As photographers, we don’t realize how spoiled we are with lens choice and cost until we venture past the 200mm focal length. Past the 200mm zone we are into the specialist area of super-telephoto prime lenses which are large and expensive, but also the best way to capture professional quality images at long distances.
There is, of course, the option of strapping a bunch of teleconverters onto a regular lens, but the drawbacks are a reduced aperture and a drop in the nth degree of quality (a controversial point).
This is where the likes of the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM come into play. This lens was released back in 2012 and still provides all the functionality and optical goodies you would expect from a cutting edge prime lens.
For photographers who specialize in the likes of sports, wildlife and journalism, this lens can be a needed asset, rather than a luxury. So, let’s have a closer look at what this lens has to offer and are there any other options for the Canon platform which can measure up to the same standards.
The Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II US works equally well on both full-frame and crop sensor bodies, providing an 800mm equivalent focal length on the latter.
As for the basic specifications of this lens, the internal optics consist of 16 elements arranged in 12 groups, with four of these being aspherical, along with two fluorite elements. There’s also a Sub Wavelength coating applied to reduce the effects of ghosting and flaring, along with increasing contrast and detail.
Canon’s tried and tested ring-type Ultrasonic Motor (USM) covers autofocusing, while a nine-blade rounded diaphragm, provides superior bokeh effects. The resultant angle of view is five degrees, while the minimum focusing distance is 3.7m.
For those who want to use filters, there’s the option of using the 52mm variety which are drop-in. Lastly in this department, the total weight of the lens comes in at 3.18 kg, which is why there is the included removable tripod mount.
The exterior of the lens is built to the usual rock-solid L-series standards, with full weatherproofing and features a nice array of switches. These include an MF/PF/AF switch, focus limiters and presets, image stabilizer on and off, and preset switch, plus the standard distance scale.
The optical image stabilizing system provides up to four stops of compensation, with three separate modes. These include a single-shot mode, a panning-optimized mode and a mode which is only engaged at the time of exposure.
The focus limiter is very helpful for limiting the focus range to various distances, which include 12.1-32.8m, 12.1m-infinity, or 32.8m-infinity. A power focus setting can also be used to more smoothly adjust the focus by the slim front lens ring, using two distinct focusing speeds.
As this lens is such a sizeable beast, it comes with its own protective Canon Hard Case 500B lens trunk. Plus, needed additions such as a front lens cap, rear dust cap, large Canon ET-138W II lens hood, and drop-in filter holder.
The Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM in Use
It’s immediately apparent with the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM that it’s exceptionally sharp with the aperture wide open at f/4. The usual stopping down to clear up lens anomalies is only needed to clear up a little light falloff in the corners, which is virtually non-existent on a crop sensor camera body.
Happily, there is little sign of barrel distortion at f/4 as well as chromatic aberration, with very little sign of blue and purple fringing. The special coatings applied to the lens does a great job of reducing lens flare, along with providing a good degree of contrast and rich colors. When this lens is set to f/5.6-f/8, there is no faulting the overall clarity.
The Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM is very quick to focus and while you can feel some internal workings moving around, all the operations are very quiet, which will definitely suit video applications. With such a narrow angle of view focus, the presets come in very handy and a quick turn of the spring-loaded playback ring provides an audible noise for each setting.
The other non-standard feature on the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM is the ‘PF’ Power Focusing setting which essentially allows manual rack focusing for both slow and high-speed focus when shooting video.
Another very useful feature is the autofocus stop buttons around the end of the lens, which essentially stop autofocusing. This facility can be very useful for the focus and recompose technique.
The manual focusing ring, which is of ample size and is smooth to turn, works effectively for fine-tuning focusing and coupled with the image stabilization system is of great benefit for steady images at this focal length.
There is no faulting the overall image quality and with the accompanying image stabilization, keeper images are far more numerous than expected. The bokeh rendition is also fantastic, providing excellent separation between subject and background. An aspect which is really easy to obtain this focal length.
How Does It Compare?
If you can’t quite stretch to the high price tag of the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM, then Sigma has a few alternative 500mm lenses. These come in the form of the Sigma APO 500mm f/4.5 EX DG HSM and the Sigma 500mm f/4 DG OS HSM Sports. The latter is the most expensive and the lens which most closely aligns with the Canon, especially having an f/4 aperture.
The Sigma has many of the attributes of the Canon on paper, such as optical image stabilization, focus limiting, and presets. It doesn’t have the Canon’s level of weatherproofing and while the lens takes fantastic images, it’s just a scratch below what the Canon can achieve.
This means that if you still want professional-level images, but can’t justify the extra cost of the Canon, the Sigma is a worthwhile option.
|Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM||Sigma 500mm f/4 DG OS HSM Sports|
|Optics||16 elements / 12 groups||16 elements / 11 groups|
While the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM provides sumptuous images and there is no faulting its sharpness and clarity, it is a very specialist lens. This means that the end-user will have a specific need, for either professionals or serious hobbyists for applications such as wildlife and sporting events.
If this focal length completely fits your needs, then there is no denying its overall quality in the build and optics departments, but you also have to pay for the privilege. The AF performance is fantastic, the image stabilization system works extremely well, and the resulting images are wonderfully sharp.
Overall, for the Canon platform, the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM is a remarkable lens and although it’s expensive, it provides everything you need at this focal length.