Sunday, April 22, 2012

Canon EF Lenses Chat: Canon EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM Review

Canon 200mm f/2.8L II - Canon 5D Mark II


Now that I have got myself a full frame camera, I needed new lenses since my EF-S lenses can only be used on APS-C sensors. So what lenses did I choose? And why? Hit the jump to read more.

P.S. There is a lot of non-200mm related rambling going next, so if you want to jump to the review directly you'll find it at the end, oh, and you can click on pictures to see a 1200px version.

APS-C LENSES HISTORY

I have used my fair share of lenses with the 550D and the 60D, so I will give you quick summary first, then I will tell you about the focal lengths that I wanted with the 5D Mark II, and how I covered them.

Canon EF-S 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 IS: the kit lens that I received with the 550D, arguably, a very good value for money, but I didn't like the range, the sharpness, and the non-USM rotating-front-element auto focus. It was quickly replaced with the 15-85mm.

Canon EF-S 15-85 f/3.5-5.6 IS USM: one of the two best general purpose lenses for APS-C, it was either this one or the 17-55mm f/2.8, I chose this one for the wider + longer range and the newer IS (several reports that the 17-55mm IS system broke-down after a while), this was my walk-around lens, and I got some excellent super sharp pictures with it, but I always hated the strong distortion at the wide end. This was my first lens with the fast and silent USM and FTM (Full Time Manual Focusing), I didn't want to use lenses without it anymore. The one thing that bugged me with this lens is the zoom creep, unless it was fully zoomed out, once it is pointed downwards, it will zoom under it's own weight, this rendered it useless on a tripod pointed at a downwards angle.

Canon EF-S 55-250 f/4-5.6 IS: again, one of the best value-for-money lenses out there, it covered a huge 35mm equivalent range of 88mm - 400mm, and with image stabilization, I got sharp pictures at the long end at 1/25 sec. I always wanted to upgrade to a more sharper lens, but never got to do it because the 55-250 was already pretty good, small and not expensive, and any upgrade options were quite expensive and large. One more thing, I didn't use this lens a lot, mainly because of the sharpness, I always preferred one of the primes.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II: small, plastic (not the expensive plastic, no, the cheap one), noisy inconsistent AF, very cheap, and very sharp. I bought this lens after the 18-55 and the 55-250, it was my first prime lens, and I was amazed with how sharp it was compared to my zoom lenses, and it allowed me to get a shallow DoF with the fast aperture, and shoot in low light situations. It was quite sharp from f/2.8, but any wider than that and the focus was too inconsistent to get a sharp picture. On a crop sensor it is quite long for indoor use. I loved this lens but decided to get rid of it and buy the 60 macro instead with a relatively similar focal length.

Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM: best-lens-ever, super sharp (and I don't mean regular sharp, no, crazy sharp), fast focusing, excellent focal length (in my opinion) for portraits on a crop sensor (96mm), very small, and best of all, can be used as a true macro lens. My last shoot with the 60D was done with this lens, and they were some of the best pictures I took, the sharpness of this lens, coupled with a shallow DoF makes portraits and photos really pop, add to that the excellent contrast and color, and you have a bargain. It was the only lens I really regretted selling.

Canon EF 35mm f/2: a very good and underrated lens, good build quality, good price, buzzy AF (but accurate), and most importantly, the perfect focal length on a crop sensor (54mm), if you check my review, you'll know how much I enjoyed this focal length. If one thing, I wished I could replace it with the 35mm f/1.4. This was my first lens with a clip-on lens hood, I hated that lens hood.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM: at the beginning, I wasn't convinced of this focal length on a crop sensor, but the more experience I got, the more I discovered that I enjoyed shooting long focal lengths (I mainly shoot portraits), this and the reviews talking about creamy bokeh made me lust for the shallow DoF and the creamy backgrounds. So I got one, my first test shot left me underwhelmed, and my first daylight portrait wide-open scared me to death with severe purple fringing, but with time I got the hang of it, and learned how to get the best out of this lens and enjoyed it a lot. The lens is sharp even wide open, but no where as sharp as the 60 macro, even when stopped down to the same aperture. It features the same stupid clip-on lens hood, but somehow they managed to make it flimsier than the 35mm's one.

DECIDING ON FULL FRAME LENSES

Now you know about the lenses I owned. My previous lens collection covered a broad range from 24mm to 400mm, with a few fast primes and a macro. The primes were my favorites, and when I went to shoot, I usually picked just one prime and went shooting enjoying the limited focal length that made me concentrate more in the shooting process.

