Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens

      Photo Review 8.9

      In summary

      The EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM is a flagship lens for Canon in many ways: reach, speed, usability and price.

      It’s designed for highly specialised sports and wildlife photographers who shoot distant, fast-moving subjects, often in challenging lighting.

      This lens is every bit as good as you would expect from its specifications and price tag, delivering excellent resolution, plucky contrast and superb stabilisation.

      Its build quality is up to pro standards and its AF is very fast and reliable.


      Full review

      Announced in September 2018, Canon’s EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens uses magnesium alloy in its construction and claims to be the lightest 400mm f/2.8 lens in its class. It still weighs close to three kilograms – although it’s 1.01 kg lighter than the previous model – which means it’s not suitable for lightweight cameras. Nonetheless on the EOS-1D X Mark III camera we used for this review we found it could be used quite reliably for handheld shooting.

      Angled view of the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens without the supplied lens hood. (Source: Canon.)

      It’s been almost 10 years since the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II was launched – and 19 years since the original EF 400mm f/2.8L IS lens – so it’s reasonable to expect the Mark III lens to offer some significant improvements over its predecessors, even though some parameters remain unchanged, as shown in the table below.

      EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II EF 400mm f/2.8L IS
      Dimensions (diameter x length) 163 x 343 mm 163 x 343 mm 163 x 349 mm
      Weight 2840 grams 3850 grams 5370 grams
      Lens construction 17  elements in 13  groups 16 elements in 12 groups 17  elements in 13  groups
      Special elements 2 fluorite, 1 Super UD 2 fluorite 1 fluorite, 2 UD
      Coatings Air Sphere Coating, Super Spectra Coating Sub Wavelength Coating Not specified
      Stabilisation compensation 5 stops 4 stops IS level not specified
      Minimum aperture f/32
      Closest focusing distance 2.5 metres 2.7 metres 3.0 metres
      Filters 52 mm (drop-in)
      Dustproof & drip-proof Yes
      Fluorine coating Yes No Not specified
      Announced 5 September, 2018 26 August, 2010 1991

      The latest lens has been totally redesigned with new glass materials to make it much lighter than its predecessor. The two fluorite elements are separated by a thin concave element and the design includes an ultra-low dispersion (UD) glass element to correct chromatic aberrations.

      Fluorine coatings (actually fluorine-containing polymers similar to Teflon) have been used as grime repellents for roughly a decade but were not widely used when the Mark II version of this lens was released. This gives the Mark III lens the advantage of resisting moisture and dust and being much easier to clean when a need arises.

      The diagram below shows the position of the key components in the new lens.

      The optical design of the new lens, showing the positions of the various elements. (Source: Canon.)

      The electromagnetic diaphragm (EMD), which controls aperture settings, is further forward in the new lens to enable smaller and lighter elements to be used behind it. But this required a larger EMD unit, which imposed a higher drive load. Canon’s engineers added a new sensor to the stepping motor drive unit which could detect the motor rotation speed in real time and provide faster speed than the II series, despite the larger mechanism.

      The USM-driven focusing unit is encapsulated and contains fewer elements than the previous design. There are also fewer connections for each part, making it easier to assemble and improving the precision of lens element positioning.

      Manual focusing on the electronic focusing ring is also compatible with Full-time MF override in AF mode. Users can also choose from three different manual focus speeds, depending on how much ring rotation they want and the types of subjects they’re shooting. Mode 1 provides a slower manual focus speed than on the II series; Mode 2 offers even slower speed for fine tuning the focus, while Mode 3 is the lowest speed for the finest control and is ideal for Live View shooting.

      To save power, the lens enters a power-saving mode when the metering timer turns off. Users can ‘wake’ the lens by simply turning the focusing ring. The lens also has a focus preset button that that memorises a focus position for instant recall.

      Improvements were also made to the image stabiliser mechanism, through switching to the latest high-performance vibration gyro sensors and incorporating new processors. A new roll prevention mechanism was developed and the stabiliser unit was made more resistant to temperature changes, leading to a five-stop shake-correction capability.

      Who’s it For?
      This is a flagship lens for Canon in many ways: reach, speed, usability and price. It’s definitely not designed for the average photographer, but rather highly specialised sports and wildlife photographers who shoot distant, fast-moving subjects, often in challenging lighting.

      While we wouldn’t recommend it for bushwalking, it would be an excellent lens for birders shooting from a hide, particularly for capturing images of smaller birds, which are difficult to get close to. The lens speed, stabilisation and fast and accurate autofocusing system are valuable features for this type of photography.

      The high price tag of this lens means it’s most likely to be purchased by professional photographers, although advanced enthusiasts may choose to hire it occasionally for sports and wildlife photography. (One local company charges AU$194.54 per week to hire this lens.)

