Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens Review

Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens
Note: The Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens has been replaced by the Canon RF 600mm F4 L IS USM Lens.
In-Depth Review

There is nothing like the arrival of a new Canon Super Telephoto Lens to bring the excitement of Christmas to any time of the year. And the hit on the credit card from this lens is considerably larger than the hit from most households' Christmas expenditures. The Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens entered the world as, by far, Canon's most expensive lens. This is of course not counting the EF 1200mm f/5.6 that is not in regular production - and costs as much as a small house.

The definite upside to the 800 L's high price is that you get Canon's ultimate lens physical qualities and superb Image quality.

The 800 L is sharp wide open from corner to corner and slightly sharper stopped down to f/8. The biggest improvement from stopping down is the reduced vignetting, which is somewhat strong at f/5.6. Exposures at f/5.6 are generally at least 1/3 stop darker even in the center of the frame from what f/8 exposures are - this is the biggest negative attribute of this lens in my opinion (aside from the price of course). Images at f/8 are simply excellent.

Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens Sample Photo of Rufous-sided Towhee

The uncropped 1Ds Mark III Rufous-sided Towhee photo above was shot at 1/80 second at f/6.3 and ISO 400. The 800mm focal length nicely magnifies the OOF (Out of Focus) background and, along with an 8-blade rounded aperture, creates a strongly and attractively blurred background. Slight corner darkening caused by a 25mm extension tube (not needed in this case) can be seen in this shot.

CA (Chromatic Aberration) is low, flare is well-controlled. Color and contrast are what you would expect from a lens of this caliber. Distortion is absent. There is not much more to say about image quality from the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens - it is excellent.

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

Despite Canon doing their best to keep the weight down (including the use of magnesium alloy in the construction), large size and heavy weight are simply part of the physics of an 800mm f/5.6 lens. It weighs less than the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS USM Lens - and the difference is noticeable, but the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens is by no means light - or small. Handholding this lens for any length of time without any support will be restricted to the strongest of us. The high magnification of the 800mm focal length makes precise framing especially difficult under this weight.

Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens mounted on Wimberley Head II and Gitzo Tripod

The 800 L IS above mounted on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III camera body and on a Wimberley Head II. The Wimberley II Tripod Head is the ideal setup for many of this lens's uses. The Gimbal-design of this head allows the weight of the camera and lens to hang balanced. In this position, tension on the panning, vertical and tripod ring orientation locking knobs can be set as desired without fear of the lens flopping over and ending up on the ground. This allows quick framing adjustments to capture the shot. Positioning even the heaviest camera/lens combinations becomes a simple operation with this setup - two-fingers can easily get the job done. The tripod in the above picture is the Gitzo GT5540LS (GT5541LS) - an excellent base for this setup. A Wimberley P50 Lens Plate is used for the Wimberley Head II's quick release clamp. This lens plate has adequate length for attachment of a flash bracket or other accessory while still allowing a range of balance adjustment in the clamp.

A solid monopod (such as the Gitzo GM5540/GM5541 monopod) is another good support option for this lens. A monopod does not yield the easy and (without an additional head) near-full vertical range of motion that the Wimberley Head provides, but it is smaller and lighter than the full tripod setup - mobility is increased. I'm using the 800 on both supports - and like both. If doing lots of shooting from one position or shooting near the vehicle, I'll go for the Wimberley Head II every time. For sports, with the mostly horizontal panning needed to capture it, the monopod is my choice.

There are many other camera supports available - including those found in the wild such as trees, fences, your knee (when sitting) ... you are going to want to find something.

The Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens shares most of its features of Canon's other super telephoto lenses - including IS. This IS implementation, however, is rated for 4 stops of camera shake correction. The difference between the 4-stop system the 2-stop IS implementation on the 600 f/4 is noticeable. IS, of course, is usually most helpful when handholding a lens. Since this lens is too heavy for me to consider handholdable (for any length of time at least), some of the IS benefit is negated. IS definitely helps for those quick shots taken handheld - it especially helps with framing at the high magnification of this focal length. Handholding this lens for any period of time is simply inviting an appointment with a rotator cuff surgeon.

On a full frame body, I need a shutter speed of 1/800 second to get consistently sharp handheld results from this lens with IS off. Turning IS on allows me to handhold this lens at 1/160 second. The keeper rate takes a significant dive below this shutter speed for me personally. I have good shots at 1/30 even after 100+ shots taken handheld in one-shot mode, but the rate is low enough that I would only want to attempt these un-aided shots out of necessity.

