My Gear: The White Lady: Canon EF 70-200 mm f/2.8 L USM

Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 L USM on the Canon 760D

While looking for a zoom lens with a wide-open aperture for portraits and other occasions, where the combination of a long focal length with the capability to gather lots of light is useful, I rented and tested the Sigma A 50-100 mm ƒ/1.8 lens the end of last year. It rendered a fantastic image quality, but nevertheless, I wanted to try out one of the “classic” 70-200 mm lenses for comparison.

I now had the opportunity to do this after a photographer friend of my sold one of his lenses – used but in perfect condition. So I snatched at the offer and was recently able to gather some experiences.

CANON EF 70-200 mm ƒ/2.8 L USM

This is the original design of the lens without image stabilization. Canon has been producing it continuously since 1995. Currently (August 2017), it sells new for about 1,200 Euros; used copies can be obtained for 600-800 Euros. In the meantime, Canon has released two successors for this lens, both with image stabilization. While the first one had some weaknesses regarding image quality, the current EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 L IS ii USM is generally accepted as the benchmark for this class of lenses. Alternatives are offered by Sigma and Tamron; in particular the new Tamron SP 70-200 mm ƒ/2.8 Di VC USD G2 has raised a lot of attention.

All of these lenses are designed to be used on full-frame cameras, where they unfold their full potential. This also means that they are quite large and heavy. The compact body of my 760D looked a bit lost as it held on to the lens mount…

EQUIPMENT

Since the 1970s, Canon uses the ‘L’ designation for lenses that apply special techniques in their optics to ensure low distortion, great sharpness, and high color fidelity. Since then, the ‘L’ has become synonymous with high-class professional lenses. An outstanding characteristic is the white body of the lenses with longer focal ranges. As these are intended primarily for sports and wildlife photography, hence for outdoor use, the white color is intended to reduce the heating up of the lens in direct sunlight.

Designed for rough everyday use, the lens is built in a very robust manner. The body is made entirely from metal, which results in a total weight of 3 lbs., but gives it a very solid look and feel. However, the original design is not weatherproof. At this size, an adjustable solid lens mount is a given.

There are two switches: one for the auto-focus, even though the lens does have full-time manual override, and another switch to limit the focus range. It can be set to either 1.5 m – ∞ or 3 m – ∞. I always kept this switch on the first setting.

Canon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 L with lens pouch
Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 L USM with lens pouch

The appearance of the lens is completed by the deep lens hood that is typical for long focal lengths. It also comes with a padded lens pouch that has a belt loop as well as a shoulder strap. The lens is definitely too heavy to be carried on your belt. But with the lens pouch, it can be safely carried in a backpack.

USE AND RESULTS

A 70-200 mm with an aperture of ƒ/2.8 is the classic lens for photographing at parties and events. The zoom provides the necessary flexibility to capture people in changing distances. At the same time, the wide aperture allows you to separate the subject from the background. If you own a full-frame camera and take pictures at such occasions on a regular basis, there’s basically no way around getting this type of lens.

It never bothered me that this lens has no image stabilization. This feature would reduce the risk of getting blurry images from camera shake when using slower shutter speeds. When photographing people, however, especially at festivities where they laugh and talk and mill about, the main challenge is motion blur. Thus, you will have to use a rather fast shutter speed anyway. Personally, I try to not get below 1/100; at rare occasions I use 1/60. And still most of the images I discarded, I deleted due to motion blur, because some was shaking their head or waving a hand.

While using this lens on my APS-C camera, I quickly realized some disadvantages as well. Due to the 1.6 crop factor, the 70 mm at the short end renders the same field of view as 11o mm on a full-frame body. In a closed room, this makes it very difficult to get far enough away from your subject to fit it into the frame as intended. In addition, the smaller sensor means that even when shooting wide open at ƒ/2.8, the background will not get blurred as much as when capturing the same image with a full-frame camera. So, there are significant drawbacks on the two main selling points of this lens.

