A Year with the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM

I’m using the “new” 500mm Canon for slightly more than a year now, so it’s time to share my opinions on it. During the last year I had posted a bunch of images made with this lens attached to various camera bodies (1D X Mark II, 5DS R, 5D Mark III, 7D Mark II), which further illustrate the capabilities of this gem.

Why upgrade?

I had used the Mark I version for 10 years, and it was a stellar performer, so why I decided to upgrade to the Mark II? For two reasons: weight and image quality. Let’s begin with the latter. When I tried the old 500 plus the 1.4x III extender on the 7D Mark II for the first time, I thought that something went wrong with the lens. After making several successful astrophotos during the winter of 2014-15 (using the bare lens), the lack of sharpness I encountered with the extender was discouraging. So much that I stopped using this combination completely, and ordered the Mark II after a week or so.

Once the Mark II arrived, I had the opportunity to compare it with the old one – and man, it makes a huge difference on high resolution cameras! The Mark II with the 1.4x III attached is sharper than the old one with no extender. And it doesn’t stop here. The following image pretty much summarizes the quality of images one could expect from the 500mm f/4L IS II.



Richer colors, and complete lack of the “busy background” that was a signature of the old lens + teleconverter combinations. The transition from sharp to unsharp areas is pretty fast, just like with my Zeisses. Images coming out from the contemporary Canon super-telephotos (300 II/400 II/400 DO II/500 II/600 II) are stunning. There’s no point in talking more about image quality, since they offer the best money can buy. But there are other important aspects to discuss.

Like size and weight. The Mark II is about 800g lighter than the Mark I. This is a huge difference. I can put an additional TS-E 24mm or Zeiss 2.8/15 in the bag and still have the same total weight as before. Thinking about size/weight/reach is an important factor when you select a super-tele.

Why 500mm?

When it comes to birding, the longer is almost always better. My reasoning to get the 500mm originally, and to stick with the same focal length when upgrading to the Mark II, was the following. 300mm is too short. The 400/2.8 II is too large and heavy for the focal length. The 600 II is a great lens, but… Well, I have a rule that everything I bring into the field (with the exception of the tripod and the MacBook Air) must fit into my Gura Gear Bataflae 32L backpack. And the 600 doesn’t fit – at least with my other gear already in the bag.


Black Tern Looking for Bugs

Sometimes I long for the 600, like when shooting the image above, but with high resolution cameras I have the freedom to crop a bit. The 400 DO II is also a great lightweight lens, but a bit short considering the locations and birds I photograph. This leaves the 500. Long enough (especially with teleconverters) for my needs, small enough to fit into the bag, light enough to handhold for extended periods of time (at least with smaller bodies like the 5DS R and 7D Mark II, with the 1D X Mark II it’s on the fence of being too heavy). The wider angle of view (compared to the 600) provides a little protection against inadvertently cut wings and feet, and it’s easier on the tracking mount (both in terms of weight and tracking accuracy) when shooting the heavens above. Not to mention that you can buy the 500 plus a Zeiss 2.8/15 from the price of the 600…


Mark II super-teles are less front-heavy than the old ones (partly due to the removal of the protective glass from the front). So you think they are lighter than they really are. With the 1D X Mark II the balance point is under the lens collar, but with smaller bodies it’s right under the focusing ring. Which is problematic if you are handholding the lens – you need to be extra careful not to turn the ring.

I really like that the focusing range selector has been moved out of the central switchboard to the neck of the lens. It’s much easier accessible place when the lens is mounted on a gimbal.

Proper technique is important with all long lenses, and the 500 is no exception. But you also need to watch for air turbulence. I’m serious. Astronomers are long aware of the fact that hot air bubbles or even wind gusts can influence telescope image quality. For example on a cold fall morning on a lake, just an hour after sunrise the air is so turbulent that you can’t make a sharp image of anything more than 20-30m away. It’s not a showstopper, just something one needs to be aware of.

Focusing is quick and accurate (if you did your homework and had properly micro-adjusted the AF), but adding teleconverters could slow focusing down. I’d recommend to check out my AF drive speed comparison with different camera bodies.

Overall, the lens is a dream to use. On tripod or off, it just works the way expected.


There are a few things I immediately replace on/add to a super-tele. First I add a LensCoat. But I don’t put all the pieces on – leaving the focusing ring and the lens collar out. I prefer to focus with the original ring, and don’t like the sticky tape on the collar. This also makes my lens unique, and can easily tell which is mine when shooting with friends.

The second thing is a custom lens foot. I wrote about the 4th Generations Design foot (and a few other accessories) in a previous piece, and albeit a different one, I use a 4GD foot on the Mark II. This time the CRX-5L (the “low” version). It fits nicely, and also allows storing the hood in the reversed position. Speaking of the reversed hood and storing the lens. The Don Zeck cap I bought for the old 500 works nicely with the new one.


5DS R + 500mm f/4L IS II + 1.4x III on a Skimmer Ground Pod and Mongoose M3.6 Head

Another piece of equipment I grown to love is the Skimmer Ground Pod. I use it when photographing from a boat or otherwise need to be close to the ground. You can see on the picture above the complete rig I used for photographing great crested grebes last fall. What’s the camo thingy around the lens? It’s the part of my ghillie suit that normally goes over the gun.

The only thing I don’t like about the Mark II (well, besides the balance point being under the focusing ring) is that Canon does not include a screw-on filter holder any more. The lens comes with a gel holder, which I can’t use to mount my light pollution suppression filter for astro work. For this kind of price I’d expect Canon to include both with the lens, but had to purchase it separately (it’s somewhat hard to find: you’ll need the 52WII holder).


I always loved the old 500, and love the Mark II even more. You get splendid images, huge versatility (did I mention that I also use it for long lens landscapes a lot?) in a light, travel-friendly package. If you can afford (or want to lug around) only one super-telephoto lens, this is the one to buy. Highly recommended.