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Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS Lens Review

by Philip Greenspun, 2000


How can one justify a $10,000 lens that is too heavy to carry most places?

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. SW Florida I was driving through Fakahatchee Strand State Park, where Robert Hitchman of Photograph America said that he'd seen the extremely rare Florida Panther. A tawny animal crossed the road a few hundred meters in front of me, just as Hitchman had reported happening to him. I was prepared. My brand-new Canon 600/4 IS lens was in the back seat, attached to an EOS-3 body loaded up with ISO 400 color negative film. I plunked the lens's tripod foot down on top of the rental convertible's windshield frame and the Canon USM motor brought the panther into focus just as his black friend joined him.

Black friend? Panthers don't travel with friends, I thought. Some careful study through the viewfinder revealed that a pair of Golden Retriever-sized dogs, one tan and one black, companionably ambling back to their homestead, which had presumably been grandfathered into the preserve.

Roseate Spoonbill, Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida Anyway... even if I didn't get a picture of the rare Florida Panther, a 600 comes in handy for the following situations:

  • bird photography (birds are small)
  • maximum compression and abstraction of patterns (Andreas Feininger was a pioneer in using long lenses for city scapes)
  • sports (though a 300/2.8 plus 2X teleconverter might be better)
  • fashion (though a 300/2.8 is probably better)

Historically, 600mm lenses have been useless except to those with excellent camera support technique. See, for example, Tom Davis's article on tripods where he chronicles the difficulty of working with his non-stabilized Nikon 600/4.

Alligator. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. SW Florida By adding an image stabilizer (the "IS" in this lens's model number), Canon has brought the fun of 600mm photography to the lazy and unwashed. The image stabilizer consists of a set of accelerometers that measure actual camera shake. The movement of the camera/lens is compensated out by laterally shifting an internal optical lens element. All of the measurement and compensatory jiggling is accomplished elecronically, with power derived from the camera body battery.

With the image stabilizer engaged, you can pretty much stick the lens on any old tripod and get excellent results down to 1/125th of a second. When using this lens, I could see the image moving around in the viewfinder, even with the lens on a relatively heavy Bogen 3021 tripod with Arca Swiss B1 ballhead. Holding the shutter release halfway down for a second would visibly stabilize the image. Then "snap" and I'd have another keeper image. Using ISO 400 negative film further increased my image yield to the point where I scarcely lost any frames (out of 18 rolls) to camera shake.

Carrying it Around

Poolside, Sanibel Harbour Resort (one of the world's worst), Fort Meyers, Florida Canon includes a hard suitcase that holds the lens. The one thing that Canon didn't think of is that virtually all owners of this lens will attach a tripod coupling plate, e.g., Really Right Stuff Q/R, to the tripod foot. The fit in the case is slightly tight with an RRS plate attached. The lens itself may be carried by its tripod foot or with an included strap. To get the lens into the case, you have to reverse the metal hood. The lens comes with a leather condom of sorts that you can fit around the hood whether it is mounted pointing forward (for photography) or backward (for storage).

Shallow Depth of Field

A 600mm lens doesn't give you too much depth of field. If you're lucky, you'll be able to expose at f/5.6. Notice how in this image the bird and a handful of plants are in focus.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. SW Florida Loon. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida

The Hunt

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. SW Florida Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. SW Florida Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. SW Florida Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. SW Florida

Out of Focus Highlights (bokeh)

Venice Rookery. SW Florida. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. SW Florida

Does Autofocus Work?

Venice Rookery. SW Florida

Flare?

Anhinga. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. SW Florida Sunset. Looking at Sanibel Island from Fort Meyers, Florida

Gallery

Heron. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. SW Florida Alligator. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. SW Florida Roseate Spoonbill. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. SW Florida Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. SW Florida Sunset. Looking at Sanibel Island from Fort Meyers, Florida Fishing at sunset. Looking towards Sanibel Island from Fort Meyers, Florida Roseate Spoonbill, Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida Roseate Spoonbill, Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida Roseate Spoonbill, Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida

Specifications

Construction: 17 elements in 13 groups, 1 Fluorite and 2 UD elements
Focus motor: USM
Closest focusing: 5.5m (18 ft; magnification 0.12x)
Filter size: drop-in
Lens Hood: ET-160
Length: impressive
Weight: 11.7 lb.

Where to Buy the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS USM

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PhotoCD scans by the good folks at Advanced Digital Imaging.
Text and pictures copyright 2000 Philip Greenspun

Article created 2000

Readers' Comments


Add a comment



angel simpson , May 04, 2000; 10:03 A.M.

Birds - stupid birds? Comm'on the first picture shows what you were really after. Let us see more.

Alan Yeo , May 04, 2000; 01:03 P.M.

I had the opportunity to test drive this lens recently and I was amazed that at 1/60 sec, I could handhold this lens and still obtain sharp images(as examined under a 10X loupe). I am sure everyone knows that the IS function is workable even with the lens on a tripod.

The other good thing about this lens is its weight. At 5.3kg(about 11.5lbs), it is lighter than the previous version(by about 700gm) and IMO, any weight saving is Godsent. Well done, Canon.

My only "gripe" with this lens is the colour and the focus lock buttons. I would much prefer a darker coloured lens for nature work but what the heck, you can always camouflage the lens. Compared to the Nikkor AF-S lenses, the focus lock buttons could have been better designed. Being recessed into the front barrel of the lens, they are harder to operate. Again, this is no big deal as one can always lock focus using the shutter release button.

Overall, a very attractive long lens if not for the price!

Jon Robichaud , August 03, 2000; 07:32 P.M.

I recently unloaded my cherished 600 f4 L (non IS) and aquired a new 500 f4L IS. Talk about the best of both worlds! 5 lbs lighter, the IS is a dream come true. So many times that 2x's are used and even 2000/sec doesn't completely eliminate shake. With the 500 IS and 2x, or 2x and 1.4 stacked (with 12mm extention tube) the IS works well, 250th, 500th easy. I usually shoot sports, and IS doesn't do much for subject motion, but there are so many other times that it helps. I'm thrilled with the 500 IS, and I don't miss the weight at all. I'm excited about this NFL season and 5 lbs less weight than my 400 and 600. What a lens!

noire hierodule , February 28, 2007; 11:43 P.M.

Philip,

To refute your first statement: try to carry around a baby all night long who is crying constantly from colic pain and you donno nada to do.

Colton Fischer , January 07, 2009; 11:34 A.M.

I love this lens! The photos come out to sharp. I use it for deer and birds. It's perfect if youlike photographing small birds because you don't have to crop and end up loosing image quality. I totally recomend it to any SERIOUS wildlife photographer!


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