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BIRDS AS ART ON-LINE BULLETIN #45 February 9, 2001

  • JRF Canon Lens Covers
  • My Comments
  • Lens Cleaning Fluid: An Option
  • IPT Updates

    Many photographers wrote asking about the lens covers.  (Note: the covers for the 600 IS lenses are nearly sold out; please e-mail or call to check on availability. There is a strong possibility that we may be unable to re-stock until May.  For additional details, see  BIRDS AS ART BULLETIN #44.)Since a picture is worth at least a thousand words, please find an image of the covers below.  The 500 IS is on the left, the 600 IS on the right.  (I have not yet affixed the stick on strips that cover the tripod mounting collars.)
  • Robert Royse's Comments on the Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS Lens
  • Dear Photography Friends,
    When I first met Robert Royse five or six years ago, he used the Nikon 500mm f/4 lens and was a fine bird photographer. Since that time, he has attended several IPTs and finally made the switch to Canon. He is now such a skilled bird photographer that I am glad that he makes a living playing English Horn for the Columbus, Ohio Symphony Orchestra (rather than by photographing birds!) 

    I get many inquiries about the Canon 600 f4 IS lens from prospective lens purchasers.  This is understandable, since a quality telephoto lens is the single biggest investment made by most wildlife photographers. Here, cut and pasted from Bob's web site, are his comments on this lens.

  • The term "bird photography" itself takes on many meanings to different people. Your definition could be sitting in a backyard blind to get shots of feeder patrons. Possibly all you want to do is occasionally head to a hotspot for large birds such as herons, egrets, geese, or cranes to add a few beautiful photographs to your collection. Maybe you're a bird watcher who just wants a fuzzy document of a local rarity with total disregard to quality. If you fit into one of those categories, then read no further. You don't really need to deal with the size, weight, and expense of this lens. But if you want to go on a birding safari anywhere anytime and come home with quality, razor sharp 35mm slides that can begin to hint at what you experienced, then the Canon 600 f4 IS is the ideal choice.

    The Canon 600 f4 Image-Stabilization lens is a unique product. For practical bird photography, it's only real rival is its slightly lighter, shorter, and less-expensive sibling, the Canon 500 f4L IS lens. Buying such a lens can't shortcut basic photographic skills such as understanding exposures and light on film. It also can't shortcut basic birding skills such as understanding your subjects and knowing their habits, habitats, vocalizations, and migratory patterns. The Canon 600 IS lens can, however, enable you to get shots under a far wider variety of circumstances than was previously possible.

    Lens specifications are available at the Canon web site for the 600 f4 IS lens. The most significant facts for bird photographers are the 18 ft. (5.5 meters) minimum focusing distance and weight of 11.7 pounds (5360 grams). Both of these are improved over the previous (non-IS) Canon 600 f4 lens which weighs a couple of pounds more and has a MFD of a couple of feet further away. Unlike the previous model, the IS version offers full-time manual focus. The IS version, as clearly stated by Canon, has improved optical performance in both resolution and contrast over the non-IS 600 f4, and the results are visible under a loupe to see for yourself.

    Even without Image-Stabilization taken into consideration, the 600 f4L IS is a better tool for bird photography than its predecessor, but it's the IS that really sets this lens apart from offerings of other manufacturers' 600mm lenses. Image-Stabilization enables you use long lenses under circumstances that weren't previously possible. Getting a sharp shot with a 600mm lens with a 2x teleconverter is difficult, to say the least, even under ideal circumstances without IS, but it's effortless with IS activated, even at surprisingly slow shutter speeds such as 1/60 or even 1/30 of a second. I've also heard quotes of 1/15 second. Try shooting from a car off a beanbag (I recommend the large Kirk Hugger). I never got even a remotely sharp slide with a 600 + 2x on a beanbag before IS. Even using a 1.4x was really pushing my luck at shutter speeds below 1/250 second. Wind makes big lenses flail and cause softening of the image, but not with IS to the rescue. If there are two main advantages for owning the 600 f4 IS lens, they would have to be the ability to easily photograph off a beanbag from a car and the ability to use a 2x teleconverter as an everyday combination. In reality, purchasing the 600 IS over a non-IS 600mm lens is the fact you're gaining more working distance and a longer lens. A 2x teleconverter on a 600mm (or 500mm) non-IS lens, to me at least, is not a practical everyday work horse combination. Yes, you can occasionally get fairly sharp shots on a windless day by locking down the tripod head tight, holding your breath, and using a shutter speed around 1/250 second or faster with a non-IS 1200 combo, but that's no way to regularly try to photograph birds! With Canon's 600 f4L IS you're getting the option of really having a 1200mm lens as opposed to an 840mm lens (a 1.4x on a non-IS 600mm lens). Even then, it's far easier to get sharp shots at 1200mm with IS than 840mm without IS, even though you do lose a full stop of shutter speed by using a 1200/f8 over an 840 f/5.6 lens.

