Lens comparison: Canon EF 70-300 f/4-5.6L IS USM vs Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II USM

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.

Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L II IS USM and Canon EF 70-300 f/4-5.6L IS USM retracted

Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L II IS USM and Canon EF 70-300 f/4-5.6L IS USM extended

53 thoughts on “Lens comparison: Canon EF 70-300 f/4-5.6L IS USM vs Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II USM”

  1. Greg, I recently purchased a 6D and the 70-300L, and just got back from a trip to the zoo I took over 500 images, and while I’m still learning, I have some concerns. Since photography at zoos and similar situations are pretty much what I enjoy when it comes to pictures, I thought this was a good test of the lens for me. I’ve read through most of the comments here so think I have an idea, but I wanted to get some more direct feedback about what I experienced. I was debating between this lens and the 70-200 F/2.8 IS II.

    The two big issues I ran into were subjects sitting in the shade (who wouldn’t?) and subjects moving (they’re animals). In the midst of learning, I recognized I needed to use about 1/500 exposures to keep the animal sharp, both from the animal moving and likely also from my own ability to hold the camera steady.

    I also found that 95% of the images were shot at 300mm. I noticed that the few shot at 200mm weren’t really any worse from a ‘reach’ perspective. I crop most of my pictures at least a little bit for better framing, so it means I’d just crop a bit more. On only one subject did I need less than 70mm, and had my 40mm f/2.8 I swapped to.

    I noticed for shots in the sunlight, most came out almost perfect, assuming the shutter speed was 1/500 or better. A lot of the 1/320s came out okay too. Slightly off focus was probably a bigger problem for these sorts of shots. For shots in the shade, the camera routinely went up to 10,000 or 12,800 ISO, and the detail got really soft because of the noise.

    Also, fences close to you go away nicely at large apertures and long focal lengths. This was very useful in a zoo environment.

    I also ran into problems getting proper exposure and focus. I’m used to an electronic viewfinder or shooting from a live view, neither of which I can do very well with a Canon 6D. The auto modes wouldn’t let me force a center point focus to get animals through fences or behind branches and leaves, so I’d often use the more manual modes. The autofocus is pretty lousy in live view, forcing me to do manual focus, and at 300mm, it was hard for me to hand-hold, use live view, and be steady enough to even see if I’m in perfect focus at x10 magnification. I’m also used to shooting mostly manual, where I could compose exposure perfectly from the viewfinder. I can’t do that with an optical viewfinder. But I think these problems are more my own lack of experience with more traditional cameras.

    So, all of that being said, and admittedly, I need a lot more practice, but it seems to me that a larger aperture lens would help with the troubles I ran into with getting sharper (lower ISO) pictures in the shadows, while keeping shutter speed high enough to remove motion blur. I didn’t notice the weight of the lens much. It was something I was conscious of, but not troubling.

    I have the option of trading the lens in for the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, (and paying the significant difference) but I wanted to be sure I had all the facts before I consider that. One being, will I end up stopping down to F/4 or F/5.6 anyway to give me enough depth of focus so an animal’s face and/or body is all in sharp focus? At 200mm on the 70-300L, I’m at F/5.0 anyway. While I’d be going down from ISO 10000 to ISO 3200 or so by my math, will it really make that much difference? Oh, and my other lens is the 24-105mm F/4 with 77mm threads. Just to put a little more into the 70-200 bucket.

    I also shoot astro photography, and with at F/5.6, I need 10-20min exposures to get enough light to see most nebula well. At F/2.8, it’s down to 3-5min. But the cost difference between the two lenses could buy me the 200mm F/2.8L prime lens.

    So I’d like your thoughts on all this, if possible. In short, I’d like to take one lens with me on outings, (and maybe the tiny 40mm), and I wanted to be sure the 70-300L is the best bet. I don’t have the money to get both, but I can pick either one now, and I’d like to make sure I don’t regret my choice.

