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Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM

Review Date: Nov 2, 2012 Recommend? yes | Price paid: $10,499.00 | Rating: 10 

Pros: Extremely light weight (for a 500/4!), fast focusing with and without extenders, great image quality with and without extenders
Price (of course), less balanced on a gimbal with a heavy body and extender due to lightness of front element

The age old question for Wildlife and Bird photographers is: "Should I get a 500mm f/4 or should I get a 600mm f/4?". Until the release of Canon's Series II superteles, the answer for most folks (by default) was "I really do need as much focal length as I can buy, but I simply can't carry the 600mm f/4 around, so I'll just get the 500mm f/4 and some extenders. Sigh." Now, the answer is not so clear-cut, as folks don't have weight as barrier-to-entry. 600mm seems to be pretty obvious a choice - but is it?

Let me first say that I also own the 600/4L IS II, and have owned the 500/4L IS I, and the 800/5.6L IS in the past, so I will do some comparisons.

Compared to the old 500, this lens is considerably lighter - while on paper *only* 18%, it really shows in handhold-ability and also in general usability/handling. Personally I also did not like the CA and fringing with the old 500 with extenders, which is no longer a problem with the v3 extenders and the v2 of the lens. Image quality is improved, though slightly, and the new 4-stop IS is quite impressive. If you can afford the new 500, AND you do a lot of handholding work, I'd highly recommend the new 500. But, if you do a lot of tripod work, I'd highly recommend the new 600 instead.

Compared to the 800, the new 500L II is much, much, much lighter and smaller. Image quality is almost on par, and autofocus speed with the 1DX with and without extenders is on par. If you're using a 1D Mk IV, hunting speed is slower with the extender than the bare 800 - not a problem with the 1DX. Honestly though, I would consider the new 600 over the 800 if you're looking at alternatives to the new 500.

Compared to the new 600, this lens handles completely differently. It's considerably lighter, and smaller. When I drive around looking for stuff to shoot at the side of the road, the 500/4 II rests on my lap much better than the fat 600, and it's easier moving around the car with it. The 600's hood is just too massive. If you do handheld work, the 500 is a better option.

When buying, if not in a hurry, I would recommend waiting for Crutchfield's "double points" special, as you can get essentially 5% back on your purchase in gift cards. Combined with a 2% cash-back credit card, you just saved a good chunk for a 1Dx. (I am in no way affiliated with Crutchfield, just thought I'd point out a good deal.)

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM

Review Date: Nov 2, 2012 Recommend? yes | Price paid: $11,699.00 | Rating: 10 

Pros: "lightweight" for a 600mm, extremely fast focusing with and without 1.4x III, image quality with and without 1.4x III, well balanced wit 1dx, smooth bokeh
Price (of course), massive lens hood

Let me start off by saying that I own the 500/4L II and previously owned the 500/4 L I and 800/5.6L.

Compared to the 500/L I, this lens has no CA, and youre getting 100mm extra for the same weight. Focusing with extenders is much, much faster, and the 4-stop IS is a Godsend. If you can afford it, it's a no-brainer.

Compared to the 500/L II, this lens is heavier, larger, and more expensive. Image quality and AF speed of both is excellent, but the 500 II is considerably more handholdable. Something about the 600 II that makes it more uncomfortable to handhold.

Compared to the 800/5.6, this lens is lighter, but fatter which makes keeping it in the car on your lap more difficult. Minimum focusing distance improvements is welcome, as I kept an extension tube on my 800/5.6 all the time for smaller birds which tended to come close. Focusing speed with 1dx is of course excellent and with the 1.4x III is at least as fast as the bare 800. If you are using a 1d mk IV i would recommend the 800 over the 600 + 1.4x since hunting performance is slower on that body with extenders. One other improvement over the 800 is that with the 1.4x, the 600 exhibits less vignetting - the 800 has quite stong vignetting on FF. However, personally, I think the 800 was slightly more comfortable to handhold than the 600/4 II for some reason.

I have yet to take the 600 on a real outing, just trips to the local park and such, but already I think I'm going to be living with this lens for many many many years to come. It's tack sharp, easy to handle on a tripod, and the focusing is ridiculously fast. I would recommend this lens be used with the 1Dx and the v3 extenders. I would also recommend a solid tripod and gimbal - RRS Series 3 or Gitzo Series 5 (Gitzo Series 3 is not stable enough for focal length), along with a full Wimberly or Mongoose head.

As for buying it, if youre not in a rush, wait for a Crutchfield "double points" special. With my points from buying this lens, I got $1,300 in gift cards from which you can use on other fun stuff, like a 1Dx or a new Flatscreen!