Review – EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS

70-300 L Review
Introduction

By Craig B / Canon Rumors Guy
Welcome to my review of the new EF 70-300 f/4-5.6L IS from our pals at Canon.

Where to begin?

Well, I’ll be honest. When I saw the announcement for this lens, I was underwhelmed. I read a lot of the same sentiment around the web.

So when it came time to head off to Kenya on my first trip to Africa, I went back and forth as to whether or not I’d take the lens along. I was already taking an EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II, did I really need another lens in the same sort of range? The answer is probably not, but am I ever glad I did. This lens was almost a permanent fixture on a body for the entire 2 weeks I was in Kenya. I rarely had the aforementioned 70-200 on a camera.

 

This review is myself beating up a lens pretty good for 2 weeks in some harsh conditions. This is a real world review, there are plenty of other places to get all the technical info you need.

I hope you enjoy reading it and looking at the photos.

70-300 f/4-5.6L IS standing in a Gura Gear Kiboko

The Build Quality & Design
The first thing you notice about this lens when you take it out of the box is the compact size. This is probably one of the big selling features for the lens. The above photo shows the minimal bag real estate the lens takes. As you can see, it’s standing vertical in a Gura Gear Kiboko backpack and takes the same amount of space as the EF 35 f/1.4L directly to the right of it.. Directly behind is the very large EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II, you could almost fit 3 of the 70-300′s in the same space. For people concerned about space, this is a big plus.

The lens is also extremely solid and weighty. It feels like it can take a beating and keep doing its job. I knocked it off stuff a few times taking paint off, and it kept working without issue.

This isn’t a light lens by any means, so it’s not going to save your back. It will help you bring a smaller camera bag with you though.

Weather & Environmental Sealing
The top picture shows I got the lens completely soaked. There was water dripping off of it. I did this 3-4 times during the trip just to make sure it would continue to work. It did.

Another issue with photo safari’s is dust, there’s a lot of it during dry times. Every single day we had a coating of dust on all our gear. I purposely left the 70-300 out of the bag and let it become a nice bed for dust. The zoom and focusing rings remained smooth and grit free. After 2 weeks of abuse, no dust appeared inside the lens. It’s safe to say this lens is sealed as well as any zoom out there.


Zebra & Acacia Trees | Masai Mara, Kenya ||| 5D Mark II & 70-300 f/4.-5.6L IS

Darter | Lake Baringo, Kenya ||| 1D Mark IV & 70-300 f/4.-5.6L IS

“Feel”
People talk a lot about the “feel” of a lens and how easy and comfortable the lens is to shoot with. I will point out some things that worked and didn’t work for me.

The lens was very well balanced on both a gripless 5D Mark II and a fullsize 1D Mark IV. I found it slightly front heavy on a 60D, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. If you want to add this to a Rebel, it’s very front heavy. I’d probably recommend getting a battery grip for your Rebel to help balance things out for long days of shooting. It’ll be a great lens on a Rebel because of its small stature, so don’t be deterred.

I have large hands and never found the lens to be difficult to hold and change settings on. I had a friend with smaller hands playing with it and he had no issues either.

The Zoom Ring
There’s one thing that drove me bonkers for a couple of days, and that’s the placement of the zoom ring/focusing ring. On most lenses I’ve used, the zoom ring is the closest ring to the camera and the focusing ring is at the end. On the 70-300 it’s reversed, and it took me 2-3 days to get used to it.

One issue I did find with the location of the focusing ring was when I was trying to shoot video off of a beanbag on the side of the vehicle. I couldn’t place the lens on the beanbag properly for good balance because I’d be resting the focusing ring on the bag itself. This made manual focus impossible. I had to rest the camera body on the bean bag, which isn’t ideal. A solution to this would be to buy the rather expensive tripod collar for the lens. I could have rested the collar on the bag. Still not idea, but better. A beanbag is very important to me, I’ve tried all the other gadgets and gizmos to support gear in a car and its been the best for me.

It wasn’t a big deal when shooting stills off the beanbag.

Teleconverters?
You can NOT put a Canon teleconverter of any kind on this lens. The rear element is too close to the end of the lens. However, people are using the Kenko 1.4 TC on the lens with good results.

If you already have a Canon TC, you’ll have to pony up for the third party option.

Most people probably don’t need the ability to add a converter.

No Tripod Collar
No tripod collar is included with the lens, I don’t think it’s a big deal. This is going to be a handheld lens for a lot of people.

Eland at Dusk | Lake Nakuru, Kenya ||| 5D Mark II & 70-300 f/4.-5.6L IS

The lone elephant and the storm | Amboseli, Kenya ||| 5D Mark II & 70-300 f/4.-5.6L IS

Image Quality
I was blown away right off the bat by the image quality of the lens. Color, contrast and sharpness were as good as any zoom in the Canon lineup. It is sharper than the 70-300 it replaces and a lot sharper than the 70-300 DO. I’ve seen sharp copies of the 100-400, and I found this lens to be sharper across the range.

The lens is sharp, period. I’m not always the most critical of lens sharpness, I am an anti pixel peeper. However, I had no sharpness issues printing 24×36 with the lens. Absolutely great results. Sharpness was good across the entire frame and I didn’t notice any significant issues with distortion.