These numbers are for completely free-handheld support of the lens. Simply resting my elbow on my hip improves stability significantly. Your abilities may of course differ from mine. Weight lifting has been a regular part of my life for nearly 30 years. Lifting a lens is different of course, but ... I'm not weak.

Even when not handholding the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens, IS is a big benefit in this lens. This IS system is tripod-sensing - it shifts into a secondary stabilization mode when mounted on a tripod - it specifically helps correct mirror slap. Longer focal length lenses magnify the vibration of the mirror flipping up in preparation of the shutter opening, so this is a helpful feature. Mirror lockup is nearly impossible to use when shooting sports or wildlife. I am getting sharp, in-the-wild shots at 1/5 second without MLU (Mirror Lock Up) enabled. The special tripod mode is not utilized when the lens is monopod-mounted - normal handheld mode is enabled in this case.

I get a lot of email asking about the sound made by IS in various lens models as they all sound different. The answer for the 800 IS L is that the IS system makes a dull chirp when IS starts up and again when it shuts down. It makes a light hum with some light clicking sounds while running.

A max aperture of f/5.6 is not wide. IS compensates for this slow/narrow max aperture opening - as long as the subject is not moving. Panning mode 2 allows stabilization in one axis for panning with a moving subject. Mode 2 will work best with subjects traveling in a linear motion such as a car or bicycle.

Somewhat hurt by the narrow f/5.6 max aperture is low light AF. I find this lens hunting for focus much more frequently than the f/4 and faster super telephotos in low light conditions even on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III camera body. Otherwise, the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM lens's Ring USM (Ultrasonic Motor) driven AF is extremely fast and very accurate. AI Servo tracking accuracy of in-motion subjects is good. This internal-focusing lens does not extend, FTM (Full Time Manual) focusing is enabled.

To reduce AF lock time in certain situations, a 3-position focus limiter switch allows the focusing distance range selection to be limited to 19.7' (6m) to 65.6' (20m), 65.6' (20m) to infinity or unrestricted from 19.7' (6m) to infinity. The MFD (Minimum Focus Distance) of 19.7' (6m) yields a low MM (Maximum Magnification) of .14x. The Canon 25mm Extension Tube II is an accessory I am frequently using with the 800 L - it reduces the MFD to 16.4' (4982mm) which increases MM to .19x. The ET sacrifices infinity focus and increases vignetting at the corners on a full frame body, but it is helpful for tightly framing small birds.

Extenders are another option for increasing MM - and these do not require getting closer to your subject. The Canon 1.4x Extender will yield an 1120mm f/8 IS Lens, but currently only Canon 1-Series bodies can autofocus this combination (with the center point only). The 1.4x adds CA and barrel distortion. Adding the Canon 2x Extender to the 800 will result in a dark 1600mm f/11 IS lens that will not AF on any Canon body. I use extenders occasionally, but much prefer to use a bare lens if possible.

The 800 L includes a Focus Preset feature. Set the Focus Preset to a specific distance and when your shooting needs require that specific distance, press the Focus Preset button.

Autofocus stop buttons on the black ring near the objective lens allow autofocus to be temporarily suspended. An example of when I commonly use this feature is while shooting sports in AI Servo AF mode. I frequently want to grab a portrait using the focus and recompose technique. So, I focus on my subject, press one of the AF Stop buttons, recompose and take the shot. I get my portrait and am immediately ready to go back to the action. Another example is when shooting wildlife in motion such as running animals, birds in flight ... and want to capture a static scene.

I expect that wildlife photographers are going to buy more 800mm lenses than any other group - they simply can never get enough focal length. Sports photographers are likely to be the second largest 800mm buying group. And the event/press/paparazzi are probably the third largest purchasing group. All three of these groups may need to be where the action is regardless of the weather conditions - or the weather conditions may change before they can find shelter. Like the rest of the Canon super telephoto line, the 800 L is fully weather sealed. The protective front element can be replaced relatively inexpensively should something unfortunate happen and it completes the sealing without the additional protective filter required by Canon's current non-super telephoto sealed lenses. From the manual - "Tight seal insures dust-proof and drip-proof performance." At this point, only Canon 1-Series bodies are fully compatible with this sealing.

When purchased from a reputable dealer, the 800 L arrives packaged in a nice, lockable Canon Lens Case 800 hard lens trunk/case that measures 23.25 x 11.25 x 12" (591 x 286 x 305mm) (L, W, H). For some reason, the Canon Super Telephoto lens cases are ridiculously expensive to purchase separately. As the trunk is not sized to accommodate a camera body in addition to the lens, I am carrying my 800 in a Lowepro Pro Trekker II AW Camera Backpack when I need a body mounted. The 800 with a 1-Series body attached fits snuggly in this pack.

