Canon 70-200 f4 IS

Canon 70_200_f4_L_IS

Specs and Measurements

Focal length –  70-200mm,    Aperture – f/4,    Filter thread – 67mm,    IS – YES (4 stops),   USM – YES & FTM focus,    Focus limiter – 1.2 m - ∞ & 3 m - ∞,    Maximum magnification – 0.21x,    Weather sealed – YES,    Weight (w/ hood) – 825 g,    Length (w caps) - 195 mm,    Width – 77 mm,  Lens hood included – YES detachable,   Case included - YES (leather but poor)

Handling and Build Quality

There are not really any features that the Canon 70-200mm f/4 L IS USM lacks, it has: fast USM, the latest 4 stop IS, weather sealing and a focus limiter.  Having a relatively fast aperture of f/4 and medium telephoto range (70-200mm) make this lens useful for so many applications; from wildlife in its environment shots, to intimate landscapes, to kids at the beach or playing sports.  On a cropped body you can extend the reach to about 320mm equivalent and into some more tame wildlife situations.  If unhabituated wildlife or especially birds are what you are after, this lens is going to leave you wishing for more focal length.  Also if you are after the ultimate in motion freezing shutter speeds or amazing low light focus, this lens could also disappoint.  If a do everything well telephoto (that does not need its own mortgage or a Sherpa) is what you need then, this is the lens you are after.

Having Image stabilization (IS) for any lens is really helpful, but for effectively handholding a telephoto lens it is almost a must.  Even though this is not the longest telephoto (200mm), stabilization is still tremendously beneficial.  Being only 7 years old, the lens features the latest generation IS which is incredibly rated to give 4 stops of hand hold ability.  I have found this rating to be quite actuate (ex- instead of needing 1/250 s to handhold you could get away with 1/15 s).  Although it is possible to handhold at these super slow shutter other factors like; any subject movement or even the slap of the mirror/shutter usually do not make it very successful.  IS can be helpful even at higher shutter speeds up to 1/250 s and beyond.  Using the 1/focal length rule for handholding is only a minimum to achieve a reasonable image, but not usually tack sharp results.  Employing IS helps in almost any situation, even when on a tripod as the lens will sense when it’s totally stable and deactivates the IS.  The IS has 2 modes:  mode 1 for static subjects and mode 2 for following moving objects.  I rarely use mode 2 but its nice to have when I need it.

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Using this lens is always a pleasure and the results can be stunning.  Through the 4 years I have owned the lens it has survived bumps, splashes and even light rain .  The close-up detail shown here of Ragged Falls along the Oxtongue River demonstrates the diverse results you can get with this lens.

While not quite as solid as the all metal construction of my 300mm f/4 IS the Canon 70-200 f/4 IS is a really well put together lens.  Its casing is a durable combination of mostly metal and polycarbonate that feels really solid.  Gaskets around the seams, switches and lens mount makes the lens completely weather sealed.  The focus ring is very smooth and has just the right amount of resistance.  While the zoom ring is a little loose for my liking, but does not creep when pointed up/down.  The switches are larger and fall to hand better than on older L series lenses I have used.  A massive lens hood is included with the lens and is in my opinion slightly overkill.

Having an ultra sonic motor (USM) with full time manual focus override is very handy.  USM on this zoom is very, very fast and almost always accurate.  This is the fastest focusing lens that I own.  When you use the focus limiter it’s even faster and feels almost instantaneous in good light.  It also has a remarkable ability to track moving subjects and almost never loses focus as long as you do your part and keep the focus point(s) on your subject.  Being a relatively new lens really helps out here as the newer versions of USM do a wonderful job.

Score: 9.5/10

Optical Quality

Optically this is the finest lens that I own, but surprisingly it is one of the least used.  It has a range of focal lengths that I could not live without, but are also not my most commonly used.  200mm is usually too short for most wildlife and just about all birds, while 70mm is not wide enough for many of my landscape images.

As far as resolution goes it just does not get much better than this.  At 70mm the lens is “only” excellent and zooming out toward 200mm improves on this.  Opposite to most zooms, the lens gets better as you approach the longest focal lengths.  All other telephoto zooms I have used in the past are their weakest in the upper end of the focal range and always worst at the longest focal length.  Between 100mm and 200mm this is easily the sharpest lens in my collection.  Even when combined with a 1.4x converter the Canon still puts in amazing performance, with a very slight loss of resolution.  This is better performance than many prime lenses that do not co-operate with a converter this well.  Stopping down this lens to increase sharpness is not needed, as it is already so good at f/4 and improves little beyond.  You should just use the aperture that provides your desired depth of field for creative purposes and let this fine optic do the rest.

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You can utilize the lens for moderate close-ups, but be careful when you get right up to the minimum focus distance (1.2 m).  When used on its own and toward the long end of the zoom, the Canon will produce stunningly detailed shots.   This dew coated spider web taken in Algonquin Park is amazingly sharp and shows the nice background blur that the lens can create.

The Canon 70-200 f/4 IS has excellent contrast, especially for a zoom lens.  You can create some nice smooth background blurring (bokah), but with a max aperture of f/4 it’s sometimes limiting.  Distortion is very low and not even worth correcting in post.  I have not seen any of the difficult to deal with purple fringing with this lens, while chromatic aberration is at a very reasonable level for a zoom lens.  Flare has not been an issue I have experienced but I always use the lens hood to prevent any chance of it (also to protect the front element).  Using filters to protect your lens would likely not be as effective as the hood and would definitely increase flare.  For this reason I discourage the use of filters unless there is a desired effect beyond protection (polarization, neutral density, etc…).