  2. Robert, thanks for the comment. First of all, excellent choice of camera and lens. I have not had a chance to use the 6D but if it has image quality like the 5D3 which I hear it does, I imagine you’ll be quite happy with it.

    Let’s start with a couple points from your comment.

    I also found that 95% of the images were shot at 300mm. I noticed that the few shot at 200mm weren’t really any worse from a ‘reach’ perspective.

    will I end up stopping down to F/4 or F/5.6 anyway to give me enough depth of focus so an animal’s face and/or body is all in sharp focus? At 200mm on the 70-300L, I’m at F/5.0 anyway. While I’d be going down from ISO 10000 to ISO 3200 or so by my math, will it really make that much difference?

    The depth of focus question can be answered with depth of focus calculator tools like that one. On the 6D (I chose the 5D on the DOF calculator because it’s the same sensor size as the 6D), it’s surprising, but a lens at 300mm and f/5.6 actually has less DOF than does a lens at 200mm and f/2.8 at an example distance of 15 feet. 300mm f/5.6 @ 15ft has a DOF of 0.15ft, whereas 200mm f/2.8 has a DOF of 0.18ft. So DOF is not an issue for “downgrading” your focal length to 200mm, but it would help in terms of ISO – you could divide your ISO shot at f/5.6 by 4 to get your ISO at f/2.8. In other words, an ISO value of 6400 would turn into an ISO of 1600, which is virtually noise-free on the 5D3/6D. On the other hand, the 6D (like the 5D3) has stellar noise control. For example, here is a photo I shot at ISO 12800 with the 70-300L. It’s a possibility (though certainly not a foregone conclusion) that camera shake or focus could be an issue for the lack of sharpness you’re seeing, particularly if you are shooting handheld with live view.

    I would recommend using a spot focus mode (if the 6D has it) to pinpoint focus through the fence, then tweak focus manually instead of using live view. I’d think a tripod would be better for live view – at least that’s how I typically do it.

    I do happen to have some experience shooting zoo photos with both lenses so can offer you some images with each. Here is one example shot with the 5D3 and the 70-300L (camera settings are on that page and I shot that one through a cage). Here is another with the same combo. This is one shot with the 70-200 f/2.8 IS USM II on a 7D camera. (The last Mandarin duck photo happened to be featured as on my local zoo’s calendar this year for the photo during the month of August!)

    Personally, if you are shooting zoo photos, the 70-300L is far easier to hand hold than the f/2.8. When I have shot with both, I’ve found that the f/2.8 was nice for darker places, but the 70-300L was overall a more pleasant lens to use (lighter, smaller). Because the f/2.8 lets in more light, the autofocus system of the camera works better too in dark places, something to keep in mind.

    Not to confuse the issue further, and I have not shot with this lens and so have no recommendation for it other than its interesting position in the market, but have you seen the Sigma 120-300 f/2.8 lens? That would give you the best of both worlds, a 300mm reach at f/2.8, though it does cost at the time of this writing about $500 more than the 70-200 f/2.8. There are some 300 f/4 primes available but 1 stop isn’t going to make a huge difference.

    Overall, if image quality (lower ISO) and focusing accuracy (normal viewfinder focusing, not live-view) are your goals and you don’t care about weight or size, the f/2.8 won’t disappoint. You’ll have to get closer than the 300mm lens though as some of the lower ISO quality will be lost with fewer usable pixels in the picture. If you want something easier to carry for long periods of time that has a little more reach, then the 70-300L is a good choice (plus as you say, it leaves you some extra money for another lens). It’s a hard call to make since there are tradeoffs with each lens but both are excellent and produce fantastic images.

  3. Hi, no doubt that this lens is a bit darker than others, but with the right settings on your camera with right environment, the pictures will come out nice sharp NAT Geo quality. I have recently been to Edinburgh zoo and God the pictures were sharp enough to pierce my eyes. This “lil” 70-300L lens is an amazing lens and I have never struggled to get sharp crystal images. Thanks

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