Birds of Kauai – In Defense of the Canon EF100-400L

A common myna perches on a branch loaded with berries. This rapidly expanding invasive species adapts extremely well to urban environments.
A common myna perches on a branch loaded with berries. This rapidly expanding invasive species adapts extremely well to urban environments.

Over the years, I have read many negative reviews and comments about the Canon EF 100-400mm zoom lens, ranging from softness in the resolution capability to a useless “toy” lens. Many of those I have asked follow up questions to about their views reveal themselves to have never used the lens themselves (they have just “heard” bad things). Others seem to spend more time deriding the lens than going out and improving their photography skills.

A male northern cardinal stands under the shade of a bush
A male northern cardinal stands under the shade of a bush. Although most commonly seen throughout the eastern US and Mexico, this species was introduced many years ago to the Hawaiian islands.

This lens was in fact my first “bird” lens, and I used it extensively until I could prove to myself that I was passionate about wildlife photography enough to justify spending more on a more specialized lens. I have found the lens to be sharp and reliable. While it doesn’t provide the extreme sharpness or reach of my 800mm, it is smaller, lighter, and I typically hand hold it, giving me ultimate mobility. It was for these reasons that I opted to take it on my recent trip to Hawaii, in lieu of my bigger lens.

A cattle egret is reflected in a pool of water as it searches for food amongst the grass
A cattle egret is reflected in a pool of water as it searches for food amongst the grass. This one is in full breeding plumage, with long reddish-orange feathers on the top of the head, back and breast. Also, the skin behind the eye has turned a brilliant purple.

Rather than a traditional zoom, this lens utilizes a push/pull style of zoom, which will take some getting used to. Once you master this style of zoom, however, you’ll be making sharp photographs in no time. For bird photography, I usually just lock out the barrel in the “long” position, giving me the 400mm reach.

A common myna perches on the branch of a tree
A common myna perches on the branch of a tree

If you are just starting out in bird or wildlife photography and don’t want to make a huge investment, this is a great lens with which to get your feet wet. Starting out with a lens like this will force you to improve your non-camera skills, such as stalking and waiting. The limited reach will force you to get closer to your subjects, often requiring patience and creativity to get the desired shot.

The Scaly-breasted Munia or Spotted Munia is known in the pet trade as Nutmeg Mannikin or Spice Finch. Its name is based on the distinct scale-like feather markings on the breast and belly.
The Scaly-breasted Munia or Spotted Munia is known in the pet trade as Nutmeg Mannikin or Spice Finch. Its name is based on the distinct scale-like feather markings on the breast and belly.

On this latest trip, I found that by watching the birds more to understand their patterns, I was able to predict their directionality, and situate myself in a position they would move toward. Then it was just a matter of staying low, being patient, and remaining as still as possible as they came to me. Other times, I would find a tree or bush with lots of activity, move toward it and wait. Even if I scared off the birds on my approach, by remaining still and quiet, many times they eventually returned, sometimes very close to me.

A spotted dove stands in short grass
A spotted dove stands in short grass

Take a look through these photos and my recent Hawaii posts to judge for yourself. The fact that it is still a regular part of my arsenal shows that I certainly don’t consider it a toy, but a valuable tool that has its place in my toolbox.

A zebra dove stands in short grass
A zebra dove stands in short grass