Written by Nicolas Rakotopare
In late January 2019, following a dive trip to one of the best spots in the world, I spent a weekend on the Kinabatangan River in Eastern Sabah (Borneo). The plan was simple! The area is renowned for a variety of wildlife and the ability to do river cruises in the morning and evening to try and photograph the local species and that is what I had planned.
This was to be my 4th trip to this river as I have spent over 6months in Sabah both for frog research and wildlife photography/filmmaking. Two of my best friends who reside in Kota Kinabalu flew down to spend the 2.5 days photographing with me. It all sounds rather simple but the weather had different plans in mind. We were met with a downpour that lasted hours on end, day after day, and had to cancel a large section of the outings. This is nature photography 101, you can only plan and predict to a certain extent! We traded the trips for relaxing hours of drinking coffees and talking about wildlife photography under the roof of the riverside restaurant at the Bed and Breakfast. The good thing about having been to the area so often is that it reduces the pressure of shooting a little bit!
Let’s talk gear while the rains ease! Once again I collaborated with CameraPro to take one lens on the field and test it in real conditions. This was slightly different from our previous collaboration as I’ve used the Canon EF 100-400mm F/4-5.6 IS USM II in the past but had not with the Canon 85mm F/1.4 I took to the USA last year.
The lens serves well for landscapes like this one, showing a compressed view of the environment. This is a typical boat taking people for wildlife watching cruises.
This red leaf langur was just outside our accommodation feasting on leaves! Eye level and only 5m from us it made for a great subject.
About the lens
The Canon EF 100-400mm F/4-5.6 IS USM II is the updated version of the popular Version 1. They have gone from a pump system for the zoom to a regular twist one. A great upgrade as the version had a tendency to suck up dust.
It’s one of my favourite lenses for photographing medium-sized to large sized animals. The zoom range is great both on full frame and APS-C and the versatility of a zoom mean you are less likely to miss a shot if the animals come in closer. When you are on trips where you can’t know the distance to the animals (i.e boats - safaris) and rely on a range of parameters to be placed in the perfect shot position, a zoom is the safest option to get a shot you will be happy with. The range on an APS-C camera is really good (eq: 160 – 640mm!) and it’s sharp at all focal length (no I haven’t gotten an MTF chart out but in practical use and on the field I have never looked at an image at 400mm and thought “gee that is soft”. I prefer rating gear like that rather than in a studio where the wildlife doesn’t move very much!). It balances well on most Canon XXD and XD series DSLR while allowing for extended handheld periods to be rather painless. It’s weather sealed, another great feature for the wildlife photographer as you, generally, have to be outside to find wildlife!
Taking the Canon EOS 100-400mm F/4-5.6 IS USM II on the field.
Now that we have talked gear let’s see what I captured with this lens (paired on the Canon EOS 1DX mkII) on the Kinabatangan River.
Proboscis Monkey are endemic to Borneo, a peculiar looking and fascinating primate. Thanks to the zoom I was able to frame the subject quite wide and as the boat slowly got closer I could keep on zooming until I got the desired frame. Something a little harder to achieve with a prime lens!
One of the many tributaries, I really like that at 100mm on the full frame sensor I have lots of options to get landscapes like this.
The shots above really illustrated the versatility of a zoom and the story telling power in changing focal length. At 100mm you can see the whole wave of microbats in the dusk coloured sky and at 400m you can see the shape of the bats but not the sheer number of them.
I am yet to put this lens at fault and I have used it many times in rough conditions. It’s my favorite and go-to lens for pelagic bird photography as well. The reliable autofocus system and the range make it perfect for the tough conditions you encounter at sea and to capture the birds zooming past.
It’s a great lens for video! I use it handheld a lot and when coupled with high-framerates it can produce great shots. Here is a short compilation of clips shot with the Canon EOS 1DX mkII and the EF 100-400mm F/4-5.6 IS USM II IS lens.
The boat slowly glided by this grey-tailed racer and I used the zoom to gradually zoom in while keeping the snake in focus and get the framing I wanted.
For this trip I also used my 300mm F/2.8 with an 2x extender when I wanted an even tighter framing as well as a Canon EOS M5 for the vlogging and behind-the-scenes shots.
Here is the vlog from that weekend if you want to see more of the wildlife of the Kinabatangan Area.
I hope this gave you an insight as to why I like this lens and how it served me during this short trip!
Bio: Nicolas is a freelance photographer and filmmaker based on the Gold Coast in Australia. He focuses on nature, science, adventure and eco-tourism projects. Follow his work on: