"Hey, what is that thing?" I must have answered that question fifty times before lunch, followed closely by "Is it heavy?", "Is it expensive?", and "How far does it zoom?". After sorting out the ideas of "zoom" and "telephoto" in his own mind, one slightly savvier shutterbug seemed disappointed to learn that the lens's reach was actually shorter than the long end of his 55-300mm telephoto kit glass, and that on top of that, it couldn't even zoom. With the exception of this guy, and a couple of wildlife shooters who wanted to know more about the specs, however, everyone else I fielded questions from would probably have been just as satisfied with the answer that the Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM is a small rocket designed to launch camera bodies into orbit. In most ways, it pretty convincingly looks the part.
I came out to Yosemite National Part in California for the ostensible purpose of covering a workshop conducted by renowned photographer Art Wolfe through Canon's Photography in the Parks program (more on that experience coming soon...), and what should happen to be waiting for me to test drive when I got here but Canon's latest 200mm fast-aperture prime. Officially announced last year and unveiled in full at PMA 2008, the new 200mm f/2L is just starting to trickle out to retailers; Canon was gracious enough to let us take one of the first looks at a production version of this highly anticipated pro lens.
Building on the venerable but now discontinued 200mm f/1.8 platform, the 200mm f/2 offers optical image stabilization and nearly equal light gathering abilities in a reworked, compact form factor. A professional's tool in every way, the 200mm f/2L promises to be like the racetrack ready sports car of the camera lens world: appropriately nimble and capable in the hands of a skilled operator, and appropriately lust-worthy for the rest of us.
A day of perfect weather ahead and plenty of shooting on the agenda seemed like a great opportunity to see if the latest version of this legendary lens was fully ready for life "in the wild" among serious photo enthusiasts and working photographers. And less than a day into shooting with the 200mm f/2L, I'd already learned the first important lesson: among casual photographers and serious shooters alike, this thing can really draw a crowd.
(Editor's Note: While the text that follows adheres to the basic structure used for our lens reviews, in light of the fact that I was only able to shoot with the 200mm f/2L for a few days and wasn't able to put it through our standard battery of controlled tests and shooting situations, I have framed this write-up as field test – based on observations and impressions from a single shoot – rather than a full lens review.)
DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION
If I was into subtitles, I'd probably append the heading for this piece with "what a difference a stop makes" – in terms of functionality, sure, but also weight, size, and price. With a front element like a small dinner plate and a lens hood that doubles as a size-large fez (or, with the right modification, a moderately spacious wastebasket), it's clear from the outset that this lens isn't messing around.
A top-of-the-line fixed focal length, fast aperture telephoto lens designed for cameras with both APS-C and full-frame sensors, the EF 200mm f/2L IS USM is "top glass" in every sense of the term, built clearly and unapologetically with the needs of professional photographers in mind. An ultrasonic internal focusing motor does the honors where moving the 200mm's elements are concerned – and does so about as close to silently as you can get without actually being inaudible. Floating-element optical image stabilization claims to provide up to four stops of extra usability, making the 200mm manageable as a handheld lens in spite of its length and weight. All of this, plus an almost obscenely fast f/2.0 maximum aperture. The cost? If you have to ask...
Alloy barrel construction is typically thick for a high-grade Canon telephoto, finished in the standard "Canon L White" that lets animals, athletes, celebrities, and photographic rivals know you mean business. The barrel steps out to a large, well-placed focusing ring – obviously, there's no complementary zoom ring – with plenty of rubber padding. The focusing ring exhibits the combination of smoothness and precision we've come to expect from Canon's premium glass: an almost effortless turning motion that nonetheless feels well damped, connected, and extremely solid.
Like most Canon L telephotos, the new 200mm features an array of buttons and switches on the lens body itself.
Controls are familiar, clearly labeled, and all proved to be self-explanatory.
An easy-to-read distance scale sits under glass on top of the lens barrel just north of the mount. A drop-in gelatin filter holder (size: 52mm) also sits between the control array and the lens mount.
