The Amazing Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS Lens « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

The Amazing Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS Lens

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This image was created with the Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens, the 1.4X II TC, and the EOS-1D MIV. ISO 200. Evaluative Metering +1/3 stop: 1/800 sec. at f/8. Image sharpness with the 1.4X TC wide open is simply astounding….(Be sure to click on the image to see a larger, sharper version 🙂

When I first learned that Canon would be releasing an 800mm f/5.6 L IS lens, my initial reaction was “That’s a stupid lens. Why use an 800 f/5.6 when you can use the 600 f/4 with a 1.4X teleconverter and have a slightly longer lens (840mm to 800mm) at the same aperture (f/5.6)?”

Before making my annual pilgrimage to Bosque Del Apache NWR in San Antonio, New Mexico in November, 2008, I borrowed one of the new 800s from Canon Professional Services. Curiosity had gotten the best of me. I fell in love with the lens immediately and ordered one through the Canon Explorers of Light Program the moment that I got back home. (I have been a Canon contract photographer for the past 14 years.) My very own 800 arrived minutes before I left on a trip to Morro Bay, California in early January, 2009. When I got back from that trip I sold my 600mmm f/4. And shortly thereafter I sold one of my two 500mm f/4s. Ever since I got the 800 I have used it exclusively while my 500 f/4 gathers dust in the garage used only when it is rented to an Instructional Photo-Tour (IPT) participant.

So why the complete turnaround? In the original “The Art of Bird Photography,” I had written “Always choose a longer slower telephoto lens over a faster shorter one.” I had simply failed to follow my own advice. I often used my 500 and 600mm f/4 lenses with not only the 1.4X teleconverter, but with the 2X teleconverter as well (losing one and two stops of light respectively). Each combination was capable of making professionally sharp images when used by folks with impeccable sharpness techniques. Many intermediate photographers shy away from using their big glass with the 2X teleconverters as they simply cannot make sharp images consistently. The fact is that most advanced bird photographers rely on both the 1.4 and the 2X teleconverters a great deal of the time.

Now, here’s the rub: as good as the prime lenses and teleconverters are these days, the images that you create with a 1.4X TC will—when viewed at high magnification—always be about 14% less sharp than those created with the prime lenses alone. And images created with the 2X teleconverters will be approximately 28% less sharp than those created with the prime lenses alone. That said, and as noted above, the results with either of these combinations can produce professionally sharp images. I have said often, “If you cannot consistently create sharp images with your long lens with the 2X teleconverter at shutter speeds as slow as 1/60 second, you need to work on improving your sharpness techniques.

What I had failed to realize when I first began working with the 800 lens is that I would rarely if ever need the 2X TC, and that I would be using the 1.4X TC far less than I had been when working with either the 500 or the 600. Thus, even though I would be working at similar focal lengths, the resulting images would be sharper. Instead of working at 600 X 1.4 = 840 I would be working at 800. Instead of working at 600 X 2 = 1200 I would be working at 800 X 1.4 = 1140. And with the 500, which I used far more than the 600, the numbers were more impressive. Instead of working at 500 X 1.4 = 700, I would be working at 800, and in lieu of 500 X 2 = 1000 I would again be working at 1140.

In addition to increased sharpness and image quality when working less with teleconverters comes an increase in the speed of initial focus acquisition and increased autofocus accuracy, both are great boons for flight photography.
When working with the three prime lenses alone, the huge edge goes to the 800 with its great magnification. The size of the subject in the frame is a function of the square of the focal length. 5 squared is 25. 6 squared is 36, and 8 squared is 64. Thus, the subject covers more than 2 ½ times the area with the 800 as compared to the 500, and more than 1 ¾ times the area with the 800 as compared to the 600. When working with the 800, the EOS-1D Mark III, and the 1.4X teleconverter the equivalent focal length will be 1456 mm, more than 29X magnification.

When most folks hear the words “eight hundred millimeters,” their immediate concern is with the weight of the lens. The new 800 is, however, an f/5.6 lens, while the 500s and 600s are f/4 lenses. The 800 is far lighter (9.9 lbs as compared to 11,8 lbs), slimmer, and easier to handle and travel with than the 600, and not a whole lot heavier than the 500 (9.9 lbs versus 8.5 lbs). And when it is not raining, I remove the lens hood making the 800 that much lighter.
Several years ago I switched from the Wimberley head lens to the Mongoose M3.5 head for the 500 f/4 L IS but stuck with the Wimberley for the 600. My general rule for using a big lens with the Mongoose M3.5 is as follows: if you can easily and comfortably support your rig with your right hand for 30 seconds while mounting and balancing it front to back, you are fine with the Mongoose and its tremendous weight savings as compared to the Wimberley. I can do that with the 800, but not with the 600. In the same vein, the 800 is light enough to handhold for short periods of time. This technique can be deadly for photographing birds in flight directly overhead.

