Product Review — Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM Super Telephoto Lens

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By Steve Russell

Before I begin this article, I would like to ask each of you to remember the people of Japan. The challenges and hardships they are enduring go far beyond the events of the earthquake and tsunami. I once lived in Japan for two and a half years and learned first hand that they are a resilient people with an indomitable spirit and I know they will recover. Until then, please keep them in your thoughts.

Now for the article

This is an article I’ve been anxiously anticipating writing for over a week. The first weekend in March I went on a photography workshop to the Everglades National Park. I will write about that trip in a week or two, but this article is about something that was a very big part of the success of that trip – a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM Super Telephoto Lens
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New lens 2

Before I get into any details on the lens I want to talk about how I was able to have that lens for the trip. The lens costs $6,699 on Amazon.com. Since I know that Amazon sells for B&H and Adorama that is probably the best price you could find for the lens with a Canon USA warranty. In other words, that’s the price for the lens that isn’t a gray market lens. To be honest, I don’t have $6,700 to buy a lens as much as I might want to. The solution was to rent the lens for the weekend.

Our schedule was to leave at 7:00 am on Friday morning and return late Sunday evening. Because of previous recommendations made by Tiffany Joyce on Beyond Megapixels, I contacted ProPhotoRental. Wow! What an experience. I explained my schedule and the person I was working with, Jared, said that it would be considered a 5-day rental. He then explained that they would ship it with a scheduled delivery date of Wednesday so if it was late, I would still have it on Thursday to take with me on Friday. That’s Gold Star number 1. I already knew I was at the right place. They were more concerned with me having the lens for the trip than how many days the lens would be out of their inventory.

The lens arrived on Wednesday, March 2, as promised, packed in a hard plastic case similar to a Pelican case. A return UPS shipping label and two plastic zip ties to lock the case when I returned it on Monday, March 7, were included in the case.

I probably reminded myself at least 5 times to remove the tripod mounting plate from the lens before shipping it. As you might guess, as I was returning home on Monday after taking the lens to the UPS store, I remembered that I had left the mounting plate on the lens. I emailed Jared at ProPhotoRental and explained, somewhat sheepishly, what I had done. He said that it wasn’t a problem and he would ship it back to me once the lens arrived at their facility. I received the package with the mounting plate enclosed on Monday, March 14. Second big Gold Star for ProPhoto Rental.

My recommendation – If you need or want to rent any photography equipment, I highly recommend that you consider ProPhotoRental. I feel confident that you will be pleased. I know that I’ll use them the next time I need to rent photography equipment.

Now for the lens

I knew that to get the best images I needed as long a lens as possible. I also knew that there were seven people going on the trip, including the guide, teacher and professional photographer, Milton Heiberg. To tell the truth, a small part of why I wanted to rent the lens was just so I had a bigger lens than the other attendees. You know, it’s a guy thing. Hah!! As it turned out, everyone on the trip except one had a 500mm f/4 lens. Had I not rented, I would have been the only one with just a 300mm lens. Okay, I’m kidding a little bit, it really wasn’t about having the largest lens on the trip. However, only one person didn’t have a 500mm lens and he had a 100-400mm zoom lens.

Now this is how you shoot surfers....
I don’t recommend using this lens on a monopod, but it must work for some people.

The lens is huge. It is 25.5 inches long, 14 inches in diameter and weighs 8.5 pounds. Add the 8.5 pounds to a 6 or 7 pound tripod and a 2 or so pound camera and I spent the weekend lugging around about 18 pounds. It was heavy, but it was worth it.

110306_MG_6820_SRP7D_Blue Wing Teal
This pair of blue wing teals were approximately 25 meters away when I captured this image.

The sharpness and clarity of the lens is awesome. I expected the AF to be a little slow, but it wasn’t at all. I spent a lot of time shooting on continuous mode and never had a focusing problem that wasn’t my fault. The lens performed way beyond my expectations including when I was also using a 1.4 extender. The photos of the birds were taken with the lens.

110304_MG_5063_SRP7D_Great Egret
You have to love it when birds like this Great Egret pose for you and you have the lens that will capture the image.

I have two very important cautions if you’re considering renting a lens like this one.

First, I have a Manfrotto 055MF4 Tripod with a 498RC2 Ball Head. There wasn’t any problem with the tripod supporting the weight but I fought the ball head all weekend. The lens and camera together are so heavy that it’s very difficult to adjust the lens and have it stay where you want it. In other words, trying to “balance” a lens and camera that large and that heavy on a ball that isn’t much larger than a golf ball isn’t the best way to use this lens. That was probably the only negative of the trip. If you’re going to use a lens like this I strongly recommend you either rent or buy the Wimberley WH-200 specialized gimbal-type head. Yes, they cost roughly $600 but you can move the lens as if it were weightless, including tracking birds in flight.

Second, if you don’t have an extra $7,000 laying around, do not rent this lens. If you do and you don’t have $7,000, you will be consumed trying to save enough to buy it. I know, I’ve already started saving.

Photographers are gadget freaks, we all know that and you are always supposed to ask yourself how often you’ll use something before you make a large expenditure. If I had this lens, I’d find ways to use it. In case you can’t tell, I absolutely love this lens.

110304_MG_5357_SRP7D_HDR_Everglades Sunset Small

As the sun set on the first day in the Everglades, I reluctantly left the lens in the case and used my 24-105mm f/4 lens for the first day’s sunset.

Photo Credits:
Canon 500mm f/4.0 lens by DavidQuick on Flickr Creative Commons
Now this is how you shoot surfers by San Diego Shooter on Flickr Creative Commons
All other photos by Steve Russell

*The Author received complimentary rentals in exchange for mentioning the Provider’s products and/or services on this website. Such compensation received did not and will never influence the content, topics or posts made on this website. We will only endorse products or services that we believe, based on our expertise and experience, are worthy of such endorsement.

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