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).

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.

 

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.

 

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!

 

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.

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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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

 

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.

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.

 

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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!

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