Canon EF 100-400mm L Series USM Lens Plus 1.4x Extender Review

Rabbit, Centerparcs, Longleat Fores

Handheld at 400mm, f8, 320th sec.

I’ve owned this lens for almost a year now and so thought I’d put down a few thoughts I had on the lens in the hope it may be helpful to anyone thinking of purchasing it. First off, I know that being a zoom the quality won’t be up to that of a prime, but having said that my initial reaction when first using it was WOW! I’ve used Canon’s 500mm f4 L Series and yes, it is an amazing lens, but the 100-400mm isn’t that far off! The image stabilisation is incredible and has enabled me to get pin sharp images handheld at 400mm with little problem.

Prior to owning this lens I’d been using no more than a Sigma 72-300mm zoom with a Sony Alpha 200, but I realised that in order to continue my progress and make the step up I would have to get a far more capable lens. To be fair, I had managed to get the odd decent image, but successes were far less frequent than I would’ve liked. The Canon 100-400mm gives you a far greater chance of success.

Robin

Robin, shot at f9, 1000th sec with 1.4 Extender, camera resting on window ledge.

Redpoll

Shot with 1.4x Extender fitted, resting camera on a window ledge. This shows perfectly sharp images are possible with the extender, just so long as the bird keeps still!

One thing I don’t think is an issue with the Extender is the loss of a full stop. I’ve found that at f5.6 the depth of field is just too shallow. For instance, focusing on a birds eye at f5.6 will render the feet out of focus, so I always find myself using f8 with or without the extender. More recently I’ve been experimenting with f9, and I seem to be getting more reliable, and sharper, results. In summer you can get away with an ISO of anywhere between 200 to 800, but come the winter 1600 or even 3200 ISO is more likely, and then you have the problem of noise. Add a little sharpening in post and it only makes it worse. I’m currently looking at Noise Reduction Solutions, and NIK Software’s Dfine looks pretty useful.

Coal Tit

Shot at f9, 1/400th sec., ISO800 with extender fitted. f9 seems to give just that little bit more depth of field that ensures better front to back sharpness on the bird.

On the plus side, the flexibility of having a zoom comes in very useful at times. I do still dream of owning a 500mm, but there would be times when the weight and inflexibility would have meant losing shots. The ideal solution of course would be to own both! Unless I win the lottery however it’ll remain just a dream.

One thing that seems to have been made a large fuss of is the push/pull mechanism. I have to say it really is much ado about nothing, it very soon becomes second nature. For the majority of the time you’re using it at full extension anyway, its not too often your subject gets TOO close as we all know.

Kingfisher

Tripod mounted, with 1.4x Extender fitted, cable release.

To extend or not to extend?
The downside is of course the maximum focal length. 400mm is still often just not long enough, hence why I bought the 1.4x Extender. When I first purchased the kit I did a fair amount of practising in the back garden with the birds. With extender fitted, tripod mounted and a cable release, prefocusing on the perch I was able to get some sharp shots. Over time, and with a little practice I’m now able to dispense with the tripod and instead rest the camera on the ledge and still manage to get very sharp images. However, when photographing the Grebes for instance, when prefocusing is out of the question, the success rate rapidly diminishes. Because I’m using a 500D body I lose the autofocus and image stabilisation with the extender on, and so in these instances I would say go without extender and crop in post if needs be. With autofocus enabled, and set to AI Servo you’ll have a much greater chance of capturing the moment. Its also important when using AI Servo to use centre weighted metering rather than spot otherwise you’ll get some wildy differing exposures when firing off several frames in quick succession. I almost without exception set the camera to Aperture Priority and then under expose by around 2/3rds of a stop.

In summary I would most definitely recommend this lens. At just over a grand it is far more affordable than the 9 grand or so for a 500mm. If you’re wondering how it compares with the L Series 400mm Prime you may also be interested to read my article on the subject here.

Blue Tit

f9, 1/400th sec, ISO800. Check out the detail on the lichen!

Squirrel, Centerparcs, Longleat Forest

Handheld at 400mm, f8, 250th sec.

Anyway, hope my two pennies worth helps anyone who may be undecided.

Grebes in the Mist

Grebe in the Mist

One of those rare moments when everything just comes together. I was photographing the ducks in the middle distance when I noticed the Grebe to my right about to enter the shot. I quickly refocused and hoped for the best. It was just good fortune that he moved into the pool of light in the foreground.

