Lens Review: Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS mk II

Marlon duToit All Authors, Andrew, Marlon 4 Comments

The Canon 100-400mm lens for wildlife & sport has been the go-to lens for many photographers. It’s incredibly handy, super versatile and comes at an attractive price.

I started my very own journey in wildlife photography with the mark 1 version, more aptly known as the “dust pump”. This lens was always at my side during almost 5 years of lodge-based guiding and certainly endured all I had to throw at it.

Since then, the mark 2 version of the lens I used for the purposes of this blog post has firmly established itself as a huge favorite amongst many photographers. Many of the guests that join us on safari make use of this lens, and do so with great effect. I’ll list more of my personal experiences with this lens with you below, but wanted to share some images with you from a recent safari to Madikwe & a day visit to Dinokeng.

Andrew Beck and I wanted to show to you that you need not have the latest & greatest in order to capture fantastic wildlife images. So many photographers today seek only the really expensive lenses because surely, they must give you the best results. As with many things in life, it has as much to do with the equipment you use as with who’s operating it.

Andrew Beck shared the following based on his experience with this lens…

“Apart from the perks of travelling light with just a single body (Canon 5DsR) and lens (Canon 100-400mm MKII), I loved having the sort of flexibility that a prime lens just doesn’t allow for. Given the massive 50MP sensor of the 5DsR I was also able to cover pretty much everything from 100mm to 560mm (1.4x in camera crop) or 680mm (1.7x in camera crop).

I really enjoyed having the flexibility to shoot a slightly wider scenes (cheetah sunset and upright alert posture) one moment and then without even having to change lenses or bodies, be able to get in tighter for more intimate moments (cheetah feeding images).

Whilst the maximum aperture of F2,8 associated with the primes would have come in handy in this low light, after sunset scene, I think the 100-400mm and 5DsR (not known for performance in low light) did exceptionally well in terms of accurately achieving focus in a fairly busy scene and rendering a sharp image. Again, this is where knowing how to get the most out of your camera gear becomes vitally important.

Whilst I didn’t take too many images during an hour long leopard sighting where our subject was on the move almost all of the time, I was able to grab a couple of key moments which I probably wouldn’t have been able to with a prime lens. The compact and lightweight 100-400mm is a lot easier to make use of when a vehicle is moving or you have a lot of other guests around (in this case it was a pocket pair of toddlers).

Even at 330mm and 260mm (less than the 400mm maximum focal length) I was able to blur backgrounds and include some of the foreground to create an air of secrecy around this leopards movements and nature.

The hero shot of the sighting was also captured at 330mm from the back seat (using my sons head as a bean bag I might add) and this again shows just how handy the versatility of this gem of a lens is.”

Andrew used a Canon 5DsR as a camera body.

Marlon used a Canon 5D mk 3 as a camera body.

263mm at F5.0

400mm at F6.3

135mm at F6.3

241mm at F5.6

400mm at F5.6

330mm at F6.3

As you can clearly see from what Andrew’s captured here, this lens can be considered a seriously good lens for wildlife photography. It’s able to capture imagery rich in detail, colour and contrast.

Below I share some of the images that I captured using this versatile lens. I tried as best to use it in different focal lengths, and also tried to shoot in some different lighting conditions. I think it’s safe to say by looking at these images, this lens produced some fine wildlife content!

400mm, f5,6

370mm f5,6

400mm f5,6

360mm f5,6 @ ISO5000

Zoomed in to 100%, not too much grain for ISO 5000!

400mm f5,6

300mm f5

400mm f14

286mm f5


400mm f5,6

371mm f5,6

400mm f5,6

I gotta be honest with you, I thoroughly enjoyed my time using this lens.

What stood out to me that I really enjoyed…

  • The lens is light in weight & easy to handle.
  • The ability to zoom in & out gives you a wide range of photo opportunities.
  • The image quality is really good & consistent.
  • I was able to achieve a good bokeh (back & foreground blur), something not easily done at f5 or f5,6 on a zoom lens.
  • It performed relatively well in low light & high ISO.

