Monday, 11 September 2017

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS

Let's have a look at the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, a 70-200mm zoom lens made by Canon with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 that has image stabilisation and ultrasonic focusing and "L".

It was launched back in 2001 and discontinued nine years later. At around $1,700 it was more than three times as expensive as the popular 70-200mm f/4L, but the combination of f/2.8 and image stabilisation was powerfully appealing in an age when everybody had six credit cards, so it's nowadays widely available on the used market. A while back I was on the lookout for a decent, general-purpose portrait and travel lens and the f/2.8 stood out. Let's see what it's like.

In its heyday the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS was the quintessential spot news / concerts / press conferences / hot war action etc photojournalism lens, often paired with an f/2.8 wide zoom and perhaps something at f/1.4. It was also popular with sports photographers, although 200mm was a bit too short for the far end of the football pitch, so professionals tended to carry a 400mm f/2.8 as well, plus a monopod. For wildlife and air shows it was too short.

With its distinctive, aggressive, shark-like lens hood it spent a decade being pointed at a mixture of tabloid celebrities, top politicians, and dust-covered soldiers screaming in pain and fear. It was launched just after the abrupt professional switch to digital, and although it was fully compatible with the 1V and earlier Canon EOS film cameras it was most often mounted on a 1D or 1Ds.

From bottom to top the lens has a ribbed area that helps when taking it off the camera; a removable tripod foot; a twisty zoom ring; some switches, plus a distance scale; a twisty manual focus ring. The manual focus ring doesn't move when the lens autofocuses. The optical elements move around inside the lens; it doesn't extend when you focus or change focal length.

I really need to clean the lens with a toothbrush. Most of the controls are self-explanatory. Stabiliser mode 1 is "normal", mode 2 doesn't try to counteract panning movements. You can use the manual focus ring even when autofocus is turned on.

The 70-200mm f/2.8 is a full-frame lens; on a APS-H or APS-C digital camera it becomes a kind of 100-300mm f/2.8, give or take a dozen mm at either end depending on the sensor. For the images in this post I used an old full-frame 5D MkII I found lurking at the back of a drawer, except for the next two photographs, which were shot with an EOS 50 and some Kodak Ektachrome 160T tungsten film:

The lovely Loren Peta, who by extraordinary coincidence has a credit in Blade Runner 2049, which opened a few weeks after I posted this article.

On an emotional level Canon's white-bodied lenses have a reputation akin to Audi drivers. The 70-200mm f/2.8 hogs the fast lane, overtakes aggressively, and takes up two parking spaces; it is an optical mid-life crisis. It impresses and disgusts people in equal measure. Somewhere up in heaven Audrey Hepburn is disappointed with you. On the other hand most of the 70-200mm f/2.8's obnoxious looks come from the lens hood. Take off the hood and the lens is just a big fat tourist lens, not evil personified.

The bokeh is, surprisingly, really nice, and at 200mm f/2.8 you get lots of it. An 85mm f/1.2 or 135mm f/2 has a wider aperture, but the compression effect of shooting at 200mm makes up for it.

Optically the lens is fab. The corners could be better and are never totally sharp even stopped-down and wide open it has a slight glow, but otherwise I have no complaints. Here's a familiar location photographed at 200mm and f/2.8, slightly into the sun, from a nearby tower, across a mass of turbulent air e.g. a worst-case scenario:

Here's a 600-pixel-wide crop from the middle, which is slightly soft but has plenty of detail:

And here's a 600-pixel-wide crop from the bottom right:

Moving on, colours and contrast are also excellent. Zooms are often a bit washed-out but the 70-200mm f/2.8 is consistently colourful and contrasty. Vignetting is mild. Flare is well-controlled. The following two shots have flare, but that's because I was shooting straight into the sun without a hood:

I've said it before, but a professional lens is a mass of compromises raised to a high level, very high in the case of the 70-200mm f/2.8. Against it the lens is heavy and takes up a lot of space. The minimum focus distance of 1.4m is slightly too far away for comfort, although this can be alleviated by using a thin macro ring. The tripod foot is slightly too small to be a comfortable handhold, and when the foot is removed there are exposed screws.

If I'm being picky, colours are slightly on the cold side - saturated, but with a blueish cast. High-contrast edges have a distinctive but mild red glow at f/2.8, and there's a tiny tiny amount of purple fringing on very high contrast edges at the edge of the frame.

Canon's first fast short zoom for the EOS system was the 80-200mm f/2.8L, which was launched in 1989. It had an old-fashioned whizzy autofocus motor and, uniquely, was painted black. No-one services it any more which means that you're just one broken gear away from owning an unsellable manual focus lens that doesn't stop down beyond f/2.8. The 80-200mm f/2.8 predated the mass switch from Nikon to Canon that took place in the 1990s and at least in the UK it remains rare and obscure.

The 80-200mm f/2.8L was replaced in 1995 by the 70-200mm f/2.8L USM, which is apparently still on sale, or at least Canon's website still lists it. The 70-200mm f/2.8L has silent, fast ultrasonic focusing and a white body. It is by all accounts optically a match for the IS version. It doesn't have weather sealing, but on the other hand the lack of IS makes it slightly lighter, and there are fewer things to go wrong. Even with her new, lower register Joanna Newsom's voice is still an acquired taste. There were two models of the FG42; the second had a conventional pistol grip. In Italy McDonald's sells a version of the Big Mac called the Grand Big Mac, which is an edizione limitata. Disappointingly it's just a slightly larger Big Mac.

