Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens Review

Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens Review

In what may have been my best-ever UPS delivery, I received two of the finest lenses ever made on the same truck. The Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens and Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS II USM Lens had finally arrived - at the same time.

Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens on Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III DSLR Camera

I say "finally" because a development notice for these lenses had been released nearly two years prior (August 26, 2010). Formal announcement press releases were issued on February 7, 2011 with delivery expected in May 2011. With the price of these new lenses being so high, I promptly sold the being-replaced Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS USM Lens and Canon EF 600mm f/4.0 L IS USM Lens to fund the new versions. And I planned two big photo trips that would utilize these new lenses.

My timing for selling the prior-version lenses proved to be very poor. It was not until June 2012 that I had the new lenses in my hands - which was of course long after both photo trips. And just after my spring sports season ended.

With both identically-sized large lens boxes sitting on my studio floor, I began the opening process. The first task is recording the lens serial number (for reporting to my insurance agent) and to visually inspect the lens. As I placed the first lens on my desk, I was confused as to which model I was about to record the serial number for. I had to read the model from the lens to be sure.

Turns out that Canon reduced the weight of the new EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens by so incredibly much that I wasn't sure which lens I was holding. The difference in weight between the 600 L IS II and 600 L IS I is dramatic.

The 600 L IS I's biggest downside for me was weight. I seldom used the 600 L IS I for situations that required much carrying time/distance - I resorted to the 500 L IS I for those scenarios. On many of these occasions, I would have much preferred the longer focal length (especially when using full frame bodies). The Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens is now similar in weight to the 500 L IS I that I stepped down to in those situations.

EF 600mm f/4 L IS II Artistic Close-Up

I was not overly excited about Canon replacing their 4th generation, circa 1999 big white lenses as I was quite satisfied with them. But, with each successive model I've had the privilege of using, I am being won over to the IS II lenses. They are clearly better in most regards including image quality.

Canon's IS version II super telephoto lenses are very similar to each other, and as I said in the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens Review: If you can get past the price, they will blow you away in most other regards.

The 600 f/4 L IS II is one of the most incredible lenses available and an ultimate choice for wildlife, sports, journalism and any other long focal length needs. This lens features superb image quality even with a wide open aperture, extremely fast AF, 4-stop-rated image stabilization and best-available build quality.

Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens Strutting Turkey Sample Picture

The 600 f/4 L IS II is the longest focal length Canon lens available with an f/4 max aperture. And the only longer Canon lens is the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6 L IS USM Lens. But with a Canon Extender EF 1.4x III attached, the 600 L IS II an even bests this lens at an equivalent f/5.6 max aperture focal length (840mm).

The 600 f/4 L IS II's long focal length, especially when used on APS-C/1.6x FOVCF bodies (960mm framing equivalency), narrows the scenarios this lens will be used for.

Wildlife photographers are going to be one of the largest 600 L IS II user groups. The long focal length enables great wildlife shots from a longer distance - avoiding subject disturbance and keeping the photographer a safer distance from dangerous game. The longer focal length also magnifies the background more than wider focal lengths, creating a smoothly-blurred background that makes the subject pop.

Sports photographers are going to be another large 600 L IS II user group. While this lens will need twice as much light to stop action in than the 400 f/2.8 L II, the longer focal length allows subjects to be tighter-framed from longer distances. And sometimes keeping the photographer a safe distance from the action is paramount (think motorsports).

Here is a look at the most frequently used 600 f/4 apertures:

Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens Aperture Comparison Example

The widest apertures create a great background blur while the narrower apertures keep more of this young white-tailed deer in focus.

I relied on IS a lot when using the version I 600 L IS lens - especially when shooting wildlife. I didn't handhold that lens a lot due to its shoulder/back injury-inducing weight, but the tripod-sensing IS system was quite helpful in reducing vibration (including from mirror slap) when shooting from a tripod. Handholding the 600 L IS II is much easier and I am now relying on IS much more frequently to help me get the shot. I find IS to be an extremely valuable feature for this lens.

