Firstly, I am not a techie lens tester but a passionate hobbyist wildlife and landscape photographer. I have had my eyes on the Fujifilm 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 lens for a few weeks since its release and had read a few reviews, but few on its usage for wildlife photography, so I have decided to give it a practical review.
The day prior to my departure for a ten day holiday to the Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga Province, South Africa, my wife, Joy, told me that I had her permission to buy the new Fujifilm 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 OIS LM WR lens for my birthday. Wow, what a wife…what a lens! I loaded my credit card to the maximum and headed off to the only shop that I knew would be open on a Sunday. On arrival I received a beautiful, if not heavy black box. I rushed home to unpack it with glee. I had already purchased a 50m-140mm F2.8 a year earlier which was up until that point my favourite lens.
The following morning at 1am we left Johannesburg and headed to the world famous Kruger National Park (I have been to the park over 100 times in my lifetime and so know it well). It is one of the most well-known parks in South Africa, the size of a small country such as Israel or Wales and is particularly known for its biological diversity with numerous mammals, birds, fish and reptiles species.
It was my intention to really capture the essence of the place with my stock of lenses. I had recently acquired a Novoflex 400mm and 600mm pistol grip lens system with Fuji mount adaptor in mint condition at a local charity store. I had tested this manual focus combination in my garden but whilst it had reach, it was cumbersome to manoeuvre and akin to a bazooka (it is now for sale).
I was therefore relieved to have a single lens which could largely cater for my needs and the 100-400mm met that need. I was impressed by the build quality, though I did wish that there was a bit more metal on the barrel (having seen the lovely Sigma aluminium build quality) however the lightness of the lens was surprising when mounted to my Fuji Xt1 and vertical grip.
I prepared my home made Manfrotto / Monopod window mount system (photos attached) made from a Manfrotto window mount clamp, a stud, Manfrotto monopod and a Wimberley type head. The contraption is fully height adjustable. I tended to suspend the camera from the top of the Wimberley which worked great particularly for video and when using the rear view screen as well as numerous bean bags, believing that the added stability would assist where I was unable to hand hold the lens. However with the amazing 5 stop Optical image Stabilization, I used the “contraption “ about a third of the time and preferred the flexibility of hand held shooting. This contraption fits in a Land Rover Defender brilliantly. It also fits in the Toyota Fortuner and is stable and versatile.
The Kruger Park, had until 2 weeks prior, been experiencing a severe drought, illustrated by the number of carcasses, notably buffalo and hippo, that lay alongside several roads. Areas of the Kruger had been a dustbowl with limited grazing and the bush was very much thinned out for summer, when it is often a dense tangle. However just 10 days prior in mid-March 2016 there were three days of solid rain, such that the main rivers flooded, some bursting their banks, closing roads and causing general chaos. However the rain brought life back to the veld and it glowed in resplendent green glory by the time I had arrived. Even the red baked plains had signs of green life sprouting everywhere. The west part of the Park seemed to still be drier than the East and the very South was like the Garden of Eden (with an abundance of herds of plains game).
My 10 day holiday commenced as we moved from one camp to another, photographing the local sights and animals. Photography during summertime even with the amazing dynamic range of the XT1 still resulted in some very bright days with harsh light and high temperatures. 4 of the 10 days had temperatures reaching to 43 degrees Celsius, with one particular day (while photographing two young cheetahs), reached 47 C which is murderously hot.
The 100-400mm lens took the heat in its stride but the heat shimmer emanating from the dry ground ultimately affected some of the images. So ideally shooting was largely confined to the morning and evenings. However as any wildlife photographer will tell you, this can be challenging as one needs a certain amount of luck to see the right animal at the right time in the right location in the right light whilst you have the right lens (and with battery!). My general preferred approached is not to sit in one place awaiting the animals to find me, but to cover as much ground as possible, passing as many of my favourite hotspots as possible. I had confined my travels to the South of the Park. On very hot days the animals tend to take cover in the shade, making photography more challenging. Conventional wisdom will tell you that you will have a better chance to see active leopard in the mornings and later afternoon / evenings (normally about 5 minutes prior to gate closing time), close to sunset when the light is often extremely poor. Whilst this was the case on this trip some leopard were seen on the move at midday or early afternoon
The gear I took to the park included the Fujifilm 18-55mm lens (which is highly underrated), the 50-140mm f2.8 and the 100 -400mm. I also took a Minolta MD macro and a Minolta 50MD adaptor and Minolta MD 58mm 1.2 (I did not use any of these lenses on this trip but they are awesome in quality and build).
