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

Please note that this review is only partially completed, pending more time with this lens

Let me introduce you to the ultimate wildlife and big field sports lens, the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III.

If you can get past the price, the EF 600mm f/4L IS III Lens will blow you away in most other regards. This is one of the most incredible lenses available and the ultimate big field action sports lens. The 600 f/4 IS III features superb image quality at even wide-open apertures, incredibly fast AF and best-available build quality.

As the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens is to the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens, the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens is to the Canon EF 600mm f/4.0L IS II USM Lens and these two reviews will mirror each other in many regards. The EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens is the 6th generation in Canon's 600mm f/4 series, replacing the introduced-in-2011 Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II Lens, and the 3rd IS version. Owners of this lens will, like owners of the previous lens versions, primarily be professional and serious amateur photographers (or simply wealthy). Due to the focal length and max aperture of this lens, these photographers will primarily use this lens for sports, wildlife and photojournalistic pursuits.

As with the 400 L III, the bar was set extremely high for the 600 L III. This lens' predecessor was simply phenomenal in all respects, a new version could be nothing less, and it was hard to believe that better was achievable. Amazingly, it was.

While at first glance the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens looks like the II, the appearance seems more accidental than intentional as the III is a totally new lens design with the most obvious difference being dramatically lighter weight. While photographers have many opinions about what they want in a lens, universal for this one was a desire for lighter weight. With the version II lens dropping 3.2 lbs (1,440g), it was hard to imagine a significant additional weight loss delivered only 7 years later. But, that was delivered.

Let's put the Canon super telephoto weight loss program into a chart:

ModelWeightYear 
Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens6.72(3050)2018
Canon EF 600mm f/4.0L IS II USM Lens8.65(3920)2011
Canon EF 600mm f/4.0L IS USM Lens11.83(5360)1999

The EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM weighs only approx. 6.7 lbs (3,050g). That is approximately 1.9 lbs (870g) less than the II (22% less) and a whopping 5.1 lbs (2,310g) less than the I lens (43% less).

Canon EF 600mm f/4L and EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens Introduction

Upon the curtain going up at the announcement event for this lens (Elliot Peck, Canon USA Senior VP & GM shown above), I walked straight up to the 600 III and the simultaneously-introduced Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens and held both versions of the 600 at the same time. I was blown away. The difference felt even more significant than the numbers show and part of the reason for this is because the weight has been shifted rearward, giving the lens a better balance. The improvements in these regards alone are quite dramatic.

So, how did the weight savings and improved balance come about?

The Canon-supplied graphics below show the design of the last three Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 image stabilized lenses. The 600mm design graphics were not available to me, but aside from being somewhat longer, the 600mm designs mirror the 400mm designs for each respective generation of lens, meaning that this illustration is representative to the 600mm lenses. Light green represents UD elements, violet indicates a fluorite element and dark green elements are Super UD.

Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens Design

Notice that the protective meniscus front lens element in the I series lens disappeared in the II with a less-expensive-than-UD next-in-line element becoming frontmost. Additional weight savings was found in the utilization of fluorite elements.

The III's biggest design secret is moving all but one of the large front set of lens elements considerably far rearward where they also become smaller. This design also moved the center of gravity rearward for a more-comfortable and better-handling design as the front of the lens gets moved the most and it is now much lighter. The addition of the Super UD element was part of the design change. Check out that awesome 3rd lens element, a thin concave optic tightly nested between the two fluorite elements. Per Canon, "This lens element is so delicate that simply holding the edges of it in your hand can cause localized warping due to body heat."

Also interesting is that this lens along with the 400 f/2.8L IS III are the first Canon lens designs featuring new glass materials. "This glass has a comparatively higher refractive index than general low-dispersion glass, and has a low specific gravity. By using the new glass material in the first, large-diameter lens element [which cannot be reduced in size due to the focal length and max aperture requirements], the weight is reduced and spherical and chromatic aberration are suppressed."

Another interesting design element is the aperture that is moved forward, resulting in the largest EMD (electromagnetic diaphragm) in an EF lens to date, representing another design challenge Canon has overcome.

With the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III Lens' headlining improvements addressed, I can advise you to just go buy the lens. It is incredible. If you need more convincing, read on.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens Angle View

Focal Length

While this lens is amazing in many ways, it is the 600mm super telephoto focal length that you should be especially interested in and note that, despite the size and cost of this lens, it provides a similar angle of view as all of the other (accurately-denoted) 600mm lenses (including zoom lens options). This focal length has a correspondingly very narrow angle of view. What is the 600mm focal length commonly used for?

When you need to frame a subject tightly and can't get closer, due to ...

  • physical barriers (streams, cliffs, etc.)
  • legislated barriers (lines on a field, property boundaries, etc.)
  • a subject that does not tolerate closer (skittish birds for example)
  • for safety reasons (dangerous wildlife, high-speed vehicles, etc.)
  • for a stealth mission (law enforcement for example)
  • a requirement to avoid being a viewing obstruction (such as at a speaking event at a large venue)

... you might need a 600mm lens.

