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.
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”
Greetings from Singapore! Appreciate your review.
I’m contemplating purchasing the 70-300mm L lens to complement my 17-55mm f2.8 IS. The latter is a wonderful tool. Reason for the telephoto zoom arose during a vacation to Olympic National Park in Washington State. I was trying to shoot handheld a woodpecker up in a tree under a forest canopy with the 17-55mm (on a 60D) so I had to get quite close. And even then the bird was tiny. Saving grace was the f2.8, the IS and ISO set at 2500 (shutter speed at 1/640). Subsequently I had the opportunity to shoot another bird (a humming bird sized sunbird) in bright day light and I realised 200mm was still quite inadequate (I was using an old Canon 50-200mm) but perhaps the poor image quality (no IS, no tripod, relatively poorer optics) compounded the feeling of inadequacy.
Your review doesn’t give me much confidence about the performance of the 70-300mm in low light but the focal length up to 300mm (accentuated by the 1.6 crop factor) is very attractive. Wonder if the following logic is flawed: while it’s not always sunny on a vacation, it’s more likely that I’ll shoot in daylight rather than when it’s dim. And if it’s dim, the IS and a relatively high ISO setting will compensate for not having a wider aperture. So it’s more likely that I’ll maximise the value of the lens with a compromise on the aperture than if I compromised on reach. I enjoy shooting landscape and animals.
Perhaps a 70-300 with f2.8 will be prohibitively expensive for the target segment that Canon is aiming for…
Your advice for this newbie will be much appreciated.
Thanks for stopping by to read this review and leave a comment! I highly recommend the 70-300L, and I think it would be an exceptional telephoto zoom lens to take on a vacation. It’s relatively compact, it’s sharp, it has good reach, and it’s noticeably lighter than the 70-200 f/2.8L II lens (1490g for the 70-200 vs 1050g for the 70-300L). It makes a nice travel complement to the 17-55.
I’ve tried shooting birds with my 17-55 and 55mm isn’t anywhere near long enough. The 2.8 aperture helps attain a lower ISO and therefore get more detail in smaller objects like birds, but it doesn’t make up for the lack of length of the lens. Having shot with both the 70-200 f/2.8L II and 70-300L for a month or so, I agree that 200mm, even on a crop body like your 60D, normally isn’t enough reach for birds. 300mm helps with bird shots, but I’d still probably like 400mm or more (which the 70-300L can reach with that Kenko extender … and I still need to buy that at some point). I’d considered the 100-400L but don’t like the push/pull design, like the smaller body of the 70-300L, and prefer the improved image quality of the 70-300L (see this comparison). I’ve also read the IS system in the 70-300L is better than the 100-400L.
As far as performance of the 70-300L in low light, with its IS system, even if auto focus isn’t attainable, manual focus still produces great results. Properly focused images created by this lens are razor-sharp at low ISO and are still reasonably sharp (at least on my 7D) at higher ISOs like 3200. As an aside, my previous “telephoto” (if you can call it that) lens prior to the 70-300L was 28-135mm lens, which is soft generally, and ISO 3200 doesn’t help its image quality. The color quality is better with the 70-300L as well compared to the 28-135.
To reply to your statement about your vacation logic, I agree that the IS and a high ISO setting will compensate for not having a wider aperture. That being said, comparing to the 70-200 f/2.8L II, the background blur and subject isolation is generally better with the wider aperture, so I use the 70-200 in situations where I prefer the more artistic look it provides or need the faster shutter speeds. Next time I go on vacation, I’m going to bring my 70-300L, not the 70-200 f/2.8L II. It’s just so much more compact, the extra reach is great, and odds are I’d be shooting with the 70-300L outdoors during the day. I don’t know what I’d be shooting at night with the telephoto lens anyway, since it probably would be too dark to see anything distant with my eyes. To add to my earlier statement about the 70-300L not focusing in lower light, those conditions I was testing in were very dim: shooting across the room indoors with one 100 watt bulb on in the opposite corner. Anyway, for lower light situations, I’m probably shooting more close-up anyway, and I’d either use the 17-55 zoom or one of my primes (24 1.4 or 50 1.2).
I also think that a 70-300 f/2.8 would be expensive, heavy, and large. I don’t think anyone would want to carry it around!
Hope this helps! I’d be happy to reply to any other questions you might have.
I’m glad that your “distractions” include photography! Thanks very much for your extensive response.
I am glad to hear it’s a good all rounder, relatively light and friendly enough for travel. I’m built compactly, so every gram shaved off whatever I carry takes me just a little further on my journeying!
