I just received my new Canon 600mm f/4L IS II courtesy of Gary Farber and John Duggan at Hunt’s Photo & Video. I think I put down a deposit almost a year and a half ago! My first impression is that this lens is light! The new 600mm weighs about 3.2 pounds less than the model it’s replacing. It’s almost identical in weight to the outgoing 500mm f/4, but because the weight is distributed over an extra 2.5″ of body length, the lens feels even lighter. The good news is that Canon did not compromise on build quality to achieve the weight savings; the lens feels very solid. The tripod collar is as smooth as butter compared to the one on the old 600mm, and the 4-stop IS works as advertised. Since there are so few copies of the lens in circulation and so few images available for viewing on the internet, photographers don’t know what to make of this $13,000 beast. For these reasons, I decided to share my initial impressions of the 600mm f/4 II with you.
I wanted to focus my testing on the performance areas that are relevant to bird photographers, but these findings will be relevant to anyone who uses a supertelephoto lens. All of the tests compare the new 600mm with the version I 600mm. I devised 5 basic tests for this comparison.
Test 1 compares the sharpness of the 2 bare lenses at 3 common apertures (f/4, f/5.6, and f/8). The camera/lens combination was mounted on a Wimberley II head sitting atop a sturdy Gitzo tripod. I chose the 5D Mark III as the body for this test, and I upgraded to the latest firmware prior to testing. I taped my trusty $20 bill on the wall at tripod height, and placed the tripod about 22 feet from the target. I used Live View AF (with manual focus adjustment as needed) to focus on the area right between the eyes, and I also employed both mirror lockup and a cable release. I took multiple frames at each setting and chose the best ones for comparison. This same technique was used for all other tests except for the one testing IS. I opened up the best frames in Lightroom 4 and did side-by-side comparisons at 100% magnification, and then created screen captures for display in this blog post.
Test 2 compares the 2 lenses with the 1.4x III at f/5.6, f/8, and f/11.
Test 3 compares the lenses in combination with the 2x III at f/8 and f/11 (I don’t tend to use apertures smaller than f/11 in the real world).
Test 4 looks at the effect of minimum focus distance on subject size in the frame.
And Test 5 removes the camera/lens from the tripod and compares image stabilization while hand holding.
Before we get to the testing, here’s a shot of the new 600 all dressed up in LensCoat Digital Camo, which does a great job of protecting expensive gear.
Here is a side-by-side comparison of the 2 lenses at f/4. Version I is on the left and Version II is on the right, and I will maintain this orientation throughout the remainder of the comparison. Sharpness is comparable between the 2 lenses in the center of the frame. I might give a slight edge in contrast to the new 600mm, but there’s nothing here that would make me want to sell my Version I and upgrade to a Version II lens.
Next we’ll look at the area a little left of center at the bottom of the frame. Sharpness and contrast are improved with the new lens.
Now for the bottom left corner. Both sharpness and contrast are again better with the new lens. The top left corner shows the same relative performance. But again, the improvement is not worth the cost of admission in my opinion.
At the top and bottom right corners we find comparable sharpness, but the new 600mm has slightly better contrast.
Next we’ll stop down to f/5.6. The results are comparable to those we saw at f/4, so I’ll spare you from having to view the 100% crops, except for the center of the frame.
For the last bare lens test I’ve stopped down to f/8. Nothing noteworthy has changed at this aperture.
The last thing we’ll look at with the bare lenses is the step-up in image quality that occurs as you stop down from f/4 to f/8. First we’ll look at the 600mm Version I. I would say that there’s not much difference in sharpness when you compare the old lens wide open (the image on the left) to the old lens stopped down 2 full stops, and that’s no big surprise. My experience in the field confirms this; the Canon 600mm looks great wide open.
Now we’ll do the same comparison for the 600mm Version II. To my eye it’s difficult to discern a difference between the two frames.
What about the new lens at f/4 vs. the old lens at f/8. I give the nod to the new lens wide open (the image on the left) for its better contrast and slightly better sharpness.
*** Note that for this comparison the new lens is on the left, not the right***
For this test we add the 1.4x III into the mix. As per Canon’s recommendation the TC was mounted on the lens prior to attaching the body. At f/5.6 center sharpness and contrast are nearly identical between the old lens (left) and the new lens (right). The results are the same at all 4 corners of the frame, so I won’t include images. I’m sorry about the lack of color correction; this project is already taking up way too much time!
We’d be hard-pressed to claim that there’s a difference at f/8 either. Both lens/TC combos produce excellent results at the center and the edges.
Switching to f/11 produces excellent-looking frames with both lenses. I’d be lying if I picked a favorite.
