Introduction

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM is one of the oldest pro-grade tele zoom in Canon's modern portfolio of lenses. The lens was released back in mid 1990s and as of today is still available in its original design. Over the years Canon has added three other 70-200mm L class lenses along with about a dozen of other telephoto zooms. The lens is priced at ~US$1,100 (as of March 2008), sitting between the recently released EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM and the top of the line EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM. Despite its age (design age that is) and price, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM remains one of the more popular lenses among both prosumers as well as professionals.

The optical construction of the lens consists of 18 elements in 15 groups, including four UD (Ultra Low Dispersion) glass elements designed to reduce various forms of color aberration. The build quality is excellent as expected from an L class lens - the barrel is made of hardened plastic, focus and zoom rings are fully rubberized and rotate very smoothly. There's no wobbling inside or out and the lens looks and feels very sturdy. The lens incorporates a USM type AF as well as full time manual focusing system which is controlled by an AF/MF switch on the side of the barrel. To improve the performance of the AF system, you can use the focusing limiter switch which can be locked in two positions: 1.5m to infinity and 3m to infinity.

Like all modern Canon AF lenses, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM sports a fully electronic aperture control and does not have a dedicated aperture ring, so all aperture settings have to be set directly from the camera. The lens is moderately long and heavy, measuring 85 x 193mm (3.3 x 7.6in) and weighing 1310g (2.9lb). The total length of the barrel remains constant throughout the zoom range thanks to the inner focusing mechanism. The minimum focusing distance is 1.5m (4.9ft), the minimum supported aperture is f/22 and the filter size is 77mm.

Image

 

The factory box includes Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM lens, front/rear caps, LZ1324 semi-hard case, ET-83II lens hood, detachable tripod mount, manual and registration card. The lens carries EF designation, meaning that the lens was designed for full frame cameras, so when used on an APS-C type body with 1.6x cropped sensor, the field of view of the lens will be equivalent to that of a 112-320mm zoom on a full frame camera. The lens is compatible with Canon's Gelatin Filter Holder Adapters III and IV as well as Extension Tubes EF 12 II and 25 II. You can also use the lens in combination with Canon's EF 1.4x and EF 2x tele converters.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 18 elements in 15 groups
Angular Field ~34-12 degrees
Minimum Focus 1.5m/4.9ft
Focusing Action AF/MF, USM
f-stop Scale f/2.8-f/32, camera-controlled
Filter Size 77mm
Lens Hood ET-83II (included)
Weight 1310g/2.9lb
Dimensions 85x193mm/3.3x7.6"
Lens Case LZ1324 (included)

 

Field Tests

The lens showed generally better performance in the shorter zoom range, with images at 100mm being slightly worse then images at 70mm, and images at 135mm being slightly worse then at 100mm, and then images at 200mm being slightly worse then images at 135mm. Generally speaking, 200mm seems to be the weakest point for most of Canon's 70-200mm lenses and EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM is not an exception here.

The lens handled very similar to pretty much any other modern telephoto zoom lens. The lens is moderately heavy, so using a tripod or monopod when shooting at longer exposures or even longer focal lengths is going to be prudent. Don't forget to attach the tripod/monopod to the tripod color of the lens rather then the camera itself - because of the weight, the lens can tip off the camera or in the worst case even snap off under its own weight. AF system was reasonably fast and as accurate as any other AF system, meaning that it focused more or less accurately in most situation, but was not completely foolproof (especially in poorly lit situations where the AF system tended to hunt). If you plan to use the lens exclusively in the longer focal length ranges, consider switching the focusing limiter to improve AF performance.

One general grudge I have towards most modern auto-focus lenses, and Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM is no exception here, is the poor support for manual focusing. I am not talking about poor viewfinders of most modern cameras that typically lack any manual focusing aids (split circles, microprisms etc.). No, I'm talking about the typically limited span of the focusing ring, which limits your ability to manual focus the lens precisely. For example, to go from the closest focusing distance of 1.5m to infinity on Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM, you need turn the focusing ring about 90 degrees or 1/4 of a full rotation. This is compared to complete (or almost complete) 360 degree rotation on some of the dedicated manual focus lenses. This limitation alone makes manual focusing with most AF lenses rather impractical (of course some of you are wondering why do I care about manual focusing in the age of AF systems, but I do care, especially in those situations when AF system fails to focus properly).

