Lenses and Optics

Canon 200-400mm f/4 IS: Quick Comparison

Published June 6, 2013

Yeah, it costs almost $12,000. You could buy a Canon 400mm f/2.8 IS II and a 2X teleconverter for that. You could buy 10 copies of the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS  for that. I don’t know what you’d do with them, but you could.

I sure can’t tell you if a lens is worth $12,000 by running a few Imatest numbers, but I might be able to tell you if it sucked. So when we got our first 200-400 f/4 IS lenses in, they went straight back to the lab, along with some other lenses for comparison purposes.


Left to right: Canon 100-400mm IS, 200-400mm f/4 IS, Roger, 400mm f/2.8 IS II, and 400mm f/5.6. All are hand-holdable. If you have big hands.

First, I need to be clear we have some limitations in our Imatest lab. Because of space and target size we’re limited right now to a maximum testing focal length of 400mm, so I can’t do a 560mm test with the teleconverter in place. But we had some reasonable options for testing at 400mm: the 400mm f/2.8 II, which is probably the sharpest telephoto lens made right now; the Canon 100-400mm, an older but classic design; and the 400mm f/5.6L prime lens, another oldie-but-goodie lens. My thinking was at this price the 200-400 should be nearly as good as the 400mm f/2.8 and clearly better than the other two lenses.


The test lenses from left to right: Canon 200-400mm IS L, Canon 400mm f/5.6 L, Canon 400mm f/2.8 IS II, and Canon 100-400 IS L. In back, the Imatest target they'll be compared on.


Or to give you a better perspective, here’s the entire current Canon Supertelephoto lineup (reproduced with permission from TheDigitalPicture.com). The 200-400 is the 4th from the left, with the 400 f/2.8 II on it’s left and the 500 f/4 on the right.


copyright Bryan Carnathan, the Digital Picture

Tale of the Tape

The Canon 100-400 and 400 f/5.6 lenses are both considered ‘hand holdable’, weighing 3 pounds and 2.7 pounds, respectively. The 400mm f/2.8 IS II at 8.5 pounds is not, except for purposes of showing off. I’d have to say the 200-400 is not, either, at just under 8 pounds. Canon doesn’t quite charge by the pound, with the 200-400 the most expensive at $11,800, the 400 f/2.8 II at $10,999, the 100-400 IS L $1,500, and the 400 f/5.6 $1,219. For those of you hang out in supermarkets, that puts the 200-400 at $1,475 per pound, while the 400 f/5.6 is only $451 per pound.

I shot around with all of them and thought that, perhaps, the 100-400 was just a bit slower to autofocus than the others, but it wasn’t a dramatic difference. Since I shoot the 100-400 frequently and find its AF speed quite acceptable, they certainly all pass in my book. Shooting handheld around the office, there is no question the IS on the 2 big lenses was far better than that on the 100-400. Despite their weight I actually got sharper pictures at 1/30 or so with the big lenses.

Imatest Results

I’ll cut to the chase and post the MTF50 results from all of the  lenses in table form. Because of time constraints (all of the first copies of the 200-400 we received today had customers waiting for them, so they had to be in the shipping department by lunchtime) I could only test at one focal length – setting up Imatest for telephoto work is quite time consuming. Results are, as usual, MTF 50 measured in line pairs / image height on 5D Mk II test cameras. They are given as center point, weighted average over the entire lens, and average of the 4 corners.

  Center Average Corner Avg
400mm f/2.8 at f/2.8910825720
400mm f/2.8 at f/4935865740
200-400mm at f/4910820720
200-400mm at f/5.6910835740
100-400mm at f/5.6740655540
400mm at f/5.6880785680

The numbers for the 200-400 are basically as good as anyone could possibly hope. At f/4 it is virtually indistinguishable from the 400mm f/2.8 at f/2.8. That’s an amazing thing for a zoom lens to do. To look at it another way, the highest MTF 50 numbers we’ve had for a zoom on 5DII cameras is the 70-200 f/2.8 IS II which has peak MTF50 of 875 LP/IH and average of 755.