About the aperture, yes, if one can’t see anything, then it’s not likely it’ll be shot; so shooting when it’s dark is probably out for a telephoto, at least for non James Bond characters like me (and you, presumably, but given your distractions, who knows?). Nevertheless, what about shooting night scenery in urban areas? For example in a fairly well lit bazar or say a city scape? I had the experience of the latter overlooking brightly lit Seattle at night. The 17-55 was great with a wide shot. Wondering if the long lens will be any good zoomed in and hand held?
I’ve seen a number of images of the bokeh on the 70-300L. Subject isolation as you mentioned is not quite as impressive as with the wider aperture of the 17-55.
And Just crossed my mind, have you tried video with this long lens on your 7D at night or at twilight? I’m thinking…UFO shots, but no seriously, for example trying to capture a sports performance at a stadium at night? I’ve not even tried video on my 60D, even though I’ve been shooting stills since I got the camera in October last year.
By the way, I came across this site, interesting. http://www.canonrumors.com/category/photography/canon-lenses/
Indeed, a 70-300 f/2.8 will probably only be carried by those brilliant sherpas shepherding an Everest expedition.
No problem … I’m happy to help out a fellow lens shopper.
Sounds like the size and weight of the 70-300L would be good for you.
Night scenery in urban areas, if reasonably well lit, should be fine. I tried shooting a very poorly lit side of one of my neighbor’s houses, and autofocus wouldn’t work. The image quality was decent after I manual focused though, since the IS on this lens is pretty amazing. Shooting at 1/15 sec at 300mm isn’t out of the question if you’re fairly steady or can prop up against something solid. A well-lit night bazaar shouldn’t be a problem either. A city scape might require manual focus, I’m guessing, depending on how wide of a shot and how much dark sky is included.
I haven’t tried video at night or twilight with the 70-300L, but I suspect it would work great. I manual focus with video anyway. The IS will help greatly if you’re filming at 300mm, since it’s awfully hard to keep the camera steady without IS.
I visit canonrumors.com regularly, as I’m thinking of purchasing a 5D mk III should one ever be released. It would be nice to have a full frame complement to the 7D, essentially doubling the number of effective focal lengths of my prime lenses. That is, my 24mm is like a 38mm on the 7D, so the one lens is a 38 or a 24 depending on the camera. Likewise, the 50mm is around an 80mm on the 7D. Unless they increase pixel density on the 5D mk III to the same as the 7D, there would still be an advantage to using both cameras. I love the flexibility that the 19 point AF system in the 7D provides, compared to the 9 point AF system in the current 5D mk II, so I’m hoping the new one comes with that.
Take care, and let me know if you have any other questions (or if you do buy the lens!)
It’s good to hear from you; you’re very clear about what you’ve experienced and you extrapolate very nicely from your experiences (separating opinion from observation)!
From your comments and other reviews I’ve read, I’m pretty much sold on the 70-300, though I think I’ll just vacillate a while cos it’s USD1600 (Singapore $1980)!
Do drop me an email if you do get the 5D Mark III (when it surfaces, that is). Will love to read your thoughts on that. Why not the 1D? I’ve not done much research on the full frames cos I wanted to re-start my hobby with a competent but less costly camera body, focussing instead on a good stable of lenses.
Yes, it’s definitely pricey, but it’s worth it. I happened to catch it while it was on rebate a couple months ago, right before the earthquake drove up prices.
I will follow up if I get the 5DmkIII (if it actually arrives at some point). I like the more compact body of the 5D/7D than the 1D series, and the bigger bodies don’t bring that much more advantage for the extra space the body takes in a bag (in my opinion anyway). Plus, my wife has to be able to lift it, and the 7D is pushing it for weight as it is (my previous camera was a T1i).
Good luck with your shooting and lens shopping!
Sounds like you live in New Zealand. Hope all is well for you and the recovery is well underway.
Will definitely look forward to your review of the MKIII if it makes an appearance. And you have certainly put in a lot of thought about acquiring the most appropriate camera body.
How are you? Have you been out shooting with your 70-300 L? The camera shop I patronise recommended the Tamron 70-300 VC as a respectable alternative. Think I’ll stick with the Canon lens cos it seems like a keeper, especially if I get a weather resistant Canon body in the future.
Incidentally, I have a question about software…think I can email you about it off this thread?
I hadn’t researched the Tamron 70-300 VC at all until you mentioned it, but the reviews are mostly positive and say the image quality is on par with the Canon 70-200 f/4, which supposedly is an incredibly sharp lens. The price is pretty attractive as well (1/3 the cost of the Canon). Without personally comparing images between the lenses, it seems like build quality and weather sealing are the differentiating factors.
