Canon FD 500mm f4.5 L Vintage Lens and the Sony A7 II

The Canon FD mount had some great lenses.  The Canon FD 500mm f4.5 is no exception.  Let’s see how this lens performed in some real world applications.

Since mirrorless cameras hit the market, these vintage lenses could be adapted to modern digital cameras fairly easily and produce some really amazing images.  Follow the link for more about vintage lenses and and my top pros and cons.

Canon FD Mount and the 500mm f4.5 History

image of the vintage Canon FD 500mm f4.5 adapted to the Sony A7 II

The Canon FD 500mm f4.5 mounted on the Sony A7 II digital camera.

The FD mount was created and used on Canon’s 35mm film cameras starting in 1971.  The mount was used for multiple decades and as a result there are many FD lenses around to be used.  The FD mount was replaced with the EF mount which is still in use today.

The Canon FD 500mm f4.5 L was first announced in 1979 and was first used in the 1980 Moscow Olympics.  It was their flagship of the FD lens lineup and considered a very sharp lens even today.

For more detail about the FD lens mount there is a Canon Wiki Page you can visit.

The viewpoint of this review is based on real world experience. I mounted the 500mm f4.5 on the Sony A7 II and set out looking for everyday photography situations where this lens should be used.  I’m not going to go into MTF charts, perfect scenarios in the studio, etc.  I want to provide a review of how my copy of the lens handled while using it.

California Poppies shot with a Canon FD 500mm f4.5 vintage lens on a modern digital Snony A7 II

Poppies captured at f5.6 with a Canon FD 500mm vintage telephoto lens adapted to a modern digital camera. Note the extreme shallow depth of field.

Lets get into the lens review.

The Lens –

Size –

No super telephoto lens has ever been labeled as “small”.  The Canon FD 500mm f4.5 is no exception.  This lens is large!  The good news is it’s not too large or heavy compared to other Super telephoto lenses.  Below is a comparison of the the Canon FD 500mm vs the EF 500mm.  Note the the FD is actually smaller because it does not have any electronics.  It is noticeably lighter as well.

Canon FD vs EF 500 mm comparison

The Canon FD 500mm right next to the EF 500mm version 1. See that the FD is much narrower given it doesn’t have internal electronics.

For additional reference, check out the image below that from left to right shows the Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnar 300mm f4, Pentacon 500mm f5.6, and the Canon 500mm f4.5.  The Canon is much smaller than the 500mm medium format Pentacon. 

Zeiss Jena 300mm f4 size comparison to Pentacon 500mm and Canon 500mm

Left to right is the Zeiss Jena DDR 300mm f4, Pentacon 500mm f5.6, and the Canon 500mm f4 FD. This comparison shows just how large the 500mm is compared to these other lenses.

For additional spec information about this lens, visit the Canon Museum.

Mounted To The Modern Sony A7 II –

An adapter is needed to mount any of the vintage lenses to the modern, mirrorless, digital cameras, like the Sony A7 II.  There are many adapter options for the FD mount available and just about any quality made adapter will work.  Therefore, it is not an obstacle to using this lens on the Sony.  Once mounted, this lens does feel a bit hefty for this camera, but overall they handle well together.  This is a case though where you wish the Sony weighed a little bit more to balance against the lens a little better.

How the Canon FD 500mm Lens Performed –

The super telephoto 500mm vintage lens is designed to be good at reaching far away subjects.  This comes in handy for wildlife, or taking images of things far away that you can’t get close to.  Therefore, I went out in search of some birds to see how a manual focusing lens would do on moving subjects.

Another benefit of a super telephoto lens is it’s shallow depth of field.  The shallow depth of field really helps separate your subject from the background.  The Canon FD 500mm had great bokeh and was very good at separating the subject.

The Canon 500mm definitely produces sharp images when you get the focus correct.  The seagull below is a great example of what it is really capable of.  As you can see, the crop of the seagull’s head is super sharp, has great detail, and the color is great.

Seagull portrait showing how sharp wildlife images can be when you use this lens

Seagull portrait showing how sharp wildlife images can be when you use this lens.

Additionally, I took some images close to the studio to make sure this image would produce good images.  The below is a sign and crop that shows again how well this lens delivers.  The crop shows the detail of the screw holding up the sign.  It even shows the detail of a gauge in the red tape.  This is a lot of detail and sharpness for a lens that is forty years old.  As a result, I had confidence that this lens was good to work great.

Image of no parking sign to show the sharpness of the Canon FD 500mm cropped to a screw

This image cropped to show the detail of the screw. The FD 500mm is very sharp when used with a fast shutter speed and correct focus.

The image below of the light is a great example of just how much detail can be achieved with the Canon FD 500mm.  Note the spider webs just above the electrical plug.  This is a lot of fine detail. 

