I recently ordered two lenses for comparison since they overlap in focal range: the Canon EF 70-300 f/4-5.6L IS USM and the Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II USM. I’m writing this post because I’ve seen quite a few reviews out there comparing the 70-200 2.8 or 4 against the older non-L 70-300 lenses, and hopefully this will help someone out as they make their purchasing decisions.
First, about the 70-300. I’d ordered it thinking that this was the only lens I should consider. Some reviews of the 70-300 say it’s a fantastic lens, tack sharp, fast focusing, great focal length range, and easier to carry than the 70-200 2.8. Those are all true. After shooting with it for a few days, I was starting to notice that the 5.6 aperture at the long end of the lens lead to some relatively high ISOs (3200) in even what seem like well lit rooms, such as indoors with indirect sunlight in a room that has large windows on three sides. So, after some deliberation (and Canon’s recent instant rebate offer on the 70-200 f/2.8L II lens) I decided to order it as well and compare the two.
The 70-200 2.8 II arrived at my house, and I took it out of the box. This lens is larger and heavier than the 70-300L, not unexpectedly of course. The size and weight aren’t prohibitive, but if you’re not used to large lenses, it may come as a surprise. I mounted it on my 7D and started shooting around the house. I like the increased subject isolation and faster shutter speeds of the wider aperture lens, definitely. As I shot more with them, I realized each lens is meant for different purposes even though they overlap in focal length. So, here’s my pros/cons list for these lenses. Keep in mind that any issues are nit-picks since both lenses are worthy of their “L” series moniker.
Pros of both lenses:
- Phenomenal image quality. These lenses are incredibly sharp.
- Superb build quality. Both lenses are very well built.
Pros of the 70-200 f/2.8L IS II USM:
- Wider aperture: 1-2 stops more light than the 70-300L translates to faster shutter speeds and/or lower ISO in lower light, and less tendency to hunt while auto focusing. The 70-200 auto focuses in extremely dim light, whereas the 70-300 will focus hunt in lower light situations and even in some moderate light situations. This is on my 7D; YMMV, as they say.
- The zoom ring is the ring that’s closest to the camera, which makes it easier to steady the camera. On the 70-300, the zoom ring is farther away from the camera. I find it slightly harder to steady the camera with my arm extended out like it is on the 70-300.
- A non-extending design (internal zoom). Even though the 70-300 is considerably shorter when retracted to 70mm (and it has a zoom lock), when extended to 300, the lenses are virtually the same length, with the 70-300 being just a touch shorter. I like the non-extending design because I know I can’t zoom in and bump something unexpectedly.
- A 77mm filter size. I have several other 77mm lenses and so I can more easily use filters for my other lenses without step-down rings.
- It comes with a tripod collar and a very nice case. The 70-300 doesn’t come with a tripod collar, and it’s about $190 as of the time this post was written. The zippered nylon case on the 70-200 is also much nicer than the bag that comes with the 70-300.
- Compatible with 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters to take the lens to a 98-280 f/4 or a 140-400 f/5.6.
- Shooting at f/2.8 really has a narrow depth of field at or near the minimum focusing distance. It’s not quite as thin as what my 50mm f/1.2L can execute, but it’s enough where if you focus on a person’s cheeks closer to the nose, the person’s eyes will be slightly de-focused. Focusing on the eye will result in some softening of the ears. Subject isolation is excellent.
Cons of the 70-200 f/2.8L IS II USM:
- Heavy, though this is less of a problem in practice than many people say (but I train with weights on a regular basis). I think every review I read about this lens said how heavy it was. My guess is none of those people have handled one of these (not that I have). I find now after handling this lens, the 70-300L feels like a lightweight.
- Large. It’s probably not possible to use this lens discreetly anywhere, though you can buy camouflage covers to help with that a bit.
- Less focal length than the 70-300, though it’s compatible with teleconverters to take it to 280 or 400.
Pros of the 70-300 f/4-5.6L IS USM:
- Relatively lightweight. The 70-300 is a heavy lens, but it’s noticeably less heavy than the 70-200.
- Small. This lens fits more easily in a smaller bag, and would be great for well-lit outdoor sporting events where a little extra reach would be helpful. It also would be very handy while traveling to keep the bag lighter and be able to enjoy the trip more, rather than hefting around a bag full of heavy lenses. (I’d pair this lens with a 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens or the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM lens if you have a crop camera to cover a wider range of focal lengths. I just wish the 17-55 were weather sealed.)
- Less expensive. This lens is less expensive by a non-trivial margin than the 70-200.
- Supposedly compatible with a Kenko 1.4 teleconverter to take it to a 98-420 f/5.6-8. This lens is not compatible with Canon teleconverters. I have not confirmed this myself but some have claimed it works, and reports are that autofocus works on many cameras despite f/8 at the long end. This point is probably more of a wash with the 70-200 since it’s compatible with 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters, but it’s worth mentioning.
- Longer focal length range. The extra 100mm of focal length affects the telephoto amount less than I was expecting, but it does make a difference, especially if you’re trying to capture a bird. Pairing this with a crop sensor camera results in some extensive telephoto capability (672mm equivalent at 300mm on a 1.6 crop sensor camera with the 1.4x teleconverter).
Cons of the 70-300 f/4-5.6L IS USM:
- Narrower aperture, which means pictures in lower light will have a higher ISO and/or slower shutter speeds, possibly resulting in blurred shots due to subject motion, or more ISO noise than desired.
- Tends to focus hunt more frequently than the 70-200.
- Tended to take pictures that were slightly darker than the 70-200 in comparable conditions with the same camera settings. This is a subjective “con”.
- A 67mm filter size. I don’t have a 67mm and so my 77mm circular polarizer needs another step down ring, or, more likely I’d just buy a 67mm circular polarizer.
- The zoom ring is the ring farthest from the camera body as compared to the 70-200L.
Canon put enough competitive differentiation between the 70-300L lens and the others (70-200 f/2.8L II and f/4L) to justify its existence. Since it’s a tiny lens, I could see myself traveling light with this lens and my EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM lens, covering the focal lengths of 17mm to 300mm, albeit with a small gap from 56-69mm and a variable aperture from 70mm upward.
Overall, if you need the capabilities and convenience that each lens offers and can get both lenses, go for it. If you have to choose one over the other, the major differentiators between the lenses are the weight, price, focal length difference, and aperture. They really are lenses designed for different purposes, so whatever fits your needs best is what you’ll have to determine. I’m going to use the 70-200 for indoor shots and 70-300 for outdoor shots and travel. The 70-200 would be fine for travel if you don’t mind lugging around a huge white lens, but I’d rather have the smaller size of the 70-300 for travel. The 70-200 is useful when you need the wider aperture for whatever reason: subject isolation, faster shutter speed, etc., and don’t mind the extra weight and can live with the shorter focal length.
I plan to post some sample pictures from each lens in a future post, but here are pictures of the lenses in both retracted and fully extended positions. (Click to enlarge each picture.) These pictures were taken with a 24mm f/1.4L II lens.