Canon 70-200mm f/4 L USM – Value for Money + Excellent Results

So I’ve had the Canon 70-200mm f/4 L USM for around 8 months now, using it with my Canon 60D, and I’ve decided to return to this post (originally published August 26th 2011) because this lens has grown to be my favourite lens in my bag, and proven itself along the way snapping some of my favourite photos – all seriously sharp and all lovely and vivid in colour.

What I Originally Said:

I took it to The Big Chill Festival where I was asked to photograph the event for the weekend and I also did a few bits of video here and there too. I took it with the belief that I’d probably use it when the sun was out and then have to switch over to a shorter focal length, faster lens as the light disappeared. Turns out I barely took it off the camera as it performed brilliantly even in the lowest light. Rodrigo y Gabriela were on at 9.30pm on the final night and the sun has set, but still the Canon 70-200mm f/4 L USM managed to snap this:

Rodrigo y Gabriela, Big Chill Festival 2011Before heading off to the other side of the country for the festival I’d also feared that I’d snap away and maybe 10% of my photos would be sharp due to the 200mm focal length becoming 320mm on the 60D’s 1.6x crop sensor and therefore less useful for hand-held shooting. The lack of IS on my bottom-end version of Canon’s 70-200 range would also be an issue given that I couldn’t get a tripod into the arena with me. This also turned out not to be the case, I even used it one-handed to reach around the front of the crowd and snap a lucky shot of Jay Electronica getting up close and personal with the crowd:

Jay Electronic w/ the Bullitts at The Big Chill Festival 2011Another thing that has to be said for the 70-200 is it’s lightning quick (and silent) autofocus. I rarely missed a shot or focused incorrectly and that’s testament to the lens because I’m typically a “just one more” kind of photographer – Check out my full set of “keepers” on Flickr.

Further thoughts…

It’s now January 2012 and since posting about my bargain-buy lens (£370 second-hand on Gumtree was a steal considering it was like-new anyway) I’ve had a chance to use it in many more situations, including loads of video work – an area where I thought a 70-200 (effectively 112-320mm on the 60D’s 1.6 crop) lens would just be too long. It has continued to impress me whilst also proving that the 2.8 version would be handy in certain specific situations.

I’ve had the pleasure of photographing a few weddings since buying it and for the one I did in August where we had non-stop sunshine, it was just superb. Firstly it’s brilliantly lightweight which allowed me to use a two body set-up, switching back and forth between one camera with a wide lens and the other with the zoom. When hanging off my shoulder or even around my neck, the weight wasn’t overbearing or aching at all -the f/4 IS and f/2.8 versions are between 600 and 800g heavier than the modestly weighted 705g f/4 L USM. So first of all, no need to visit the chiropractor with this one!

More importantly, the images I got on that summer’s day were just excellent. Brilliantly sharp, super-fast and silent autofocus and my own personal favourite feature: the vivid colours that it captures. For a sub-£500 lens when purchased new, it’s a must-have if you’re shopping for a zoom on a budget. The proof is in the pudding… (click to see large version.)

Wedding Photo / Wedding Snap / Canon 60D / 70-200 F/4 L USMThe bokeh of the Canon 70-200mm f/4 L USM is also lovely and smooth creating a really dreamy effect, especially at 200mm.

However, on another wedding I shot later in the year (a cold and dull December day in fact) the lens stayed in my bag for the most part. It was of no use to me inside the church as there simply wasn’t enough natural light to shoot at a clean ISO. I ended up switching between a 16-35mm f/2.8 II L USM (a beautiful wide zoom that I now desperately want to own) and an the hefty, mega-bucks 85mm f/1.2 L USM. Both were fast and sharp enough to get what the 70-200 couldn’t. So it has it’s advantages and disadvantages like any other, but realistically, if you shoot outdoors or you want a lightweight high-quality zoom lens for travelling, the f/4 L USM fits the bill.

Canon 70-200mm f/4 L USM for Video

Much like the comparison of the wedding scenarios, I’ve found that daytime or studio (well-lit) shoots are great conditions for the 70-200, but shooting with it in the evening or indoors is probably out of the question unless you’re happy to shoot over 1250 ISO (which I never am, I like my video clean and noise-free!)

Don’t let that put you off though as it has been absolutely essential when shooting on certain video projects, particularly a recent studio shoot where it excelled at being pin-sharp and well-suited to focus-pulling. The focus ring, as with many large Canon L lenses, is nice and big and very smooth making focus-pulling in video mode really easy and accurate.

Aesthetically it’s also proven to produce excellent filmic images whereby the shallow depth-of-field twinned with a long, narrow focal length (between 70 and 135 is great) makes excellent movie-like shots. Here’s a still from an upcoming short film I helped shoot which sort of demonstrates my point (watch this space for some video examples when I get time to put them up.)

