We Review the Canon RF 100-400mm f/5.6-8 IS USM, an Affordable Telephoto Zoom Lens

We Review the Canon RF 100-400mm f/5.6-8 IS USM, an Affordable Telephoto Zoom Lens

If you’re in need of a versatile telephoto zoom lens, there aren’t many choices for the RF mount. Unless you use the EF-RF adapter, there are only two options available, the RF 100-500mm or the RF 100-400mm. Is the much cheaper RF 100-400mm a wise choice?

Have you made the switch to the Canon DSLR to the Canon mirrorless system? In that case, you probably have a selection of EF lenses available, perhaps lenses made by other manufacturers like Sigma or Tamron. It is no problem using these lenses with the EF-RF adapter on Canon mirrorless cameras.

If you want to skip the EF-RF adapter, you’re forced to buy Canon lenses. After all, other manufacturers are not allowed to produce RF lenses with autofocus as of this writing. So, if you like to use a telephoto zoom lens like a 100-400mm, the available options are limited, to say the least.

The Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1L IS USM is an amazing lens. It’s large, heavy, and very expensive. If you can spare the money, I would recommend the lens without a doubt. That said, I can also imagine this isn’t a lens that everyone can afford. So, you need an alternative.

There isn't much choice for Canon EOS R camera users when it comes down to a zoom lens in the range of 100-400mm, unless you use an EF-RF adapter.

The RF 100-400mm f/5.6-8 IS USM

Fortunately, Canon released the RF100-400mm f/5.6-8 IS USM. It’s a lens that is much smaller, lightweight, and much, much cheaper. You can easily buy four of these lenses for the price of a single RF 100-500mm lens.

The RF 100-400mm next to the RF100-500mm L lens. Which one would to prefer to carry with you on a hike?

If a lens is that much cheaper compared to its bigger brother, how well does it perform? Since it’s not an L lens, you might expect its performance to be not as good. Still, it needs to be a good lens because Canon can’t afford it to be only a mediocre lens. Canon Netherlands provided me with the RF 100-400mm f/5.6-8 IS USM for review. 

The Build

The RF 100-400mm f/5.6-8 IS USM is a small lens, only 16.5 centimeters long. Its weight is 635 grams, which makes it easy to take with you. The lens does extend when zooming to 400mm. It will increase in length by 7.6 centimeters. Because the weight is kept mainly near the camera, it won’t be too off-balance when zoomed in. The lens doesn’t have a tripod collar available, something to keep in mind if you’re using the lens on a tripod.

The RF 100-400mm has a good build quality, although it falls short on the L lens quality, of course.

The zoom ring is wide and rotates smoothly. It increases in diameter towards the front end of the lens, which makes it easy to find without looking. The focus ring is placed in front of the zoom ring and has a finer texture. Lastly, the control ring is placed at the front of the lens barrel.

There are three switches available. The locking switch will lock the zoom mechanism at 100mm focal length, preventing any unwanted extending of the lens barrel. The other switches offer the ability to deactivate the image stabilization or the autofocus. There is no focus limiter or different stabilization setting available.

The AF/MF switch and the stabilizer switch. There isn't much more to be found on this lens.

The lock switch will lock the zooming mechanism at 100mm.

The lens is made from a good quality plastic and feels quite robust. It lacks weather-sealing, which is a pity. Because it’s not an L lens, there is also no lens hood or pouch in the box.

Image Stabilization and Aperture

The image stabilization is rated up to 5.5 stops. This can make a lot of difference for using a lens with a focal length in this range. Theoretically, the image stabilization will allow you to shoot at a shutter speed of 1/15 s, assuming the subject will allow this.

Combining the RF 100-400mm lens with a camera that has in-body image stabilization, the rating will increase only by half a stop towards six stops, which is not that much.

Such a small size and lightweight lens comes at the cost of a small maximum aperture.

The maximum aperture of the lens ranges from f/5.6 to f/8. This may sound not ideal, but if you compare the values with the RF 100-500mm lens, it isn’t that big of a difference. Still, you might need to bump up the ISO if a faster shutter speed is important. If that isn’t the case, you can rely on the image stabilization.

The small maximum aperture makes the use of high ISO values more common if a fast shutter speed is important.

In Use

One of the biggest benefits of this lens is its size and weight. It makes it easy to take the lens with you. Just put it in your bag or on to your camera and go out. The focal range makes it a versatile lens for a lot of different kinds of photography.