The 600mm f/4 L IS II's IS is rated at a best-available-at-review-time 4-stops of assistance (the 600 L IS I was rated for two stops). "The Image Stabilizer ... has been enhanced through the incorporation of a rolling-ball-friction system in place of sliding parts in the compensation optics barrel for a minimum-friction structure" [Canon USA]

Shooting outdoors with no wind and solid footing, I am able to get a reasonable percentage of sharp handheld results at between 1/25th and 1/15th of a second for an easy 4 stops (approaching 5 stops) of assistance. Even after handholding the 600 f/4 L IS II for hundreds of shots (not easy to do), I was still able to get a usable shot of an eastern chipmunk at an incredible 1/5 second (about 7 stops lower than with no IS). While certainly not tack sharp and ready for a poster-sized reproduction, this 5D Mark III image could be printed sharp at a reasonable size.

Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens Image Stabilization Example

Perhaps even more amazing is that this chipmunk patiently rested on the rock at a near minimum focus distance away from me long enough for me to shoot a full IS test round of several hundred images.

The 600 f/4 L IS II has three IS modes. Mode 1 is typically used for stationary subjects. Just the stabilized viewfinder this mode provides at 600mm is extremely helpful.

Mode 2 IS is used for panning with a subject. In this mode, only 1 axis of stabilization is provided - allowing a linearly-moving subject to be tracked.

The new mode available on IS version II super telephoto lenses is the designed-for-tracking-action mode 3 IS. In mode 3, image stabilization is active and ready for use the moment the shutter releases, but actual stabilization is not in effect until that precise time. The view seen through the viewfinder is not stabilized, and you are able to follow your erratic subjects without fighting against image stabilization designed to prevent you from doing the same. IS Mode 3 is designed to detect panning motion and when detected will only apply Image Stabilization at right angles to the direction of the detected movement (like IS Mode 2).

Mode 3 IS debuted with the Canon 300mm and 400mm f/2.8 L IS II Lenses. I gave mode 3 a significant amount of workout with those lenses and have made mode 3 my standard action setting. Off was my previous choice - I usually need a faster-than-handholdable shutter speed to stop the action I am shooting. Mode 3 on the 600 L IS II is working superbly for me.

You will hear some clicking and whirring when IS is active on this lens, but the IS implementation is very well behaved. By this I mean that the image in the viewfinder does not jump around when the system activates. In Mode 3, IS sound will be heard when the shutter release is half-pressed, but the image is not stabilized until the precise moment that the shot is taken.

Canon's super telephoto lenses continue to have a secondary IS mode that automatically senses a tripod being used and, at shutter speeds between 1/30th and 1 second, adjusts to compensate for mirror slap, shutter and other subtle tripod-based vibrations. The IS system automatically disables itself during tripod use when shutter speeds longer than 1 second are used.

600 f/4 L IS II Mounted on Tripod

My expectations for Canon super telephoto L lens image quality are automatically set very high. Canon's theoretical MTF charts strongly hinted that the 600mm f/4 L IS II's completely redesigned optics would deliver impressive image quality - as the other version II super-telephoto lenses being released in 2011/2012 have shown.

Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens MTF Charts

And the Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens definitely does not disappoint. Only the best of the best lenses have excellent image quality at their widest apertures, and based on my evaluation of two retail-purchased lenses, I can very comfortably say that the image quality of this lens model at f/4 is incredible.

At f/4, the Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens is extremely sharp right into the full frame corners - landing this lens squarely into an elite category. Stopping down to narrower apertures makes very little difference in resulting image quality - other than some vignetting clearing in the corners. The 600 L IS II shows itself especially impressive when compared to the 600 L IS I Lens. The contrast/sharpness difference between the new and old lenses is large. Results from both tested lenses can be found in the ISO12233 Tool (link at top of this review).

About 1.6 stops of vignetting is present in full frame corners at f/4 - an amount very similar to the 600 f/4 IS I. A barely-perceptible .6 stops of vignetting remains at f/5.6 and essentially no vignetting remains at f/8. APS-C body owners will probably not notice any vignetting even at f/4.

600 f/4 L IS II Angled Side View Without Hood

The 600 L IS II is practically distortion-free. CA (Chromatic Aberration) is well controlled - about equivalent with the 600 L IS I, but I do see more CA in this lens than the other review-time-current super telephoto IS II lenses.