Canon 70-200 F/4 L USMSo that’s my 2 cents on this tried-and-tested (and pleasantly affordable) Canon 70-200 f/4 L USM lens. Feel free to ask questions/comment with your thoughts… If you’ve read this far you’ve done well as I’ve definitely rambled here!

Canon 70-200 f/4 L USM review

Canon 70-200mm F/4 L USM

My trusty Canon 70-200mm F/4 L USM.                                Image copyright: © Paul Cook

After looking at, researching, testing and analysing dozens of telephoto prime and zoom lenses I opted to go for the modestly priced Canon 70-200 f/4 L USM lens. I found a second hand copy being sold on eBay by a hobby photographer who lived locally so I snapped up the opportunity (excuse the pun) to bag a £500 lens for under £380 in mint condition (plus it has the handy tripod mount ring included.)

I’ve used every incarnation of the 70-200 L that Canon produces including the two f/2.8 versions (IS and non-IS) and the IS version of the f/4 and must admit it was only the 70-200 f/2.8 L II that was noticeably better in my experience, and even then only in terms of it’s capabilities with the faster aperture and image stabilisation. The image quality of all of Canon’s 70-200 lenses is superb and seldom differ in terms of sharpness and colour rendition. It’s still the cheapest lens in my kit bag but remains a personal favourite. This shot from one of the first weddings I ever shot is a great example of all of it’s advantages, including it’s fast autofocus:

Wedding photography using the Canon 70-200mm f/4 L USM

Exposure – 0.002 sec (1/500) / Aperture – f/4.5 / Focal Length – 200 mm / ISO Speed – 320

The one down-side of this lens is that it will put the rest of your kit to shame. The latest lens I invested in was the 24-70 f/2.8 L and whilst I’ve been very impressed with it, I still don’t think it matches my (considerably cheaper and older) 70-200 f/4. Even wide open at f/4.0 this lens is pin-sharp to the finest detail and every snap I get with it just pops with colour and vibrance. It’s so pleasing to have a lens that you know is capable of capturing the very best detail and for the price you’ll struggle to find another lens that performs this well.

It must also be said that you shouldn’t let the f/4 aperture and lack of IS put you off. It’s the main reasons I hear people going for the twice or quadruple-priced 70-200 alternatives. If used correctly you can get great low-light results out of this lens despite the slower aperture. I’ve been using it with my 60D and have often had ‘wow’ moments where I’m surprised myself how well the photos have come out.

I used the 60D and 70-200 whilst covering The Big Chill Festival for Lucozade last year. I thought I would have to switch to my 50mm 1.4 when the light faded around 8pm each evening but thankfully that wasn’t the case. I was able to keep on shooting late into the night, photographing Kanye West and Rodrigo Y Gabriela with pleasing results:

Exposure – 0.005 sec (1/200) / Aperture – f/4.0 / Focal Length – 200 mm / ISO 1000

Rodrigo Y Gabriela live at Big Chill Festival 2011

Exposure – 0.017 sec (1/60) / Aperture – f/4.0 / Focal Length – 135 mm / ISO 1000

Video Use

I bought this lens with the intention and assumption that it would serve as a stills lens but the moment I started using it for video I realised it was an all-rounder, brilliant at both photos and video. The focal length compression gives a lovely effect when shooting close-ups in short films and music videos at 135mm-200mm, blurring out the background beautifully with producing excellent bokeh. Even at f/8-f/11 this lens produces fantastically shallow depth of field whilst making your subjects pin sharp with great skin tones.

On a decent fluid video head it’s easily possible to pan and tilt smoothly at the full 200mm end of the focal length. The IS in the other models of the Canon 70-200 admittedly make doing that much easier, and tracking (either on a slider or on tracks) smoother, but it’s still possible to get great camera movements using it. I use this lens from time to time on a Konova Slider and whilst I get the odd shake or jitter, smoothcam removes that easily in post.

Again, low-light performance is stunning on this lens in video mode. I shot this video entirely on the 70-200 at f/4 – f/5.6 and given the large focus ring and decent throw, it was relatively easy to follow focus too:

Update May 2014: I’ve returned to this post after shooting a wedding at the weekend (video) and hearing the usual “what is that lens? is that the cheap version without IS?!” I have heard this many many times when shooting with this lens. Whilst I own a lot of the top end L lenses from Canon (the 24-70mm and the 100mm L macro) I still stick with the 70-200, having never really found a reason to upgrade to the heftier, pricier f/2.8 IS versions. What people don’t take into account sometimes is the weight of this lens (it weighs a tiny 700g, half of the weight of the bigger IS versions. Meaning, when I carry this lens around on my 5D, with a carbon fibre Sachtler Ace tripod, I barely feel it. I can shoot all day with this lens and not get tired, achey arms… and I’ll have reliably pin-sharp images, full of Canon L quality colour vibrancy and the gorgeous depth of field and bokeh. I still recommend this lens to any photographer or videographer without question!