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.

Hmmm, yummy - puddle!

 

Shards bring Good Fortune (German Saying)

 

Who's got my treats?

YouTube Recommendation: Christopher Frost

Christopher Frost Photography

When I started looking for additional lenses for my 760D, the YouTube channel by Christopher Frost was among the first I subscribed to. Chris is an enthused photographer living in Cardiff and currently training to be become a vicar. He characterizes himself as a “lens enthusiast” and continuously publishes detailed reviews.

I’ve come to appreciate these reviews a lot. Chris follows a thorough and consistent scheme, so that his reviews can be easily compared to each other. From time to time, he takes advantage of that himself and combines several reviews into a “battle” – for instance, ten different 50mm prime lenses, or eight ultra wide-angle ones. Hence, it not only becomes evident how one particular lens behaves under various settings or on different cameras, but you can also easily compare lenses to each other.

He assesses the following points:

  • Look & feel, build quality, and equipment
  • Image quality (sharpness, contrast, chromatic aberrations) – on a full-frame as well as an APS-C camera, as far as applicable, at different apertures, and (for zoom lenses) at different focal lengths.
  • Distortion and vignetting
  • Close-up image quality
  • Behavior against bright lights
  • Bokeh

When it comes to lenses, he tests about everything that can be mounted to a Canon DSLR; in particular off-brand ones. Thus, he created more than a 130 videos by now. Recently, he obtained a mirrorless camera, so that lenses made specifically for DSLMs are now being reviewed as well.

The videos are made in a very likeable way. In addition to the always-similar test images, they always contain some example images as well as personal experiences when using the lens. He’s enthusiastic about what he’s doing, but he doesn’t overdo it. The videos have a very convenient duration of five to ten minutes each. His British English can be easily understood. Based on his reviews, for instance, I have decided to go with the Tamrom SP 70-300mm ƒ4-5,6 Di VC as my telephoto zoom lens.

PLAYLIST RECOMMENDATIONS

In addition, Chris has some other playlists mostly focused on music, TV shows, and his engagement at Church.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: If you’re looking for well-made, substantiated, and informative reviews on lenses for Canon cameras, then Chris’ YouTube channel comes highly recommended!

What I’ve learned: Due to the comparability of the reviews, I have learned how significantly different lenses can behave concerning sharpness and color-fringing at different aperture settings and focal lengths, and also how big the differences can be when using one and the same lens on full-frame body or an APS-C camera.


LINKS

Title image: YouTube Screenshot

My Gear: Canon 760D (Rebel T6s)

Canon 760D

Since August 2015, I’ve been out and about a lot with my Canon 760D. Read below why I made the decision to buy that camera, and whether I would make the same decision again today. But first, let’s start with a short history of my photography experience.

CAMERA RETROSPECT

COMPACT CAMERAS

My first camera was an Olympus C-700 UZ. In retrospect, what sold me at the time probably was the 10x optical zoom (the full-frame equivalent of 38-380mm). With 2 megapixels I started into the world of digital photography in the summer of 2001. All in all, I was quite happy with the camera, and consequently, in 2004 I upgraded to one of its successors – the Olympus C-750 UZ, now with 4 megapixels and several other improvements.

The two cameras went through a number of vacation trips with me, and were also used quite often at the local Railway Museum. This is also where the biggest disadvantage became obvious: the zoom was motorised and too slow to keep up with moving objects like an approaching train. In combination with the rather sluggish autofocus, I resented quite a number of missed shots. This led to the obvious conclusion: I need something with a bit more punch.

THE FIRST DSLR

Olympus E-510
Olympus E-510

Since I was happy with the cameras in general (look-and-feel, handling, reliability) and the images as well, I saw no reason to switch brands. So in 2008, I got myself an Olympus E-510, in a set with the two kit lenses: 14-42mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 and 40-150mm ƒ/4.0-5.6. With a full-frame equivalent of 28-300mm, I again had a ~10x optical zoom.

In summary, I was very happy with the E-510 over the years. She was a reliable companion on many journeys and rendered plenty of really nice images. I have to admit, though, that I mostly stayed with the automatic settings and never really occupied myself with the basic principles of photography. I never fully exploited the capabilities of the camera, but I realised one thing: in low-light conditions – at night, or inside the gloomy roundhouse at the railway museum – the E-510 with its kit lenses quickly reached its limits.

