Will the EF 800mm f/5.6L Soon Become Obsolete? « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Will the EF 800mm f/5.6L Soon Become Obsolete?

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This image was made near Homer, AK with the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS lens with the 1.4X III TC and the EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 400. Evaluative metering +1 stop: 1/320 sec. at f/8 in Manual mode. The key to a successful composition here was placing the bird high enough in the frame to include the lower breast and show off the bird’s full crop.

The Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS with or without the 1.4X III TC is obviously superb tool for nature and wildlife photographers, especially those who love birds. Read on to learn what the future may hold for this lens.

Will the EF 800mm f/5.6L Soon Become Obsolete?

When I first heard that Canon would be releasing an 800 f/5.6L IS lens I stated that it was a stupid lens. Then I borrowed one to try out at Bosque and purchased one the next week. It quickly became my everyday workhorse super-telephoto lens. I went nowhere without it. I use it about half the time with the 1.4X III TC and on occasion, with the 2X III TC using Live View to focus accurately. It is the sharpest super-telephoto lens that I have ever used and the new 4-stop Image Stabilizer system performs amazingly well; I have created sharp images at shutter speeds as low as 1/6 sec. Absurd!

The playing field, however, is about to change. On September 23, 2010 I posted news of the four new Series II Canon Super-telephotos and the two new Series III tele-converters along with my comments here. On February 3, 2011 I posted Series III 2X TC Gut Reaction. And on February 7 I followed that up with Worth the Weight? The Skinny on the Two New Canon Super-telephoto Lenses. It seems that in this last post that most folks failed to read between the lines…. (See my explanation below.)

About two months ago I pre-ordered both the Canon 500mm F/4L IS II and the Canon 600mm f/4L IS II lenses. I had been hoping to get my hands on a 500II in May and on the 600II sometime in June but with the recent natural disasters that struck Japan those hopes are in no way realistic. I have no clue as to when these lenses will be available but would not be surprised if they were delayed a full year.

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This image was created at Lake Kerkini, Greece with the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS lens and the EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 400. Evaluative metering +2 1/3 stops of the white sky: 1/800 sec. at f/6.3 in Manual mode. This somewhat serendipitous capture includes an adult Dalmatian Pelican and an immature Herring Gull (yellow-footed race).

The Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS is and always will be a superb flight lens. The new lens coating make it the fastest autofocusing telephoto lens that I have ever used. The new Series II super-telephotos should be even quicker….

Now lets get on to the question of the day, “Will the EF 800mm f/5.6L Soon Become Obsolete?” Well, one answer is that it if it ever becomes obsolete it will not be soon! Here, adapted from my February 7 comments, is where folks failed to read between the lines:

“The new 600 will weigh only 8.8 pounds. The 800mm f/5.6L IS lens weighs 9.9 pounds. The relatively new 800mm f/5.6 lens was the first to offer the amazingly revolutionary 4-stop Image Stabilization system. All four of the Series II super-telephoto lenses offer 4-stop IS. The new 600 IS II offers far greater versatility than the 800mm and offers a longer effective focal length with functioning central sensor-only autofocus (1200mm with the 2X for the 600 IS II as compared to 1120mm with the 1.4X for the 800). In addition, the new 600 weighs 1.1 pounds less than the 800. And it should be mentioned at this time that the Series III teleconverters will offer improved AI Servo tracking accuracy only with the Series II Super-telephoto lenses. The micro-chips in the Series III TCs cannot communicate with the older super-telephoto lenses. Do note however that early reports indicate that the EF 2X Extender III is noticeably sharper than the EF 2X Extender II.” (For more on the new TCs, check out Series III EF Teleconverter Misconceptions…

Expanding on my “greater versatility” comments: with the 800 you have only two useful focal lengths when using a pro body: 800 and 1120 (the 800 + the 1.4X TC). With a pro-sumer body like the 50D or the 7D, you have only one: 800mm. (An f/5.6 lens will not autofocus with the 1.4X TC). In either case, 800mm is often too long a focal length. An example would be at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm where many of the nests are this close. And there would be a huge gap between the minimum available focal length of 800mm (800mm) and the maximum available focal length of the rig on my shoulder, 400mm (the 70-200 f/2.8L IS II and the 2X III TC).

With the new 600 II and a pro-body you will have three useful focal lengths: 600mm, 840mm (the lens plus the 1.4X III TC), and 1200mm (the lens plus the 2X III TC). You will enjoy a considerably closer minimum focusing distance with the new 600. And the gap between the minimum available focal length of the prime lens alone (600) and the the maximum available focal length of the rig on my shoulder, 400mm (the 70-200 f/2.8L IS II and the 2X III TC), is greatly reduced.

And this greater versatility will be provided by a lens that weighs 1.1 pounds less than the 800…. For serious photographers with adequate budgets, the choice between the 800 and the 600 II seems to me to be an easy one.

So where does this leave me? As I was always able to make sharp images with my old 600 IS and the 2X II TC at shutter speeds as low as 1/60 sec., I will–with the 600 II’s 4-stop IS–have no problem at all doing that quite consistently with the new lens (when I get it) :). So the very great likelihood is that I will be selling the 800 f/5.6 at some point down the road.

