Lens Review: Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

December 27, 2012

By Dan Havlik

The Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens has been around for a few years now but considering the long product life of its workhorse predecessor, which debuted in 2001, expect this essential zoom to be kicking it for quite a while. Announced, for some reason, in the lead up to the Consumer Electronics Show in 2010, the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II is the kind of lens every pro photographer has in his or her bag but, perhaps, never fully appreciates.

I tested the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 II recently while reviewing the Canon EOS-1D X for the November 2012 issue of PDN and though Canon’s loaded new flagship DSLR provided the initial dazzle, it was my experience with the 70-200mm II that has stuck with me. Here’s what I liked about this solid and versatile zoom lens.

Body and Build
At first glance, the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 II looks remarkably like its predecessor but that’s to be expected: Pro lenses don’t vary dramatically in their appearance through the years. But look closer at this EF-series Canon white lens and you’ll notice some subtle changes.

Specifically, there is the wider, rubber focusing ring on top of the lens barrel, which I really appreciated when shooting while wearing gloves. The small ribs on the ring helped me get a good grip to set precise focus adjustments both with gloves on and without.

The same was true of the zoom ring, which seemed about the same size as on the previous model, with larger rubber ribs that also offered a good grip. Zooming in and out with the lens was smooth but firm, and I experienced no lens creep issues with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 II  (i.e., it did not inadvertently extend from its own weight).

Speaking of weight, the 70-200mm f/2.8 II is on the heavy side, weighing in at over three pounds and, believe me, you feel every ounce of it. I used the lens as part of an ongoing wildlife photography project I’ve been shooting, which requires a lot of trail riding on mountain bikes. Stuffing the lens and DSLR combo into a photo backpack seemed like a good idea at first but after a day on the trails, my backside was feeling it. You also probably don’t want to hand-hold this lens for extended periods of time so I’d suggest also bringing a monopod or tripod.

There’s a reason behind that weight: This lens is built tough. With weather and dust sealing throughout, the 70-200mm f/2.8 II is designed to withstand a variety of shooting conditions. For my wildlife photography project, which took me to foggy, moisture-rich swamps and marshes, the lens experienced no problems. If you anticipate you’ll be stuck in some heavy downpours though, I’d suggest bringing some fully waterproof rain covers for both your camera and lens.

The 70-200mm f/2.8 II has a new bayonet mount on the front that lets you lock on the included lens hood so it doesn’t accidentally go askew or slip off.

Image Stabilization: The Next Generation
As indicated by its model name, the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 features new IS (Optical Image Stabilizer) technology, which Canon says offers up to four stops of correction against camera shake across the entire focal range. In contrast, the previous version of IS in the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 offered only a reported three stops of correction.

While this spec is notoriously hard to test—it depends on what your definition of an acceptably sharp image is—I was very impressed with the new IS, which is actually the third generation of this technology for Canon. With the Optical Image Stabilizer engaged on the new 70-200mm lens, I got a larger number of useable images at 200mm when shooting at slower shutter speeds of up to one-tenth of a second hand-held than any other zoom I’ve tried.

Again it depends on your definition of useable and how shaky a particular photographer’s hands are, but I’d say at least 75 percent of my hand-held shots at up to one-tenth of a second were acceptable. Admittedly, as the day went on and my hands got more tired holding the heavy camera and lens, that percentage went down but results were pretty remarkable nonetheless.

I was also impressed with the Canon 70-200mm II’s autofocus system, which was fast and incredibly quiet; a perfect combination when photographing wildlife. Part of this faster focusing is likely due to a new AF algorithm Canon’s deployed in the 70-200mm II. Overriding autofocus takes just a turn of the ample focus ring to bring the lens under manual control.

Speaking of focus, the lens’s close-up ability has improved from the previous model. Though it’s hardly an ideal macro lens, the Canon 70-200mm II has a minimum focusing distance of just under four feet throughout the entire zoom range, letting you get closer to your subject while keeping the image sharp and tightly cropped. This should come in handy for portrait and headshot photographers.

Fringe Elements
The other big change to the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 II is its new internal optics. The lens now uses one fluorite element and five UD glass elements designed to boost contrast and resolution while reducing chromatic aberrations.

I got excellent image quality results with almost no chromatic aberrations, which are sometimes identified by the purple fringing you see in areas of high contrast such as branches against a sky. It was hard to pick out any chromatic aberrations in my outdoor wildlife shots, even when zoomed in to 100 percent in photos ringed with trees.

Meanwhile, the overall contrast in my images was strong and natural looking, giving my shots that crisp, life-like look that’s a sign of good glass.

The Bottom Line
If there’s anything I can say against buying the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM it’s that there’s a reason the previous lens was in Canon’s line-up for so long. The older 70-200mm f/2.8 is an excellent piece of glass and the type of workhorse that’s hard to put out to pasture. But if you’re in the market for a new 70-200mm, this version II sharp shooter from Canon is probably the best investment you will make. Yes, it’s expensive and heavy but the improvements in the lens’s Optical Image Stabilizer, its speedy-but-silent autofocus and the superior new internal optics, make this versatile EF-series zoom from Canon a real thoroughbred.

Pros: Improved Optical Image Stabilizer lets you hand-hold lens at slower shutter speeds while getting sharp results; excellent sharpness overall; fluorite and UD glass elements nearly eliminate chromatic aberrations; fast and quiet autofocus; wider focus ring lets you adjust while wearing gloves

Cons: Previous lens is still a very solid option; heavy; expensive

Price: $2,499;

Related Article: Camera Review: Canon EOS-1D X

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