My take on the RF 800mm f/11 DO IS STM for birds

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BirdShooter7 Veteran Member • Posts: 6,950
My take on the RF 800mm f/11 DO IS STM for birds

Shortly before the RF 600mm & 800mm f/11 DO IS STM lenses were officially announced by Canon I started reading rumors that some new long RF mount lenses would be coming soon, and I was excited. When the rumors started suggesting that the new lenses would be f/7.1 and f/11 I was more than a little surprised. What I really wanted was something like the Sony 200-600 or Sigma/Tamron 150-600mm lenses but in native RF mount and with all the special Canon sauce that would make them work beautifully on their latest R mount cameras. When it became obvious that we really would be getting such “slow” lenses I have to admit I was deeply disappointed. All my years of experience using Canon SLR’s and, to a lesser extent, my experience with the M5, M50 and M6 mk2 as well as the R and RP really had me scratching my head over the specs of the coming lenses. What on Earth was Canon thinking?

Purple Gallinule 1/320s iso 2500

My mind immediately started conjuring up thoughts about being frustrated in lower light situations and having to fuss with noise reduction software and I also couldn’t stop thinking of all those adds I had seen on places like Ebay for these junky toy lenses bosting outrageous focal lengths for like $100. To say I was biased against these f/11 lenses was probably an understatement. If f/11 wasn’t bad enough, they incorporated DO technology that I wasn’t totally sold on though the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM did do a lot to convince me that the technology could actually produce great results. The STM AF motor was another aspect of these new lenses that suggested to me that the user experience with these new lenses wouldn’t be great.

Common Nighthawk, 1/320s ISO 640

As I read through the official announcement I quickly found more to complain about. The f/11’s didn’t have a rotating collar or integrated tripod foot and if that wasn’t bad enough, they didn’t even have an adjustable aperture. It seemed obvious that Canon was breaking out every cost-saving measure available with these two lenses. Heck, they didn’t even include a lens hood! If that wasn’t enough to hate these lenses for, the minimum focusing distance for the 800 is a whopping 6 meters, that’s almost 20 feet!!! The lenses also have minimal weather seals. Canon absolutely gave us doubters lots to complain about, but there were also two undeniable bright points in the announcement. The 800mm lens would retail for $899 and it only weighs 1260g.

Swamp Rabbit, 1/320s iso 1250

Cattle Egrets, 1/800s iso 640

Long story short, I didn’t see myself ever actually owning either of these lenses, but I was without a doubt, curious about them. When the first images from end users started popping up online, I saw a lot of the sorts of images I was expecting (not great). However, there were some who were producing surprisingly good photos and as much as I wanted to hate these lenses because they weren’t what I wanted Canon to produce, I couldn’t ignore what I was seeing.

Mississippi Kite, 1/2500s iso 1250

It wasn’t long before my curiosity got the best of me and I decided I would rent the 800mm version to see what I could do with it. Unfortunately for me, the 800 wasn’t available at the moment and I was getting impatient, so I rented the 600. When the lens arrived, and I took it out of its protective case the first image that came to my mind of a sea captain from an old movie on a sailing ship pulling out his spyglass to search the horizon. It even has that collapsible design!

Green Heron, 1/800s iso 640

I immediately noticed how light the lens was and how easy it was to carry around on my tiny RP. During the course of my rental I even got an opportunity to use the lens on an R5 and was immediately impressed with how fast the AF was on that body. All-in-all I was surprisingly pleased with the RF 600 and I was able to get lots of photos that I was pleased with while using it but I still wasn’t convinced that I had to have one of my own. On the RP I wasn’t getting the most out of the lens in terms of AF and though the image quality I was getting was good, I wasn’t overly impressed with it. I don’t know if the main reason was some shortcoming of the lens or limitations of my own skills. In the end, I boxed the lens back up and sent it back at the end of the rental period and didn’t think a whole lot more about it.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, 1/160s iso 1250

Black-necked Stilt,  1/2500s iso 1250

Eventually I ended up buying an R6 and spent a lot of time learning how to get the most out of it (still learning) and was generally quite busy photographing birds like crazy. It wasn’t until the breeding season started winding down and the weather here in SE Texas started getting completely miserable that I started thinking about the 800mm f/11 again. I wasn’t too serious about buying it, but in a moment of weakness, Amazon popped up an add saying they had eight of them in stock and without really thinking I had one-clicked my way to ownership!