So why did I also pre-order the 500 IS II? On some trips, say Antarctica, South Georgia, the Falklands, and the Galapagos, I will bring the 500 because the birds are tame, the 500 II will weigh nearly two full pounds less than the 600 II, and–with its smaller physical size, be easier to travel with. The 500 II will be imminently more hand holdable than the 600 II, great for photographing seabirds off of a large ship. And with the 500 II I will still have a nice maximum focal length of 1000 mm (with the 2X II TC). In addition, I will be able to rent either the 500 II or the 600 II to participants on (most) IPTs.

I am positive that the 800 will always be a great lens for bird photography, and that it will always be in high demand. The price of used 800s will surely come down a bit as some folks will switch from the 800 to the 600 II. So will the 800 f/5.6L IS lens become obsolete? Not in my lifetime!

Shopper’s Guide

Below is a list of the gear that I used to create the images above. Thanks a stack to all who have used the Shopper’s Guide links to purchase their gear as a thank you for all the free information that we bring you on the Blog and in the Bulletins. Before you purchase anything be sure to check out the advice in our Shopper’s Guide.

Canon 800mm f/5.L IS lens. Right now this is my all time favorite super-telephoto lens.
Canon 600mm f/4L IS II. This one will surely replace my 800 f/5.6L IS….
Canon 500mm f/4L IS II. I cannot wait for this lightweight beauty.
Canon EF 1.4X III TC. This new TC is designed to work best with the new Series II super-telephoto lenses.
Canon EF 2X III teleconverter. The 2X III is a bit sharper than the 2X II.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV professional digital camera body. The very best professional digital camera body that I have ever used.

And from the BAA On-line Store:

Gitzo 3530 LS Tripod. This quality tripod will last you a lifetime.
Mongoose M3.6 Tripod Head. Right now this is the best tripod head around for use with lenses that weigh less than 9 pounds. For heavier lenses, check out the Wimberley V2 head.
Double Bubble Leve.l You will find one in my camera’s hot shoe whenever I am on a tripod and not using flash.
Delkin 32gb e-Film Pro Compact Flash Card. These high capacity cards are fast and dependable.

25 comments to Will the EF 800mm f/5.6L Soon Become Obsolete?

  • Hi Arthur, how are you?

    I’ve read your concerns re the new flagship Canon EOS 1Dx. Probably it’s better to continue with 1DIV and other enthusiast crop bodies for a while.

    What’s your opinion?


  • Hi Arthur,

    You are a renowned photographer and I do not dare entering into argument with you. Your are vastly superior when it comes to bird photography undoubtedly. However, my point is probably missed here. What I want to say is; photographers should be free to make their own choices. IS technology is not very old. Even few years ago you made wonderful images with film cameras fitted with non-IS lenses. Even a layman like me produced around 32 good images out of 38 shots available on the film.

    Canon still makes some non-IS lenses and all of those sell well. Therefore, IS is certainly an advantage however, it is not something that photographers cannot do without.

  • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART



    The 70-200mm IS II + Extenders is a significantly costlier option let alone the absence of prime quality. For us the 400f5.6 and the great EF 70-300mm IS USM (on 2 bodies) are less expensive options and together still less damaging than the 70-200mm IS II + version III Extenders.

    Agree. You obviously missed my post on intermediate telephotos less than $1500 🙂

    I wish Canon produced one 600mm f5.6L non-IS! That would be prosumers’ dream setup to work with any damn body.

    Maybe for you. Very few folks are comfortable using a non-IS lens these days.

  • The 70-200mm IS II + Extenders is a significantly costlier option let alone the absence of prime quality. For us the 400f5.6 and the great EF 70-300mm IS USM (on 2 bodies) are less expensive options and together still less damaging than the 70-200mm IS II + version III Extenders. I wish Canon produced one 600mm f5.6L non-IS! That would be prosumers’ dream setup to work with any damn body.

  • All the above are fancy mouth watering but useful super telephotos and musts for pros. However, for prosumers like me, Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM is always a soulmate and will remain so for years to come. No match is in sight.

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      As I have said, and as the person who put the 400 f/5.6 on the map for bird photographers, but for me, the 70-200 f/2.8L IS II with both TCs is the equal for flight and sharpness plus it is 1,000 times more versatile. Especially for folks working around tame birds 🙂

  • Hi Art: I emailed robgarbraith’s llink on the work he did with the Mark 111 and 4, to your staff email address.

  • Charly Mann

    Hello Arthur, what will be the useful focal lengths for a CANON 7D with the new 500mm and 600 mm lens?

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Hey Charly, The equivalent (or effective–again, a matter of semantics) focal lengths for the 500 and the 600 IS II lenses (and all other 500 and 600 lenses as well) with a pro-sumer (1.6X crop factor) cameras like the 40D, the 50D, and th 7D will be 800 and 960mm respectively. In my humble opinion folks who purchase super-expensive super-telephoto lenses would be best using a Mark IV body with it for a variety of reasons 🙂 I will try to remember to do a blog post on that soon 🙂

  • Jim Seward

    Hi Art! Just wondering with inflation going up on many commodities such as food,gas,etc. Do you think it would be better to preorder a lens now to lock in a price even though it is list price in anticapation that if it does take a year for the new 500 and 600 to finally come to market, prices may be even higher?

