The Canon RF 800mm F/11 for Wildlife Photography

800mm - hooray!

F/11 - say what?

It is certainly not the most conventional or expected combination of focal length and maximum aperture but the new Canon RF 800mm F/11 piqued my interest from the very first moment I heard it was in the pipeline. I feel that many photographers have immediately dismissed this lens because of its maximum aperture of F/11 but, to be very honest, I was very excited by this and I'll share more on why a bit later.

In case you haven't heard much about this lens yet, here are some key specs:

  • Weight: 1260g
  • Maximum aperture: 11
  • Minimum aperture: 11
  • Minimum focussing distance: 6m

The Diffractive Optic (DO) design, along with the RF lens mount and a fixed, F11 aperture, helps make the RF 800mm F/11 an absolute pocket rocket. This lens weighs less than the 100-400mm MKII at 1380g and is a prime lens built specifically to shoot at 800mm and F/11.

 

This lens is built specifically for the EOS R range of mirrorless cameras and that is an important point because it is only as a result of the range of advantages of the mirrorless system that Canon have even been able to dream up such a crazy piece of kit (Don't forget there is also a RF 600mm F/11 lens).

canon-rf-800mm-f11

Autofocus at F/11

Do you remember the days when you were only able to achieve autofocus using a single centre point on a relatively new camera when shooting at a maximum aperture of F/8?

Or perhaps you even remember the days when you'd have to manually focus - the camera's AF system wasn't even capable of achieving focus at F/8?

With the Dual Pixel CMOS AF system featured in both the R5 and R6 the camera is not only able to achieve autofocus at F/11, but it gives you a pretty decent coverage in terms of the AF area, far more than just a single central AF point! Let that sink in for a minute.

Canon EOS R6 and RF800mm F:11 Viewfinder

Pretty impressive right?

What if I told you that both the 600mm F/11 and the 800mm F/11 were compatible with the both a 1.4x  (F/16) and 2x converter (F22) and that the AF area remained exactly the same as at F/11. If this doesn't excite you and give you an idea of just how rapidly technology has advanced in recent years then I don't know what will!

What About ISO Values needed to achieve decent shutter speeds?

Thats all very impressive but what sort of shutter speeds and ISO values would I be shooting at when shooting at F/11, 16 or 22?

It's a good question and one which you'll most certainly need to pay attention to BUT both the R5 and R6 bring a new level of performance at high ISO values. Take a moment to look at the ISO value in the bottom right hand side of the viewfinder screenshot above.

Thats right, ISO 102400 is a the maximum native ISO on the EOS R6 and whilst you certainly wouldn't want to play in this ISO range that often, its incredible to see what is possible on this new body.

I did an analysis of both the shutter speeds and ISO values for 1144 images taken on the Canon EOS R6 and RF800mm F/11 lens during a 7 night stay at Sabi Sabi Private game Reserve and found that 758 images (66%) were shot at an ISO value of between ISO2000 and ISO8000. 231 Images (20%) were taken at ISO values of between ISO 10000 and ISO 102400. Do keep in mind that I wanted to take a number of images at the highest possible native ISO of the R6 which is ISO102400.

An analysis of the shutter speeds showed that 835 images (73%) were shot at between 1/500 and 1/1250 of a second with 240 images (21% being shot at between 1/1600 and 1/5000.

So, what does this mean?

Well you're not wrong for thinking that you'll be shooting at higher ISO values than you're accustomed to when shooting off of the RF 800mm F/11 - after all, it is 800mm and F/11! The important question here is whether ISO 8000 that you know and despise on your DSLR is the same on the R5 and R6?

I'll share more on this when I put together my views on both of the these bodies and which one you should be considering as a wildlife photographer but I can tell you with absolute certainty that you're going to need to change the way you view image quality from images captured at higher than usual ISO values.

