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Canon 70-200mm EF f/4 L USM Long-Term Review

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM

When I first got my Canon 70-200mm EF f/4 L USM lens secondhand from a friend in February last year, it was to have a smaller, lighter alternative to the monster 100-400mm EF f/4.5-5.6L IS USM which I also own. And I hoped it would make a good companion to the Canon 24-105mm EF f/4 L IS USM which is my regular standard zoom for days out.

My thinking was that I would use this one more frequently as it’s much less strain on the arms if you are using it without a tripod (which I tend to do – I’m too lazy to drag a tripod everywhere and it slows down my spontaneity).

Looking back over the last fifteen months or so, I realise I’ve actually used it more than I thought – but only on relatively few photographic outings.

The first real run out was a day in Brighton in April 2011, meeting photographic friends for a shoot. The light was mediocre but I was reasonably pleased with the results. Here’s one of the West Pier:

West Pier Silhouette
West Pier Silhouette
Yellow Poppy
Yellow Poppy

A group from GNPC went to RHS Hyde Hall in May to photograph the magnificent floral displays. It was a beautiful sunny if windy day and the images from that shoot produced some vibrant colours with great bokeh in the background. This yellow poppy illustrates it perfectly.

With plenty of light around, the 70-200mm focal length is a cracking option for this sort of picture, especially if the flowers you want to photograph are in the middle of a well-manicured bed and you can’t get any closer to your subject!

It’s not really suitable for macro or close up work, as the closest focus distance is 1.2m. The 705g weight isn’t too onerous on the shoulders – either in the kit bag or on the front of the camera – and only 35g heavier than my 24-105.

Thames Barges
Thames Barges

The next trip it went out on was the Shoot Maldon Live event with Upminster Camera Club, where I was judging the images made on the day, straight out of camera. I thought it only fair that I had a go myself!

This classic view of the Thames Barges at the Hythe shows the weather was occasionally sunny, but mainly overcast. It’s not a bad lens for landscape work, but the 700mm widest focal length can be a bit limiting for this type of photography, depending on your location circumstances.

Later on in May I was out again with the Chelmsford Flickr folk for their 30th Photowalk. We attended the Essex Young Farmers’ Country Show.

Orange With Blue Nuts
Orange With Blue Nuts
Slow shutter, poor light
Slow shutter, poor light

The lens was great for isolating interesting details from the shiny old tractors and farm equipment, but proved a little bit short on zoom length for the aerial motorbike displays – many of which had to be cropped in post production to fill the frame a bit more compared to straight out of the camera. The light had also gone very dim by that stage, so I was struggling for a decent shutter speed, even with the lens wide open at f/4. And the lack of Image Stabilisation meant I was a bit disappointed with many of the resulting shots. The one on the right shows one of the bikers taken at 200mm, with a 100% pixel comparison of part of the rear wheel – it’s not terribly crisp.

Charing Cross Dusk
Charing Cross Dusk

I had another go in low light at the beginning of June, when I found myself on the South Bank to witness a rather impressive dusk after sunset.

I made this image of Charing Cross by steadying the lens on the railings by the side of the river. Otherwise the lack of IS would have given me quite blurry images – and I didn’t dare push the ISO too much beyond 800 for fear of losing some of the details in the shadows and vibrancy of colours in the highlights.

I would have liked a slightly wider view of the scene but at 70mm, this is as wide as it got. Once again, I felt I was hitting a few of the lens’ limitations on this particular shoot.

Thoughtful Soldier
Thoughtful Soldier

In July I went with some friends from GNPC to the War & Peace show in Paddock Wood. I was hoping for some good candid portraits of the re-enacters so packed the lens in my bag.

It did prove to be a great portrait lens during the day. I loved this picture of a young “German” airman – which nearly made it to image of the day for Day #1299. But I did feel a bit conspicuous wandering around with the “white” lens and got asked several times if I was from the press!

Flowing Locks
Flowing Locks

In September a friend and I attended the London Tattoo Convention for the first time. We weren’t quite sure what to expect but knew there would be plenty of opportunity for people-watching – so again, the 70-200 was packed in the kit bag.

The folks there were very friendly and approachable, many of them more than happy to pose for photos.

The halls where the event was held were quite dingy, so I was once more hampered by the lack of IS with the lens. The best shots I got all day were in the central courtyard which has huge skylights in the roof. This red head was being pursued by many paparazzi so I was lucky the 200mm focal length got me a shot between other people’s heads!

There was quite a hiatus before I took the lens out again – a few days ago I attended the GB Olympic Canoeing Trials at the White Water Centre in Waltham Cross.

Aiming For The Gate
Aiming For The Gate

The primary lens I took along to capture the action was the 100-400 as I wanted to fill the frame as much as possible. But I packed the 70-200 as a backup and I’m glad I did – a few shots into the event and my 100-400 lens started playing up!

So the 70-200 proved to be a useful alternative, especially when the sun was out. The image above was made from a few feet away from the edge of the course. I didn’t have a press pass so wasn’t allowed “inside the ropes” but I still got some reasonable pictures.

Ultimately, I’m still undecided if I want to keep the lens. It didn’t cost me a lot as it was second hand. But I think 70-200 is just the wrong focal range for my current kit lineup. It overlaps the 24-105 by quite a lot, yet doesn’t really get much further at the long end to justify carrying it around. I prefer the 100-400 for sports and action shots, mainly for the versatility of zoom range and Image Stabilisation, which I do really miss on the shorter 70-200.

