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To get a little real-world insight on the use and provenance of the incredible Canon 1200mm f/5.6L EF USM Lens, we asked famed sports photographer Peter Read Miller, who probably used it as much as anyone, to reminisce about his experiences photographing with this lens.
Canon debuted the lens in time to cover the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, as a manual focus FD mount for the then new F1, and Miller remembers photographers who were not too interested in testing it shaking their heads. He didn’t try it at the time, but flash forward to the Barcelona, 1992, and the lenses had been retrofitted with an autofocus system and EF mount, and he used it extensively. He recalls that, due to the sheer weight of the lens and because tripods were not allowed, he had to rig a monopod with two Manfrotto clamps and attach it to a railing to support the lens. When I asked him for which sport it was most effective, his answer surprised me a bit: swimming. He explained that “swimming was outdoors during those games, so light was not a problem and the thing about swimming is—it’s kind of deceptive—you think you’re very close to the athletes but most of the time you are just seeing a head or arms, so it becomes a long-lens sport. Just to shoot someone on the block of a 50-meter pool, that’s an 800mm to a 1200mm right there.”
Using it for track and field was possible, but difficult, because you had to find a spot where you could “hunker down.” In general, this was the extent of its applications at the games: “You were pretty much limited to outdoor events because the maximum aperture was f/5.6. The autofocus was pretty good, and the thing about AF is that telephoto is often better because you are in on your one subject. When you are with a wide-angle, it can be hard to pick up your subject out of a group. But if a runner or a swimmer is coming toward you with that lens, it tracked focus well.”
At the time he was shooting for Sports Illustrated, and after the Summer Games, there was much interest in obtaining the lens. Miller remembers that Canon quoted a pre-production price of $27,000, but when Time magazine and Sports Illustrated combined to buy two newly produced lenses, the price was closer to $80,000 each. It took a year to make the new ones but, in the meantime, Time used one to cover the Ruby Ridge standoff in August 1992, and Miller requested one to shoot football. They had rolling cases custom made to travel with the lens and, because it was so heavy, they would air-freight it to games. Even when placed behind one end zone, he found the lens to be “too long” but “kinda fun,” and also recalled that the weight of the lens would often sink the monopod inches into the ground.
"...the weight of the lens would often sink the monopod inches into the ground."
For baseball, Miller found the lens more viable and, behind the centerfield fence you can use a tripod, so capturing shots of the batter filling the frame or the battery and umpire compressed proved effective. Shooting plays at second base was even possible with that focal length and, in this setting, the lens proved itself able to create images that no other lens could at the time. Many of Miller’s baseball shots taken with the 1200mm made their way into the pages of Sports Illustrated. He notes, “When you are in centerfield, you have a 400' tube of air and dust that you have to shoot through so you really need a clear day—haze could kill you. Also, baseball stadiums are built by design to be backlit for the batters and that can be fixed somewhat in digital but in film days… with the backlight, the haze, and dust from the diamond, it was a problem.” With football, the light might be better but it was difficult to follow the game. If you knew where a swimmer or runner was going you could lock and track but in football, where the point is to evade, it’s hard. And once you lost ’em, you lost ’em!”
With the onset of digital cameras and their 1.3x or 1.6x crop factor, the lens’s focal-length equivalent proved to be too long for most applications and Miller remembers trying it but having to be “out of the park” to frame any action. When Canon introduced a full-frame digital DSLR in 2004 and the focal length was again a straight 1200mm, the digital files were so good that using a 600mm or 800mm lens and cropping the image became more advantageous simply because the size of the 1200mm was difficult to manage. Miller recalls, “I could carry the lens but would also have to carry a large tripod, and that meant two trips, which just became too much. When I used it on a tripod it was just a big ol’ Gitzo and a substantial head; I didn’t have a gimbal or anything; that would have been too much extra weight. When I used it with a monopod it was just the monopod straight into the lens.” For football and baseball I always had an assistant, but at the Olympics the assistant could only come so far—then I was on my own. I’m a big guy, but that lens was a beast.”
Miller concluded, with a hint of melancholy, “But yeah, it was definitely an interesting lens.”