Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM

Lens Reviews / Canon Lenses i Lab tested
500mm $9,299
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SLRgear Review
October 8, 2012
by Andrew Alexander

In February 2011, Canon announced the next iteration in its super telephoto primes; the 500mm and 600mm ƒ/4 II lenses. These optics appeal to nature, wildlife and sports photographers, and the new lenses feature updated technology with these users in mind.

The 500mm ƒ/4 lens was designed to fit on the EF (35mm) frame, and is therefor compatible with all of Canon's recent film and digital bodies. On a camera equipped with an APS-C sensor, the lens will offer an equivalent field of view of 800mm.

The lens accepts 52mm drop-in filters, and ships with the ET-138(WII) lens hood. The lens is available now for $10,500.

Given the extreme telephoto capability of this lens, we could only fit a test on our full-frame 1Ds Mk III in our test lab.

With the price tag of this lens, you would expect top-tier results - and pleasantly, there's no surprise here. We noted excellent results for sharpness right out of the gate at ƒ/4, and in fact, image sharpness starts to degrade immediately (but very slightly) as the lens is stopped down. The practical effect of this isn't really noticed until about ƒ/16, where diffraction limiting begins to take hold. Fully stopped-down performance at ƒ/32 is best avoided, as generalized softness is quite present.

Chromatic Aberration
Results for tolerance to chromatic aberration are excellent, with extremely low testing results. Looking at our sample images, I'm hard-pressed to see any form of color fringing in high-contrast areas.

Shading (''Vignetting'')
On the full-frame 1Ds mkIII, there is a slight amount of corner shading with the lens set to ƒ/4; in this case, the extreme corners are just under a third of a stop darker than the center.

Canon has clearly spent a lot of time on the design of this lens: on the full-frame 1Ds Mark III, there is absolutely no distortion.

Autofocus Operation
The 500mm ƒ/4 II focuses extremely fast, and also very quietly. As a USM lens, you can override focus results at any time by just turning the focus ring. The lens is also equipped with a focus preset system, which allows the lens to ''memorize'' a given focus distance, and return to that focus distance when the dedicated present ring is tapped. The lens also is equipped with a focus limiter switch, enabling the focus performance to be improved by limiting the range of distance being focused upon. Focus limiting options are 3.7m to 10m, 10m to infinity, and 3.7m to infinity (this represents an improvement of just under one meter for the close-focusing distance over the previous version of the lens). There are four focus 'hold' buttons on the front collar of the lens.

If that's not enough, the new lens now includes a PF ''power focus'') mode, which is designed for use with video shooting. The mode is designed for constant speed focus pulling, and there are two speeds available in this mode.

The 500mm ƒ/4 is not designed for macro style shooting, offering just 0.15x magnification and a minimum focusing distance of 3.7 meters (just over twelve feet).

Build Quality and Handling
The 500mm ƒ/4L IS II USM epitomizes the saying of something being ''built like a tank''. Like all L-series glass, the 500mm is dust- and weather-resistant, built with great attention to detail. The lens ships in a hard case about the size of a trunk, complete with a padded interior, and given the price of this lens, it is indeed a welcome part of the kit. There's no front cap for this lens - rather, there is a leather-like lens hood (model E-138B) to protect the whole front half of the lens.

At over 15 inches in length, and widening to just under six inches in diameter, the lens is very large and is properly used on a sturdy tripod. Given the weight of the lens - over seven and a half pounds - hand-holding it is best done in moderation and is best done from the lens, as the weight will provide serious strain to the body mount. The lens features strap lugs for just this purpose, and the integrated tripod mount also makes a convenient carrying handle. That said, the new lens is one and a half pounds lighter than the version one ancestor it replaces.

The lens offers a recessed and windowed distance scale marked in feet and inches. A depth-of-field marker is not provided, and nor is there an infrared index. Given the focal length of this lens, this is hardly a surprise (the depth-of-field for any aperture even fully stopped-down at ƒ/32 would be hard to register on such a limited scale). The lens uses a new optical design: 16 elements in 12 groups, including 2 fluorite elements. It uses nine rounded blades to form the aperture, instead of eight standard blades, so we should be seeing some nicer results for out of focus elements.

The focus ring on the lens is hard to miss, being a generous three inches in width. The ring is composed of raised rubber ribs and has very nice feel, with a ''stepped'' design that feels good in the hand. Its smooth operation makes manual focusing very easy. The turning radius ends in soft stops on the close-focus and infinity ends. The lens will focus past infinity. As a USM lens, you can override autofocus results by turning the lens at anytime. The lens uses 52mm drop-in filters, so front element rotation isn't an issue (nor would you want to use front-mounted filters - it's a huge element) and a glass filter that can accept gels is included: others, including a polarizing filter, are available separately.