If you simply don't want to get closer, including for comfort reasons and avoiding impact to wildlife behavior, a 600mm lens might be just right. Sit in the comfort of your car, avoid the need to cross a creek, stay back from the surf, stay out of view, etc.

When you want to capture a compressed look from a distant perspective, you might want a 600mm lens. When you want to create an extremely strong background blur, isolating a subject from even a busy and otherwise-distracting background, a 600mm lens might be precisely what you need, especially a 600mm lens with an f/4 max aperture.

While a 600mm lens has a wide variety of uses, wildlife and sports are at the top of the most-frequently-used-for list with most other 600mm uses occurring at a far lower frequency. When using a camera with a full frame imaging sensor, a 600mm f/4 lens has long been my first choice for wildlife photography. Subjects ranging from small birds up to large game are readily captured with this focal length. Wildlife is typically most active early and late in the day when the light is dim, and the f/4 aperture (more about this feature coming soon) is a great compliment to the narrow angle of view. The light weight of this lens along with the long focal length makes it a good choice even for birds-in-flight.

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

The image above was captured with the version II lens. Canon provides a wildlife-friendly 800mm lens option with a 1-stop-narrower max aperture, but the 600 f/4L IS III exceeds that focal length at the same aperture with a 1.4x extender mounted behind it.

When using a camera with a full frame imaging sensor, a 600mm lens has long been my first choice for field sports photography including soccer and some running events. This lens is an excellent choice for baseball, football, and a host of other sports. Watch for this lens to be present at the Olympics, the Super Bowl, the World Cup, and many other major sporting events in large numbers.

Photojournalists and others covering events will love this lens' reach. When photographers covering events are not permitted close access to their subjects, including at concerts, speaking events, etc., this focal length will often provide the reach needed. This lens is a great choice for photographing air shows, especially when single aircraft are flying.

The 600mm focal length used on smaller APS-C/1.6x (FOVCF) imaging sensor format cameras provides a very narrow angle of view, equivalent to a 960mm lens on a full frame camera. This much narrower angle of view narrows the scenarios this lens is ideally suited for. I rarely hear a bird photographer complaining about having too much focal length. However, this angle of view is challenging to use at many sports (keeping a subject in the frame at this angle of view is challenging) and it is even too long for some wildlife photography. Moving back can be a answer, but obstacles can get in the sight path and longer distance means that heat waves are more likely to be an issue.

While on the heat waves topic ... just because you have an amazing 600mm lens doesn't mean that you can create sharp images with it, even when using the fastest shutter speeds and best techniques.

When present, heat shimmer/haze/waves will create optical distortion that will diminish the quality of long-distance photos and I encounter this issue with some frequency. My first use of this lens was at a soccer tournament held at an amazing venue featuring all artificial turf fields. While the sunny weather made this spring event remarkably comfortable to watch, sun on artificial turf spells doom for photography. Looking across the field, I could see the white lines dancing in the heat waves and I knew that my images were all going to be compromised. And, they were. This was a scenario were a 400mm lens would have delivered better (roughly 1/3 better) results with ideally-framed subjects as there would have had less turbulent air at the shorter subject distances.

When reviewing long prime telephoto lenses, I like to the discuss optimal framing distance range. Image cropping is often required during post processing when a prime (non-zoom) lens was used to capture action from a fixed position as is very frequently the case with sports photography. A longer focal length lens has a narrower angle of view, which of course requires you to be farther from the subject for optimal framing. One huge advantage that a narrower angle of view provides is a deeper optimal framing distance that provides a longer duration in which to capture an optimally-framed subject. That advantage can result in less cropping needed with higher resolution retained.

Explaining that concept ... if you are photographing a running person with a 24mm lens on a full frame format DSLR, optimal framing distance to capture the entire person might be 9' (3m). At 18' (6m), that person would only be 1/2 of the optimal size in the frame. A person running at full speed will only momentarily be near that optimal distance.

In contrast, a 600mm lens would frame this person similarly-optimally at around 225' (69m) with the 1/2 optimal distance being 450' (138m). It takes a running person far more time to cover this 250' (69m) 1/2 optimal to optimal distance than the 24mm lens' 9' (3m) distance. Distances much closer than optimal will often result in the subject being cropped in the frame with both focal lengths being compared, so I'll not count this distance (but the rate of cropping increase is dramatically slower with the 600). The greater amount of time the subject remains at the near-optimal framing distance, the more time you have to capture ideally framed shots. Also, the longer focal length allows a much greater area of an event to be covered from a single position.

This does not mean that a 600mm lens is always a better choice, but it is definitely the answer for many sports events. There are longer focal length lenses available (such as Canon's EF 800mm f/5.6L) and these lenses provide even larger areas of optimal coverage, but these longer lenses do not offer the big f/4 aperture advantage and again, the angle of view at 800mm is narrow enough that keeping a fast-moving subject in the frame can be challenging.

