Bob Atkins Photography

Canon EF500/4.5L

The Canon 500/4.5L is Canon's "lightweight" telephoto at "only" 3Kg (6.6lbs). Both the 600/4 and 400/2.8 are close to double the weight. This makes the 500/4.5L a much easier lens to handle in the field and means it doesn't require quite such a heavy duty tripod and head (though any 500mm lens needs a pretty good support!). It's 1/3 stop slower than a 500/4 would be, but that 1/3 stop has a significant drawback with most EOS bodies. It means that when you add the 1.4x TC, you lose autofocus. The new EOS 3 and 1v bodies solve that problem by giving you AF at f8, but only with the central AF sensor and only with a vertical line sensitivity. Still, that's not too bad, and much better than no AF at all!

Optical Performance 

So how good is it? Is it worth spending an extra ~$3000 for the 600/4? Well, I shot test slides (mirror lock up, heavy tripod, Velvia etc.) with both the 600/4 and 500/4.5 and compared the results. The difference? Just about none as far as I could tell. Resolution and contrast were close to identical on both real world subjects and resolution test charts, with and without TCs. Both lenses are sharp wide open, as good telephotos should be. I'd post some example images, but there doesn't seem much point since if I can't see a significant difference at 20x magnification of the original slide, you surely won't see any difference even in a 2400 dpi scan which resolves only about 45 lp/mm at best! If image quality is your single selection criterion, there's not much to pick between these lenses as far as I can see. Any differences that exist (and I'm sure there must be some) are small enough to be swamped by real world factors. As an aside, the lens will AF if you use a Tamron or Kenco 1.4xTC, however both cause significant vignetting of the image (the corners go quite dark - see this comparison), so they aren't a solution to the "AF with TC" problem. The Canon 1.4xTC causes no apparent vignetting, no doubt due to its significantly larger optics. It's manual focus only on anything but an EOS 3 or 1v though. 

Weight and size: 500/4.5L vs. 600/4L 

What about the weight difference between the 600/4 and 500/4.5? It's only 3kg, but those 3kg seem to make a BIG difference in the field. I find it much easier to work with the 500/4.5. I can easily lift it, move it around, mount it on the tripod etc. with one hand and never feel like I'm about to drop it. I can't say the same for the 600/4. An Arca-Swiss B1 will easily handle a 500/4.5 while I've seen reports of problems with extended use of a 600/4 on a B1. People who should know (like RRS) don't recommend a B1 for a 600/4, but say it's fine for a 500/4.5.  Additionally, the 600/4 is sufficently more massive that the dreaded "ball flop" can easily occur with a ball head (the center of mass gets too far off center and the lens flops to one side). This can be prevented by using a large and heavy gimble head like the Wimberly. With the 500/4.5, this isn't nearly so much of a problem and the lens handles well on a standard ball head. You can also briefly hand hold the 500/4.5 if you must or you can use it on a shoulder stock. On the other hand you (or at least I) can't handhold a 600/4. The 500/4.5 is also smaller than the 600/4. For example, it will fit in a LowePro Trekker backpack, while the 600/4 won't. So for convenience, the 500/4.5 is a clear winner. 


The EF500/4.5L has all the standard features of the big Canon telephotos. USM ring motor, full time manual focus (with 3 speed settings), focus preset, AF/MF switch, selectable focus beep, white finish etc. It takes the standard 48mm filters in a rear mount drop in holder. It comes with a really nice, really sturdy carrying trunk in an impressive grey finish with metal trim. Most people leave the trunk at home and buy a long lens bag to actually carry it in though! 

Which lens to buy? 

The decision between the 500/4.5L and 600/4 is a tough one. The 500/4.5 is much easier to handle and costs over $3000 less. On the other hand the 600/4 has 20% more reach, is 1/3 stop faster, AFs well on any EOS body at 840/5.6 with a 1.4xTC and will even AF at 1200/8 with a 2xTC on EOS 3. The 500/4.5 is still MF with the 2xTC, even on an EOS 3. It's up to the buyer to figure out what's most important to them. That being said, it's worth noting that almost all the "big name" nature pros (and sports pros) eventually seem to end up with a 600/4. 

As part of a lightweight Canon EOS system for wildlife work, the 500/4.5L works well with the 300/4L (another excellent lens). With a 1.4xTC they give you 300/4, 420/5.6, 500/4.5 and 700/6.3 (+ 1000/9 with a 2x) Note that both lenses + both TCs + an EOS body weigh (and cost!) less than a 600/4 alone.

Is the 500/4L IS a better lens?

Well, in a sense yes. It's 1/3 stop faster which really isn't much - except for the fact that it will work with a 1.4xTC on any body and with a 2x TC on the EOS3 and 1v. It also has Image Stabilization, which is nice. The downside is that you'll probably pay about $3000 extra for these features and the lens is a couple of pounds heavier.

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