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Review – Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM

The Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS USM is a behemoth of a lens. This is considered to be a staple workhorse for many outdoor portrait artists, journalists, and sports shooters alike. The metal lens barrel houses a considerable amount of glass and electronics to provide a constant f/2.8 large-aperture opening from wide to tele-focal length. Let’s get the specs out of the way first:

Image Courtesy of Amazon.com

Image Courtesy of Amazon.com

From Canon USA

Offering improved performance in many areas over its predecessor, the EF 70-200 2.8L USM, this new lens features Image Stabilizer technology, improved auto-focus performance and high levels of dust and moisture resistance. The new lens, with its enhanced performance and Image Stabilizer technology, is sure to set the benchmark for professional level telephoto zoom lenses.

L-series lens design offers exceptional optical performance and low distortion throughout the zoom range utilizing 4 UD elements and Super Spectra Coating in the optical system. Inner focus design with Ultrasonic Motor (USM), improved electronics and AF algorithm delivers further enhanced Auto-focus performance and virtually silent operation. The 8-blade circular aperture generates attractive background defocus.

Newly developed compact, high performance Image Stabilizer system offers up to 3 stops of compensation – effectively reducing camera shake at slower shutter speeds. Specially designed moisture and dust protection in the mount area, switch panel, zoom ring and focusing ring prevents water and dust penetration in extreme conditions.

Type: Canon EF mount (metal).

Focal Length: 70-200mm

Maximum Aperture: F/2.8.

Optical Construction: 23 elements in 18 groups (4 UD elements) with Super Spectra Coating.

Angle of View: 34 degrees to 12 degrees (diagonal at infinity).

AF Drive System: Gear driven by ring type USM.

AF Drive Noise: 40 dB or lower.

Manual Focusing: Enabled with focus mode switch and focus ring (full time mechanical MF mechanism).

Focus Range: 1.4m to infinity, 2.5m to infinity switchable.

EF Signal Transmission: 5 types Lens status, Lens type, Metering information, Focal length, AF drive information

Aperture Control: Pulse control with EMD.

Aperture Range: F/2.8 to F/32.

Aperture Blades: 8

Filter Size: 77mm

Hood: ET-86

Lens Cap: E-77U

Lens Case: LZ1324

Tripod Mount: Tripod mount B (W)

Dimensions: 86.2mm x 197mm.

Weight: 1570 grams.

The Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS USM belongs to a group of 70-200mm telephoto pro lenses that Canon offers. The range starts with the affordable yet sharp EF 70-200 f/4L USM, then it steps up to a stabilized version, the EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM, followed by a non-IS, f/2.8 version, the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM, then the upper echelon lens that we’re discussing now.

The benefit of a faster, larger lens is the same regardless of what lens you’re comparing. At f/2.8, your viewfinder will be brighter, you use faster shutter speed when the lens is opened up to its widest aperture, and you can isolate subjects from backgrounds better. The advantages come at a price as fast lenses are more expensive and are heavier to carry. The Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS USM weighs in at a whopping 3.2lbs, add that to your camera body, you’ll easily top the 5lbs mark. Not exactly handy to lug around all day.

The lens is well balanced to most advanced and professional metal camera bodies, while the image stabilizer (IS) makes hand-holding this lens a possibility while minimizing camera shake. The zoom ring and focus ring turns really smoothly with ample resistance. The switches on the side of the lens allow the operator to choose between IS activation, IS modes, auto-focus override, and focusing distance limit. All these switches are recessed enough to prevent accidental switching.

The lens barrel is primarily made of metal while all seams are weather-sealed against the elements. The front element uses a standard 77mm filter, which makes it easy to “borrow” filters from most other Canon pro-lenses.

Auto-focus is very fast and barely audible. You can expect quieter AF mechanism from the F/4 variants but that’s because there’s less torque required to move lighter elements.

The IS mechanism exudes a faint “tick-snap” when the shutter is half-pressed. Those who aren’t familiar with the lens may think that there may be something loose inside the barrel. Rest assured that the sound is normal. There are two modes of image stabilization in the Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS USM. Mode 1 will be for general usage as the motors try to stabilize both X and Y-axis movements, while Mode 2 deactivates the motors for X-axis movement for panning shots. The IS mechanism deactivates if mounted on a tripod as well.

