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

Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS USM Lens Review
Note: The Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS USM Lens has been replaced by the Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens.

Note that this lens has been replaced by the superior Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM Lens.

The Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS USM Lens is Canon's longest, almost heaviest (the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS USM Lens is 10g heavier) and almost most expensive (the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6 L IS USM Lens costs more) EF lens. It has the reach needed for - and is commonly used for - bird photography, small and distant animal photography, surf photography (from shore), long distance sports photography and many other similar pursuits.

If you can get past its size, weight and price, the 600 IS L, does not leave much to be disappointed in.

Canon 500mm and 600mm L IS Super Telephoto Lenses

The size of the 600 IS L is apparent in the above comparison photo with the large Canon EF 500mm f/4 L IS USM Lens (above left). Most photographers regard the 500 f/4 as a large lens - but, size is relative. The Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS USM Lens weighs in at 11.8 lbs. The 600 is 6.6" (168mm) in diameter and 18" (456mm) in length (without the lens hood attached). For comparison, the Canon EF 500mm f/4 L IS USM Lens weighs 8.5 lbs (3.3 lbs less than the 600) and measures 5.8" x 15.2".

Canon has made an effort to keep the 600 IS L as light as possible without sacrificing strength by utilizing a Magnesium alloy lens barrel. The carbon fiber lens hood is very light (and very expensive to replace). You will want to use it for protection and improved contrast. I should note that Canon uses a protective front lens element in the 600 IS.

As with all Canon Super Telephoto L Lenses, build quality of the Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS USM Lens is excellent. The focus ring and the many switches resident on the lens all work smoothly. It will be obvious to any photographer that this is a very high quality piece of equipment - professional grade.

Although it is for the long focal length that many people buy the 600 IS L, its image quality is excellent as well. The 600 IS has very decent sharpness wide open (including wide open full frame corners) and improves some until stopped down 1 f-stop or so. The Canon EF 500mm f/4 L IS USM Lens is very slightly sharper until f/5.6, but not enough so for sharpness to be a big differentiator.

A very small amount of vignetting is apparent at f/4 in full-frame body image corners (slightly less than from the 500 f/4 IS). CA (Chromatic Aberration) is very well controlled. Distortion is also negligible.

Like the rest of the Canon Super Telephoto lenses, the 600 IS L is compatible with the Canon EF Extenders. Image quality with the Canon EF 1.4x Extender mounted is reasonable - especially for an 800mm f/5.6 IS lens. As always, this extender adds CA (Chromatic Aberration), adds barrel distortion, reduces contrast/sharpness and slows autofocus. Adding a Canon 2x Extender will result in a 1200mm f/8 IS lens that will autofocus only on Canon EOS 1-Series bodies and then only with the center focus point. Image results will show a noticeable amount of sharpness and contrast loss.

There is noticeably more barrel distortion when using the 1.4x with the 600mm on a Full Frame body than with the Canon EF 500mm f/4 L IS USM Lens on the same body. The bare 500 has some pincushion distortion that counters the 1.4x's barrel distortion.

Eliminating background distractions is generally desired when photographing birds and similar subjects. Combining a relatively wide 8-blade aperture with 600mm telescopic compression can turn a background into a beautiful, smooth blur.

Image Stabilization (IS) is an excellent feature present on the Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS USM Lens. It will not stop subject motion, but makes a big difference in camera/lens motion. Both Mode 1 and 2 IS are available. Mode 1 IS attempts to stop camera/lens motion in all directions. Mode 2 IS allows panning with a moving subject. As with all IS-equipped lenses, an on/off switch allows IS to be disabled.

Even with the 600 L IS mounted on a tripod, IS helps stop vibrations as the IS version on this lens is tripod-sensing. The 600 IS L knows that a tripod is being used when vibrations go below a certain level. Keep IS turned on when mounting the 600 IS L on a tripod to take advantage of this secondary IS mode - reducing mirror slap, shutter and tripod vibrations.

Utilizing Ring USM (Ultrasonic Motor), the Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS USM Lens autofocuses very fast and has FTM (Full Time manual focus). AF accuracy is excellent in both one-shot and AI Servo modes. A 3-position focus limiter switch allows focusing distances to be limited to a specific distance range - or to be unlimited. 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. This feature is handy when tracking action in AI Servo mode and one-shot-style focus is needed for a specific situation - perhaps a focus-and-recompose portrait of a motionless person, bird, landscape or other subject.

The 600 IS L's Focus Preset feature allows a specific focus distance to be programmed into the lens. Pressing the Focus Preset button quickly sets focus to the pre-programmed distance. You might want to use this feature if you have a perch set up for birds to land on. When the bird lands, simply turn the white knurled playback ring on the end of the lens and shoot.

Tufted Titmouse Picture

The Tufted Titmouse picture above was taken with the 600 IS L mounted on a Canon Extender EF 1.4x which was mounted on a Full Frame Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II Digital SLR.

This uncropped sample picture was taken at near-minimum focus distance for the 600 IS L (18'/5.5m). Photographers using a 1.3x FOVCF Digital SLR should be able to get similar minimum focus distance framing without the 1.4x extender. Photographers using a 1.6x FOVCF Digital SLR should be able to get even tighter framing without the 1.4x extender.