I’ve just had a morning of photography that you normally only ever dream about. We’d been for a walk at the nearby canal the weekend before and spotted a couple of Great Crested Grebes. I’d been wanting to photograph these for a while and so resolved at the next available opportunity to go and photograph them.

Things began to look very promising on the Friday night. The rain gave way to a beautiful sunset, and as I walked past a local lake on the way home I noticed all the mist rising up off it. I began to feel a little excited. I set the alarm for 6 o’clock and after a quick breakfast I was soon down by the canal. Conditions were absolutely perfect. The morning sun was filtering through the trees and a thick mist was rising up off the water, just a beautiful morning. A Grebe appeared very shortly thereafter through the mist and I managed to get the shot below.

Grebe out of the Mist

I think he knew he looked good

I followed this one for a little while before I lost him as he dived down, so went searching further along to see what I could find. It wasn’t long before I came across the female waiting patiently for her beau. When he returned they started heading straight towards me to a part of the canal that narrows and to my utter delight started a courtship ritual. The ritual is quite a bizarre thing, much shaking of the head and strange noises. I couldn’t believe my luck, I’d hoped I might be able to capture this event but hadn’t really thought I would see it, let alone see it played out five yards in front me. I fumbled frantically as I attempted to frame the shot and focus properly (tricky with the light), but thank heaven I managed to get a few good ones.

Grebe Courting

Well I was impressed with his head shaking display, even if she wasn't

Grebe Courting Part 2

It must be love...love.....love.

I’d have been quite satisfied with my lot after this, but whilst crouched down at the bank a nuthatch appeared right next to me to collect mud for his nest. Again I frantically turned the camera around on its tripod and attempted to focus, all the while expecting to scare it off. But he was obviously for too preoccupied with his nest building to much mind me and gave me enough time to fire a few frames off.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch collecting mud for his nest

I’d attempted to photograph these birds unsuccessfully up at Newlands Corner, but this guy was far more accommodating. What’s more, I know where his nest is now so I’ll be back for more!

Sunlight through the trees

Sunlight through the trees. I've lived near here for over 10 years and walked this stretch many times, but never have I seen it look this beautiful.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better I heard the sound of waxwings up in the tree above me. Ever since hearing about their invasion on Autumnwatch with Chris Packham waxing lyrical about them I’d wanted to capture these beautiful birds. My brother had seen them a number of times outside his house, but I was never able to get over there. Then one Sunday a whole flock appeared at the end of my garden, but the weather was pants and they were too far off for any decent shots. The weather today was perfect but they were very high up and I was having trouble keeping steady enough. I tried tripod mounting and contorting my back as I pointed the lens up to the skies and managed to get one or two passable shots.

Waxwing

Waxwing striking a pose

You looking at me?

You looking at me?

Finding a decent angle where there wasn’t half a tree in the way was difficult, but after the morning I’d had I wasn’t about to complain.

The one thing this all demonstrated to me is there’s often little need to travel miles in search of opportunities, sometimes you don’t need to look much further than your own doorstep. The beauty is that I can return again and again and hopefully get many more shots of the Great Crested Grebe. Heck, the chicks will be along soon!

Pensive Grebe

A Grebe in pensive mood. I think maybe he'd left some cheese on top of the fridge and has just remembered.

Iceland, June 2009

I’ve always been fascinated by Iceland, and it was our original intention to honeymoon there, but instead ended up going to Canada. But I always intended to one day make it here. With the advent of 2 kids I hadn’t been away outside Britain for some time, but with air fares to Iceland being really cheap it began to look like a possibility. My only problem was finding someone to go with, and for a while nobody seemed interested. Then Big Rich stepped up and said he’d love to come, and when mentioning it to another friend, Colin, he then wanted to join us, and finally Grant then decided, at the very last minute, that he too was in. I was quite relieved when Grant joined us, as a fellow photographer he’d be a useful ally when the others had decided we’d stayed really quite long enough in one spot taking photographs!

We decided that as it was only the one week we wouldn’t try and spread ourselves too thinly and so planned the route to spend a day or two in Reykyavik before sticking to the south coast, heading east as far as Hofn before heading back the way we’d come.

The Blue Lagoon
As we touched down at Keflavik airport we were greated by bright sunshine and a cloudless sky. We picked up the 4×4 hire car and headed straight for The Blue Lagoon, a geothermally heated, bright blue pool thick with mineral deposits that I’m told are very good for the complexion. You can also buy a beer in the middle of the pool, it was all so nice and relaxing none of us wanted to get out. After 4 hours we eventually dragged ourselves out and headed to Reykyavik to book into our hostel.

