Thoughts & Ideas

Lens Review: Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L USM IS


Quick Specs:
Focal Range: 70-200mm; 35mm equivalent for 1.6x crop sensors: 112-320mm
Maximum Aperture: f/4  •  Minimum Aperture: f/32  •  Diaphragm: 8 blades
Minimum Focusing Distance: 4 feet  •  Magnification: .21x
Weight: 1.7 pounds  •  Filter Size: 67mm  •  ✔FTM, ✔USM, ✔IS (+4 stops)

First Impressions

This lens is simply beautiful. From the light cream color on the exterior, to the feel of the rubber rings and the motion of focusing and zooming, you know this lens is built to last and scream “look at me!” – the latter part could be a bad thing or a good thing, depending on how you look at it!

This lens is not as heavy as its bigger brother – the EF 70-200 f/2.8 L USM IS lens, but if f/2.8 is important to you, the non-IS EF version is roughly the same size and weight. If you have a Rebel body, the EF 70-200 f/2.8 L USM IS lens quickly makes the camera look absolutely tiny. (Get a battery grip and that impression goes away.)


Focusing and zooming are as smooth as butter with enough internal resistance so that zoom creep isn’t an issue. All focusing is internal – as such the front element neither rotates nor moves. Zooming is also internal; this helps protect against sucking in dust.

Autofocus is generally reliable, though not as precise as the f/2.8 variety. But if focus is missed, the full-time-manual focus makes it a breeze to refocus on your subject. Anymore, this is very near to the top of my list of important items for a lens to have; switching to a lens without FTM is difficult for the first few moments as I realize I can’t just focus whenever I want.

One thing that initially surprised me about the lens was the sound it made when it was stabilizing the image. You get used to it pretty quickly, and it isn’t loud, by any means, but the first time you engage the IS, you wonder what’s going on in there to cause that noise. After using it for awhile, I barely notice it anymore.

Image Stabilization is also very effective. Canon claims 4 stops – in reality this will vary between 2 and 3 stops depending on how steady you are to begin with. I’ve had rare success at around 4 stops, and usually can’t count on more than 2.5. Even so, for still objects, this effectively makes the lens an f/1.8 or f/2 lens; but when you introduce a moving subject, all that goes out the window. If you’re going to be shooting moving subjects handheld and in low light, you’ll want to consider the pricier and heavier f/2.8 IS version (if IS is still important to you), or the roughly equivalent (in terms of weight and price) non-IS f/2.8 version.

It is important to note that using this lens will get you noticed. Photographers who don’t have a lens like this will whisper behind your back, wishing they had this lens, and most people immediately have “respect” for you as the photographer. Whereas when shooting with a point-and-shoot, most people don’t watch if they are getting in your way, they definitely take care when they see this long lens. Add the lens hood, and people really take notice; with the lens hood attached, you’re looking at one foot of extension from the mount.

Getting noticed can be a good thing (it actually got me a shoot!), but it can also be a bad thing. Security personnel are far more likely to keep a close eye on you, and some people who wouldn’t otherwise have minded being photographed will balk when faced with this monster pointing at them. One thing is for sure: this lens immediately brands you as a “pro”, and not a “tourist” – so if you want to do the tourist thing, take your P&S, or a much smaller walk-around lens.

Image Quality

Image quality is exceptional, as it should be with any L series lens. Contrast and colors are captured very nicely, and light flare is well controlled. It isn’t as fast as its siblings, meaning that I have to increase my ISO more than I would like, but on a modern body, that doesn’t usually present a problem.

Bokeh is gorgeous, resulting in a very creamy out-of-focus background at large apertures. Even stopped down, the bokeh is quite good. The effect is more obvious at 200mm than at 70mm due to the smaller depth-of-field, but at either end things look wonderful.

Color Fringing is virtually invisible on this lens. I’ve seen a few traces here and there, but of all the lenses in my kit, this one takes the cake in terms of controlling fringing. Flare is also exceptionally controlled; short of pointing this thing into the sun, you’ll hardly ever see any flare.

There is a little lens distortion at either end of the focal range, as is typical with any zoom lens. There are simply too many compromises that have to be made with a zoom lens versus a prime lens. While the distortion is evident in lab tests, I’ve yet to have the distortion be truly visible or worrisome in real life. For a zoom, this is fantastic, and while it isn’t quite as good as a prime lens, the ability to reframe without having to change lenses is a huge benefit.

This lens is, quite simply, tack sharp, even at the maximum aperture of f/4. This is really impressive for a telephoto zoom lens, and rivals (if not exceeds in some areas) the performance of the various primes that fall within the focal length of this lens. However, this only applies to this lens – the other lenses in the family do not have the same optics, and though they are also exceptionally sharp, they are just a little less so.


This lens isn’t going to win any awards in the macro lens world. Even so, under the right conditions, you can get some decent closeups, but don’t expect anything like a 1:1 ratio. This lens is closer to 1:5, but if you need better, you can always add extension tubes. Even so, it makes for fantastic flower shots or portraits, so unless you need to get really close, this shouldn’t be too terrible a concern.


  • Nice, constant maximum aperture of f/4
  • Good range of 70-200mm
  • Excellent image quality with minimal flare and negligible fringing in very high contrast areas
  • Full-time Manual Focus
  • Beautiful bokeh
  • Very well built
  • Tack sharp at all apertures; rivals primes in the same focal range.
  • Image Stabilizer can live up to the claimed 4 stop improvement if you’re very steady to begin with.


  • 67mm filter ring; most lenses in this range take 77mm, and so you’ll be buying more filters rather than re-using your existing filters.
  • Image Stabilization can’t stop a moving subject, so if f/4 isn’t fast enough, consider either of the f/2.8 variants. If you need faster yet, you’ll want to consider a prime lens.
  • 70mm on the low end can be limiting at times; you’ll need to switch to another lens if you’re in even relatively cramped quarters. 200m is good reach, but if you want to bird, you’ll need a longer lens yet.
  • Price – Amazon has this lens for just over $1,300


If you want great image quality, good zoom range, with fantastic image stabilization, grab this lens. Your pocket-book will scream when it sees the bill, but once you start taking pictures, you’ll quickly forget about the price.

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