Here is an example of the 300-600mm focal length range captured by a zoom lens (600mm might be shown a touch wide) as seen by a full frame camera:

Sigma 150-600mm OS Sports Lens Focal Length Range Example

Max Aperture

The 600 f/4L IS III has the longest focal length available in a lens with an f/4 max aperture. I mentioned that there were other 600mm lenses and that some of those had a zoom advantage but what I didn't mentioned was that most of those other lenses do not have an f/4 aperture available and that is a huge differentiator. The one stop (or more) difference between this lens and the alternatives is big, big enough to make the difference between getting a great shot with a strong background blur and getting a blurry or noisy image with more background in focus. The Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III lens' huge f/4 aperture is the biggest contributor to the large size, heavy weight (though much lighter now) and high cost of this lens, but it is also key to its awesomeness.

When you want to stop action, including sports action and wildlife in motion, especially in low light, when wildlife is most often active and when sports are often played, you want the f/4 feature in your 600mm lens. When you want to isolate the subject from even a busy, distracting background, you want the f/4 feature and 600mm combined with f/4, via shallow depth of field combined with strong telephoto magnification, delivers one of the strongest background blurs available in any lens. Use this lens to blur the background, turning advertisement banners, fans and their clothing, apparatus, gear, seating, etc. into just blurs of color, making the subject stand out, popping from the frame. Most of the common uses for this lens do not permit manipulation of the background and the background found in many of the venues this lens gets used in tend to be busy and distracting. Look at the images in the popular sports magazines/websites and you will see the results this lens can achieve. The f/4 aperture can markedly differentiate your work from the crowd. When using this lens (or its predecessors), I use f/4 far more than any other aperture and could probably be happy with only f/4 in this lens.

Despite the f/4 aperture being so huge in a 600mm lens, it may still not be adequate for photographing sports under (normal) field lighting or indoors where an f/2.8 aperture may prove to be the minimum aperture desired and the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens may be the better choice for those environments.

The other sensor that works better with the large amount of light provided by this lens' aperture is a DSLR's phase detection AF sensor. Lenses with an opening wider than a specific aperture, usually f/2.8, enable the higher precision AF capabilities (most often the center AF point) in some cameras and a bright viewfinder image is another benefit.

Here is a look at a range of 600 f/4 apertures:

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

This example was created with the version II lens. The widest apertures create a great background blur while the narrower apertures keep more of this close, young white-tailed deer in focus.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens Side View

Image Stabilization

Practically everything in this lens is new and that includes the image stabilization system that has achieved an impressive up-to-5-stop CIPA rating. Borrowed for this system are the vibration gyro and latest microprocessor from the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM Lens, though these were tuned specifically for the characteristics of the 600.

As with the version II lens, three IS modes are present. Mode 1 is the general-purpose mode and the latest word I've heard from Canon is that this mode should be used for nearly all situations including while using a tripod, monopod, and while photographing action.

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

Mode 3 is used for tracking action, especially fast-moving erratic action. 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, allowing an erratic subject to be tracked without fighting against image stabilization trying to stabilize the view. 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).

A noticeable click is heard when IS starts and again when it stops, but only very quiet whirring and clicking are audible while IS is active. This IS implementation is extremely well behaved – the image in the viewfinder does not jump around when the system activates and the image does not drift while IS is active. IS aids greatly in establishing ideal subject framing and I had no problem tracking action in Mode 1.

Canon's super telephoto lenses have a secondary IS mode that automatically senses a tripod being used and attempts to eliminating mirror slap, shutter and tripod vibrations. "The new IS unit features improved high-frequency tracking performance, so it is better equipped to handle mirror slap when using a tripod compared to the current II series." [Canon]

While stopping camera motion-induced image blur is image stabilization's primary job, it has another significant benefit and that is aiding in AF precision. The camera's AF system can produce better focus precision if the image it sees is stabilized. Canon contends that this is true even with a subject that is in motion and at action-stopping shutter speeds and AF precision is especially critical with the 400mm f/2.8 combination producing a potentially very shallow depth of field.

I relied on the 2-stop-rated IS system when using the version I 600mm f/4L IS lens, especially when shooting wildlife. But, I didn't handhold that lens a lot due to its shoulder/back injury-inviting weight. That lens' tripod-sensing IS system was quite helpful in reducing vibration (including from mirror slap) when shooting from a tripod, but handholding the version II lens was much easier, the 4-stop-rated system was much improved and I began relying on IS much more frequently. With the huge additional weight loss, the version III lens can now be handheld for significantly longer periods of time and the improved 5-stop image stabilization system greatly extends this lens' versatility in that regard.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens Top View with Hood

Focusing

Critical for the success of a lens with very shallow depth of field being used primarily to photograph fast action is its AF performance. Canon's super telephoto lenses have long delivered best-available autofocus performance and this lens continues that trend.