The II lenses have proven to be far greater resistant to flare than the I lenses, but don't expect a standard 600mm flare test from me. Don't point this lens into the sun, but do expect better backlit-subject performance from the version II lens.

In regards to bokeh (quality of the background blur), the 600 L II performs very well. In regards to amount of background blur, this lens delivers a significant amount of it. The 600 IS II has a 9-blade circular aperture configuration.

"The optical elements also feature Canon’s latest Super Spectra Coatings, optimized for both the position and type of each lens element. A SubWavelength Structure Coating (SWC), which uses microscopic cone-shaped structures smaller than a wavelength of visible light, reduces ghosting caused by light bouncing back from the imaging sensor and resisting flare. SWC is applied to four internal groups in the lens.

Front and rear lenses elements utilize a Fluorine coating that repels dust and dirt - and makes cleaning easier. The coating is also water repellent, keeping the front element free of water marks and smearing by ensuring water runs off the lens quickly." [Canon UK]

The SWC coating works. Along with the reduced flare, the Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens turns in very impressive contrast and great color - even at f/4. The Fluorine coating benefit is easy to see from a cleaning standpoint - fingerprints specifically are much easier to remove from a lens coated in this manner. I rarely use this lens without the hood, so getting fingerprints on the front lens element takes some effort. But, dust does get blown into this large hole - and dust is very easy to lift from the Fluorine-coated front lens element.

Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens without hood on Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III DSLR Camera

In regards to autofocus, all Canon super telephoto lenses turn in best-in-class performance. Driven by Ring USM (Ultrasonic Motor), they focus extremely fast and very quietly. Some quiet shuffling movement can be heard inside the 600 L IS II during focusing.

All Canon super telephoto lenses focus internally and have FTM (Full Time Manual) focusing available.

These lenses also include a Focus Preset feature. Set the Focus Preset to a specific distance and when your shooting needs require that specific distance, simply turn the white spring-loaded knurled playback ring on the end of the lens. The Focus Preset switch settings include an audible focus confirmation setting.

The Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens' manual focus ring is very large, is nicely damped, has a very nice rate of adjustment and is very smooth with no play. The subject size in the viewfinder does change slightly over long focus pulls, but I don't think that anyone will complain about this. The change in focusing is solid and predictable.

New on the 2010 and later-announced super telephoto L lenses is the third focusing mode: "PF" or Power Focusing.

"Helping moviemakers achieve smoother and more appealing focus shifts when filming on EOS DSLR cameras, Canon has included a new Power Focus (PF) mode on the Company's two new super telephoto lenses. This mode allows manual rack focusing to be operated smoothly by turning a playback ring that is normally used for the focus preset function. Both low-speed and high-speed focus shifting are available." [Canon USA]

Turn the ring slightly to get the low speed electronically-driven AF and turn it to a greater degree to obtain the higher speed. Low speed is hard to catch before moving into fast speed, and fast speed seems too fast to be usable to me. The direction of ring rotation determines the direction of focus distance change. The feature works nicely, but as I've said before, you are going to need a solid tripod setup and a steady hand to not induce movement while turning the ring. The electronic focusing is very quiet, but image stabilization needs to be turned off if recording sound at the camera.

A 3-position focus limiter switch allows focusing distances to be limited to a specific distance range - or to be unlimited: 14.76' (4.5m) - 52' (16m), 52' (16m) - ∞, 14.76' (4.5m) - ∞. Limiting the focus distance range can improve focus lock times and reduce focus hunting.

Autofocus Stop buttons near the objective lens allow autofocus to be temporarily stopped. I use AI-Servo focusing mode for shooting sports and other action, but like to shoot a focus-and-recompose portrait at times during the event. The Autofocus Stop feature makes it easy to obtain focus lock, turn off autofocus and recompose for a framing that places the active focus point(s) off of the subject. Alternatively, changing the camera setup to rear-AF button focus only can enable this functionality.

Especially with long focal length, wide aperture lenses that can create a very shallow depth of field, focus accuracy is critical. AF accuracy is extremely important for the 600 f/4 L IS II> - especially AI Servo AF accuracy since this lens will be called upon to capture world-watching action events (think Olympics).

In One Shot focusing mode, the Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens focuses extremely quickly and very consistently accurately. It hits practically every shot perfectly when I do my part.