They sell beer in McDonalds on the continent. I remember sitting in a McDonald's in Florence, stuffing a mixture of Grand Big Mac and beer into my face, thinking about Richard Matheson's classic I Am Legend. If I am the only good man remaining in the world, does that make me a bad man instead? The inhabitants of the hurricane-struck Caribbean are now realising, as I realised long ago, that there is no good or bad. There is only survival. Morality is a cultural construct, as transient and ephemeral as culture itself.

Italy is filled with relics of things that passed from the Earth. Their truths were not universal truths. As the beef, mayonnaise, and beer swirled around my stomach it struck me that modern-day Russian oligarchs are the modern Medicis, except that whereas the Medicis sponsored a lot of art in addition to their enormous houses, Russian oligarchs have a thing for yachts, none of which will survive very long after the maintenance money runs out. Yachts are a terrible investment.

Would a sculpture of a yacht made out of solid gold be worth more than the equivalent weight of gold? I can't envisage it being worth any less, but then again it would be harder to store - you would have to keep it clean, and it would be larger than a simple rectangular block of gold. As always when I have questions like this I write them down on a postcard which I post to Jessica Chastain, who will give me the answer at the moment of my death so that I have no time to doubt.

The 70-200mm f/2.8L IS was launched in 2001 and remained on sale until 2010. I wrote a blog post about it in September 2017, in which I finally gave the lens the coverage it deserves. The big upgrade was image stabilisation. In my experience this lets me shoot at 200mm and 1/40th without feeling that I'm wasting my time. The other upgrade was weather sealing. There's a rubber gasket around the lens mount - this tends to perish over time - plus internal seals that keep out moisture and dust. It's not waterproof but will apparently cope with a rain shower. I remember being terribly disappointed when I first heard The Durutti Column. I heard about the band long before I heard any of their music, and the concept sounded interesting - oblique guitar instrumentals on Factory Records - but the reality was monotonous, directionless jazzy noodling with the same irritating guitar tone put through the same echo effect on album after album.

And that's all Vini Reilly could do! The likes of Robin Guthrie and Glenn Branca also had a distinctive tone, but they were far more willing to experiment and collaborate with others. Reilly's guitar work on Viva Hate, particularly on "I Don't Mind if you Forget Me", was clever and creative; as with Mick Taylor, it's as if he was a blank slate when working by himself, but sadly he didn't seem to get along with others so he ended up always working by himself. I wonder if he had an undiagnosed psychological condition. It's too late now.

The subject of this post was replaced in 2010 by the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, which remains Canon's top mainstream short fast telephoto. It has the same specification as its immediate predecessor but is apparently sharper. Being mean about Vini Reilly is a lot like kicking a puppy. It feels wrong. But sometimes kicking a puppy is the right thing to do. Imagine if a puppy was about to jump playfully onto the launching controls of a ballistic nuclear missile submarine, for example. You would have to take action. Incidentally I opted for a 70-200mm f/2.8 IS over the original 70-200mm f/2.8 mainly for the weather sealing, and then mainly because it keeps out dust rather than water.

Dust inside zoom lenses triggers my OCD. Did you know that Brazil's former currency, the cruzeiro, had a unique sign? The sign was ₢, a little r inside a big C. Very few typewriters could produce the sign, but that's not an issue today because you can simply copy and paste the sign into your text. I'll put five of them on a separate line so you don't run out:

The 5D MkII frustrates me. I bought it back in 2010 mainly for the video. As a stills camera the colours have never grabbed me, and it tends to blow out highlights. After using a Fuji S5 for a while this is particularly irritating. It's one of the few problems that's basically un-Photoshoppable unless you're prepared to fundamentally alter the image.

I mention up the page that I wanted a general-purpose portrait lens. A 70-200mm f/2.8 is a good choice, but not the only choice. In the Canon ecosphere used examples of the 70-200mm f/2.8 sell for roughly the same price as the 135mm f/2L, 200mm f/2.8L, and 85mm f/1.2L Mk I, which are of course fixed-focal lenses. They're black, shorter and lighter than the 70-200mm f/2.8, optically terrific.

In the game of one-upmanship the 135mm f/2 is the hipster's choice; you can win internet points by revealing that you use a 135mm f/2 rather than one of those barbarous zooms. In my experience 135mm and 200mm are either too long or not long enough if you only have one focal length. The 85mm f/1.2 is enormously tempting and is the definitive Canon lens if you want to take full-body portraits with a blurred background, but in the end I decided that it overlapped with my other lenses.

There is a left-field choice. In the 1980s Nikon made a manual focus 80-200mm f/2.8 AI-S. This can be used on Canon bodies with an adapter, although as a heavy push-pull lens I imagine it will be difficult to hold steady while focusing precisely. Nikon also made a variety of 80-200mm f/2.8 autofocus lenses during the 1980s and 1990s, which will also work as manual focus lenses with an adapter. Alas Nikon's modern 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses are G-type models without an aperture ring, so they're no good unless you buy a Nikon body to go with them, in which case you're not a Canon photographer any more. You're one of them, the end.