Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM Telephoto

Out of all the telephoto focal lengths, the 400mm is my favorite, so I looked forward to Canon’s updated 400mm f/2.8L. At about $11,499 list price (slightly less on searched street prices) it’s for those who absolutely need a fast, fixed focal length lens in their still and/or video work, and that’s work that pays well.


Left: For those who shoot video with their Canon D-SLR the addition of the Power Focus mode allows seamless focusing if you don’t want to use the autofocus built into the lens. The rate of focus is controlled by this playback ring; AF stop buttons are engineered just in front of the manual focus ring. Right: On the left side, the more popular Image Stabilization controls are located along with Focus Preset. Mode 3 is new (see text).
Photos © Stan Trzoniec

This is Canon’s newest update in the super telephoto field. In full dress, the company calls this the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM. Now in its fifth generation, it succeeds the current lens introduced in 1999 that checked in at 12 lbs; the weight of this new version is down about 30 percent to a hand holdable 8.5 lbs.

While tripod shooting is always the best bet, Canon’s Image Stabilization (IS) offers up to a four full stops advantage, so you now have a lens that even with its bulk is a fine candidate for off-tripod operation. To add to the smoothness and agility of the IS, Canon fine-tuned all of the major interior parts to include the incorporation of a new roller-ball-friction system instead of the traditional sliding parts as used in previous lenses. In addition, long-time durability is further enhanced through the use of magnesium alloy and titanium within the lens barrel as well as improved weather sealing of exterior switches and joints. There’s also a new fluorine anti-smear coating on both the front and rear elements. Inside, optical elements have the latest Super Spectra technology, and along with SubWavelength Structure Coatings help to reduce the effects of ghosting and flare.

Canon has added a new Mode 3 to their IS system. In short, when this position is selected, the Image Stabilization effect will not be seen in the viewfinder. While the lens will still detect the motion of the photographer, only when the shutter is fully depressed will the IS fully engage. According to Canon, “The new Mode 3 is particularly useful when a photographer does not want to see the IS working in the viewfinder while tracking a moving subject.” Otherwise, the lens still has Mode 1 (corrects in all directions) and Mode 2 for use while panning.

Recognizing that their camera bodies are often used in video productions this new lens has a Power Focus (PF) option. By way of a serrated ring at the front of the lens, jogging this circular control left or right engages the lens for follow focus ability in slow or fast amounts and, for additional control, autofocus stop buttons are located forward of the ring. Laying one’s hand on the focusing ring allows easy access to the stop buttons located forward of this ring. All of the controls are located on the left side of the lens in a logical manner for rapid use in the field, starting with Image Stabilization and working down to Focus Preset.

Because there is only so much room at this junction of the lens barrel, items like the 52mm drop-in filter, PF button, and focus limit switch are right up tight against the lens/camera mount. To me, the tripod collar is a lot smoother than in the past and has click stops for horizontal and vertical shooting.

Further back and next to the camera body are the controls for the Power Focus and limit switch.

Because of the rather large front element, less expensive 52mm filters can be placed within the filter draw next to the camera body.
Photos © Stan Trzoniec

In The Field
Attaching a universal Arca-type mount from Kirk, I was able to mount the lens on a Wimberley mount for a photo journey from the Adirondacks in New York state to Bar Harbor, Maine. The lens reacted fast, was tack-sharp when I did my part, and when hand holding using IS I got very crisp images.

During my tests I used the lens at all apertures and as expected found that a few stops down from wide-open was best for all-around sharpness. I did check the perimeters of my photos for chromatic aberrations, but found very little or none depending upon my final use, the settings, focal length, or magnification factors. For most of the photos, I used aperture priority at ISO 400. Thanks to the wide aperture of this lens, focusing with the Ultra Sonic Motor (USM) was fast, to the point, and quiet.

Included in the lens price is a Canon hard case and a rather large lens hood to keep cross lighting from hurting your images. As mentioned, the price makes the lens accessible to those who won’t blink at the cost or those knowing they’ll be working still and video productions with it. A lofty price, no doubt, but this is a superlative lens and given its speed, build quality, and capabilities, it’s a lens any working pro will love.

For more information, contact Canon U.S.A., Inc. at:

Stan Trzoniec is a full-time writer and photographer who specializes in the outdoors, photography, birding, railroads, and wildlife. He is a frequent contributor to Shutterbug and he has three brand-new railroad books that are available from his website at: