Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens

      Photo Review 9

      In summary

      A fast 800mm prime telephoto lens that will provide high performance for sports and wildlife photographers.Canon’s EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM lens is a ‘big gun’ in many ways. Weighing 4.5 kilograms and almost half a metre long with its lens hood attached, it’s a challenge to shoot with. However, it also has a maximum aperture of f/5.6, which is outstanding for a lens with such a long focal length. Not unexpectedly, it’s priced accordingly at just under $17,000 and comes in a specially-designed, lockable lens case with a contoured interior and Velcro tie-down. . . [more]

      Full review


      Canon’s EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM lens is a ‘big gun’ in many ways. Weighing 4.5 kilograms and almost half a metre long with its lens hood attached, it’s a challenge to shoot with. However, it also has a maximum aperture of f/5.6, which is outstanding for a lens with such a long focal length. Not unexpectedly, it’s priced accordingly at just under $17,000 and comes in a specially-designed, lockable lens case with a contoured interior and Velcro tie-down.Designed to provide pin-sharp close-ups and exceptional depth-of-field control, the 800mm f/5.6L lens is ideal for sports and wildlife photographers because it can provide the types of close-up shots that are unachievable with lesser optics. It could also suit news photographers – as long as they could work from a fixed location where they could set up a tripod. It’s difficult to hand-hold this lens for any length of time.
      The longest of Canon’s EF Super Telephoto lenses the EF 800mm f/5.6L is one of a suite of telephoto primes that includes the EF 200mm f/2L IS USM, EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM, EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM and EF 500mm f/4L IS USM lenses. Like the EF 200mm f/2L IS USM, the 800mm f/5.6L lens has a huge front element.


      Like its siblings, the 800mm f/5.6L lens has a magnesium-alloy barrel and cylindrical lens hood that attaches via a locking knob and reverses onto the barrel when not in use. Both are finished in Canon’s signature ‘white’ and very solidly built. Extensive use has been made of dust- and moisture-resistant sealing, which includes a rubber O-ring around the lens mount.
      The sophisticated optical design comprises 18 elements in 14 groups and includes two fluorite lens elements, one UD (Ultra Low Dispersion) element and one Super-UD-glass element, which together ensure superior correction of color fringing and excellent contrast and sharpness. The 800mm f/5.6L lens covers an angle of view of three degrees, five minutes with a full-frame sensor camera or one degree and 56 minutes with one of Canon’s ‘APS-C’ DSLRs. It is compatible with both the EF 1.4x II and 2x II tele extenders and EOS cameras with 45 AF points will continue to provide autofocus at the centre AF point when the lens is used with the 1.4x extender.


      The optical design of the 800mm f/5.6L lens, showing the position of the special lens elements. (Source: Canon.)

      The barrel is considerably longer than the 200mm f/2L lens but retains the same general design. It steps out slightly from the lens mount and continues cylindrically for approximately 67mm to form a platform for a narrow ridged grip and the drop-in filter chamber (which is the same as on the 200mm lens). A further step up includes the rotating tripod collar, which has a prominent orientation locking knob and lugs on either side for attaching a carrying strap (supplied).
      Forward of the tripod collar is the main control section, with a distance window indices in metres and feet, ranging from 6.0 metres to infinity plus an infinity compensation indicator for shifting the infinity focus to compensate for changes due to changes in temperature. Unlike the 200mm f/2L lens, a depth-of-field scale is not provided.


      The main control panel.

      On the left side of the lens barrel at this point you can find five sliders. The top one is the focus limiter, which has three positions: 6 m to infinity, 6 m to 20 m and 20 m to infinity. Below it is a slider that switches between auto and manual focusing. Further down are two stabiliser sliders, the top one switching stabilisation on and off while the bottom one sets the stabiliser mode. Mode 1 corrects vibrations in all directions, while mode 2 only compensates for vertical camera shake and is used for panning.
      The stabilisation system is highly sophisticated and can detect when the lens is mounted on a tripod. It then shifts into a secondary stabilisation mode that can counteract mirror slap. This is particularly valuable as mirror lock-up is impractical to use when shooting sports and wildlife. Secondary stabilisation isn’t used when the lens is mounted on a monopod, when normal stabilisation is applied.
      You can tell when the stabiliser is active by the sounds it makes. There’s a soft beep when it starts up and shuts down and a barely detectable hum while it’s active. Canon claims the stabiliser can cut four EV in shutter speed off normal shooting speeds. To achieve this, you would have to reduce the normal ‘rule-of-thumb’ shutter speed of 1/800 second to 1/100 second at ISO 100. The best we could manage with the lens hand-held was just under 1/400 second, while with a monopod we got down to 1/15 second. In both cases, the number of blurred shots outweighed the number of sharp images by roughly two to one.
      Below the stabiliser mode switch lie the focus preset button and slider switch. The slider has three positions: off, on and beeper. The focus preset can be used in both AF and MF modes and enables you to pre-set a specific focus distance. Simply set the switch to on and half-press the shutter button to find focus. Then press the focus preset button. If you’ve set the switch to beeper, it will beep each time focus is achieved.
      Just in front of these controls is a broad focusing ring with rubber ridges to provide a firm grip. This ring is close to 80 mm wide and has a shallow recess roughly half way along it to improve grip stability. The ring flares out slightly in front of this recess. Further forward is a metal ridge and then another, much narrower ridged rubberised ‘playback’ ring, which is used to recall the pre-set focusing distance. Four AF stop buttons arranged at 90 degree intervals around its diameter are used to temporarily pause (and release) autofocusing.
      The front element of the lens, which is approximately 125 mm in diameter, is recessed about 20 mm into the lens barrel. On the outside of the lens barrel at this point is a narrow channel for attaching the lens hood (supplied). The lens hood is a larger version of the hood supplied with the 200mm f/2L lens and attaches in the same way with a locking plate that is secured by a large knob.
      The hood reverses onto the lens barrel when not in use and is covered by a large cylindrical leather ‘bag’ with a drawstring top and solid padded base that slips over the lens, covering the tripod bracket. This lens hood, which has a strap across the exterior of its base to make it easy to remove, is secured by drawstrings close to the camera body.