Bullfrogs, 1/125s iso 3200

Common Nighthawk, 1/2000s iso 1250

The next morning I decided since the lens had already been shipped and that I couldn’t really cancel the order I had better go ahead and order the JJC lens hood for $20 and a pair of Meike extension tubes so I could fully enjoy my latest acquisition. The hood seems well made (similar in build to what I would expect from a Canon hood) and locks onto the front of the lens nicely and I’m happy to have it to protect the front element of the lens. Yes, a hood isn’t included with the lens, pretty chintzy Canon! The tubes seem to be reasonably well built. They don’t have much heft to them, but the mounting surfaces do appear to be made from metal and the tubes feel nice and rigid. They also have the little rubber weather seal like you would find on the mount of an L lens. The set includes a 13mm and 18mm tube that can be used together to give 31mm of extension. So far, I have only used the two together and still wouldn’t mind having even more extension.

Boat-tailed Grackle, 1/250s iso 1250

Barred Owl, 1/60s iso 1250

My usual setup is the R6 with an adapted EF 500mm f/4L IS USM and usually an EF 1.4x III. This setup yields excellent image quality and works quite well in lower light situations but is quite a bit heavier than the little 800mm f/11. Heck, just the 500mm lens alone weighs 8.5lb which was one of my motivations to give the little DO lens a try. In the heat of the Texas summer most of the birds are molting and don’t look their best. That combined with the heat and humidity usually means my motivation to walk 3 or 4 miles around my local park with ~10lbs of camera gear isn’t all that great. A rig that weighs just over 4lbs on the other hand, leaves much more motivated to go out to see what’s around.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron, 1/400s iso 1250

Red-shouldered Hawk, 1/160s iso 1250

So far my light-weight rig has been my Sigma 150-600 C and for the most part I have been quite happy with it, another reason I wasn’t totally sure I would want to keep the RF 800mm f/11 DO IS STM. The Sigma is well built and has survived a couple of years of me banging it around all over the place including many trips to the coastal mudflats where it has had lots of exposure to salt spray, salt-laden sand and plenty of other abuse. It offers great image quality but like pretty much every other third-party lens I have tried the user experience in terms of AF and stabilization… just isn’t quite up to the standard of the latest Canon lenses. Don’t get me wrong, it performs very well, the OEM glass just seems to perform a little better. Finally, the Sigma offers faster aperture, the ability to zoom and a much closer minimum focusing distance, so I don’t feel the need to fuss with extension tubes. It also came with a case (which is still in the box) and a lens hood included. In summary, going into my RF 800mm lens experience, I was already pretty happy with what I had so the RF 800 would have to be pretty good to get a permanent home. To the RF lens’ credit, it is lighter weight than the Sigma and offers 200mm more focal length.

Cattle Egret, 1/2500s iso 1250

Before my first outing with the lens I decided to wrap it with cling-wrap from my kitchen, especially since it looked like rain and I wasn’t 100% sure I would like the lens enough to keep it. So, with the new lens protected and mounted on my R6 I headed to a local park to see what I could do with it.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, 1/6400s iso 2500

Great Blue Heron, 1/640s iso 1250

It was already late in the afternoon when I arrived and there were some storms in the area so definitely not the bright sunny day that I thought would really be necessary to get good results with such a slow lens. However, I wanted to make sure I was giving the new lens a fair chance to I tried to keep and open mind and set my ISO to 1250 and headed out.