Depth of Field and Subject Separation

Depth of field is one of the key variables that we as wildlife photographers use to tell stories. It allows us to create a separation between our subject and the background and guide the viewers eye to key parts of the frame which are essential for us to tell a story. Thats probably why most people are looking at the maximum aperture of F/11 and thinking that this lens will not find a home in their camera bag.

Think again.

I found that I was able to create subject separation and create compelling compositions even with the limitation of 800mm and F/11.

Andrew Beck Canon EOS R6 RF800mm F-11-5

All of the foundations of photography will need to be called upon in order for you to get the most out of this lens. You'll need to understand that your effective depth of field or zone of acceptable sharpness) at any given aperture is reduced by increasing your focal length (from 400mm to 800mm for example) and by reducing the distance between the camera and the subject.

So, whilst the 800mm focal length may appeal to you because its going to help you photograph subjects at a distance, thats really not where you're going to get the maximum benefit of this piece of glass in the wildlife arena.

I shot almost exclusively at 800mm during a recent visit to Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve here in South Africa. This is a region where you'd typically not need more than 300mm or 400mm given the fact that you are able to venture off-road and get much closer to the wildlife of the region than you would in say for example, East Africa.

Being up close and personal with a range of subjects allowed me to see just how much use this lens would be and allowed me to shoot great examples of how one is easily able to achieve subject separation even at F/11 - when you know how to use it!

Andrew Beck Canon EOS R6 RF800mm F-11-17
Andrew Beck Canon EOS R6 RF800mm F-11-16
Andrew Beck Canon EOS R6 RF800mm F-11-14

Even without being THAT close to your subject there is still a fair amount of subject separation as you can see in this image of two male lions approaching head on.

Look, it's not the creamy bokeh and soft background that you'd expect fro a 400mm F2.8 but let us not forget that this is a lens that will cost around USD 900 or ZAR 20 000.

Andrew Beck Canon EOS R6 RF800mm F-11-8

Creative Photography

I've often found myself shooting at 800mm by combining a 400mm F2.8 MKII and 2X Converter with a maximum aperture of F/5.6. More often than not I am stopping down to get a bit more depth of field and end up shooting at around F/8-F/10. The reason for this is so that I can intentionally deconstruct the scene in front of me and create a slightly more biased interpretation of a scene.

Canon RF 800mm-3

I found the combination of focal length and maximum aperture on the Canon RF 800mm F/11 to be ideal for creating these more interesting images.

Andrew Beck Canon EOS R6 RF800mm F-11-18
Andrew Beck Canon EOS R6 RF800mm F-11-7

This style of photography may not come naturally to most - and perhaps thats because its traditionally only been accessible to those with the big guns like the 400mm F2.8 (which can be paired with a 2X converter ), the EF 600mm F/5.6 or the 800mm F/5.6. All of this represents a significant investment in L-Series glass for a very specific goal or objective.

The RF 800mm F/11 puts these kinds of full frame opportunities within the reach of even the most in-experienced of wildlife photographers and unlocks a whole new world of photographic opportunities and creativity.

If you're worried that 800mm may be too tight from time to time (lets be honest, who ever worries about having too much focal length) then don't forget just how easy it is to shoot two images and stitch them together in Lightroom like I have with this example.

Andrew Beck Canon EOS R6 RF800mm F-11-12

Bird Photography with the Canon RF800mm F/11

Understandably, bird photographers will probably be the most excited by this light weight, affordable 800mm lens. There's no doubt that the Canon RF 800mm F/11 paired with the R6 or R5 makes bird photography very exciting.

Wild Eye Andrew Beck Canon EOS R6 RF800mm F-11-10

The incredible AF capabilities of both the R5 and R6 will lock onto the eye of a bird with ease - yes, even at F/11 - and track with great accuracy. Pair the AF system with between 12 (Mechanical shutter) and 20 (Electronic Shutter) frames per second and you have a winning combination. Canon are still to confirm exactly how many frames per second you'll be able to achieve with which lenses as 20 fps with AF/AE tracking Applies to some RF/EF lenses, when the aperture is fully open and at a minimum of 1/1000 shutter speed.

