Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS USM II Review

Most photographers using SLRs will, at some point, look to complete the "trinity" of lenses - a wide angle zoom, maybe 16-24mm, alongside a 24-70mm and rounded out with a 70-200mm.  These three lenses cover a huge focal range and give the best balance of image quality, cost & versatility in the smallest number of lenses.  Having said that, if you opt for the faster f/2.8 lenses over the f/4 versions you are often looking at a significant investment but with that comes the highest quality currently available.  

Canon's earlier offering, the mark I version of the 70-200 f/2.8 IS, was often voted people's favourite & most used lens and it's easy to see why - image quality is fantastic, it was reasonably priced and useful in a huge range of scenarios.  Released back in 2001 it was beginning to show its age when compared against newer offerings and the state of the art has shifted over the last decade.  Canon's latest revision of this popular lens has a tough standard to beat if it was going to tempt people to upgrade.

I've used this lens in the past, as well as the f/2.8 mark I and also the f/4 version.  Although it's never a lens I've owned I'm personally in the market for something in this class so the chance to get hands-on for another long term period was something I didn't pass up!

Out of the Box

As well as the lens you get the standard caps & hood you expect from all L-lenses.  A nice padded case is also provided.

Whats In A Name?

  • 70-200mm is the focal range measured in full frame terms.  In other words, a short-to-moderate telephoto zoom lens.
  • f/2.8 is the maximum aperture.  The fact it's consistent throughout the zoom range and very wide should immediately warn you this is likely to be a heavy lens with a LOT of chunky glass!
  • IS is Canon's Image Stabilization.  This particular lens is rated at 4-stops of stabilization, so it ought to be very effective at cancelling out camera shake.  Remember, image stabilization doesn't do anythin to reduce the blur from a fast moving subject!
  • The "L" indicates "Luxury" and is basically how Canon choose to differentiate their professional grade kit from their other ranges. Image quality & construction will be top-notch for lenses designated L.
  • USM stands for UltraSonic Motor, basically Canon's top-end autofocus driver.
  • II - this is the mark II version of this lens, the predecessor having beeen released back in 2001.

Useage & Handling

The 70-200 focal length and f/2.8 aperture instantly suggest a number of photographic scenarios that this lens would excel in.  Its focal range puts it in portrait & headshot territory and the fast aperture helps it out in indoor & lower light situations.  It can also be a handy addition when travelling where the versatility & reach offer great utility, albeit in a fairly heavy package!  My plan to review it was to put it in as many of the situations it should excel in and see how it performs.

First impressions upon handling the lens are that it's solid.  The thing feels like a tank!  With 23 internal glass elements and a metal outer body construction, not to mention the metal tripod ring mount this thing is an absolute beast!  It's heavy, it's wide and bloody hell does it feel good!  You would expect this kind of feeling with an L-lens, especially one of the white ones, and this delivers in spades.  It's an odd feeling... I'm a photography nerd and do like attractive, well-made and professional gear but this is the first time I've ever done a "woo hoo" when hefting a lens for the first time.  I own large super-telephotos too but nothing has given me quite the nerdgasm this did! It did give me pause for thought though, would it be too heavy to use?

With all new photography kit to review I take it on a photowalk to get a feel for it, this time through East Coast Park.  Mounted on a Canon 7D-II and hanging around my neck it was initially uncomfortable.  The lens is heavy and with a default strap, downright uncomfortable.  I ended up ditching the neck strap and using a shoulder-sling.  These are much more convenient & comfortable.  In this case, switching from the bog-standard camera strap to a shoulder strap (like these from Black Rapid) made it MUCH more pleasant to carry around.  

Overshadowed by the larger ocean-going vessels, this paddle-boarder was a good distance of the coast but with the 1.6x crop factor of the 7D-II pushing the 200mm end out to 320mm

Telephoto lenses also compress perspective which can be useful in landscape shooting - in the image below, I tried shooting at 200mm (again, effectively 320mm) to flatten the docks along the bottom of the frame.

I was worried that when paired with a full size DSLR it would be cumbersome & tiring.  Admittedly, after several hours walking up & down the park, I could definitely feel that I'd been carrying it!  Without a proper shoulder strap it would have been even worse!  Overall, I think it's probably not far from the edge of what's comfortably portable for a day's shooting - and it'll certainly help your muscle tone while shooting! - but it is OK for use over many hours.  With full weather sealing, even a short rain shower didn't stop shooting.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend a friend's wedding recently and although I was very careful to not get in the way of the official photographer, I couldn't ignore the opportunity to try it out!  Most wedding shooters tend to carry two bodies for the day, usually a 24-70 and a 70-200 and I wasn't surprised to see the official photographer using the mark I version of this lens!

Using the lens for a photowalk out-and-about was fun.  Using it indoors capturing candidate shots of friends & family at the wedding was flat out awesome.  Paired with the 6D for the day, I set it to f/2.8 and never looked back!

Shot indoor in natural light at f/2.8 - lovely bokeh despite an otherwise distracting background and sharpness is fantastic.  Colours are rendered perfectly too.  This is cropped to approximately 50% of the larger frame yet still holds up very well.