I haven’t actually had a chance to get out much with the 70-300 the last couple weeks but hope to do so soon.
I will e-mail you separately.
I also only recently realised that there are quite a number of forums discussing both lenses. I wanted to share one of them with you but I could not find it again. Anyway, one of the contributors to that forum tested the Canon 70-300L & 70-200L f/4 and the Tamron 70-300 VC lenses and it’s quite obvious from the photos he posted that the L lenses are sharper and have more contrast. I looked at another site here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kinematic/5201223253/ and the moment the photo loaded, I could immediately tell the difference in sharpness between them. And so indeed, the Canon L lens captures more detail and is sharper. If enlarged, I can imagine the differences will be even more obvious. Nevertheless, most people would find a compare and contrast pointless, so those who choose the Tamron will certainly assess they have good image quality for the value of the lens. Cheers!
Agreed … many people wouldn’t care about a tiny difference in sharpness and contrast if they can pay 1/3 the price. Some might like the Tamron just simply due to the color — black blends in more and doesn’t look like an expensive telephoto lens.
I am thinking of getting the 70-300L for use at night at football games. The field is well lit and I will be down where the action is and where the light is best. How do you think this lens will handle the task? I have a 5D Mark II. The other option is a 70-200L USM and a 2x teleconvertor. What do you think?
I think the 70-300L will do a great job. I know someone who shoots well-lit night football with a 100-400L using a 5D Mk II (here is a link to one of his night football galleries). That lens is actually is a third stop slower than the 70-300L on the wide end, but the same aperture on the slow end, and does great. The ISO and aperture info on the photos on that link appear to be incorrect, but a few of them show reasonable numbers and the ISO appears to be around 3200, which makes sense. So, it’s do-able with a 5.6 aperture.
As far as the 70-300L vs the 70-200L (assuming you mean the f/2.8 version) with a 2x teleconverter, there are some factors to consider: 1) the weight and size of each setup; 2) the loss of the 70-140 range with the 2x teleconverter in favor of the extra 100mm at the long end; and 3) the cost.
For the weight, that’s probably less of an issue if you have a good tripod. I consider myself to be stronger than average and the 7D + 70-200L combo does get heavy after awhile when I’m hand holding it. Adding a teleconverter adds a bit more weight. If you’re hand holding, the 70-300L wins in the weight category, but this doesn’t matter to everyone. I recently shot a demolition derby hand holding the 70-300L and found its weight was not consequential, so the 70-200L is probably fine too. The size of the two lenses are pretty similar when the 70-300L is extended, as you can see from the pictures above, but when retracted, the 70-300L is noticeably smaller so it’s more portable too.
The second item, the loss of the 70-140 range with the 2x teleconverter, is probably not consequential unless you want wider angle (but not wide angle) shots. On the 7D, the 70-300L lens feels a bit long for certain events, even shooting from a distance. The wide end of that lens on a 7D is really 112 with the 1.6 crop factor, though, which is reasonably close to 140 on the 5D, so I imagine it would be just fine. Wider shots might not be possible but for close-ups of football action, it would be great. The extra 100mm (300 vs 400) could be helpful, depending on if you want to take more tightly framed photos.
The remaining factor is cost. The 70-200L+2x TC costs substantially more, if that’s a factor for you.
One other item to note is the variable aperture range of f/4 to f/5.6 aperture range on the 70-300L. That’s a difference of twice the light transmission from one end to the other. So, if you’re using ISO 3200 at f/5.6 @ 300mm with the 70-300L, it would let you use ISO 1600 at f/4 @ 70mm to let you double your shutter speed, though just for the wider angle shots. However, if you’re shooting in manual mode, it’s difficult to adjust the shutter speed to compensate for the variable f/4-5.6 aperture while zooming in and out and still catch the action while it’s happening, so I find I just set the aperture to f/5.6 on the 70-300L so I don’t have to adjust. If you’re shooting on an auto or semi auto mode, or even manual mode with auto ISO (does the 5D mk ii have auto ISO?), it’s easier to take advantage of the extra stop of light on the wide end of the lens more easily. There is a small depth of field difference between f/4 and f/5.6 as well, but probably not enough to draw attention to the f/4 setup, plus that’s only at the wider end where the depth of field is larger anyway.