Unlike previous years where I have taken the kitchen sink, normally consisting of three bags, a 1Dmkii and a panoramic film camera, on this occasion I could go light and easy with one bag a Lowepro Omni which fitted the five lenses. An inverter, charger and 3 batteries, some step up rings and blower pretty much rounded off the kit. I did not use a polarizer although there were opportunities when perhaps I should have.
Part of my intention was to test out the focusing of the 100-400mm. I was not shy to use high ISO and selected Aperture priority mode and A ISO mode set to a maximum ISO of 1600 with a minimum shutter speed of 1/60 for most of the time except early mornings. I was more than happy to shoot up to ISO 3200 but on occasions went to 6400 and 12800(which quality still amazed me). My favourite image of a leopard in the semi-dark went to 12800 just to freeze the movement (below image).which shows soem grain . Being eyeballed by a leopard at 4m range just before sunset is a scary thing. I was amazed at the quality of the images captured when almost dark.
I was particularly impressed by the ability to track wildlife such as a Wildebeest chasing a hyena, though I had to take a decision to have either three hyena or the Wildebeest in focus. I chose the former. Shooting at 6am in the morning when light is poor and sun is perhaps only just rising is challenge to any lens set up.
By the end of the trip I had taken over 4000 photos. I was extremely happy with about 500 of the shots. I would say that about 1% of photos were out of focus, sometimes one from a burst of say 6 and I did lose some shots on moving animals, which disappointed me from time to time but this was often as a result of reacting too late or limitations from working in the confines of a car or focussing on a branch behind the subject.
The main issues were more with the XT1 and not the lens. Once you shoot a burst in continuous mode there is a slight shifting / zooming of the image in the screen while it clears the buffer and it states “Storing” in the viewfinder and a slight lag before one can shoot again. This is extremely frustrating with moving wildlife this resulted in certain missed shots in delaying to focus again as the lens needed to re-acquire the animal or bird, which by this time has often moved off (particularly if evading a predator or chasing prey). So sometimes the solution was to move the dial to single shot mode and while one could not get a burst, the camera was slightly more responsive. Practice is certainly needed for tracking a pronking impala unless you have clear line of sight to track it.
Sometimes when doing this it would track the background and not the animal resulting in some out of focus shots. The CL (Continuous low-speed) mode was also great particularly when using the zone mode as gave a wider area for focusing but 80% of the time I used single point selection. It can make tracking an animal moving at speed a challenge. I also faced challenges in catching birds in flight partly because the bush was dense and there were few opportunities of birds flying close to the vehicle and so this would still need to be tested. However on static and slow-moving birds I was blown away with the initial lightning speed of initial focus but less so with the tracking ability. However with practice this can be improved if one anticipates the direction of the animal in advance. Of particular regular use was the ability to limit the focus from 5m to infinity., It really is not that often that one is closer than 5m except where animals cross the roads or are close to the edges. I tended to flip from infinity mode to the 5m mode and there is a considerable time-saving in not having to rack out the full lens. However if an animal is within the 5m range you wills struggle to focus until you remember to flip the switch to full to infinity mode.
The continuous focus mode is sometimes a bit disconcerting as it seems to hunt backwards and forward, but the moment the shot is taken the object seems to almost always be in focus. This is not an inherent fault with the lens but the challenge with terrain where branches and stalks of grass can often interrupt focus where an animal moves from an open area to an area of cover. I would request that a future model of a camera allow one to manually adjust autofocus whilst in the AF mode (like on a Canon).
I had some challenges using manual focus when it automatically zoomed in when turning the ring and then struggling to locate the animal in the viewfinder. This is I am sure just a camera setting issue.
