by Philip Greenspun; created 2000
Site Home : Photography : Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS Lens Review
How can one justify a $10,000 lens that is too heavy to carry most places? (2018: $11,500 at Amazon for the updated version!)
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.
Anyway... even if I didn't get a picture of the rare Florida Panther, a 600 comes in handy for the following situations:
Historically, 600mm lenses have been useless except to those with excellent camera support technique.
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.
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).
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.
|Construction:||17 elements in 13 groups, 1 Fluorite and 2 UD elements|
|Closest focusing:||5.5m (18 ft; magnification 0.12x)|
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