    There are lots of questions and comments offered by potential owners of the Canon 600 f4L IS. There are also rumors, myths, and huffing and puffing by those who have never used this lens. One thing you do not hear about, though, are dissatisfied owners! I'll try to answer the most common questions I hear, and offer my response to some of the most frequently droned comments from those who have never used this lens.

  • Why a 600mm lens?z

    It's a simple fact that the longer lens you have, the more opportunities you'll have to photograph birds. Many birds are small and wary. The farther away you can stay, the easier it will be to keep from disturbing them. With every incremental gain in magnification, more birds can be found within a realistic photographic range. That's obvious. Let's say you're having a lucky day and can manage to approach a species such as a Henslow's Sparrow within 32 feet. That's mighty close for that species. With a 1200mm lens at 32 feet away, the Henslow's Sparrow will occupy enough of a 35mm slide to give you a decent portrait. With a 600mm lens, the bird will only occupy 1/4 as much space in the frame, 1/9th as much space with a 400mm lens, and 1/16th as much space with a 300mm lens. Just having a 1200mm lens on a tripod isn't a free ticket to easy bird photography. It does take a lot of time invested with a species such as a Henslow's Sparrow to find one that will cooperate. Positioning yourself in the right light at the right angle and getting the best exposure also means that basic photography skills can't be taken for granted.

    Besides working distance, angle of view decreases with a longer lens. This enables a photographer to have far more control over the background with a longer lens. With all things being equal, a bird photograph with a clean, simple background beats one with a cluttered background of out-of-focus twigs and branches every time. A Henslow's Sparrow photographed from 16 feet away with a 600mm lens (yeah, right, that happens every day) will take in 4 times as much of the background as the same bird photographed from 32 ft. away with a 1200mm lens, even though the bird will occupy the same amount of space in the frame. If you're crazy enough to sit in a blind near a favorite Henslow's Sparrow perch, with the sun baking you inside and ticks crawling all over you, while using a 300mm lens from 8 ft. away, the resulting photograph will take in 16 times as much background info as the previous 1200mm example.

    One other important factor giving advantage to having the longest possible lens is that if a bird isn't at eye level with your camera, the angle at which your lens is pointed becomes less severe the farther away you are, resulting in a more natural and pleasing perspective on film.

  • What about 500mm lenses?

    The 500mm lens vs. the 600mm lens is always a hot topic on internet photography forums. Everyone has their opinions, including me. Having already established that the longest possible lens is an advantage for bird photography, the 600mm wins hands down in the opinion of many. But the 600mm lens is indeed big and heavy. The Canon 500 f4L IS lens weighs about 3 lbs. lighter than the 600mm. Even lighter are the non-IS Canon 500 f4.5 and manual-focus 500 f4P Nikkor. It should be taken into consideration that the difference between a 500mm and 600mm (alone or matched with comparable teleconverters) is more than the 20% implied by the focal length. The amount of space occupied by a bird in a frame will be over 42% greater with a 600mm lens than a 500mm lens, since it's the lens length squared that determines the relative area of the subject on the film.

    Many people claim that a 500mm lens is portable and a 600mm isn't. I owned a 500mm lens for several years and I honestly can claim to be not the least bit more limited by the additional weight regarding where I take the lens. Maybe I do have to set the lens down a bit more often when carrying it over a distance, but if there is some good bird photography, that happens anyway. By the time you throw in the weight of a tripod, tripod head, camera body with booster, teleconverter, lens mounting plate, and possibly a flash unit with battery pack and flash arm, etc., the 3 lbs. weight savings of the 500mm lens becomes fairly insignificant in my opinion. I don't consider a 500mm lens to be truly portable any more than 600mm lens is. I don't know where all the 500mm junkies are prancing and dancing with their lenses that would be prohibitive with a 600mm lens. With either lens, it's really best to first explore an area with just binoculars and then fetch the big lens if a good photo opportunity presents itself.