If I had to pick an optical imperfection for this lens it would be at/near minimum focal distance.  This is the one area where the lens does not compete with other lenses I own, being just a little soft all across the frame.  I have tested this repeatedly and am just not totally satisfied with this lens approaching macro distances.  Luckily I have several other lenses that do this task well (Tamron 90mm VC Macro or the Canon 300mm f/4 IS).

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Using a teleconverter usually compromises image quality to some degree particularly with a zoom, but the Canon handles this surprisingly well.  Here we see a perched dragonfly photographed with my Canon 70-200 f/4 IS + a 1.4x converter that still is delivering really excellent results.

The older version of this lens (without IS) was known to be optically excellent but the new lens surpasses it, despite having several more elements.  There are only a small handful of lenses as good or better than this lens available in the Canon mount.  Most of these lenses being expensive primes, while the only telephoto zoom that exceeds it is the new 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II.

Score: 9/10

Value

When you look at the retail price of nearly $ 1500 CAD you could easily dismiss this short telephoto zoom.  However, if you look at the sum of all its attributes it’s not really over priced.  The lens is state of the art and offers uncompromising performance/quality in a reasonably compact package.  Also it’s often discounted or rebated so wait for the right opportunity before purchasing.  If you are not often shooting wildlife then this could be an excellent one telephoto lens solution for you.  If wildlife is on the menu then you need to supplement this lens with a longer telephoto or look at a longer zoom lens.  Having not used a couple of the lenses below I can only give you what I learned in doing my own research before making my decision.

Canon 70-200mm f/4 L – First of all this lens is almost half the price of the optic being reviewed.  Here is a lens that would deserve an 11/10 for value, as it offers most of the benefits of it’s IS sibling with a couple of omissions.  The stabilized version has a major advantage for handheld photography and is also weather sealed.  There is one last advantage of the newer IS version, it’s even a little sharper at the long end of the zoom.  If money is tight this lens offers a lot of bang for your money.

Canon 70-300 f/4-5.6 L IS - Both these lenses are optically and mechanically excellent so either choice would be a winner.  The 70-300 has a slight resolution advantage at 70mm, but the 70-200mm is better at all other overlapping focal lengths.  Adding a 1.4x converter to the 70-200 to get near the 300mm mark would give a small advantage back to the 70-300.  Attaching and detaching the converter is a bit of a pain, so if you will be using 300mm all the time than the longer zoom is likely a better bet.  If you are not shooting wildlife or you have a longer lens for this purpose, then the 70-200 would be my recommendation.  At the low end of the zoom range the lenses share the same aperture, but at 200mm the 70-300mm is 2/3 of a stop slower.  The 70-200 is over an inch longer and a little skinnier, while 70-300 is a hefty 300g heavier.  You will have to decide for yourself if you want more reach or a faster lens.

Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS II – Unbelievably canon makes 4 different versions of the 70-200mm zoom.  This one is the piece de resistance, as it is the best telephoto zoom made in the Canon mount!  Having one stop faster aperture is a distinct advantage for stopping action or low light work over the f/4 version.  This does come with the penalty of doubling the weight of the lens.  It is optically and mechanically best in class, but that creates a second problem, high cost.  The newest f/2.8 version is almost double the price and along with the weight/size will leave this for only a few professionals who really need it.  There is also a much older non-IS and f/2.8 edition of the lens that sells for not much more than the lens I reviewed here.  This aging lens apparently has decent performance in all categories but nothing near recent releases.

Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM – This is a lens I have owned in the past and is not exactly a direct competitor to a 70-200 fixed aperture zoom.  I have included it because if wildlife or other distant subject is your intended goal, 200mm will be very limiting.  The 100-400 is an excellent lens and while not quite as sharp or fast at overlapping settings could be a better one lens solution.

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You never know what situation you will find yourself in or what photographic opportunities will arise.  In August 2013 I was visiting a set of costal cliffs in Lake Superior Provincial Park to photograph the seascape when I noticed some young adults getting ready to do some cliff jumping.  I readied the Canon zoom, set my aperture and shutter speed, then waited for the action to unfold.  The lens delivered superb results.

Score: 8/10

Conclusion

As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, the focal lengths offered in this lens are not my most used.  Whenever I do use this lens I am never disappointed, as it can produce brilliant results and handles like a dream.  I often bring this lens and a 1.4x converter on long hiking/backpacking trips to save weight if I am not expecting to see a lot of wildlife.  There is only one real negative and that is it’s not a great close focusing lens.  The price is high, but that’s what you have to pay to get a lens of this quality.  A Canon 70-200mm f/4 L IS USM offers a light, compact package, with a fast aperture, the latest IS & USM, in a solid weather sealed casing.  Ending at 200mm leaves the lens short for many wildlife applications and it is not as fast as the f/2.8 zooms. It does not try to do too much and so it executes this very well.

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The image of a female Bison from Elk Island National Park shows a typical wildlife shot that I use the lens for.  The Cow was approaching and a zoom was necessary to capture her and the beautifully blowing grasses that she was feeding on.

Overall Score: 9/10

Other Reviews

photozone - This review matches my findings very closely as they tested the lens on a crop sensor body.  This page gives excellent technical data that can be compared to the many other lenses reviewed on the site.

the-digital-picture – This is another review that I feel mirrors my experiences as well.  The author does some really nice comparisons at the end to other lens options.

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