Overall, the 70-300L provides the 70-140mm range, is faster on the wide end, and costs and weighs less than the 70-200L f/2.8+2x TC. The 70-200L f/2.8+2x TC setup provides the 300-400mm range and provides double duty as a fantastic f/2.8 lens without the teleconverter. For handholding, if weight is a factor, the 70-300L makes sense. If you want the more versatile setup and aren’t concerned about cost, weight, or size, the 70-200 f/2.8L+2x TC setup is appealing. Using the 1.4x teleconverter instead of the 2x would allow you to benefit from the resulting f/4 aperture, or if you’re close enough to the action or can run around the field sidelines to stay with the players, just shoot without the teleconverter for f/2.8. The 70-200 provides more choices overall. Or, get a 7D to turn the 70-200 into a 112-320mm f/2.8 lens to get a similar focal length as the 70-300 on the 5D mk II, but with the advantage of the f/2.8 aperture.
An additional idea is to consider the 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L lens. It covers a slightly broader range (100-400 vs 140-400) as the 70-200L f/2.8+2x TC setup, costs less, weighs less, and has an extra 2/3 stop of light on the wide end, though is an older lens and uses a push/pull zooming system instead of a zoom ring.
Canon must feel there is a position in the market for each of these lenses or they wouldn’t sell them all, and I think they are correct. Each one excels in different situations, though they are all excellent choices. I hear that the 100-400 lens is softer and has less effective image stabilization, but I have not shot with one myself to confirm.
I hope this helps!
Is possible a 1,4 x TC on the 70-300?
I’ve read that the Kenko 1.4 TC works, but have not verified this myself to confirm.
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Thank you for your insightful review and followup on the reader’s comments. Your unbiased post has really helped in my shopping for this lens. I have a couple of questions for you.
1. How much did you purchase this lens for during which the rebate was given?
2. Though the 70-300L is weather sealed, the contraction of the lens makes me worry if spots, dust, particles, etc will likely get trapped inside the lens during long periods of use in an array of different weather conditions. Do you clean it after each use?
Thanks for your invaluable inputs.
I have the new 60D and I was dissapointed to find out that it lacks micro AF …. I have cheap (well cehaper than a 70 200 2.8) lenses .. a 70 200 f4 and a ef-s 18-135 …and when I tried a 2.8 lens I found out that most of the lenses have either front focus or backfocus problems….. I’m thinking twice about getting a 2.8 lens since the shallower DOF means that a little backfocus or frontfocus is inevitable.
Also regarding the review and the lenses … wich one focuses faster outside in a well lit enviroment?!
William, glad to hear this review helped! To answer your questions:
1. I think the 70-300L was on a $100 rebate at the time. I paid US list price minus the $100. I notice that they currently have a $150 rebate on that lens, which is even better.
2. I don’t clean it after each use. I haven’t noticed any dust inside. I have a clear filter on the front and that gets a little bit dirty, but it’s easy to clean and I only do that once in awhile. The front element itself stays clean as a result. I shot at a dusty demolition derby one afternoon and didn’t notice any dust, but I made a point not to change lenses while I was there. I have shot both lenses at extremely cold temperatures (0 degrees Fahrenheit) without any dust problems. I also have shot them in hot, humid conditions (95 degrees F with humidity in the 90% range) and both performed well and appeared to be clean when I was done. In the humid conditions, the lenses initially fogged over for several minutes when I brought them out from air conditioning, but once they reached ambient outside temperature they worked great.
I agree is more difficult to ensure a subject is in focus at f/2.8. I typically use AI Servo focusing mode when shooting with longer lenses since often I’m shooting subjects that move in conjunction with the longer lenses. AI Servo helps, but the in-focus rate is lower at f/2.8. I do find that f/2.8 excels for portraiture where the subject isn’t moving, and I understand that is a common use for this lens.
Both the 70-200 2.8L and 70-300L focus with similar speed. There might be minor differences between the two but I can’t notice any significant difference between them.
Any other questions or comments, feel free to ask!
Hi – what a great review. You’ve managed to confuse me just a bit more than I was an hour ago :o)
I’m in the process of upgrading from Nikon D90 and kit lenses. I’ve bought a Canon 7D and the 17-55 2.8 and I’m loving them. Now it’s time for more reach when I follow our group of mountain bikers and my son at BMX. I had thought of the non-IS 70-200 2.8 or even f4. Then I started reading reviews of the 70-300 L IS USM and have to say the read well. I’d like to have the main subject “pop” but wonder if the 2.8 and less reach will actually work against me? I’d appreciate any thoughts / suggestions. Cheers, Darin
Hi Darin – thanks for stopping by my blog. Perhaps you’d be interested to see the difference in a photo taken at 200mm f/2.8, and 300mm f/5.6 to help make your choice. Given what you’ve said you’d be shooting, I’d say the 70-300L is the way to go, unless you’re shooting in low light (shortly before or after sunrise/sunset, or indoors) quite a bit where the f/2.8 would be more useful. More on the reasoning of that in a bit.
I took three photos below, the first one at 24mm f/5.6 for a reference shot, the other at 200mm f/2.8 and the last one at 300mm f/5.6, all taken on my 7D. They are not the best shots in the world by any means, just something to give you an idea of background blur and the framing difference between 200mm and 300mm. I was probably 30 feet/9m from the tree, and the house across the street is probably 150 feet/46m or so away.
The extra 100mm adds a decent amount of background blur, even with it being two stops slower (5.6 vs 2.8). The lens is also quite a bit lighter than the 70-200. The shots above don’t really demonstrate it, but the 300 is every bit as sharp as the 200.
If I were shooting mountain bikers I’d reach for the 70-300 before the 200 if lighting was decent. The extra reach sounds like it would be useful, and the extra 100mm more than makes up for the depth of field differences at the long end of the lens. For example, a DoF calculator shows that a subject at 30 feet at 200mm f/2.8 has a DoF of 0.72 feet. At 300mm f/5.6, the DoF is 0.63 feet. So if you’re concerned about subject isolation, the 300mm should be comparable to the 200mm at distances closer to 300mm. (Of course 200 f/5.6 has a wider DoF – 1.44ft vs the 0.72 feet at 200 f/2.8 – so that is an issue to consider too). The shutter speed is a factor too at f/5.6, but in broad daylight the 300mm f/5.6 photo above was taken with a 1/800 sec shutter.
Hope that helps!
Hi Greg – that helped very much. Thankyou! A 70-300 will be on order very soon. The DoF calculator is so useful. I was talking to a friend who sang the praises of the 70-200 f2.8. He didn’t get what I was wanting to achieve which was decent reach in mostly good light without the bulk and inconvenience of extenders etc. I look forward to getting the lens and posting some samples.
Happy to help. I’d love to know what you think when it arrives. The 70-200 2.8 is an amazing lens for what it does, but it has a size, reach, cost, and weight disadvantage over the 70-300L. Happy shooting!
This is a great review from an owner’s perspective! I’ve been looking for detailed user reviews from an authority site or blog (rather than Flickr discussion groups) for the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM for quite some time and came across your site.
I’m looking for a premium general purpose telephoto zoom for my EOS 450D and 60D to upgrade from my EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS lens. The EF-S 55-250mm is surprisingly sharp for its price point, but when it comes to optics, you get what you pay for.
My main reason for considering this lens (the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L) is its longer reach and better sharpness and AF performance compared to my EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS.
It took me a year to save up towards a good L-series telephoto zoom lens (any lens above USD1K is considered a luxury item for me) and had done some research on the following:
– EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM (hardly sharper than the EF-S 55-250mm, poor price-to-performance ratio)
– EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM (a bit slow and pricey for a non-L zoom, funny looking bokeh)
– EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM (sharp wide open; almost everyone goes for this)
I’ve borrowed an EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM (Mk 1) from my cousin years ago, but didn’t like its 1.47kg weight, but when stopped down to f/3.2 it’s a smacking, sharp lens.
I am subscribed to two discussion groups on Flickr specific to the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L and posted a question “Has anyone considered the EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM but bought the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM instead and why?”
Unfortunately so far only one very enthusiastic member responded to me. If I reversed the question and asked over at the EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM groups, I’m sure many members would quote “ultimate sharpness”, “constant aperture” as their reasons for owning that lens.
Thanks to your comparison to the EF 300mm f/4L IS USM telephoto prime, I’m now more keen on getting the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM instead of the EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM.
Between the two, the EF 70-300mm is just one stop slower than the f/4L (neither would be suitable for poorly lit indoor venues) and I have no problem with that. For such situations, I would use my Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 Di II VC, an EF 28mm f/1.8 USM and an EF 85mm f/1.8 USM primes.
Greg, I have a question for you. The EF 70-200mm f/2.8L II IS USM is in a league of its own – amazingly sharp @ f2.8 and no other zoom in its class beats it.
Now, if this article had been about comparing the EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM vs the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM instead, how would you have given points to the latter? I’m about to buy either lens and am still sitting on the fence, so to speak. I can’t afford both and don’t intend to own both lenses either.
Thanks for your time in replying this. 🙂
Hi Greg, really interesting review! i’m actually thinking on change my tamron SP 70 – 300 f4 – 5.6 VC with one of these two wonderful lenses.. i absolutely love the 70 – 200 f2.8 but i love nature photography and i often see that 300 mm (on an APSC) can be not enough.. :/ i already own a 17 – 55 f2.8 so thinking on a 100 – 400 is not possible..like you said there’s a big gap between 55 and 100 mm! what i would like to know is: in the photos above i see a big difference in sharpness between the 200 mm of 70 – 200 and the 300 mm of the 70 – 300! the photo at 300 mm looks really soft compared to the 200 mm one, like slightly blurred! it’s really like that or for some reason (maybe a bad focusing?) the 300 mm one came out worst than it should be? and: any news about the performances with the 1.4 X of kenko (on the 70 – 300 obviously)? Thank you!