Blue Lagoon

A friendly Chinese couple that wanted their picture taken, Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

Big Rich covered in mineral deposits, Blue Lagoon

Colin was intent on having Lobster Soup in an authentic Icelandic restaurant, but the first night we were running out of time and ended up in an american style diner with a sarcastic waitress. I was just glad to see the locals had a sense of humour, even if she was taking the mick out of us.

The following day we went whale watching. As well as a humpback we had a minke whale pass right under the boat. It was one of those times I should’ve just put my camera down and enjoyed the moment, as in trying to photograph it I missed most of the action. Ah well.

That evening we did actually get to eat in a little restaurant on the sea front. Colin got his Lobster soup, and I think I had tuna salad or something similar. Also on the menu was Minke Whale, which I wasn’t too happy about, but decided against launching a protest.

Viking Sculpture, Reykjavik

Viking Longship Monument, Solfar Sculpture, Reykjavik

Gullfoss and Strukkor
The following morning, after photographing the Viking Sculpture on the sea front we headed out to Gullfoss, a massive waterfall, I think the second largest in Europe and an awesome sight(Dettifoss in the north of Iceland is the largest). On the way we also took in the Geysir, Strukkor, that must shoot up a hundred feet plus into the air and goes off every 10 minutes. After exhausting Gullfoss we started making our way to the next hostel at Skogarfoss.

Strukkor

Strukkor blowing off some steam

Blue Pool at Strukkor

Blue Pool at Strukkor

Gullfoss

Gullfoss

Seljalandsfoss
As the evening light began to kick in we rounded the corner to be confronted by the truly beautiful sight of Seljalansfoss sitting pretty in the middle of the landscape. I’ve always had a thing about waterfalls, and Iceland being ‘The Land of Waterfalls’ is certainly the place to be, and this was probably the most beautiful waterfall I’d ever seen. It’s around 60 metres tall, with the added bonus that you can walk behind it. We spent a good couple of hours here photographing before deciding it really was about time we made our way to the hostel.

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss. To give a sense of scale you can just see Big Rich about to walk behind the rainbow. Not looking quite so big here.

When we got there they’d locked the front door! We managed to persuade one of the tenants to let us in, and then I had to ring the owner, who’d long since gone home, but thankfully she wasn’t too annoyed, and thankfully our beds were still available.

Skogarfoss
The hostel sits at the base of yet another awesome waterfall, Skogarfoss, so we spent the following morning here, before pushing onward to our next stop at Hvoll.

Skogarfoss

Skogarfoss

On the way we stopped at Vik for lunch and had a look round. We found an Artic Tern colony and spent a good hour amongst them, being dive-bombed as we tried to photograph them!

Artic Tern at Vik

Artic Tern at Vik

Hvoll on the map gave the impression of being a large town, but in actual fact was just a hostel in the middle of nowhere, although in Icelandic terms I suppose that does constitute a town! It was however, the nicest we stayed in, brilliant facilities, really nicely kept, and some great photos on the walls for inspiration.

From Hvoll we travelled out the following morning to the turf roofed church and houses. The church is tiny, the smallest church in the country. If you go inside there’s a piano, a small altar and pew, and that’s about it.

Turf Church, nr Hvoll

18th century turf covered chapel at Núpsstaður, nr Hvoll

Vatnajökull
We then headed toward Skaftafell National Park, with the largest ice cap in Europe, Vatnajökull. Just before you get there you’re confronted by a sculpture of 2 of the steel girders from the bridge that was destroyed when the volcano exploded in 1996 and sent massive icebergs and floods downriver.

Steel Girders

Girders from the bridge destroyed in the floods from the volcano at Vatnajökull in 1996

We booked an ice hike on the Svínafellsjökull glacier, one of the tongues of the Vatnajökull ice cap. Another great day blessed with great weather.

Glacier hike

Grant and Rich Ice Hiking on the Svínafellsjökull glacier, Vatnajökull, with our guide from the Icelandic Mountain Guides. See what they've done there.

After we’d had a nice cup of tea we then hiked up a steep climb to yet another waterfall, Svartifoss, distinctive due to the basalt columns that surround it.

Svartifoss

Svartifoss. Just behind me was a massive column that looked just about ready to come down. I was glad to get the shot and move the hell away from there!

