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Review – Canon EF 70-200mm F/4L IS USM

We reviewed the venerable flagship Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM a couple of weeks ago with favorable but slightly reserved recommendation due to price and weight factors. This week, I bring you a review[/tag] of it’s smaller and lighter cousin, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM.

Image Courtesy of Canon

Specs first…

From Canon

The EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM is a lightweight, compact L Series telephoto zoom lens with Image Stabilizer. The optical Image Stabilization in the new EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens provides up to an incredible four stops of shake correction-a first for Canon IS lenses. The use of fluorite UD lens elements provides excellent optical performance in terms of resolution and contrast. These features, together with its water-and dust-proof construction, provide both the performance and portability to meet user demands.

Specifications

Lens
Focal Length & Maximum Aperture 70 – 200mm f/4
Lens Construction 20 elements in 15 groups
Diagonal Angle of View 34°- 12°(with full-frame cameras)
Focus Adjustment AF with full-time manual
Closest Focusing Distance 3.94 ft. / 1.2m
Zoom System 7-group helical zoom (rotational angle: 72º)
Filter Size 67mm
Max. Diameter x Length, Weight 3.0 x 6.8 in. / 76 x 172mm
26.8 oz./760g (lens only)

The Canon EF 70-200 f/4L 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 EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, reviewed previously.

The main difference between the f/4 and the f/2.8 version, obviously, is the maximum aperture opening. The f/2.8 versions allow twice the amount of light through the lens compared to the f/4 versions, which means you can use faster shutter speeds and offer thinner depth-of-field (DOF) given the same working distance. The f/4 versions, however, due to a simpler design, allows the weight to be kept low, the size to be more portable, and most importantly, much cheaper than the f/2.8 versions.

The EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM costs a of hundred dollars (USD) less compared to the EF 70-200 f/2.8L USM (non-IS), but the EF 70-200mm f2.8L IS USM cost almost twice as much as the f/4 IS version. The fast 2.8 coupled with Image Stabilization bumped the price by quite a margin, the question many people ask is “is the 2.8 IS version worth it or should I settle for the f/4 IS version?”. The answer isn’t really a simple f/2.8 or f/4, as a lot of factors fall into place depending on what you shoot often and how you travel.

Notice I don’t mention the non-IS versions that much, that’s because image stabilization at this focal range is such a big factor, it’d be wise to spend for IS instead of chimping a few hundred bucks without it. Stick to the IS versions.

The EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM is relatively light and easy to carry due to its rather narrow barrel. The weight is substantially less than the f/2.8 IS version as it requires less glass and less metal to carry the lens elements. It is easy to hand-hold and definitely light enough to lug around the whole day even with the lens hood on.

Being an f/4 lens, however, is a disadvantage when you need to stop motion in low-light. Compare the motion freeze between the previous f/2.8 IS sample image vs the f/4 IS sample image in terms of subject sharpness.

From f/2.8 IS version

From f/2.8 IS version

from the f/4 IS

from the f/4 IS version

In order to keep the subjects relatively frozen, I had to resort to underexposing the image, otherwise, a slower shutter speed will blur the relatively stationary subjects.

Filter size is an unusual 67mm (most Canon L lenses use 77mm) so it won’t be easy to share filters with your other Canon L lineup, but 67mm filters aren’t too expensive, so it’s not that big of an issue.

Four switches reside on the side of the metal lens barrel. A focus range switch, which allows you to set the starting focus distance; an auto/manual focus switch; an image stabilizer on/off switch; and lastly, a stabilizer mode switch will allows you to set between X-Y axis stabilization or Y-axis only (for panning).

The EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM does not extend when zooming, neither does the front element rotate when focusing, which is expected for a high-end lens. The lens mount is metal and the rear lens element is deeply recessed, which makes it less vulnerable to accidental contact.

As mentioned previously, image stabilization is almost a must for longer focal lengths. The IS mechanism kicks in when you half-press the shutter, the EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM will produce a slight whirring noise when IS kicks in, while the f/2.8 IS produces a clicking, ticking sound. The EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM’s image stabilization mechanism boasts the same 3-stop hand-holdability stabilization as the 2.8 IS version, but in my opinion, is more effective  in application than its expensive sibling.

