When I am out photographing birds (of the feathered kind) I typically use two lenses for bird photography and the one I choose will depend on the specific circumstances. There are times when I go out photographing birds that I know I can get pretty close to them, and in these circumstances there are times when a long reach tele lens isn’t needed. Sure, I could use one of these tele lenses but in these situations I would be restricting myself to only being able to take photos of birds that a far enough away to get them in the frame. In these situations I find the 100mm – 400mm zoom lens is perfect.
If I can get close to the birds being able to pull right back to the 100mm wide end is very useful, and if the birds are a long way off in the distance I can zoom out to 400mm. The 100mm – 400mm zoom lens I use in these situations is the Canon 100mm – 400mm L IS f4.5 – 5.6.
CANON 100MM – 400MM f4.5 – 5.6L IS
Focal Length – Full frame/APS-C:- 100mm - 400mm/ 160mm - 640mm/ Aperture:- 4.5 - 32 / 5.6 – 38/ Min focus:- 38.4"/ Dimensions:- 3.7" x 7.6"/ Weight:- 56.1 oz/ Image stabilization:- Yes/ Price (approx.) $USD/£ GBP:- 2,000.00/ 1,950.00
With its range of focal lengths the Canon 100mm – 400mm f4.5 – 5.6L IS lens is the most versatile bird photography lens available, and allows me the chance of various compositions and framing options without having to physically move and risk spooking/disturbing the birds.
This lens has a push/pull zoom action, and whilst it is a bit strange at first you’ll soon get used to it. Since I have been using this lens I have actually come to prefer the push/pull style of zooming as I find it quicker and slicker resulting in a higher keeper rate. Some photographers argue the push/pull action acts as a vacuum and sucks in dust and dirt, however I have never experienced this problem. In all the years I have owned this lens and used it in some pretty dusty and dirty conditions (including fields, race circuits and the desert) there are no visible signs of dust on/in the lens, or on any of my images either. In my experience, the push/pull zoom does not lead to dust.
The overall build quality of this lens is superb, but then given it is an L series lens this is to be expected. It is robust, durable and weather sealed which means it can withstand whatever you and Mother Nature decides to throw at it.
This lens has image stabilisation, which Canon claims is 4 stops. The image stabilisation is excellent and works well, however I can’t get it to work 4 stops slower – but then this is probably a result of my technique and shaky hands.
The image quality of this lens is superb, and whilst it may not be quite as good as that of the 400mm 5.6L prime lens it isn’t too far off, and the only way you’ll notice the difference in image quality is to go pixel peeping on the computer. If that’s what you like to do that’s entirely your look out, but in the real world the difference is so slight it is negligible.
The excellent build quality and image stabilisation makes this lens big, heavy and quite bulky. It is possible to use this lens hand held although I wouldn’t suggest doing so all day – at the end of it you will feel it. A good sling bag and tripod, to ease the weight a little, are essential accessories when using this lens.
This isn’t a cheap lens, but it is affordable and within budget for most photographers who are serious about getting in to bird photography. All things considered, i.e. the build quality, the image quality and the versatility, this lens is top value for money and you get a lot of bang for the buck. I appreciate this is not a fast lens but if you want a faster long reach tele lens you are going to have to dig a lot deeper and be prepared to spend a lot (and I mean a lot) more money.
The Canon 100mm – 400mm f4.5 -5.6L IS is available from Adorama, Amazon (US), eBay, Amazon (UK)
Alternatives to the Canon 100mm – 400mm lens
If you don’t shoot Canon cameras there are alternative zoom lenses, although not all of them are ‘actual 100mm – 400mm’ lenses, you can use and the popular and highly rated ones are:
As you can see the Canon 100mm – 400mm lens is a big, heavy and bulky lens and to use it for extended periods and not suffer any pain or fatigue requires some essential accessories, accessories which will ease the weight every now and again and also make the lens easier to carry around.
One of the must have accessories is a strong and sturdy bag. I have tried various styles of camera bag over the years and the style I find the best is a top opening sling bag. With this style of bag I can keep the camera near my waist and get it out of the bag and ready to shoot in a few seconds, so I can take photo opportunities as they arise. The 100 – 400 is a big lens, which obviously needs a big camera bag and the only one I have found that it is not only big enough but also tough and protective enough is the Lowerpro Toploader 75AW. This bag is simply awesome and I wouldn’t recommend anything other than this – here’s an honest and unbiased review of the Lowerprop Toploader 75AW camera bag if you’re interested.
If you prefer backpack style bags I would recommend using a decent camera strap when you’re actually seeking birds to take photos of. Removing a backpack, getting the camera out, setting up the shot and pressing the shutter takes time, during which the bird could be long gone. Using a camera strap allows you to keep your camera to hand so you won’t miss any opportunities. The camera strap I own and use is the Black Rapid (my 400mm prime and camera won’t fit in the Toploader) and it is exceptionally good.
A monopod is another essential accessory using heavy tele lenses, and I never leave home without mine. There are several decent monopods on the market, all of which do the same thing and most of which are the same quality. I use a Manfrotto monopod (I have a Manfrotto tripod and thought it was good quality kit so when I was looking at monopods I naturally went for a Manfrotto). I would, of course, recommend the Manfrotto monopods however there are many great alternatives out there. I would recommend going to the local camera shop and trying a few to see which one suits you best.
Whilst the 100mm – 400mm zoom is perfect for situations where I can get up close and personal it is not the best lens for photographing birds in flight, which are always a long way off and require focal lengths of at least 400mm. When photographing birds in flight my go to lens is the Canon 400mm f5.6L prime.
Keen photographer addicted to cameras, lenses and everything photography related. Feel free to follow me in my photography ramblings, and if you have any thoughts, comments, queries or anything else to add I would love to hear from you.