Lens hoods are included with all Canon L Lenses. The 7.0" x 6.4" (179 x 162mm) (WxL), 11.2 oz (320g) ET-155 Lens Hood takes the overall 800 L ready-to-use size out to 23.9" (606mm) and its weight to 10.6 lbs (4,790g). The thumbscrew on the hood adds about 1/3" (9mm) to the maximum hood width. The hood fit is nice - it is easy to install and remove.

A lens neck strap (mounts directly to the lens) is included in the box as is the E-180C leather-like lens cover/cap seen in the "Lens Cap" view below. This cover provides an objective-lens-protecting rigid cap inside a lens-hood-covering pouch-shaped cover. These caps are a bit of a pain to use, but functional. There are aftermarket alternatives available if you desire one.

An integrated-looking, non-removable tripod ring is included. Detents at 90 degree intervals make finding a level position easy. Though smoothly functioning, the tripod ring does not maintain even tension during a full rotation.

For filter use, the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens accepts 52mm rear drop-in filters in the included super telephoto-standard holder. The filter holder comes with clear glass in it. Two silver buttons near the mount end of the lens squeeze toward each other to release the filter holder. I like that the clear filter helps prevent dust from getting into the rear lens element deep in the lens body. The only filter I personally use in these lenses is the Canon 52mm Drop-in Circular Polarizer Filter, but, adding this filter to an already narrow aperture lens is going to require lots of light if there is any subject motion in the frame.

Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens

It is large and heavy, but the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens is also really well built. Featuring a magnesium alloy lens barrel, this lens is made to take the rigors of full-time professional use. The large MF ring is smooth and precise. This is definitely a quality piece of optics.

The best alternative to the 800 L is the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS USM Lens. The 600 is significantly less expensive and has a 1-stop wider aperture (lets in 2x as much light - less focus hunting in low light). The 800 is lighter/smaller (especially with hoods in place), has an IS system that is rated for twice as much shake correction (4 stops vs. 2 - the difference is noticeable) and has a longer focal length. The 800 is slightly sharper wide open but the 600 is slightly sharper at f/5.6. The 800 has slightly less corner CA than the 600, but neither have much. Both are simply excellent lenses.

The 600 can be made into an 840mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens with the addition of a Canon EF 1.4 Extender II. The resulting 840mm lens however, is not as sharp and has much more CA and barrel distortion. Use the mouseover feature in the following example to visually compare the 600 L, 800 L and 600 L + 1.4x images.

Canon Super Telephoto Lens Sharpness Comparison

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS USM Lens: f/4 | f/5.6 | f/8.0 | f/11

Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens: f/5.6 | f/8.0 | f/11

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS USM Lens + 1.4x Extender: f/5.6 | f/8.0 | f/11

The bottom-left corner of these crops is located about 1/3 of the distance from the center to the corner of the frame. Images were processed using the "Standard" Picture Style and a low sharpness setting of "1". A sharpness setting of "2" eliminates most of the remaining softness from the 600mm f/4 and 800mm f/5.6 images. Note the subject size difference caused by barrel distortion of the added by 1.4x in the 840mm examples (all images were framed identically - at least nearly so). The examples below show the CA difference between these lenses.

Canon Super Telephoto Lens Chromatic Aberration Comparison

The 800 has less CA than 600, but still shows some vignetting at this right border f/8 crop. Adding the 1.4x dramatically increases CA. The 600 + 1.4x comparison crop also shows barrel distortion changing the shape of the details.

Update: you need to read the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM Lens review before deciding which long lens is best for you.

Canon's super telephoto lenses really are the best of the best of their line. Here is a comparative look at the rest of these review-time-current lenses:

Canon's 2008 Super Telephoto Lens Lineup

Canon's 2008 Super Telephoto lens lineup is shown above. Beautiful, aren't they? The shortest lens standing on its rear cap in the center is the Canon EF 200mm f/2.0L IS USM Lens. To its left is the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM Lens. Continuing left, the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM Lens is shown resting on its tripod ring. Moving the top-most lens - this is the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens. Below it is the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS USM Lens and the bottom-most lens is the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM Lens.

Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens Product Images

Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens Sample Photo of Great Egret With Dragonfly

A Great Egret reduces the dragonfly population by one. Un-wadable water separated me and this bird - there was no getting closer. Even with 800mm of focal length, this shot required some cropping - to 3151 x 4726 from the 3744 x 5616 original size. When getting closer is not an option, Canon's longest focal length lens, the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens, may be the best solution for you (if the newer 600 L II is not).

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Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens
Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens
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