The following day we started making our way to Hofn, stopping off on the way at the magical Jökulsarlon, a lagoon that has 3 or 4 glacial tongues feeding into it. The lagoon is filled with ice bergs that slowly float out to sea, a very serene atmosphere. Big Rich got into the spirit by sitting inside a small stone circle with a bottle of vodka and his iPod. The lagoon also has a number of Harbour Seals that I was able to get reasonably close to before a couple of idiots just charged straight up to them. Thanks then!

Seals

Harbour Seals, Jökulsarlon

Jokulsarlon

Ice floes, Jokulsarlon

Höfn was not what we expected at all, almost a ghost town with very few people on the streets. Rich had been to Iceland before and insisted we try horse-riding as apparently it was ‘really easy’, so we decided to give it a go. I’ve never been too keen to get on a horse, it seems an awful long way down, but with Icelandic horses being considerably shorter I thought I’d give it a go. Can’t say as I felt too comfortable but managed to stay on, which is more than can be said for Colin, and the sight of 6 foot 4 Grant with his legs dangling almost to the floor on a horse with a mind of its own made it all worthwhile.

After a night spent at Höfn we began the journey back. The weather took a turn for the worse, we re-visited Jökulsarlon but the rain took the edge off it. We stayed for another night at Hvoll before heading back to Reykjavik. We thought it might be a good idea to head through the middle and see the brightly coloured rocks and steam pools. Petrol was running a bit low but we thought it would be ok, until that was we came across a stream running across the road. We’d been warned against trying to cross these, cars can very easily get lifted up and swept downstream, but we’d come so far it seemed too much hassle to drive all the way back and petrol might become a factor. Colin in his panic decided to reverse the car into a rock, smashing the rear tail light. Rich waded through the stream with his trousers rolled up to see how deep it was. We were very close to doing it before an Icelandic couple turned up in their car, and laughed at the suggestion of crossing. So we turned back, and I thank God we did, because the bill for that car would’ve left us all in debt for a number of years!

4x4

Grant, Colin and Rich and the 4x4 during happier times before its 'little accident'

We visited Þingvellir on the way back, where you can stand between 2 continental plates, so I’m told one of only 2 places in the world you can do that. Don’t ask me where the other one was because I can’t remember. We had a last night out in Reykjavik before returning the car and thankfully being able to distract them enough during the inspection for them not to notice the smashed light.

I’d definitely recommend Iceland to anyone. At only 3 and a half hours away there’s the proximity in its favour, but far beyond that is its unique landscape. Mile upon mile of solidified lava fields with very little vegetation, stunning waterfalls, glaciers and an abundance of wildlife. The people are very friendly, but also very curious, you’ll notice them staring at you which is a little strange at first. Don’t think I would ever get used to their water, being pumped up from the ground their heating bills are very low but the downside is it stinks of sulphur. Next time I go I’ll hope that it coincides with another volcano going off, now there’s a shot just waiting to be taken!

Pembrokeshire and the Story of the Standing Stones

Oct 06
I love Pembrokeshire, its such a beautiful part of the world, with many photographic opportunities, an abundance of wildlife and not least several standing stones! I’ve got a thing about standing stones, and so it was with this in mind that myself and Grant travelled down for the weekend in his camper van and booked ourselves onto a campsite.

The first morning the sunrise didn’t look that promising, but then things began to improve so we had to race from the wrong side of Fishguard to the Pentre Ifan standing stones.  When we arrived the cloud was covering the sun, but it soon made way for some glorious early morning light.

Pentre Ifan

Pentre Ifan Standing Stones, Pembrokeshire

From here we then headed down to St. Davids and booked ourselves onto a boat trip on a very fast and bumpy zodiac around Ramsey Island. Located here are the largest concentration of Atlantic grey seals in the south, and there were quite a few on the beaches, with several coming out to see us. In fact, even before boarding the boat we found a seal pup that had come ashore just to the left of the jetty, so managed to get a few shots up close. The geological make up of the island was also very interesting, not being dissimilar to the Giant’s Causeway in places, and their are a great number of guillemots, razorbills, kttiwakes and fulmars on the cliffs.

Sealpup

Atlantic Grey Seal Pup run ashore

After the boat trip it was back to the camper van for a nice cup of tea and some cheese sandwiches left over from the day before, but still tasted great (thanks Clare!) We took it easy for a couple of hours before heading to Dinas Head for the sunset.

Dinas Head

Dinas Head Sunset, Pembrokeshire

A great end to great day.