    That is all just my opinion and I realize that everyone has limits to what they're comfortable with. 600mm lenses are indeed heavy and the 500mm lens really is a viable alternative for many. No one should run out and purchase a 600mm lens without first handling one. Even though I've never tried one, I assume that the Canon 500 f4L IS has same optical quality as the 600IS, and that it is as excellent and ergonomic with a 2x as the 600 is. That would make the Canon 500 f4 IS a preferable lens to me over a non-IS 600mm from any manufacturer. A 1000mm IS lens would be far more useful than an 840mm non-IS lens any day as far as I'm concerned, especially with the savings in weight, size, and price.

  • You can't take sharp photographs with a 2x teleconverter.

    All I can tell people who say this is to have a look for yourself. I will not claim that under a rigid test that the Canon 600 f4 IS is as sharp with the 2x as without, but I will claim that it's mighty sharp. I'm sure that if you made a serious test to examine the lens's ability to resolve lines per millimeter, the lens without a teleconverter would win out. But who photographs lines? If you were to take a random sample of different bird species photographed under varying lighting conditions with 600 IS alone and with the 1.4x and the 2x, it would be nearly impossible to conclusively pick out which was used with which on a light box. The 600 IS, as stated by Canon, is a sharper lens than its predecessor. It's certainly no exaggeration to say that the results with a 2x on the Canon 600 f4L IS lens are easily as sharp as a 1.4x was on other lenses I've used such as the 500 f4P Nikkor and 600 f4L non-IS Canon. Image-Stabilization enables the photographer to get optimum use from a 2x teleconverter, which is something that is extremely difficult to achieve without. It should be understood that most owners of the Canon 600 f4L IS will probably be using the EOS3 or EOS1v camera bodies, which offer autofocus with the central sensor on lenses as slow as f8, such as the 1200mm combo.

  • What good is Image-Stabilization on a 600mm lens if it's too heavy to hand hold?

    The lens manual is vague, if not outright incorrect on this one. Of course, nobody can handhold a 11 lb. lens for long, but the manual states to turn off IS when on a tripod. The lens, however, can detect when the lens is mounted on a tripod (a feature not on earlier released IS lenses such as the 100-400L zoom and the 300/f4L IS). I just leave IS on all the time, as do most users of this lens I have talked with.

  • Does IS drain the batteries too rapidly?

    That's a tough one to determine, since you would have to do a side-by-side test of running enough film through the camera to drain the batteries both with IS activated and without. Let's assume that it does cause the batteries to drain faster, but it's certainly not as noticeable as the drain caused from using autofocus, especially in the AF servo (continuous) mode over an extended period. The EOS3 and EOS1v, when coupled with the BP E2 booster, allow for better alternatives than alkaline batteries and the battery drain really isn't a worry in practical use.

  • What are IS 1 and IS 2?

    IS 1 is the standard setting on the lens that is usually used. It corrects for vibrations and tremors on both the horizontal and vertical axis. IS 2 is the alternate setting that is especially useful when panning for birds in flight. IS 2 corrects for any slight vertical movements, but not horizontal ones when the lens is being moved in relationship to a flying (or swimming) subject.

  • How is the autofocus with the Canon 600 f4L IS?

    Compared to what? When the lens was released, Canon claimed that it was the fastest autofocusing 600mm lens available. I'll take their word for it. When using the 1.4x, the initial focus acquisition takes a tad longer to engage, but it's still extremely fast. I have often used the lens in AF servo mode with the 1.4x attached and IS 2 activated to photograph flying birds (using the Wimberly head). AF in that situation is far superior to what the previous non-IS Canon was capable of. When the 2x is attached, the AF becomes noticeably slower and hunts more. Only the central focusing sensor of the EOS3 and EOS1v can be used for AF at 1200 f8, which is no real handicap as far as I'm concerned. Fortunately this lens offers full time manual focus, and the lens's focusing ring can be adjusted manually if necessary before AF is engaged to prevent unnecessary hunting. Continuous focusing in the AF servo mode at 1200mm, while possible, is sometimes problematic. I almost always shoot at 1200 in the one-shot mode. When needing to follow a fast moving subject, putting on the 1.4x and hoping for a closer approach is usually the best idea. The silhouettes of Sandhill Cranes in my bird photograph gallery were taken with the 2x with IS 2 activated, but using manual focus.

  • How is the manual focus with the Canon 600 f4L IS?

    I personally think it's great. Some may initially find it on the stiff side, but I found that it took next to no time to get used to. Again, the lens offers full-time manual focus unlike its predecessor. If AF sensor gets off target or is hunting, you can always grab the focusing ring and get things back on track.

  • What about the reports of the rotating lens collar being difficult to adjust?

