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What is the best choice could vary widely depending on a number of factors, including what you want to shoot, how close you usually are able to get, what camera you are using, and what kind of pictures appeal to you. I'll comment on a couple of these factors.
First, if you are intending to shoot birds in flight or other relatively fast moving subjects and you are using a full frame camera, the 600 might well be an excellent choice, but I'm not so sure that it is a great choice with a 1.6 crop body. I can do a reasonably good job of locking in focus and tracking a flying bird with 500 mm on a 1.6 crop camera, but, when I go much past 500 mm, acquiring focus and tracking becomes much more difficult because the narrow field of view makes you feel like you are looking through a straw. Further, as that field of view becomes more narrow, that is when you end up clipping wings and, even if you don't, you have little latitude with regard to cropping to choose the most pleasing composition. I might also add that trying to track birds in flight off of a tripod is considerably more difficult than shooting hand held because, off of a tripod, the pivot point is over a foot in front of you, and you must, therefore, walk your way around the lens. When shooting birds in flight hand held, your body is the pivot point, and you can follow the action by simply rotating your hips and/or shoulders. And that makes using a 600 for birds in flight even more difficult. On the other hand, if you are usually shooting relatively static and small subjects, 600 mm (or more) might be quite useful.
Like most people who spend thousands of dollars on a super telephoto lens, for years, I fell in love with the very tight close-up/portrait types of shots. In recent years, my thinking has changed. I started to realize that, while other photographers like to "ooh" and "aah" over the amazing detail that can be shown in those tight shots, after a while those tight shots all start to look the same regardless of the species in the photo, and I started to feel like I was just taking the same shots over and over again. Further, I began to realize that those tight shots are not the photos that usually have visual appeal to non-photographers. I started to visit the websites of successful wildlife/nature photographers and tried to figure out which of their photos appealed to me. And I visited the galleries of a few very successful nature wildlife photographers to see, not only which of their photos appealed to me, but also to see which ones appealed to other visitors to those galleries. What I found was that the photographs that appealed to me and that also seemed to appeal to other visitors to those galleries were ones that were taken, at least, with a somewhat wider field of view and that incorporated more of the environment.
I began to compare looking at photographs to reading a novel. In a novel, regardless of how well defined the characters are and how compelling the plot may be, without sufficient emphasis on the setting, the story lacks context and feels lacking. In the same way, I began to realize that overly tight shots, while they may look nice in a birding field guide, lack context, and they are not the kind of shots on which my eyes want to linger or to return to often to enjoy.
As a result of my evaluation of what kind of photos appeal to me, in the last couple of years, I've tried to concentrate on shooting wider than I used to. For years, I would have regularly used my 500/4 with a 1.4x. Now, I'm usually shooting with either my 400 DO or with the bare 500. Shooting wider has forced me to become more aware of backgrounds and to be more creative in my shooting, and, if my skills as a photographer have grown in any way, it would be related to these changes in my shooting.
What I've also found is that, regardless of whether I have 400 mm or 500 mm or 700 mm on my camera, there are always going to be some shot opportunities for which I'm too close and some for which I'm too far away. Even though portrait types of shots have little appeal to me anymore, I still get many opportunities to take them, and I do take them when those opportunities present themselves, but I no longer seek them out.
I have an article about this subject on my website titled "How much focal length do I need?" Since I posted it about a year ago, I have gotten considerable positive feedback about it. And regardless of whether someone agrees with the conclusions to which I've come, I think there is some value in thinking about some of the issues that I raise in the article. I know that there are many here who will disagree with my conclusions, and that is okay, and I know that there are many here who subscribe to the theory that "you can never have enough focal length", but I also know that, after years when my growth as a photographer was quite static, abandoning that theory has been the main factor that has caused me to start growing as a photographer for the first time in quite a few years.
Thus, I'm not sure that there is a "one size fits all" answer to which super telephoto is the best choice, but I do reject the notion that longer is always better.
Edited on Aug 17, 2012 at 09:38 PM · View previous versions