Though Olympus did offer “pro lenses” for the E-series at the time, I never pursued that upgrade. Mostly there never was a big event where I had the feeling I actually missed something due to the camera’s limitations. However, exactly that changed last year – which brings me to the current…

CAMERA SELECTION

In the fall of 2015, I had the unique opportunity to travel to Albuquerque, New Mexico. That provided the opportunity to take pictures of two major sights: the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta with about 550 hot-air balloons, and the night sky free of light pollution. Up in the mountains away from Albuquerque, in the clear, dry desert air and at an elevation of almost 8,000 ft., the view of the Milky Way was nothing less than breath-taking. I asked myself: How do I photograph this right? And what else do I want to take pictures of? So I wrote myself a list:

  • Mostly interested in (“must have”): Landscapes / cityscapes (including twilight and night shots), macros, night skies and moon, interiors, also with difficult lighting conditions (e.g. railway museum roundhouse)
  • Somewhat interested in (“nice to have”): Events (group pictures), taking videos
  • Not interested in (not relevant for decision): portraits, sports, action, wildlife

I fired up the internet, and I felt immediately clobbered over the head with the sheer amount of information. One of the things I learned to value as an information source at the time was YouTube. My initial suspicion that my trusted old E-510 wouldn’t get me very far with what I had in mind was quickly confirmed. Hence, I drafted the selection criteria for my new camera:

  • Wide choice of Lenses
  • Easy handling
  • Large display
  • Good image quality, even in low-light conditions
  • Range of available accessories, including third-party vendors
  • Affordability – my available budget at the time was 1,500 €

APS-C OR FULL-FRAME

The first decision I had to make was for the camera system. Considering the last item on my list, full frame seemed out of reach to me at the time. To be flexible, I wanted to be able to afford more than one lens from the start. So I decided in favour of the smaller (and less expensive) APS-C format, which I have not regretted since. Would I have preferred a Canon 6D after all, if I had had more time for the decision (and to save more money)? Hard to say, but then, the situations where a full-frame camera can really show its strengths compared to APS-C – in the dark, or when separating subjects from background – only occur in a small share of my images.

CANON OR NIKON (OR SONY)

I looked at Sony mostly because of the famed low-light performance. In particular the A7S made a lot of headlines on this subject at the time. However, its price point was way beyond my financial horizon. The smaller models, on the other hand, didn’t convince me in terms of handling and accessories (choice of lenses). That has improved in the meantime, and I do admit that the A6500 is a very interesting camera – not only for its in-body image stabilisation (which my old E-510 had as well). But a launch price of 1,700 €?

I ended up swaying between Canon and Nikon. I think this is mostly a gut decision, because the technical advantages and weaknesses on either side more or less balance out. At times, one is in the lead; then the other. Here, the image sensor seems better; there, it’s the lenses. So I went to a number of stored and looked at the cameras, took them in my hands, played around with them. And came to the conclusion: Canon it is. Simply for the reason that I liked their handling better; it seemed more intuitive to me. In addition, the better video autofocus is a bonus, too.

70D, 700D (Rebel T5i), 750D (Rebel T6i), 760D (Rebel T6s)

Those were the models I had on my short list. The naming is a bit confusing as the entry-level DSLRs have metric names in Europe (700D, 750D…), while they are called “Rebel Tx” in the US. I will stick with the metric names for the rest of this article. The 700D was dropped first. It was good value for money, but all reviews unanimously stated that the leap in quality offered by its successors 750D/760D was significant. The smaller of the two, the 750D, was sorted out next – the additional features offered by the 760D, such as the shoulder display or the second scroll wheel, justified the higher price in my eyes.

This left me with the 70D, and the 760D. They were in the same price range, and offered similar performance. In a number of comparison reviews, the 760D came in first – though close – on the points that interested me most. The choice was made.

And I’m happy with it! It handles well, and offers great functionality with its tilting and turning touch display, or the remote-controlling capabilities via Wi-Fi. Most importantly: I’m more than happy with the image quality! Given the choice at the time, I would make the same decision again today.

In addition, by now I have a collection of lenses that cover my interests as listed above very well. I will write about the particular lenses in future “My Gear” posts.

AND TODAY…?

As far as I’m concerned, there is only one boundary condition that has changed since then, and that is the choice of available cameras. For half a year now, the Canon 80D has been out. Though it comprises the same image sensor as the 760D, it offers drastic improvements in terms of autofocus and overall functionality. Six months after launch, the price of the 80D has dropped by about one third to an acceptable level. An upgrade might be warranted in the future.

WHAT IS THE RIGHT CHOICE FOR YOU?

That’s not easy to answer. Which camera is the best for you depends on what you want do with it. Hence: make lists. Write down what you’re interested in, what you want to photograph – now, and for the next few years. After all, you will have to live with the decision for a while. What is important for you on the camera itself? What budget do you have? Also keep in mind the possibility of buying a used camera. I bought a number of used lenses, and saved a lot of money doing so, without compromising quality.

I have included links to the considerations of several well-known photographers on this matter. Definitely have a look at those, while checking your lists from time to time.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Given the choice at the time, I would decide for the Canon 760D again. Today (October 2016), though, I clearly prefer the Canon 80D. If you get along better with Nikon, have a look at the D7200.

What I’ve learned: There is not “the one best camera”. You have to ask yourself: what do I want to take pictures of? There are many cameras that are specialised to excel at certain tasks – however, they are usually quite expensive and often really shine only under those specific conditions, while falling behind in other areas. For the things I do, I prefer an all-rounder.


LINKS

Picture credits: Title image (Canon 760D), Olympus E-510: own images

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