    That was supposedly a problem on a few of the first 600 f4 IS lenses that were produced. As far as I know, that problem has been addressed. It's certainly not a problem on mine. I have no trouble changing between horizontal and vertical formats. When using the Wimberly head, I always keep the collar screw untightened, since that head doesn't allow for adjustments on the horizontal axis. Making those adjustments by rotating the lens in its tripod collar has never been a problem whatsoever.

  • I tried looking through an IS lens in a camera store and the image jumped in the viewfinder.

    The viewfinder image will sometimes do that when IS is initially activated. It doesn't do that on the film as far as I know. I have certainly never lost a shot because of it, and I've heard no complaints of others finding it to be a problem. Presumably you'll be taking the time to compose your photograph rather than just slapping down the shutter button the instant you put the camera to your eye.

  • What sort of tripod and tripod head are necessary for the Canon 600 f4L IS?

    Arthur Morris addresses this question thoroughly at the FAQ section of his web site. I'd take his words seriously on that subject. He's in the position to see and try all the various tripods and heads on the market from his IPT participants. I use the Gitzo 1548 carbon fiber tripod as he suggests. Having previously used a metal Gitzo, the weight saving of the carbon fiber tripod is considerable, especially if you're comparing the 1548 to the 410. I bought some inexpensive pipe insulation at a hardware store and taped it around the upper leg sections. A carbon fiber tripod doesn't feel nearly as cold to the hands in freezing weather as a metal tripod does, but the pipe insulation does provide some cushioning when carrying the tripod over my shoulder with the lens attached. I haven't had the opportunity to try the smaller carbon fiber Gitzos, but my guess is that some might be OK for the 600mm IS lens alone considering that IS will aid in correcting any instability, but if you want to really take full advantage of the lens at 840mm or 1200mm, then the 1548 is probably the best way to go.

    Like many other big lens users, I find myself using the Wimberly head almost exclusively now. When I first got it, I thought it would be something to pull out only on specific occasions where I'd be photographing flying birds. It's just so easy and comfortable to work with, that I find that I use it most of the time now. The Wimberly head is big, heavy, and awkward to carry with the lens attached, though. When it's necessary to carry the rig over a distance or for long periods, the tiny, light Arca B1 ball head works fine. When using a 600mm lens on a Arca B1, do as Arthur Morris suggests and put some washers between the ball and the mounting platform to prevent accidental "flopping" when the tension knob isn't tight enough. I'm not a huge fan of the Arca B1 aside from its size and weight. I don't like the tension knob, which I feel takes too long to adjust. It's also nearly impossible to completely tighten in winter when wearing gloves. Although I've never had the privilege to own one, I'd get a Foba if I had to do it over again. Tripod heads is another subject where there is a rampant variety of opinions. These are mine only.

  • How about shooting with the 600 f4L IS from a vehicle?

    Cars make excellent blinds for photographing birds whether along a rural road or in a National Wildlife Refuge. Many birds can be approached more closely if you remain in a vehicle than on foot. Easily getting sharp shots from a vehicle is really one of the best demonstrations of the utility of Image-Stabilization technology. There are all sorts of gadgets on the market, but nothing beats the simplicity of the Kirk Hugger beanbag, specifically the large one for the 600 IS lens. Setting it up is as simple as just putting it on the window of your car where you want. Using the 1200mm combo with IS activated easily enables you to get sharp shots at 1/30 second, at least from the driver's side. When leaning over to the passenger side, a faster shutter speed might be necessary since it's very difficult to be completely still in an awkward position. This causes hands and even the car itself to tremor more. Test it out for yourself in your vehicle before that Northern Shrike lands 40 or so feet away on the passenger's side of your car, so you know what the limits are for you. The Hugger is designed to let the lens nestle on it. The lens itself (not the tripod collar) should rest on the bag for maximum cushioning. That means that the manual focusing ring will be out-of-service and you have to completely rely on AF. The occasional initial slow focus hunting with the 600 + 2x is a very small price to pay for the convenience. As previously stated, I personally had never gotten anything even resembling a sharp slide with a 1000mm or 1200mm lens on a beanbag before IS came along. Without IS, shooting at 700mm or 840mm from a vehicle is iffy at best, even when using shutter speeds as fast as 1/125 second. Results are even worse if you have to lean over towards the passenger's side of the vehicle. IS really makes a huge difference if you plan to photograph birds from a car.

  • What about stacking teleconverters on the 600 f4L IS?