Let me explain.

The lighter and thinner body makes it easier to balance the EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM. In turn, allows the user to stabilize the camera and lens more easily than a heavy f/2.8 version. With the EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS USM, the best I could do to maintain a relatively sharp image was three stops below the 1/focal length theory. With the EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM, I can effectively obtain a relatively sharp image down to 5-stops – consistently, as the images show.

200mm @ 1/25sec

200mm @ 1/25sec - 3 stops below recommended

200mm @ 1/25sec

200mm @ 1/13sec - 4 stops below recommended

200mm @ 1/25sec

200mm @ 1/6sec - 5 stops below recommended

200mm @ 1/25sec

200mm @ 1/3sec - 6 stops below recommended

200mm @ 1/25sec

200mm @ 0.6sec - 7 stops below recommended

As you can see, even at 6-stops under, the “5” was still relatively sharp in these crops. Depending on your hand-holding technique, having a lighter lens makes a big factor especailly as you get more fatigued during a shoot.

Another advantage of the EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM over the f/2.8 IS version is wide-open aperture performance. The EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM is very sharp at f/4, and stopping down doesn’t improve the sharpness all that much. Unlike the f/2.8 which requires closing the aperture about a stop to obtain peak sharpness and resolution, the EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM can be used wide open without worries.

70mm crops between f/4 and f/8

70mm crops between f/4 and f/8

70mm crops between f/4 and f/8

200mm crops between f/4 and f/8

This lens is immensely sharp wide open, which is a big deal for me.

@ f/4 (cropped)

Details @ f/4 (cropped - no sharpening)

200mm cropped - some details you dont want to see.

200mm cropped - Some details you don't want to see. Like a guy in a 6-star hotel balcony wearing nothing but jockeys.

Yet more positives for the EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM is the complete absence of chromatic aberration regardless of aperture opening. I’ve tried finding them around red, blue, white subjects in high-contrast scenes but fail to find any.

No CA here.

No CA here

Bokeh (depth-of-field quality) is good due to the long focal length and the rounded 8-blade design. While not as good as the f/2.8 version, it certainly holds its ground pretty well as long as you know how to maximize the subject-to-background distances (you might want to read my article, Popping Portraits – How and Why).

Color and contrast are predictable and consistent with most Canon pro lenses, giving you a contrasty, slightly warm image with good saturation.

Auto-focus is fast and silent. I find it to be faster than the f/2.8 but that’s expected as wider aperture lenses tend to focus a little slower due to tighter tolerances in auto-focus areas and heavier glass to move around. In good light, it locks focus pretty rapidly with high accuracy in both One-Shot and AI-Servo mode even for a consumer camera. Low-light AF is decent but not as great as the f/2.8 variant.

Overall, I really like this lens. I think it offers tremendous value over the f/2.8 variants and users will actually be willing to carry and use this lens more often than the f/2.8 IS version due to portability.

Even if money isn’t an issue, I’d pick this over the f/2.8 IS. While f/2.8 is a full stop faster, my mantra has always been “f/2.8 isn’t really fast enough” in low light. If you can’t use flash at all in low-light, a fast prime is still better and cheaper than a f/2.8 zoom, minus the ease of zooming. If you can use flash, the need for an f/2.8 tele zoom is even lower.

I have reservations with the less-than-ideal image quality of the f/2.8 version wide open, especially at 200mm when you consider the price and weight of the lens. If you must stop down to f/4 or smaller to get optimal results, why not get the f/4 version to start with and have pocket change to buy a couple of consumer fast zooms along the way?

Now I say this because of the subjects and scenes I usually shoot. If you’re a sports shooter that shoot a lot of events indoors, or prefer to add a teleconverter to your 70-200, then the f/2.8 IS version is a no brainer. Both lenses have their own uses, but for most levels of shooting, I think the EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM is more than capable and is hard to beat.

You can see the rest of the sample images in the gallery:

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