As you would expect, this lens gets all of the latest-available upgrades. "Mechanically-related AF improvements include reduced drive load, thanks to glass materials in the focus lens group that are nearly one-fifth the previous weight." [Canon] Also included is the latest microprocessor for improved calculation speed. Canon claims a faster minimum focus distance to infinity focus time, despite a shortened minimum focus distance, than with the version II lens. That lens focused fast, so don't expect to find the difference dramatic, but this is a fast-focusing lens. Note that Canon mentions "EOS-1D and EOS 5D series benefit from improved AF performance when used with the III series lenses."

In addition to being fast and accurate, this lens' internal AF system is very quiet. Some quiet internal shuffling along with quiet clicks can be heard if you listen carefully, but I don't even notice the sounds when shooting.

The IS version II and III super telephoto lenses include a Focus Preset feature. Set the Focus Preset to a specific distance and when your shooting needs require that specific distance, turn the white spring-loaded playback ring located in front of the focus ring and the lens will automatically adjust to the preset distance. New with the III is a direction-sensitive features that permits a different distance to be set for each rotation direction. The Focus Preset switch settings include OFF, ON and an ON with audible focus confirmation. Use this feature to quickly adjust focus to a known distance or to an approximate distance where fine-tuning can quickly attain proper focus.

A 3-position focus limiter switch allows focusing distances to be limited to a subset of this lens' focus distance range. In addition to the full range, restricted limits of 13.8' — 52.5' (4.2m — 16m) and 52.5' (16m) — ∞ can be selected for improved focus lock times and reduced focus hunting when photographing subjects at distances within these ranges.

Four autofocus stop buttons in the black ring near the objective lens allow autofocus to be temporarily stopped. I use AI-Servo (continuous) focusing mode for shooting sports, but sometimes like to shoot a focus-and-recompose images such as a portraits during the event or expect to need to add some canvas to an image I just captured during post processing. 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, including in the periphery of the frame. Another great use for this feature is when an image has been captured but the framing is not optimal. Simply press a focus stop button and capture enough images to be stitched together during post processing. Of course, switching the lens to manual focus mode also works for these techniques.

New on the 2010-announced super telephoto lenses was a third focusing mode. In addition to AF and MF, a "PF" or Power Focusing mode was included and this mode has returned with the series III lenses. When first introducing this feature, Canon USA said the feature helped "...moviemakers achieve smoother and more appealing focus shifts when filming."

Turn the focus preset playback ring very (very) slightly to get the low speed electronically-driven AF and turn it to a greater degree to obtain a higher speed with the direction of ring rotation determining the direction of focus distance change. The feature works nicely, but you are going to need a solid tripod setup and a steady hand to not induce movement while turning the ring. The power focusing is extremely quiet. Note that AF does not work in PF mode, though manual focusing is available in this mode.

Those interested in manually focusing this lens have definitely not been forgotten – this ring lens provides a superb manual focus experience. Instead of a conventional mechanically-linked manual focus drive, Canon implemented electronic manual focusing in this lens, the first Canon super telephoto (along with the 400mm f/2.8L IS III) to have such. This decision simplified the overall design, saving weight and increasing expected reliability. Perhaps your first clue about this being a focus-by-wire design will be when attempting to manually focus with the camera powered off or the metering inactive. This no longer works.

This lens' manual focus ring is ideally located, has a sharply-ribbed rubber surface with a great feel, is large in size and is very smooth with no play and an ideal rotational resistance.

A feature commonly implemented feature on electronic focusing lenses is variable speed drive rate dependent on the focus ring rotational speed. Unfortunately, this feature is often not optimally-implemented and fortunately, Canon has a better option for this lens. Via a switch, this lens offers three linear drive speeds. Mode 1 adjusts focus more-slowly than on the II series and mode 2 and 3 become respectively slower still for very fine control over focusing. You don't want to use the 3 setting to chase sports action, but this mode does allow for very precise manual focusing.

FTM (Full Time Manual) focusing is supported in AF mode with the camera in One Shot Drive Mode, but the shutter release must be half-pressed for the focus ring to be enabled. Note that FTM does not work if electronic manual focusing is disabled in the camera's menu (if this option is present). The lens' switch must be in the "MF" position and the camera meter must be on and awake for conventional manual focusing to be available.

Cameras featuring Dual Pixel CMOS Movie Servo AF make video recording very easy and this lens is very well-suited for this task. The smooth focusing makes focus distance transitions easy on the viewer's eyes and the sound of the lens focusing is not picked up by the camera's mic.

A focus distance window is provided with this lens.

Canon super telephoto lenses are not known to have the shortest minimum focusing distances. The good news is that the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III Lens improves upon the spec of its version II predecessor, dropping the close distance to 165.4" (4200mm) from 177.2" (4500mm). That line is great for marketing, but the not-so-good news is that the .15x maximum magnification spec is unchanged and this lens is an only-mediocre performer among all lenses in this regard.