    Arthur Morris has reported excellent results by stacking the 1.4x and the 2x for a 1680mm f11 lens and even two 2x's for a 2400mm f16 lens. I don't doubt his claims, but I've only tried it a couple of times with mixed results. The problem is that AF is deactivated and manual focusing becomes difficult in the dim viewfinder. I would recommend bracketing the focus a bit if that once in a lifetime shot presented itself where that focal length is necessary. Of course, 2 Canon teleconverters won't fit together unless an extension tube is placed between them, the Canon 12mm tube being the best choice. When or if I try stacking teleconverters again, I can offer further comments or opinions.

  • How much closer will the 600IS focus, and how much light is lost with the Canon extension tubes?

    I can't give exact numbers. I'm sure that information is available somewhere, but I can tell you what is necessary for frame-filling shots of small birds such as warblers. The improved focusing distance to 18 ft. (5.5 meters) is another big advantage of the 600IS to its predecessor. With the 2x attached you get the same magnification at 18 ft. as a 600mm lens alone gets at 9 ft. (or a 400mm lens gets at 6 ft.). That's plenty of magnification, even for a warbler, and extension tubes aren't necessary. The only time I added a tube to the 1200mm rig was when photographing hummingbirds in Arizona. That gave me some additional inches to work with as well as taking away a half stop or so of light. When working with the 1.4x teleconverter on the 600f4L IS, the 25mm tube should probably be attached when photographing warblers and other small passerines to be ready for that close approach. This gives you a maybe a couple of feet additionally to work with, and takes away about a half stop of light. For practical purposes, the 1200mm rig is only about 1/2 stop slower than the 840mm rig for warbler photography with the 600 IS lens. Both have their place. When getting really close to a small subject with the 600mm alone, such as when in a blind, putting on a couple tubes, such as two 25mm tubes, is a good idea. You'd probably lose a whole stop of light then. These numbers are all rough estimates, but in practical use I've never really needed to know beyond what I've already stated. It should be noted that on Canon cameras, when using extension with teleconverters, the tube should be placed between the teleconverter and camera body (not between the teleconverter and lens) to maintain autofocus capability.

  • IS is useless for bird photography since a bird's movement is the cause of all my unsharp bird photographs.

    This is an often heard statement from people who have never used an IS lens. Of course, IS can't help freeze a bird's movements. If you're photographing a warbler, for example, that is moving around, you just have to wait for a slight pause to push the shutter button. 1/1000 second won't freeze a flitting warbler. IS can't help anyone push the shutter button at the right time. IS does help significantly, though, if you're shooting at around 1/60th second during that momentary pause with the tripod head loose to follow the subject. As was already mentioned, IS 2 is great for panning flying birds.

  • Since I have perfect technique, I have no need for IS.

    How could you possibly wrap up a commentary of the Canon 600 f4L IS lens without addressing that one? Canon image-stabilization lenses redefine what good technique is, and it open new doors for bird photography. Shooting from a vehicle on a beanbag using the 600 f4 S Nikkor with the TC20E, for example, is not good technique, but it is with the Canon 600 IS and 2x. Using those same combinations on a windy day on a tripod where the head is kept loose to follow a moving subject is bad technique for the non-IS user, but just fine for the IS lens owner. The list goes of comparable circumstances goes on and on. Canon's Image-Stabilization telephotos offer the ability to get sharper photographs under a wider variety of situations than was previously possible.


    It will come as no surprise to those familiar with my work and my writings that I agree with just about everything that Bob has written.   Plus, he makes some valid and insightful points that I have never commented on. About the only thing that we disagree on are the relative weights of the 500m IS and the 600mm IS lenses.   I purchased the 500mm IS several months ago and find that its lighter weight is indeed a blessing both on long hikes and in tight situations (where it is easier to maneuver the lighter, smaller lens).   When I walk a few miles down a beach with the 500 lens on the CF1548 with Wimberley head , I feel like I can fly......

    (Note: BIRDS AS ART® is now a dealer for Wimberley heads and accessories.)


    from Canon Rep Bob Malish:

    Got bulletin #44 and read with particular interest the section on a lens cleaning solution.  Another option you might look into is at  The ECLIPSE solution and PEC Pads are very good for cleaning optics without leaving any residue.  That is always a challenge with a big lens.  This solution and the related swabs have also been used for several years for cleaning imagers in digital cameras like the D2000 from Canon and the DCS family of cameras from Kodak.  Photo Solutions
    also has a single use product like a 'wet nap' from a restaurant that can also be very handy in the field.   Their PEC 12 product is a good film cleaner too! 


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