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The Mother of all Telephotos

Canon only made a handful of these puppies and we got one!

By Allan Weitz

If you're into bird watching, the holy grail would have to be the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, a huge (20" tall with a 30" wingspan), yet incredibly elusive woodpecker that despite reports of extinction, is spotted every now-and-then deep in the boonies of Florida and Arkansas. It's also known as the 'Lord G-d' woodpecker because that's what spotters have been known to blurt out - often accompanied by soiled trousers - when dive-bombed by one. 'Lord G-d' has also been exclaimed - minus the soiled trousers - by those seeing a Canon 1200/5.6L USM for the first time. At 36lbs, 33" long and 9" wide at the front element, calling this lens a 'tele' is like calling King Kong a monkey.

Photo Credit : Henry Posner

The Canon 1200/5.6L USM (priced at $120,000... and if you live out of state we don't need to charge you tax!) has been built on a special-order basis since 1993, and the ‘official word’ is there are "more than twelve, less than twenty" of them in existence. With a price tag equivalent to a pair of his-and-her sports coupes, they were produced at the rate of about 2-per-year and a delivery time of about 18 months. National Geographic magazine, Sports Illustrated, Canon Professional Services, and a few well-heeled enthusiasts are counted among the fortunate few who own these unique optics. A box of donuts says the Feds probably have a few squirreled away somewhere, but this is something we can neither confirm nor deny. What you get for your money is a monster lens with an angle of view of about 2° on a full-frame 35 mm camera.

For the record, the Canon 1200/5.6L USM contains 13 elements (including 2 Fluorite) in 10 groups, stops down to f32, and has a minimum focus of 45.9'. As for filtration, 48 mm drop-in filters can be inserted towards the aft section of the lens barrel. And before you start kvetching 'it's not an IS lens' keep in mind this hefty pup demands the sturdiest tripod and pan/tilt head you can muster up. An EOS Mark III mounted on this thing looks like a rear lens cap with handle bars. Folks, we're talking big here… really big.

To facilitate a measure of user-friendliness, a center-balanced, rotating handle / tripod collar assembly was smartly designed into lens barrel. If for whatever reason you prefer using a ball-head, make sure you have a firm hand on the lens handle before you loosen anything because the results can be painful in more ways than one.

Upper West Side Manhattan- About a mile away

Shooting with a 1200 mm lens is not a casual affair. The reinforced aluminum case is heavier than the lens and requires a wheelie cart to get around. For negotiating curbs, stairs, and cargo bays there are rubber-padded handles on three sides of the case. If you have visions of slinging this baby over your shoulder and going a stroll along the promenade be advised it ain't happening. And remember... lift with your knees.

The viewfinder is surprisingly bright, and though somewhat sluggish as compared to the latest-generation Canon EF lenses, the 1200 was usually able to nail the focus on the first pass. The hard part is figuring out what you’re focusing on because the angle of view is so narrow. If you’re not familiar with the landscape you’ll find yourself peering out over the top of the camera every so often trying to figure out what you’re looking at.

As for image quality, even wide open it's quite lovely. Stopped down to f/8 and f/11 it's actually quite remarkable. How remarkable? From midtown Manhattan we were able to read the street signs on the corner of JFK Boulevard East and 43rd St. in Weehawkin New Jersey when viewing image files at pixel resolution. It's important to keep in mind when you are shooting images of objects literally a mile away or further you start contending with haze, smog, and heat radiation that can greatly diminish the image quality of the best optics, especially during warmer months. Even on a cold, clear winter day we were able to detect heat distortions in some of the photos.

Field of View looking north with 50mm lens. Color detail shows field of view of 1200 mm lens
Actual photo through 1200mm lens of buildings 20 blocks north of 35th Street and Ninth Avenue
Rooftops in Hell's Kitchen... About half a mile
Weehawken, NJ as seen from Midtown... About two miles away

A few details of the above image at pixel resolution

Need something longer? A Canon Extender EF 1.4x boosts the beast up to a 1680/8, and the Canon Extender EF 2x will get you to a 2400/11. For what it's worth, if you couple this lens to a Rebel XTi or EOS 40D you end up with the 35mm-equivalent of 1920/5.6, a 2688/8 with a 1.4x extender, and a 3840/11 with a 2x extender. If you need to focus any tighter to your subject you'll have to hop a plane and fly there.

Apart from a few very minor cosmetic blemishes, this lens is tight and extremely clean inside and out. Included with this lens is a leather slip-on 'lens cap', a fitted aluminum shipping case, and a prodigious measure of ego satisfaction.

And how much will this honey set you back? A cool $120,000. But keep in mind we guarantee you’ll be the first and only one on your block to own one of these awesome creations. Operators are standing by.

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