Why should you purchase a $12K lens?


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…

How much does it cost getting a broken camera display fixed?

This small post is for those who are asking this question. Usually I do when I have to decide if I should give my camera to service or just leave it as it is – a little broken but still functioning.

In my this year’s expedition to Central Asia I damaged my second camera – an EOS 5D Mk II – a little . Its display got a crack when the camera bumped at a stone.

Broken display of a Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Broken display of a Canon EOS 5D Mark II

After 6 weeks in the field, it was also full with dust and the enclosure was very dirty. The camera was still functioning normally however. Although I was afraid of high costs, I set it to a Canon technical service. They fixed it very quickly and returned the camera after a few days (I am a CPS member). It was looking like new – clean and with new display glass. I had to pay 132 € that is in my opinion a very reasonable price for such a good service.

Be careful with exchangeable camera mount of new Sigma lenses

Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM has an exchangeable mount and can be adopted this way for any of supported camera systems — Canon, Nikon, Sony, Sigma. This means that if you some day decide to switch to a different camera brand, you can send your Sigma lens to the nearest service, and they will change the mount. The mount is attached to lens body with a metal ring that looks like a cup (see the picture below). There are no visible screws outside, therefore I think that it is fixated somehow before the mount ring is attached. Potentially this part may cause problems. I learned this after some time in the field — during a 43 days long expedition to Pamir and Alai. At certain moment, I noticed that the mount has a play, i.e. the lens moves a little when it is attached to camera. I thought first that the mount lock in the camera was the cause: I had observed already with some other lenses before that one lens attaches to the camera not so tight as the other. But this time it was different — the lens was moving much more. Finally I discovered that it was not the lens-to-camera attachement that wasn’t firm but the attachement of the mount to the lens was loosened so much that I finally had to bind it with an adhesive tape to prevent it from falling off. When I returned home, I sent the lens to Sigma service that fixed it on the same day for free because the lens was still on warranty. I am sure that the reason why the lens was broken wasn’t its quality but my too harsh treatment of it regardless its specific construction. Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM is an “Art” series lens: It is neither weather sealed nor rugged, and nature photography isn’t primary use area it is intended for. Certainly, it isn’t as sturdy as the Canon and Zeiss counterparts and has to be treated accordingly.

What's in the package: Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM, hood, pouch

Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM: lens, hood, pouch

Impressions from Photokina 2012 (Part 1)

This year’s Photokina – the largest photo and cine technology trade show of the world in Cologne, Germany – has now ended. The day before, I visited it and would like to report here some impressions.Image


Probably the biggest interest of visitors was attracted by presentations of Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon and Olympus. When was entering the exhibition halls through the southern entrance it appeared as if it was a home show of Canon that had a huge stand in the hall 3.2. With a group of photographers from my region I had a meeting with a representative of Canon who showed us their exhibition.ImageImage


The biggest highlight in Canon’s Photokina stand was certainly the new full frame camera EOS 6D.Image

I had a chance to try out a pre-release version of it. However, it wasn’t able to record images yet. Therefore, I couldn’t judge about image quality.



The awesome EF 85 mm f/1.2 – which is probably the best lens Canon has ever made – was mounted on this 6D. The lens was heavier than the camera body.

I had been particularly interested in this camera model because I was considering to purchase it for use with remote control over WiFi. Now, having looked at it at Photokina, I changed my mind. The Canon representative who was showing it explained that this camera isn’t intended for professional use. His exact words were that Canon doesn’t want it to be a competitor for 5D series. Therefore, the 6D will lack some features that the manufacturers provides with the professional models. Basically, EOS 6D is just a full frame camera in a body of EOS 60D. Compared to 5D, it will have a lower frame rate in serial shooting, only 11 autofocus points, almost no dust protection, lower shutter speed… These disadvantages of 6D, however, do not justify for me the huge difference in price. If this camera will be offered for the currently expected price of about 1600$, it will be only about a half of the current price of Canon EOS 5D Mark III with WiFi support (i.e. combined with WFT-E7).

A really very big surprise was for me the absence of Manfrotto (and, of course, Gitzo) at Photokina 2012. I haven’t found any statement of them about the reasons. It was very sad not to see this renowned company this year – particularly when their competitors were presenting very good new models of tripods and tripod accessories. Velbon and other Asian companies presented nice innovations in this area. Also the German company Cullmann managed a break through. They presented their new series of super strong tripods Titan along with very good lightweight carbon tripods. Though, their tripod heads still aren’t impressing me, the tripods look and feel really great. Now I wish to test one.

Carl Zeiss was presenting the new model of their Apo Sonnar T* 2/135 mm for Canon and Nikon mounts. I could try it out on a Canon 5D Mark II, and have saved some test images, that I am going to publish also here in one of the next posts.

To be continued.

Portrait of the day

Portrait of the day

Tadpole of Pool Frog (Pelophylax lessonae)

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Sigma APO Macro 150mm F2.8 EX DG HSM, ISO 400, f/16, 1/200s, flash

A monster is lurking in a pond ;-)

A monster is lurking in a pool ;-)

A somewhat arty photo of a diving pool frog. I was trying to get a shot of it in both environments when the frog was swimming at water surface. Then the frog suddenly dived, and my camera dived with it.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 25/2.8 ZF, ISO 800, f/16, 1/250s

Canon EF 300 mm f/2.8 L IS USM and Extender EF 2x III

Canon EF 300 mm f/2.8 L IS USM and Extender EF 2x III

I recently updated the teleconverter to Extender 2.x III. (Previously I had the version II.) This is the first image taken with my main wildlife lens – Canon EF 300 mm f/2.8 L IS USM – and Extender 2.x III on EOS 5D Mark II (hand held).

Carl Zeiss 2.8/25 T* ZF on Canon as Herping Lens


Today I tried out the Carl Zeiss 2.8/25 T* ZF with a subject that I actually planned this lens to use for. Above you see my first herp photo with this lens – a Common Frog (Rana temporaria). I had no flash with me this time, and was shooting with high ISO – 1600. Nevertheless the shutter speed was quite slow – 0.8 sec – due to narrow aperture – f/22. Even with this aperture which is maximum for this lens the background blur is quite strong when the subject is so small and so close. The frog was only about 5 cm from the front of the lens.

To eliminate overexposure in the top of the frame, I am using this lens with a B&W gradient filter.

The image presented here is a full frame, and with normal processing – gradation curve, saturation and vibrance increase, sharpening.

Bottom line: This view angle is not as wide as in fisheye lenses, and with small subjects the background is too much blurred even at maximum aperture. Shooting with f/22 is very difficult because the image in viewfinder is almost black. On positive side, the distortion is virtually absent. The lens provides typical for Zeiss nice realistic colour rendering and contrast.