My brief encounter! The Canon 800mm F5.6 telephoto lens, a user experience.
On safari with the Canon 800mm F5.6.
In June-July, this year (2008) I had the good fortune to travel through Tanzania in Africa on a photo safari through several great national parks. This safari was led by pro photographer and Canon “Explorer of Light” Bruce Dorn, who, as well as being a nice bloke and excellent leader/photographic guide, is an exceptional still and motion image maker (check out Bruce’s blog for further). As a result of Bruce’s relationship with Canon, he was using/testing their new lens offering, the 800mm F5.6 super-telephoto lens. I was fortunate enough to get to use (play with) the lens briefly. At the time of writing, the lens is still in the process of being released into the market, indeed I’m probably one of the few people who have, to this point, been fortunate enough to use it in the field.
The 800mm F5.6 lens.
Canon has for several years had a series of super-telephoto lenses available incorporating image stabilization technology. Focal lengths for these lenses range from the 300mm F2.8 through to the 600mm F4.0. In 2007 Canon announced the impending introduction of 2 new lenses the 800mm F5.6 and a 200mm F2.0. The 800mm lens at this time is not generally available to the public, however, the specifications have been published and can be viewed in detail online Canon 800mm F5.6 specs
I won’t regurgitate all the specs here, but some of the keys ones are as follows; Weight 4500 grams or 9.9 lbs, Length 46 centimetres or 18 inches Minimum focusing distance 6 metres or 20 feet and Recommended retail price US$12,000. The lens is intended for long-distance applications including outdoor sports and wildlife and like the other super telephotos utilizes some impressive technology such as fluorite, UD, and Super-UD-glass elements together with Canon’s image stabilization (IS).
Canon claim the IS can provide up to 4 stops of correction for camera shake. The lens achieves comparatively lightweight by use of magnesium alloy in its construction and is compatible with the EF 1.4x II and 2x II tele extenders retaining some autofocus capability with the extenders, dependent on the model of DSLR used. At this weight, the 800mm is actually lighter than the 600mm F4.0 and is not much bulkier than the 500mm F4.0 with which I’m more familiar. In common with most of the other super telephotos, its size and weight make it impractical to handhold the lens, it really demands some support whether it be a bean bag, tripod, or maybe a monopod.
About the images.
In this article, I present several images captured using the lens on a Canon 20D digital SLR so as to give readers some idea, a taste, of the image quality that can be expected in a real-life situation. This is not a lab test, doesn’t use test charts and I don’t claim to show the ‘ultimate” image quality that may be obtained. Image quality is affected by many variables apart from the lens itself, focusing accuracy, shutter speed, camera/lens support, subject movement, atmospheric conditions, ISO setting, etc.
The shots shown were taken using a bean bag as support and, reviewing the metadata, were in some instances taken using unnecessarily slow shutter speeds. The shots weren’t taken with any formal lens test in mind, indeed at the time of using the lens, it didn’t occur to me that I would ultimately compile this article.
The images were captured in RAW format and for presentation here have been converted in Adobe Camera Raw on the default settings, in Photoshop CS3 the images were sized to 800 pixels image width at a resolution of 100 dpi and were converted to JPegs using CS3’s “save for web” function with the quality setting at 100%. No other sharpening has been employed and the only other processing was the use of my “signature brush”.
I don’t claim the images have any great artistic or aesthetic quality, indeed when I eventually display a gallery of shots from this trip, some of these images may or may not be part of that final presentation.
Yes, I know, 1/25 second with an 800mm lens, what was I thinking? I guess that tells you something about the value of a bean bag and IS (and a reminder to yours truly to lift his game!).
A couple of points need to be made here regards the camera used. The 20D is a reduced frame DSLR with a cropping factor of 1.6x, so the angle of view becomes the equivalent of a 1280mm lens (if there were such a thing) on a full-frame SLR, and it also follows that only the centre of the image circle is being used. I can only guess therefore at the corner to corner image quality at full frame, although I would be surprised if it’s not excellent.
Travelling with a Super Telephoto Lens.
