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Thursday, 29 December 2011

Review: Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 USM L IS

It was never my intention to purchase this lens originally, I was quite happy with my EF-S 55-250mm lens in all aspects apart from the focus in terms of both speed and accuracy which could be frustratingly unreliable for things such as airshows where you don't have the opportunity to have a few tries at a given subject. My plan was to buy the Canon 100-400mm to use for such occasions, the idea being that the autofocus is faster and works better in AI servo mode and of course the lens goes out to a much more powerful 400mm. So I would have the smaller, much more portable lens for carrying around and the larger professional lens for things such as airshows when using a tripod wouldn't be a hindrance, these two lenses in theory would cover all my autofocus needs comfortably!

It didn't work out quite that way though, primarily because it seems there are about two decent copies of the 100-400 in existence, I literally went through four copies of this lens before giving up and the best one I ever got was sharp at the bottom of the image and soft at the top, I think the quality control is appalling with these lenses, especially considering the price which I am not too proud to admit is the kind of money that takes me many years to save. When you're dealing with an amount of money that takes you that long to save you tend to get panicked and stressed easily when things go wrong and by copy number four I had endured just about all the stress I could take and gave up on the idea completely.

I was tempted by the Sigma 50-500mm OS but reviews seemed to give inconsistent opinions on sharpness and while the Sigma may be a bargain in the scheme of things I expect a lens to be sharp and to focus well when it costs upwards of £1000! There was also the Tamron 200-500mm but this was a similar story.

The only other option left was to make a sacrifice on the tele end so I narrowed it down to two options, any lens that ends at 300mm was going to be uncomfortably close to the 55-250mm so it would really need to offer the best image quality and thoroughly superior autofocus to be worth bothering with which narrowed it down to the new Tamron 70-300mm SP and the Canon 70-300mm L, I was reluctant to try the Canon because in some ways I would be paying the same as the 100-400mm would have cost for a lens that was essentially 50mm longer so I gave the Tamron a go but it just wasn't as good as I expected it to be, it was somewhat soft at 300mm so it really didn't seem to offer enough over the 55-250mm to be worth buying. Eventually I gave in and tried the Canon, it costs a colossal amount more than the 55-250mm and yet only gave 50mm more reach so it was a really tough decision to make and my fingers were firmly crossed that it would be worth it!

This lens divides opinion a lot and it isn't helped by the fact that the focal and aperture range have until now been very much associated with "consumer grade" lenses, nobody has ever attempted to make a top of the line professional something-300mm lens before but that doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing, it is a very useful focal range and providing the image quality is exceptional then even carrying such a huge price tag this lens could be a very powerful and versatile tool.

Build quality, finish and operation:

All I can say is WOW! This lens is built like a tank yet isn't as heavy or as huge as it looks in photos. The finish is superb with the usual Canon L textured finish over an all metal body which is also weather sealed. Having spent so much I was obviously eager to feel that my purchase had been justified but this really is the most tightly assembled and smooth Canon lens I have handled so far and easily outclasses the 100-400mm.
The autofocus is of the ring USM type and is blazingly fast, silent and offers full time manual focus so is everything I could hope for, so far the price is being justified!
The Image stabilizer is also very impressive and is Canons latest version offering up to a 4 extra f stops if you have steady hands and probably at least 2 stops if you have hands like mine which offer about as much stability as a bowl of jelly, once more the lens puts in a first rate performance!

Image Quality:

The good news continues when it comes to image quality too, it starts off blisteringly sharp at 70mm and stays that way all the way to 300mm, there may be tiny reduction in sharpness at 300mm but it's still absolutely pin sharp and offers resolution that has never been seen on such a lens before, the contrast is also superb all the way out to 300mm, the lens gives sharp, bright, colourful and punchy images at all apertures and all focal lengths, I have never felt the need to stop the lens down at any time! The lens produces only a negligible amount of chromatic aberrations throughout the zoom range which really helps to make images look super sharp. Furthermore, the lens appears to display absolutely no longitudinal chromatic aberrations (known as bokeh CA or bokeh fringing) at any aperture/focal length.

To top things off the lens even delivers very smooth and attractive bokeh including out of focus highlight discs that remain round thanks to the 8 curved aperture blades and suffer from no outlining effect.

I'm sure you get the idea by now but this lens is just a phenomenal performer at all settings and is easily the best zoom lens I have ever used and also comfortably beats many prime lenses. There is frequent discussion on the internet including the forum where it has been confirmed that this lens is as sharp as the Canon 70-200mm F/4 where the lenses overlap, the 70-200mm f/4 is considered by many to be the sharpest zoom lens ever made which I think says it all!





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This lens is very expensive but it is absolutely fantastic in every aspect, the build quality is superb, the image quality is stunning and the focal range is versatile. While it may appear to be a consumer grade lens on steroids with a price to match the truth is that this is easily one of the finest zoom lenses Canon have ever made and I can say that without reservation! Yes it's expensive but it's sooooo worth it, this really is an exceptional lens in every way. The only thing that might make me give up this lens is the new version of the 100-400mm that is apparently waiting in the wings, it uses a conventional zoom action instead of the old fashioned push/pull "trombone" style mechanism and should be a far superior lens but it will have to be REALLY special for me to consider choosing it over the 70-300!


Antony Ratcliffe said... Best Blogger Tips

Excellent write up Dave with some fantastic exemplary images to boot!
Looks like a cracking Lens to me, seems like money well spent. Glad you obtained a good copy this time!

D said... Best Blogger Tips


It's a cracker alright and I'm glad to finally have a good copy of something! Believe it or not even this was the second one I had but the first was damaged in transit so it wasn't anything Canon had done wrong!

I'm going to put up a review of the 55-250mm soon as it's a really decent lens too, it offers so much for so little that it really makes the L seem way overpriced in a way but it is let down by the autofocus that can catch a speeding motorboat dead on one minute and then fail to focus sharply on a brick wall out of ten attempts the next! The 55-250 is a great "take anywhere" lens and is genuinely quite sharp at the long end too, an absolute bargain in most respects but the new L is just something else!

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