I also think the colour rendition here is just beautiful.

Another shot at f/2.8 and the centre sharpness here is just superb.  Knowing that you can shoot wide open and still get stunningly sharp detail never gets old and allows for some really creative images.

The lens is fantastic for indoor portraits - shot below at f/2.8 (yet again!) you can see the level of detail in the cardigan and her face.  It does also highlight how shallow the DOF can get though, especially if you are shooting close, and you can see that her hands & the cocktail class are already blurred.  

The mark 2 lens also comes with the latest incarnation of Canon's image stabilisation.  It's rated at 4-stops.  This basically means you are more likely to be able to get hand-held shots at slower shutter speeds because it compensates for camera shake.  While it doesn't do anything to stop the blur from your subject's motion it definitely increases the "keeper" rate.  I'm impressed - though it's difficult to demonstrate the effectiveness in pictures, it's a noticeable improvement through the viewfinder compared to older IS lenses and against competitors versions.  

Autofocusing performance is another attribute where it's hard to convey just how good it is in photos.  It needs to be measured in two ways, speed & accuracy.  If you read my other reviews, I normally test this by repeatedly getting the lens to hunt over its full focal range & see how many "hits" it gets.  Generally speaking, most lenses are pretty good though some have niggling issues, particularly those from 3rd party vendors like Tamron & Sigma who reverse-engineer the AF process.  It's rare that I'm totally unsatisfied with a lens' AF performance because to a certain extent they are all in approximately the same ballpark.  This lens has changed my expectations yet again...  On both accuracy and speed it is in simply a different league from all other lenses I've used.  I know that AF is also driven partly by the camera & partly from the lens but regardless of whether I used a 550D, 6D, 5Dmk2 or 7Dmk2 it was the same... it just worked.

Hit rates from most of my other lenses when I'm asking the AF to hunt-and-lock is, broadly speaking, in the 40% - 50% range.  When I take the time to compose and focus carefully it's usually in the 85% range (both of these figures after using the microfocus adjust feature where available).  The 70-200 mark II has pushed those numbers up markedly, to somewhere approaching 75% in snap-shot situations and over 95% for static shots.  

I totally admit I might just be behind the times in my expectation of what AF is capable of!  But seeing the performance of this lens was something of a revelation and puts every single camera/lens I've ever used in the shade.  It's that good.

This snapshot - and you guessed it, shot at f/2.8 again, pays testament to the speed & accuracy of the autofocus.  This chap poked his head over the railings for only a few seconds, swiftly retreating when he saw I was pointing a camera at him!  In that time the lens refocused across practically its entire range in a split second and nailed accuracy.

Testing for flare was tricky.  In all honesty, though I'm sure the conditions exist that will show up flare artefacts, in all my experience with this lens I've never found it accidentally in a photo nor found a reliable way to generate it.  Even keeping the sun in the corner of the frame on a clear day didn't work!  In the end, while flare is never something that can be removed completely, I didn't once find a problem with it. Distortion was also very good and not something that was really noticeable using the lens though with certain types of photo it was more prominent as you can see in the example image below, shot at approximately 70mm.  At 200mm I found the problem to be even less pronounced.  I've added in the corrected version of the frame after processing in Lightroom to show how pronounced the distortion is and how easily it's fixed.

The images above and below are quick captures to show the field of view at min/max edges of the zoom range, shot on a full frame camera.  Above is 70mm, below is 200mm.

I'm a newcomer to infra-red (IR) photography and definitely still finding my feet - most of the work I'm doing is shamefully bad - but I did experiment with the lens and didn't find any examples of hot-spots or aberrations.  No sample images I'm afraid, not quite ready to start sharing those :)  The lens focusing distance meter does have IR markings on as well as standard ones.

There are number of controls built into the lens itself to control minimum focusing distances (either 1.2 -> ∞ or 2.5 -> ∞), used to speed up AF performance and stop the lens hunting too much in certain situations, as well as toggles for AF/MF & to enable/disable image stabilisation.  The latter also has a mode option, with mode 1 stabilising across all axes and mode 2 designed for panning motions, damping vertical but not horizontal motion.  I don't personally find much use for the second mode, instead leaving it on mode 1 almost permanently, but it's nice to know the feature is there if you ever need it!

It also comes equipped with a standard tripod ring mount.  Although made of metal & sturdy, I did find it a bit annoying that when the lens is mounted to the camera you can't remove the tripod mount, forcing you instead to detach the camera completely.  It may seem a fairly small gripe but every time you detach your lens you increase the chance of dust & crap finding its way onto your sensor and it's easier to attach/remove a ring mount from a tripod or monopod than it is unscrew the entire plate.

In summary, if you can get over the size/bulk & weight of the lens you will have a shooting experience that is nothing short of amazing.  It is, by far, the most satisfying lens I've ever used.

Image Quality

The mark 1 lens was highly regarded not only for handling & performance so the bar is already set very high for the mark 2. Likewise, the f/4 version of this lens is optically excellent.  Finally, if you are paying more for an f/2.8 lens, especially at this price, then it had better be exceptional when shot wide open.

