When I’m photographing wildlife, one issue almost always comes up: I’m not close enough. The Canon RF 1200mm f8 L IS USM feels like a cross between a camera lens and a telescope. 1200mm puts a lot of distance between me and skittish wildlife. Very few lenses on the market reach like this Canon 1200mm lens. And when it comes to wildlife, sports, or even photographing the moon, that reach has big implications.
Of course, the Canon RF 1200mm f8 L costs an arm and a leg. And, with the hood attached, it actually is a leg — or at least is the size of one of my legs. It’s nearly two feet long and weighs more than seven pounds. That big reach is also made partially possible by a narrower f8 aperture. Is the Canon RF 1200mm f8 L worth the high cost and heavy load? I took this massive lens out birding to answer that question.
Table of Contents
The Big Picture
The Canon RF 1200mm f8 L captured some of my best wildlife photography yet. While it’s an f8 lens, the 1200mm focal length delivers sharp subjects that melt away into, yes, incredible bokeh. Despite the f8, backgrounds melt like butter. While higher ISOs are needed on the right camera body, those higher ISOs are no big deal. Stabilization is even good enough to handhold this lens, just not for long periods. As an L series lens, the Canon RF 1200mm is also weather-sealed and built to last.
But, the Canon RF 1200mm f8 is massive. Yes, it’s lighter than what a 1200mm DSLR lens would weigh, but that doesn’t make the 7.3-pound lens any easier to carry. I had to take the hood off if I wanted to walk with it, and even then I often ended up balancing the weight on my shoulder instead. This lens is a better fit for sitting and waiting in a wildlife blind rather than hiking. It also doesn’t have an aperture advantage over using the RF 600mm f4 lens with a 2x teleconverter. The price will also leave this lens out of reach for many photographers, though I easily see this being a rental favorite for those once-in-a-lifetime shoots.
Overall, it’s an impressive lens that does what very few optics can accomplish. I think the photographers prepared for both its price point and massive size will love the reach of the 1200mm lens.
I’m giving the Canon RF 1200mm f8 L IS USM four out of five stars. Want one? You can buy it from Adorama.
- Beautiful images
- Awesome reach
- Lots of bokeh to be had
- Good character coming from that reach and the occasional flare
- Great stabilization
- It’s more than seven pounds and nearly two feet long
- A $20k price point
- The f8 means using higher ISOs (not an issue on the R3, but could be on other camera bodies)
I used the Canon RF 1200mm f8 L with the:
The lens is a two-week rental generously provided by LensRentals. The camera body is on loan from Canon.
Is there even another modern 1200mm lens on the market? The Canon RF 1200mm f8 L has an exceptional reach few camera systems can achieve without using a teleconverter. But, Canon is re-using the front-end optics from the RF 400mm and 600mm L series lenses here. Rather than reinventing the wheel, Canon is taking some excellent L series glass and adding in a few more pieces to extend the reach.
The Canon RF 1200mm f8 L is a monster of a lens. If I attach the lens hood — which is bigger than my face — and let it dangle from the R3 strap, I only have a few inches before this lens reaches my toes. Granted, I’m 5’ 2” on a good day, but hauling this lens around is no easy feat. Even hiking a mere mile with this lens left me wishing for a wagon. Can you hike with this lens? Sure, but you’ll want a chiropractor when you are done. It’s much more conducive to sitting in a wildlife blind with a tripod than hiking.
It weighs 7.3 pounds and is just over 21 inches long. But, that weight and size are rather expected for a huge 1200mm telephoto reach. It’s only a pound heavier than the RF 400mm f2.8, and it has three times the reach.
The Canon RF 1200mm has that classic Canon telephoto look, down to the white color. The first item from the lens mount is an insert for 52mm drop-in filters since filters at the front of the lens would have to be the size of a salad plate.
The first set of controls is for focus. The autofocus, power focus, and manual focus switch sits above a focus limiter switch.
Just after the lens begins to widen is a tripod collar. Next to that is another control bank. This one houses stabilizer mode switches, focus preset controls, and a manual focus speed control option. The focus preset controls allow you to set a focus point and return to it by pressing the button. That can be helpful with a lens with 1200mm reach yet the ability to focus as close as 14.1 feet away.
