Unicorns are real! For years the rumors flew about this mythical creation coming from Canon. Nikon user snickered as they already had their black unicorn for many years. In fact, many Canon users went to the ‘dark side’ because of this very lens. Sharp and versatile, the Nikon 200-400/4 lens had a great reputation and following, and deservedly so.
I was tempted, too, I must admit. A Nikon D800 with a dedicated Nikon 200-400/4 sounded like a great combination. Both are excellent pieces of equipment. But I waited. And waited. And waited some more. The rumors grew. Then one day I saw some photos on the Internet. But was it real? The photos looked strange… it had an odd bump on one side. More photos surfaced, and they all had that same strange bump. Maybe it was real?
A few months after the first images surfaced, I arrived to set up my booth at the Florida Birding and Photo Festival. As I was working, I caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a white unicorn. Could it be? I waited quietly and yes, there it was, being hoisted up on its three-legged pedestal, an EOS-1D firmly affixed. I approached slowly…
Fast forward a few months. Production versions of the mythical beast, the Canon 200-400/4L with built-in 1.4x tele-converter was starting to ship and I received a notice from LensRentals.com that they would be available rent in time for my upcoming Galapagos Photo Adventure. It arrived on my doorstep the day before departure and I immediately rushed it to my back deck to micro-adjust each of my Canon bodies to the new lens. I was ready… let’s see if this lens could handle the rigors the traveling nature photographer and the harsh environs of sand and salt, plus a couple days in the cloud forests of the high Andean mountains.
The versatility of this lens was as I had expected… 200-400mm is a great range to be able to frame a wild subject just right. Adding to this is the close focus range of only 2 meters… even when the 1.4x is in place for an effective 560mm. The wildlife on the Galaoagos is very cooperative, so frame-filling portraits of Blue-footed Boobies and Galapagos Hawks were made possible.
In the mountains, where we photographed hummingbirds, the close focus came in very handy. I even added a 25mm extension tube which helped me get close enough for frame-filling images of even the smallest hummers. The focus was quick on both my 7D body as well as my 5D Mk III. The 5D having the edge with its newer system, which was much more accurate as well.
A few months later I rented the lens again. Heading back to South America, this time the lens would be put to the test during our Amazon Riverboat Cruise. A very different, yet equally harsh environment, the wildlife here is less cooperative, but much more diverse. Sloths and Night Monkeys in deep shadows below the forest canopy, kingfishers of five varieties challenging the speed of focus as well as our own reflexes and skills. The Canon 200-400/4L still shined in all situations.
It is a heavy beast at about 8 pounds, but I am able to hand-hold it for short bursts. It is the same weight as the older Canon 500/4L (the new 500 shaved off a pound). Like the 500/4L, the 200-400/4L is best on a tripod, but for birds in flight, or from a boat, hand-holding is often easier and more efficient.
In all situations I was never disappointed with the versatility, speed of focus and especially the quality! I had to have one!
[One year later… updated review coming soon!]
–Kevin Loughlin/Owner, Wildside Nature Tours