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

ModelMFDMM
Canon EF 200mm f/2.0L IS USM Lens74.8"(1900mm)0.12x
Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS Ext 1.4x Lens78.7"(2000mm)0.15x, 0.21x
Canon EF 300mm f/4.0L IS USM Lens59.1"(1500mm)0.24x
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens78.7"(2000mm)0.18x
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens38.4"(975mm)0.31x
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Lens137.8"(3500mm)0.12x
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens98.4"(2500mm)0.17x
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens106.3"(2700mm)0.17x
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM Lens118.1"(3000mm)0.15x
Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM Lens129.9"(3300mm)0.13x
Canon EF 500mm f/4.0L IS II USM Lens145.7"(3700mm)0.15x
Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens165.4"(4200mm)0.15x
Canon EF 600mm f/4.0L IS II USM Lens177.2"(4500mm)0.15x
Canon EF 600mm f/4.0L IS USM Lens216.5"(5500mm)0.12x
Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens236.2"(6000mm)0.14x

Magnification from telephoto focal length lenses is not significantly increased with the use of extension tubes, hollow tubes (with electronic connections) that shift a lens farther from the camera, but all Canon super telephoto lenses are compatible with these. This shift allows the lens to focus at closer distances, though at the expense of long distance focusing. The Canon EF 12mm Extension Tube II increases the magnification range to 0.18-0.02x and 0.21-0.05x is the result of mounting a Canon EF 25mm Extension Tube II. I used extension tubes with the IS version I lens a solid amount, especially when photographing birds and small mammals, but with the minimum focus distances decreasing on the version II and II lenses, I find less need for using them.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens with Teleconverter

This lens is compatible with the Canon Extender EF 1.4x III and the Canon Extender EF 2x III, but note that Canon has indicated that the version III 600mm f/4L IS and 600mm f/4L IS lens is not compatible with previous version I or II Canon EF extenders (a first for an L-lens). The resulting focal length and aperture combinations of this lens being used with extenders (often referred to as teleconverters) are quite impressive. With the 1.4x, this lens becomes a 640mm f/5.6 IS lens and with the 2x, it becomes a 1200mm f/8 IS lens. Weather-sealing and image-stabilization are included. The 1.4 combination autofocuses on all current Canon EOS bodies, the f/8 combination autofocuses on select models (with a reduced number of AF points available), and both combinations focus on all currently available imaging sensor-based AF systems. The lens' native minimum focusing distance is retained and that means the maximum magnification value is multiplied by the extender's multiplier, a significant improvement.

"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." [Canon Europe CPN]

Build Quality & Features

Canon's big white super telephoto lenses are among the most elite DSLR lenses available and represent the best of the Canon L Series. Professionals expect these lenses to deliver the ultimate performance in the most adverse environments and this one raises that bar. Despite the significant weight loss, the overall durability of the 600 f/4L IS III has been increased over the already-impressive previous model.

Improvements in manufacturing processes get some of the credit for the enhancements and very interesting is the use of a new carbon reinforced magnesium alloy. "The high level of fluidity in this material enables injection molding (thixomolding) for a thin walled formation. For example, with the first group lens barrel on the 400mm model, we were able to achieve a barrel thickness of 0.8mm via injection molding, for a base that is 20% thinner than previous models, maintaining sufficient strength and lightness. The carbon reinforced magnesium alloy is also used for the tripod base plate and the exterior of the barrel." [Canon]

As lens size increases, the difficulty to maintain precision increases and it has been interesting to see the attention to detail given to this lens.

Upon loading the standard product images for the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens, the first side-by-side comparison I wanted to see was of the three 600mm f/4 IS versions.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS Lens Version I, II, and III Comparison

At first glance, it appears that little has changed between the II (center) and III (left), but upon closer inspection, it seems that nearly everything has been changed. Hit the last link above to see larger versions of these images, but especially note that the tripod collar and foot have been moved significantly rearward, reflecting the much-improved weight distribution of this much lighter lens.

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

At the mount end of the lens, there is little change from the version II lens. The AF/PF/MF switch and the focus limiter switch are easy to find and use in this location. The focus limiter switch gets a new number reflecting its reduced minimum focus distance.

The tripod collar lock knob gets a new texture that is easier to roll between the thumb and finger. With the tripod collar shifted back, the main switch bank was also able to be moved rearward for easier access. The switches available on the next switch bank have already been discussed, but notice the additional manual focus speed switch gained over the version II lens.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens Switches

All of this lens' switches are mostly recessed with just enough raised surface to be usable with gloves on. Note that the IS ON/OFF switch is raised in the center vs. both sides for tactile differentiation.

As already mentioned, the focus ring feels great and the shape of this ring aids in the quality experience. The focus recall ring has a new, much-improved look and feel. The black grip ring has a new diamond pattern that sticks to fingers.

