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Canon recrafting supertelephoto lens lineup

A major lens overhaul yields two new supertelephoto lenses and two prototypes. The SLR powerhouse clearly wants to keep pro shooters from defecting to Nikon.

Canon prototype 500mm and 600mm F4 lenses
Canon prototype 500mm and 600mm F4 lenses Canon

Just after Canon announced second-generation 300mm and 400mm telephoto lenses for its SLRs, the Japanese camera maker also said Friday that it will show prototypes of revamped supertelephoto lenses with 500mm and 600mm focal lengths.

The new Power Focus (PF) mode on Canon's 300mm and 400mm f2.8 lenses is designed to ease video focusing.
The new Power Focus (PF) mode on Canon's 300mm and 400mm f2.8 lenses is designed to ease video focusing. Canon USA

The two prototypes, officially called the EF500mm f/4L IS II USM and EF600mm f/4L IS II USM, are second-generation successors to the current products introduced in July and September 1999, respectively. They'll be on display at the Photokina show in Cologne, Germany, later in September, at which the spotlight shines brightly on high-end gear.

Canon was characteristically reserved about the prototypes, saying release dates and specifications haven't been decided, but the company appears to be applying the similar revisions that it brought to the 300mm and 400mm lenses: better image stabilization, better image quality, and lighter weight.

"The EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM and EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM are being developed as L (Luxury)-series lenses equipped with a high-performance image stabilization system," Canon said. "Employing fluorite and other special optical materials to correct for a variety of aberrations, the lenses aim to realize high-resolution, high-contrast imaging performance in a lighter-weight body design."

This major overhaul of the telephoto line demonstrates Canon's desire to retain its clout with professional photographers in the face of a significant competitive threat from the other SLR giant, Nikon. The 300mm and 400mm supertelephoto lenses are typically used by sports photographers who need to shoot close-ups of moving athletes with fast shutter speeds; the 500mm and 600mm models often are used to photograph distant wildlife without spooking them.

Canon has catered to professionals for decades, but there's a new twist now: videographers and cinematographers who want the image quality and low-light performance available with new SLR video. Canon's first video SLR, the EOS 5D Mark II, introduced in 2008, came with video as something of an afterthought, but the growing use by low-budget moviemakers and others is opening a significant new higher-end market beyond photojournalists and studio photographers to Canon.

Canon's new 300mm and 400mm lenses are substantially lighter, in part through use of fluorite optical elements.
Canon's new 300mm and 400mm lenses are substantially lighter, in part through use of fluorite optical elements. Stephen Shankland/CNET

One interesting feature in the EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lenses is the inclusion of what the company calls Power Focus (PF) mode. When the mode is switched on, the playback ring usually used to move the lens to a preset focus point instead adjusts focus--smoothly and silently, Canon said. That helps with higher-end video setups when the camera is mounted to a rack; moving the ring farther changes the focus from a low-speed to a high-speed change.

The move is significant, given how lenses traditionally have been designed for still photography. The Canon EF 24-105mm lens, for example, travels somewhat awkwardly through its zoom range if its focal length is adjusted during video. And Canon's 100-400mm lens, which gets longer as it extends to 400mm, also is all but guaranteed to wobble significantly if it's zoomed during video capture.

Also for videographers, the image stabilization system in the 300mm and 400mm lenses is quieter, to intrude less in audio. The IS function thus far often makes a noticable buzzing or ticking noise on Canon lenses.

Of use to all photographers is lighter weight. In part by dropping two ultra-low dispersion glass elements and one fluorite element in favor of two fluorite elements, the new 300mm and 400mm lenses are 8 percent and 28 percent lighter than their predecessors. That's a big deal for photographers who must both carry these lenses and also handle them.

Other changes include a sharper image, less chromatic aberration, and better contrast, Canon said--optical improvements at the heart of any lens. New lens coatings also are added: oil- and water-repellent fluorine on outside surfaces, and sub-wavelength structure coating (SWC) internally to reduce ghosting and flare that can mar images taken when the lens is pointed toward bright light sources.

What hasn't improved is the price--more than a reasonable used car at about $7,000 and $11,000, respectively, for the new 300mm and 400mm models. The new 500mm and 600mm lenses are in the same ballpark; to see one reason why, check this Canon video showing painstaking manual labor assembling the current 500mm F4 lens.

Canon also introduced two other lenses of note this week--both new additions to the premium L-series lineup with features such as weatherproofing and a durable design.

Canon's EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens
Canon's EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens Canon USA

First is the EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens. On a full-frame camera, the higher-end models with sensors the 24x36mm size of a frame of 35mm film from days of yore, this lens will cover a full 180-degree circular view. On a more mainstream crop-frame camera with a smaller sensor and narrower field of view, the 180-degree span only is reached from one corner to its diagonal opposite, Canon said.

Fisheye lenses let people photograph extremely wide-angle views with a curved perspective that bows parallel lines outward. Previously Canon had a 15mm fisheye lens, but it had a fixed focal length and wasn't an L-series model. The new model will cost about $1,400 when it goes on sale in January.

Second is the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens, which covers a broader range than most higher-end telephoto zooms. However, its aperture is a narrow f5.6 when fully zoomed out, somewhat limiting the amount of light that reaches the image sensor. This model will cost about $1,500 starting in October.

Canon's EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens
Canon's EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens Canon USA

Finally, Canon introduced two third-generation telephoto extenders, which multiply a lens' focal length by a factor of 1.4 and 2.0 at the expense of reducing light by one or two f-stops, respectively. Canon said the new models, in addition to getting the easy-cleaning fluorine coating and rubber gaskets for weatherproofing, provide better image quality. That's something of a bugaboo for telephoto extenders, which can worsen chromatic aberration.

Again, though, the new gear doesn't come cheap: the Canon Extender EF 1.4x III & Canon Extender EF 2x III will cost about $500 when they go on sale in December, Canon said.