I tried several different focusing means from the single focus point (used 70% of the time) to the zone focusing (20%), but struggled in the wide due to the nature of the terrain and landscape and the somewhat random focusing on a particular object in the view frame. I would have no doubt that in open terrain that this could be a very effective means of tracking but I believe improvements can be made. As to hand holding I was amazed at the stability noticed right within the viewfinder.
As a tactic in low light scenarios, I would often switch to the 50-140mm, lens which seemed marginally sharper and faster, though I do not think the OIS is as effectives as that on the 100-400mm. The sharpness and bokeh is where the 100-400mm shines. If I had one regret, it is that I had not bought the 1.4x converter, but this will accompany me on future trips. Shooting at a high ISO is certainly not a problem and I was surprised at how sharp the images were straight out of the camera (I shot jpegs only). The camera and lens combinations was hard to put done and if there was ever one lens that can do it all for wildlife this is the one. I would highly recommend it.
By the end of the holiday I had seen countless species of birds and animals including 4 separate lion sightings, 7 leopard sightings and 5 separate cheetahs sightings (12 in total) which is extraordinary . Birdlife included Bustards, Korhaans, Rollers, Ground Hornbills, African Openbill, Saddlebill stork, African Hawk an Wahlberg’s Eagle, Martial Eagle, 4 species of bee eaters and 5 species of kingfishers including , the relatively tame Giant and Pied Kingfishers on the causeways and bridges.
I noticed that I predominantly shot at the long end of the lens but enjoyed the flexibility of being able to go wider. I would in future want a separate camera for the 50-140mm lens rather than swapping as both have their place. For close upset animals to the road the 50-140mm is my preferred choice as it appears to be faster and allows increased lighter gathering at f2.8. I had to blow dust off the sensor once in 1 days, which dust presumably attached whilst changing lenses. I shot mainly the Velvia film profile setting following and sometimes the standard Provia setting and found the reproduction of colours to render a slightly more vibrant look than reality, but very pleasing to the eye (notably on sunsets / sunrises). Despite the substantial cost to acquire the 100-400 lenses, it is transformative. When I compare to the quality of the images to my 50000 wildlife photos gleaned off my Canon 1D mkii, 70D and 300mm f4L and 70-200mm f2.8 Mk 1 and 100-400m L mk1, the Fuji just blows them away. That kit has since been sold and I will never return to that heavy kit!
I am sure that other lenses such as the 7D whilst likely to have better focusing and tracking, the sheer enjoyment and lightness of the Fuji system trumped all previous experiences. I just want to get out more to use this lens. I believe you get what you pay for with sublime optics, a light but professional and solid package. The resistance to dust was awesome. The 50-140 feels slightly more robust and solid but the 100-400mm is not far behind. I have attached a gallery with a number of my favourite photos from the trip. I do believe the pouch could be improved. The less came back from the trip dust free and clear of scratches but no doubt the plastic exterior will wear over time. I was particularly impressed with the lens hood design. No more did I need to recover a lens hood which had rattled off down a game track or at some inopportune time next to some wild animal… the locking mechanism really works. I do however hope that they will release some metal versions of the hood sin due course (or carbon fibre). I had no issues with the tripod foot and enjoyed the smoothness of the rotation of the tripod collar particularly when shifting from vertical to landscape orientation. I was able to fit the foot to several styles of bevelled plates and the Manfrotto plate using it on a Wimberley type head and or the Manfrotto hydrostatic head and it was light enough to be manageable. I certainly do look forward to even more improved focussing on a future XT2 however I believe Fuji have something worthy of its previous offerings and that can easily hold its own with its competitors. Another area that was hugely impressive was the silent motor which is awesome when using video. When used with Sennheisser external mic there was no camera or lens noise. I am not able to add video to my WordPress and so I hope the photos are evidence of what this lens can achieve.
Please do contact me if you require any advice or information concerning photography within the Kruger and South Africa generally or any other questions. Thanks for visiting my blog.Considering the weakness of the rand to any major currency now is the time to visit!