You may have noticed that the III is slightly brighter in color than the II, which itself is much whiter than version I. The difference is also noticeable in the images showing the previous-white-version extenders mounted. The color of this lens deserves additional attention.

Heat gain, especially uneven heat gain, can cause problems for a lens' optical performance and big lenses have a lot of surface area to catch sunlight. Canon has chosen white paint to avoid as much heat gain as possible and the new paint formulation better shields the lens from heat than the previous paint did. But, that is just the beginning of the heat-avoidance efforts designed into this lens.

A newly-developed heat shield coating reduces uneven heating and a two-layer barrel structure design also helps mitigate effects of thermal transfer into the lens elements. Reducing the weight of the lens naturally reduces its overall thermal capacity.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens Weather Sealing

The version III lens has the same weather-resistant construction as the II series lens which is really good. Many outdoors events are held rain or shine and those required to photograph them are not given a choice about the weather. While I use and recommend a rain cover when wet weather is expected, it is the unexpected that can be a problem. I've used Canon weather-sealed super telephoto lenses in some rather heavy rain with no ill effects. In addition to being sealed from moisture, dust is another hazard this lens keeps out.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens Mount

The front and rear lens elements are fluorine-coated for easier cleaning and for preventing dust and drips from adhering in the first place.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens Fluorine Coating

When you pick up this lens, you will immediately feel the ultra-high-quality construction. What you will also feel is the already-discussed very significant weight loss. The difference is amazing. Carrying and using this lens causes less fatigue than when using its predecessor, keeping the photographer sharp in the game. The lighter weight can reduce arm, back, and especially shoulder injuries photographers commonly endure and also valuable is the easing travel weight restriction challenges.

This lens can easily be handheld for reasonable periods of time – for many hundreds of images in the case of the IS testing segment of this review. Still, this is a 6.72 lbs. (3050kg) lens. Those used to the version II's weight will find this lens a feather-weight, but those using smaller lenses such as the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens will require a bit of acclimating.

The size of this lens garners attention. You look like you belong in some venues and you will stand out in others. You'll get over the latter. This lens and others like it have gained me entrance to locations in venues that I would otherwise have been restricted from.

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

ModelWeight (lbs/g)Dimensions w/o Hood ("/mm)FilterYear 
Canon EF 200mm f/2.0L IS USM Lens5.56(2520)5.0 x 8.2(128 x 208)DI 522008
Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS 1.4x Lens7.98(3620)5.0 x 14.4(128 x 366)DI 522013
Canon EF 300mm f/4.0L IS USM Lens2.63(1190)3.5 x 8.7(90 x 221)771997
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens5.19(2350)5.0 x 9.8(128 x 248)DI 522011
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens3.51(1590)3.7 x 7.6(94 x 193)772014
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens6.27(2840)6.4 x 13.5(163 x 343)DI 522018
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens8.49(3850)6.4 x 13.5(163 x 343)DI 522011
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM Lens11.85(5370)6.4 x 13.7(163 x 349)DI 521999
Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM Lens4.63(2100)5.0 x 9.2(128 x 233)DI 522014
Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM Lens4.28(1940)5.0 x 9.1(128 x 232)DI 522001
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Lens2.76(1250)3.5 x 10.1(90 x 257)771993
Canon EF 500mm f/4.0L IS II USM Lens7.04(3190)5.7 x 15.1(146 x 38m)DI 522011
Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens6.72(3050)6.6 x 17.6(168 x 448)DI 522018
Canon EF 600mm f/4.0L IS II USM Lens8.65(3920)6.6 x 17.6(168 x 448)DI 522011
Canon EF 600mm f/4.0L IS USM Lens11.83(5360)6.6 x 18.0(168 x 456)DI 521999
Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens9.86(4470)6.4 x 18.1(163 x 461)DI 522008

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

It is light and handholdable, but I still prefer to use this lens on a support for both comfort and stability reasons. Simply adjusting the monopod while tracking sports action is much easier with the lighter, rear-weighted lens. Also, lifting the monopod off the ground to track action handheld is easy and fast to do. Use the monopod to rest the setup between breaks in the action.

Putting the sizes into perspective:

Canon EF 600mm f/4.0L IS III USM Lens Compared to Similar Lenses

Positioned above from left to right are the following lenses:

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens
Canon EF 500mm f/4.0L IS II USM Lens
Canon EF 600mm f/4.0L IS III USM Lens

Notice the slightly whiter color of the III?

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

600mm f/4.0L IS III USM Lens Compared to Similar Lenses with Hoods

Like most of Canon's super telephoto lenses, the 400 f/2.8 IS III utilizes the same 52mm drop-in filters as its predecessors. Included in this lens' slot is a drop-in filter holder that accepts 52mm threaded filters. A Canon Protect 52mm filter comes installed (helpful for catching dust before it drops deep inside the lens). Note that the filter is part of the optical design of Canon's big lenses, effectively the rear element in the lens design. The Canon Drop-In Circular Polarizing Filter PL-C 52 (WIII) is the filter option that will usually be found most useful. This filter has had several revisions for color changes, keeping up with the lens color changes. Some will find neutral density filters to be useful with this lens, especially when recording movies at f/2.8 under bright daylight.

