Why Would You Buy One of Canon's New f/11 Lenses?

Why Would You Buy One of Canon's New f/11 Lenses?

When Canon announced the RF mount for its new range of mirrorless full-frame cameras, we knew we might be in for a treat when it came to innovative lens designs. Fast zooms and razor-sharp primes have pushed boundaries, but the f/11 DO super telephoto glass revealed this week has come as a real surprise. What are these lenses for, and who is going to buy them?

Canon’s roadmap for its RF lenses for 2020 emerged recently, and among the six lenses expected to be announced are two that seem to have come out of nowhere: a 600mm and an 800mm f/11 DO IS STM. The words “budget” and “super-telephoto” don’t usually appear so close together, but is this what Canon has in mind?

Given that the RF lens lineup is still relatively limited, one would reasonably expect Canon to be focused on filling out the range with popular focal lengths. To a degree, this is what it has achieved, but there remain some noticeable gaps, such as a batch of fast, wide primes. Evidently, Canon is still happy to rely on the ease with which EF glass can be adapted, as it seems in no hurry when you consider that these two forthcoming DO lenses might be something of a niche.

For those not familiar with DO lenses — of which Canon has built three over the years — the construction allows for a much more compact design. The “diffractive optics” are able to bend the light to a greater degree, allowing for fewer optical elements to be used, and thus making lenses lighter and smaller. This does come with some disadvantages; however: manufacturing costs can be higher, and there are compromises with light-transmission efficiency and contrast.

For its DSLR cameras, Canon has one EF DO lens that’s still readily available: the 400mm f/4 DO IS II, a $7,000 monster that couples well with an extender for keen birders. f/4 at this focal length is still relatively fast, sitting nicely in between the EF 400mm f/5.6L that’s just over a grand and the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III that’s a tasty $12,000. Birds for every budget.

Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens

The Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens. Yours for just $11,999.

So, what exactly is Canon doing with two DO lenses, especially when we have to assume f/11 will struggle to capture the action in anything but broad daylight? Perhaps the big clue is what comes after the DO: the “IS” and the “STM.” STM is Canon’s shorthand for “Stepper Motor,” which, historically, has largely been understood to mean that a lens will be affordable and geared towards consumers rather than professionals. IS means that the lens will be stabilized, which (I believe) has been the standard for Canon’s telephoto lenses since the late 90s, regardless of price and quality.

With this in mind, it seems that Canon is, in effect, doing a Tamron: creating something affordable by making some compromises. Canon News has suggested that these lenses might even be collapsible, which would be remarkable — lenses of this length are supposed to be massive, not convenient. In addition, affordable telephoto lenses for consumers might be one of the benefits offered by shifting over to mirrorless and something that would make a big bulky camera a significant advantage over a smartphone.

The question remains, however: what can you shoot at f/11 other than a lot of high-ISO noise? Fast action in anything other than blazing sunshine might be a struggle, but the high-ISO performance of the R5 and the R6 might be ready to offset the small aperture. If the R6, as suggested, has a 20-megapixel sensor, the low-light performance should be impressive. For hobbyists, telephoto lenses have always been out of reach, and this might suddenly open up new worlds for keen wildlife and sports photographers who don’t have seven grand and upwards to spend on a huge, heavy piece of glass and aren’t too worried if their images are a bit noisy.

Are you excited to see how Canon will be pricing these new lenses? Is f/11 too much of a compromise? Let us know your reaction in the comments below.

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Bill Blevins's picture

I have one arriving tomorrow. I'll report back after a few days. The R5 is back-ordered for 4-5 weeks according to B&H so I figured I'd play around with the new 800 on the EOS RP for a while. If I don't like it I know a ton of birders who will take it from me for a few bucks off. I carried a Nikon 300mm f/4 for years and maybe used it 5 times. Hopefully this one will make me want to keep it.

Bill Blevins's picture

I've been shooting almost exclusively with the 800mm f/11 for almost two weeks now and I have to say it is such a fun lens. Even with the EOS RP (still no word on the R5 delivery timetable) the images are just great. I had to set up the camera a little different (Auto ISO most of the time) from how I shoot with my pro lenses but I just used a custom setting on the dial. Have not put it on a tripod yet. Have not had any scenes where I couldn't handhold it. Being able to not just see things that are far away but actually capture them has been an interesting way to view the world for the past two weeks. I even shot a road racing event with it. It's a fun lens. I rarely shoot raw. These are all shot as large .jpg. Here's a few images. Nice lens. If you can spare the change, it's a fun addition to the camera bag for sure!

Bill Blevins's picture

The sunflower was probably 20 feet away, full frame, not cropped. The hummingbird on the orange flower was probably 30 feet away. The deer was probably 50 yards away and I shot that from the driver's seat in my truck out of the passenger window and the car is full frame, not cropped.

Bill Blevins's picture

One more... ISO 400, f/11 and 1/30th of a sec. handheld. Not the greatest photo in the world but I'm shocked at the image considering how late in the day the photo was taken. The next morning after I saw this image in Photo Mechanic I changed to Auto ISO ;)

Anthony Weaver's picture

I bought the 600mm f11 just so I could have a Zoom in my backpack if needed. It’s light, cheap and kinda fun. Professional? Not really but worth 600 Bills? I think so. Attached are some shots with it. All shot handheld and just walking around the park.

Tom Reichner's picture

Anthony,

You refer to the 600mm f11 as a zoom. It is not a zoom. It is a prime lens, fixed at 600mm.

Anthony Weaver's picture

My bad. It pulls out like a “telescope” so that’s what pops into my head. I personally think it will really shine for airborne subjects. I am taking it over to the airport this weekend and I bet it does a better job than my last setup. (A7R4 with Sony FE 200-600 5.6-6.3 OSS)I know,I know, but I am telling you. This 600mm doesn’t mind being handheld and it’s LIGHT. Both of those were just not feasible with my old kit and the pictures suffered. I will post some pics this weekend.

Tom Reichner's picture

I also think it will be a great lens for photographing aircraft - where you need a lot of focal length, but you need it to be mobile, as well.

I only like photographing airborne subjects in direct sunlight, anyway, so the f11 aperture wouldn't bother me for the "in flight" stuff. I'm usually shooting that at f10 or f11 anyway, even with my f5.6 lens.

Anthony Weaver's picture

Exactly. It’s a great lens for objects in the bright sky or bright objects in a dark sky. I took that moon shot while just messing around with the dogs one morning. It looks pretty good for just winging it.(to me) I haven’t tried the moon at night but I bet it works good for that as well. To get that same shot using my old setup would have been difficult. To be honest, It would have never happened because I would never just walk around with that FE 200-600 on the camera. That’s the real beauty of this lens. It’s a breeze to carry and the stabilization paired with the R5 is incredible. It’s definitely geared towards certain things but aren’t all lenses really? I like for what it is and it can stay in my bag.

Bill Blevins's picture

I thought of this comment after I shot this airplane last night. I was on my back deck heading in for the night and looked up and for the first time in a long time saw a plane high above with vapor trails. The sun was still out up there and this is the resulting shot. Not great by any means but it is with the new 800mm f/11, handheld 1/125 at 250 ISO.