It’s the big, beautiful, ultra recognizable cream colored status symbol: Canon’s old standby ƒ/2.8 stabilized EF 70-200mm zoom.This all-around, all-time favorite (since 1999) had and still has almost magical ability in any application. Karl loves his, and is rarely seen without it.
But the ƒ/2.8 is not for me. I’ve always used the ƒ/4 stabilized 70-200 zoom, the little sister. And I’m as adamant in my choice – now, finally, echoed by the popular press. To me it’s old news; there’s happiness at a higher ƒ/stop, with these telephotos I’ve been advocating since 2002. And so goes the thinking (and the purchasing) of many working pros – the photojournalists, wedding and event clan, travel and expedition members, landscape artists and even portrait shooters.
So what is it about that favorite F/2.8 zoom that had everyone gasping in awe? Not a search for Bokeh, because especially with portraits and street photography you’re usually grasping for as much depth of field as you can get, less likely limiting it with any telephoto. There is definitely major respect for the hefty price tag, and the implied professional ability – everybody who’s anybody seems to have one. (Lucky Canon) I think one of the big pluses is that extra ƒ/stop can be critical when you’re working a little too quickly or are a bit cavalier when hand holding a large, heavy package, regardless of stabilization. And of course the demand to work in ever darker venues and/or action requiring very high shutter speeds.
Well, surprise, surprise, new high ISO-capable camera sensors are simply fabulous at ridiculous ISOs without excessive noise or contrast. So that extra ƒ/stop the ƒ/2.8 affords is becoming a ho-hum detail. Just crank the ISO.
Look at the history. In Hasselblad times our lenses were mostly ƒ/4s and film speeds were 100 or 400 standard. Yet we still got the shots. Good, workmanlike techniques were the base; probably all of us have become complacent with digital facility.
To recap the pluses of the Canon ƒ/4 stabilized EF 70-200 (and other mfgs. lenses too):
- Weight: Lots less heavy. Think about the benefit over long job hours.
- Size: Smaller barrel length and circumference fit location bags better. No attached tripod mount to take up space and potentially scratch other equipment.
- Cost: About $1,100 less. That’s lots of green.
So when don’t you want – read that need – smaller, lighter, cheaper? Only if quality standards are compromised. Our informal sense is that our two lenses perform equally.
Peter Kolonia in the August 2013 Popular Photography issue notes that “…their imaging characteristics are on a par.” Further, the Canon stabilized Ef ƒ/4 70-200 is actually “… significantly sharper at full zoom in our optical bench tests that was the ƒ/2.8 model. In our distortion control, maximum subject magnification and image stabilization tests, results for the two lenses were very close.” Wow, ‘nuf said. Of course I want to say I knew it all along.
There are now a small, but significant bouquet of ƒ/4 zoom tele lenses across manufacturers’ lines that should fill just about any requirement you can throw at them. Same goes for 24-70MM and 16-35MM. These are not progressive ƒ/stop lenses; I always suggest giving these a wide berth. Lower quality glass, lack of stabilization and no way to know exactly what your actual exposure is.
All this is not to say that I don’t value my 85MM ƒ/1.8, but I do like it better than the slow-to- operate, heavy ƒ1.2. Or my 16-35MM ƒ/2.8.
Just saying: do your back and your budget a favor and see if ƒ/4 tele lenses may be a fit for your go-to bag.