Black-necked Stilt, 1/50s iso 2500

Some of my early observations were that I really do find the long MFD to be a pain in the neck. Twenty feet really is a long distance and 800mm actually is quite a bit of focal length. Being used to 500, 600 and 700mm lenses I found that I have a strong tendency to get too close with the 800mm lens and either am too close to frame the subject the way I prefer or too close to focus or both. It took me several outings to “recalibrate.”

Anhinga, 1/2500s iso 1250

Another early observation was that I often found the reduced AF area with eye-tracking was somewhat restricting. For example, many times when I was framing up a heron, ibis, duck or other large bird the way I wanted the eye would fall just a bit outside of the active AF area. Usually I would end up taking a step or two back so I could still take advantage of the eye AF and just crop the photo for the composition I wanted later. Again, this isn’t at all a deal-breaker for me but it’s not ideal.

White Ibis, 1/200s iso 1250

Clapper Rail,  1/100s iso 2500

It was sprinkling on and off throughout the afternoon and the light was anything but bright, but in the more open areas of the park I found that the R6/RF 800mm f/11 didn’t really struggle much at all. For the most part the AF was quick and found the subject’s eyes more or less immediately and because I was filling most of the frame with my compositions I was able to comfortably use the higher ISO settings without much penalty to the overall image quality. This continued to be the case almost all the way up to sunset, which I couldn’t really see because of all the clouds in the way.

Green Heron, 1/320s iso 1250

In the more wooded areas, the light became a challenge more quickly though I was still able to get some pleasing shots of a Barred Owl up in the canopy high above the trail. The AF speed and the ability of the R6 to catch the eyes in the low-light of the woods definitely suffered. Having said that, I am VERY impressed that it worked at all, much less produced usable results.

Barred Owl, 1/30s iso 6400 (it was pretty dark here ya'll!)

Any thoughts of returning the lens were pretty much out the door by the end of my first day using it. The overall user experience was quite pleasant overall with the main exception being the very long MFD. Autofocus performance has been quite pleasing. I don’t know if it is because of the faster communication through the RF mount of the extra 100mm FL or both or some other reason but the eye-detect AF works beautifully with this lens, possibly even better than my adapted EF lenses.

Black Vulture, 1/500s iso 640

Likewise, the image stabilization of the R6/RF 800mm f/11 DO combination is in my opinion quite impressive. I have been able to hand-hold the rig and get sharp shots below 1/200s with ease and even speeds like 1/60s aren’t too much of a challenge. When I compare the stabilization effectiveness against the EF 100-400mm L II and my EF 500mm f/4L IS USM II I have to say I think the $900 f/11 lens has the edge. This is also something I noticed during the brief times that I have tried the RF 100-500 L. The stabilization with the long RF lenses on the R6 is really a step above anything I have experienced.

Cattle Egret, 1/2500s iso 1250

The RF 800mm f/11 DO IS STM is a lens of many surprises, at least when used on the R6 (I say R6 because that’s the only body I’ve tried it on). Not only does it focus well despite being f/11 but the image quality is excellent. In the past I haven’t been the biggest fan of DO lenses because the first two that Canon came out with didn’t deliver the greatest image quality. The third one did step up the image quality but in my experience wasn’t quite up to the same level as its peers with conventional designs. Not only that, but up until now, DO lenses came at a very premium price. I haven’t had a chance to do a side-by-side comparison between the RF 800 but I will say that when I look at the images that I am getting with it I’m very pleased with the level of detail that I get as well as the overall appearance of sharpness regardless of lighting.

Anhinga, 1/500s iso 1250

With the older DO lenses I would sometimes get odd effects in back-lit and side-lit situations and sometimes the bokeh wouldn’t be very pleasing. With the RF 800 the results so far look pretty much like they came from a conventional lens, which in my opinion is a great thing.