June 08
I returned again in 2008, this time with the family. This time we stayed at Trefin on a small caravan park that was conveniently situated between The Carig Sampson standing stones and a stone circle a mile or so in the other direction!

My main aim was to photograph the puffins on Skomer Island, and with the first sign of the sun we headed out to Milford Haven and boarded the boat across. A word of advice to anyone going to Skomer Island – pack plenty of food and drink, there’s none on the island! We learnt the hard way, and after a frustrating walk each carrying a child that was getting heavier, hungrier and more irritable by the second we finally had to throw in the towel. We retreated back to the building that sits in the middle of the island for refuge, and it was only then I realised the puffins were only a 10 or 15 minute walk from here. So another word of advice – if it’s the puffins you want to see just head straight for the building in the middle and turn left. So with tempers strained I managed to negotiate a half hour release in which I hot footed over to the puffins. It was incredible just how close you could get to them, they really didn’t mind your presence. I didn’t want to push my luck with Clare so after 10 minutes I had a few decent shots and left.

Puffin, Skomer Island

Puffin, Skomer Island

On the way back I noticed a hide, so I went in for a quick look to see gulls collecting mud for their nests.

Gull Collecting Mud

Gull Collecting Mud

I headed out one evening to get Carig Sampson, but was more than a little nervous of all the cows and bullocks in the field, so bottled it and decided to head for the stone circle. Along the way I stopped and got a nice shot from the top of the cliffs out across the sea.

Trefin

Trefin

When I then arrived at the stone circle I was quite horrified to find cows in this field too! So I thought dammit, its Carig Sampson I really want, I’m just going to have to overcome my fear and get in that field. Before I did I checked with the farmer first, and she said the cows were ok, and were quite used to people walking through the fields. As soon as I entered they all got up and started to move off. Whilst I was in the middle of it though, they became braver and started to move closer! I began to get distinctly nervous, these were really quite big let me tell you! They then moved further round so they were now between me and my exit with the big ones asembling at the front. I had visions of them chasing me round the stones Benny Hill style. Once I’d got some shots in the bag I tentatively made my way back and was mightily relieved  to throw my leg over the gate and get the hell out of there. My legs were shaking!

Carig Sampson

Carig Sampson Standing Stones. The cows are to the left of the shot planning an assault!

I noticed on the way back a lovely little fishing port called Abercastle so returned there the following evening and got a couple of nice sunset shots.

Abercastle

Abercastle Sunset

Snowdonia, Feb 2005

Mount Snowdon

Across Llynnau Mymbryr to Mount Snowdon

This was one of those magical mornings of photography that you are so very rarely lucky enough to experience. The light was as good as I think I’ve ever photographed in. It hadn’t always looked so promising however. We drove up the day before. I’d suggested to Grant, having seen Joe Cornish’s photographs at Mewslade Bay, that we check it out on the way. Hardly on the way I know, so instead of taking the much faster M40 we found ourselves tootolling up the middle of Wales. It began to snow and before long we were in the midst of a very heavy snow storm. I can honestly say it was the worst conditions I’ve ever had the displeasure to drive in. Visibility was shocking and I was hanging on to the coat tails of the car in front for guidance, although we barely ever exceeded 20mph. On every corner I thought we were going to carry straight on, and in the hills it was particularly hairy. I kept thinking to myself ‘What are we doing?? What a complete waste of time!’,  but by this point we’d reached the point of no return.

Thankfully we made it to our B&B in one piece, and the snow did eventually stop. The following morning we set the alarm for 6 o’clock and were down one end of Llynnau Mymbryr all set up and waiting. It really didn’t look like anything was going to materialise, there was broken cloud, but it was all quite grey. Then as we were chatting we noticed the clouds behind us were starting to turn pink! We rushed back to our cameras, and then had the most amazing couple of hours photographing. For 10 minutes or so initially the whole sky was lit up pink with everything reflected perfectly on a very still lake.

Mount Snowdon

Across Llynnau Mymbryr to Mount Snowdon

The light continued to change without losing any of its drama, and as the sun rose higher in the sky it lit up all the bracken to the right hand side of the lake. I was shooting Velvia at the time and it captured all the vibrant colours I remembered beautifully.

Mount Snowdon

The sun lighting up the horseshoe rather nicely

The light hitting the bracken, Mount Snowdon

Bracken, Mount Snowdon

I guess the one thing I took from all this was how sometimes good light follows bad weather. Not always the case of course, but never let it put you off!