Again the lens doesn't let us down.  I've uploaded some sample images below to demonstrate this, click on them to open larger versions.  Unless stated otherwise the images are straight up RAW conversions with only standard screen sharpening applied from ACR - I do this because this is likely to be how 99% of people would start with their own RAW processing workflow.  I've annotated each image to give a little more information behind each scene.  

After shooting weddings & a photowalk I next turned the lens toward a portrait session.

I've mentioned the sharpness throughout this article as it really is a stand-out feature.  This was shot hand-held at f/4 as sunset was approaching yet still shows remarkable sharpness - check out the 100% crop below.

Canon 6D - f/4 - 1/160th sec - ISO320 - 200mm

He's not the model though ;)

Some default LR screen sharpening here but otherwise it's all from the lens.  Even though a tiny amount of motion blur is present while pixel peeping the raw sharpness is still evident.  For studio or tripod shots it is even better.  I should have probably dropped the shutter to at least 1/200th sec but the light was beginning to fade.

Some default LR screen sharpening here but otherwise it's all from the lens.  Even though a tiny amount of motion blur is present while pixel peeping the raw sharpness is still evident.  For studio or tripod shots it is even better.  I should have probably dropped the shutter to at least 1/200th sec but the light was beginning to fade.

From a photoshoot organised by PSS, model Angela Wendy.

Most of the other guys were shooting using a single strobe, this was shot at f/2.8 to highlight the lovely bokeh.

Canon 6D - f/2.8 - 1/160th sec - ISO200 - 200mm

Another from the same shoot, converted to monochrome.  Settings as above, shot at 70mm.

Proof if needed this lens is also very capable of "wildlife" photography!  Loving the contrast in this shot.

Canon 6D - f/2.8 - 1/400th sec - ISO 400 - 200mm

While waiting my turn with the model I turned the lens onto others sharing the beach.  It's probably a bit big to be discreet enough for street photography but quality/capability wise it's certainly good enough,

Model lit by one strobe, from below bizarrely, with natural lighting for the background.  Check out the 100% crop of her face below

Canon 6D - f/6.3 - 1/160th sec - ISO 100 - 70mm

Click to make it larger.

In summary, image quality is nothing short of exceptional.  At f/2.8 it's awesomely sharp in the centre and still impressive at the edges & in the corners.  Stopped down it gets better, though given how impressive it is wide open the improvement isn't too extreme.  Bokeh wide-open is just lovely.

For the price it needed to be absolute top-draw in terms of image quality.  It absolutely is!

I'd really like to see the results of this lens paired with the forthcoming 5DSR!

Other Options

As I said in the opening to the review, the 70-200mm focal length range is useful & there are multiple options out there on the market. Though I am yet to fully review all of these options, I've used a couple of examples personally and can share some anecdotal opinions. As & when I flesh out my review backlog I'll update these links to the full reviews.

  • Canon f/2.8 70-200 L IS I - the predecessor to this lens.  Cheaper, optically fantastic but upgraded in every way by the mark II
  • Sigma f/2.8 70-200 EX DG Macro II - no review yet, and no personal experience
  • Tamron f/2.8 70-200 Di VC USD - no review yet, and very limited personal experience
  • Canon f/4 70-200 L IS - smaller, cheaper & lighter because of the smaller aperture. Good option if you don't need f/2.8

Pros

  • Outstanding, best-I've-seen image quality.  Imagine watching VHS then jumping straight to blu-ray.
  • Image quality.  So good I'm adding it twice!
  • Handling & Features.  Ignoring the weight, the key features of the lens - AF, IS - are state-of-the-art.
  • Versatile focal length range.
  • Longevity.  It's going to be in your bag for a LONG time to come, just look at its predecessor.

Cons

  • Cost.  Though the quality & performance support the price to some extent, it's very expensive.  I'm guessing this will be the single biggest obstacle for people looking to get this lens.
  • Heavy.  And bulky.  Get a good strap & comfortable camera bag if you plan to use it travelling.  And maybe a personal trainer to work on your arm strength.
  • Irrationally attractive.  If you are serious about your photography, it will exert a strange pull, dominating your every waking thought until you re-mortgage your house to pay for one.

Conclusion

I've used this lens a few times now and each time it was just an absolute joy.  It's not without its flaws - and they ARE definitely a serious consideration - but the act of using it is extremely satisfying and seeing the results on the computer seals the deal.  If you are looking for a 70-200mm lens you will not get better than this.

It puts me personally in something of a difficult situation!  I myself am looking for a new 70-200mm lens.  I'd used the f/4 version as well as the Tamron competition and was beginning to veer towards the Tamron.  Now I've used this, it's spoiled me!  Until I'd experienced the AF performance I'd assumed what I've had in the past was good enough; now I don't think so.  Until I'd seen wide-open sharpness I thought the competition was good enough; now I don't think so.  

Which leaves me with my final conclusion... The highest level of recommendation I can give for a lens is that I would buy one myself, and this is exactly what I hope to do here just as soon as I've built up the courage to rob a bank.  

It really is that good.  Simply awesome.