With this lens' weight being comfortable for handholding, how this lens is handheld becomes a bigger issue. The shifted-rear weight distribution required the tripod foot to be moved back and the tripod foot is the natural choice for holding this lens in use. The height of the tripod foot combined with the new rearward location combine to keep the left elbow resting against the body for less shoulder strain. The redesigned shape of the foot, including an upward curve at the end, makes handholding comfortable with fingertips ideally positioned for using the focus ring and the thumb located not far from the switches. The gripped padding provided on the tripod foot aids in carrying comfort.

This tripod 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 lens for quick attachment to my Arca-Swiss compatible monopod and tripod head clamps. Mounting with two screws is important to prevent the plate from twisting, but note that most lens plates will require a 3/8"-16 to 1/4"-20 Reducer Bushing in the larger threaded insert. These are very inexpensive and it seems Canon could easily have included one in the box. Much better would have been to machine the needed Arca-Swiss dovetail grooves into the foot as some other lens manufacturers have started doing.

The tripod collar is extremely smooth and provides light click stops at 90°-degree rotations. While the click stops cause a small bump during rotation (such as when panning with a subject as a monopod tilts), I much prefer to have the click stops assisting me with finding center, aiding significantly in keeping a camera level.

As the super telephoto lenses continue to drop weight, the demands of the support they are used on also diminish. While this lens can be handheld for decent periods of time, you will still appreciate having support under the lens for longer periods of use (and for stabilizing the view). Avoiding future shoulder issues may not seem important today, but I assure you that you will one day appreciate having taken good care of your body in your youth. Keep your elbows in.

For tripod mounting, I suggest using a strong ball head (such as the Really Right Stuff BH-55 or Arca-Swiss Z1) with this lens. Much better (safer, easier) is to use a lens of this size on a gimbal style head such as the Wimberley Tripod Head II or Really Right Stuff PG-02. The 400mm IS III is shown mounted to the RRS FG-02 head with an RRS Ground-Level Tripod under it in many of the product images on this page.

Two tripod collar feet were included with the version II lens with one being a small foot designed for monopods. I never used the small one and apparently many others left their small foot in the box as well. The smaller monopod base plate is reportedly again available for the version III lens, but this time it is an optional accessory.

As first seen on the 600 IS II, the 600mm IS III has a Kensington-type wire security lock under the tripod collar lock knob cap.

The included ET-160 (WIII) lens hood is nearly the same as the version II lens' ET-155(WII) lens hood with paint color being the primary difference. This hood is relatively rigid, rather light (10.6 oz / 300g) and very large, offering the lens element excellent protection from bright light, impact and the elements. While this hood is quite rugged, protect it as a replacement will cost as much as a rather nice lens.

Canon ET-160B Short Lens Hood for EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens

The big lens hood is sometimes an issue from a space standpoint including both packing space and space on the sidelines or other event. For those circumstances, there is the optional Canon ET-160B Short Lens Hood. The price tag is rather strong for this one also.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens Cap

The EF 600mm f/4L IS version I lens came with a large leather-like lens cap that completely covered the reversed lens hood and was held in place with a drawstring that was not really needed as these covers were difficult to get off. The version II lens cap design was a huge improvement, featuring a shallower padded nylon cover that could easily be removed with one hand by simply pulling the hook-and-loop tab. The cap could be attached with the hood in ready to use or reversed positions and, if the Velcro tab was pulled tight enough, it could be attached directly to the lens without the hood being there. I doubt that latter feature was designed-for, but the version III formally adds that feature. With an overall design similar to the version II, the version III cap adds a less-padded, more-flexible nylon extension with a draw-string that snugs around the end of a non-hooded lens. The front of the lens cap is additionally padded with a rigid interior protecting the front lens element.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens Strap

The included padded lens strap can be attached to the tripod ring, an attachment point that allows the camera to be rotated without the neck strap following the rotation (causing strangulation).

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens Case LS600

There is a new Canon super telephoto lens case. For as long as I can remember, Canon's super telephoto lenses came in a rigid lens trunk. These shaped, lockable trunks were very nice, very protective and were good for storage, stacking and shipping purposes. However, these trunks were expensive, often far oversized, could not hold a camera body, were not especially comfortable to shoulder carry and rarely left my studio.

New with the version III telephoto lenses is a sling-style (single strap) shoulder case, the Canon LS600 Soft Lens Case, replacing the trunk.