I have never been one who is impressed either by hype or by the technical specifications of a given product; I rely instead on how that product performs for me. And though I have been using the 800 for less than a year now, I can safely say that it is an amazing piece of glass. It is reputed to be the sharpest super-telephoto lens ever manufactured and I would not argue with that for a second. Many of the images are astoundingly sharp. Color rendition and edge to edge sharpness are superb and assuming no operator error the images are exceedingly sharp.
When working in AI Servo AF, the 800 is the most accurate focusing lens I have ever worked with, most likely a result of the improved lens coatings. Every camera that I have used on it focuses faster and more accurately on the 800 than on any other lens. And the lens features a new “four stop” image stabilizer technology; I have been able to create sharp images at some ridiculously slow shutter speeds (as low as 1/6 sec.) as long as I take the time to tighten down the tripod head.

I wish that the Minimum Focusing Distance were a bit less than 19.7 feet; when working songbirds at close range, I almost always use a 25mm extension tube to allow for closer focusing. At times when working in low light I do miss f/4, but with the amazing high ISO performance of the EOS-1D MIII, this is not usually a big issue. And at times, the 800 mm focal length may be too long. (Isn’t that a nice problem to have?) With the 800 you will often need to use the Human Zoom feature by taking a few steps backwards. At the alligator farms, I will bring both the 800 and the 500.

As the 800 is an f/5.6 lens, you will have autofocus with the professional camera bodies with the 1.4X teleconverter, albeit with only the central sensor available. With the 2C TC, you will have to focus manually.

When working with a group of photographers using the popular 500mm telephotos, you may—depending on the type of image you are looking to create—need to stand well back from them. And all of the above goes double when you are using a 1.6X camera body like the 50D. With the 800/50D combo you are working at 1280mm, or more than 25X magnification. It will take practice just to find your subject in the viewfinder and you will need to employ your best Advanced Sharpness Techniques as described and illustrated in my latest book “The Art of Bird Photography II (916 pages on CD).

Before running out and plunking down more than $11,000 on this great piece of glass, do realize that good photographers make good images with whatever equipment they happen to have in hand. Lenses are tools, and you not only need to be able to select the best tool for the job, you need to know how to use it. Buying the latest, greatest gear is not a shortcut for study, practice, and experience.

Arthur Morris is widely noted as the world’s premier bird photographer and educator. You can learn more about Artie at and He has been a Canon Explorer of Light for 13 years, is a founding member of NANPA and a NANPA Fellow, and is one of the founders of the top educational nature photography web site on the planet, www.BirdPhotographers.Net. His most recent book: “The Art of Bird Photography II” (916 pages on CD only).

Note: this article first appeared in an issue of Nature Photographer Magazine:

7 comments to The Amazing Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS Lens

  • avatar dre

    You know…I kinda like the weight. WHen the going really gets tough, though…hire an assistant for the afternoon. Thank you very much. Cooler weather is upon us here on the west coast….looking forward to less haze.

  • Dear Arthur:

    The EF 800 F5.6L IS USM appears to be a spectacular lens by all accounts. Canon has now announced work on prototypes to replace its existing EF 500 F4L IS USM and 600 F4L IS USM lenses. Do you think that the new EF 600 F4L IS II USM will have a weight similar to that of the new EF 400 F2.8L IS II USM? Additionally, do you think that the new EF 600 F4L IS II USM will use multiple fluorite elements like the new EF 400 F2.8L IS II USM and exhibit a similar improvement in already stellar image quality?

    Best regards,

    Roma 🙂

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Hi Roma, All great questions. I doubt that the new 600 will be reduced in weight as much as the new 400 (at least by percentage). I am looking forward to finding out the exact weight. It will surely feature all of the same improvements as the other Series II lenses.

  • I couldn’t agree with this post more! I absolutely love my 800 – it is a different world than any other lens I’ve used. One thing this lens has forced me to do – more (and faster) editing! There are mornings I go out for an hour or two and come back with 1300+ images. I am still in the honeymoon phase as I’ve only had the lens a couple of months, but everything looks so great through it, I can’t help but press the shutter!

    I have already run into situations where I’m “too close” (and yes, it is a nice problem to have). That’s why I always make sure to also carry my 100-400 with me on a second body.

    I’m lucky enough to be in the San Francisco bay area where we have such a variety of birds a short drive away. I’ve absolutely loved filling my blog with images I only dreamed of getting before….

  • Don’t write such posts. Makes me want to buy one!
    I think Canon did really well with that lens. Even better would have been a 5.6/300-800L IS with the same weight and image quality but I doubt that this is possible – or way too expensive.

    Maybe I overlooked it but how to you come up with the 14% and 28% numbers for loss of sharpness? What’s the math behind it?


  • avatar Charles Gaudet

    I rarely use any converters on my Sigma 500 f4.5,since I loose autofocus and one stop of light. I can crop the image by 40% without affecting the quality of the image too much. What is the advantage of using converters?

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      With a really sharp prime lens and excellent sharpness techniques (as described in ABP II–916 pages on CD only) you wind up with 40% more pixels so that you can print larger 🙂