Lens Review – Canon 70-200 F4 L

If you read my Surf Photography Gear – What I Want post you’ll know I was on the look out for a Canon 70-200mm F4 lens, I managed to get one for under £300 on ebay around three months ago, so it’s time I shared my thoughts on this very popular surf photographers lens.

I’ve had two other telephoto zooms, the Canon EF 90-300mm f/4.5-5.6 which was really cheap and worked great, and a Canon EF-S IS 55-250mm F/4.0-5.6 Lens which was twice the price but I didn’t like as much, it was soft at the edges and the IS didn’t seem to be very effective for my purposes.

Look and Feel

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The first difference I noticed between my two former lenses and this one is the build quality, it feels proper, it has a nice weight to it and all the moving bits turn smoothly and the switches feel nice and solid.

It’s my first L lens, and I can see what the fuss is about, even though it’s about the cheapest L you can get, it’s made to last, but it does make you feel like a bit of a plum if you’re just wondering around with it taking the odd snap.

The shot below was taken (at 70mm) at a fairly popular beach, I walked past at least two other photographers feeling pretty self conscious with my monopod (which I barely used – I haven’t learned to love it yet) and the big white tube on my camera.

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One of the other guys I saw had some sort of Sony NEX and a tidy little zoom, he probably had the same focal length at his disposal as me in a much more discrete package. Had you lined us up next to each other and asked someone to point out the serious photographer they’d have picked me out every time, although he probably spent more on his set-up and most likely got similar or better results.

People will know you’re taking photos when you’re brandishing this bit of kit, that could be good or bad depending on the situation.

Performance

I’m definitely not going to go into detail here, there’s a link at the bottom for a detailed techy review, this is based on my observations using it for shooting surf and compared to the cheaper tele zooms I’ve had.

Focus – It focuses really quickly and practically silently, much better than the other lenses I’ve used, it doesn’t change length for focusing and the manual focus ring is smooth and works well. I used it shooting with the remote flash and in manual focus and it worked great.

It’s also sharp from edge to edge throughout the whole zoom range, something that has been a real problem with cheaper lenses I have used.

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Range – I’ve fallen into the trap of just using it at 70mm or 200mm (the shot above is at 200mm), the only exception was with the flash shots, where I stuck around 100mm as I was close, it doesn’t change length when you zoom so it’s ideal for using in a housing. I think on a full frame sensor the 70mm would be a better length, on my 60D it ends up being a bit long for a few shots I’d have liked to get, but the 200mm end is pretty good for the pulled back line up style shots I’ve been shooting.

Aperture– The aperture of f4 has not been a problem for me really, there’s a much more expensive f2.8 70-200mm but I’m not sure what I’d want to shoot at f2.8 with this lens that I couldn’t shoot with my cheap 50mm f1.8. Portraits or other lifestyle stuff that I want to blur the background on are usually close, and predictable, enough for me to use the 50mm for.

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Maybe it’s just me but I don’t think I’m missing the Image Stabilisation either, maybe it would make a big difference but I’ve been really happy with the shots I’ve got hand held at f4 even at 200mm (like the shot above, shot from some slippery rocks at 200mm), so at the moment at least I’m not regretting saving my money on the non IS version.

Conclusion

I’ve been really happy with the shots I’ve got, and I think for under £300 it’s a great choice for someone like me getting into surf photography as a hobby who might have had a cheap zoom lens and not been happy with the results.

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You will look and feel like someone who’s trying hard at being a photographer, I can’t say I like it, I now know why so many beginner/intermediate surfers want an all black wetsuit, sometimes it’s nice not to stand out. But that really is the only downside I’ve found, so if you’re OK with that it’s got to be on your wish list.

Without using the more expensive Image stabilised version, or even the much pricier f2.8, I can’t say it’s definitely not worth spending the extra money, but if you’re starting out and want to keep some money spare for other toys, I would definitely suggest selling off your cheaper telephoto zoom and picking one of these up second hand.

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