There are an impressive amount of switches and buttons at the disposal of the shooter, the majority of which are inset into two command panels along the left side of the lens barrel. While we did not have the opportunity to test the previous version of this lens, on other super telephotos this has become a welcome change from a single group where all the controls are grouped together. The group closer to the lens mount deals with focus: the focus mode selection (AF / MF / PF) and the focus limiter selection, leaving the focus preset, and image stabilization selection switches in the second group's location a bit futher down the lens barrel. I think this change alone will make the lens much easier to get up to speed with, as the user will not have to check the side of the lens as often to make a quick change.

Given the weight of the lens (7.6 pounds, with hood attached) there is some discussion about the usefulness of image stabilization; there is only so long that most of us are going to hand-hold such a lens. The image stabilization system on the 500mm ƒ/4L is designed to work with tripods as well, especially useful as even on a tripod camera shake can be a problem with such a long focal length. Image stabilization comes in three flavors: modes 1, 2 and 3, which allows stabilization to be introduced to counteract movement in both directions (mode 1) or just in the vertical, or for panning actions (mode 2). Mode 3 is designed for shooting ''irregularly moving subjects.'' The practical implication for this mode is that the image stabilization system is only active during the time the exposure is made. Normally when using image stabilization there is a very brief moment where the system starts up; in theory, using mode 3 would mean that the user won't even see the effect in use, because of mirror blackout.

The lens hood for the 500mm ƒ/4, the massive ET-138(WII), is a plastic cylinder, 7 inches long. It attaches by means of a rotating locking knob. Don't lose this: it will set you back around $550 if you need a new one!

The lens comes equipped with a rotating tripod mount, which features click-stops at ninety degree positions. The lens includes two tripod feet: a larger tripod foot with 1/4'' and 3/8'' size sockets, and a smaller foot that can replace the larger foot for use with monopods, with only a single 1/4'' socket. As well, the lens has a security slot under a flap on the tripod locking knob to allow you to use a wire type lock (laptop style) to secure the lens to something immovable. Shooting with this lens demands some serious tripod legs to support the whole package. This is the high-class problem with owning anything expensive of high quality; the accessories to use them properly also expensive, as well, but are almost required to get optimum performance.

Speaking of accessories, some allow you to get closer to your subject in a variety of ways: the 500mm ƒ/4 is compatible with Canon's EF12 and EF25 extension tubes, as well as 1.4x and 2x tele-extenders. With a 2x tele-extender attached, on a subframe body, the lens could produce an effective field of view of 1,600mm (but having a maximum aperture of ƒ/8).

At the time of writing, no other manufacturers produce a 500mm ƒ/4 in a Canon mount; the only other option would be to track down a now-discontinued version I of the Canon 500mm.

There's not much to add here that the technical report doesn't make abundantly clear: for the price this lens commands, it provides the ultimate telephoto lens experience, with quality second to none, a feature set with a learning curve, and a suitcase to carry it in.

Product Photos

Sample Photos

The VFA target should give you a good idea of sharpness in the center and corners, as well as some idea of the extent of barrel or pincushion distortion and chromatic aberration, while the Still Life subject may help in judging contrast and color. We shoot both images using the default JPEG settings and manual white balance of our test bodies, so the images should be quite consistent from lens to lens.

As appropriate, we shoot these with both full-frame and sub-frame bodies, at a range of focal lengths, and at both maximum aperture and ƒ/8. For the ''VFA'' target (the viewfinder accuracy target from Imaging Resource), we also provide sample crops from the center and upper-left corner of each shot, so you can quickly get a sense of relative sharpness, without having to download and inspect the full-res images. To avoid space limitations with the layout of our review pages, indexes to the test shots launch in separate windows.

Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM

Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM User Reviews

10.0/10 average of 2 review(s) Build Quality 10.0/10 Image Quality 10.0/10
  • 10 out of 10 points and recommended by gary1952 (4 reviews)
    Finest lens I have ever used bar none!

    I shoot daily as an amateur. I own the 300 II and the 500 II lens for birding now. Before that the 300 IS and the 500 IS. There is no comparison in the two lenses the new II series blows away the older IS period IMO.
    I have shot daily with it for about 1.5 years now and it is outstanding.
    I have tons of pics with it. Here:

    If a optics junkie you will be in heaven, unbelievable.

    reviewed January 23rd, 2013 (purchased for $10,500)
  • 10 out of 10 points and recommended by gordone22 (1 reviews)
    Good construction and nice case
    Seems expensive, but good quality is not cheap

    Have owned this lens for 4 months but have not had a chance to really get that familiar with it yet. Takes nice moon pictures with great detail. One thing noticeable is that it takes quite a while for this much mass of glass/metal to reach ambient shooting temperature so be sure to store the lens at the temperature you will be using it at, or you will see lots of wavy termal heat lines in the viewer. This is a common issue for telescope/astrophotography users. Another thing that will be noticeable with this long a telephoto is that when shooting over areas heated by the sun, you can get degradation of IQ because of the thermal heating of the air creating wavy images.

    reviewed November 3rd, 2012 (purchased for $9,200)