Working on film sets I frequently get to see and work alongside some of the best cinematography equipment available today. It’s always comforting to see Arri, Cooke or Zeiss logos floating about the camera department.
I’m a grizzled old camera guy, having seen pretty much anything camera manufacturers can throw at me I don’t get excited by camera equipment very often. I could walk past cameras and lenses that cost many thousands of pounds without really thinking much of it.
However, there are certain lenses for stills cameras that are only spoken about in gasped, reverent tones. Lenses like the alien Nikon 6mm Fisheye lens, or the extraordinary LEICA 50mm f/1 NOCTILUX, that are so rare the photography average consumer will likely never see one face to face.
Today, courtesy of MPB Photographic, a second hand photographic supplier with whom I’ve purchased goods from before, I got to meet a very special beast. The Canon EF 1200mm f/5.6 L lens. A near mythical lens of which no more then 2 dozen are publicly known to be made. (Click any image to embiggen!)
Much like large format photography, there’s not very much concrete information about this lens floating about online, mostly ghostly rumours. So I hope to disperse the clouds of mystery, at least a little bit. Have a look at this beast!
Operating this lens very much echoes using cinematography cameras or my large format camera. You need to use it calmly and ideally planning what you’re shooting in advance. It might even behove the user to have a second person with them to help operation go a little bit quicker / more safely.
I like to get very close to the lenses I use. My Canon 50mm 1.2 L lens has certain characteristics which you need to understand to fully utilise it. If you fail to pay attention to those little quirks you can easily turn an awesome photo into something very underwhelming. The 1200mm lens appears to be no different. The telescopic view is so extreme that very few subjects are actually ideal for it’s usage, and like every other telephoto lens, it isolates the subject so much that a photo can appear context-less and isolated. Focusing is also clearly something that isn’t to be rushed with such a lens. Having only 10 minutes to fiddle with the lens meant that I didn’t get the time I’d like to understand the lens.
This is the 1200mm seen through a Full Frame Canon 1Dx, shot with a 50mm on a 7D. Just look at the power of that magnification! At 24 times more powerful than my 50mm lens, every movement of the lens creates extreme movements in the frame of the image, every vibration makes the image that little bit softer.
So just how good is this lens? Magnification isn’t everything! It could be soft!
The guys were kind enough to let me shove my camera on the lens and give it a quick test drive.
Here is a photo of the London Eye shot with my Canon EF 50mm 1.2 L lens on a 7D body.
Here is it shot with the Canon EF 1200mm f/5.6 L on the 7D.
Wow! This was shot from a good 200+ meters away! You can even read the warning label inside the capsule! (100 percent cropped image)
At these distances atmospheric distortion is a genuine concern, so the fact that I can read these words from such a long distance really is remarkable.
Next we turned the camera around and pointed it at Big Ben / The Elizabeth Tower. Here it is with the 50mm lens again.
Look where those guys are scaling it at the top there? Remember that spot, because damn, you’ll be lost otherwise. Here it is with the 1200mm lens.
I actually loudly exclaimed “Oh my God!” when I looked through the viewfinder for these images. I’ve never, in all of my days of hanging around the streets of London seen the clock face in such detail.
Finally, here is the view across the Thames again towards the old County Hall. With the 50mm on the 7D again.
See the “County Hall” signage? I eventually realised that’s where I pointed the camera at for the next photo.
Incredible levels of detail for a subject so far away, and yet I can’t help but feel that I was only scraping at the potential quality of the lens. If I was given time to familiarise myself with the optimal operation of the 1200mm lens, I would be able to make these photos much, much sharper. I would kill to have a couple of hours with myself and an assistant on a rooftop in Central London to really find out what I can bleed out of this colossal piece of glass. As long as the security services don’t think I’m trying to spy on someone!
What a beautiful monster!