Like other large, high-end telephotos from the manufacturer, the Canon EF200mm f/2L comes packed in its own hardshell case – a handled, keyed-latch carrying container roughly the size of a small file box. The aforementioned hood, which securely attaches to the front of the lens via a locking bar/knurled nut is thickly constructed, rubberized along the front rim, and painted to match the lens itself. A traditional lens cap is eschewed in favor of a leather (or at least leatherish) storage bag that sports a hard protective element cover at one end.
Inside the barrel, the 200mm f/2L uses 17 elements in 12 groups. Fluorite and UD elements provide chromatic aberration control. Dust- and water-proofing are standard fare for a pro grade lens, assuring that whatever you encounter when working outside won't make it inside the new 200mm.
A staple of many a professional sports shooter's kit, Canon's 200mm f/1.8 had a reputation for being a bit unruly where handling was concerned, with a tad too much weight and, more importantly, odd balance on Canon's pro bodies sending most shooters running for a tripod, monopod, beanbag, or fence post. For shooters with hands as shaky as mine, shooting the old front-heavy 200mm without external support was uncomfortable, and at shutter speeds below a pretty brisk clip, visibly unsharp to boot.
The combination of a more compact form, lower weight with better distribution (even with its trashcan of a hood attached), and image stabilization have changed all of this with the new 200mm. Shooters with good body blocking technique will have no trouble tearing off handheld shots at shutter speed/aperture combos that would have simply been unthinkable with the old version, and much better balance makes the new glass a joy to use on a monopod or tripod as well. I shot the 200mm f/2L on both the Canon EOS 5D and 1Ds Mark III bodies, and while balance was fine on both, the Mark III feels like this lens was made just for it – and no doubt it was.
At 5.6 pounds, it would still be hard to call the 200mm f/2L small, but for what it is the lens really is fairly impressively compact. Admittedly, you probably won't want to travel long distances with the f/2L in tow (if you can find something to tow it in...), but as fast-aperture, professional-grade telephoto lenses go, the new lens is quite tolerable. Strap lugs on the lens body itself provide attachment points for a shoulder strap, and given the amount of strain placed on a body at the mount by a lens weighing this much, owners would be advised to use them if strap-toting is your thing.
Of course, a standard-style rotating tripod collar with a large thumb screw lock is also provided. As noted, positioning is excellent, affording near-perfect balance on a monopod with the lens mounted to one of Canon's heavier bodies.
Even with all of the new 200mm's balance advantages, as well as its impressive IS system, getting tack sharp shots still requires a fair amount of shutter speed to compensate for magnified lens motion (which is further amplified in this case by the difficulties of keeping a large, heavy lens still). In a true "quick draw" situation, where keeping the lens locked and stable takes a back seat to simply getting the shot, the 200mm can still be persnickety in dialing in sharp shots, but experienced photographers are unlikely to be either surprised or unnerved by this fact in light of this lens's size and weight.
Though the 200mm sports some pretty hefty glass inside its pretty hefty barrel, you'd never know it based on the focusing speed. Courtesy of the lens's ultrasonic drive motor, auto focus is as quiet, smooth, and, most importantly, as fast as any Canon L USM lens. A huge maximum aperture for its focal length means the 200mm has little trouble bringing in enough light to adequately lock focus, even when shooting at dusk or under low-contrast lighting.
As befits a lens of this length designed with action shooters in mind, the 200mm f/2L features a body-switched focusing limiter, allowing users to lock the focus search range beyond 3.5 meters if desired.
For closer work, the lens features a minimum focusing distance of just 1.9 meters (around six feet), letting photographers get surprisingly close to their subjects – closer, in fact, than the subject may feel comfortable with given the prospect of being menaced by that enormous front element.
An easy an intuitive focus preset allows the lens to "remember" a particular focus setting and return to it near-instantly. Simply focus the lens to the desired setting, press the "SET" button, and a preset is locked in. Pressing any of three equally spaced buttons forward of the focusing ring moves focus to the preset. If nothing else, the preset select system can be usefully set up as a button-activated infinity return.