I did find tracking, and sometimes composition, with the relatively restricted AF area a challenge from time to time but the autofocus of the R6 did a great job tracking subjects to the edge and even slightly beyond when I was able to react fast enough. The weight of the lens makes tracking at this focal length far easier than it would be if you were shooting with a 400mm and 2X converter.

Canon RF 800mm F-11 and 2X Converter-2
Andrew Beck Canon EOS R6 RF800mm F-11-11
Canon RF 800mm-2

Shooting at 1600mm at F/22

Now, earlier on in the post I mentioned that the RF 800mm F/11 was compatible with the RF 2X converter, transforming the lens into a whopping 1600mm but with a maximum aperture of F/22. I was a little taken aback by even thought of shooting at this focal length and maximum aperture but had to put it to the test.

Again, just to reiterate, the camera is able to achieve autofocus at F/22 and with the exact same AF area coverage as it does when at F/11.

 

Canon RF 800mm F-11 and 2X Converter-2
Canon RF 800mm F-11 and 2X Converter-5
Canon RF 800mm F-11 and 2X Converter

Look, its certainly not going to be your go-to focal length or aperture but lets appreciate the level of detail and the advances in technology that can even allow for images like this to be captured at F/22 with autofocus!

In Summary

Lightweight, powerful and compact with excellent image stabilisation for handheld shooting, the Diffractive Optic (DO) design, along with the RF lens mount and a fixed, F11 aperture, helps make the RF 800mm F/11 an absolute pocket rocket. I still cant get over the fact that it weighs less than the 100-400mm MKII!

This lens is bound to be a favourite amongst bird photographers and I would certainly recommend it as a key addition to any wildlife photographer's kit given the world of opportunities that it opens up. Many of the guests I host on safari travel across the globe and apart from the hassle of lugging heavy gear during the travels, many find the weight of lenses like the 400mm and 600mm range just too much to hold and work with whilst on a vehicle.

This lens is ideal for those who want to travel light but still have the freedom to express themselves through a more creative and intentional approach to wildlife photography.

All hail the RF 800mm F/11, a lens that would find a permanent home in my camera bag any-day!

Andrew Beck

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14 thoughts on “The Canon RF 800mm F/11 for Wildlife Photography

  1. Lew Abulafia

    says:

    Do you know if the image stabilization available for both the lens and the R5 or R6 bodies is cumulative? I have read recently for the first time that it wasn’t. The advantages that you have mentioned are great, but for me what is the image quality, say compared to a prime 600mm lens? Also what is the noise issue like at these high ISO numbers. I’m not interested at an 8×10 print level but more like a 36×24 print.
    Thanks for the post.

    • Andrew Beck
      says:

      Hi Lew

      My understanding of the IBIS and IS on lenses is that the camera will intuitively find the balance between the two. IBIS will obviously be the only variable at play with a non-IS lens whilst the greater the focal length, the greater the reliance on the lens IS will be over the IBIS. It’s a tricky one to wrap ones’ head around.

      I am not sure its fair to even compare a 600mm F4 prime to a 600mm or 800mm F/11 lens. They are miles apart in terms of their pricing, build quality and of-course, maximum aperture. What i can say is that for the price and convenience of having such a small compact lens giving you such great focal length and image quality – its a seriously great piece of kit.

      Yes, you will find yourself shooting at higher ISO values given the maximum aperture so this may not be your go to lens in low light situations where there is movement but, the performance of both the R5 and R6 at high ISO values keeps both of these lenses as viable options for the vast majority of the day in my opinion.

      as final note, i’d like to encourage you to think about the creative opportunities that a compact 800mm lens will afford you in the field rather than get too hung up on the technical and performance specs. This lens would have a permanent home in my camera bag.

  2. William Smiton

    says:

    You didn’t mention the 3° angle of view of the 800mm lens which makes picking up a bird in flight ( or indeed on a perch), quick tricky.