Hi Stratman, sorry for the delay. Price difference aside, the 70-300L is the same speed at the wide end, and only 2/3 stop slower at 200mm (it only goes from f/5.0 to f/5.6 at 229mm; for more info see this review). Unless you absolutely need f/4 at 200mm or the price difference is a significant factor, I’d go with the 70-300L.
Thanks for the reply. It’s OK about the delay, because I myself run a hobbyist watch blog and I can’t be at the computer all the time. 🙂
The Digital Picture was the first professional review site that I had perused (before I stumbled onto your blog); and several of my lens purchases were based on findings on that website. I used its ISO 12233 comparison tool to look at the EF 70-300L’s sharpness vs the EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM and was mightily impressed.
You might be elated to know that yesterday I went to a camera store, tested the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM and the EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM zooms and bought the former.
I brought my 450D as a test camera and borrowed the store’s demo 60D body to test both lenses, as I didn’t bring my own 60D. My cousin, who owns the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM also came along with me and he too was impressed with the 70-300L, citing how much lighter it was than his f/2.8L. 🙂
While the EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM did feel lighter, its internal zooming design meant that its length was fixed and really juts out from the body. It would not fit together with my 60D into my Tamrac top-loader bag, while the 70-300L sat nicely in my Tamrac in its storage position.
I also noticed that the 70-300L’s IS mechanism is slightly quieter in operation compared to the 70-200L f/4. I understand that neither lens would be fast indoors (unless it’s the 70-200L f/2.8, which is too front heavy for me) therefore I’d be using this (the 70-300L) mainly outdoors although it can be used indoors, provided I use my 60D instead of my 450D. The 450D is slightly noisier at its max ISO of 1600 than the 60D at ISO 3200.
I also asked the salesperson (Terry) this golden question: “Why is the EF 70-300L so hard to find used?”. He pondered for a while and told me that he had customers who had asked about used copies of this lens before.
Terry told me that the 70-200mm f/4L IS USM is a lot easier to find in second hand form, because some owners flipped them for other lenses. On the other hand, those who bought the 70-300L on the other hand knew what they wanted in a telephoto zoom and kept them.
I went home as a very happy owner of the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM, thanks to your recommendations. This is my first L-series lens and I think I don’t need another “L” lens after this 🙂
That said, I’m still keeping my old EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS zoom which I’ve used for years, albeit occasionally. Its bokeh is harsher while the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM’s OOF areas are silky smooth, but there will be occasions that I don’t want to risk my 70-300L or need to lug 1 kilogram worth of glass.
Also, thanks for including the link to the Canonrumors site (I missed it till I re-read your review today); although I’m familiar with Canonrumors.com, Google didn’t show up that particular page in my past searches.
Great review, thanks so much for helping me with my purchase!:-)
best greetings from Malaysia,
Regarding the blurriness of the 300mm shot, that is camera shake. I was in a hurry that day and snapped the pictures quickly and noticed after I returned to the computer that they had a good deal of camera shake blurriness. The lens is quite sharp at all focal lengths. I’ll try to post another 300mm picture for you.
I have not tried the 1.4X Kenko teleconverter yet. It’s rare where I need more than 300mm on my 7D.
Congratulations on your new 70-300L! I’m sure you’ll love the lens.
Some people don’t like that the size of the lens changes when zooming, vs the fixed size of the internally-focusing 70-200 f/4L. But, as you’ve seen, the 70-300L really shrinks when it’s retracted to 70mm, making it super-convenient to carry (aside from its weight, which, to me is still far better than the 70-200 f/2.8L II.
Hi, Greg. Love landscape, macro and wildlife photography. With fullframe sensor, reach is a little more of a challenge. Tack sharpness aside, I wonder if the L 70-300mm is going to make me regret not getting a lens with greater reach. Been seriously considering the 100-400 L (dust problems which might get to sensor) and the 400 f/5.6 L all the while for wildlife shoots, until I was told of this lens’ capabilities. Yes, I am swayed already. BTW, Canon now has 1.4X and 2X v.III extenders now in the market. I wonder if the 1.4X III is compatible with this lens.
BTW, great job. Gd to know there are people out there like yourself, who can help. Tnx!
The Canon extenders are not compatible with the 70-300L. I have read the Kenko 1.4x is unofficially compatible, but have not tried one.
