Canon has attempted to reinvent the super-telephoto lens with its lightweight, affordable RF 600mm F11 IS STM ($699.99). It’s one of a pair of lenses of this type you won’t find for any other camera system, the other being the even longer-reaching RF 800mm F11 IS STM. Its narrow angle of view brings distant subjects into close view, perfect for backyard birding and trips to the zoo, and its F11 aperture optics add appeal for backpackers who want to travel light, but still be able to snap shots of shy wildlife. It’s an intriguing lens, and its relatively low cost opens up the world of long glass to more photographers, but its quirky design may leave you wanting for a zoom.
Retracts for Storage
The RF 600mm uses a retractable design that measures just measures 7.9 by 3.7 inches (HD) closed and weighs just 2.1 pounds so it’s easy to stow in your backpack or camera bag. It must be extended to work, though: You’ll need to twist a locking collar, extend the barrel, and lock it back into place before your Canon EOS R mirrorless camera will be able to shoot with the lens. Fortunately, it’s a quick process.
With the lens extended, you’ll have about 10.6 inches sticking out from your camera when you use it. It’s not too bulky to hold, and there’s a standard tripod socket on the barrel that can be used as a mounting point for a sling strap or tripod quick-release plate.
It’s not as unwieldy to handle as its larger sibling, the RF 800mm F11 STM (11.1 to 13.9 by 4.0 inches and 2.8 pounds). The bigger lens has a narrower angle of view, so it magnifies subjects more effectively. The comparison above shows the difference between them (both images were taken from the same position).
As you’d expect from a budget lens, the build is mostly plastic. Canon uses quality polycarbonate rather than lightweight plastic, and finishes the barrel with a mix of rubber and leatherette. There’s no weather protection or anti-smudge fluorine like you get on L series glass like the premium RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM zoom.
The front element supports 82mm filters, useful to add a bit of extra protection when not using a lens hood. Canon doesn’t include a hood for the lens, but you can add one, the ET-88B, for $49.95.
The barrel has plenty of surface area, which Canon has used to add some very useful control switches. There’s a toggle to change between manual and autofocus, another to set the lens to focus across its full range or on distant subjects only, and a third to turn optical stabilization on or off.
The design includes a control ring, finished in silver to give the lens a bit of flair and provide a visual clue as to its location. The plastic has a rough diamond pattern, too, making it easy to find by touch. The ring clicks as it turns, and can be used to set EV, ISO, or any number of sundry functions. I kept it on EV compensation, which is very handy for adjusting exposure when working with backlit subjects.
The lens includes a manual focus ring, though we expect most who buy it to rely on autofocus. Even so, the manual focus experience is very useable. It offers a ramped response, so you can rack from near to far with a quick twist, or you can move it slowly for more precise shifts to focus.
Autofocus is quiet, but the STM motor is not quite as confident as the stronger USM motors used in high-end primes and zooms. You may notice the lens taking a moment to drive to hit focus, especially if you’re working in dim, challenging light. I ended up with a few more missed shots than I’d expect from the EOS R5’s best-in-class autofocus system, but still had plenty of keepers when trying to lock onto tiny songbirds. I even managed a couple action shots, aided by the R5’s fast burst rate.
While Canon’s mirrorless cameras can focus close to the edge of the frame with most lenses, the RF 600mm limits coverage to center of the frame, bordered by the white box. You’ll need to take care to keep your subject within those bounds.
The focus limiter switch can keep the lens set on distant subjects at least 39 feet (12 meters) from the camera. The lens doesn’t focus that close to start, to a minimum of 14.8 feet (4.5m), so I didn’t use it often for wildlife. It’s useful for other situations, though—if you’re photographing sports from the stands, you can turn it on to ensure focus is tuned to on-field action.
Macro focus is out, though. Even with the long focal length you’re getting a modest 1:7.1 life-size reproduction rating at the nearest focus distance. It’s an area where zooms excel over long primes. At $2,700, the Canon RF 100-500mm is priced too high for many consumers to consider, but focuses close enough for 1:3 macro results. The Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary is another good performer here, and more obtainable at around $1,100. You will need to use an EF-EOS R adapter to use it with an EOS R series camera; that will set you back another $100 if you don’t already have one.
Image stabilization is built-in, an especially important feature if you use a camera without IBIS, like the entry-level EOS RP. It promises five stops of correction and delivered in our tests. I netted consistently crisp handheld shots at 1/30-second when using the lens with the EOS R5.
Teleconverters are supported, too, but you’ll be limited to F16 and F22 (respectively) if you add the RF 1.4x or 2.0x extenders. They’re also expensive, at $500 and $600, respectively. I got good results with both, but had to push the ISO very high.
In the Lab
I used the RF 600mm with the 45MP EOS R5 in the field, and tested it with both the R5 and 30MP EOS R in the lab. The R5 is our standard test body for Canon lenses, but we recognize that more RP, R, and R6 owners are also likely to show interest in this lens.
On the 45MP R5, it delivers very good central resolution (3,500 lines). Off-center clarity isn’t as strong, so if you do have in-focus details at the edge of the frame they’ll be a bit soft. Results scale in a similar manner with the EOS R, with very good resolution in the center giving way to soft edges.
See How We Test Cameras and Lenses
There’s no aperture mechanism in the lens, so there’s no way to set the f-stop to anything other than f/11. You’ll still net plenty of background blur, especially if there’s some distance between the subject and backdrop. The quality of the defocused blur is pleasing, with generally circular highlights.
Your First Telephoto?
Give credit to Canon for trying something absolutely different with the RF 600mm F11 IS STM. It’s a telephoto lens with a slightly wacky extending design, ultra light optics, and stabilization. You’ll get sharper photos from pro lenses, as you’d expect. The Canon RF 100-500mm delivers excellent resolution from center to edge, but is priced too high for many hobbyists to consider.
Canon has made decided efforts to broaden the appeal of its full-frame system to photographers without big budgets. The EOS RP camera costs just $1,000, and the RF 600mm is certainly marketed along the same lines. It’s the telephoto complement to the affordable RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 zoom and RF 50mm F1.8 prime.
If you’re just coming into the system and want to try a long lens for trips to the zoo, walks in the woods, or simply to get some action shots at your kid’s little league game, the RF 600mm snaps the type of photos you can’t manage with your phone or a standard zoom. And because it’s more manageably sized, we like it a bit more than the similar RF 800mm.
There are some drawbacks to think about, though. The limited scope of focus coverage is the big one, requiring you to keep your subjects centered. The narrow F11 aperture is the other—it keeps the optics lightweight, but means you should stick to shooting under bright, sunny skies.
There’s more here to like than not, especially for photographers who don’t need the results of multi-thousand-dollar telezooms. If you put an emphasis on packing light, and don’t have an adapter to use Canon SLR lenses with your mirrorless camera, the RF 600mm could be ideal for you.
If you’re able to budget a bit more, and don’t mind adding the $99 EF-EOS R adapter to your kit, consider the Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary as an alternative. It earned our Editors’ Choice when we reviewed it in 2015, and it remains a top value all these years later. The Sigma is heavier and more expensive—it’s on sale for $900 at press time—but we think it’s worth it.
Thanks to Lensrentals for providing teleconverters for this review.