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The Canon 800mm f5.6 for Action and Behaviour Bird Photography

by Ofer Levy | February 14, 2014

© Ofer LevyI have always been fascinated with wildlife in general and birds in particular. I started photographing birds more than 30 years ago using an Olympus OM-1 film camera and an Olympus 300mm lens.

My journey into the digital era started with the Canon 10D and the Canon 400mm f5.6, and during the following 10 years I owned and extensively used most of Canon’s long telephoto lenses; 300mm f2.8 L IS, 500mm f4 L IS, 600mm f4 L, IS.

Adult bird with young in water © Ofer Levy

In recent years my interest has matured to capturing action and behaviour shots rather than static portraits. To be able to capture birds’ action and behaviour you usually have to have enough focal length to cover a large area as it is not always possible to predict where the action/behaviour is going to take place. Using a long telephoto lens like the 800mm (1120mm with the x1.4 teleconverter) enables you to do exactly that. When using a shorter lens you need to be very lucky to have the action take place close enough for you to get high-quality files rather than heavily cropped low-quality files.

Bird with catch © Ofer Levy

Another very important thing to consider is that working with long focal lengths such as the 800mm/1120mm enables me to keep enough distance from the birds, allowing them to continue their normal behaviour instead of keeping an eye on me.

Bird in motion © Ofer Levy

After reading many excellent reviews about the Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS and seeing some beautiful images captured with it, about two years ago I decided to bite the bullet and invest in this amazing lens. I can definitely say this is exactly what I needed! It is excellent optically, has a beautiful bokeh, focuses fast, has great image stabilization, and works beautifully with the Canon x1.4 teleconverter. It is heavy, but not as heavy as the old Canon 600mm f4 L IS that was, and is still so popular. To put things into perspective, the Canon 800 f5.6 weighs 4.500 KG—580gr heavier than the new Canon 600 f4 L IS II and 860gr lighter than the old Canon 600 f4 L IS.

Falcon portrait © Ofer Levy

I couldn’t use the old 600 f4 without a tripod but I do use the Canon 800 f5.6 handheld very often. Obviously the biggest advantage of this lens is the reach. I often use it without a converter (especially with the 1.3 crop sensor Canon 1D IV) or with it if I feel the Canon 5D 3 (full frame) is good enough for the job with its limited 6 frames per second but with its better image quality and ISO performance.

Shorebird with prey © Ofer Levy

When I use the 1.4 converter I usually stop down one stop in order to improve the sharpness. My normal working distance when using this lens is 15–30 meters depending on the size of the subject and how close it lets me get to it. Even from such a big distance I don’t usually have to crop much and end up with good quality files.

Bird in flight © Ofer Levy

Another great advantage of this lens is the fact that it’s not too heavy to be used without a tripod. I often use it for flight shots, such as the above Peregrine Falcon, and many of the photos that involve stalking.

Crab on sand © Ofer Levy

Since the release of the new Canon 600 f4 L IS II, I have read and heard from a few highly experienced photographers that this lens is at least as good as the Canon 800mm f5.6, even when coupled with teleconverters, in both image quality and the autofocus accuracy and response. Since I have never used the new Canon 600 f4 L IS II, I cannot comment on these observations. According to these sources the new Canon 600 f4 L IS II performs that well only on the new Canon bodies, the 1DX and the 5DIII and when the type III converters are used.

Bird behavior © Ofer Levy

It would be interesting to see some more field experiments which will compare those two lenses in real life situations. To sum up, I LOVE the Canon 800 f5.6 L IS. It is a fantastic lens for birds/small animals, particularly if one is interested in action and behavioural photography.

About the Author

Ofer Levy is a Sydney based professional wildlife/bird photographer and instructor. He is a BBC/Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Nature's Best Windlan Smith Rice prize winner as well as ANZANG Nature overall winner (2007 and 2011). His photos have been published by numerous magazines internationally and have been used in many books, public exhibits, calendars, and other projects. The Australian Museum in Sydney is showing 16 of Ofer's bird images in a special exhibition, which runs through January 2015. As a former science teacher with a master's degree in science, Ofer offers wildlife and bird photography workshops in Australia's most exciting locations.

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