Manually focusing the 200mm f/2L is an equally pleasant experience: a large maximum aperture equals a nice, bright viewfinder image, making grabbing focus a simple affair. The lens's nicely padded focusing ring is wide enough to comfortably rest three fingers on, and the diameter is not so large as to make it difficult to grip with the focusing hand. There's a hard switch to disable AF on the lens body, but even with auto focus engaged, manual focus automatically overrides by simply turning the focusing ring.
Gearing is fairly shallow, resulting in a fair bit of turning between one end of the range and the other, but also giving the focusing control a precise, dial-it-in feel. Moreover, the focus control is almost unbelievably smooth, with little force required to turn the ring but no perceptible free play in its motion either. The 200mm f/2L is a precision optical instrument, and its external controls assure that it feels the part.
Mid-afternoon on a summer day in Yosemite wasn't exactly the ideal environment for opening up the 200mm to check its f/2.0 credentials. While some close-in wildlife shots at dusk (or better yet, a black-light roller derby bout) would have afforded more opportunities to show off what really makes the latest Canon glass unique, I did experiment with some slightly abstract shots playing off the lens's phenomenal silkiness in its out-of-focus areas.
What impresses most in this case and others like it is not only the 200mm's pleasing and completely unobtrusive bokeh (which it inherits from the legendarily smooth 200mm f/1.8), but the razor-sharpness of its in-focus areas at wide apertures. At f/2.8, the remains of a spider web in a crevice of the branch are crisp and tight-edged.
Under 100-percent view inspection, a few of my test shots showed some very light fringe (usually green, and a few pixels in width at most) at contrast boundaries when shooting below f/5.6. Without our standard battery of shooting tests, however, it's impossible to tell how common or isolated this issue is, and if that's the worst image quality charge that can be leveled against a lens with this kind of aperture range, the 200mm still earns its price tag with more than a handful of change to spare.
The wide-ranging sensor on the 1Ds Mark III makes a perfect companion to the 200mm f/2.0, rolling off harsh highlight-to-shadow transitions with incredible subtlety.
The kind of contrast presented even in the highlight areas of this shot further shows off what makes the 200mm f/2L simply superb: shots are sharp and punchy straight from the camera, capturing nuanced gradations with aplomb. In spite of some mid-afternoon haze, the lens has no trouble reeling in ultra-fine detail when worked at narrower apertures either.
Between f/8 and f/22, especially, sharpness is exactly what's demanded of a prime, with crisp, clean captures the order of the day for long-distance landscape shooting.
Levels were adjusted on the above shot to pull out more contrast through the visible midday haze, but sharpening is default from the camera.
Distortion is appropriately well-managed, with no visible bowing of straight lines in either direction. Likewise, as best I could tell in the limited range of shooting situations my time with the lens presented, color reproduction is well within the expectations of neutrality demanded for top pro-grade optics.
All in all, whether or not midday outdoor work is this lens's preferred natural habitat, the out and out quality of its optics was easily apparent nonetheless.
Though those outside the realms of sports/nature photography and portraiture may have little use for the unique capabilities that the EF 200mm f/2L IS USM offers, initial evaluations suggest that Canon has (not surprisingly) created nothing less than an optically superior lens here. The background control and shooting speed options afforded by an f/2.0 maximum aperture combined with the lens's moderate working distance are the stuff that great images in sports journalism, especially, are made with. With stock of the 200mm f/2.0 just beginning to roll out in earnest and the Olympics just around the corner, we can probably plan on seeing more than a few of these babies on the sidelines in Beijing this summer.
As noted in the beginning of this evaluation, the stop of speed that the latest 200mm gains over the next tier of its competitors is a pivotal one, putting this lens in a different financial and functional strata. For many users and uses, there are plenty of great f/2.8 lenses in the same focal length that capture phenomenal images, can do nearly everything the 200mm f/2.0 is capable of with less back pain, and cost a third as much. That said, although an introductory price well over $5K puts the 200mm f/2L over the line into what has traditional been seen as "pros only" territory, if persistent rumors that Canon intends to bring the price down once production meets initial demand pan out, the new 200mm may yet reach a price that's more easily justifiable for a wider range of shooters.
Either way, after some field time with the new 200mm f/2, there's little reason to think that anyone, regardless of how much they pay for the new Canon L, is going to come away feeling like performance isn't in line with expectations.