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Hi Jim, I am not much on economics… The lenses will surely be hard to come by when they finally are available. I am not sure if you can “lock in a price.” And iif you lock it in, I am pretty sure that nobody is gonna charge you full list… I do know two things: !: we all only get one ride on life’s merry go round. 2: The sooner you get on a list, the faster you will have your 500 or 600 II….

  • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    Thanks for the link Bill. I read the whole thing. Not sure what the guy is doing. Most times when I get an unsharp image it was caused by operator error. Nikon folks swear that they get every image sharp but when I view a series of flight images on their laptops I find that they have a good percentage of o-o-f images most likely caused by operator error. I love my Mark IV bodies.

  • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    I would not expect Canon to be specific at this point. BTW, Japan just had another 7 point something quake this morning….

  • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    Always as in the next five years or so.

  • Bill Richardson

    Artie: Here is the link to the Galbraith article: http://www.robgalbraith.com/bins/multi_page.asp?cid=7-10048-10484 Galbraith is accustomed to the Nikon AF and I am sure that is lack of familiarity with the new Canon system had some effect. He also apparently never customized the performance to the situation which I assume also had an effect. Perhaps yo should send him your Mk4 guide. LOL As I said before, everyone I know using the Mk4 loves it.

  • Bill Richardson

    This is what I just heard from Canon about production problems (not very enlightening):

    “We are in the process of conducting a thorough review of the status of
    our production operations and supply chain. Various options are being
    considered to maintain appropriate stock levels, including the use of
    alternative sites not damaged by the earthquake as a means of continuing
    production. Our Public Relations Department in Japan is responsible for
    communicating the status of overall business operations to the public,
    so please visit http://www.canon.com for the most current information.”

    I found nothing from the PR department on their website.

  • Artie – Define “always.” :o)

  • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    Becky, You will always be able to recoup a very large percentage of your original investment should you choose to sell your 800 and drop down to the 600 II. (Not so with camera bodies…)

  • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    Clear Ken, You are not communicating very clearly… Yes, many had AF problems with the MIII, and the AF was admittedly jumpy. You write, “I hope that the MIV delivers.” I and many, many others have been using MIV bodies for nearly 1 1/2 years and have found the AF system to be fast and precise. Have you not seen the hundreds of sharp images that I have been posting here and in the Bulletins for the past 15 months?

    I was unaware that Galbraith was claiming focus problems with the MIV; please provide a direct link.

  • Hi Art: Well I guess to each their own, we agree to disagree, I had 2 Mark 111’s, (I am a Rodeo Photographer turning bird and wildlife photographer), one of the Mark 111’s were replaced by Canon and the second one was send away for AF repairs, (2 out of 2 is not a good error percentage if you are a Mark 111 owner) when it came back, I crossed the floor to black lenses – Again I hope the Mark 1V delivers – it was a costly crossover but I haven’t looked back – but you are right there are lots of white lenses out there as well as black lenses – but in the pro rodeo circuit there are lots of black lenses and that must say something as well because the rodeo photo guys can’t afford to have focusing issues – in fact I heard one of the photo guys nickname is “fuzzy” and guess what camera system he uses?

  • . . . and NOT IN MY LIFETIME!! It was such a huge investment made not too long ago, and I would have been quite unhappy for you (or Canon)to say it would soon become obsolete!

  • Bill Richardson

    Hi Art. I was going to get an 800 until the new 600 was announced. I was convinced by your earlier analysis (most of which you repeat here) that I would be better off with the more versatile 600 so I called Hunt’s and put in a deposit. I rarely use my 500 w/o a 1.4TC so I passed on the 500.

    Clearken, I don’t know anyone complaing about the MkIV’s AF. In fact, everyone I know using it is raving about that camera. I read and reread Galbraith’s tests but real worls use seems to be great. I use a 1Ds3 and I find that AF excellent. I use one sensor focusing almost always except for birds in flight when I go to 45 points just because I am lousy at keeping one sensor on the bird. I also have noticed the return to pro football of the white lenses since the MkIV came in. Those guys cannot afford a subpar AF system so that says something. (Go Bears)

  • My biggest concerns with the super-telephoto lens for canon, especially the 800, is that if the lens is used with the Mark 111 or the Mark 1v according to http://www.robgalbraith, focusing becomes an issue at times. Rob broght the focusing issue of the Mark 111 to the forefront so Canon had to react – weather the Mark 4 correct the problem is still up the air, but they are beautiful cameras non the less. Canon does not have a focusing issue with their other semi-pro or pro cameras just with the Mark 111 and 4. To spent lots on a beautiful lens and put it on a camera that has questions about its focusing is a personal choice.

  • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    Bill, I do not know anything specific other than that the Canon place where the lenses are assembled was affected to some degree. Do you own the 800?

  • Bill Richardson

    I also have a deposit on the new 600mm. Does anybody know what damage has been suffered by the factory or factories that were to make the new super telephotos?