Full frame does reduce the reach substantially (480mm equivalent on APS-C camera vs 300mm on full frame). The 100-400 makes up for some of that reach on full frame, certainly, but comes in a vastly different form factor and zoom mechanism (push/pull vs twist-to-zoom) and I understand has a lower image quality than the 70-300L, and I’ve heard that the IS is older and not as effective. Related, Canon Rumors recently posted that the II model of the 100-400 probably will be released in 2012, which might address the dust problem, change the zoom to twist instead of push/pull, and likely will bring the image quality up to par, but I’m thinking will be in a different league for size, weight, and cost than the 70-300L.
Other than the 100-400L, the answer to the 70-300L on a full frame body is likely the not-yet-released 200-400 f/4L IS 1.4X TC, but I understand that lens will be in the $11,000 – $12,000 price range, so is not a directly comparable lens unless money is not an issue.
I plan to purchase a 5d mk iii at some point in the hopefully near future, but plan to keep my 7D as well for times when I need more reach. I may try to purchase the 1.4X Kenko TC, too, but I’ll see how I feel after I get the 5diii.
Stefano, here is a link to a different pic I took with the 70-300L shot at 300mm, f/5.6, ISO 125 on the 7D. This is approximately a 25% reduction of the original picture.
Click here to view – 1296×864 pixels, ~ 466kb.
Swift reply! Thank you. I had been waiting for the 5d MkIII for a very long time and had to get the II eventually. It was an unbearable itch. But I am glad I did. In Singapore, the III is expected to cost a little above S$6000 (current exchange rate is about S$1.26 to the US$), body only.
With the cost of the prospective built-in extender on the 200-400, it might perhaps be a good idea to get a cropped-format 7D camera as a back-up unit. On the otherhand, the 100-400 vII might be the answer for me too. I shall wait with bated breath for this and hope not to break a bank.
You’re right… reviews of the current 100-400L had not been inspiring. Will also toy with the idea of using the Kenko 1.4X. Great help, Greg!
Stefano, I found a better picture at 300mm from the 70-300L. This is a 100% crop, so you can see the image quality. I did shoot this RAW and run it through Lightroom 4 for some noise reduction. The original image was shot at f/5.6 (wide open), 1/500 sec shutter, ISO 160.
Click here to view the picture
Rashid, the upcoming version of the 100-400 is probably the best answer. Based on Canon’s price increases in recent lens releases, I’d bet it will be $2500-$3000 USD.
Firstly, I want to thank Greg for his reviews as well as all the comment.
Then, what do you think about a combination of 5D mark III and 70-300 L? The 5D mark III with his super capacity of high ISO may help the 70 300 L to minimize its cons : aperture, auto-focus, etc. in low light condition.
If any one have experienced that combination can share some information?
PS: sorry for my terrible english
The 5D3 would help with one of the cons of a smaller aperture: slower shutter speeds or higher ISO. The smaller aperture, despite the greatly improved ISO, still has a broad DoF unlike an f/2.8 lens. I am not sure if the auto focus would be improved in lower light situations or not. F/2.8 lenses would still be superior for AF, I’d think, but have not tried this lens with the 5D3 to be certain.
Thanks for your comparison. I can confirm the Kenko 1.4 extender works great with the 70-300L and autofocuses fine on my Canon 5D MKIII at F/8, see my puffin picture at link below for a shot I took with it handheld in very strong wind, although braced against a fence post which helped!
Andrew, thanks for confirming that the combination works! The shots you’ve posted on 500px with the 70-300L + Kenko 1.4 turned out great. I appreciate you sharing those photos.
Thank you so much for this detailed comparison and your informative answers to all the comments. The information is very useful and helps me make a decision when time comes to buy one or the other (when I saved enough money that is ;)).
I’m currently using Canon 50D with the 18-105mm f/4-5.6L IS USM & the 100mm f/2.8 macro and adore them.
I had rented the 70-200mm f/2.8L and used it to shoot during my whale-watching excursion in the past — love the quality and responsiveness of it but it was way way too heavy for me to lug around (much less with my other lens).
So far, it seems that I might go for the 70-300mm.
Sorry, corrections: I mean I’m using 24-105mm f/4-5.6L IS USM & 100mm f/2.8L IS USM macro.
wondered if you had any comments about the 70-200/4 vs the 70 -300. I am an amateur photographer and embarking on a mountain vacation, so weight very important at high altitude, but functionality paramount.
Dori and Nirupama, sorry for the delay in responding – I’ve been on vacation.
