Aug 18, 2009

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM - some photographs


Now, you better fasten your seat-belt.

This is going to be a long post!

On my first post about Photo Gear, some months ago, I showed you the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM lens (what a long, complicated name: yes, I admit that I must look it up!).

Now I wish to show you some images I shot in the meantime with that lens.

Even though it's maximal aperture might be for some more sophisticated tastes than mine a little dark (also possessing a much heavier purse than mine!), I find the image quality of this lens rather outstanding.
It is also not such a heavy load, so that I can carry it around for some hours without feeling like committing suicide...

I don't miss Image Stabilization on this apparatus. As I said before, it nerves me a little to feel it working.
If I feel like having a purring sound, I will pick up my tender cat instead!

Please bear in mind, that all these photographs were shot with a Canon 30D, with a crop factor of 1.6x.
That means that the focal length of this lens, when used on the 30D, is equivalent to a 640mm lens used on a full frame sensor or a 35mm camera!

Just to make things a little easier for me, I will divide this post in parts, explaining some of the situations I find useful enough, or interesting enough, that I bother at all to use such a lens.

1) I choose to start by the most obvious reason: to get a far away object depicted bigger in your finder (as if you could get near, but with a different perspective).

You may wish to do that just to be able to photograph, paparazzi-style, a faraway hidden beach celebrity such as the prime minister on holidays, for example.

Or you may choose to picture a shy creature like an undomesticated animal.
(You could also easilly turn it around and you suddenly become the shy photographer: picture yourself in the middle of the african savanna snapping a wild enraged lion... ).

Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), having lunch...

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) desiring to catch some lunch...

No, I don't intend to compete with all the serious nature photographers and ornithologists out there. Bird watching might be very enjoyable and instructive, but I wasn't practicing it when I found these birds.
I was working on assignment in the town of Tomar, last April, when I saw them, at two different days, down by the river. I just was lucky to have the 400mm with me...

The experts shall, please, forgive my humble efforts.

2) Now, this is where the fun genuinely starts for me: I like to use a long focal length to produce more or less abstract compositions where the main subject stands out against a blurred background, sort of visual isolation against a featureless immaterial and dreamy backdrop.

So I use the 400mm almost like I could use a macro-lens.
It is a pity that it only focus down to 3,5 meters. I would very much appreciate a little closer, so I wouldn't need to use an extension tube.

I find this kind of images most effective if you use back light.

(Most photographs on this post, if not all, shot at 5.6).

3) I guess that it sounds a little crazy, but I like the 400mm (640mm on the 30D!) to shoot (YES!) portraits...

I can almost hear the purists laugh, but how could they know that the background on both next photographs is made of trees?

My son Luis on the 11th of April 2009.

Please, allow me to say hello to him and congratulate him. Today, 18th of August, he celebrates his birthday. He was born 26 years ago in Heidelberg, Germany.
(Like my all other kids, I can honestly say that he is a nice guy! I am a lucky father...).

Maria Helena on the 14th of July 2009
(The woman who has enough courage to stand by me. I am a lucky man...).

My friend the cat, Mico, on the 21st of November 2008
(I can call him some other names, like Nicolau Mircolino, he will always answer.
I am a lucky cat owner...)

Shot hand held at 1/80!

I know that there are certain rules, like the one that says that you should not use a slower shutter speed than the focal length of your lens, in this case 1/400 (or something like that...).
But you know what I love most about rules?

I can break them!

So I decided to shoot all the photographs on this post without the help of a tripod.
I know that I could have achieved better (sharper) results sometimes, but I would have probably lost some shots...

The Nycticorax nycticorax wouldn't endlessly pose for me losing it's appetite, my cat would certainly fall asleep with eyes closed, the wind would blow the flowers away, and my back would hurt a little more...

Please, don't misinterpret me, I am a big enthusiast of tripods. Most cameras I use need one.

But as I said, I also love to break rules.

(On the photograph above, I suspect that some of the unsharpness is also caused by the wind shaking the plant, and not only by me. The answer, though, remains to be found...).

The Canon 400mm is not a telescope...

... but look how nice the moon shines, high above in this (strong) crop, just to bid you good night, sleep tight...

(also shot hand held by the way... I won't lie to you, the sky was not so dark, and the shot was made at 1/1250 f/5.6, at ISO 500. Underexposed one stop. The moon shone right above me).



  1. Hello Rui. I have to say - I enjoyed reading this post very very much! Your words are witty, charming AND informative - and me too, I break the rules of photography ALL the time!I have a tripod and but in 4 months, I only use it twice. I must say though, you have a most steady hand!

    I have to applaud the beautiful images in this post (all your images are super). I like using my 200mm for portraits but I dream of something longer. The background becomes so smooth! My kind regards to the brave woman, Maria Helena :-) and your nice son, Luis. The pictures of the birds and plants shows me I still have a long way to go! I enjoy admiring each one - my lunch break in the office is therefore not wasted!

    Have a good weekend!

  2. Hello Esther,
    Sorry that I took so long to answer to your (as usually rather kind) comments, but I was some days away, and I have been a little lazy too (yes, I must confess).
    I hope that your Internet problems are all solved, because something like that is very annoying.
    Yes, rangefinder cameras are very appealing instruments, when you learn how to use one and you get used to. It is a pity that you live so far away, or I could lend you a Leica for you to try and see if you like. Living on the antipods makes it a little harder...
    Anyway, a Kiev, Zorki or FED is a cheap way to go (50 euros should get you something...), if you get a decent specimen, meaning if the camera is working properly. I guess that life was not so easy in the USSR, so people probably didn't have much money to spend on camera service (maybe not even enough money to buy cameras and film).
    Allow me one little advise: try to use your tripod everytime you can: you will notice the quality of your photographs getting better, even if only because it makes you think and slow down your picture taking procedures.
    Although you can't always notice it in my photographs, I am slowly losing some control over my hands (they call it something like muscle contracture"-?-), and I often let things fall down... I guess that I am getting kind of old at 54...
    Thank you very much for your kind regards to Helena and Luis. You are a very kind person.
    I wish you all the luck in the world!
    Have a good weekend,

  3. I am very grateful that you took the time to write such a nice reply and give some very useful advice, Rui. Thank you very much. I will from thence on, take my tripod out of its bag and learn to use it more.

    Oh gosh! The thought of trying out your Leica!!! Why oh why is Portugal so far away!? Thank you nevertheless, for such a kind thought. Honestly, I had no idea that the Leica is an expensive camera until one of my colleagues said "Esther, if you don't have at least RM10,000.00, don't dream of a Leica". Ooops! So yes, a cheaper option it has to be then.

    I enjoyed your latest post as well, on the photography book and thank you for sharing pages from it. You are very kind, Rui.

    Have a good week to you, Helena and Luis.