Review text and images by Saskatoon photographer: JG Photography
From left to right, Canon 135 F/2 vs 70-200 F/2.8 IS vs the new 70-200 F/2.8 IS II
Click the (…more) button to read the review on this brand new lens!
The Canon 70-200 F/2.8 IS lens has a reputation of its own. “L” class high quality glass, a useful focal length range well suited for portraits, candids, sports, events and more, a fast maximum aperture that remains constant throughout the zoom rage, and a powerful lens-based image stabilization system are all elements that have made this lens a go-to piece of equipment for many different types of photographers. Since the introduction of the original 70-200 F/2.8 IS lens in 2001 it has become a standard; and the new version of this lens has improved on the original in every aspect.
I have used the original version I of the 70-200 F/2.8 IS more or less from the onset of my professional work. However, this last year I’ve been finding that this lens stayed home more and more: I would no longer take it on portrait sessions and was starting to leave it at home for weddings, all in favor of the quality offered by prime lenses, particularly the 135 F/2 L lens (pictured above). Yet, after having the new version II of the 70-200 for over a week and bringing it along with me to a wedding this last weekend, I have a feeling that the 70-200 F/2.8 L IS II will find a permanent place in my camera bag once again.
Picking up this lens, you know that it is a professional lens. The construction is solid, with all of the rings tight and rotating smoothly and predictably. Important for outdoor photographers is that this lens is fully weather sealed (when used with a 1D camera body). The lens is based around a metal lens barrel and all of the buttons are nicely recessed to prevent snagging (however throughout the wedding I did find several times when some of the lens buttons have been accidentally pushed into another position, just as with the original). The front filter tread is 77mm, which makes for expensive filters, but it is also a common size amongst L lenses so you can swap some filters between lenses if needed.
Probably the biggest downside to this lens is its size (about 8 inches long without the lens hood) and weight ( about 1.5 kg). Aside from the fact that this big white lens with the red ring has been known to provoke at least entry level lens-envy, with this lens mated to a 1D body, the weight is not insignificant for a 12 hour wedding. Compared to the original, the new version is 20 grams heavier.
As you can see in the top picture with the old version in the middle and the new version to the right, the new version can be distinguished by a slightly larger front focusing ring, but otherwise the lenses themselves are almost visually identical. However, the new version of the lens comes with a newly improved lenshood. It includes a push-button lock and release mechanism so it won’t accidentally fall off, and the finish on the lenshood has a different finish that resists small marks much better than that of the original.
When the MTF charts for the new 70-200 came out, I was optimistic: on paper the lens showed an improvement over the original, but a concern lay in how those theoretical numbers translated into real world optical performance. The original 70-200 was a fantastic performer, but there was room for improvement in comparison to the other 3 versions of the Canon 70-200 at the time. This was particularly evident (and disappointing) when paired against the non-IS F/2.8 version, as the non-IS version was noticeably sharper (despite being an older lens). Therefore, the original 70-200 F/2.8 IS lens was the weakest optical performer of the 4 lenses.
Enter the 70-200 F/2.8 IS II lens, whose optimistic MTF charts indeed did translated into a tangible increase in real world optical performance! The improvement between the original and the new version is noticeable, bringing this version of the 70-200 back in line with the other three lenses in the group. We’ll let the 100% crop tests speak for themselves. While I did not have available to me the other three 70-200 lenses, I was able to test the new version against the original, as well as the optically fantastic 135 F/2 lens.
For this test the camera was set at 135mm ISO 400, F/2.8, 1/200s. The 1D Mark IV was used. Autofocus was achieved through live view and multiple shots were taken, reconfirming focus each time. Camera was on a tripod and the shot was taken in live view (mirror up). They were shot in RAW and converted in ACR at standard parameters, except without sharpening. Although the target is a standard ISO chart, I used it only as a reference for sharpenss and the numbers on it do not correspond to actual values.
Note: Although all shots were taken at 135mm, the 70-200 lenses are zoomed in more because of their length. Therefore the 135 F/2 lens has a higher resolving power than is shown in this comparison.
One other note that I want to bring up that was quite a pleasant and surprising finding is that the new lens has superior color saturation and contrast in comparison to the original, particularly when faced with a backlit situation. As the following test shows (a different test that the above crops) the 135 F/2 still the king, but the new 70-200 F/2.8 IS II isn’t far behind, and when compared against the original the new version displays a tangible improvement.
(note: the 135 F/2 appears to let in about 1/3 stop more light than the other two lenses, which may contribute to the difference in contrast and saturation).
This lens, like the original, is internally focusing and when it focuses the front element does not rotate. It also employs a ring-type USM (ultra sonic motor) focusing motor, as opposed to the less effective electronic USM or micromotor USM focusing motors. This makes focusing fast, near silent, and maintains full-time manual focus abilities. Also an important improvement I find is the reduction of the minimum focusing distance from 1.4m to 1.2 m. While quantitatively not a long distance, I found that that extra 0.2m to be a noticable benefit when in close quarters. Whereas with the original 70-200 F/2.8 IS I found myself sometimes needing to really squish into a wall to get the shot, I didn’t run into that problem with this lens. Subjective? Yes, but important in my eyes.
