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Hands on review: Canon EF 500mm f/4 L II USM

Canon EF 500mm f/4 L II USM
Canon EF 500mm f/4 L II USM

The photographer makes the photographs in accordance to his or her vision, not the camera or the lens, the later are tools to enable translating the vision into art. The previous statement is very true, to “make” better photos you will also need to know your equipment’s capability and “understand” that light is moody bordering psychotic, just when you think you figured it out you are thrown you a curve ball.

So how do you level the playing field? Learn more, practice and again, fail and fail again until you get it. But then you are given 3 days in the African bush, with 1 lens for review, a lens you know nothing about. The lens is the 3.2kg monster Canon EF 500mm f/4 L II USM , the camera paired with it was a Canon EOS 5D MkIII, making mistakes is not an option! The pressure is on.

The Canon EF 500mm f/4 L II USM is heavy, cumbersome and a burden, it’s price tag alone makes you sweat, it even come with its own padded case. Once you dismiss all that, you decide to do the insane and put a 2x tele-convertor on it, pair it with a Canon EOS 7D and shoot the moon, handheld. You expect that it will be a total catastrophe. In short, you do not shoot the moon with a 1600mm (35mm equivalent) handheld, it will be blurred!!! But no, it was perfectly sharp, so what happened? The IS (Image stabilization) did it’s job, it is so good that it compensated for my movement whilst shooting the moon. From that moment on, I had nothing but respect for the Canon EF 500mm f/4 L II USM.

Moon @ 35mm equivalent of 1600mm, shot handheld.
Moon @ 35mm equivalent of 1600mm, shot handheld, unedited.

You are asking at this point how did it fair in the bush? First, I need to set the scene for you, I was in an open 4×4 with other tourists, open 4x4s are notoriously susceptible to people moving in them, creating a difficult environment to use any long lenses. Add the fact this is no short lens, you could easily knock somebody with it, I highly recommend using the 1st row. The 2nd issue is that in private game reserves, rangers are allowed off-road and get rather close to the animals, the 500mm becomes useless or so you might think.

Tusks up close and personal
Tusks up close and personal, no crop.

During the test I left my camera settings as follows, aperture priority at f/4, ISO in automatic up to 12.800, AI focus, exposure compensation at +1. My first few photos where a little out with the exposure hence the compensation. I would like to also point out that every photo that are on this page were edited, as I would any other photos when not testing a camera – I do not edit any camera review images, it would unethical. Why? The final image is what maters, I will tell you that I never exited Lighroom and that I spent 2 minutes editing per image on average.

Insane! - Bateleur vs. Martial Eagle (15% of original image)
Insane! – Bateleur vs. Martial Eagle (15% of original image)

The lens has various functions that allows it to work better in certain circumstances, it has various IS modes and has a focus distance limiter, all good things that I would not generally use in the bush, however I may very well use them on rugby or soccer field since I know the maximum distances and will pan often. There is also programmable focus distances, again these are not very useful in the bush, but may very well be in sport. All of these functions allow the lens to be faster to focus or have other specific uses whilst on a tripod or monopod. In my case I was using it handheld, there is however a very useful programmable button that is very well thought out, it is located exactly where your index finger falls when hand holding the lens, right after the focus ring. I used it as an auto focus button.

Lioness of Timbavati (No Crop)
Lioness of Timbavati (No Crop)

The lens maybe heavy but I found it comforting as it made me lock in place for the shot, resting my elbow somewhere and allowing for clearer, sharper images. The AI focus worked exceptionally well with this lens, getting crisp results in about 80% of the photos,. Combining the Canon EOS 5D MkIII and this lens was very natural and did not feel at odds with each other. In fact, it allowed me to shot well after sunset with nothing more but a spotlight.

The eye of the lioness (Cropped from the Lioness of Timbavati)
The eye of the lioness (Cropped from the Lioness of Timbavati above)

All in all this was a great experience with a great lens that flattened the playing field with ease. At about R110.000 ($11000), I would never buy one but there is always the rental option and I would not hesitate to go back to the bush with a great white again. In the final analysis, it is not that heavy or cumbersome or a burden.

Here are a few more images shot with the Canon EF 500mm f/4 L II USM

Frantic dinner table (Shot after sunset with only a spotlight, cropped)
Frantic dinner table (Shot after sunset with only a spotlight, cropped)
Impala bush (No Crop)
Impala bush (No Crop)
Dig, dig, sniff, dig, dig, sniff... (Cropped)
Dig, dig, sniff, dig, dig, sniff… (Cropped)
Hmmm. I smell it! (No crop)
Hmmm. I smell it! (No crop)
African Hawk Eagle (Cropped)
African Hawk Eagle (Cropped)
White backed vulture (Cropped)
White backed vulture (Cropped)
Blue eyes (Cropped)
Blue eyes (Cropped)
Buffalo (No crop)
Buffalo (No crop)

Lens kindly supplied by Canon South Africa’s CPS program with the co-operation of CameraTek in Johannesburg.
Foto Rental  – friends of the reviews – will have this lens shortly in stock for you to rent from branches in Johannesburg, Cape town and Durban.

Pascal Parent

Pascal's day job is as a technologist but you can mostly find him behind a camera after hours. As a passionate photographer he regularly shares his experiences with the world. From how-to to reviews you will find it all in his regularly updated blog and other places.

Comments

Michelle Ashburner
Reply

Wow and wow again… I want one!

Adrienne U. Walls
Reply

Worthy successor to the lauded Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM, the new EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM super telephoto lens features completely redesigned Fluorite optics that deliver sharper images with less chromatic aberration and has a lighter weight thanks to magnesium and titanium construction elements. Because image stabilization technology in super telephoto lenses may inadvertently over-compensate and interfere with composing and framing distant or moving subjects, the EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM includes an advanced third Image Stabilization mode (Mode 3) that activates IS only when the shutter button is fully pressed. This allows users to pan fast-moving subjects and then activate IS only when it is precisely required. Additionally, all three IS modes give the equivalent effect of a shutter speed four stops faster, ideally positioning the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM for professional action photography, from sports to nature. The addition of the Power Focus mode enables smooth focus change when shooting video. Buttons and switches are redesigned for intuitive, deliberate operation, and dust and water sealing keeps the EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM functioning flawlessly in even the most challenging environments.

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