The 500mm f/4 L IS USM Lens can produce identical framing to the sample shot above as it shares the same .12x maximum magnification spec. But, the 500 needs to be 3.2' (1m) closer to the subject (14.8'/4.5m) to achieve this framing. Of course, an extension tube can be used to allow closer focusing (higher image magnification, tighter subject framing). I frequently use the Canon 25mm Extension Tube with this lens to allow tighter framing of small birds - some additional vignetting can be expected if using a full frame body with this combination.

Canon 500mm and 600mm L IS Super Telephoto Lens Comparison

The above photo shows the 500mm f/4 L IS USM Lens (left) and the 600 IS L with their lens hoods in place. The 500 IS is shown with a Wimberley P40 Lens Plate attached, the 600 IS is shown with a Wimberley P50 Lens Plate attached.

Also noticeable in the above photo is the padded top side of the tripod foot on these lenses. The 600 IS L is frequently carried upside down with the tripod foot acting as a handle. The pad provides a better grip in addition to being more gentle on your fingers.

This tripod ring (or collar) has positive stops at each 90 degree setting as it rotates. It is not removable on this lens (nor the 500). Most people find the 600 IS L too heavy to shoot handheld with for any length of time. And if you are super strong, you will want to use the tripod ring to rest on your hand with your elbow on your hip for support. So, there is little reason to remove it. The foot itself is removable with a hex key wrench. The primary reason to remove it is for replacement with a specially designed lens plate foot such as one made by Wimberley.

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

ModelDimensions w/o HoodWeightMFDMM
Canon EF 200mm f/2 L IS USM Lens5.0 x 8.2"(128 x 208mm)5.6 lbs.(2,520g)6.2'(1.9m).12x
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS USM Lens5.0 x 9.9"(128 x 252mm)5.6 lbs.(2,550g)8.2'(2.5m).13x
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS USM Lens6.4 x 13.7"(163 x 349mm)11.8 lbs.(5,370g)9.8'(3.0m).15x
Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM Lens5.0 x 9.2"(128 x 233mm)4.3 lbs.(1,940g)11.5'(3.5m).12x
Canon EF 500mm f/4 L IS USM Lens5.8 x 15.2"(146 x 387mm)8.5 lbs.(3,870g)14.8'(4.5m).12x
Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS USM Lens6.6 x 18.0"(168 x 456mm)11.8 lbs.(5,360g)18.0'(5.5m).12x
Canon EF 800mm f/5.6 L IS USM Lens6.4 x 18.1"(162 x 461mm)9.9 lbs.(4,500g)19.7'(6.0m).14x

Plan on using a heavy duty tripod and a Wimberley Tripod Head II with this lens. While a lesser tripod and head may hold this lens, it will allow image-quality-reducing vibrations. When properly mounted on this recommended setup, the 600 IS L can be positioned with two fingers - and ball head-flop is not a concern. Other good support solutions include ground pods, car mounts and bean bags. I shoot sports with this lens mounted on a solid monopod.

Although using the 600 IS tripod-mounted on the Wimberley Head is effortless, getting the rig to your shooting location is not. The 600 IS L is a significant piece of equipment to transport - especially if the weight is on you. It is not fun to carry (especially knowing the financial loss involved with a drop). For this reason, many photographers choose the slightly shorter focal length Canon EF 500mm f/4 L IS USM Lens. If you do not have to carry the lens far (to your back yard feeders for example), the weight becomes less of a differentiating factor.

The Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS USM Lens comes packed in a protective and lockable lens trunk (a very expensive item to buy separately) and includes a neck strap that attaches directly to the lens. You will not want to carry the 600 IS mounted to your camera body using the camera body's neck strap to support the entire weight. You risk damaging the lens mount on the body. The lens trunk 600 is somewhat larger than the Canon EF 500mm f/4 L IS USM Lens trunk (use the link to see pics of the lens trunk 500) and similar in size to the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS USM Lens trunk.

Good in-the-field cases for the 600 IS L include the Lowepro Pro Trekker II AW Backpack, Lowepro Lens Trekker 600 AW Backpack and Lightware z600 Case.

The 600 IS L utilizes 52mm drop-in filters and comes equipped with a drop-in gel filter holder with a glass filter installed. This glass filter is also a nice way to catch dust before it drops deep inside the lens. The Canon 52mm Drop-In Circular Polarizer Filter is probably the most-used drop-in filter available for this lens.

Small and/or distant wildlife is one of the most common Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS USM Lens targets. Bird photographers love this lens - prior to the introduction of the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6 L IS USM Lens, it was the ultimate tool for this type of photography. And in many cases, including for financial reasons, it is still the ultimate choice.

Large field sports are another common target of this lens for full-frame body users. With 600mm of focal length, you can shoot a large portion of a full-size soccer, football, baseball ... field from one position. And the autofocus motor has no problem keeping up with the fast action.

Unless you are with other avid/pro photographers (or alone), expect stares and lots of questions from those around you when using the 600 IS L. It garners lots of attention. Respond politely and don't worry about it. Then show them the pictures you have taken with your 600. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. And in the hands of a good photographer, the Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS USM Lens will create pictures that generate lots of admiration.

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