Initially, I decided to go for a prime-only system for image quality and bank account reasons. I had the 35mm f/2 and the 85mm f1.8, one would act as a wide angle, and the other one as a fast portrait lens, add to that a 50mm f/1.4 and it was a good starting point, then I would slowly add longer and wider lenses, I was initially set at the 17-40 f/4, or at least that's what I thought.

Not having a walkaround zoom covering a wide to semi-telephoto made me nervous, there were situations when I went for several days shooting only with the 15-85, so when I saw Syl Arena's tweet about how sharp the 24-105 was, I started reading reviews about it and decided that I would get it, it was my first L lens. I got myself the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM and sold the 35mm f/2 because it was too wide for my taste on the 5D2. Back then I only had the 24-105, the 50mm f/1.4 and the 85mm f/1.8. So why did I choose the 200mm f/2.8?

CANON 200 f/2.8L II CHOICE

I desperately needed a telephoto lens, as I said before, I really enjoyed shooting tight portraits with a long focal length, I love the way a telephoto lens compresses the background and easily removes any clutter in the background, have a look at this example, the next shot is taken with my phone (~ 24 or 28mm), do you see how much clutter there is in the background?


Taken with my Samsung Galaxy S II

Then I took this next shot seconds before from exactly the same position as the shot above with the 200mm mounted to the 5D2.


5D Mark II + 200mm f/2.8 wide open
 
Just like magic, isn't it? That's why I am deep in love with long focal lengths, and also why I was using the 85mm f/1.8 a lot on my crop sensor 60D (~ 135mm equivalent). No fast aperture lens would be able to produce the same photo unless it is a long lens. The other reason I wanted a long focal length is just that, to be able to shoot far away subjects.

My choices were limited with my budget, at the not very cheap end of the scale, there is the 70-300mm f/3.5-5.6 USM, it is a large lens, with no true (ring) USM, so-so optical performance, and a slow variable aperture. Then there is the excellent 70-200mm series, there are 4 constant aperture lenses, f/4, f/4 IS, f/2.8 and f/2.8 IS. There is no question about the excellence of the 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II, it is the favorite lens for wedding photographers (along with the 24-70mm f/2.8), but with its huge size, heavy weight (> 2 kg) and a price over $2000, it was out of the question. The f/2.8 non-IS version was cheaper but still very large and heavy, so that was out as well. The f/4 IS version is much more convinent from the size and weight perspective, and with excellent optical performance, it is much recommended, but unfortunately it was out of my budget as well.

This left me with the 70-200mm f/4 non-IS and the 200mm f/2.8 the subject of this post, both lenses had a similar price tag, the only advantage in favor of the f/4 is the flexibility of the zoom, but a quick EXIF statistics check on all of my shots taken with the 55-250mm showed that 75% of my shots were taken at 250mm, and the remaining shots close to the long end. This sealed the deal for me, I hated the attention-grabbing white color of the 70-200mm lens, and was attracted to the 200mm f/2.8 because of its stealthy black color, faster aperture, sharper optics and svelte handsome looks. For the record, both lenses are not weather sealed. Now lets dig into the review itself.

Wide open, didn't find a reason yet to stop-it down

FINALLY, THE *@!# REVIEW (yes, yes, start from here if you came directly for the review)

Let me tell you something important for me, they say "first impressions last forever", and that is true to a large extent, the first shot I took with the 85mm f/1.8 didn't impress me, and when I sold it, I didn't regret it like I regretted selling the 60mm Macro. The first shot I took with the 200mm f/2.8 made me go "Whoa", it was wicked sharp, and the focus was very quick and spot on, it immediately reminded me of the 60mm Macro sharpness.

Before I got this lens, I was worried because of to the brevity and lack of reviews, unlike other lenses, however I am not regretting buying this lens for one second, and here I am writing this review to advise everyone who is thinking about doing a similar purchase.

PACKAGE CONTENTS & BUILD QUALITY

One nice thing about "L" lenses is that they ship with a lens hood and a nice carrying pouch.

Pouch carrying the lens and the hood (reversed) together

The lens is not very large compared to other 70-200mm lenses, or even the 70-300mm non-L, it is shorter than both, and it looks like a fit gymnast, long and svelte, it is not as fat as the 24-105mm, the 24-70mm or even my good old 15-85mm. It has a rock solid feel to it, with no moving parts and a strong body, you feel like you can use it to hammer nails. Unfortunately it is not weather sealed, but that's not a big concern to me.

