 400 DO handles it in its stride & presents me with a very well balanced image, more than acceptable to me! And it’s also very, very sharp!
The Canon 400 f4 DO II is no doubt a fantastic lens and something that you should seriously consider if you are tired of lugging a big, heavy lens around.
It’s small, compact, light-weight & packed with glass as good as any!
The images I produced in the 6 month’s that I shot with this lens, were as good as I was going to get with just about any telephoto, in terms of image quality, sharpness, colour control and more.
The fact that you can have all this is such a small package is what makes this so very attractive and well worth some good consideration!
Now, the big question for me personally is as follows…
Would I trade my 400 f2.8 for the 400 f4 DO? To be perfectly honest, probably not.
The 400 f/2.8 allows me a little more creativity in terms of what’s a part of my story & what not, through clever use of aperture. It also allows me some additional light during the time of day (dawn & dusk) when predators are most active. I need that additional aperture because it does make a difference for me, personally.
I don’t mind the size & bulk of the 400 2.8 either. I am a pretty big dude and don’t mind handling a big heavy lens. Can you?
If this were not the case, it would come down to a few points for me.
- Image quality
- Weight & bulk
If you think about it, the 400 DO can tick all of those boxes in a good way! The DO glass technology that Canon developed really brings about a fantastic product and with rumours that it might be launching in a 600mm DO, it sure is something to give some thought to and explore a little further.