Canon 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4 review (L IS I & II)

Canon 500mm f/4   We love this lens. We hate this lens. It’s heavy. It’s almost impossible to travel with. Carrying it on a hike is both tiring and annoying. If you hand-hold it and a bird is flying towards you, you’ll get about 2/3 of the way through the run before your arms start shaking, screwing up your shots. Using a monopod is even more of a pain, though. Oh, and a new copy is $9,000. We also hate it because it’s so damn sharp. Using any other lens for wildlife or faraway subjects feels like a waste, because you know this lens would get you much better results. You really don’t know what sharp is until you’ve used it. There is simply no substitute… but there are a few different options in this range:

  • Canon 500mm f/4 L IS (Mark I), about $4,000 – $6,000 used. This is the lens we have. We bought it for $6,000 new about a decade ago, and they sell for about the same used. So, even after a decade, it won’t have cost more than a dime to own.
  • Canon 500mm f/4 L IS II, about $9,000 new or $6,000 used. Canon’s update to our lens is a bit sharper. More importantly, it’s smaller and lighter, improving the usability. The upgrade is worth it if you have the budget.
  • Canon 600mm f/4 L IS (Mark I), about $4,000 – $6,500 used. It brings you 20% closer than the 500mm f/4, but it’s significantly heavier and bigger, too. That extra weight makes it much less hand-holdable, which is why we chose the 500mm f/4 over this lens–our style is to hand-hold.
  • Canon 600mm f/4 L IS II, about $12,000 new and not really available used. The redesigned Mark II lens is about the same weight as our original 500mm f/4, meaning it can be handheld in the real-world, making this the ultimate wildlife lens for those with the budget.

In a nutshell, buy what you have the budget for. They’re expensive, but the total cost of ownership isn’t that high, because used prices don’t drop much at all–only about 10% in a decade.