      Build and Ergonomics
      As befits a flagship lens, the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens is extremely well-built.  A new high-strength, carbon reinforced magnesium alloy has been used for the lens barrel and tripod base plate, which is made by injection moulding (thixomoulding) and achieves a barrel thickness that is 20% thinner than previous models without sacrificing lightness and strength.

      Forged magnesium alloy was used to create other parts to ensure impact resistance. Some components are also made of aluminium alloy. The lens is clad in a white, Canon-developed heat shield coating, which is whiter and more reflective to provide even better heat-resistance than previous lenses.

      This diagram shows the locations of the various components of the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens. (Source: Canon.)

      The front element of this lens is about 135 mm across and it’s slightly recessed into the outer barrel. The inner side of the barrel is matte black and has a complex set of ridges that are close together near the lens surface and wider towards the front of the lens.

      There’s no threading for filters (which would be extremely costly because of their size) because the filters are mounted through a drop-in hatch just in front of the lens mount. Readily-available and affordable 52 mm filters slip into this hatch.

      Similarly, regular lens caps can’t be used with this lens. Instead, Canon supplies a pop-over black fabric E-180E lens cap that covers most of the front section of the lens and attaches with a drawstring and Velcro tab. It will fit over the lens itself or the lens hood.

      At the front of the barrel is a mounting area for the supplied ET-155 lens hood, which is cylindrical and just over 160 mm long. It is secured by a screw-in pressure pad and is reversible over the lens barrel for transport and storage.

      A 17 mm wide ribbed ring with four focus hold (AF stop) buttons is located 80 mm behind the front of the lens. Users can press any of these buttons to pause autofocusing temporarily when they want to shoot at a particular focusing distance or to prevent hunting for focus.

      Behind it is the playback ring, which is 20 mm wide and has thick moulded ridges. This ring is used to focus the lens at any preset distance, which is registered via the focus present button and switch further down the lens barrel. It can also be used in the power focus (PF) mode to change focus smoothly when the lens is used for shooting movie clips.

      The focusing ring is situated immediately behind the playback ring. It’s 70 mm wide and almost totally covered in a finely-ridged, black rubberlike grip band. Because focusing is driven electronically from the camera, manual focus over-ride is only possible when the camera’s shutter button is half-pressed.

      Aft of the focusing ring is a 56 mm wide section of the lens barrel that contains the distance scale as well as the main controls. The distance scale is set into the barrel beneath a plastic window. Distances from 2.5 metres to infinity are clearly visible, although markings in feet are less easy to see.

      The infinity mark is a short line that runs perpendicular to the lens barrel. This provides some flexibility to compensate for shifts in infinity focus resulting from temperature changes.

      Left of the distance scale are four slider switches, which start with the stabiliser mode switch.  Three modes are selectable: Mode 1 for static subjects, Mode 2 for panning and Mode 3 for subjects that move erratically. Below this switch is a stabiliser on/off slider.

      The set button, which separates the stabilisation and focus switches, is used to engage the Focus Preset option, below, and it can be set to beep when adjusted.   Below the Focus Preset slider is a three-position Manual Focus Speed slider, which provides three speed settings, as outlined above. Setting 1 is the fastest.

      The tripod collar is attached behind the controls ring. It’s 40 mm wide and has a large foot plus a pressure pad adjusted with a large knurled knob that allows the collar to be loosened so the attached camera can be moved between landscape and portrait orientations.

      There are strap lugs on either side of the tripod collar for fitting a neck strap (supplied). Disappointingly, we were unable to remove it when we wanted to use the lens hand-held (tripod collars add weight and the foot gets in the way).

      There was nothing in the user’s manual about removing the collar so we Googled for a solution to the problem and found some instructions that said:

      Loosen the orientation knob. Align the red mark on the tripod mount with the lens mount mark; rotate the tripod mount to align the red marks. Move the tripod mount to the back of the lens.

      Try as we might, we couldn’t find a red mark on the tripod collar so we checked out the lens disassembly story on the Lens Rentals blog. From that blog, it seems removing the tripod collar can only be done by a trained technician, which is a shame, since the lens touts its credentials as being usable for handheld shooting.

      The lens barrel slopes inwards behind the tripod collar, ending in a very solid metal mounting plate. Located in the final 27 mm of the lens barrel are the remaining controls, which consist of the drop-in filter compartment and sliders for setting the focus mode and distance range.

      The filter compartment contains a pull-out filter holder, which is secured by a couple of pressure knobs. It’s very easy to pull out the holder and replace it and the compartment appears to be well sealed. No filter is supplied with the lens.

      The focus mode slider has three positions: AF, PF and MF. The PF setting is for power focus, which is driven by the playback ring. The focus preset switch must be in the OFF position to use this function.

