Using the Canon 100-400mm

Posted on 21 July 2007, 04:41

I get quite a lot of enquiries about this lens – specifically, about how I get the best out of it – which is extremely flattering, because of the implication that people like my pictures enough to wonder how I get them.

I always say the same thing in response to these questions, so I thought it might be worthwhile to document some practical suggestions for using the 100-400mm.

I can’t make enough of the fact that, stabilised lens or not, you must develop a good hand-holding technique: it isn’t hard, but it needs to become second nature. This page is my usual reference. Tucking your elbows into your torso really makes a difference to the stability of the “platform”.

I’ve noticed that the straps of rucksack-style camera packs can dig in when you’ve got your arms tucked in tight, which can cause problems – I sometimes develop a tremor in my arms, presumably because the straps are pressing on nerves.

The obvious solution is to take the back pack off, or to use a pack with an asymmetric strap like the Lowepro Slingshot.

You must give the lens giros time to get up to speed: In the rush to get the shot it’s easy to press the shutter too quickly, so you need to discipline yourself to wait until the image has settled in the viewfinder before taking the shot.

Related to the previous point – and a subtle one I haven’t seen documented elsewhere, but which makes a massive difference (to me at least) – is a tip about focussing on the bird’s eye.

We all know that we should, but I’ve learned that it’s worth putting in an extra effort because of how the lens works.

I seem to be shooting in windy conditions more often than not, presumably because I’m on the coast, and I’m often getting knocked about. This is bound to affect how well I select my point of focus – but windy or not, this suggestion should be useful.

What I do is get onto the bird and half-depress the shutter to activate the IS: when it locks in, I’m probably not exactly on the eye, so, with the image in the VF now stable, I reposition my point of focus and reactivate the IS. Second time round (or third time if that’s what it takes) when I know I’m on the eye, I’ll take the shot.

I might miss the odd shot being this pedantic, but the ones I get seem to work out pretty nice..!

Ringed Plover, Blyth
Ringed Plover, Blyth
Canon 30D, 100-400mm + 1.4x TC, handheld. 400 ISO, 560mm, f/6.3, 1/640.

As it happens, for this image I was sitting down to get this POV, and by placing an elbow on each knee, I was able to get a particularly solid “shooting platform” – I was my own tripod!

Finally, keep an eye on the shutter speed – I often shoot at f/5.6 to maximise it, happy in the knowledge that the 100-400 is a damn’ sight better wide open than some people give it credit for.

So there you go, that’s what works for me.

I’ve got no reason to think I’ve got a “special” 100-400 (indeed for the first few months of ownership I was pretty sure I only had an “average” one – I would regularly describe it as being simply “sharp enough for me“ when writing about it – but a year in, as I use it more, it seems to be getting sharper!) and there’s surely nowt special about me as a photographer. But from day one I was confident of the potential of the lens, and I’ve stuck at it.

My experiences closely mirror those of other 100-400 owners – there’s a bit of a consensus among satisfied owners that there are more iffy 100-400 users than there are iffy 100-400s – and we all agree that it’s a lens that needs to be given a chance.

I never use a tripod, but in addition to having a good hand-holding technique I will make use of any support options that are available in the field: I’ll rest or lean on a fence post, gate or tree; I sometimes use my rucksack as a beanbag if I’m shooting low down; and I’ve even been known to swivel my Lowepro Slingshot 300 round to the front of my body and rest my elbows on it.

I don’t really need additional support, but equally I don’t see why not if it’s available.

I always use IS mode 1, and the camera is on Centre Point focus/AI Servo/Aperture Priority mode.

Try these suggestions before you give up on the lens – it’s worth the effort.



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