Review – Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS
I have long wondered what pleasures the Canon 200mm f/2 L lens held. At 200mm and about $7,000 there’s gotta be a really good reason for so many photographers around the world to covet, and use it. We’ve probably all shot a telephoto lens capable of reaching 200mm. Some on the less expensive EF-S zooms, or maybe one of Canon’s legendary 70-200 lens lineup or the Canon 200 f/2.8 L prime. The closest of the common zooms in focal length and aperture is the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L IS II. It’s a beautiful lens that I own, and not exactly inexpensive at ~$2,800, it’s also very versatile and one lens in my kit I’m hesitant to part with for any event or portrait assignment.
Hesitant does not mean never though and, as I ventured out with the Canon 200mm f/2 L IS for the first time, I soon discovered that I could live without the safety of the zoom, and embrace this remarkable prime lens.
It’s a big lens, larger than heavier than anything else I have in my kit, but not altogether unwieldy. As you can see, it’s only slightly larger than the Canon 70-200f/2.8 L IS II, but the front lens element gives the 200 f/2 such girth that at first it’s intimidating. Used for short periods of time, it is absolutely hand-holdable with great (though slightly noisy) Image Stabilization. One thing I will suggest, however, is you balance it with a properly weighted camera. I shot this with both my 5DMKII without a grip, and my 7D with a grip. The added weight and ergonomics the 7D with grip added were a welcome counter-balance to the 200’s mass. Obviously, many users will own a 1D series pro body which will further add balance to the lens (and weight to the whole package). While the lens will fit in most backpacks, it definitely takes more than it’s fair-share of the space especially if you have the lens hood reversed and the cover on. Personally I couldn’t justify bringing the leather cover along on assignment, but that also meant leaving the very large front lens element exposed in my bag.
Image stabilization is important to me on a telephoto lens. Some people can hand-hold a telephoto at ¼ of a second, but I am not one of these people. Because of that, the technical innovation that IS brings is very much welcome to me in low-light situations or even my flash photography work where the sync speed of the camera keeps my shutter under 1/200th of a second. Stabilization has two modes; the first for shakey-hands like me, and the second for panning sports, cars, toddlers – whatever you’ve got.
A few other features the lens sports were new to me as a super-telephoto NOOB. There’s a focus preset button so you can set a specific focusing distance and return to it at any time by rotating a well hidden “Playback Ring” (a grooved metal ring between the focus ring and the front rubber grip). On the side you’ll also find a standard AF/MF switch and a focus limiter starting from 1.9m (the minimum focusing distance) or 3.5m to infinity. Finally, the front rubber grip has four equally placed buttons that are AF stop buttons which temporarily pause autofocus, which isn’t an issue for me because I’ve re-mapped my AF to the back button on my camera.
Another factor to consider is that they don’t make screw-on filters for this range of telephoto. Common with the longer primes, people “coming up” the focal range may be unfamiliar with the 52mm drop-in filters it uses, it’s not a big deal, but that’s how it works. Finally the lens is fully weather sealed, which I should say is a must-have on any L-series lens (especially since my first two jobs after receiving the lens involved a community water fight and a sunset shoot by the river in a storm), but Canon doesn’t seem to always agree with that so it’s worth mentioning here that it is.
A massive lens hood is included, as well as a leather cap for protection during transport, it’s really just a pouch. I’m a strong proponent of lens hoods, as they reduce lens flare while protecting the front lens element. This hood increases the length of the lens by almost 5″ and I often see photojournalists shooting without it on. Since the front lens element is set back slightly you still have a bit of safety without the hood attached. There is also a non-removable tripod collar which is a welcome addition, the foot itself is removable so you can add the widely used tongue-and-groove style mount. I did find the foot got in a way a few times while hand-holding the camera, but it was simple enough to swing up to the top of the lens so I could more easily balance it and use the focus ring simultaneously.
This lens is sharp, there are lots of blogs and reviews that get into sharpness fall-off data but for me it’s a matter of how it looks in the final image. If you’re getting this lens you’re really looking to use it from f/2 to f/2.8… otherwise you’d get one of the other mentioned above. Shooting this lens wide-open is a treat, every image comes out with an incredibly smooth creamy bokeh with lots of space to create a blurred out foreground and background – between 6.3 feet to 70′ – the sharp, in focus subjects just POP off the screen.
I wouldn’t consider this a wild-life lens, not many would, but 200mm just isn’t enough length to get you close enough to wildlife unless they’re particularly friendly. It’s maximum magnification also doesn’t make it well suited for really tighly cropped portraits – but the minimum to maximum focusing distance does make it ideal for wonderfully blurred out full body shots of your subject.
So that’s how it handles and feels, and as you can see, it’s pretty great. There’s no doubt, though, that this is a luxury lens. At $6,000 this purchase would break the bank for many of us. That said, since I’ve been shooting with it, every one of my images that I’ve shown has been of remarkable quality. People are taking an interest in the photos – there’s a great “feel” to them, the sharpness of focus, the incredible bokeh, even the vignetting at f/2 adds to the look of the image. There’s also something inherently creative in a prime lens, the fact that you have to zoom with your feet, forcing you to find different angles for the shot. Owning this lens would completely make you stand apart from your peers on look alone, but it comes with such a hefty cost I can’t see many people buying it (though if you did, you’d obviously be in the elite) over the more versatile zooms (I’ve never used the Canon 200mm f/2.8 L Prime, so I can’t comment on that). You know you’re onto something when my wife comments on the image and asks “How much does that lens cost?” as if, for the first time, she’s about to okay a gear purchase. Rental is a great idea, of course, but it’s uses are also so varied that it could potentially be your go-to telephoto lens for years; I know that after using it for two weeks straight I’m loathe to let it go, and will be missing that wonderful ethereal look it can produce in my photos.
- Sharp wide-open
- Beautiful bokeh
- Image Stabilization = Hand-holdable
- Bragging rights
- May be expensive for some
- Need for new/different filters
- Space it takes up
Without a doubt, one of my top 3 favourite lenses in the Canon lineup. It can be a bit cumbersome to use, but the results make it worth it at the end of the day. As Justin has mentioned, there is a very small market for this lens because of the price. This might be one of the best lenses to rent, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone not say they were sad when they had to return it. It’s a wonderful lens for taking shots of kids, it’s a great focal length because you’re far enough away to not interrupt their playing. It’s also a very good field sport lens if you’re right on the sideline. I’ve seen this lens used for portrait sessions, rodeos, weddings and even on safari. The lens also works great with the 1.4X & 2X teleconverters, 400 f/4L IS anyone?.
I would only use this lens on a full frame camera body, as I think “the look” the lens gives diminishes on an APS-C body. I have had great results on an APS-H camera like the 1D Mark IV, but I think it’s much better suited to full frame. If you’re a smaller person, you may want to have at least a gripped camera to hand hold this lens. It will provide a lot better balance.
I also recommend changing the Canon lens foot off for a Really Right Stuff Arca style replacement foot. We have done this with our EF 200 f/2L IS inventory. It slims down the lens and will ensure it fits on most any ballhead or gimbal style head.
I’m reaching to find a few negatives, but here goes. I dislike the hood, I think it makes the lens far too big and I usually shoot without it. The lens is actually not all that long without the hood on. Although, that is a big front element. The lenses we have had to go to Canon for the recall to fix the IS unit. It had an issue with the 5D Mark III. The turnaround was pretty quick, but that was an annoyance nonetheless. If you buy one used, be sure to find out if the service has been performed.
Well, I’m off to pull one from inventory and do some shooting with it. Even thinking about the EF 200 f/2L IS makes me happy.