      The distance range slider also has three settings: off, on and beep. In the On mode, holding down the Set button for at least one second lets you set a focusing distance and lock it in by turning the playback ring in the opposite direction to lock it in memory. If the beeper is on, one beep indicates the button is held down or the distance is set, while two fast beeps indicate the lens has moved to the preset distance.

      The lens is supplied with a large, cylindrical lens hood that attaches with a locking knob and can be reversed over the barrel for transport and storage. A dedicated fabric lens cap is also provided, with drawstring and hook-and-loop fasteners. It can also fit over the lens hood. A dedicated fabric lens case (LS400) with five padded ‘cushions’ end a zip fastener is also supplied.

      We were unable to run our normal Imatest tests due to a lack of space in our testing area so our assessments have had to be subjective. On the whole, we were very impressed by the sharpness of the images we obtained from the lens when we used it on the new EOS-D X Mark III camera body.

      Equally impressive was the performance of the built-in image stabiliser mechanism, which enabled us to use the land hand-held for all our test shots. Even though the camera and lens combination was heavy and became tiring to hold after a couple of minutes, that weight noticeably aided the stabilisation system, to the point where we can say that any blurred shots were more likely to have been due to our failure to position the focus point correctly or through selecting an inappropriate AF ‘case’ setting.

      It’s worth remarking on the role the EOS-D X Mark III’s Smart Controller plays in establishing a point of focus within the frame. Once mastered, this function can decrease the number of unsharp shots due to poor focus point positioning because you can see clearly in the viewfinder exactly where the focus is set any make any required shifts very quickly.

      We also found the focus limiter handy when shooting subjects whose distances we could estimate, although even when it wasn’t engaged autofocusing was generally fast, almost always precise and virtually silent. At no time were we plagued by hunting, even with low-contrast subjects.

      Resolution in test shots appeared to be similar to the shots we took with the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens, which we reviewed at the same time. We found no evidence of coloured fringing (and none was anticipated) in test shots.

      However, slight corner vignetting could be seen in raw files at f/1.4, although it was no longer evident by f/4.0 and unlikely to be noticeable enough to impair picture quality. Rectilinear distortion was effectively negligible. Neither issue is problematic as both aberrations are corrected automatically when JPEGs are captured.

      Colour reproduction was also very good and, although it was possible to force the lens to flare in contre-jour situations, we found little evidence of flare and ghosting in shots of back- and side-lit subjects. Bokeh, as expected, was smooth and attractive, both towards and away from the camera. Slight outlining of highlights could be seen in some shots, although it wasn’t really common.


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      Picture angle: 6 degrees 10 minutes
      Minimum aperture: f/32
      Lens construction: 17  elements in 13  groups (including one Super UD and two fluorite  element) plus Air Sphere and fluorine coatings
      Lens mounts: Canon EF
      Diaphragm Blades: 9 (circular aperture)
      Focus drive: Ring USM with rear focusing and a distance limiter
      Stabilisation:  Yes, 5 stops of shake correction
      Weather-resistance: Yes, dust and moisture
      Minimum focus: 2.5 metres
      Maximum magnification: 0.17x
      Filter size: 52 mm (drop in filter)
      Dimensions (Diameter x L): 163 x 343 mm
      Weight: 2840 grams
      Standard Accessories: Front and end caps, ET-155 lens hood, LS400 lens pouch
      Distributor: Canon Australia; 1800 021 167.



      Vignetting at f/2.8.

      Rectilinear distortion.

      ISO 100, 1/800 second at f/4.

      Crop from the above image at 100% magnification.

      ISO 100, 1/160 second at f/5.6.

      Crop from the above image at 100% magnification.

      Close-up; ISO 100, 1/1600 second at f/2.8.

      Crop from the above image at 100% magnification.

      Close-up; ISO 100, 1/320 second at f/2.8.

      Crop from the above image at 100% magnification.

      Veiling flare caused by strong backlighting; ISO 100, 1/500 second at f/2.8.

      ISO 100, 1/640 second at f/3.2.

      ISO 100, 1/500 second at f/4.

      ISO 100, 1/640 second at f/4.5.

      ISO 100, 1/1250 second at f/2.8.

      ISO 100, 1/640 second at f/4.

      ISO 100, 1/640 second at f/4.5.

      ISO 200, 1/1000 second at f/5.

      ISO 100, 1/640 second at f/5.

      ISO 100, 1/640 second at f/4.5.

      ISO 100, 1/640 second at f/5.

      ISO 100, 1/500 second at f/4.

      ISO 100, 1/500 second at f/4.

      ISO 100, 1/500 second at f/4.

      ISO 100, 1/800 second at f/3.2.

      ISO 100, 1/400 second at f/3.2.

      Additional image samples can be found with our review of the EOS-D X Mark III.



      RRP: AU$17,499; US$11,999

      • Build: 9.0
      • Handling: 9.0
      • Image quality: 9.0
      • Versatility: 8.5