Introduction

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM is one of five (six if we count EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM) pro-grade telephoto zoom lenses currently offered by Canon in its lens lineup. The lens is considered to be the top of the line among all other telephoto zooms offered by the company and price clearly reflects that. At ~US$1,600 (as of February 2008), this one of the more expensive lenses in Canon's EF mount. Despite its hefty price, the lens remains quite popular among prosumers and professionals alike, so don't expect a price drop anytime soon.

The optical construction of the lens consists of 23 (yep, 23) elements in 18 groups. This is by far the most complex design I have seen in a telephoto zoom. Canon decided to include four UD (Ultra low Dispersion) lens elements in the optical formula of the lens to reduce various forms of aberration. The build quality is simply superb - Canon did not try to cut any corners here and used the best materials. Tnd the lens looks and feels very sturdy and there's no wobbling whatsoever. Both focusing and zoom rings are smooth to roatate and comfortable to grip. The lens sports an inner focusing system so the inner lens cams do not extend during zooming/focusing, thus leaving the total length of the lens constant at all times.

As you have undoubtfully guessed from its name, Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM incorporates an image stabilization system. Canon included second generation IS system with this lens, giving users two mode of operation (standard for correcting horizontal as well as vertical shake, and panning for correcting vertical shake only for sports photography). Canon claims that this IS system can give users up to three stops of correction foc camera shake. Unfortunately, IS system adds quite a bit to the weight and 'bukiness' of the lens - this is by no means a light lens, weighing almost 1.5kg (3.24lb) and measuring 86 x 197mm (3.4 x 7.8in). Like all modern Canon lenses, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM has a fully electronic aperture control, which means that all aperture settings are controlled direction from the camera and there's no manual aperture ring to stop down the lens. The lens offers a ring-type USM AF system along with a full manual focusing system, which can be controlled by an AF/MF switch on the side of the barrel. To improve performance of the AF system, you can use the focusing limiter switch which can be locked in two positions: 1.3m to infinity and 3m to infinity. As you have guessed, the minimum focusing distance for the lens is 1.4m (4.3ft). The lens has the minimum aperture level of f/32 and accepts 77mm screw-in type filters.

 

Image

 

The factory box comes with Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens, front and rear caps, ET-86 lens hood, LZ1324 semi-hard case, manual and registration card. The lens carries EF designation, which means it was designed for full frame cameras. On an APS-C body with 1.6x crop sensor the field of view of the lens will be equivalent to that of 112-320mm zoom lens on a full frame body. The lens is compatible with Canon's EF 1.4x II  Extender, which can turn the lens into a 98-280mm telephoto zoom on a full frame body and 156-448mm super telephoto zoom on an APS-C body. The major benefit of the 1.4x extender is that your lens will fully retain AF, albeit focusing will be slightly slower. The lens can also be used with EF 2x II Extender, which would give you even longer focal length to play with, but at the expense of speed (f/2.8 would turn into f/5.6 with this extender). The lens is also compatible with Canon's EF 12 II and EF 25 II Extension Tubes.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 23 elements in 18 groups
Angular Field ~34-12 degrees
Minimum Focus 1.3m/4.3ft
Focusing Action AF/MF, USM
f-stop Scale f/2.8-f/32, camera-controlled
Filter Size 77mm
Lens Hood ET-86 (included)
Weight 1470g/3.24lb
Dimensions 86x197mm/3.4x7.8"
Lens Case LZ1324 (included)

 

Field Tests

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM demonstrated pretty good results in the field, especially in the 70-135mm range. Image quality in the center was very good, with borders being a tidbit softer at wide aperture settings, but catching up by f/5.6. Quality did suffer somewhat once moved closer towards 200mm, where images seemed somewhat softer pretty much across the entire frame.

The lens felt somewhat bulky. It actually dwarfed even Canon 5D, which by itself is not a very small camera. The lens also felt pretty heavy - at close to 1.5kg, this is one of the heavier telephoto zooms currently available on the market. However, setting this 'bulkiness' aside, the lens handled quite well overall. AF system was quite fast and accurate in most situations (AF did hunt a little bit in situations with limited light). IS system is always a welcome feature in any lens and is quite practical when shooting off hand. But keep in mind that if you're planning to use the longer end of the zoom range, IS might not be as effective as a good old sturdy tripod. At 200mm (320mm on an APS-C body), even the slightest trembling/shaking would ruin your chances of taking a quality picture.

 

ISO 400, 1/50, f/2.8, 70mm (Canon 5D)
ISO 400, 1/50, f/2.8, 70mm (Canon 5D)

 

Bokeh handling was somewhat on a mixed side, with out-of-focus highlights carrying bright, well defined edges and somewhat sharp contrast transitions between OOF foreground and background objects. On a positive side, the lens did not produce any visible double-edging in the background.

 

Vignetting @ f/2.8 - full frame vs 1.6x crop (70mm)
Vignetting @ f/2.8 - full frame vs 1.6x crop (70mm)

 

Vignetting @ f/2.8 - full frame vs 1.6x crop (200mm)
Vignetting @ f/2.8 - full frame vs 1.6x crop (200mm)

 

Vignetting was pretty much non-existent on a full frame Canon 5D throughout the zoom range and even with wide open aperture settings. Ditto for an APS-C camera, which takes advantage of a reduced imaging circle. Not much of a surprise here though. Color reproduction was more or less accurate, however, images felt a bit washed out and lacking contrast at f/2.8. The lens showed very minimal color fringing, mostly with wide open aperture settings (see the char legs on the right side of the image crop below). Both distortion as well as flare were well under control - again, not very surprising for a telephoto zoom.