The lens' focusing speed is also realized in AI Servo mode where it is able to track fast moving subjects at even close distances. Field sports such as soccer are always great tests for a lens' AI Servo performance, but my spring sports season ended about a week before this lens arrived. Galloping and cantering quarter horses are always a challenge and are available year-round for my testing.

The bottom line is that a mounted-to a Canon EOS 5D Mark III delivered a very high rider-in-focus hit rate from the 600 L IS II for me. Here is an example:

600 L IS II AI Servo Autofocus Example

 
The closer and faster the subject is moving, the harder it is for a camera and lens to drive AF fast enough to maintain focus. A galloping quarter horse at a small-rider full-frame-filling distance is very challenging (challenging for me to track as well).

The 5D Mark III settings for this shot were 1/1600, f/4 and ISO 320. The RAW image capture was processed in DPP using the Standard Picture Style with no adjustments made other than sharpness being reduced to only "2". The Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens delivered eyelashes that are practically too sharp. It is hard to ask for better AF performance than this lens delivers. I could show you many such examples.

Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens Angled Close-Up

Canon super telephoto lenses typically have relatively long MFDs (Minimum Focusing Distances). The 600 f/4 L IS II brings us a welcomed improvement over its predecessor by focusing 39.3" (1000mm) closer. But the new .15x MM (Maximum Magnification) value still leaves small critter (think hummingbirds, chipmunks, butterflies) photographers wanting a 25mm extension tube or 1.4x extender installed.

Following is a comparison table showing the recent, current and near future Canon super telephoto lineup as of review time.

ModelMFDMM
Canon EF 200mm f/2.0 L IS USM Lens74.8"(1900mm)0.12x
Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Ext 1.4x Lens78.7"(2000mm)0.15x, 0.21x
Canon EF 300mm f/4.0 L IS USM Lens59.1"(1500mm)0.24x
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens78.7"(2000mm)0.18x
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS USM Lens98.4"(2500mm)0.13x
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM Lens70.9"(1800mm)0.20x
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM Lens137.8"(3500mm)0.12x
Canon EF 400mm f/4.0 DO IS USM Lens137.8"(3500mm)0.12x
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens106.3"(2700mm)0.17x
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS USM Lens118.1"(3000mm)0.15x
Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS II USM Lens145.7"(3700mm)0.15x
Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS USM Lens177.2"(4500mm)0.12x
Canon EF 600mm f/4.0 L IS II USM Lens177.2"(4500mm)0.15x
Canon EF 600mm f/4.0 L IS USM Lens216.5"(5500mm)0.12x
Canon EF 800mm f/5.6 L IS USM Lens236.2"(6000mm)0.14x

All Canon super telephoto lenses are compatible with the Canon EF 12mm Extension Tube II and the Canon EF 25mm Extension Tube II. Using the ETs improves the 600 IS II's MM specs to .17x and .20x respectively. I use extension tubes more with super telephoto lenses than with any other lens type - and more with the 500-800mm lenses than the rest. Most often I'm chasing small birds and animals when using ETs. Infinity focus distance is of course lost when ETs are mounted.

All Canon super telephoto lenses are compatible with the Canon Extender EF 1.4x III and the Canon Extender EF 2x III. The resulting lens combinations are impressive - 840mm f/5.6 IS and 1200mm f/8 IS lenses.

When the series III extenders were introduced, much was made about their performance with the new series II super telephoto lenses. "These new extenders have been designed to provide faster autofocusing and improved autofocus precision with compatible EF lenses" and "Each extender also features a newly developed microcomputer that increases AF precision when the extenders are used with a IS Series II EF super-telephoto lens." [Canon USA]

The 300 f/2.8 IS II and 400 f/2.8 IS II were the first two such lenses to hit the streets, and the 500 f/4 IS II and 600 f/4 IS II lenses have now arrived. And the with-extender focusing speeds from these combinations are quite impressive. Expect some focus hunting when using extenders on long lenses and focusing at significantly different distances (when the subject is very strongly blurred), but it is hard to tell the with-extender focus speed from the bare lens focus speed. Both are almost instant - even with the 2x installed (on a Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III that supports f/8 AF).

