Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II Review

A favourite of the pros, this lens has just been updated. Can it match up to its hefty price tag though?

Of all the pro lenses, the 70-200mm f/2.8 is probably one of the most popular. It’s range of telephoto focal lengths make it perfect for reportage style portraits and many sports. The fast f/2.8 maximum aperture means it’s also great in low light, when you need to keep the shutter speed high, or if you want a background to be totally blurred. This lens is an updated version of its original incarnation released in 2001, with an increased price tag, we found out if it’s worth the upgrade.

The EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM is a classic – dating back to 1995, and it’s still going strong. But then back in 2001 it stunned the market with an image stabilised (IS) version – the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM. Now one of these fine lenses has been replaced…

Surprisingly, it’s not the oldest of the two that gets the redesign. Despite the higher price, the IS version is the first choice for pros using every technological advantage to ensure sharp shots. But there have long been mutterings that the older non-IS version is optically superior to the revolutionary IS alternative.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II

So the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II is born. The Mark II version looks and feels much the same, but the optics have been redesigned, autofocus speed increased, and the weatherproofing made more sturdy. Even the IS has been upgraded to the latest Canon version, which allows you to use shutter speeds that are four stops slower than usually advisable with a handheld lens. All good stuff then, save for the fact that the official price has crept up another £500 to a cool £2,800.

That’s a lot of money, even if you can write off the cost as a business expense. So is it worth the significant outlay? This is a beautifully constructed lens, using the legendary grey-white finish of Canon’s L-series telephoto lenses. The manual focus ring is 40mm wide, and is engineered to give you fine control over the focus – the AF override mechanism allows you to do this even when the AF is switched on. The zoom mechanism is precisely stiff enough and rotates, rather than using the trombone action of some Canon EF telephotos, so it doesn’t get shorter or longer as you zoom in or out.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8l IS USM II Handling

The only handling confusion is with the four switches on the left of the barrel. All are useful, but their similarity means it is hard to locate the one you want without looking. The manual/auto and IS on/off switches will be familiar to Canon users. Added to this is a focus-range limiting switch designed to prevent excessive AF hunting. The full range (option one) provides focus from infinity down to 1.2m (a 10cm improvement on the minimum focus of its predecessor). For those shooting distant subjects, a confined range of 2.5m to infinity is offered, while the fourth option switch offers two IS modes for general use and panning.

The lens is compatible with all Canon EOS SLRs, including full-frame models, and the 1D pro-sports range. Use it on models with smaller sensors, such as the 7D, and the angle of view becomes equivalent to using a 112-320mm zoom. The most impressive feature is the Image Stabilizer – it was possible to get sharp handheld shots at 1/10 sec. This slightly exceeds the ambitious four-stop range that Canon boasts.

Optical quality is also impressive. Resolution is excellent even when used at its maximum aperture, and there’s minimal colour fringing. Bokeh (blur) when wide open is truly stunning – and the reason why pros love this lens. But its eight-blade iris means that out-of-focus highlights still look practically circular down to about f/5.6.

Features

: 5/5

On paper, the image stabilisation lets you use a shutter speed 16-times longer than with a normal handheld lens. In the field, it does even better.

Performance: 5/5

Fantastic image quality, even when used at maximum aperture. Colour fringing is extremely well contained at all focal lengths.

Handling: 5/5

The Manual Focus ring is a smooth operator, giving a wide grip (40mm wide, in fact) and full-time fine control override over autofocus.

Build quality: 5/5

A beautifully rugged lens that comes with all the weatherproofing that you have come to expect with Canon’s brilliant L-series.

Value for money: 3/5

The cost of the refit seems excessive, and sets a new record high for a lens of this type. It’s a great update, but does it merit the price hike?

Overall Verdict

: This is a superb lens, providing some good improvements over its predecessor. The 70-200mm f/2.8 is a must-have lens for many pro photographers, and few would risk their reputation by opting for the cheaper non-IS version. The Mark II IS lens is probably an essential purchase for keen Canon owners – even with the huge hike in price.If the price is now too high, the new Sigma shakebusting alternative is going to be mighty tempting.

See this review, along with test pictures, in the June 2010 (Issue 100) issue of Digital Camera. Why not subscribe to ensure you never miss out and receive some fantastic discounts?