Why should you purchase a $12K lens?

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I am sure, for the majority of people spending, or saving, thousands of dollars is a serious matter that is worth to be considered carefully. I also belong to them – not only because I am not swimming in money, but also because I always know that there will be an opportunity for me to invest the saved money into something good elsewhere. At the moment, I have again a hard time deciding if I should save several thousands of euros choosing a cheaper from several alternatives or just to pick the best one.

If I should buy such an expensive piece of gear, is for me out of question, however. If you are serious about what you do and want to achieve the best results, you have to use proper tools. A couple of years ago I read in a discussion on an Internet forum a remark that the price of such a lens is outrageous because it is “like of a car”. Yes indeed, you can buy a new car for a similar amount of money. So what? Then don’t buy the car if you can’t afford both. For a photographer the equipment has clear priority, therefore the choice should be obvious – the lens. (Not to mention that one can always buy a used car very cheap – so what are we discussing?)

A much more appropriate question is again: Which of several alternatives makes sense in terms of money saving or spending? This time I am choosing a super telephoto lens that should become my main wildlife photography tool for at least the next ten years. Of course, every Canon shooter (and not only) knows that EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II is not only the best super tele currently on the market but most probably the best telephoto lens this company has ever made. It is also one of the most expensive DSLR lenses, hence the reasons to purchase it and the alternatives need to be considered very carefully. To make it easier for someone who may need to do the same, I decided to share my thoughts and arguments in brief below.

600mm vs. 500mm: focal length

The closest alternatives of EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II among Canon lenses are the 500 mm f/4 and the 800 mm f/5.6. The first – EF 500mm 1:4 L IS USM II – has similar high image quality as the 600 mm but is a little lighter and a little cheaper: It weighs about 700 g less and costs about 2000$ less. It looks like a significant difference, and it is indeed. However, these advantages are being relativised by the much greater reach of the 600mm. Additional 100mm of focal lens result in increased magnification by 1.44x compared to 500mm. Therefore, the same  subject would fill 44% more of the frame produced by the 600mm lens. Since more pixels would be captured, the noise to detail ratio will be improved. As a consequence, sensor noise would be much less recognisable and would much less disturb the detail. If compared with my old 300mm lens, it will be even a 4x increase in magnification!

The difference in price between EF 300mm 1:2.8 L IS USM II and EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II is almost 100%, i.e. the 600mm costs almost double the price of 300mm. The EF 500mm 1:4 L IS USM II costs about 2000-2500$ less than 600mm. This may also look significant if you consider that you can get a full-frame camera body or a couple of lenses for that amount of money. The choice should be made according to your personal situation and requirements. Someone who urgently needs a new camera or other lenses may prefer to go for 500mm. However, normally a photographer choosing a super telephoto lens would have other equipment. For me the increase of overall image quality mentioned in the above paragraph is a reason strong enough to make me invest more in the lens and to choose the EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II.

600mm vs. 500mm: weight

The difference in weight between 600mm and 500mm is in the version II of these lenses not as significant as in the version I. The old 600mm lens was 5.4kg heavy while the 500mm was only 3.9kg and was considered by many wildlife photographers as hand holdable. In both, the image stabilizer, with 2 f-stops of shake compensation, was inferior to current one that is able to compensate for 4 steps. Therefore, both lenses were being used with tripods by most people.

Now the EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II weighs as much (or as little?) as formerly the EF 500mm 1:4 L IS USM. Both, 600mm and 500mm, lenses can be regarded in current version II as suitable for handholding although most people would probably still mean that they are heavy and prefer to use a tripod. So the weight isn’t such an important reason for choosing 500mm anymore.

600mm vs. 800mm

The EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM has been an outstanding product among Canon lenses since its announcement in 2008. It took Nikon 5 years to release its counterpart. Despite a narrower maximum aperture of f/5.6 it has some improvements over the much older EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM. It was 1kg lighter, had a higher magnification, better IS and some handling improvements. The f/5.6 aperture was still wide enough to create nice out-of-focus background blur at such large focal length. While EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM could be used with teleconverters, this didn’t make much sense with EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM whose aperture was becoming too narrow. However, it wasn’t necessary regarding such a large focal length. The image quality of this lens was at f/5.6 better than of 600mm used with a 1.4x teleconverter.  Of course, the price of EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM was proportionally higher than of EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM – 14,000$ vs. 10,000$ – but the improvements and benefits were worth it, and for someone who could afford it was the #1 choice.

Then, in 2011, Canon introduced the new generation of super telephoto lenses. This changed the situation completely: Now the EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM is outdated and inferior to EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II in every aspect. With an Extender EF 1.4x III the EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II has similar the same maximum aperture f/5.6 and even a little greater focal length (840mm) than EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM but outpurforms it in image quality, weighs less, has better image stabilisation, and is more versatile (because the focus length can be decreased to 600mm). This all for a similar price of around $12,000-13,000. Nowadays, a purchase of EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM isn’t worth a consideration anymore, and I am wondering who is buying it.

600mm Mk. II vs. Mk. I

The only reason to think about purchasing the Mk. I version is the price. With about 7.000$ for a used one, it is about 1/3 cheaper than a new Mk. II. However, we should remember that it is a cost of a used vs. new lens. The Mk I is now out of production, and you won’t find it in a shop anymore.

The EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM appeared on the market in 1999 and had some real improvements in comparison with the previous non-IS version. Canon seems to update its super telephoto lenses every decade. So it is to expect that the current EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II that replaced the previous generation in 2011 will remain up-to-date till 2021-2022. The history of these lenses has showed that the prices were remaining more or less at constant level till the lens was replaced by a new version and the old one was taken out of market. Will you really be happy for the next 10 years with a lens that has worse image quality, is much heavier and technically outdated, but priced at 7000$ – still very expensive? For me, I doubt it. The improvements of the new version are so great that I certainly would be disappointed with Mk. I and would want to sell it very soon if I would buy it now. Having bought a used lens and saved 30% now I most probably will loose more money again trying to sell it again and to buy the Mk. II version in the next couple of years.

Canon vs. Sigma

Sigma has been making 500mm and 800mm super telephoto lenses for Canon mount for awhile. Despite a much lower price, both failed to become popular wildlife lenses, however – not just because they lack image stabilization and are very heavy. The image quality they deliver is noticeably worse and doesn’t justify the price that is still quite high. Therefore, most photographers preferred to pay more for the first class lenses that Canon was offering.

In the last couple of years Sigma has greatly improved its lens technology, so that some new lenses are on par with Canon lenses or even outperform them. As a result, we can expect this company to produce a super telephoto lens some day in future that would be on par with Canon lenses. However, this is only a theoretical possibility and not yet a fact. Therefore, it doesn’t help much those of us who need a lens right now. Since we don’t know plans and road map of Sigma regarding development and production of new lenses, we can’t rely on it.

Of course, the above argumentation against 500 and 800mm also applies for Sigma lenses. To be a real alternative to EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II a Sigma lens has to have similar optical quality and technical features (IS, autofocus, weather protection, low weight…) and the same focal length and aperture. More than that: I has to be cheaper. Will it be ever possible? Who knows…

About Arthur Tiutenko
Nature Photographer and Illustrator

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