Full frame Canon EOS DSLR camera owners will find the 1.4x III extender an especially useful accessory for bird and small animal photography. On the Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens, the 1.4x III very slightly reduces wide open aperture contrast/sharpness and slightly increases barrel distortion. Stopping this combination down to f/8.0 results in only very slightly better image quality.

Remarkable is the comparison between the 600 L IS II and the 800 L IS. Does this lens make the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6 L IS USM Lens obsolete?

The 600 L IS II and 1.4x combination is slightly less expensive, is slightly lighter, has a slightly longer focal length, has a much shorter MFD and higher MM (0.21x vs. 0.14x) and of course has the option of being a 600mm f/4 lens. The 800 L is modestly smaller with the hood in place.

Adding the 2x III Extender to the 600 L IS II impacts sharpness/contrast much more noticeably. A 1-stop narrower aperture results in only slightly improved image quality - but the aperture is now f/11. Distortion with this combo is minimal - only very slight barrel distortion.

The with-2x f/8-resulting max aperture means that only Canon 1-Series bodies (as of Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens review time) retain autofocus capability. Update: the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is expected to receive a firmware update to allow it to join the 1-Series bodies in the f/8 AF capability.

Note that the Canon USA press release does not specifically say that the series III extenders would deliver better image quality (though features were added that could) - but that they would deliver better AF performance. Although the AF improvement will not result in better than the optical capability of the lens-plus-extender combination, better AF performance does indeed deliver better image quality overall.

Also note that Canon Europe CPN has stated "To get the best out of the new lenses and the Mark III extenders photographers must ensure they attach the extender to the lens first, before attaching the whole unit to the camera. This ensures that the combined lens information is transmitted correctly to provide the optimum image quality and focus performance."

Feeling especially intrepid? Stack a 1.4x and 2x extender.

Moon Photographed with Stacked Extenders

I decided that, with a clear sky, I was going to stack a pair of extenders to the back of my Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens and capture the "Harvest Moon" (the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox).

Stacking a Canon EF 1.4x Extender with a Canon EF 2x Extender requires a 12mm extension tube to be mounted between the two – to make the fit possible. The result is 600mm x 2 x 1.4 = 1680mm.

While you should not expect amazing image quality from this setup, the tight angle of view delivered by 1680mm is quite amazing. So tight that tracking the moon through the frame is a constant task. And, avoiding vibrations is a challenge. I opted to use mirror lockup with the 10 second self-timer to make sure that the camera fully settled down before the shutter release.

I was trying different exposure settings and verifying the results on the LCD. During one such check, I saw a black spot on the moon. My first thought was that I had a piece of dust on my sensor. Zooming in revealed otherwise.

I live well over an hour from the nearest large airport. The sky was black and I had no idea there were any airplanes in the area. Using the 10 second timer, with the narrow angle of view, meant that I was predicting where the moon would be in the frame at shutter release. Not only did the airplane happen to cross the moon at that exact time, it happened to be in a perfect location over the moon. The timing was divine.

This above image is an un-touched conversion of the Canon EOS 5D Mark III RAW file. Sometimes your reward for photography effort is more than you expect.

Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens Framed Tightly with Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III

As a member of the most elite group in the Canon L Lens Series, the Canon Super Telephoto Lens Series, the Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens also comes with high build quality expectations. These lenses are expected to deliver ultimate performance in the most adverse outdoor environments. Canon indicates "double the impact resistance" from the prior lens model.

The 600 f/4 L IS II is as you would expect for a primarily-used-outdoors L lens, weather sealed. "Weather-sealed EF lenses are not immersible, but they can handle rain with no problem." [Canon USA] The sealing of the new IS II super telephoto lenses "... is equivalent to the older IS super-telephotos."

Note that the version II super telephoto lenses do not have the protective meniscus front lens element that the older super telephoto lenses had. Removal of the protective lens contributes to the impressive overall weight reduction. With the large lens hood in place during use, the front element is already very protected on the Canon super telephoto lenses.

According to Canon USA, the overall durability of the Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens over the previous model has been enhanced through increased usage of robust and lightweight magnesium alloy and titanium for lens barrel components. The previous 600 f/4 IS had no problem handling the rigors of professional outdoor use - the version II lens appears ready to perform at least as well. This is a solid, quality-built lens.

Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens Product Images

 
As I said in another review (or maybe several other reviews), taking delivery of a new Canon super telephoto lens can make even the most jaded photographer feel like a kid on Christmas morning. Every photographer should have the experience of receiving one of these big white Canon lenses sometime in life.

Here is a table of comparable Canon telephoto lenses with the weight specification included.

ModelWeightDimensions w/o HoodFilterYear 
Canon EF 200mm f/2.0 L IS USM Lens5.56 lbs(2520g)5.0 x 8.2"(128 x 208mm)DI 52mm2008
Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM 1.4x7.98 lbs(3620g)5.0 x 14.4"(128 x 366mm)DI 52mm2013
Canon EF 300mm f/4.0 L IS USM Lens2.63 lbs(1190g)3.5 x 8.7"(90 x 221mm)77mm1997
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens5.19 lbs(2350g)5.0 x 9.8"(128 x 248mm)DI 52mm2011
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS USM Lens5.63 lbs(2550g)5.0 x 9.9"(128 x 252mm)DI 52mm1999
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM Lens3.04 lbs(1380g)3.6 x 7.4"(92 x 189mm)77mm1998
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM Lens2.76 lbs(1250g)3.5 x 10.1"(90 x 257mm)77mm1993
Canon EF 400mm f/4.0 DO IS USM Lens4.28 lbs(1940g)5.0 x 9.1"(128 x 232mm)DI 52mm2001
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens8.49 lbs(3850g)6.4 x 13.5"(163 x 343mm)DI 52mm2011
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS USM Lens11.85 lbs(5370g)6.4 x 13.7"(163 x 349mm)DI 52mm1999
Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS II USM Lens7.04 lbs(3190g)5.7 x 15.1"(146 x 383mm)DI 52mm2011
Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS USM Lens8.54 lbs(3870g)5.7 x 15.2"(146 x 387mm)DI 52mm1999
Canon EF 600mm f/4.0 L IS II USM8.65 lbs(3920g)6.6 x 17.6"(168 x 448mm)DI 52mm2011
Canon EF 600mm f/4.0 L IS USM Lens11.83 lbs(5360g)6.6 x 18.0"(168 x 456mm)DI 52mm1999
Canon EF 800mm f/5.6 L IS USM Lens9.86 lbs(4470g)6.4 x 18.1"(163 x 461mm)DI 52mm2008

For many more comparisons, review the complete Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens Specifications using the site's Lens Spec tool.

Even though it has come out of a dramatic 27% weight loss program, the Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens is not a small or light lens. It is actually the largest Canon lens in volume as of review time. There is plenty of room on the lens hood for your logo and website advertising needs - and with a lens of this size, you are going to garner attention.

And only the 800 L IS is heavier, but the change in weight from its predecessor that is a really big deal.

Canon explains: "The optical formula of each new lens was re-designed to include two fluorite elements instead of one fluorite and two Ultra-low Dispersion (UD) glass elements. The new lens element configuration weighs less yet performs better. Other factors contributing to the overall weight reduction include increased use of magnesium alloy, use of titanium and a smaller and lighter Image Stabilizer mechanism."

I can handhold this lens for a reasonable length of time - for several hundred shots (with short breaks) in the case of the IS testing segment of this review. But this is not easy or comfortable to do. Short periods of handholding are far more doable.

Like most of Canon's super telephoto lenses, the 600 f/4 L IS II utilizes 52mm drop-in filters. Included is a drop-in gel filter holder with a glass filter installed. This glass filter is also helpful in catching dust before it drops deep inside the lens. A Canon 52mm Drop In Circular Polarizer Filter is available.

Canon Super Telephoto Lens Comparison

Above is a summer 2012 Canon big white L lens family picture. Featured in this picture from left to right, are the following lenses:

Canon EF 200mm f/2 L IS USM Lens
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens
Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS II USM Lens
Canon EF 600mm f/4.0 L IS II USM Lens
Canon EF 800mm f/5.6 L IS USM Lens

The same lenses are shown below with their lens hoods in place.

Canon Super Telephoto Lens Comparison with Hoods

Now let's zoom in on the 500 L IS and the 600 L IS version I and II lenses.

Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens Compared to other Canon Super Telephoto Lenses

Positioned above from left to right are the:
Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS USM Lens
Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS II USM Lens
Canon EF 600mm f/4.0 L IS II USM Lens
Canon EF 600mm f/4.0 L IS USM Lens

The same lenses are shown below with their lens hoods in place.

Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens Compared to other Canon Super Telephoto Lenses with Hoods

I like Canon's new-for-2H-2010 white color more the longer I see it. You can better see the color change in the larger images available in the large lens image comparison tool. The design refinements are also better seen in this tool.

Super Telephoto Lens Switches

The image above shows most of switches and buttons discussed in this review. Also shown in this image is one of the two attachment points for the included lens neck strap - which is shown below.

Super Telephoto Lens Neck Strap

The lens strap attaches to the tripod ring, which allows the camera to be rotated without the neck strap following the rotation. The 600 f/4 L IS II tripod ring has been updated over the previous version. It is now stronger, smoother and again features 90° detents for perfect framing orientation.

600 f/4 L IS II Small Tripod Ring Foot

Two tripod ring feet are included for use on tripods or monopods - the monopod foot is delivered as the optional attachment and is shown above. I use the originally-installed padded (for carry comfort) foot for all of my uses. This foot has two differently-sized threaded inserts (1/4" and 3/8"). As you see in the product images on this page, I have a Wimberley P50 Lens Plate attached to my 600 f/4 L IS II for quick attachment to my Arca-Swiss compatible monopod and tripod head clamps. This long plate also provides a longer range of balance adjustment. This setup requires a bushing/thread adapter to allow the two same-sized screws to be properly attached (two screws prevents twisting of the lens plate).

The original EF 600mm f/4 L IS lens is an uncomfortably heavy lens that begs for a monopod or tripod during use - and wheels for transport. I've talked about how much lighter the version II lens is throughout the review, but you are still going to be far more comfortable using the 600 L IS II lens on a tripod or monopod - and you will likely frame your shots better when doing so. Sports photographers typically employ monopods while wildlife photographers will more typically use tripods (though I use both for wildlife).

Tripod head selection is also important. I most often use only a quick release clamp on my monopod, but a head is required for tripods. Even though a quality tripod head such as the Arca-Swiss Z1 is rated to hold far more weight than that of the 600 L IS II, lens flop is a scenario that can easily occur when such a lens is mounted. When adjusting the tripod head, a heavy lens can quickly fall forward - which then can topple the entire tripod - resulting in an expensive repair.

I highly recommend using the superb Wimberley Tripod Head II with this lens. When properly attached to the Wimberley Head, the 600 f/4 IS II can be positioned using only two fingers. This is the tripod head seen in the product pictures throughout this review.

New with the big IIs is the Kensington-type wire security lock slot in the tripod ring. Flip open the cover on the tripod ring tightening knob to reveal this slot.

600 L IS II Lens Cap

Canon's previous model super telephoto lenses came with a large leather-like lens cap that completely covered the reversed lens hood and was held in place with a drawstring. The drawstring was not needed as these covers were difficult to get off with two hands.

The new lens cap design, shown above, is a huge improvement. The entire lens hood is no longer covered, but the padded nylon cover can easily be removed with one hand - simply pull the Velcro-attached tab. The cap can be attached with the hood in ready to use position (snug fit) or reversed position. If you pull the Velcro tab tight enough, the cap can be attached directly to the lens without the hood being there (the fit is not tight - I doubt that it was designed for this). The lens cap has a padded-but-hard back to protect the front lens element.

Canon super telephoto lenses come in a nice, very protective, lockable (keys included) lens trunk. The IS II cases are redesigned with a nice, more-modern appearance. Here is the Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens' Canon Hard Case 600B.

Canon Hard Lens Case 600B

The 600B is a very large case, measuring about 13 x 10.5 x 24" (330 x 267 x 610mm)(DxHxW) and weighing more than the lens - 9.6 lbs (4.35kg) empty. The 400 L IS II, 500 L IS II and 600 L IS II hard cases share the same design with different inserts provided for a custom interior fit. These cases all stack neatly for storage - but new models do not stack with old models.

