Recently I decided to take the plunge, make the investment, and purchase Canon’s super telephoto 600mm F4L IS Mark II lens. I had been toying with the idea of purchasing this lens for almost six months and finally decided it was a necessary piece of equipment for several projects I am currently working on. Normally, I would not procrastinate for so long on the purchase of a new lens (who really needs a reason to purchase a wonderful lens anyway); but given the significant cost of ownership I needed to really map out my intended use to ensure I get the most from this expensive optic. I am not going to write an extensive review of this lens as quite frankly there are already many excellent reviews online. Suffice to say, the image quality from this lens is absolutely second to none in this class of telephoto. The MTF graphs alone tell the try story of just how sharp this lens really is. If you need to know anything particular about this lens then Google will certainly find it for you. Instead, I want to just briefly share my thought process on choosing this lens; what the alternatives were and why I decided it was worth jumping the cost barrier to entry.
Those of you familiar with my current shooting equipment might be asking yourself why I would purchase such an expensive lens when I already own the Canon 200-400mm F4L IS lens with inbuilt 1.4 teleconverter. The answer is really very simple – I simply want and need more reach. Although the 200-400 can reach 560mm on a full frame camera such as the Canon 1DX with the 1.4 Teleconverter engaged; the 600mm is faster (F4 instead of F5.6) at the 560mm end of the 200-400 with 1.4 teleconverter, but more importantly, the 600mm F4 will reach in excess of 800mm with the addition of a 1.4 teleconverter for a max aperture of F5.6 (max focal length with 1.4TC on full frame is 840mm). This provides significantly more reach than the 200-400 lens. Thus the 600mm becomes a very good supplemental lens for subjects that are too far away for the 200-400.
At this extreme end of the telephoto range there are really three lenses to choose from in the Canon line-up if you want long reach and a fast aperture. The 500mm F4L IS MKII, the 600mm F4L IS MKII or the 800mm F5.6L IS lens. I do not include the rare Canon 1200mm F5.6 lens as this lens is no longer available new from Canon and it commands ridiculous amounts of money on the second hand market (in excess of $100,000 USD). It is also the size of a bazooka, has no Image Stabilisation, is extremely heavy and thus completely impractical for travel. There are also numerous 400mm options to choose from but none of these provide the reach I require. The 500mm falls well within the focal range of the 200-400 with inbuilt 1.4 teleconverter so was not really the ideal choice to supplement this lens; in effect it’s just doubling up on a focal length I already own. The 600mm F4L IS MKII lens offers more reach at a faster aperture than the 200-400 with its 1.4 teleconverter engaged. The 600mm F4 can equal the 800mm’s F5.6 aperture at 840mm with the addition of a 1.4 Teleconverter. The 600mm combined with the 1.4 and 2X teleconverters gives me options from 600mm, 840mm and 1200mm – more than enough for my intended use. In short, this makes the 600mm F4 the more versatile lens and a better choice for my intended use. If I were photographing small birds I may well have opted for the 800mm for the extra reach to get as many pixels on target as possible. Just an aside: Canon’s new MKIII 1.4 and 2X teleconverters are truly outstanding and I would have no hesitation using either of these with any of the Canon L series lenses. In fact the 1.4TC on Canon’s 70-200mm F2.8L IS MKII makes an excellent light weight ‘Birds in Flight’ lens for handheld shooting from ships.
One of the major considerations for me in purchasing the 600mm F4L lens (other than the cost) was how I am going to travel with it from my home base in Australia to Iceland, the Arctic and other polar destinations. Truthfully, I have not yet fully decided on wether I am going to schlep this lens through airports or pack it in a Pelican case and FEDEX it to my destination. At this point in time, I am leaning toward carrying it in my carry on luggage – although the bulky lens hood will ride in my checked luggage. It is going to be tight squeeze with a 200-400 and 600mm f4 lens in my camera bag with camera bodies and supplemental lenses and equipment and I am expecting some spill over into a second bag (my Gura Gear Chobe bag). The addition of the 600m is going to put me way over the normal carry on luggage allowance; which is a bit of a worry and honestly I may yet opt for the FEDEX option. To date, however, I have not had issues (touch wood) with carry on camera equipment on any airline except Jet Star (with whom I will never fly again after they stranded me for 10 hours in Tasmania and refused me carry on in New Zealand back in 2008). In that vain, I did enjoy this image that incidentally turned up on Facebook a couple of days ago.Purchasing a lens like the Canon 600mm F4L IS is a significant financial investment and therefore it warrants serious consideration on its intended use before such a commitment. In my case, I plan to use this lens for a project I am working on to photograph Arctic Foxes in Iceland this winter (I expect this project to be ongoing over the next few years). This project will have it’s own dedicated micro-site that I am currently working on as well as the backing from the Arctic Fox Station, and several other sponsor parties. I will also take the lens to the Arctic with me (in addition to the 200-400) to photograph Polar Bears and Walrus on the Jewels of the Arctic trips in August this year. The first of these two expeditions is sold out and there are only three places remaining now on the second trip before it will also be sold out. If you want to get an idea of what this expedition entails be sure to watch the Polar Experience Video I produced late last year. I also intend to use this lens in the Arctic in 2015 on a dedicated expedition I am leading to photograph Polar Bears. I hope to officially open this trip for bookings in the next few weeks.