If you love to photograph animals, it’s an ideal lens. I noticed how the minimum focus distance of 88 centimeters at 400mm works perfectly for semi-macro. It allows a maximum magnification of 0.41x, ideal for flowers and insects, among other small things.

Just take the lens with you. The weight and size makes it easy. The focal length is ideal for bird photography and many other kinds of subjects (EOS R5 + RF 100-400mm at 400mm, ISO 800, f/11, 1/125 s).

EOS R5 + RF 100-400mm at 400mm, ISO 100, f/8, 1/250 s

EOS R5 + RF 100-400mm at 400mm, ISO 200, f/11, 1/160 s

It’s wise to keep an eye on the shutter speed, though. Especially when there is not much light available, it’s easy to rely too much on the image stabilization. It might be necessary to use a high ISO setting for this lens on a regular basis. Since most EOS R cameras perform reasonably well at high ISO levels, this should not be a problem.

Semi-macro is possible thanks to the minimum focal distance of only 88 centimeters (EOS R5 + RF 100-400mm at 400mm, ISO 800, f/8, 1/640 s).

This small flower is only two centimeters in size. (EOS R5 + RF 100-400mm at 400mm, ISO 100, f/8, 1/800 s)

Image Quality

Being such a cheap lens, especially compared to its bigger brother, the RF100-500mm L lens, I was surprised how good the images looked. There are some pincushion effects at 400mm, and the vignetting is close to two stops at the corners. 

There is a bit of pincushion distortion at 100mm focal length and some vignetting, but nothing shocking. The lens correction is turned off for this example.

At 400mm, the pincushion effect is barely visible, just like vignetting. The lens correction is turned off for this example.

Since most people will have the automatic lens correction activated in camera, most lens defects will be corrected. The real-life results will look good, and they're perhaps even close to the quality you find with the RF 100-500mm L lens. Only if you compare it side by side in a controlled situation might the quality difference become more apparent. But who does that in real life?

Use With a Teleconverter

Although the RF 100-500mm L lens can be used with a teleconverter, it’s not truly built for that purpose. The focal range will be limited a lot, making it only possible to zoom at the longer end. On the other hand, the RF 100-400mm is fully compatible with both the 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters. This increases the focal length range to 160-640mm or 200-800mm, depending on which teleconverter you choose.

Unlike the limited zoom range of the RF 100-500mm with a teleconverter, the RF 100-400mm can zoom over the complete range with use of the teleconverters.

The downside is the reduced maximum aperture you end up with. If f/5.6-8 bothers you, the f/8-f/11 with the 1.4x teleconverter or f/11-f/16 with the 2x teleconverter definitely will. If you don’t mind the smaller aperture, you need to realize there is also the diffraction problem with these small apertures, especially with high-resolution cameras like the Canon EOS R5.

If you are in need of these long focal lengths, maybe the RF 600mm f/11 or RF 800mm f/11 lens may be an alternative, or you can choose for one of the two mirrorless APS-C cameras Canon has released. Using the RF 100-400mm on these bodies will provide a nice increase in magnification without the problem of an even smaller aperture.

My Conclusion

Although the image quality is less compared to the more expensive RF 100-500mm L lens, the difference is not that much. Perhaps if you compare the images side by side, it will be visible. There is also the longer zoom range in the more expensive of the two, of course, and the wider maximum aperture. Then again, the difference is only marginal.

A side by side comparison

The RF 100-500mm L lens has a better build, weather-sealing, and the tripod collar. This can make a difference when using the lens in challenging weather conditions. Also, the speed of the autofocus, in combination with the focus limiter and different image stabilization options, will make the RF 100-500mm L lens a good choice for many that need a lot of control. But it is quite an expensive lens, beyond reach of many photographic enthusiasts.

Not only in size, but there is also a big difference in weight. The RF 100-400mm is less than half the weight of the RF 100-500mm.

With the price in mind, the RF100-400mm f/5.6-8 IS USM is probably the better choice for many. The image quality is very good. It won’t match the bigger brother, but it comes close. Lastly, the weight and size of the RF 100-400mm makes it a great lens to have and to take with you.

