A guest blog for PixSylated by Peter Read Miller, Canon Explorer of Light
Last summer, while on assignment for Sports Illustrated at the London Olympics, I was one of the lucky handful of photographers who were given a pre-production version of Canon’s EF 200-400mm f4L IS USM Lens with Internal 1.4x Extender to shoot during the games.
I used the lens almost every day and had photos published in both the print and online versions of Sports Illustrated —as well as in SI’s super cool “Live from London” iPad app.
Given the logistical challenges presented during the London Olympics, the 200-400mm was a godsend. Most days, I averaged one to two hours on busses and trains getting around the Olympics. One day, I did ten busses, plus the train, just to cover four events.
Physically the 200-400mm is quite compact—not much bigger than the current Series II 400 f2.8. In terms of weight, it’s slightly heavier—closer to weight of the original 400.
The first thing that I noticed when I put the lens on a body is the way it balances. Most fast telephoto lenses are front heavy due to the fact that most of the glass is in the front of the lens. The 200-400mm, however balances farther back— which helps if you carry your lens on a monopod over your shoulder as I do.
Also, one of the unique aspects of the 200-400mm is that it has a 1.4x extender built in—which increases the focal length to 560mm and drops the maximum aperture to f/5.6. The 1.4X extender and the associated mechanism located at the rear of the lens move the balance back. The extender is contained in a surprisingly small hump protruding from the side of the lens. It is controlled with a level that is easy to flip with your thumb. There is also a lock to prevent you from accidentally flipping the extender in or out.
Shooting with the lens was, for me, a dream. My first thought was “wow, framing is back!”. Thanks in no small part to the great work of SI Photo Chief Bob “Bubbles” Martin, my shooting positions at the London Olympics were excellent, but they were fixed shooting positions nonetheless. I rarely had the option to move a little closer or back a little farther away from the event I was assigned to shoot. In the past, if 400mm was too tight on the finish line and I switched to to a 300mm, then I’d be too loose. With the 200-400mm, if 342mm was just right, then I shot at 342mm.
So, how does the lens perform? The copy I had was fantastic. I’m not an empirical tester—I just shot the lens daily at the London Olympics for 16 days on my EOS-1D X bodies, almost always wide open and usually under challenging lighting conditions. I think without the extender the sharpness is a match for any Canon prime telephoto and with the extender the performance is as good or better than any prime lens plus extender combination I have ever used. The auto-focus speed on the 1D X body is on a par with the latest Series II lenses. The image-stabilization allowed me to make a sharp photo of the Queen during the opening ceremonies at a shutter speed of 1/100 of a second at 560mm on a monopod.
In short, I think that Canon has really hit a home run with the 200-400mm. Combined with amazing high ISO performance of the EOS-1D X camera, this lens becomes a real “go anywhere, shoot anything” piece of gear for both sports and wildlife photographers.
About Peter Read Miller
In addition to shooting nine Olympics, Peter has shot 37 Super Bowls, 14 NBA Finals, the Stanley Cup Final, the World Series, the Kentucky Derby, the NCAA Final Four, and Men’s and Women’s World Cup Soccer. Peter worked as a staff photographer at Sports Illustrated for more than 30 years and has more than 100 SI cover shots to his credit.
His new book, Peter Read Miller On Sports Photography, will be published by Peachpit Press this year.