One issue I did notice was on the 5D Mark II, there was a significant amount of vignetting at f/4 when at 70mm. It wasn’t a huge issue to correct, but it’s there.

I didn’t have any issues with flaring, though I don’t often shoot in situations that may be a problem.

Bokeh
I didn’t shoot the lens to really show bokeh, it’ll be hard to get creamy backgrounds with an f/5.6 lens. You could probably get adequate results at 300mm and fairly close to your subject. The photos at the bottom of the African fish eagle may be a bit busy in the background for some, though it doesn’t bother me much.

Take down a Rhino | Lake Nakuru, Kenya ||| 1D Mark IV & 70-300 f/4.-5.6L IS

Yeah, it's sharp | Amboseli, Kenya ||| 1D Mark III & 70-300 f/4.-5.6L IS

Lens Performance
The autofocus of the lens is lightning fast and silent. It did a super job when tracking birds in flight. It was also super fast in initial acquisition of focus on both the 5D Mark II and 1D Mark IV. It focused very well in low light. If a shot was out of focus, it was probably my fault or an environmental issue. Flawless performance.

The image stabilization is amazing, it’s definitely 4 stops as I was getting sharp images at 1/50sec at 300mm.

As I mentioned earlier, the zoom ring and focusing ring are both smooth and great to use.

I will note I never needed to apply the lock to the lens to stop it from “creeping”, it’s probably good its there though. I’m going to assume there’s going to be a range of tolerance for creep, some lenses will be a bit tighter than others.

Before the hunt | Masai Mara, Kenya ||| 5D Mark II & 70-300 f/4.-5.6L IS

Maribou Stork | Lake Nakuru, Kenya ||| 1D Mark IV & 70-300 f/4.-5.6L IS

Why this and not the EF 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS?
There are a few technical reasons to choose this over the 100-400.

  • The lens is significantly smaller.
  • The 4 stop IS greatly outperforms the 100-400′s IS.
  • I found it sharper across the range.
  • No push/pull zoom, a love or hate feature of the 100-400
  • Better autofocus performance I found.

The following point is purely conjecture on my part. I can’t call it fact yet……

2011 is the year the 100-400 gets replaced from every indication I’ve received.

From a marketing standpoint it will make no sense to have a 70-300L and a 100-400L with variable aperture and such close focal lengths in the lineup. Look for a replacement that puts a bigger gap between the two lenses.

I pointed out earlier that someone made a suggestion that the 70-300 is actually the new 100-400 because of the crop cameras out there now.

Only time will tell on this one.

Wildebeest | Masai Mara, Kenya ||| 5D Mark II & 70-300 f/4.-5.6L IS

Layers of life | Lake Nakuru, Kenya ||| 5D Mark II & 70-300 f/4.-5.6L IS

What other lens might this compare to?
I’ve heard about a lot of people trading in 70-200 f/2.8L IS lenses for 70-200 f/4L IS. In most cases, it’s because the lens weighs less and they don’t need the 2.8. For other people, it’s because of a significant cost savings.

If you’re considering a 70-200 f/4L IS, you should also take a peak at the 70-300 f/4-5.6L IS. It takes less bag space and you’ll use the 300mm if you have it. I think it’s as sharp as the 70-200 f/4L IS. The variable aperture may bother some people, but it won’t be an issue for a lot of you. I would choose this lens every time.

I’ve never used the Sigma or Tamron big zooms. so I can’t make any statement about them.

Double Rainbow Elephants | Amboseli, Kenya ||| The King | Masai Mara, Kenya - 5D Mark II & 70-300 f/4.-5.6L IS


African Fish Eagle | Lake Baringo, Kenya ||| 1D Mark IV & 70-300 f/4.-5.6L IS

Conclusion
I came into this review worried I wouldn’t be able to make enough good images with it since I had the 70-200 f/2.8L IS II with me. Thankfully I was wrong!

For the purpose of outdoor everyday photography, including  a safari, this is a fabulous lens. With the current landscape of lens pricing, I don’t think it’s overpriced. It’ll start dropping in price over the next few months. It’ll also be a lens that’ll show up in rebate programs.

This probably isn’t a lens for weddings, portraits, lowlight or indoor sports (unless it’s well lit or strobed) unless you have no other option. It will be a great lens for outdoor work, safaris, outdoor sports, zoos, kids and general travel shooting.

My safari friend Ethan wants one now too. His 70-200 f/4L IS will be hitting the used sale pile.

Pros

  • Excellent sharpness and color
  • Excellent build quality
  • Autofocus is lightning fast
  • The IS is among the best in the Canon lineup
  • Requires a very small space in a camera bag
  • The lens is very well balanced when on a camera body
  • A complete joy to use

Cons

  • May be priced too high for some
  • Took me a while to get used to the order the zoom ring and focus ring are in
  • Vignettes significantly at f/4 on a full frame camera
  • Cannot use a Canon teleconverter on the lens, the Kenko Pro 300 DGX 1.4 works.
  • Some might be bothered that a tripod collar is not included

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