Canon 600mm f/4 L IS II USM review - Best Bird Photography Tours | Florida & Alaska

Canon 600mm f/4 L IS II USM review

The Canon 600mm f/4 L IS II USM is a dream lens for the wildlife and bird photographer. It offers the best sharpness and autofocus speed available in long range lenses. Note that this review reflects our opinion, based on our own experience. Follow us on our wildlife photography blog to discover our field and image processing tips. The Canon 600mm f/4 L IS II USM was announced almost two years before it was actually available for purchase. As a result, with anticipation building, expectations were very high! The prior generation was a great success, making the Canon 500mm f/4 L IS about the most sold long range lens. The 500mm was then often preferred over the 600mm because of the difference in weight and a slighlty better image quality. Well... Change has arrived! Both of the new 500mm and 600mm have now the exact same image performance and the new 600mm is the same weight than the old 500mm. Amazing!

Take a peak at where this lens falls in the Canon L series lens lineup:

LensWeightMin. focus distanceMagnificationDimensions w/o hoodFilterYear
Canon 400mm f/4 L DO IS4.28 lbs (1.94kg)11.48 ft (3.5m)0.12x5.0x9.2" (128x232.7mm)52mm drop-in2001
Canon 400mm f/2.8 L IS11.85 lbs (5.37kg)9.8 ft (3m)0.15x6.4x13.7" (163x349mm)52mm drop-in1999
Canon 400mm f/2.8 L IS II8.49 lbs (3.85kg)8.86 ft (2.7m)0.17x6.4x13.5" (163x343mm)52mm drop-in2011
Canon 500mm f/4 L IS8.54 lbs (3.87kg)14.77 ft (4.5m)0.12x5.8x15.2" (147x386mm)52mm drop-in1999
Canon 500mm f/4 L IS II7.04 lbs (3.19kg)12.14 ft (3.7m)0.15x5.7x15.1" (146x383mm)52mm drop-in2012
Canon 600mm f/4 L IS11.83 lbs (5.36kg)18.04 ft (5.5m)0.12x6.6x18.0" (168x456mm)52mm drop-in1999
Canon 600mm f/4 L IS II8.65 lbs (3.92kg)14.77 ft (4.5m)0.15x6.6x17.6" (168x448mm)52mm drop-in2012
Canon 800mm f/5.6 L IS9.86 lbs (4.47kg)19.68 ft (6m)0.12x6.4x18.1" (163x461mm)52mm drop-in2008

The Canon 600mm f/4 II Image Stabilizer

The Canon 600mm f/4 L IS II USM is equipped with the second generation Image Stabilizer, which gives a gain of 4 f-stops when handholding. This gives a chance at short handholding this long lens with good results. The big talk is around the introduction of a 3rd Image Stabilizer mode. Mode 1 helps with both horizontal and vertical stabilization, while mode 2 helps with panning by automatically picking horizontal or vertical stabilization based on the panning direction, and in mode 3 the image stabilization starts only when the shutter is released. The latter mode helps with keeping track of subjects with erratic movements by not applying stabilization during the tracking itself: a very useful mode for birds in flight! Also, the lens automatically senses when being used with a sturdy tripod and disengages the stabilization for shutter speeds longer than 1 second.

The Canon 600mm f/4 II Construction

The Canon 600mm f/4 L IS II USM is superbly built, as one would expect for a lens of this category. There are 16 elements in 12 groups, including 2 fluorite elements with 2 Ultra-low Dispersion glasses and an increased use of magnesium alloy, coupled with a reduction in size of the Image Stabilized mechanism. This is how the 600mm second generation lens weighs 3.2 lbs less than its predecessor! This is the biggest weight reduction amongst this new generation of lenses. Weight wise, it is as if you were still using an old 500mm. Many people used to consider the latter handholdable... The tripod ring turns smoothly and features a 90 degree small stop to help with framing.With 8 aperture blades, blurs are very pleasing and the filter size is 52mm drop-in.

The Canon 600mm f/4 II Autofocus and Sharpness

The Canon 600mm f/4 L IS II USM focuses extremely fast and accurately thanks to the Ultrasonic Motor (USM). Autofocus speed is considered very nearly as fast as the absolute best in class Canon 300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM. Sharpness has even been improved, making this lens the sharpest after the Canon 300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM. To be fair the Canon 500mm f/4 L IS II USM and the Canon 400mm f/2.8 L IS II USM are as sharp. However, the 600mm II is sharper than the Canon 800mm f/4 L IS USM, and still remains arguably slitghtly better when coupled with a 1.4x Extender III.

Canon 600mm f/4 II versus Canon 500mm f/4 II

The Canon 500mm f/4 L IS II USM is 1.6 lbs lighter, making it easier to travel with and take around for long periods of time. However, bird photographers will really appreciate the extra 100mm in focal range from the 600mm. As we have already mentioned, there are no differences from image quality and autofocus speed standpoints. This comparison is all about reach, something extremely appreciated by wildlife photographers. That is especially true when working with a full frame sensor, like the Canon EOS 5D mark III.

Canon 600mm f/4 II versus Canon 800mm f/5.6

Now, that is the hot debate! A lot of ink has been used to cover this topic, or should I say keyboard strokes. The main argument is to compare the 600mm II + 1.4TC (=840mm) versus the 800mm bare and the 600mm II + 2xTC (=1200mm) with the 800mm + 1.4TC (=1120mm). In both cases, you will see in the MTF lens charts below that the image quality is slightly better for the 600mm combined with TC. The remaining part to judge is the autofocus speed. We have seen any sound measurements of this and many believe that a bare lens will always be faster than a lens combined with a TC, but it seems that both performances are very close and it is tough to point to a clear winner. The fact remains that the 600mm II is a bit lighter, a bit cheaper and a tad bit better in image quality with TCs. To us, the winner is the 600mm II.

Canon 600mm f4 L IS II USM - MTF chart
Canon 500mm f4 L IS II USM - MTF chart
Canon 600mm f4 L IS II USM with extender - MTF chart
Canon 800mm L IS II USM - MTF chart

Canon 600mm f/4 sample images

The image below is a Great blue Heron flying away with a baby shark in its beak. Yes, a baby shark! Having a longer reach allows to get close to a lot more wildlife action.

Canon 600mm f4 L IS II USM - Bird Photography 1

This Sandwich Tern in flight image is the non-cropped shot, reflecting the ability to fill the entire frame thanks to a longer focal range. The 100% crop is very sharp! Note how blurs are very pleasing.

Canon 600mm f4 L IS II USM - Bird Photography 2
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