    • Andrew Beck
      says:

      Hi William, thanks so much for the comment.

      You’re right, I didn’t mention this. This sort of focal length certainly does make picking up birds in flight quite challengin. The 800mm RF is however a lot smaller, lighter and therefore more manoeuvrable. This, coupled with the AF capabilities, increases your chances of picking up a couple of tack sharp frames!

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment and I appreciate the feedback!

  3. Pete Croft

    says:

    Looks like a great portable package when combined with the R5, as long as you are aware of its limitations what’s not to like!
    I will be picking one up soon, combined with the 100-400ii or 100-500 rf you have a great mobile package!

    • Andrew Beck
      says:

      Quite right Pete!

      I had a guest on safari with me this past week with this exact combination on two R5’s and the variety of images she was able to create was astounding. That extra reach comes in so handy.

      Enjoy your purchase!

  4. Francois Malherbe

    says:

    Andrew. Are the RF 600 and 800 lenses compatible with DSLR cameras with an RF ADAPTOR or do you loose some features. Maybe its like marrying an elephant with a mouse!

    • Andrew Beck
      says:

      Unfortunately not Francois – the adapter is for EF lenses mounting onto the R system and not vice versa.

  5. Freek van Buul

    says:

    Thanx for the extensive review. I myself have to decide to buy a 2.0 mkiii extender for my 100-400 mkii OR the RF 800. It would be cheaper, the AF area is bigger and one can zoom (if not to 800mm it will also not be f/11.
    On the other hand, the RF 800mis light, a prime lens and dedicated mirror less lens.
    What would you favor in view of IQ (as in the end that is all that counts.

    • Andrew Beck
      says:

      Thanks for the comment Freek.

      If I’m not mistaken i think you would still be at 800mm and F11 with the 100-400 and 2X converter when fully extended to 400mm (800 with the TC). From what I have seen the IQ with this combo still delivers fantastic results and would offer a lot more versatility (200-800mm) than the fixed 800mm.

      I hope this makes sense and helps?

  6. Pieter Verster

    says:

    Hi Andrew, many thanks for the article.

    I really enjoy trying to take photos from land of pelagic (sea) birds and they are almost always far away. I currently try with a hybrid camera with 65X zoom with erratic success. (The small sensor usually results in poor performance in anything but great light)

    Im only really interested in taking pics of these birds for id purposes and was wondering if you think the 800 with 2X converter would be a good choice? These birds can be like 300m-2km out and as I say Im only interested to id them from the photo.
    Many thanks for any advice

    • Andrew Beck
      says:

      Hi Pieter

      Wow, talk about a very specific and extreme example. I think you’d realise a massive benefit from the 1600mm and AF performance even at F22. Keeping the subject in the frame whilst rocking and rolling on the ocean is a whole other challenge BUT you’d be experiencing that with the hybrid camera anyway. The short answer is yes, I do believe that the combination of AF, focal length and IBIS would benefit you and improve your hit rate with trying to photograph for ID’s under these circumstances.

      Good luck!

  7. Henry

    says:

    Hi Andrew thanks so much for this article so helpful! I am struggling with decision between R5 and R6. I am primarily interested in bird photography and have been shooting with R6/800 F11 for a couple weeks. But I can’t help feeling “pixel envy” of R5 and keep imagining that if it’s this good with R6… how much better with R5!? But wondering if this lens wouldn’t really take advantage of R5 that much anyway (need better optics?). Welcome your thoughts please on this.

    • Andrew Beck
      says:

      Hi Henry

      Thanks so much for the feedback and your kind words. I have it o good authority that the 800mm F/11 was developed with the R5 in mind and that you’ll be just as impressed with its performance on that body as your are with they way it performs on the R6 BUT, you’ll enjoy the added benefit of being able to crop to your hearts content!

      L series glass will always perform incredibly well on the R5 or R6 regardless of whether its EF or RF with the latter obviously having an upper hand given that it was developed specifically for the mirrorless range.

      I hope that helps!

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