Next up are the rings. There’s a large, grippy black ring for manual focus. The thinner, white ring is an electronic power focus ring with custom speeds that can be used to switch between two focus presets. Inlaid into a strip of grippy texture sit four buttons. These are all focus stop buttons; there are only four so you can access them from multiple shooting positions.
This lens ships with a giant hood and a cloth lens cap. And, since finding a camera bag for a two-foot lens is a challenge, a dedicated lens bag with a single sling-style strap is also included.
As an L-series lens, the Canon RF 1200mm is weather-sealed. Was I nervous about taking a $20k lens into the rain? Sure. But I did, and it held up just fine in light rain.
The lens is already more than seven pounds, and it’s plastic, not metal. But, it doesn’t have a cheap, plasticky feel. It has the sturdy feel of a high-end, weather-sealed lens.
A 1200mm lens is a lot of glass to move. When shooting wildlife, the 1200mm noticeably struggled more than the 600mm and the 400mm RF lenses. But, this was expected. With that reach, the lens has a lot of different focal points to choose from. Do you want to focus on this branch? That one? The focus limiter switch and focus preset option are a big help here, but I really can’t imagine using this lens for wildlife without animal eye AF. With such a big reach, there could be 20 branches at the focal point that I’ve selected, and the only easy way to use autofocus is animal eye AF.
I felt the 1200mm delivered more soft shots than the 400mm or the 600mm. There were a handful of birds that the lens just couldn’t focus on before they took off. But it still had a pretty good hit rate for wildlife because the R3’s animal eye AF is amazing. The R3’s higher-than-average hit rate meshes with the lower-than-average difficulty of focusing a 1200mm to deliver plenty of sharply focused photos.
Photographing with 1200mm focal length resulted in some soft shots, but there were still plenty of keepers. With my dog heading straight toward the camera, just under 80 percent of the shots were sharp. Most of the soft shots were just out of focus, focusing on the back or ears rather than the eyes. I probably could have shared them on Instagram because, if I didn’t look at 100 percent, they looked almost sharp. Very few were wildly out of focus.
Ease of Use
1200mm gets in close, so close it’s often hard to find exactly where you need to point the lens. Photographing larger birds like a blue heron was fairly easy. But there were times I could see the songbird I wanted to capture, but couldn’t find it with the lens before it flew away. If the bird is in some nondescript part of a tree, it can be challenging to sort through the branches at 1200mm and find it. It’s much simpler if the bird lands on an easily identifiable branch or on the edge of something. But, alas, I was photographing birds and not robots.
The lens also has a lot of controls. It’s not for beginners — not that a $20k lens ever is. But those controls help simplify the shots once you have the time to learn where each one is and what each one does. The focus preset options are common on these big telephotos, but if you’ve never used an RF telephoto lens before, you’ll need a tutorial to get started. That and learning to use the focus limiter switch without pulling your eye from the viewfinder will go a long way in making this lens easier to use and increasing your focus hit rate.
The other challenge to using this lens is simply its size. It’s not easy to hike with this lens and also carry a monopod. It’s better suited for sitting in a wildlife blind or standing in one spot on the sidelines of a sports game.
Surprisingly though, it’s totally possible to shoot this 1200mm lens handheld, provided you have halfway decent upper body strength. It’s equipped with four stops of stabilization. And, combined with the fact that a lens with this kind of reach is typically used for sports and wildlife that require fast shutter speeds anyway, camera shake didn’t ruin many of my shots at all. I even took this shot at 1/250s, though this was a semi-sharp shot among a series of soft ones after forgetting to check the shutter speed:
While it’s possible to shoot handheld, it’s not very comfortable. I used this lens handheld to quickly point at a bird and take a few shots. But, when I observed birds for longer stretches while waiting for something interesting to happen, using a monopod or fence railing to rest some of the weight on was a must. If you want to get shots of birds catching a fish or flying, you’ll want a monopod.
I tried really hard to find something wrong with these images, because I don’t want to lust after a $20k lens that’s out of my price range. But, except for the fact that an f8 requires higher ISOs, the images from the Canon RF 1200mm are very lovely. The background literally melts away on closer subjects, while further off still gets some nice bokeh. And there’s not much to complain about as far as aberration or other unwanted oddities.