As with the previous test, there’s not much difference in image quality as you move from f/5.6 (wide open, left) to f/11 (stopped down 2 stops, right). This holds true for both lenses. The sample below comes from the 600mm Version II.
The new lens at f/5.6 (left) is neck and neck with the old lens at f/11 (right) when using the 1.4x III.
*** Note that for this comparison the new lens is on the left, not the right***
For this test the 1.4x III is exchanged for the 2x III. I shot sample frames at f/8 and f/11 only, because I don’t venture into f/16 territory in the field. The frame you see below shows the Version I lens/2x TC combination on the left and the new one on the right; the aperture is f/8. Center sharpness and contrast are identical between the two lenses.
But when you look at the bottom left corner, image quality starts to fall apart with the old Version I lens. The Version II lens still looks great.
The top left corner tells a similar story. The old 600mm, when combined with the 2x III, has significantly poorer sharpness at the corners than the new 600mm.
The corners on the right side of the frame demonstrate similar softness in the Version I 600mm lens, but I’m going to save you a little bandwidth by not including images.
At f/11 the story is the same as the one at f/8. Center sharpness is identical at f/11 between the old (left) and the new (right) 600mm with a 2x III.
The f/11 aperture is not enough to correct for the corner softness in the 600mm Version I at 1200mm, although it is somewhat improved. Corner sharpness with the Version II 600mm is still excellent.
This is a quick test to demonstrate the impact of the improved minimum focus distance found in the Version II 600mm lens. For people who can get close to their subjects (e.g. photographers shooting from a blind), it’s like getting a free teleconverter but without the aperture penalty.
There’s no scientific way to test image stabilization. That said, I specialize in hand held bird flight photography and the 600mm Version I has been my hand held lens of choice about 99% of the time. I’ve been very pleased with the results I’ve gotten over the years, but hand holding an 11+ pound lens takes a toll on your body. To say that I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of the new 600mm is the understatement of the year!!! So do the weight savings and improved IS allow you to take steadier shots at slow shutter speeds? For this test I hand held each lens (unsupported in any way) and shot between 5 and 10 frames through a progression of steadily slower shutter speeds. I used the sharpest frames at each shutter speed for comparison purposes. These are the slowest shutter speeds that I could get a usably sharp image at. For the 600mm Version I lens, that shutter speed was 1/80.
Things were definitely better with the Version II 600mm lens. I managed 1/20 second. Of course shutter speeds this slow require considerable skill and a fair amount of luck to pull off. But it’s nice to know that you can get sharp images at extremely slow shutter speeds if you need to.
The new Canon 600mm f/4L IS Version II is an impressive piece of glass to be sure. But does it live up to the hype and to its $13,000 price tag. It all depends on what kind of photographer you are and how deep your pockets are. Let me start by saying that I was surprised at how well the Version I 600mm lens held up throughout the test. The only significant sharpness difference between old and new lens was at the corners of the frame, and softness only became problematic with the 2x III added into the equation; use of the 2x is on the rise because of Canon’s penchant for full frame bodies of late. But since center sharpness is comparable, you need to ask yourself how often your subject is placed in the corner of the frame. In summary, kudos to the old 600mm for holding its own. But the new 600mm did consistently best the old one optically.
The improved minimum focus distance of the new 600 should be a boon to setup/blind photographers. You’ll now be able to get quite a few more pixels on your subject without having to resort to a TC.
The new IS delivers on its promise of 2 extra stops of performance.
However, it’s the weight savings that make the new 600mm lens worth every penny for me. The lens is incredibly light….a joy to hand hold! I can get on my subjects faster and track them more consistently. I can stay on a stationary subject for considerably longer (helpful when waiting for a bird to take off from a perch). Although I haven’t gotten to spend much time in the field with the new 600mm, the short time I did spend showed me improved autofocus accuracy when tracking birds in flight against a varied background. Here are a few image posts from the new 600, both taken with the 1.4x III.
Anyone who can hand hold a 500mm lens can now step up to the rarified air of 600mm hand held photography. When the new 600 was announced my initial thought was that if the lens was optically the same as the old 600 but the weight was trimmed by 3 pounds, I’d buy it in a heartbeat. As it turns out, the lens was in such short supply that I bought it sight unseen. And fortunately my prayers were answered. Canon delivered an optically superior (albeit not by much) lens with a 27% reduction in weight! My back (but not my wallet) owes Canon a debt of gratitude!
Thanks again to Gary Farber and John Duggan at Hunt’s for getting me an early copy of this lens. The folks at Hunt’s are a pleasure to deal with and their customer service is second to none!