Shooting Portraits With a Massive 400mm f/2.8 Lens

400mm f/2.8 lenses are generally the domain of sports and wildlife photographers, who need lots of reach and to be able to capture as much light as possible and are often willing to pay five-digit prices for the ability to do so. However, with such high-quality optics and thin depth of field, there is another genre in which it is fun to play with such a lens: portraits.

Coming to you from Mango Street, this fun video follows them as they shoot portraits with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens. The 400mm f/2.8 is a highly specialized lens with a stratospheric price tag ($12,000) and a massive footprint, but it also contains some of the best optics you will find in pretty much any Canon lens. Combine that with the different perspective of the very long focal length and the shallow depth of field, and you can create some very unique portraits in which a crisp subject seemingly pops out against the background. Of course, it is not a particularly practical endeavor, but this is more about the enjoyment of the experience and experimentation. I managed to snag a secondhand copy of the first version of this lens years ago, and I love using it for recital photography, where it can make a soloist pop in a similar fashion while allowing me to stay in the back of the hall to avoid interrupting the performance. Check out the video above to see what it's like!

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Mark Wyatt's picture

I see similar techniques used occasionally (not to that extreme, but this guy had a pretty massive lens also):

Robert Nurse's picture

I've tried something similar (500mm f/4) for street photography, LOL. Experimenting with the DoF is interesting.

Travis Pinney's picture

(Yells across City) "Excuse me, cant you see we're taking pictures here?"

Alex Herbert's picture

Personally I really like the bokeh and quality that comes from shooting with a large telescope. I'll usually get my model all set up then drive to my tripod.

Dana Goldstein's picture

Ok I literally laughed out loud.

Mark Wyatt's picture

A better technique is to use large or medium format cameras to achieve good bokeh without resorting to humongous hunks of glass.

Dave Dundas's picture

Why is that better? It's not cheaper, and it gets the same result, doesn't it?

Mark Wyatt's picture

I suspect it could be significantly less costly.

Tony Clark's picture

The working distance would get old quickly, perhaps a 300/2.8 or 200/2 would be a better chose and would be much less than $12K to buy.

David Pavlich's picture

The 200 f2 has to be one of the all time great outdoor portrait lenses. Awfully spendy, but if it's in the budget, it's a winner.

Alex Cooke's picture

Easily the one lens I’ll never sell.

Tony Clark's picture

Yes, both the 200/1.8 and 200/2 can be found used for under $4K. You need to be generating revenue with it or be a Physician, Dentist or Trust Fund Baby to own one.

David Pavlich's picture

I have a spare kidney. :-) :-)

Mark Wyatt's picture

To be frank, I will keep the kidney and forgo the lens.

Spy Black's picture

Generally from 200mm onwards, you don't need a high speed lens to get good bokeh. A 200mm f/4 or 300-400mm f/5.6 will suffice. Shooting portraits beyond 200mm is fairly futile I think.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Even if you ignore the cost and weight, I think these have diminishing returns as far as background blur for portrait work because you most likely will be further from the subject than the subject to the background. 200mm is a good max limit I think.

300mm f/2.8 is already on the long side, but much cheaper and lighter. This video is just a showing off, no images in it do justify the use of a 400mm f/2.8 lens. And it is certainly not about "pop out the subject from the environment" as there is no environment visible most of the time. This video is just a waste of time.

Dave Dundas's picture

As stated in the article...

" Of course, it is not a particularly practical endeavor, but this is more about the enjoyment of the experience and experimentation"

I guess I'll get out my Canon FL-mount 1200mm lens and shoot some portraits... in the next county.