Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Review: Canon 70-200mm F4 IS L

This lens rounds out the mid-range of my lenses, and is probably my favourite of the bunch. It is small and light but robust, and takes great images.

Canon 70-200mm F4 IS L

When I bought my first DSLR, the only lens I bought to go with it was the Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 APO DG, which for the price was a great beginner's lens to learn with. Unfortunately, you tend to get what you pay for with camera gear and after about 6 months or so I felt I was starting to reach the limits of what the lens could do in terms of speed (of both the AF and the aperture range at 300mm), and image quality so I started to look at upgrading. The first lens I found was the Canon 300mm F4 IS prime lens which I got a decent price on on ebay, but that meant I no longer had anything in the mid-zoom range. That was actually ok for a while since I was still spending most of my time shooting wildlife that was either small or far away, but once I started working on fishing boats and I began trying to photograph large birds at much closer range (gulls, gannets, skuas and kittiwakes mostly) I really needed something shorter than the 300mm lens to do it, and that's where the 70-200mm F4 IS came in.

The lens is relatively small and compact

The first thing that struck me about the Canon 70-200mm F4 IS L lens was the size of it - it is a relatively small and lightweight lens and looked rather unassuming when it came out of the box. After a few minutes on the camera though any doubts I might have had about the quality of this lens were thoroughly set aside! The autofocus on this lens (as with all Canon L lenses I've used) is silent and extremely quick to focus in 99% of circumstances (low contrast days pose more of an issue if there's grey birds against a grey sky over a grey sea) and the image stabilisation is a great help as it allows you to handhold at lower shutter speeds when shooting stationary or slow-moving subjects, or removing excess camera-shake while you're panning for an action shot. 


The 70-200mm F4 IS L was particularly useful for shooting kittiwakes which have a tendency to fly very close behind boats in a figure-of-eight path.

So how does the lens perform? As a wildlife lens, I'll admit it is pretty short for most purposes unless you're able to get up close to the action, or want to take wider-angle shots that convey more of a sense of habitat. For bird photography in particular I find it too short to be of much use in more than a handful of situations. It is however more than capable of capturing high-speed action shots outdoors and produces excellent results. It has also put up with the same rough handling that my other gear has (mud, salt, water, fish slime and many knocks and bumps) and has never given a hint of a problem, which is testament to the environmental sealing Canon add to their L-range lenses. But, at approximately £900-£1000 it's certainly not cheap, and unless you've already got a long lens I would advise against buying this one if you're interests are solely wildlife.

Silhouette at sunset

The bokeh is not as blurred as it would be at a wider aperture, but it's still very nice.


Where this lens really shines is in photographing people. The focal length means it produces no noticeable distortion of people's features that you see on wider lenses, and it produces a really nice bokeh when it's fully open which really helps separate your subject from the background. For photojournalism-style photography I can see this being an very good lens choice (though the whiteness does make you fairly noticeable...!), and it's an area I'm hoping to explore a bit more when I'm photographing for work.

The only real downside for me is that F4 is slower in low-light than it's F2.8 counterpart, so if you're shooting indoors or in poor conditions, particularly is you're wanting to shoot fast-moving subjects then you're going to need to use a higher ISO (assuming you keep your shutter speed high), which in turn results in some loss of image quality. How much of an issue that is will depend on your camera body, but with Canon recently releasing an updated version of the F2.8 version of this lens (the 70-200mm F2.8 IS L II), it's likely that good 2nd hand copies of the first version (which is reputedly a stunningly good lens) will be available for under £1000. If I was buying a lens in this range again today, and with no price difference between the two, I'd personally be tempted to go for the F2.8 and get the extra speed over the portability of the F4.