      We tested the 200mm f/2L lens on two camera bodies: a Canon EOS 5D and a 400D. On the 5D body it was a reasonably good fit and generally adequately balanced – even with the large lens hood attached. All-up weight with the 5D body is around 3.5 kilograms.
      The much lighter 400D body was well out of balance with such a heavy lens attached and proved much more difficult to shoot with, regardless of whether the lens was supported or hand-held. It was almost impossible to obtain sharp images with the lighter body when hand-holding the camera-plus-lens at shutter speeds slower than 1/2000 second – image stabilisation notwithstanding. In general, we consider this lens too large and bulky to be comfortably balanced on Canon’s consumer DSLRs.
      On a larger EOS 1-series body, the camera/lens balance would be much more comfortable. However, with any camera body, its weight and length make this lens challenging (though not impossible) to use for hand-held shooting. Tripod-mounting is definitely preferable – although a sturdy monopod would provide greater flexibility for shooting sports and wildlife and still allow slower shutter speeds to be used.

      The autofocusing system on the review lens was up to the challenges presented by its physical dimensions and weight. We found the focus limiter particularly useful when shooting subjects whose distances we could estimate. Autofocusing was almost silent and generally faster than we had expected, even when focus limitation was not engaged, which speaks volumes for the system’s capabilities. Hunting was also relatively infrequent for such a fast, long focus lens.
      The 5D’s bright viewfinder image made focusing manually a viable option. Manual focusing was very smooth with this lens and the ring was very well damped, offering just enough resistance to make setting precise focus relatively easy.
      The overall performance of the image stabilisation system was outstanding. Even though there were many blurred shots in our test sequences, when considering the constraints we placed upon the test lens it is surprising we
      captured so many shots that could be classed as ‘keepers’.
      We were unable to run any Imatest tests on this lens because there was insufficient distance leeway in our testing set-up (which only extends to just over 200mm focal length lenses in 35mm format). Consequently, all assessments in this review are, of necessity, subjective.
      Resolution in test shots appeared to be at least equal to that of similar shots taken with the EF 200mm f/2L IS USM lens. We found no evidence of coloured fringing (and none was anticipated) in test shots. However, some corner vignetting could be seen at f/5.6, although it was less noticeable at f/8 and no longer evident by f/11. In our opinion, it would never be noticeable enough to impair picture quality.
      Colour reproduction was also very good and we found little evidence of flare and ghosting in shots of backlit subjects. The camera was also able to record its full dynamic range. Performance was equally good with both the camera bodies used in Photo Review’s tests, which speaks volumes for the overall design and construction of this impressive optic.



      Vignetting at wide apertures: EOS 5D on tripod, ISO 100, 1/500 second at f/5.6.


      No vignetting at f/8; EOS 5D on tripod, ISO 100, 1/125 second at f/8.


      Sports close-up: EOS 5D hand-held, ISO 200, 1/400 second at f/5.6.


      Sports close-up: EOS 5D hand-held, ISO 200, 1/790 second at f/5.6.


      Sports action: EOS 5D hand-held, ISO 200, 1/790 second at f/5.6.


      Sports action from a distance: EOS 5D hand held, ISO 100, 1/2656 second at f/6.4.


      Sports action from a distance: EOS 400D on monopod, ISO 100. 1/500 second at f/7.1.


      Sports action: EOS 5D on monopod, ISO 400, 1/4096 second at f/9.9.


      Evening moon: EOS 5D hand-held, ISO 640, 1/790 at f/5.6.


      Wildlife: EOS 5D on tripod, ISO 100, 1/49 second at f/5.6.


      Wildlife: EOS 5D on tripod, ISO 100, 1/125 second at f/5.6.


      Wildlife: EOS 5D on tripod, ISO 100, 1/200 second at f/6.4.


      Wildlife: EOS 5D on tripod, ISO 100, 1/664 second at f/5.6.


      Wildlife: EOS 5D on tripod, ISO 100, 1/99 second at f/14.1. Note the blurred wings of the bird that has just taken off, while the head remains sharp.


      Wildlife: EOS 5D hand held, ISO 100, 1/330 second at f/6.4.







      The three images above show how narrow depth-of-field is on the 800mm f/5.6L lens, regardless of aperture setting. The top image was taken at f/5.6; the image below it at f/11 and the bottom image at f/22.




      Picture angle: 3 degrees, 5 minutes (with full-frame sensor camera)
      Maximum aperture: f/5.6
      Minimum aperture:
      Lens construction: 18 elements in 14 groups
      Lens mount: Canon EF
      Image Stabilisation: Yes; two modes
      Minimum focus: 6.0 metres
      Maximum close-up magnification: 0.14x
      Filter size: 52mm (drop-in gelatin filter holder)
      Dimensions (Diameter x L): 162mm x 461mm (maximum lens length)
      Weight: 4.5 kg








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