What I Like

  • Size and weight
  • Image stabilization of 5.5 stops
  • Good image quality and sharpness
  • Can be used with the 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters
  • Minimum focus distance and magnification of 0.41x
  • Price

What Could Be Improved

  • Not that light sensitive
  • No tripod collar possible
  • Closing the aperture will lead to diffraction
  • No weather-sealing
  • Lens hood not included

EOS R5 with RF 100-400mm at 225mm, ISO 1,000, f/11, 1/160 s

Alternatives

There aren’t any alternatives available as of this moment. If you’re okay with using an adapter, any lens with an EF mount can be used. In that case, any EF lens with an adapter is still a good option, with lots of lenses to choose from. Still, I can recommend the RF 100-400mm f/5.6-8 IS USM, because it is a really nice lens for an affordable price.

Log in or register to post comments
9 Comments
Tom Reichner's picture

.

Nando,

Thanks for the review - I appreciate all of the insights that you shared about this lens and the real-world differences between this and the 100-500mm.

After reading everything you had to say about the 100-400mm, I came away thinking "that could be an excellent herping lens." By "herping" I mean the photography of reptiles and amphibians, such as snakes, toads, turtles, lizards, etc.

One reason I think it would be great for herping is because herp photographers are normally stopping down to f8, f11, or f16 anyway. Hence, the disadvantage of a small maximum aperture is actually not a disadvantage at all for herp photography.

The other thing that would make this a good herping lens is that when herping, all of one's photographic gear is normally carried in a small to medium sized day pack. Hence, the small size, relative to other 100-400 options, is quite beneficial. On a few herping ventures this past July, I left my EF 100-400mm in the car and just took my 24-105mm and 100mm macro. I really could have used the 100-400mm for some of the opportunities I found, but it wasn't with me because of its size. If I had had this smaller 100-400mm, I probably would have packed it along with my shorter lenses, and some of my photos would be better because of it.

Lastly, what you said about its minimum focus distance only being 88cm is a real advantage when photographing small herps like Geckos and Spadefoots, which are only about as big around as a quarter. A maximum magnification of 0.41x is excellent for any lens that is not a dedicated macro!

I will strongly consider this lens if I ever get a Canon mirrorless camera. That is unlikely, because of Canon's policy of not allowing 3rd party manufacturers to make lenses in the RF mount, but if for any reason I change my mind and stick with Canon, this will undoubtedly be in my bag when I go on herping ventures!

.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Regarding the last comment, I think Canon policy is just for the time being. Eventually they have to allow 3rd party lenses being produced, probably within a year from now, I think. But I agree it's a foolish decision.
Thanks for the insight about the benefits of the lens and its aperture in practical use.

PHIL OLENICK's picture

Got this lens on sale a month or so ago, went to a local pond with it on my R7 (640mm angle of view!), and got some nice, though not quite perfect, shots of seagulls in flight. They have apparently all found warmer quarters till the spring, so I'll have to wait until then to continue to learn how to do that.

Sandro Riz's picture

"This increases the focal length range to 160-640mm "... nope! 140-560, the converter is 1.4x not 1.6!

Nando Harmsen's picture

You're absolutely right. That is the angle of view it would have on a APS-C camera.
Thanks for the correction.

Tom Reichner's picture

.

Nando Harmsen wrote,

"There is a bit of pincushion distortion at 100mm focal length and some vignetting"

Nando, would I be correct in assuming that these issues would not exist if using the lens on a camera with an APS-C sized sensor?

.

Nando Harmsen's picture

The pincushion effect is most visible at the edges of the frame. So an APS-C sensor will not record the part of the frame that has the strongest distortion.
The vignetting might be outside the frame completely, but I'm not sure about that.

Tom Reichner's picture

.

Very bright corners are very important to me. So is great resolution of very fine detail, because I often like to put my subjects in the deep corners of the frame. So that's why these things that you mention about vignetting and distortion are so important to me.

It seems that whenever an inexpensive, small, or light version of a lens is made, image quality in the deepest part of the corners of the frame is the first thing to suffer. That frustrates me, because deep corner image quality is so crucial to the way I shoot.

.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Indeed, that's the downside of inexpensive glass. Often this is corrected with lens profiles inside camera or post processing software, but the quality will suffer from these corrections.
I'm afraid the only solution will be the highest quality of glass, fixed focus lenses, and stopping down.

Another solution might be shooting at a wider field of view and cropping the image to get rid of vignetting. But I know you don't prefer this way of capturing your subjects. But perhaps it might be the best way after all.

A crop camera might do the trick up to some extend, but I personally would prefer the control by cropping in post, I think.