Work street light photograph showing cobbwebs extreme detail from vintage 500mm FD telephoto lens

Note the detail seen here with the spider webs just above the electrical plug. the Canon FD 500mm definitely takes sharp images with the correct focus.

Color and Contrast-

The colors the Canon produced was good.  The 500mm lens really shined taking photos of the California poppies that were in bloom.  The orange, yellow flowers really glowed against the green background of the foliage behind them.  The image above of the no parking sign also shows how well this lens handles red.

California Poppies photographed with the vintage Canon FD 500mm telephoto lens

Poppies captured at f11 with a Canon FD 500mm vintage telephoto lens adapted to a modern digital camera. Note the shallow depth of field even at f11.

This lens really excels at sunset with the golden sunlight.  Below is a seagull catching the last bit of the sun and the golden light is really picked up.

photograph of side lit seagull showing the Canon FD 500mm FD lens produces great color in the warm afternoon sun light.

The Canon FD 500mm FD lens produces great color and really does well with the warm afternoon sun light.

The contrast was really nice with the lens.  When processing the raw images, I added only a small amount of contrast to the images.  The slight increase in contrast was enough that the images didn’t need any sharpening.

Some Things That Weren’t Great –

Camera Lens Balance-

I have shot multiple super telephoto lenses for 35mm format, and even medium format.  A few of them have been fully manual like the Canon and some had auto focus.  A couple even had image stabilization.  While shooting with this lens camera combo I missed focus a lot.  After shooting with the Canon FD 500mm and the Sony multiple times, I really think it is the balance issue de to the weight of the lens vs the camera.  The camera is so small and lightweight it really does add some complexity to keeping the camera steady even mounted on a tripod.    Therefore, if you choose to use this lens camera combo, I highly recommend making sure you us a really high shutter speed consistently.  This also might be more the camera than the lens itself. 

It was too bad that this was the case, because when the focus was on the images were really nice and sharp.  As a result, I felt like I missed too many images to fully rely on the lens and camera.

Seagull showing missed focus using the manual Canon FD 500mm lens

Missed focus. Since this lens is manual do expect many missed shots when photographing move subjects.

Lack of auto focus –

Vintage lenses are amazing, and I really enjoy using them.  I even use most of my modern lenses in manual mode most of the time.  That said, I missed auto focus at this focal length.  Since the majority of the time I use this focal length for moving subjects auto focus is really helpful (but not required).  I find that I get many more usable images when I shoot the EF 500mm f4 and the the Canon 1Dx II.  Of course, that is a completely different price point, and I hate to use it as a comparison.  Actually, the EF 400mm f5.6 on the Sony is great and easy to walk around with.  Even with the need to crop a bit I would like the 400mm f5.6 before the FD 500mm, unless I’m doing something that requires a large print.

Enough of the small rant.  This lens was great and is very usable.

Conclusion –

  • Image quality is great when you hit focus.
  • Color rendition is as expected.
  • This lens has a lot of reach and is light enough to be mobility for wildlife.
  • The price is right.  Good copies of this lens can be found for under $1000 with the Canon lens case.  Since a new Canon 500mm costs $9000, this lens is a great value.
  • You won’t want to crop as much with this lens as newer lenses.  I have not tested this, but I’m guessing this lens does not have the resolution needed for the newer high megapixel cameras.
  • All manual.  Focusing, aperture all done manually.
  • Usable images really require high shutter speeds for sharpness.
  • This lens vignettes on the medium format digital cameras. 
Final Thoughts –

I really wanted to like this lens more than I did.  I spent years wanting a Canon great white and never had the funds.  When I got this lens I really hoped it would be more practical on the Sony mirrorless system.  The lack of weight on the Sony really hurt my thoughts about Canon FD 500mm f4.5.

The Canon FD 500mm f4.5 vintage lens is a fully capable lens at a great price.  If you are looking for a super telephoto lens on a budget this is a good lens to look at given the price vs the image quality.  I would also look at the EF 400 f5.6 as well.  It has auto focus and is much smaller. 

What are your thoughts?  Don’t forget to comment and tell me what you’re thinking.

Don’t forget to look at the images on my site in the galleries starting at:  Hopefully you find some of them inspirational for your own photography adventures, or maybe you find an image you want to call your own.

Additional Images –

Seagull portrait at the beach using the Canon 500mm Vintage Lens

Seagull Portrait.

Seagull portrait Cropped Close Upat the beach using the Canon 500mm Vintage Lens

Crop of Seagull Portrait. Note the great detail from this Vintage Lens.

image showing just how sharp the Vintage Canon FD 500mm can be when attached to the modern Sony digital camera.

No Parking sign showing just how sharp the lens can be when attached to the modern Sony digital camera.

top view of Canon FD 500mm mounted on the Sony A7 II

The Vintage Canon FD 500mm f4.5 mounted on the Sony A7 II digital camera.