I’ve never been super impressed with most of Canon’s 70-300mm lens offerings, but when I was at Canon’s Expo in New York in September 2010, I had a chance to see there was some hope for such a versatile lens. As I reported from the Expo (here), the new EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM seemed to show signs of something special, but it was pre-release so I couldn’t be sure.
Comparing Form Factors
This article is filled with 5 different side-by-side comparison shots that I took of my test lenses on loan from B&H, but the ones I think people will be most interested can be found below. When you hover over the text of each label it will show that version (you may need to wait a few seconds the first time for the image to download). The EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM is on the left and the new EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM is on the right:
|Extended to 300mm||Retracted to 70mm||70mm no hood|
Naturally what you find in these images is that the L lens is a bit larger, but not as much as I thought it would be. Diffractive Optics (DO) lenses are supposed to more lightweight and compact than their non-DO counterparts so I didn’t expect them to be so close in size. Here’s another shot with the lens caps on which shows another major difference. The L is 67mm but the DO is only 58mm, both of which introduce a problem for me as I don’t have any polarizers in that size! :-p
Comparing the Numbers
As of the time of this writing, the L lens sells for $1599 and the DO lens sells for $1329. The question becomes is the $270’s more you’ll pay for the L worth it? Well, before we have that discussion another factor comes in – the cost of filters which you may already own for the DO as it is the same filter size as the popular 50mm f/1.4 which means that if you go up to the L you may find yourself having to buy more than just the lens.
The next issue is weight where the L comes in at 2.31 lbs (1050g) versus 1.6 lbs (720g) for the DO – that’s a pretty big difference, but honestly if you are having troubles handling a 2 lbs lens, then you probably should go back to a point and shoot or skip both of these lenses as they are both not very heavy in my book. Weight-wise the L definitely feels more substantial, but I wouldn’t call either lens heavy or light. They both feel like what you’d expect a lens costing over $1000 USD to feel like – substantial.
The only other numbers that are super important for me are the previously mentioned filter thread sizes, and the IS stop performance. Now Canon officially says that the DO has 3 stop IS and the L has 4 stops, as was the case with the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, those 4 stops are a hell of a lot more than 4 in real world scenarios (especially when compared to older “4” stop lenses). Speaking of IS, here’s a great web site to learn more about Canon’s Image Stabilization.
While some may be quick to note that the DO lens can only do f/4.5 whereas the L can do f/4, honestly I don’t find that to be a significant issue in my real world testing.
Using in the Real World
Right off the bat I noticed a significant difference between the two lenses – minimal focus distance (MFD). The DO lens has a MFD of 55.1” and the L has a MFD of 47.2”, which makes a HUGE difference indoors. In fact, I found the DO to be very annoying to use indoors with people because of this issue. (NOTE: For those who are new to DSLR’s and don’t understand what I’m saying, this means that if you are closer than the MFD when you push the button to take a picture the camera won’t focus so you can’t take the shot – 8 inches is a lot to have to step back before the DO will work). The net result of this is I found myself having to go to manual focus sometimes (as in the shot above) when the lens couldn’t acquire a focus but seemed “close enough” (guess it wasn’t).
The other major difference I noticed is that the new L lens has the amazing glass and wonderful IS system that I raved about in the new 70-200mm at the Olympics (here). This IS system gives you a lot of flexibility and couldn’t be more useful on a lens that can do 300mm. I intentionally stayed in manual and kept my shutter speeds low (most often between 1/60 sec to 1/200 sec) while testing these lenses just to see in practical use how many hits versus misses I’d get. As expected, the L lens with the new IS had 3 times as many sharp and in-focus shots as the DO, despite the fact that I took 25% more shots with the DO during my testing.
My overall impression after testing is that the L lens definitely has a better AF system, much more useful IS system (especially useful given its extra weight), and resulted in more sharp clear shots that I’d call keepers for personal use (i.e., showing to mom).
Sample Image Galleries
I’ve created two galleries of sample images that I took while reviewing these lenses. These are real-world images that are unedited in-camera JPEG files which you may download for review purposes only. My apologies for the abundance of family images as I want to puke when I see people do that, but the kids were good targets.
YOU MAY NOT COPY, POST, REDISTRIBUTE, PRINT, SAVE, ETC… any of the images. All Images are Copyright © Ron Martinsen – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Click the photos in the next section to get to that photo in the gallery as well as looking at others not shown on this article.
70-300mm DO Sample Images (Gallery)
70-300mm L Sample Images (Gallery)
Feel free to look at the gallery shots to see 70 vs 300mm comparisons of the same object as well as low and high ISO tests.
For me the clear winner is the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens (more info on Canon’s website), but I won’t be selling my 70-200mm f.2.8L IS II USM to get one. As great and as sharp as it is, I can’t live without f/2.8 for the work that I do, and I can’t justify having the 70-300mm in my bag at the same time. Now I would purchase it before I’d get the 70-200mm f/4L IS USM as I think it is every bit as good as that lens and the only significant trade-off of not being fixed f/4 minimum aperture is easily overcome by the extra 100mm’s of reach.
If money were no object then I’d get the new 70-300mm L in heartbeat. I really loved it and it’s awesome to be able to go to 300mm. The confidence of knowing you’ll most likely get a nice sharp shot thanks to the great IS, yet still be able to zoom back down to 70mm an instant later is very compelling. If my son was playing football, I’d seriously consider this lens instead of the 100-400mm for its improved AF, IS and sharpness.
The EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM lens (more info on Canon’s website) wasn’t a bad lens, and its small size made me unconsciously favor it over the L which is why I ended up with more shots taken with this lens. I just think the bar has been raised significantly with the new lenses that Canon is releasing, so what would have been considered great a year ago is now just so, so. $1300+ is a lot to pay for a so, so lens, so I don’t see any compelling reason to get this lens over the newer L. Sure the L costs more money and weighs more, but the image quality improvement makes it worth every penny.
Thank you to B&H for sending me brand new copies of these lenses to review. I have returned them, but I’ll miss the L for sure!
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