Canon 600mm f/4 L IS USM Mark II lens review

As a wildlife photographer a ‘big’ lens has always been at the forefront of my armoury starting with the manual focus Canon f4.5 500mm and then the Canon 500mm f/4 IS USM, which served me very well for over a decade. As soon as I started to use a longer telephoto I saw a quantum leap in the quality of my images. Not only did I have greater pulling power to fill the frame with my subjects but the longer focal length also produced much cleaner, diffused backgrounds, making the subject stand out from their surroundings.

Siskin (Carduelis spinus) male taking flight from perch, UKThe minimum close focusing of 4.5m is great for shooting small birds without the need for teleconvertors or extension tubes.

Canon IDX, 600mm, f/5.6 @ 1/3200th sec, ISO 800

The reason behind my move up from the 500mm to a 600mm was really a result of the full frame 1DX since I felt I needed a little more pulling power having been used to using the 500mm on a 1.3x cropped sensor previously. My expectations of the lens were very high having read the specs and reviews not to mention the hefty price tag that suggested this was a lens of exceptional quality. I wasn’t disappointed.

Dotterel The long focal length produces lovely out of focus surroundings (bokeh) making the subject really stand out well.

Canon 1DX, 600mm + 1.4x III, f/6.3 @ 1/1600th sec, ISO 1600

It is significantly larger than the 500mm yet the new construction and use of lighter materials means that the weight is almost the same, which was a major consideration for me when deciding whether to upgrade and was the main reason I hadn’t bought the original 600mm.

The first time I used the lens I was very impressed with the way it handled for such a large lens. It is perfectly balanced when optimally positioned on a gimbal style tripod head or even a ball and socket, making it easy to track moving subjects. The autofocus is lightening fast and very accurate, and it tracked well even in low light, locking onto my lively Springer spaniel with ease.

Goldeneye pairI was amazed how well the autofocus locked on to these goldeneye even though there was a lot of vegetation in front of the lens.

Canon 1DX, 600mm + 1.4x III,  f/6.3 @ 1/1000th sec, ISO 800

You would expect a top end telephoto lens that costs a kings ransom to be well built and it is. The optics have a Sub Wavelength Structure Coating (SWC), which reduces ghosting and flare and this works well with flare less evident on backlit subjects. The front and rear lenses also have a water repellent fluorine coating that keeps watermarks and dust at bay. After a year I’ve not had to clean the front element so this technology must be working!

The defining attribute of any lens is image quality and I have to say I was blown away when I saw the evidence from the 600mm f/4L IS II first hand on my computer monitor. Of course this is partly due to the camera but speaking from my own experience this is the sharpest long lens I have ever used. The resolution of the image is phenomenal across the full frame and the images have an exceptional overall clarity, which really brings the subject to life. I routinely use this lens at apertures ranging from f/4 to f/8 and the quality is very consistent across all these apertures, with just some minor vignetting evident between f/4 and f/5.6 when shooting against a plain background such as the sky.

Fulmar in flight The autofocus remains very reliable even in difficult situations and it retained focus on this fulmar in low contrast light.

Canon 1DX, 600mm, f/5.6 @ 1/2000th sec, ISO 1600

This is not a lens that you will want to hand hold very often but it’s reduced weight makes this possible for short bursts and this is where the improved image stabilization comes into it’s own. It is rated as a 4 stop benefit meaning that in theory you could expect sharp results at shutter speeds down to around 1/30th when hand holding. This is pushing it a bit but I’ve produced sharp images at 1/60th second although I would usually opt for a faster shutter speed for better consistency. The IS also works well when using the lens on a tripod and can really help when shooting in windy conditions for example.

RoebuckThe lighter build of the Mark II 600mm means it’s possible to hand hold the lens – handy for stalking when a tripod is cumbersome.

Canon 7D, 600mm, f/4 @ 1/500th sec, ISO 400

What really surprised me was how well the lens performs with the addition of teleconvertors. I have always used a Canon 1.4X extender with variable results on my previous telephoto lenses but on the Mark II 600mm there is no noticeable fall off in image quality and only a slight decrease in the speed and accuracy of autofocus. This image quality is matched by the 2X (MkIII), which similarly produces blisteringly sharp images. And although I have less need to use this whopping 1200mm focal length it’s good to know it will produce the goods when required.

Brown HareThe image quality with teleconvertors is exceptionally good allowing me to get pin sharp close-up shots of wary animals.

Canon 1DX, 600mm + 1.4x III,  f/6.3 @ 1/1250th sec, ISO 800


• Features: The fast f/4 aperture gives a bright viewfinder image; ultra quick accurate autofocus; 4 stop equivalent image stabilization works a dream to reduce camera shake. 10/10

• Build quality: Lighter materials reduces weight and makes hand holding possible, solid construction with weather seals, coated optics reduce flare and improve image quality. 10/10

• Image quality: Superb at all apertures, sharp into the corners with a full frame sensor, slight vignetting at f/4 and f/5.6, beautiful bokeh (background blur). 10/10

• Handling & Performance: It’s large size and long hood make general handling slightly cumbersome but on a tripod it performs superbly and is very well balanced. 9/10

• Value for money: The eye watering price tag will deter many but the cost is falling gradually, good investment if you can afford it and built to last. 8/10

Overall: This is an exceptional lens in all departments and delivers images of a quality that will consistently blow your socks off. It is hard to fault in any respect and once you get over the shock of paying for it, it will perform at the very highest level in any situation.

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2 Responses to Canon 600mm f/4 L IS USM Mark II lens review

  1. David Barlow says:

    Great pictures and good review Mark. Can’t afford the lens but I can dream.
    Will have to stick to my 7D and 100/400 for now.
    Look forward to more gear reviews.
    Thank you

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