As I mentioned, I wasn’t able to test the built-in 1.4X teleconverter at maximum range, but we could dial the zoom back to 290mm, add in the 1.4X, and repeat our tests at our 400mm testing setup. The resolution numbers for the 200-400 and 1.4X combination at 400mm equivalence were 835 LP/IH in the center, 750 average, and 660 in the corners.

Of course resolution decreases with a teleconverter, it always does. But even with the teleconverter active the 200-400 still resolves about as well as a 70-200 f/2.8 lens, which is really excellent. I also suspect that if we had the ability to test at infinity the numbers would be even better; teleconverters are designed to work at longer distances, not the 35 feet of our test range.

Now, for one little bit of rain on our parade. The 200-400 isn’t quite 400mm at the long end. We measured the focal length of the 400 f/2.8 II and 400 f/5.6 as identical, while the 200-400 reached 95% of that focal length. (Assuming the other two are exactly 400mm, the 200-400 therefore reaches 380mm. For those interested, the 100-400 would be a 390mm.) Again, this is measured at 35 feet, it might be slightly different at infinity.

I can’t say whether it’s worth the price or not, but I can certainly say it’s the sharpest zoom lens I’ve ever seen (correction – as Rick pointed out, the 200-400 is roughly tied for highest resolving zoom with the Canon 24-70), with image quality rivaling the most expensive primes.


Roger Cicala


June, 2013

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Lenses and Optics
  • doug maisel

    I like the placement of Roger at the center of the array. He’s much the best-proportioned of the lot.

    I’ve been welded to the 100-400mm II since I first plugged it into the (gripped) 7DII, it’s become an extension of my hand (and a distention of my neck). How much more, really, would I suffer be with 3 marginal pounds of 200-400mm f/4 zoom? I’m inclined to want it.

  • Bharat

    Hello again!
    More than 2 months and no one has anything to say about the 400mm/f4 DO? Surprising!

  • Just finished my trip to photograph wild horses with the 200-400. I have to say I was quite pleased with the lens overall and liked the flexibility of the zoom range. This is a picture at ~120 feet at 560mm, http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffagoldberg/9651517070/ from a monopod standing in wet sand/mud. Since we hiked for this trip and had to carry all of our gear in our packs each day, the slightly lower weight of this lens was a welcome relief. I will certainly rent it again.

  • Bharat

    Ref test of the Canon 400 variants. Any reason for not including the 400mm/f4 DO lens? Be interesting to see how it compares, being DO technology and midway in terms of weight and price.
    Thank you in advance for any inputs.

  • Mike

    @ Martin said

    I also have compared the 100-400L @ 400 against the 400/5.6 both on a tripod on an “infinity” target (actually a building at 500m). Image size was identical ie if the 400/5.6 is a true 400 at infinity then so is the 100-400L @400.

    ROGER – could we please have some imatest readings for the Canon 300/2.8 (I and II) with the 1.4x and 2x TCs. Major effort I know but a lot of Canon users would be interested to see your results!

  • I’d love to have a 400/5.6 L IS, LIGHT, EASY TO CARRY AND PIN SHARP.
    ISO is no issue anymore with 5Diii .
    it will sell more than anything else from Canon.
    own a 300 2.8 IS and .4L IS but could like a light 400
    100-400 is not good enough! Had it and sold it..
    Stein, Norway

  • Martin

    Yes, I can confirm that my 100-400 would reach “real 400” only at infinity. Today, I did run the test again and turned out that 400 f/5.6 L and 100-400 both have very similar optics in terms of resolution, 845 vs. 850 on MTF50. 100-400 has more CA though.

  • Roger Cicala

    Muzzy, it’s not unusual, but remember I could only test at 35 feet distance. It may well be that it’s longer at infinity (although it’s not quite as long as the 400mm prime). But there are a lot of zooms that don’t quite measure to their named focal length. If you have a 24-70 and 70-200 zoom, I promise the 24-70 is not quite 70mm long, nor is the 70-200 70mm wide.