Yes, it’s an f8 lens, but that 1200mm reach makes up for the narrower aperture. On the close end of the lens’ focal capabilities, the background literally melts away into a solid color:
On further subjects, points of light are rendered into big, round bokeh balls:
Occasionally, really bright light sources can create bokeh that has a soap bubble look:
The 1200mm reach makes that background feel super close.
Color from the Canon RF 1200mm was right in line with the 400mm and 600mm L series lenses. With good exposure, colors feel true to the scene, yet have just enough saturation to add some contrast. The only images I really felt the need to color edit were either not properly exposed in-camera or were lit by tinted light filtering through yellow leaves.
The character to this lens comes largely from the 1200mm focal length. That reach brings the background in close, in some cases even rendering everything behind it to a solid color.
That’s not the only source of character, however. Directed at the sun, this lens produces a soft, blooming flare. There are no ghosting spots to this flare, rather just soft white. However, it is difficult to use the flare as a highlight on the edge of the frame with that long focal length. Finding a balance between flare to add character and flare that obliterates contrast is a challenge.
I have no complaints here. As an L lens, this lens has excellent sharpness. Subjects are sharp, but not too sharp. Even when photographing birds placed at the edge of the frame, the subjects are still sharp.
Extra Image Samples
From day one, The Phoblographer has been huge on transparency with our audience. Nothing from this review is sponsored. Further, lots of folks will post reviews and show lots of editing in the photos. The problem then becomes that anyone and everyone can do the same thing. They’re not showing what the lens can do. So we have a section in our Extra Image Samples area to show edited and unedited photos. From this, you can make a decision for yourself.
Who Should Buy It?
Few photographers can afford a $20k lens. And the Canon RF 1200mm may not be for everyone among those who can. The big question here is if that hefty build and big price point are worth the long reach and those lovely images.
The first question to answer to determine whether the 1200mm is a good fit is to compare this lens to the 600mm with a teleconverter. The design of the RF 1200mm feels very much like the RF 600mm and RF 400mm. In fact, Canon says it uses “the same front-section optical design” as the EF 600mm and RF 600mm f4 L lenses. Canon has basically added in some extra glass to get that long reach, but some of the lenses are the same as the 400mm and 600mm.
Using a teleconverter typically leaves a narrower aperture, but with the f8 on the 1200mm, that’s not the case. Teleconverters often take a hit in autofocus performance, however. I can’t say if that’s the case with Canon’s 2x without hands-on testing. Some say there’s little impact on autofocusing, and some say there’s a noticeable slowdown. You also can’t mix the 600mm with two teleconverters, where you can still add a teleconverter to the 1200mm, which would take it to 1680mm f11 or 2400mm f16. On the flip side, carrying the 600mm and a teleconverter will be lighter and more affordable.
The second question to answer is how you typically shoot. Yes, the Canon RF 1200mm f8 is “lightweight” compared to other 1200mm lenses, but it’s still massive. This lens is ideal for sitting in a wildlife blind or standing in one spot for a sporting event. It’s difficult to hike without stashing it back in its backpack.
There isn’t much like the Canon RF 1200mm f8L on the market. Even the reach of a Micro Four Thirds sensor can’t get that far without a telephoto — OM System’s longest lens is 300mm. The lens captures beautiful images of far-away subjects. But you’ll pay for those images in both the list price and visits to the chiropractor.
Want one? Pick up the Canon RF 1200mm lens at Adorama.
LensRentals lists the following specifications for the Canon RF 1200mm f8:
- Angle of View: 2° 5’
- Aperture Blades: 9, Rounded
- Autofocus: Autofocus
- Brand: Canon
- Compatibility: Full Frame
- Filter Size: 52.0mm
- Filter Type: Drop-In
- Focal Length: 1200.0-1200.0
- Hood Included: Yes
- Image Stabilization: Yes
- Item Type: Lens
- Lens Type: Supertelephoto
- Maximum Magnification: 0.29x
- Mfr. Model Number: 5056C002AA
- Minimum Focusing Distance: 14.1feet
- Mount: Canon RF
- Optical Design
- Groups/Elements: 18/16
- Ultra-Low Dispersion Elements: 1
- Super UD Elements: 1
- Fluorite Elements: 2
- Dimensions (ø x L): 6.6 × 21.1″
Weight: 7.3 lbs.
- Tripod Collar: Fixed and Rotating
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