In comparison to the original 70-200, my real world testing shows that there is an improvement of at least some degree in the focusing speed, which was already very fast with the original. Combined with the enhanced optical performance of this new version, the result is a notable increase sharp images taken in an action setting. Below are examples from each lens that are representative of the average level of focus achieved with each lens. Shots were taken on the 1D Mark IV (focus calibrated for each lens) at ISO 400, F/2.8, 1/4000s, with the subject already having been tracked for roughly 10 meters, is about 28 meters away from the camera, running head on (although not a full sprint). As you can see, for a sports shooter this is very much reason enough to upgrade, and while this test is not exhaustive by any means, it is representative of my other testing and findings: that as a combination of factors, the new lens is noticeably sharper.
(please note that the sharpness findings, particularly for the original 70-200, are representative of the average performance in servo focusing mode only. Some shots were sharper, just not the average amount. For each run about 30 shots were taken and there were 4 runs with each lens. For a sharpness-only reference, see the test charts above HERE)
Image Stabilization Performance
Image stabilization technology moves a certain group of lens elements in such a way as to counter the photographers hand shake, allowing the photographer to take a picture at a slower shutter speed than normally possible. All current implementations of IS in Canon’s photographic systems is lens-based (as opposed to camera-based), whose major advantage lies in stabilizing not only the final image, but also the image in the viewfinder while the picture is framed. However, the practical limitation of IS lays in the movement of your subject, as IS only protects against camera movement, not subject movement. This is important to keep in mind when shooting in active environments, such as with people.
While the image stabilization system in the original 70-200 F/2.8 IS was touted to provide up to 3 stops of stabilization, in my findings the consistently reproducible reality was that it was good for closer to 2.5 stops. This means that when zoomed in at 200m instead of shooting at minimum of 1/200s before camera shake ruins the picture, you could take the picture at 1/40s. The new version of this lens features a next-generation stabilizer that is able to assist you to the tune of up to 4 stops, which according to my testing is pretty accurate. Therefore the new IS system provides an improvement of about 1.5 stops in stabilizing power over the original. As an additional benefit, the new IS is almost prefectly silent!
Of my many tests, one was where I took a series of 20 hand held pictures of the ISO test chart, fully zoomed in at 200mm, set in manual at 1/20s, and approximately half a second of time was given between the initiation of the IS system and the taking of the first picture. With IS off, 100% of the shots were significantly blurred at full crop. With IS on the original version of the lens, 20% were sharp, 70% were moderately blurred, and 10% were significantly blurred. With the IS on the new version II of the lens, 90% were sharp, 10% were moderately blurred, and 0% were significantly blurred, showing a marked improvement over the original. Interestingly, the 10% of blurred shots from the version II of the lens always appeared as the first 1 or 2 pictures of the sequence. This is in line with my reading that the more time you let the IS system run the more accurately it will counter act your camera shake, providing maybe 2 stops of stabilization in the first second, and then the full 4 stops after that.
The following picture was from the wedding I was at last weekend where I was testing this lens. The shot was taken at 200mm on the 1D Mark IV at ISO 6400, F/2.8 and 1/25s. Its perfectly sharp.
Pros vs Cons
- Outstanding optical sharpness, a noticeable improvement over the original lens, placing this lens equal or above the other three 70-200 lenses in Canon’s lineup
- Rich saturation and contrast (improved over the original lens)
- Very fast autofocus (even improved over the original lens)
- 4-stop IS system that is near silent (1.5 stop improvement over the original lens)
- Close focusing distance 1.2 meters (reduced from 1.4m on the original lens)
- New locking lenshood design and improved scratch-resistant outer coating
- When used with a 1D series camera with the pro 580 EX II flash the entire system is weatherproofed
- Cost: whereas you can get the original 70-200 F/2.8 IS new for about $1900 CND, the new version will cost about $2700 CND (prices as of March 17, 2010)
- It still won’t optically outperform or take in as much light as some amazing primes such as the 135 F/2 or the 200 F/2
- It gets heavy after 12 or so hours attached to a pro body
What happens when a classic professional’s go-to lens is taken and improved in every way? You get the 70-200 F/2.8 IS II! This truly is a fantastic lens, even at its rather high price point. Compared to the original 70-200 F/2.8 IS, the new version has improved optics and a fantastic IS system, and for action photography I’ve found that improvements in both optics and autofocus have led to higher amounts sharper images. In relation to primes, there are primes out there that are faster and sharper, but they either lack IS (such as the 135 F/2) or are very expensive (such as the 200 F/2) or have less features than this lens (such as the 200 F/2.8), and all primes lack the flexibility of a zoom lens. Ultimately, there will be few wedding and sports photographers and photojournalists who won’t want this lens. So is it worth the upgrade over the original? For me it was – the extra IS in a reception situation is a large benefit, and the improvement in sharpness had me sealed the deal.
Like I said in the introduction, I have a feeling that the new Canon 70-200 F/2.8 L IS II USM will find itself a permanent place in my photography bag!