using the canon 500f4 IS





You don't see many of these lenses about . I had never seen a 500IS, until I went to Jessops in New Oxford Street earlier this year to buy one. One of the staff struggled carrying the box out from the warehouse and heaved it onto the counter. Other staff watched as it was pulled from its case, with comments like "It's ma-housive", and "I've never seen such a big lens". After selling thousands of near-identical digicams, the sale of the 500IS seemed like a special event for the store. It was a special event for me too, since I had wanted a super-telephoto lens for a long time, but felt the cost couldn't be justified.

My interest in photography had for a long time been bound up with travel. My most valued images were landscapes from Scotland, western USA, and the Swiss Alps, and scenes from foreign cities like New York. These are great places to visit - great subjects for the camera. It was proving difficult though to build a portfolio of much depth because I was limited by work commitments to a few weeks of travel each year. So I started shooting closer to home in Epping Forest and the surrounding countryside. Wildlife is an essential part of the local portfolio and this is where the 500IS comes in.  I had a few good wildlife captures from the 100-400IS and 70-200, but often I was lacking the reach to get a high resolution picture and I feared the local portfolio would never amount to much. But with the 500L I should be a match for professional wildlife shooters.  So with a surge of enthusiasm my resistance to spending over 4000 on a lens was overcome.

The 500IS comes in a solid purpose-built lockable case. The case and lens together are heavy. The lens and a 5D are not really hand-holdable for for any length of time. A monopod or tripod is essential. I have a Manfrotto model 679 monopod. The screw attachment at the top of the monopod fits both 1/4'' and 3/8" threads, using concentric retractable screws. The Canon lens fits both thread sizes, but the lens and camera balances better from the 3/8" hole, which is placed further towards the front of the lens. Resting on the monopod, the lens swings around easily. On the move, I tend to put the camera over my shoulder and hold onto the monopod.

A lot of my shooting is done, as I have explained, in Epping Forest, with relatively low light levels. Even using an IS lens I need a tripod in that situation. I can use a lightweight ballhead with all my lenses - except the 500IS. The quick release plate isn't solid enough - it seems like the lens might detach and I am not taking taking any chances with such an expensive piece of kit. So I am using my Manfrotto 029 tripod head, which has a more robust hexagonal release plate. The assembly feels solid, although I have had one heart-stopping moment when I forgot to lock the vertical control and the lens tipped forwards suddenly, ending up pointing at the floor.

without lens hood, with the 1.4x extender and Canon 20D

The tripod collar can be loosened by a conveniently placed knob, to turn the camera into portrait position. When it has turned 90 degrees you can feel something slot back into position. The movement feels nicely engineered. The focus ring is smooth too and huge. The IS control is in the usual place with two modes as on other Canon lenses. There is a focus limiter switch with three settings. The 10m to infinity setting might be useful if you know the subjects are a long way off, but so far I haven't use the focus limiter. I would probably forget to reset it and then miss a great shot when a bird flies up close.

Of course I could not resist some resolution tests. I was shooting an Epson paper packet from a distance of about 50 feet, at ISO200, on a tripod, with shutter speeds 1/500th second or higher, and IS turned on. These crops are converted from RAW using Canon DPR software, then to JPEG using Photoshop at 70% quality. A applied some levels but no sharpening. All the shots are at f5.6, so the lens is wide open with the extender.  I tried shooting at different apertures but didn't notice any difference. That says something about the quality of this lens. Even with the extender it's sharp wide open ! The text on the target is dark blue by the way, not black.

The story from those crops is that you gain reach by using smaller pixels ( the 20D ) and using the extender. No news there, I hear you say. But the interesting thing is to see just how much is gained, and how little is lost in sharpness.

in the field

My main camera is the 5D. The viewfinder experience with the 5D and 500IS is great. The f4 aperture makes the focus plane stand out clearly, so much so I think I could manual focus this lens.  For extra reach I bought the 1.4x extender so I have the option of 700f5.6. The effective aperture of the lens and extender is reported to the camera, so wide open with the extender is shown as f5.6.

I shoot mostly deer and birds with the 500IS. For most of the day the deer disappear into the dense scrub and rest. They are active only in the evening or early morning. Even then they like to stay in the shady parts of the forest. So I am shooting deer in low light levels, typically 1/50 sec f4 at ISO800. They are normally at a range of 50 to 100 yards when I get them in the viewfinder. Sometimes I surprise one and get closer, but they run off at speed. Even with the 500IS, the reach and light gathering ability of the lens are being stretched in this environment. Fortunately the 5D gives files of superb quality even at ISO800, and the lens is sharp wide open. I feel this equipment really is state-of-the-art.

The test crops point to the 20D + extender as a promising combination. I have used this setup for birds. The tiny field of view means even small birds sometimes fill most of the frame. At this length the image in the viewfinder jumps about alarmingly whenever I touch the camera. The IS then shows it's worth even on a tripod. I haven't done comparative tests but the IS certainly appears to smooth things out effectively. But if the tripod is completely stable the IS makes the image drift about in the viewfinder. This is odd because I don't recall seeing that with my other IS lenses.

Filling the 20D viewfinder with a bird is reassuring and I think to myself, I really nailed that one. However looking at the images later on the PC,  the 20D files are a bit of a disappointment now I am used to the 5D. They look a bit crude at high ISO and don't carry the same level of detail as 5D files. The 5D + extender combination looks like it will be used more. I keep the huge files and I get good reach too. It's not obvious looking at my shots at 100%, whether the extender was being used. I use about the same USM with or without the extender, and it's not much, about 100% radius 0.5.

The real price of a super-telephoto lens is not the money you paid, it's the sweat and strain of carrying it about. The money was never that big a deal for me and you forget about it after a while. However the weight of the lens, camera and tripod is something you have to deal with every time you go out. After a couple of hours of walking and shooting I feel like I have been to the gym and had a good workout. for photography