Coffee mug shown to give you a feel for it's size, the lens on the right is the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

And with the lens hood, it is much longer

Lens hood is much wider than the lens body itself, any idea why?

Mounted to the 5D Mk II - w/o lens hood

Mounted to the 5D Mk II - with lens hood



SHOOTING EXPERIENCE

Without image stabilization, looking through the viewfinder is a quite shaky experience if you're shooting something close and don't have steady hands, I didn't appreciate the IS on my 55-250 until I tried this lens. Not even the 85mm f/1.8 on the 60D  felt this shaky, but don't worry, as long as you're keeping the shutter speed reasonably high (around 1/200 sec) it will be ok, I took sharp shots at 1/50 of a second, but the keeper rate wasn't very high. I never had a blurred picture when using bounce flash indoors or in daylight, hand held shooting is very easy.

The minimum focusing distance of this lens is 1.5 meters, this is close enough to get very tight head-shots and shoot small plants and flowers. There is a focus limiting switch with two settings: "1.5m - infinity" and "3.5m - infinity", the second setting is useful in case you are shooting something far and need the focusing to be as fast as possible with no hunting. Focusing is, of course, very fast and completely silent, with FTM ability.





IMAGE QUALITY & SHARPNESS

One word: breathtaking. This lens has very smooth bokeh, thanks to the long focal length and the wide aperture. I haven't noticed any purple fringing or chromatic aberrations. But sharpness is the real strength of this lens in my opinion, I know that many people consider pixel-peeping as a contagious disease, but even so, when a lens is this sharp, it gives the photos a certain pop that just isn't there when taken with other lenses. Among the several lenses I have owned and tried, the top sharpest lenses are this one, the 60mm Macro and the 100mm Macro L (haven't tried the non-L, want to lend me yours?).

To give you an idea about the sharpness, I will show you 100% crops from similarly sized head-shots that I took along the years. Photos taken with flash or with ambient light only will be mentioned, since flash-lit shots are usually sharper. I know that lenses like the 55-250 and the 85mm f/1.8 are considered to be sharp, and they are, but this is just in a different league altogether.

Canon 200 @ f/2.8, below is a 100% crop

Canon 200mm @ f2.8, ambient, hand held, the lower eyelashes are slightly OOF because of the crazy shallow DoF

Canon 60mm Macro @ f/2.8 (wide open), mixture of ambient and bounce flash

Canon 85mm @ f/2.8, ambient light

Canon 85mm @ f/1.8, ambient light

Canon 55-250 @ f/5.6, completely flash-lit

Canon 24-105 @ f/5.6, ambient light

And just for kicks, Canon 200 @ f/7.1, completely flash-lit, wicked, huh? Full picture below

And this is the 200mm @ f/7.1, the only reason we stopped it down was to kill the ambient, I didn't have a 3rd flash to add a rim/hair light

I hope the above example has left you as shocked as I was, really, this and the macro lenses are something else. Now I have to try the 135mm f/2L. :-)

UPDATE (85mm f/1.8 @ f/2.8 and flash)

If you check the comments below, you will find I was accused that my tests were flawed. I agree. They are of course flawed since they are not tests and they only represent my experience with the various lenses (wide-open, mind you), but the question intrigued me, and I found a couple of samples for the 85mm f/1.8 stopped down a bit and taken with flash, below are 100% crops, one at f/2.8 and the second at f/4, I'll leave the conclusions to you.

Canon 85mm f/1.8 @ f/2.8, flash, ISO 1600

Canon 85mm f/1.8 @ f/4, flash, ISO 400


SUMMARY

Don't be afraid of the fixed 200mm focal length, and try to remember your experience when you are using a zoom lens shooting something far away, 90% chance that you are fully zoomed in and looking for even more zoom, right? I thought so.

As you can imagine, I am totally in love with this lens, it is relatively light, small, black, super sharp, good looking and produced some of my favorite portraits ever. If one thing, I wish it was f/2 and had IS, but wait a second, there is already such a lens, a $6000 lens!

For a price below $800, I consider this lens to be very good deal. Later on, I will probably buy the Kenko 1.4x or the Kenko 2x teleconverter later and convert this lens to a 280mm f/4 or a 400mm f/5.6 lens. And I am choosing the Kenko because they are black.

Now I will leave you with some more examples and links to my earlier lens reviews, please if you have a question, an inquiry or something you'd want me to test, don't hesitate to tell me in the comments below.







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