I really did not find much that I did not enjoy with it. I have to say that I largely use fixed focal lenses when on safari. Mostly I have the 400mm f2.8 with me, or the 300 f2.8. I seldom use any zoom lenses as I prefer what I get from my trusted fixed focal lenses.

With that said, I was tremendously impressed by what I saw from this lens, the Canon 100-400mm. I can’t begin to compare my $10 000 400mm to this far more budget-friendly option, that would not be fair.
What I can however tell you is that it performed very well. I called it an entry-level lens and perhaps that was a mistake. Yes, the price it comes in at (currently $2000 from B&H) suggests it is a budget-friendly lens but heck, what I saw & captured suggests it’s worth far more than that!

I wanted to share some tips on getting the most out of your 100-400mm, things that helped me capture the images showcased above.

  • I try and get as low as I can. The lower I can be, the impact my image has. Eye contact will be emphasised and there will be a far stronger connection with the viewer.
  • Try and find a clean background. With my 400 f2.8, it’s far easier to get that smooth-as-butter back & foreground but at f5,6, it’s more of a challenge. That said, by choosing a better background or perhaps positioning yourself so that there is more distance between the subject & the background directly behind it, you’ll notice a beautiful bokeh appearing in your frame.
  • Hold it steady, super steady. I found that the amount of light coming into my lens was far less than with my telephoto, understandably. I had slower shutter speeds to deal with but that’s fine, as long as I kept an eye on my shutter speed & ensured that my ISO levels were in place for good sharp images.
  • Keep the lens hood on at all times. It will help you to get rid of any possible lens flare from shooting directly into the sun.
  • In low light I struggled to achieve focus. What will help is to aim your focal point at an area with strong contrast. Perhaps aim it at the white tusks of an elephants, or at the horns of the kudu. An area rich in contract & detail will always assist with focusing.

We all love photographing family. I wanted to share a few pics with you captured of the kids on safari. As you can see, I had the opportunity to choose my background well & the bokeh was just stunning, yet the image sharpness was never sacrificed.

In closing, if you’re looking for a great wildlife photography lens at an attractive price, you really need not look much further. It’s a well engineered product that will not let you down.

Thanks for taking the time to read through this, it’s much appreciated. If you have any questions please send them through. If you feel this blog could be helpful to friends or family, please do share it with them.

Thanks again and until next time,

About the Author

Marlon duToit

Passion, enthusiasm and an unquenchable thirst to explore and introduce you to our natural world’s wildlife perfectly sums up my ambitions. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Through my African adventures I kept my photographic passion alive. Behind a camera aimed at a lion or a leopard is where I am most at home, my heart skipping a beat at the mere thought of it. My intention has never been solely for recognition but for the plight of what’s left of our natural recourses. Using my love and understanding of wildlife I am able to convey to the viewer more than an image or a fleeting moment. I aim to tell a story, to bring that moment alive to you and to capture your heart through it.

Comments 4

  1. Joanne Matson

    Happy that you like it Marlon. Phew. I was worried when you said earlier that professional photographers were not fond of this lens. Thanks for the review; I respect your comments.

    1. Post
      Marlon duToit

      Hi Jo! Thanks for taking the time. Yes, never meant to disregard this great lens. For obvious reasons I prefer to make use of my own 400 f2.8. That said, I would not hesitate to shoot with the 100-400mm whenever the need arises. It’s a great lens, no doubt!
      Thanks for commenting 🙂

  2. Evarts Ranley

    Hi Marlon. Thanks a lot for this article. It was really helpful and will help in my decision to buy a zoom lens. I’m thinking of shifting to this lens from my Tamron 150-600 due to the heavy weight of the Tamron and producing softer images after 450mm. I’m a big fan of your YouTube videos. Looking forward to your next episode. Cheers…

    1. Post
      Marlon duToit

      Hi Evarts,
      Thank you kindly for sending me a message. I am glad that you enjoyed this blog & that you’ve enjoyed the Youtube videos. Once safari season fully kicks in you’ll see alot more content on there.
      As for the lenses, yes, the Canon will give you better image quality. It’s a wonderful lens as you clearly saw during the post itself, and I have no doubt that it will be an upgrade from what you currently make use of.
      Thanks again and look forward to staying in touch.

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