The new cases feature two side-mounted carry handles and feet on three sides of the cases including those opposite of the carry handles. Missing to me is the handle that lifts the case straight up from the most-flat storage position (the previous 600 hard case had this handle).

The 600B case comes with a removable shoulder strap as seen below.

Canon Hard Case 600B Neck Strap

The hard cases are nice for storage and are very protective, but I find some of the other manufacturer's soft cases to be more practical for my uses (such as some of the smaller Nikon super telephoto lens cases). At Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens review time, I'm using a large Lowepro Pro Trekker 600 AW Backpack and a Think Tank Photo Airport Security V 2.0 for transporting this lens.

Unlike the 300 L IS II and the 400 L IS II, the 600 L IS II comes with a conventional paper manual in the box. The last two big white IS II lenses I received included a CD with all of Canon's lens manuals in PDF format - my preference. Update: The 600 L IS II owner's manual is now available for available for download - you will find the link for doing so at the top of this review.

600mm Angle View on Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III DSLR Camera

As with most of these great white Canon lenses, the 600 L IS II's price is going the be the biggest road block for most people's acquisition plan. At review time, this lens has the second most expensive new Canon lens available.

The price may fall over time, but it may also go up - this lens' price went up $1,000.00 since it was first announced. A price increase is also what I experienced with my prior 600mm f/4 L IS Lens - I was able to sell this lens at a profit after getting many years of enjoyment from it. That's more than I can say for my 401K plan in many recent years (LOL - I don't remember ever getting any enjoyment from the retirement account).

If the price makes the Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens unobtainable for you, consider renting one for your special events/trips.

600 L IS II Shown Vertically Mounted on Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III DSLR Camera

Those purchasing the 600 L IS II will be professionals and serious amateurs - and they will likely have a specific subject type in mind for its use.

A high percentage of 600 L IS II captures will be of birds and other wildlife. These subjects typically need as much focal length as you can get. And there is no need to worry about feather and hair details as this lens will deliver them like few others can.

Another high percentage of 600 L IS II captures will be from sporting events. There are better lens choices for close sports action (and they complement this lens very well), but the 600 L IS II is going to be heavily used for capturing amateur, collegiate and professional large field/track/mountain/water/air sports action. Think football, soccer, baseball, rugby, golf, snow skiing, surfing, motorsports of all kinds, cycling, air competitions, yachting and a huge list of other active events. Definitely expect to see this lens at the Olympic Games.

Watch for this lens to also show up at major air shows around the world. Shooting air shows from a tripod or monopod-fixed position is not easy. The lighter weight of this lens is going to make it far more useful for panning with the in-flight aircraft at these shows.

Photojournalists and law enforcement agencies will take another significant percentage of 600 L IS II captures. This lens will allow photojournalists to stand behind crowds and still create tightly framed shots of the event they are covering.

What are the alternatives to the Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens? The two closest alternatives in the same price and quality category as the 600 L IS II are the Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS II USM Lens and Canon EF 800mm f/5.6 L IS USM Lens. The 500 L IS II delivers very similarly-impressive image quality from a lighter, smaller and moderately less expensive package - but has a slightly wider angle focal length. The 500 is probably the better choice for you if handholding for long periods of time. The 800 L IS has a longer native focal length that is better for reaching small birds and similar targets, but it has a one stop narrower aperture. Since the 600 L II IS with a 1.4x extender mounted performs similarly to the 800 L IS, I'm more often going to be recommending the 600 L IS II.

Another set of lens options are the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens and Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens. These lenses also deliver amazing image quality. They have wider angle native focal lengths, but also have wider apertures. With extenders, they begin to reach into the 600mm territory. If you need f/2.8, look no farther. The 300 f/2.8 L IS II is smaller and less expensive - and with the 2x extender attached and if stopped down to f/8 (for best image quality), it makes a great 600mm alternative.

If you are not able to reach the super telephoto budget, Canon's more affordable professional grade 400mm lenses, including the Canon 400mm f/5.6 L USM Lens and Canon EF 100-400mm f/5.6 L IS USM Lens, will be your longest focal length lens option.

With the majority of photographers not being able to afford this lens and with the image quality this lens delivers, those using this lens will obtain images that most simply can't capture. I'm a big fan of, and highly recommend, the Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens.

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