Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens

This is the biggest, baddest, heaviest, most expensive and rarest production lens Canon still manufactures that I own. This lens is rarely stocked, it’s almost always a custom order and takes 3 months to build!

EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens No Hood

EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens No Hood

So you might be wondering what all the hoopla is about with super telephoto lenses? Well, aside from the fact that they’re rare and exspensive, they’re incredibly powerful tools!

Lens wrapped up

Unpacking the lens after purchase

I don’t know how to even describe this lens, but basically you don’t attach the lens to the camera, you take the camera, tripod, gear bag and then attach everything to the lens. This lens beckons that it needs a camera which is actually the smallest thing you would attach! It’s like a beacon too, people from all around flock towards it to see this rare beast in action. In fact, you don’t even need to be a “photographer”, if you happen to be rich and want to fake it, walking around with this lens will remove any suspicion people may have.

Now, all kidding aside, this is a serious lens with serious reach. It has a minimum focus distance of 6 meters / 19 feet and narrow 3.5 degree field of view which means you probably aren’t going to be photographing wedding rings and parties with it. This type of a lens is built for wildlife, sports, the paparazzi, celestial photography and other unique ventures.

It’s a great tool for air shows, compressing distant landscapes and exploring urban sunrises or new moons but also probably the least useful lens for everyday photography. Without question, it can provide the reach needed in almost any situation, but you don’t always need that reach.

North American Long-tailed Duck

North American Long-tailed Duck @ 800mm 1/640th F10 ISO 320 5DMKIII

The 800mm is not the kind of lens you leave on your front seat ready for action or take on a hike into the woods. It’s the kind of lens that you plan your shooting day around. For one, it’s not necessarily easy or quick to use. It takes a few minutes to pull out, setup and then you need a monopod, tripod or gimbal should you decide to actually use it! Yes, you can use it free hand but it’s not easy and even if you’re physically in good shape with stamina and endurance you will eventually hurt your arm trying to hold it for prolonged periods.

Don’t forget that with a very narrow 3 degree field of view sometimes finding your targets means you’ll be hunting. It’s actually not very difficult to hunt when you have reference objects in view, but against a flat featureless sky it’s easy to lose all perspective. The same holds true to for large featureless bodies of water.

The lens can be setup quickly if you really need it RIGHT AWAY but it’s still not as fast or easy to use as the 70-200mm which offers the ability to acquire a target and then zoom in.

Here are some first impressions I’ve had with the lens:

The lens can be used during the day, night or really at anytime but due to the magnification factor even the smallest vibrations become a big problem. This means that while long exposure operation is possible with a good solid tripod or gimbal even the lightest winds will cause grief and result in unusable blurry images. The same holds true for bridges, buildings and the like which may see vibration from passing vehicles or natural harmonics.

800mm / Miller Television Tripod

Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens on a Miller Television Tripod

Coming from a video background, I’m extremely comfortable with video tripods and their associated fluid heads. I’ve found that using this lens mounted on a sturdy video tripod is very pleasing with very sharp, clean results. While gimbal systems tend to be lighter than commercial video tripods they don’t really offer the ability to smoothly pan and follow subjects. Another consideration is that even the sturdiest gimbals are really operating near their weight limit with any super telephoto lenses. Whereas in contrast most commercial television tripods are designed to work with loads of 15-25 kg and easily handle the 4.5 kg / 9.9 lb mass of the 800mm lens. The drawback is that even the cheapest television grade tripod is still substantially more expensive than the highest rated equivalent gimbal and photo tripod combination and video tripods can be very heavy. That said, the benefit of a video tripod is that if you chose to shoot video with your 800mm lens, it’ll look great coming from a smooth fluid head.

The Canon 800mm F5.6 IS USM can also be upgraded to 1120mm using a 1.4X teleconverter. If you have a pro body with the latest firmware, the camera will autofocus using the center point only. This is especially beneficial if you need to squeeze some additional reach out of your glass with minimal quality degradation. In fact, I’ve seen very little if any loss using using the Canon 1.4X III teleconverter, the biggest problem is that you drop from f5.6 to f8 immediately. Still, that’s a not a huge problem during daylight hours and if you’re shooting with a tripod you can get away with using much lower shutter speeds.

KLM Jet Landing at Pearson Airport

KLM Jet Landing at Pearson Airport @ 800mm 1/1600th F11 ISO 1250 5DMKIII

I’ve also had excellent results turning the lens into a super far reaching 1600mm telescope! It’s crazy to throw a 2x teleconverter onto the lens but for what it’s worth the results are very clean and simply amazing. They’re not as clean as the bare glass at 800 or 1120mm, but the image degradation is nominal and it’s the only “affordable” way for anyone to achieve 1600mm without actually buying a telescope. That said, no camera to date supports AF, the only way I can autofocus lenses at 11 stops is to use the live display autofocus function where the camera intelligently hunts out the sharpest image. It’s messy, but it works 80% of the time. You can also manually focus the lens in live view assisted mode but watch for camera jitter!

As you can imagine, atmospheric optics are a big problem! If you’re indoors or shooting at short distances (under 150 feet) then you should be fine assuming there is not dust, fog or haze. At distances of 300 – 500 feet, atmospherics can become somewhat noticeable but still should not be a problem. Once you’re into the 1000+ foot range you start to encounter image degradation from heat shimmer and haze obstruction. Obviously this is all relative since you can have very clean air and see potentially huge distances or have dense fog and not see past your nose.

Toronto Skyline from 10km away

Toronto Skyline from 10km away @ 800mm 1/400th F9 ISO 400 5DMKIII

The same is true for heat shimmer, on extremely cold days heat shimmer is generally not a problem and the same goes for days which are windy. The mechanical mixing of air (such as by wind) is good in that it makes the air more thermally uniform meaning heat shimmer is less of a problem, but then you have the issue of vibration from the wind itself and that’s a whole other issue! So it really depends, you’ll have days where you can use the lens to bring a distant city into focus and days where looking down the street at your dog is a problem.

I have yet to really properly test if the lens eats up more battery than smaller telephoto lenses. In theory it probably does since the motor inside the lens has bigger optical elements to adjust (I think) and the image stabilization system has to work harder. That said, thus far I haven’t noticed any real difference in battery lifespan or performance between my 70-200 and the 800 but again I have not really tested both against each other properly.

 

Here are some sample images: