I was a little skeptical when a Canon representative told me that the new Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens ($2,199) is just as good as the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, the best zoom lens of that range we’ve tested. But after some time shooting with the 100-400mm, and having run it through our standard array of lab tests, I’m confident in that assertion—it’s just an incredibly sharp lens. It also handles well, thanks to a compact design and a traditional zoom mechanism with adjustable tension, making it a much more modern take on the first version of the lens. But Canon camera owners who don’t need the reach that a 600mm zoom provides should look to the 100-400mm as a smaller, lighter option. It costs about twice as much as the Sigma lens, but its impeccable performance makes it an Editors’ Choice as well.
When you consider its reach, the 100-400mm is not a big lens. It measures 7.6 by 3.7 inches (HD), weighs about 3.6 pounds, and supports 77mm front filters. The barrel does extend while zooming, but that doesn’t compromise its dust and water resistance. The Sigma 150-600mm is larger overall (10.2 by 4.1 inches, 4.3 pounds, 95mm front filters), though it does offer a significantly longer telephoto reach. Canon includes a reversible lens hood, which has a retractable window that allows you to adjust a circular polarizing filter without having to remove or reverse the hood. A soft carrying case is included as well.
A removable tripod foot is also included, but the lens is light enough that you can hold it for extended periods without having to reach for a monopod. The tripod collar rotates, so you can switch from landscape to portrait orientation when you are using the lens along with a camera support system. Canon states that the lens is protected from dust and water, and it does have an O-ring gasket around the lens mount. I didn’t run into any harsh weather during testing, but Canon L lenses have earned a reputation for durability, and there’s no reason to think that the 100-400mm falls short.
The zoom ring sits at the front of the lens, and is covered by ribbed rubber so you can grip it with ease. There’s an adjustable tension ring, with markings for Smooth and Tight behind it, and a manual focus ring behind that. A series of toggle switches sit at the base of the lens. A focus limiter switch allows the autofocus system to hunt along the duration of its range, or only from 3 meters to infinity to speed acquisition of distant subjects. There’s also an AF/MF toggle, a switch to enable or disable the 4-stop image stabilization system, and a Stabilizer Mode switch. The Stabilizer Mode switch has three positions: 1 is ideal for most subjects, 2 is used when panning the camera along with a moving subject, and 3 limits the stabilization system to the the actual time of exposure, so you won’t see its effects in the viewfinder.
The 100-400mm can focus down to 3.2 feet, even when zoomed to 400mm. At its minimum focus distance it captures images with 1:3 macro magnification, which is sure to make nature photographers happy. It’s not a substitute for a true 1:1 macro lens, but the close focus capability certainly adds some versatility to this zoom. The Sigma 150-600mm doesn’t focus as close; it’s limited to about a 9-foot minimum distance, but its longer focal length provides a 1:5 magnification ratio.
I used Imatest to see just how sharp the 100-400mm is when paired with the full-frame 6D. We consider an image to be sharp if it scores 1,800 lines per picture height on a center-weighted sharpness test. The 100-400mm exceeds that mark throughout its range. At 100mm f/4.5, it shows a center-weighted average of 2,770 lines, with very even performance right up to the edges of the frame (2,468 lines). Resolution is about the same through f/8, with diffraction setting in at f/11 and dropping the score to about 2,600 lines. There is a little bit of barrel distortion (1.4 percent) at 100mm, but it’s not drastic, and it’s easily corrected using Lightroom$9.99 at Adobe.
At 200mm, the lens is almost as sharp, scoring 2,701 lines at its maximum f/5 aperture, and is just as good at the edges as it is in the center. Again, the score is about the same at f/8, and it still shows 2,650 lines at f/11. Distortion isn’t an issue here. At 300mm, the maximum aperture is still f/5 and the score dips down just a bit to 2,546 lines, with even performance across the frame and very modest (1 percent) pincushion distortion. At f/11 there is a slight drop in contrast, dropping the score to 2,439 lines.
The lens is at its weakest at 400mm f/5.6, but it’s still pretty darn good. It scores 2,201 lines there, with edges that show about 2,000 lines. The score improves to 2,299 lines at f/8, and it shows 2,170 lines at f/11. Shooting at 400mm, even on a full-fame camera, puts our test chart to the limits, with fewer data points that we’re able to track at 200mm or wider. Images shot in the field show that, despite the drop in score, the lens is still fantastic when zoomed all the way in.
I also used a 6D to run tests on the Sigma 150-600mm. I was able to get solid data out of it through about 250mm, where it showed nearly 2,600 lines on a center-weighted test. It too is no slouch when it comes to capturing detail.
If you shoot with a Canon camera and want a telezoom, the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is an excellent, albeit pricey, option. It’s fairly compact and light when you consider its reach, doubles as a decent macro lens, and is very quick to adjust focus, especially if you utilize its focus limiter function. Its asking price, around $2,200, is not out of line for a lens of its quality, and if your photographic needs don’t extend beyond 400mm, it’s an obvious choice to pair with a Canon SLR.
If you do need more reach, however, the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary is your most sensible, affordable option. Canon sells an EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM with a built-in teleconverter that extends its reach to 560mm at f/5.6, but it’s an 8-pound lens that costs just under $11,000. Sigma’s 150-600mm Contemporary sells for about a tenth of that. The Sigma is larger and heavier than the 100-400mm, and it doesn’t have the same level of weather protection or close-focus capability, but there is a $2,000 Sigma 150-600mm Sports lens that’s fully sealed against the elements if you need a long reach and the ability to shoot in inclement conditions.
The Canon 100-400mm and the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary are both great in their own way, and are both worthy of being called Editors’ Choice—it just comes down to whether or not you’re in need of a lens that can reach 600mm and comes in at a very attractive price, or if 400mm manages to meet your needs and you’re willing to spend more on a smaller, lighter lens.
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