Saturday, December 17, 2011

Canon 70-200 2.8L IS Mark I: Quick Review

Tech Specs
Focal Length: 70-200mm
Dimensions: 3.4 x7.8 in.
Weight: 3.2 lbs.
Maximum Aperture: f2.8
Minimum Aperture: f32
Diaphragm Blades: 8
Front Element: non-rotating, non-extending
Optical arrangement: 23 elements in 18 groups
Autofocus Mechanism: USM
Closest Focus: 4.3 feet
Maximum magnification: 1:6.3
Filter Size: 77mm

Disclaimer: I rented this lens a few awhile back and used it to shoot some high school sporting events. So, the vast majority of pictures made with this lens being of minors, I've decided not to include them for obvious reasons.
The test was also done on an APS-C format camera.

The Canon 70-200 2.8L IS can trace its roots back to Canon's “Magic Drainpipe,” the 80-200 2.8L that was in the original generation of AF lenses. In 1995, Canon ceased production of the 80-200L and released a new 70-200L, which added a Ultrasonic motor and 10mm at the wide end. With its lightning-fast AF and low light capability, the new 70-200L became the workhorse lens for many an action shooter. In 2001, Canon took a good thing and made it better by adding image stabilization to the popular 70-200L, thus creating an even more well-rounded lens. Then 70-200L IS would remain in production until 2010 when Canon introduced a “II” version. Now, with the new lens on the market, the old one can be had for reduced prices, but is it any good?
Build Quality: 5/5
The Canon 70-200 2.8L IS exemplifies “L” build quality. To start with, the lens is all metal. Second, the lens is internal focusing and zooming, which means that it never changes length no matter what you do with it. On top it all off, the “IS” version, unlike the un-stabilized 70-200Ls, is weather resistant. To see this, just look for the rubber gasket at the mount that will prevent junk from entering your camera at the camera/mount connection, the weakest link in the weather-resistance chain. Moving onto the rings, both are rubberized and highly textured to provide ample grip. The outer focus ring doesn't spin during AF thanks to the USM focus mechanism. Speaking of the rings, they move as though they are floating on air and are a true pleasure to use.
Autofocus: 5/5
Being a Canon USM lens, focus on the 70-200 2.8L IS is fast, accurate, and silent. Also, being USM focus drive, you have the ability for full time manual override and a stationary focus ring during AF. In addition, Canon was nice enough to include a focus limiter switch that will prevent the lens from focusing at its closest possible distances in order to speed up the AF. In practice, unless you're torture testing the AF capability of the lens, such a switch is probably useless.
Optics: 4/5
Optically speaking, the Canon 70-200 2.8L IS is, while not bad, not exactly sharp wide open, either. Stop it down to f4 and it's razor sharp across the focal range. Heck, I'd give the edge on wide-open sharpness, at least on the wide end, to my ancient Tokina 80-200 f2.8, which was from back in the 80s! If sharpness is your prime concern, consider this a f4 lens, which pretty much negates the need for paying all that extra cash for less then ideal wide open performance, especially when considering the price class of this optic. Now for the good stuff. Distortion is nil, vignetting wide open (at least on APS-C) is minimal, and CA is very well controlled. By the way, the across the frame sharpness is very good with virtually no falloff in the corners.

The short, fast telephoto zoom lens is a very crowded market segment for the simple reason that such lenses are so doggone useful that everyone wants a piece of the action. In camp Canon alone, there are 4 more 70-200Ls, a standard f2.8 and f4 and a stabilized, weather-sealed f2.8 Mark II and f4. The prices range from $650ish for the 70-200 f4L to over $2,300 for the 70-200 f2.8L IS II. In the middle of this price range, there are 70-200 f2.8 Sigma and Tamron alternatives, too. The non-stabilized Sigma is considered to be optically on-par with the tested Canon and the new stabilized version is said to be slightly better. Both Sigmas feature sonic drive AF, too. If one can live without sonic AF, Tamron's version may be the sharpest one of them all, Canon or not. However, with the lower prices, one loses the weather sealing offered by the Canon. Then, if you don't mind going for out of production lenses, there is the Tokina 80-200 f2.8, which is built so well that it could probably withstand a nuclear explosion. Just be sure to get the inner focusing, AF/MF clutch featuring, gold-banded “PRO” version for vastly improved AF over the one I tested already.

Value: 2/5
Now, I know I may take some heat for this, but the original Canon 70-200 f2.8L IS, while not a bad lens in itself, is a little underwhelming when considering its price point. First of all, when paying $1,600+ for a lens, one can reasonably expect top-notch performance wide open, which this lens does not deliver. If you can get by with f4 (where the lens is razor sharp), save some money and get the razor sharp right from the get go 70-200 f4L IS, which sells for $600 less. If you absolutely need f2.8, IS, and weather sealing, well, there's the superior “II” version, which is great right from f2.8. Then there are the better (in some respects) third-party alternatives. Lastly, when considering that this lens is out of production and service may be limited, what do you get? An over-priced white elephant, sorry.
Conclusion: 3.75/5
Canon's 70-200 f2.8L IS was, in its day, the best thing going for the photographer who demanded a versatile lens. Come 2011, the ship has sailed and there are better alternatives on the market from both Canon itself and third party manufacturers. Still, the lens has a lot going for it, namely build quality, USM, and, for the most part, good optics. However, it does have an Achilles Heel: sharpness at f2.8, which, for some, could be a deal breaker when considering the price. Another thing to consider is that, now that it is an out of production model, there is no guarantee that parts will be available should the lens break. Would I recommend it? No, for what it is at f2.8, the price is just too high, especially considering the alternative models and the fact that it is now out of production. However, should you come across a used one going for around $1000 or less, I'd give a cautious thumbs up, just hope that the AF motor holds together!

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