 

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)

 

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM showed moderate level of vignetting on a full frame body with wide open aperture. At f/2.8 the lens vignettes across the entire zoom range, even at 200mm, which is somewhat disappointing for a telephoto zoom. Of course stopping down the lens reduced vignetting and by f/5.6 it was all but gone. Performance on an APS-C camera was much better, since the lens could take advantage of the smaller sensor that does not cover the full frame of the imaging circle. Here vignetting is pretty negligeable, if non-existent, throughout the zoom range.

Color reproduction was pretty good in general, with images carrying sufficient amount of contrast at smaller apertures. Color fringing (lateral CA) was well under control, with images showing very minimal level of CA around borders. The lens also showed good handling for axial CA and resistance against flare, and did not exhibit any visible barrel distortion.

 

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 excelled in the 70-135mm range where it showed very solid performance across the aperture range with both center as well as border image quality remaining pretty consistent and balanced. Unfortunately, as you move towards the longer end of the zoom range, image quality starts to degrade slightly and by 200mm performance in the center is still decent but border quality is just plain average (not disastrous though). Although it is worth noting that while the lens gives up its ground performance-wise, image quality does not drop drastically and the lens still exhibits pretty balances, albeit poorer overall results. So in the shorter range of the zoom, the lens is capable of producing outstanding 16in and decent 24in prints when stopped down to f/8. Things are slightly bleaker towards 200mm - here the lens would be capable of giving you solid 11in and decent 19in prints. Conclusion? All-in-all, the lens showed performance that is slightly better then that of its more expensive IS variant, Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, so go figure! For a moderately fast telephoto zoom, overall results are pretty decent. Obviously we can wish for more...

 

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 type camera was well under control, with CA in the center generally not exceeding ~0.5px and CA around borders averaging ~0.7px across all tested aperture settings and throughout the supported zoom. Nothing to worry about.

 

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

 

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

 

Here are 100% crops taken with an APS-C type Canon Digital Rebel XTi comparing images at f/3.5 and f/8.

 

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: The lens did not show any surprising change in behavior when used on a full frame body. This means that the lens continued to show very good to excellent results in the 70-135mm range, with both center as well as border quality remaining on a pretty high level throughout the tested aperture range. This also means that the lens gives up a bit of ground, mostly around edges, towards the longer end of the zoom and at 200mm shows average performance around borders but still pretty solid image quality in the center. Such behavior could be welcomed in general, since the lens will give its users more or less consistent performance on both APS-C as well as FF cameras. Conclusion? Nothing major to add here - overall performance is decent, just keep in mind that borders at 200mm will be softer.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM exhibited pincushion distortion throughout the zoom range. At 70mm (0.0811%) and 100mm (0.0812%) pincushion barely registers and should not be even visible in most situations. Distortion becomes more noticeable towards the longer end of the zoom and at 200mm (0.928%) it grows to moderate levels and can be visible in general shots.

 

Distortion (FF) @ 70mm, 100mm (top), 200mm (bottom)
Distortion (FF) @ 70mm, 100mm (top), 200mm (bottom)

 

The lens showed good handling of chromatic aberration on a full frame camera as well. CA in the center was averaging ~0.5px (across the zoom range and tested aperture settings). CA around borders was also averaging ~0.5px in the 70-135mm range (across the aperture range) and slightly higher (~0.7px) throughout the rest of the zoom range. Still not significant enough to cause major pains.

 

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

 

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

Here are 100% crops taken with a FF type Canon 5D comparing images at f/3.5 and f/8.

 

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

Canon currently offers three other 70-200mm lenses in its lineup (all carrying the L pro-grade designation). These include the top of the line EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM and slightly slower EF 70-200mm f/4L USM and its IS version, EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM. Two other lenses telephoto zooms in Canon's lineup that are worth considering are EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM and EF 70-300mm f/4.-5.6 DO IS USM, both of which are slightly slower (towards the longer end of the zoom) then the four 70-200mm versions, but also offer extra focal reach. 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 (technically speaking, Sigma has gone through three redesigns of this lens, and all these variants are still available on the market). For a longer, but slower zoom, take a look at Canon's EF 100-400mm f/4.5-6.6L IS USM 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, take a look at Canon's EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM.

 

Recommendation

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM is one of the better telephoto zooms in Canon's modern lineup. I would even say that this is one of the better telephoto zooms available in the EF mount. Overall performance is slightly better then that of its more expensive IS variant, which is a bit surprising and depressing if you think about it carefully - even if the overall performance of both EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM and the more expensive EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM was identical, it would simply mean that we're paying extra US$500 (current price difference between these two lenses) or so just for the privilege of having an IS. Anyhow, artifacts are handled quite well overall, build quality is quite good. Everyone would obviously wish for a lower price, but hey, good things typically would cost you...