COMAPRISON WITH THE SIGMA 50-100 mm ƒ/1.8

For a direct comparison of Canon’s 70-200 mm ƒ/2.8 L full-frame lens with Sigma’s 50-100 mm ƒ/1.8 Art, which is designed specifically for APS-C camera, I once again had the chance to borrow from my wife’s treasure chest. The tailor’s dummy with the girl’s dress was about 13 ft. away from the camera, and the shrubbery in the background another 22 ft. behind that. All pictures were taken with the Canon 760D mounted on a tripod; the images below all show the full frame.

The two series of images below were taken at the focal lengths supported by both lenses: 70 mm and 100 mm. I have a picture each at ƒ/2.8, and then another one with the Sigma at ƒ/1.8. As to be expected, the images from both lenses with the same settings are almost identical. The image taken at ƒ/1.8, on the other hand, shows a much blurrier background, thanks to the wider aperture of the Sigma lens.

Vergleich Sigma 50-100 mm und Canon 70-200 mm bei 70 mm
Comparison Sigma 50-100 mm and Canon 70-200 mm at 70 mm

 

Vergleich Sigma 50-100 mm und Canon 70-200 mm bei 100 mm
Comparison Sigma 50-100 mm and Canon 70-200 mm at 100 mm

Finally, for comparison, images taken at the focal lengths supported by only of the lenses: 50 mm and 200 mm respectively. The difference is significant, in particular at 200 mm. With an APS-C camera, this focal length can be used in a meaningful way only outdoors, or in really large venues. This is why I prefer the focal range covered by the Sigma. The 50 mm at the short end equals 80 mm on a full-frame body, which enables taking great images even at short distances, such as inside a restaurant for instance.  For me, this is the primary use case. In addition, the wider aperture also offers a better low-light performance.

Vergleich Sigma 50-100 mm bei 50 mm und Sigma 70-200 mm bei 200 mm
Comparison Sigma 50-100 mm at 50 mm and Sigma 70-200 mm at 200 mm

ALTERNATIVES

Since the 70-200 mm ƒ/2.8 is an absolute classic for event photographers, it is offered by all well-known brands. For Canon cameras, there are the two name-brand lenses (the “L USM” without, and the “L IS ii USM” with image stabilization), as well as the alternatives offered by Tamron (“SP Di VC USD G2”) and Sigma (“EX DG OS HSM”). The Sigma is the least expensive of the four, but according to reviews of the internet, it can no longer keep up with the other lenses. The same goes for the older Tamron lens, the predecessor of the current “G2” model.

If you’re interested in such a lens, then it will basically become a decision between the Canon “L IS ii” and the Tamron “G2”. The latter one costs new as much as the first one does used. Regarding image quality, there is basically no difference to the naked eye, however, the Tamron lens is accused of focus breathing. This means that the effective focal length is reduced when focusing at short distances, which affects the appearance of the image. There is a lot of discussion about this on the internet; if you’re interested in the details, I recommend watching the videos by Dustin Abbott on the matter. Judging by its original price, the Tamron offers more value for money if having the full 200 mm at close range is not mandatory for you.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: I recently made the decision to stay with APS-C, for various reasons. Consequently, I just sold the 70-200 again, and got the Sigma 50-100 ƒ/1.8 instead, which I had tested before. It offers a focal range that is much more practical for me, as well as better low-light performance.

If you own a full-frame camera, or if you prefer the longer focal range, then the old Canon “L USM” model without image stabilization will prove itself to be a robust and powerful companion. The lens is very resilient; hence I recommend looking for a used copy in good condition for a reasonable price.

What I’ve learnt: Just because everyone says, “this lens is a must-have”, or “because every pro has one”, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right lens for me. I am very happy that I had the chance to thoroughly test both lenses myself over a long period of time. This way, I was able to take a reasoned decision which lens fits my photography style best.

If you’re struggling with a similar decision, I strongly recommend renting your candidate lens for a week or two and take it to the test. This will be much more worthwhile than reading the 23rd review on the internet. Of course, renting a lens will cost a few bucks, but it will cost much less than what you lose by buying a lens, realizing it’s not the one for you, and then selling it again.


LINKS

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.


EXAMPLE IMAGES:

Only a few this time – I primarily used this lens on events, and thus would have needed the approval of all pictured persons for each image before publishing it.

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