Black-necked Stilt, 1/500s iso 640

Least Bittern, 1/200s iso 2500

The aspect of the RF 800mm f/11 DO that I have found to be the biggest challenge so far is the minimum focusing distance. I knew going into the purchase that I would struggle with it and I did buy a pair of extension tubes along with the lens. The tubes do help but at the end of the day I really would like to have more than 31mm of extension. Don’t get me wrong, the tubes do help a lot, but even with them in place I often must back up to achieve focus. On the other side of the extension tube coin, I do find that with only 31mm of extension, I can still focus on relatively distant subjects. In fact, I found that for the most part I could just leave the tubes in place while walking around my local parks. This has, however, resulted in some missed opportunities so I’m still debating weather to walk around with the tubes mounted or to only mount them when I need them for a specific photo.

Greater Yellowlegs, 1/2500s iso 1250

One place where I really don’t mind the long MFD of the RF 800mm f/11 DO is when I am photographing birds in flight. I before using the lens I was a little concerned that the STM wouldn’t be fast enough to track flying birds very well but so far, I’m finding that focus speed isn’t a big issue. The AF does feel a little slower than the EF 500mm f/4 but it still is able to lock right onto my flying subjects the majority of the time even without the AF limiter engaged. For this reason, I don’t bother to engage the AF limiter anymore; this way I am able to quickly jump from fairly close up shots of static birds to quick grab shots of birds flying past without much trouble.

Purple Gallinule, 1/800s iso 2500

Cliff Swallow, 1/2500s iso 1250

Probably the most surprising thing I have noticed about the RF 800mm f/11 DO IS is that I’m finding that it sort of reminds me of the old days with the EF 400mm f/5.6L for birds in flight. With the quick and accurate AF performance on the R6 I have found that locking onto and tracking flying birds isn’t too difficult and since the lens is nice and sharp, I’m able to get plenty of detail. This is especially true because I am usually able to fill a significant portion of the frame with the bird given that the lens has such a long focal length. The light weight of the lens means that it’s easy to swing around and follow fast action. When the RF 800 was announced I never dreamed I would enjoy using it for in-flight shots.

Swallow-tailed Kite, 1/2500s iso 1250

I have noticed that the RF 800mm f/11 DO has more of a tendency to fog up than other lenses that I have been using alongside it. For example, a friend and I went out a couple of mornings ago for photography and they had their camera with EF 100-400 IS II sitting right next to my R6 and RF 800 (both in the back seat of the car without any AC blowing on them). When we arrived and started taking photos their camera was fog-free and ready to go. It took my 800 about 20 minutes before it stopped fogging enough for me to take photos. I think this might have something to do with the coatings used on the 800. The next day I tried another little test. I put the 800 in the back seat between my Sigma 150-600 C and EF 500mm f/4L IS USM. When I brought the three lenses out of the car the 800 fogged up just as it had the day before and the other two lenses were fog free.

Prothonotary Warbler, 1/250s iso 2500

All of the images here were taken hand-held. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to spend some quality time with in the field with the RF 800 it seems obvious that it was really designed to be used hand-held. I haven’t missed the rotating tripod collar or the tripod foot at all during my time with it.

Dickcissel, 1/320s iso 640

Now that I’ve been able to use this lens for two weeks, I’m quite certain that I will keep it and use it on a regular basis. I’m sure my Sigma is feeling neglected and who know, maybe it will be in search of a new home soon. I never dreamed I would enjoy using the RF 800mm f/11 as much as I have so far. Once I got over the “f/11” and actually went out and used the lens I have found it to be a very useful piece of equipment capable of making beautiful photographs and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. I remember reading an interview with someone at Canon, I think it might have been the leader of the 600 & 800mm f/11 DO project. He said that he wanted to produce a lens that could leverage all the latest tech that the EOR R system has brought to the table to bring capabilities that weren’t previously available. I think they succeeded brilliantly.

Purple Gallinule, 1/80s iso 1250

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