As a professional wildlife photographer I use telephotos extensively. Long lenses are the mainstay of my lens arsenal. I currently have the EF100-400mm F4.5-5.6L, the EF 300mm F2.8L IS, the EF500mm F4 IS and the EF800mm F5.6 IS. For many years I had I used the various versions of Canon’s 600mm F4 lens. I purchased the original EF600mm F4 not long after it was introduced and then I upgraded to the EF 600mm F4IS when it came out. I used this lens for many years and loved its performance but I was becoming increasingly unhappy with its weight and handing. I found myself reaching for the EF500mm F4 IS more often. In April of 2010 I had the chance to borrow the Canon EF800mm F5.6L IS for a month to use in the Images for Conservation Pro Tour Contest. In short I just fell in love with the lens. I was extremely impressed with the optics and handling. The 800mm was much lighter than my 600mm, better balanced, with faster AF and much more effective image stabilization.
The lens is optically superb. With an impressive optical formula, the lens really delivers the goods. When I returned home from the ICF contest I quickly sold my 600mm and purchased the 800mm. My thinking was that it would be a great lens for birds (which it is) and for wildlife, such as the grizzlies and wolves, that I often photograph in Yellowstone National Park. Current regulations don’t allow you to photograph these subjects at reasonably close range. so my thought was, the more focal length the better.
Unfortunately no lens, no matter how good, can overcome the difficulties presented by photographing your subject at long distance. The main problem is the optical degradation caused by the atmosphere itself (heat waves). In the past, I would become frustrated when viewing the images taken of wildlife 100-3oo yds from the camera, with my 600mm. This was even vore of problem when using teleconverters. I could just not achieve sharp images on a consistent basis. Yet with the same combo, photographing a subject 30′ away, the results were excellent.
Here’s a full frame image of a sparrow photographed at a distance of about 30′ with the 800mm F5.6L.
Here’s a 100% crop of the above image. Notice the excellent detail and sharpness of the image. Obviously the 800mm is capable of superb results.
This image was captured in Yellowstone National Park this past spring. This is a typical photo distance required by the parks regulations. I’m guessing the distance was about 150 yards. This was taken on a relatively cool day. It’s a rare day to have atmospheric conditions that allow sharp images of distant subjects.
Here is a 100% crop of the image. Notice nothing is really sharp and it’s not a focus issue. Under these conditions and subject distance you just cannot achieve a sharp image. Carl Zeiss himself couldn’t build a lens to overcome these problems. There is just no substitute for proximity to your subject for achieving excellent optical quality. That makes things quite difficult for wildlife photography in today’s climate of hyper-regulation on public lands.
Yes, I’m still very happy with the Canon 800mm F5.6L. It has no direct competition in the marketplace. I don’t regret the purchase one bit. It’s fantastic for bird phootgraphy and I’ve found the 800mm to be an excellent lens for photographing from my vehicle, which I use as a roving blind in good wildlife habitat. With a whole line of new Canon telephoto lenses just becoming available I may have to reevaluate my telephoto lens lineup. That may be the topic of an upcoming blog post.