Dori, the 70-300L is a relatively compact size and is much easier to carry. I used it quite a bit last week while I was on vacation – I left the 70-200 f/2.8 at home because it was so big and heavy. The 70-300L is still big enough to get comments from the general public about how big the lens is. I can’t imagine the comments I would have received if I’d have taken the 70-200 f/2.8. I do highly recommend the lens.
Nirupama, I’ve never tried the 70-200 f/4, but I hear it is the same sharpness as the 70-300L. If the extra 100mm on the long end is useful for you, the extra stop of light on the long end probably isn’t that big of a deal. I commented about this same comparison earlier up in this comment thread with some other details.
Tuan, to answer your question, I recently used the 5D Mark III with the 70-300L: “Then, what do you think about a combination of 5D mark III and 70-300 L? The 5D mark III with his super capacity of high ISO may help the 70 300 L to minimize its cons : aperture, auto-focus, etc. in low light condition.”
The 5D Mark III’s ISO capability definitely offsets the slow shutter speed/high noise aspects of the slower aperture of the 70-300L. I didn’t try the autofocus in low light, though, so I can’t speak for that.
Here is a picture I took with the 5D Mark III/70-300L combo. The first is the whole picture, the second is a 100% crop. These are straight out of the camera – no post processing whatsoever except to reduce the size of the first picture and to crop the second picture. Note the smooth bokeh and the clarity of the 100 percent crop. This was taken at f/5.6, 1/320 sec, ISO 160.
100 percent crop: Click to Enlarge
Entire photo: Click to Enlarge
I will be ordering this lens for my 5Dmk3, but already understand I will be using higher ISO and flash, especially indoors.
I’m actually selling my 70-200 f2.8L ii because of the limited range, weight and size. Although this lens was my favorite in the studio with monolights. I’m sure the 70-300 will cover that just as well and then some. I’m only writing this because as you wrote there are different lenses for different needs and the 70-300L will cover my needs nicely.
I will not miss the f2.8 because I already own a 100 f2.8L, Pancake and looking at the new 24-70 f2.8L ii and or the un-announced 35 f1.4 by tax time next year.
I’m going to travel to the Grand Canyon and it’s surrounding for a week, and aiming to capture the magnificent landscape, which one you’ll recommend for me to bring; the EF-S 18-200 f/3.5-5.6 IS or EF 70-300 f/4-5.6 IS?
Despite the higher image quality of the 70-300L, I’d recommend bringing the 18-200 lens just because of its inclusion of wider focal length ranges (the 18-69mm range). Having visited the Grand Canyon, wider angle lenses are very useful. If you can only bring one lens, the 18-200 would be the way to go. 200mm is likely telephoto enough, but my guess is you’d want wider than telephoto. If you can swing it, bringing an even wider lens, like the Canon 10-22mm or the Sigma 8-16mm, in addition to the 18-200, would be useful for landscape shots. But, 18mm may be wide enough. If the choice is between those two lenses you list, I’d personally take the 18-200.
Question, I have a Canon 60 but am looking at the 70-200 to take pics of motocross….fast action shots, corner shots, etc. and you know it is best to stay somewhat of a safe distance. Recommend which one?
70-200 or 70-300 and Canon vs. Tamron??? Thank you so much!!!
Appreciate the input.
As it was stated early in this review, both lenses serve different purposes. I am a portrait and wildlife/travel photographer. If I know I’m going on a portrait shoot or doing an indoor portrait shoot, the 70-200 2.8 IS II is my lens of choice. If I’m headed out to the woods or streets, the 70-300 L is my choice. While both lenses are close in performance, they are not the same and serve different purposes. I also carry or keep a wide lens of some form with me to keep that area covered. If you can afford it, get both.
Sheryl, I am not quite sure how far away you’ll be or whether it’s an indoor or outdoor event. If you are in an indoor venue, the 70-200 f/2.8 would be my choice since you’ll get faster shutter speeds and/or lower ISO in the lower light. If this is an outdoor event with bright light the entire time, then the 70-300 will work great. I’ve shot a demolition derby outdoors in direct sunlight before with the 70-300 before and was able to get action-stopping shutter speeds with reasonably low ISOs (200-400) despite the f/5.6 aperture I was using (I was shooting in manual mode so didn’t want the camera to automatically step down to f/4 at 70mm). If it’s an outdoor event lit by artificial lights, then the 70-200 f/2.8 will be the better choice despite its extra weight and size. With the 60D camera you’re using, either one likely will provide good reach. If you were shooting a full frame (6D, 5D, 1D series) I’d recommend something longer, like the 100-400L. Hope this helps.
Spike, thanks for the insight. I agree. Despite the focal length overlap, both lenses serve different purposes.