This nylon case looks great, is relatively compact and lightweight, is well-padded, is easy to use with smooth-functioning zippers and large pulls, and has a round molded-plastic bottom that keeps it upright on a flat surface. A thin zippered pocket and two strap attachment points are provided on both sides of the case. The shoulder strap is padded and strong, and breathable padding is provided on the case side of the strap, adding to the shoulder-carrying comfort. The convenient hand strap on top is also strong with breathable-padding ensuring that grip is not lost. Four hook-and-loop-adjustable pads are provided for interior use.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens Case Pads

This case is nicely-sized to hold its intended cargo.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens Case Open

Making the case large enough for a mounted DSLR to fit would have been an alternative. The additional cost would have been very little (especially relative to the cost of the lens) and the utility of the case would have been greatly increased.

Transporting a large lens with a camera mounted increases risk of damage but there are many times when I'm transporting a lens such as this one in a lower risk manner and prefer quick access to the mounted lens or want to avoid mounting a lens in unfavorable conditions. For example, arriving at a soccer (football for our friends across the pond) tournament and transporting the lens from field to field throughout the day can be low risk. Or, when photographing wildlife, getting the lens into action fast can mean the difference between getting the shot and getting nothing. For air travel or shipping, I usually separate the lens and body.

For those who love the trunk style case (and the ability to stack them), Canon has you covered. The Canon 600C Lens Case is available, but brace yourself before looking at the price. And, take good care of your LS600, because it also has a very big price tag itself.

At review time, the MindShift Gear FirstLight 40L is my preferred carry case for this lens. This lens with a pro body mounted just fit into this excellent backpack.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens on Tripod

Price and Value

The price of the Canon 600 f/4L IS III lens will wow you as much as its image quality and overall performance. Without a doubt, the price is the biggest hurdle for getting this amazing lens into the hands of photographers wanting it (which is nearly all of them).

While this lens is expensive, it is priced in line with the other camera brand options. Canon USA's Rudy Winston shared some of the reasons for the high cost of this and similar lenses:

Fluorite lens elements: fluorite is an artificially grown crystal, not glass, and requires a lot of time to grow to sizes that can be used as lens optics. [In this regard, surely some cost savings was realized with the shifted-rearward fluorite elements being smaller in size] And then, it requires incredible skill and precision to cut and grind into shape for use as an optical element.

Mechanical design: these lenses require tremendous precision, to sustain optical alignment with their physical length and to withstand the inevitable bumps and bruises that they'll get in the hands of working professionals. This is easy to take for granted, but they're much more difficult to manufacture than smaller, lighter lenses.

Skill of manpower used for assembly: usually, the most skilled and experienced workers are culled for assembly of the big white super-tele lenses (along with the Cinema EOS lenses), AND these lenses tend to be largely hand-assembled. The costs associated with this are, of course, absorbed into the final selling price of the lens.

Finally, you have simple economies of scale... even if the price was arbitrarily cut in half, we know the number of units sold per year would never match those of lighter, more everyday pro-level lenses (think of 70-200/2.8s, 24-70/2.8s, and so on). So the development costs and so on, again, have to be made up with fewer total lenses being sold during the product's lifetime.

Fortunately, quality lenses hold their value well. While the overall cost of ownership for these lenses can vary greatly (including from monetary exchange rate fluctuations), a Canon super telephoto lens can typically be sold for a solid percentage of the purchase price. I of course cannot promise anything in this regard, but I made a nice profit when selling the version I IS lenses. The concept of buying this lens to photograph a child's high school sports career and later selling it to help fund their college education seems logical. Those pursuing professional wildlife and/or sports photography will likely find the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM Lens to be a career requirement.

If the price makes the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM Lens unobtainable for you, consider renting one for your special events. If you are not shooting professionally, consider getting other parents to share in the rental expense in exchange for photos of their kids participating in sports.

As expensive as this lens is, you get what you pay for. Also consider that price is a barrier for entry, meaning skilled photographers with this lens have a competitive advantage that will not be overcome by the masses with a camera.

As an "EF" lens, the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens is compatible with all Canon "EOS" cameras (the EOS "M" and "R" series models require an adapter). Canon USA provides a 1-year limited warranty.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens Top View

Summary

The Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III is an absolutely-no-compromises lens created by a company with a long history of delivering best-available camera lenses. This lens is a roll-up of the best-available technology, including the technology utilized in the lens' design as well as the innovative manufacturing techniques required to make this lens a reality for the professionals who will ultimately rely on it.

With superb build quality, a very long super telephoto focal length, an ultra-wide aperture for that focal length, and a fast and precise AF system. the built-for-speed EF 600mm f/4L IS III package works exceedingly-well for serious, discerning sports photographers, wildlife photographers and photojournalists. This is the type of lens that will have under-funded photographers digging through their gear kits searching for anything that might be considered non-essential and potentially contributing to the 600mm f/4L IS III fund. Once the investment challenge has been overcome, taking delivery of a new Canon super telephoto lens such as this one will make even the most jaded photographer feel like a kid on Christmas morning.

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