  • Muzzy

    To be honest, if your test is right, this feels like short changing. If you bought and paid for 400 dollars of currency and then received 380 you would complain. This has put me off buying the lens for now, and if proven, this could be a breach of sale of goods Act. For 12k£ you would have thought 400mm at f4 is exactly that.

  • Martin

    24-70 vs. 400??? Well, I sold all my 24-70 f/2.8 L, even my new 24-70 f/2.8 II L, because they failed all my resolution tests lately. I did invest in primes instead of keeping them. The new Sigma 35 and even the new Canon 24 are so good that the images taken with the above mentioned zooms looks like ridiculous if you would compare them with these.

  • Martin

    I don’t know how clever this test was done, but my 100-400 is much butter at any focal lengths (obviosuly) between 100 and 200 than my 70-200 2.8 II L, which did really surprise me, but it is what came out after 3 days of testing all my telefoto lenses. This is an astonishing news, mainly because of the fact that I picked up the best lens in terms of resolution from a 70-200 batch, consisting of 5 lenes with completely different serial numbers. If it would be true that 400 5.6 L outscores 100-400, I would run to buy one right away or at least test them profundly. But I would doubt I would got like that figures. Thanks.

  • Scott Stoness

    Re 24-70 is a better zoom than 200-400.

    Not sure I agree based on your tests. Or its debatable. If you look at the corner resolution of 24-70 v2 vs 200-400 the 200-400 does way better. And the centre resolution is close. Which for me would say they are even or the 200-400 is better.

    It does not matter much but the 200-400 is impressive.

  • Roger Cicala

    Richard, we do have a sturdier setup now and I’ll try to get some of the new Sigma 120-300s up on it.


  • Roger Cicala

    Hi Rick,

    You are correct – I got carried away. The 24-70 f/2.8 has just as high a resolution as the 200-400 f/2.8. I’ve corrected the article.


  • Rick Knepper

    “I can’t say whether it’s worth the price or not, but I can certainly say it’s the sharpest zoom lens I’ve ever seen, with image quality rivaling the most expensive primes”

    Didn’t you rate the 24-70 II at 954 center with an average of 831? Be that as it may, thanks for the testing.

  • Richard Matheson

    Mr, Cicala,
    As a wildlife photographer, I’d wager a guess that a fair proportion of your readership would be interested in the Imatest results of the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 zoom. Much to their chagrin, that lens has hitherto not been tested, and I recall that one of the reasons supplied by way of explanation was that it’s heft would severely strain your Imatest testing apparatus. Yet, one irreconcilable observation here is that the 200-400mm lens you have just reviewed is significantly heavier.

    Dr. Matheson

  • Paul Christianson

    Excellent numbers indeed! In addition, for those of us using 5D3s, DXO has proven that it’s sensor does better than the 5D II used in this test, so the results will be even better! Also, check out Canon’s best, the 300mm f/2.8L IS II, which was recently tested by DXO using the 5D3. It zaps all of what its new sensor can deliver, and is the benchmark of all Canon teles! I’ve used Canon’s super teles since 1985, and they’ve always been excellent, but the new 300 f/2.8 might be their Swan Song! Well, if it only had illuminated switches, it would be for me… 🙂

  • Jamie Medford

    I’m waiting for the 400mm L f/4 prime, come on Canon!

  • Garret van der Veen

    speed: F4, but with 25 elements its closer to F5.6 I think.
    And what about lensflares?

  • phototrek

    I wonder how the 400 DO would have compared in this test? I love mine but I also know it’s not the “best”.

  • Roger Cicala

    Clark, that has been my life’s ambition! Much more fun that being Superman.

  • Clark

    Roger, you would make an excellent Lex Luthor.

  • I used a prototype of this lens at the London Olympics and it was really amazing. Perfect focal length options for almost any sport at the Games. Other than close range sports, I think this is a “go to” lens! Sharp and perfect for compositional options.

  • Thanks for that very informative comparison test. I rented the 600mm from you a few weeks ago and fell in love with the quality of that lens. Although, I would love to own that lens, the new 200-400 1.4X is far more versatile for my needs. I preordered it right after returning the 600mm and have been patiently awaiting it’s arrival. This lens will be worth every penny to me.

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