Review Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM


Alan Rickman
Paul Beastall
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I was lucky enough to borrow a Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM lens on a trip to Knowsley Safari Park on Saturday.

This is Canon's longest (and most expensive) lens currently available. But despite that, my first reaction was how small and light it was! Not by "normal" standards but in comparison with the Canon 600 f/4, it is significantly lighter and certainly much better balanced with the weight more evenly distributed. That means that the lens is easier to handhold (albeit briefly) and much easier to manoeuvre in a car when shooting off a beanbag. However, in general, this is a lens that demands a sturdy tripod and head such as a Wimberley.

The main problem with the lens was the availability of light. It is only f/5.6 and it wasn't a bright day. Therefore I was frequently using shutter speeds in the 1/60s to 1/250s range. Good long lens technique means that this is fine if the subject is static but many shots in the zoo were ruined due to movement in the subject.

So, you might ask, why an 800 at a zoo? Won't 200 or 300 be enough? Well, the main answer is that it was offered to me so I took it! However, for driving around the park shooting from the vehicle, it enabled me to frame animals from much further away and so limit the angle of background on show. It also has the effect of making the viewpoint look lower and therefore adding "intimacy" to pictures, as shown in these 2 shot from the car using a beanbag:

Perhaps the more interesting test was in the meerkat enclosure where the ability to shoot from quite a long way back really helped to make the viewpoint look lower and get a good separation from the background. This required the use of an extension tubes due to the minimum focus distance of 6m. At this point, the most impressive thing about the lens was the AF speed and accuracy. It was certainly significantly better than my own lens, a 500 f/4L - itself no slouch. Even with tubes on, the focus was fast and very accurate, but again, some of the pictures suffered from motion blur due to the meerkats moving.

The images below were with the lens supported on a Gitzo 3450LS tripod and Wimberley 2 gimbal head.

As can be seen, the very narrow angle of view helps to minimise the distraction of the background and taking the shot from further away helps make the shot look lower.

So, it is sharp? This is a 100% crop of the image above and it looks reasonable to me...

You can see that the depth of field is incredibly shallow with the eyes in focus but the tip of the nose not - at f/5.6. I tried to stop down but was only running 1/100s so it wasn't really possible.

So, would I buy one? I think the real answer is probably not. They are phenominally expensive and I can get pretty reasonable quality at 700mm f/5.6 using my 500. The lens is bigger than the 500 but the main thing is that you can take a teleconverter out and trade reach for aperture in poor light.

However, with rumours of there being new versions of Canon's big white primes due over the coming months, I think the 800 suggests they are going to be a significant improvement with the better focusing and IS systems.

If you are mainly photographing small birds then this lens is probably the ultimate for its reach and clarity. I know Arthur Morris certainly thinks so.

But, for me and what I do, I still think the 500 is a better bet, although it was great to be able to put such a lens through its paces for a day.

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Nice review Paul,

Just a brief few words of my experiences using the lens.

I have been using one for my surfing pics for a while now (And NO its not mine) while its a fabulous lens and the improved IS is a welcome bonus I find it a bit restricting when the surfs not large and the surfers move closer to the beach, I start having to walk back up the beach to get some distance between myself and the surfer, which isnt ideal as people start to walk infront of you. I still prefer the versitility of the 600mm f4 IS and the 1.4 x converter which gets you to 840mm f5.6 IS and its a whole lot cheaper, (BUT while i'm lucky enough to be loaned one for free when i need it I would be stupid to not use it when it would be the best option.)

Another point to note is if like me you use the Wimberley low profile replacement foot, the same foot can fit the 400, 600, 800mm IS lens's.


He's macroscopic !
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Good review Paul but the shots aren't working Mate, send it to me straight away and I'll have a go with it :D Looks awesome but a lens only for the rich I guess :(
Oh well one can only dream, night night ;)