Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS II

I’d been hearing good things about the relatively new Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS II lens. In particular with a 2X teleconverter a lot of folks seem to think it outperforms the Canon 100-400 zoom as a handheld bird lens, so this weekend I rented one, hooked it up to my 50D, and took it for a stroll in the park. In no particular order here are my first impressions:

  1. 70-200mm is not a very interesting range for me. It’s too long for buildings, landscapes, pets, and anything inside my apartment and too short for birds. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll try it at the zoo, where it may work better (big animals at medium distance.)
  2. When you can get close enough to the bird to not need more than 200mm, this lens is sharp, possibly the sharpest lens I’ve ever used. Just look at this chickadee (make sure the window is wide enough for the full image for maximum effect):

    1:1 crop of a Black-capped Chickadee

  3. My biggest problem was focus. A lot of shots (though not all) seem to be a little out of focus. Possibly this copy of the lens front-focuses a bit on this body? I have not tried to autofocus microadjust it yet. Also f/2.8 has way less depth of field than I’m used to. I seem to get better results around f/5.6-f/8. (Also worth noting: the 50D does not have state-of-the-art autofocus. The 7D and 1D Mark IV are both noticeably improved here.)
  4. Adding the 2X Mark II teleconverter softens the image. It’s noticeably less sharp at f/5.6 than a 100-400mm or 400mm f/5.6L lens, though it does have much better maximum magnification and minimum focusing distance. Sharpness picks up a little at f/8. It may be better with the 2X Mark III though.
  5. I find the push pull zoom of the 100-400 a lot easier to manage than the twist zoom of the 70-200. Some folks feel otherwise, I know.
  6. Adding/removing a teleconverter in the field is possible, but nontrivial. Still, 140-400 is not a bad range; and quite competitive with the 100-400. There were shots I missed because I did or did not have the teleconverter on at the wrong time.
  7. From 70-200mm (i.e. without a teleconverter) this lens is about two stops faster than the 100-400. In fact, it’s as fast as any zoom lens I know of. Only a few primes are faster. For wild birds I don’t need this, but it was helpful indoors at the zoo.
  8. The image stabilization does help. Though subject motion was often a problem, I rarely felt like I couldn’t hold the lens steady enough for the shot. I didn’t have to worry about the shutter speed. Aside from subject motion, 1/100s or faster was fine for this lens. (Of course, I’d do better still with a camera body with better high ISO such as the 7D or 1D Mark IV. I don’t like to shoot the 50D above ISO 400, and prefer ISO 200 if the light allows.)

And a couple of points probably not specifically related to this lens:

  1. Use flash at the feeders. The difference is like night and day, though I should try this without a teleconverter at f/2.8. However there was a large group of folks there today so I didn’t get too close. (Lens aside, I really need to get more comfortable with flash, both as fill and main light. I’m just not fluent with what to use when, and even when I know how much of what kind of flash I want, I have real trouble figuring out which buttons to push to make it happen. In fact, the last time I tried to shoot indoors, I mucked the flash up so badly I had to do a factory reset on the camera to recover.)
  2. Must remember to use manual exposure mode for flight photography. Backgrounds change too rapidly to keep up with exposure compensation in Av mode.

Bottom Line: this is not a bad combination, and just maybe better than the 100-400, though it’s not as obvious to me as to some other folks who’ve tried this. If you want a 70-200 lens, then buying a 2X teleconverter makes way more sense than buying an extra 100-400 lens, or even a 400mm f/5.6. However if you primarily want a 400mm lens, then the answer is not so apparent.

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