Let’s get on with the photos.

While professionals will buy this lens due to need, most amateurs, like myself, might wonder if this lens is worth the money compared to the other three cheaper variants of Canon 70-200′s. It’s common knowledge that f/2.8 lenses allow you to shoot at higher shutter speeds than a smaller aperture lens in low-light. One caveat that I have to mention, though that at f/2.8, you usually can’t get shutter speeds over 1/50th anyway in typical lowly-lit environments, so the speed limitation is still present, just not as bad as f/4 variants. The IS system will also help you get sharper shots in low-light condition, so a wide-aperture + IS is a formidable combination.

The IS system in the Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS USM offers approximately 3-stop hand-holding advantage based on the 1/focal-length hand-held theory. So theoretically, to maintain a sharp, stabilized image at 200mm focal length, we’re advised to use 1/200 shutter speed or higher. With a 3-stop IS advantage, you can expect the same stability even at 1/25 seconds hand-held. In practice, the lens does deliver as evident in the photo below. Just don’t expect miracles as at 1/3 of a second, even if my elbows were stabilized on a ledge, the image exhibits quite a bit of blur.

Here’s how 70mm and 200mm differ in field of view.


Lens flare is complex and throws a long pattern, but shouldn’t be too difficult to avoid especially when the gigantic lens hood is used. The lens exhibits very little distortion on either end of the focal length, shooting distant landscapes shouldn’t be a problem for this lens. I do wish it can focus a little closer, though. At over 4ft in minimum focusing distance, magnification isn’t stellar.

Of course, the main lure for this lens is the thin depth-of-field that a large aperture telephoto lens can provide, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint, rendering smooth transitions from sharp to out-of-focus scenes.

In most cases, you’ll need to stop down considerably to get enough elements in the scene in focus, otherwise, you’ll end up with a photo below (man on bike) where the street light is in focus but the man isn’t even though the man is just a foot or so away from the focus point.

The lens is immensely sharp when stopped down beyond f/5.6 and you’ll probably end up shooting at around this aperture opening when you’re not shooting small objects or portraits. Color, details, contrast, distortion control are all excellent right off-the-cam.

The lens is a little soft wide-open. At f/2.8, you can clearly see fewer details compared to f/4 or smaller, as evident by the two images below. Compare the texture pattern of the green sign. The first image was shot at 1/1000sec @ f/2.8 with IS on, the latter 1/320 @ f/5 with IS on.

The images do respond well with some post-processing sharpening, though. The following images were sharpened minimally in Lightroom during export.

Just for kicks, I tried to shooting birds at 200mm, I have to say that it is really, really hard to get good angles and manual focusing is almost a must for me to get sharp images. I can’t use f/2.8 because of the softness issue, so I had to stop down a little for most of these shots. Needless to say, I have a whole new respect to aviary photographers. I think you’ll need at least 300-400mm for decent bird shots, so if you’re really into bird photography, try a longer prime with a tele-converter instead.

To summarize, the Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS USM is a great general purpose lens for professionals and serious amateurs alike. The lens should belong to most photographers who use this focal range often and require a piece of equipment that can withstand knocks and bumps, rain, snow, or mud.

The lens provides wonderful portraits due to the focal length covered, which virtually guarantees no distortion on your subjects body features. The Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS USM is also great for picking out details from a scene as the large aperture and long focal length can offer really thin depth-of-field.

The lens isn’t perfect, though. As most wide angle tele-zooms, the Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS USM is rather soft at wide open apertures, but hardly enough to bring the overall performance of the lens down. Chromatic aberrations are well controlled and flare issues are easily resolved with the supplied lens hood.

If you’re an amateur thinking of buying this lens, consider using this lens for a day or two before committing as the weight of the lens is an issue if you’re not going to use it often. I’ve seen quite a lot of people investing on heavy tele-zooms but rarely use them due to the size and weight factor, which is a waste.

If you find yourself shooting portraits outdoors most of the time, I think the cheaper and lighter Canon EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM is a better option. Frankly, it’s not that often that you can use a 70-200mm focal length lens indoors anyway, there’s usually not enough room to operate.

This is Canon’s best mid-to-tele zoom lens in the market right now, and if budget and weight aren’t issues to you, the Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS USM is a worthwhile investment for years to come.

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