During the course of my photo safari, I travelled to and from Tanzania carrying a Canon 500mm F4.0 lens on commercial airlines. Clearly, I wasn’t going to place such expensive equipment in my checked luggage. Instead, I chose to attach the lens to a DSLR, removed the lens hood, replacing it with a homemade cover gaffer taped in place to protect the front lens element, and carried it on board as my “personal item”. This combination was put through security screening at Melbourne, Singapore, Johannesburg, and Kilimanjaro airports without ever raising any objections from security personnel or airline staff, although it did elicit numerous “gee-whiz” remarks and questions from fellow travellers.
It would be interesting to know what the attitude of the authorities would be to carrying the physically larger 800mm on board in this manner. Perhaps carrying the lens sans camera, and lens hood may be the best approach, or try your luck with the camera attached but be ready to remove the camera and carry it in your carry-on bag if questioned. The other approach is to use a camera bag/roller case that is within the airline’s limits for bag/case dimensions and carry the lens within that. I don’t believe this is practical. The largest bags/cases I’ve seen advertised for this purpose are only just capable of accommodating a 500mm lens let alone an 800mm. In addition to this, the weight restriction for a carry-on bag on airlines, at least operating out of Australia, is 7 kilograms or approximately 15 lbs, and I believe they do check this on occasions. This limit may vary in other countries and the weight allowances may be more generous for those prepared to upgrade to business class tickets, so check with your airline prior to flying.
In addition to this, is the weight of such camera bags/cases themselves. Bags/cases designed to carry such equipment typically weigh at least 3 to 4 kilograms empty, so by the time you pack a couple of camera bodies with a couple of short lenses, you’re done. There’s no further allowance for a laptop computer, which many of us now choose to carry, let alone a long telephoto lens.
Alternatives to an 800mm lens.
I guess one alternative is the use of a shorter telephoto lens with a teleconverter/tele extender. Such a combination may be the 500mm F4.0 with the 1.4x tele extender giving you an effective 700mm at F5.6. With the 1.4x extender attached the combination becomes fairly close in physical dimensions and weight to the 800mm. I won’t provide a 500mm F4.0 plus 1.4x extender shot in this article, there are just too many variables involved to make such a comparison meaningful. No doubt at some future date someone will drag out the resolution test targets and run the comparisons in a strictly controlled environment and count all the pixels! The 500mm F4.0 is a superb piece of equipment and gives excellent performance both with and without the extender. Having said that, it is inevitable that no matter how good the quality of the tele extender (and the Canon offering is excellent) the image quality, and also the autofocus performance, will be compromised.
In addition to this of course, if you’re using the 800mm, there’s nothing to stop you from using a 1.4x extender on that taking you out to 1120mm at F8.0. One other alternative to the Canon 800mm may be to consider what’s available from independent lens makers in this focal length. The only such lens I’m aware of is the Sigma 300-800mm F5.6 zoom which I confess I’ve never had the opportunity to try out, however it has its admirers. The advantages of such a lens appear to be the flexibility of a zoom design as opposed to the fixed focal length and the pricing, approximately US$7,000. The disadvantages are that it has no IS capability, it’s physically larger and heavier (almost 6 kilograms, some users affectionately refer to it as the “Sigmonster”) and, rightly or wrongly, the quality control of independent makers is sometimes questioned.
So who is the 800mm F5.6 for, and would I buy one? The lens appears to have been designed with wildlife and sports photographers in mind and, one comment made during my travels was that it may have particular appeal to bird photographers where very long focal lengths are sometimes demanded. Whilst I suspect this is a lens that photographic gear freaks will drool over, the market for such a lens appears to be a fairly narrow one, how many people have the specific and ongoing need for such a piece of equipment? If money were no object, I’d love to own one of these, but as is the case for most people, money is an object. Those who have a specific need for this lens will no doubt be delighted with the results that are possible with it, but they’ll need deep pockets! Kevin Dowie (July 2008)
Notes. I have no formal or commercial relationship with any of the people, companies, or products referred to in this article and the views expressed here are my own. These views are not vetted by or endorsed by any company referred to. All prices referred to in the article are in US dollars unless otherwise stated and of course, are subject to change. Readers should make their own inquiries regards the pricing of equipment which varies considerably given local taxes, foreign exchange rates, and other commercial factors. The comments made regarding airline policy are based on my own experience at the time of writing. Such policies are subject to change and may vary according to location.
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Suggested further reading: Sharpening digital photos.