Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM Lens Review

This super telephoto lens is the long-awaited replacement to the circa 1999 Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM classic. Canon, quite frankly, was due for an upgrade on this one and I can happily say that it was well worth the wait. I’ve always believed that the 500mm f/4 telephoto is the perfect compromise between lighter weight (compared to the 600mm f/4) and the reach needed to safely and ethically photograph wildlife and most species of birds.

Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM

I recently tested Canon’s new 500mm f/4 lens during a two-week photo trip and workshop I was leading in Katmai National Park in Alaska. The lens was provided to me courtesy of lensrentals.com and my aim was to capture the brown bears of The Last Frontier with this new and improved classic piece of glass.

Lifting it from its box, the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM is cool, smooth, and deceptively light – it’s 1.5 pounds lighter then the previous version (7.03 vs 8.53). This lighter weight makes for much easier handling, but for anyone not accustomed to working with a super telephoto lens, it can still feel like a beast. Still, Canon managed to significantly reduce the weight of this lens without making much smaller in size.

For all the technical specifications for the Canon EF 500mm f/4 IS II USM, visit the lens specifications page on the Canon USA website.

Workshop client, Dan Mead, with the Canon EF 500mm f/4 IS II USM at Margot Creek in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve

Now, on to my subjective observations on the performance of the lens. I was using a Canon EOS 7D camera body and found the lens to focus very fast and effortlessly. When comparing the new version to the previous one, I can say that it’s noticeably faster to grab focus, especially when working with moving subjects, as I was much of the time. The IS is more powerful as well. Even before referencing Canon’s lens specs, I picked up on a noticeable difference in IS performance right off. Canon claims there is a 4-stop advantage from IS-ON to IS-OFF, which is twice as much IS assistance over the older version. There are three IS modes on this lens: 1 is for shooting stationary subjects, 2 is for panning in one direction with one axis of stabilization, and 3 is best for tracking moving subjects. I didn’t experiment with the three IS modes and only used Mode 1. I simply didn’t have the foresight – nor the dexterity to change modes on the fly – in knowing when a stationary bear would suddenly start moving and vice versa.

The older version of the Canon 500mm f/4 was known to be famously sharp so I wasn’t sure there could be much of a difference in this department. Well, if it was possible to improve on an already great thing, it appears they’ve done it. Canon claims the lens has “completely redesigned Fluorite optics that deliver sharper images with less chromatic aberration.” I admittedly know nothing about Fluorite but I can report that it’s one of the sharpest, if not THE sharpest lens, with which I have ever photographed.

Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM, 1/800 second at f4, ISO 200

The image above demonstrates how sharp this lens is, even with a moving subject. Below is a 100 percent crop of the image above.

100% crop unsharpened

For more lens samples from this trip, see Life and Death in Katmai and Image Roundup from Katmai, Alaska.

There was never any need to stop down from f/4 to get sharper results, as is usually the case with telephoto lenses. I could honestly see no improvement at all with my initial test images by stopping down, so I used the lens wide open almost the entire time, unless I needed additional depth of field. The lens appears to have no distortion and no chromatic aberration (must be that Fluorite again). There were several instances while reviewing images when I expected to see some color fringing, like edges of dark trees against a bright sky, where there was done to be found. The nine-blade aperture produced a smooth, pleasant bokeh in the out-of-focus background areas, which is exactly what you want with a super telephoto.

All in all, I liked everything about the lens. It was lighter, faster, and even sharper than the old 500mm f/4 version in addition to a 4-stop IS assist. Wow! The downside? The price tag, of course. As of this writing, the retail price on this lens was in the neighborhood of $10,500 USD. I’d have to sell a boatload of wildlife images to make this a smart business investment. But if wildlife is your thing, and you don’t think of a photography equipment purchase as an “investment,” then this lens has all the traits of a new classic in the making.

Buy this lens at B&H Photo: Canon 500mm f/4L EF IS II USM Lens or rent it from lensrentals.com.

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| 10 Comments
Posted in Camera and Lens Reviews | Tagged , , , ,

9 Comments

  1. Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:34 am by Lance Warley | Permalink

    Hey, welcome home!!!! I’m looking forward to seeing the Denali shots.

  2. Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:37 am by Ann | Permalink

    Wow, what a beautiful lens. One that definitely gets the job done! Canon makes such great products! Definitely an investment, but for the serious photographer, it will pay of in the long run!
    Great images, so clear and such great detail, even down to the droplets of blood around the bears mouth and the water splashing up! Phenomenal work Richard! :)

  3. Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:43 am by Hank Miner | Permalink

    Richard, why your 7D and not your Mark II?
    Love the 100% crop

    • Posted August 29, 2012 at 2:53 pm by Richard Bernabe | Permalink

      Hank, I prefer the 7D for wildlife over the 5D Mk2 because a) The 7D’s APS-C sensor size (minor reason) and b) the 7D’s 8 frames per second versus the 5D Mk2′s paltry 3.2 frames per second. The 5D Mk2 is a wonderful camera, especially for landscapes and nature but it’s not designed for wildlife or sport photography.

  4. Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:49 am by Steve Sickels | Permalink

    Nice lens! And what a photo — wow! I’m with Lance: looking forward to seeing your Denali shots.

  5. Posted August 31, 2012 at 11:58 am by Alistair Knock | Permalink

    Sounds like a great lens, just slightly too expensive and big for me… always nice to hear of other wildlife photographers using APS-C, always made sense to me but I have a niggling feeling that I should borrow a full frame and check whether I’m missing something obvious.

  6. Posted March 24, 2013 at 6:15 pm by Greg Douglass | Permalink

    Richard,
    Please give me your opinion on which lens would be best overall, a canon 500 or 600? This would be a once in a lifetime purchase, and I don’t want to make the wrong one. I was originally going with the 600 because of reach, and the new design puts the weight very close to the new 500, but the 500 is 3K+ cheaper! Of course this would be used for wildlife, my only interest. Any advice would be appreciated!

    Cheers,
    Greg

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  1. [...] Richard Bernabe got an EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens and shares his thoughts on his blog. An EOS 7D was used to test the lens (samples [...]

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