Tips on using the Canon 500mm f/4.0L lens

First published on: Friday, 19 June 2009

The Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM promises a very steep learning curve for new owners, and you might get lots of unsharp or out-of-focus pictures, but thankfully, there’s help from the experienced and wise.

A summary of this thread is presented below.

Jahern shares a couple of tips:

  1. The mimimum focusing distance of this lens is 4.5m. The focus limiter switch has three settings: 4.5m to infinity, 4.5m to 10m and 10m to infinity; be careful with this switch because if the wrong position is selected, the lens won’t be able to focus at the desired distance. It’s generally best to start off with 4.5m to infinity, and select 10m to infinity if shooting birds in flight.

  2. Even if the lens is on a tripod and Image Stabilization (IS) is switched on, it’s best to start off with shutter speeds of 1/500 sec or faster. Then, lower the shutter speed to discover the minimum which can continue to give you sharp shots. One can then progress to handholding the lens or to use the lens on bean bags to discover limits.

  3. Initial focus practice should commence with static subjects to rule out motion blur and / or camera shake / focusing / operator error.

  4. When the 500mm is on a tripod, it’s best to utilize IS mode 2 rather than 1 — in this manner, the stabilization mechanism is set to dampen only the vibrations from mirror slap.

  5. It’s not a good idea to test the focus capability of the lens with subjects having low contrast and just above the minimum focusing distance of 4.5m, in a room with poor lighting, as the lens might zoom to infinity and then back to the subject distance — this is coupled with the loud IS mechanism that is heard during focusing. Jahern has also set the custom function for the focus stop button around the ring of the lens (similar to what Colorado=Home suggests), which allows him to quickly switch between one-shot and AI-servo modes.

Ben Egbert continues:

  1. If the lens is used on non 1-Series Canon digital SLR cameras, the subject needs to have sufficient contrast for a reliable AF lock performance. In fact, even a series of shots of the same subject, with the lens on a tripod, exhibits different levels of sharpness owing to the focus tolerance engineered into the lens.

  2. In addition to using a tripod, hold down on the lens with your hand just above the tripod mount to further dampen motion. Mirror Lockup (MLU) or cable release can be used when doing moon shots, for example.

  3. ISO200 or ISO400 may need to be called upon in order to keep shutter speeds high.

  4. Image quality and sharpness of this lens beats his Canon 17-40 and 28-135mm lenses.

Colin K. Work shares his experience on using this lens on the Canon 20D:

  1. With subjects rapidly moving towards you, the test is on the 20D’s autofocus responsiveness rather than the lens’ AF capability.

  2. AF can struggle if focusing on distant objects, especially if atmospheric haze causes a decrease in the contrast of the subject.

  3. In AI-servo mode, it’s normal for long telephoto lenses to hunt when shooting static subjects, and this may be further due to the IS mechanism at work.

  4. The IS mechanism on the 500mm does emit a louder sound than other lenses in his ownership, which is probably caused by the larger lens barrel.

  5. Even though Colin is able to handhold the lens at 1/125 sec for acceptable shots, he’s gone back to mounting the lens on a tripod + gimball head (which works better than a ball head).

  6. Fitting the lens hood is harder than it should be

Miscellaneous points

  1. Colin noticed that he got sharper shots of a stationary subject when shooting with the 500mm on a 20D in one-shot mode compared to AI-servo mode, to which Kevin Coppalotti replied that it AI-servo mode should only be used to track moving objects — Kevin further explains that when shooting cycle racing, he frequently switches between AI-servo for action shots, and one-shot mode for portraits.

  2. Eduardo says that the 500mm + Canon 20D focuses reliably, even under low light with a 1.4x teleconverter extender, and shows off a very sharp image of a Black-Crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax).

  3. It might be a good idea to tape over the IS and AF controls if using the 500mm on a monopod and walking with the lens on your shoulder. This prevents accidental switching of the controls.

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