 

ISO 100, 1/3200, f/2.8, 70mm (100% crop)
ISO 100, 1/3200, f/2.8, 70mm (100% crop)

 

Lab Tests

Please note that MTF50 results for APS-C and Full-Frame cameras as well as cameras from different manufacturers are not cross-comparable despite the same normalized [0:1] range used to report results for all types of cameras.

 

Canon APS-C: The lens showed somewhat mixed results in the lab. It was like looking at two different lenses - a very good 70-135mm zoom and a ho-hum 135-200mm zoom. Image performance in the center was quite good in the 70-135mm straight from f/2.8. Border quality, while lagging behind a bit, was still pretty decent, especially in the f/5.6-f/8 aperture range. On the other hand, the lens struggled in 135-200mm range, with both center as well as border image quality being rather unimpressive. The lens clearly shows best performance at 70mm and at its peak (f/5.6-f/8) is capable of producing very good 19in and decent 24in prints. Conclusion? Well, it's rather hard to draw a conclusion here. If you plan to rely on the 70-135mm range more often and only use 200mm on a rare occasion, then this lens could be considered a good choice. But one might ask why should you pay the a dollar for a 70-200mm zoom if you're not going to use the 200mm end?

 

MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 70mm
MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 70mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 70mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 70mm

 

MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 100mm
MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 100mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 100mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 100mm

 

MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 200mm
MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 200mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 200mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 200mm

 

Chromatic aberration on an APS-C body was under control, with CA not exceeding ~0.7px in the center across the zoom rang, and hovering at ~0.8px around borders (also across the zoom range, with higher levels of CA at wider apertures).

 

Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) - Center
Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) - Center

 

Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) - Borders
Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) - Borders

 

Here are 100% image border crops comparing images taken with an APS-C camera (Canon Digital Rebel XTi) at f/2.8 and f/8 at 70mm, 100mm and 200mm.

 

Image borders @ 70mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8
Image borders @ 70mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8

 

Image borders @ 100mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8
Image borders @ 100mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8

 

Image borders @ 200mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8
Image borders @ 200mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8

 

Canon FF: Performance on a full-frame body mirrored that of an APS-C camera, with better overall results in the 70-135mm range and rather unimpressive performance towards 200mm. The lens shows general weakness with wide open apertures regardless of the focal length. In the 70-135mm range. Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM showed OK center performance at f/2.8, with borders following closely behind. Fortunately, center performance improves quite nicely once stopped down to f/4 and by f/5.6 both center and borders are quite sharp. But, as with an APS-C camera, performance degrades towards the longer end of the zoom range and at 200mm performance results are average even with stopped down apertures. Conclusion? No change of opinion here - the lens performs consistently on both APS-C and FF cameras, but performance is not very impressive unfortunately.

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 70mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 70mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 100mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 100mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 200mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 200mm

 

The lens showed good handling of chromatic aberration. CA in the center did not exceed ~0.5px across the zoom range, while CA around borders averaged about ~0.7px (also across the zoom range). Not much of a problem for a telephoto zoom.

 

Chromatic Aberration (FF) - Center
Chromatic Aberration (FF) - Center

 

Chromatic Aberration (FF) - Borders
Chromatic Aberration (FF) - Borders

 

Here are 100% image border crops comparing images taken with a full-frame camera (Canon 5D) at f/2.8 and f/8 at 70mm, 100mm and 200mm.

 

Image borders @ 70mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8
Image borders @ 70mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8

 

Image borders @ 100mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8
Image borders @ 100mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8

 

Image borders @ 200mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8
Image borders @ 200mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8

 

Alternatives

As mentioned above, Canon offers a total of four 70-200mm telephoto zooms in its lineup, so naturally you can try to find which lens suits you best without leaving the Canon lens camp. In case you don't require an IS system, Canon offers you EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM, which carries performance characteristics of its bigger brother, but is ~US$400 cheaper. For slightly slower speed, but still excellent image quality, Canon has EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM (review) and EF 70-200mm f/4L USM (review). If you're on a budget and trying to save a few hundred dollars, you might take a look at Sigma's excellent 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM telephoto zoom. For a longer, but slower zoom, take a look at EF 100-400mm f/4.5-6.6L IS USM (review) lens, but keep in mind that the lens seems to suffer from variation in production quality. Finally, if you want to try to buy a single lens that can cover everything from wide to telephoto focal lengths, consider Canon's EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM.

 

Recommendation

Performance of the lens is disappointing - for ~US$1,500 we expect a lens that performs consistently well and that's where Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM fails. The lens shows very good performance in the shorter zoom range (70-135mm), but falls short towards the longer end. This seems to be the only drawback with this lens as the lens excels in other areas. Build quality of the lens is simply superb, as expected from Canon's L grade lens. Artifacts are pretty minimal. And IS system is always a major bonus. Don't take me wrong, this is not a bad lens and it still outperforms half of other telephoto zoom lenses on the market. However, considering its steep price, one might still desire a better overall performance. So is it worth taking a look at alternatives? Sure...