It’s certainly a great lens for some subjects such as flowers and portraiture, given enough light. Sadly the UK’s record for sunny conditions aren’t that great though! I’ll probably have a think about alternatives to this lens and write more when I’ve come to a decision.

GNPC Success

Besides being a member of Ingatestone CC for nearly 20 years(!), a couple of years ago, I also started going to Great Notley Photography Club. I was asked to judge one of their first competitions for an exhibition, was very impressed with what I saw and decided to join.

Diving Gannet
Diving Gannet by David Ian Roberts

Despite being a very new club, having been formed less than 3 years ago, GNPC have recently been very successful in external competitions. At the end of November, we won the North Essex DPI trophy, coming top out of 12 clubs, with our 5 images scoring a total of 95/100. Club member David Ian Roberts also won the best image of the competition, with his great shot of a diving gannet [left].

In The Wake Of Alzheimers
In The Wake Of Alzheimers by Mark Edwards

As if one success wasn’t enough, we have also been entering the 12-month Battle of the Clubs 2010, run by Digital SLR User magazine. This is highly competitive, with clubs from across the UK taking part. We were very encouraged, as each round’s results were announced, that we were holding our own against tough opposition such as DAPA. In the end, GNPC won by two points ahead of DAPA, and once again, it was our club member, Mark Edwards, who came away with the prize for Best Individual Shot, with his powerful photo of his mother, entitled In The Wake Of Alzheimers [right].

Slinky, by me

I’m very pleased to report that one of my own images was considered good enough to represent GNPC in the 3rd round, Colour. Each club had to enter 3 images per round, and Slinky [left] was my contribution towards the final total.

Several club members attended the awards ceremony at Canon UK‘s HQ recently, and were presented with the obligatory “comedy” cheque for £3,000, which we can spend on Canon gear. Us Canon users are delighted, but I suspect one or two of the Nikon-lovers in the club might not be so pleased! Here are some of the club members with the cheque at our last meeting of 2010:

GNPC and the cheque
GNPC winners by Andrea Abbott

The club appears to be going from strength to strength – let’s hope we can keep up the momentum during 2011!

If you live near Great Notley and would like to come along to the club, why not take a look at the list of upcoming meetings? You would  be very welcome.

My Flash Is Dead (Nearly)

My Canon Speedlite 540EZ is now officially a dinosaur. I’d suspected as much a few months ago when I went to use it with my EOS300D and nothing happened. That is, the pilot button on the back would fire the flash when charged, but the camera wouldn’t. It was the first time I’d attempted to use it with the digital body, and (stupidly) I’d not tried it out before going somewhere where I really needed it. So I had to manage, and vowed to test it again soon.

Various factors made me forget to do so, until yesterday, when I remembered to try it again. The same result. At least in all the auto/semi-auto modes I tried. I didn’t have a huge amount of time to play further and have not tried full manual yet. But I’ve just googled for compatability issues between the two, and it seems it’s never going to work any better than in full manual mode. I have to set the shutter speed, aperture and flash power all by hand. Damn.

At first, I thought it was just Canon’s sneaky marketing scam to get you to buy a new flash for the sake of it, but reading a couple of articles has tempered my cynicism a little. Steve Dunn (4th post down) explains here why it won’t work in any mode except manual. Basically, its an old flash which only understands TTL or A-TTL metering which relied on measuring the light reflected off the film during exposure. And of coures, digital doesn’t have any!

So it looks like I’ll have to think about buying new flash gun if I want to use fully automatic metering. I’m wondering whether to bother, bearing in mind how often I actually use a flash. And with the abililty to change ISO rating on a per-frame basis with digital, plus a half-decent image-stabilised lens, the occasions I’ll need it are probably diminishing.

The Great Kit Debate

If you read my recent post, Green-Eyed Monster, you might be thinking that I advocate getting the latest gadgets just for the sake of it. And while I think you should always buy the best model you can afford (whether that be a mobile, digital camera or toaster), it’s certainly doesn’t follow that you will only get the best results from the best kit.

As a known photographer amongst my friends, I’m quite often asked for my opinions on this or that camera. Thy cry goes up “I want to take great pictures, what camera should I buy?” And often I want to reply, “Go buy a decent book on composition and photographic technique, read it, and then tell me what sort of pictures you want to take.” But I know this isn’t the answer they want. So my answer more usually consists of “what’s your budget” etc. Either that, or on seeing my photos, people say “oh, you take great pictures, you must have a really good camera”. Well, it’s true, I do have a pretty good camera, but that’s not the point. Reminds me of an old Jasper Carrott sketch called Virgin Voter when he talks a lot of double-entendres about green 18-year-olds and their first experience of voting, the upshot of which is “It’s not the size of your cross that counts, it’s where you put it!”

You can take great pictures with a £20 fully-manual Praktika SLR if you know what you’re doing. That’s the “luxury” piece of kit (acquired second-hand from Jessops) I took with me on my Lapland Husky Safari back in 2003. Follow the link for some of the results. I knew I wanted a robust, reliable SLR (and at this point, digital wasn’t really an option for me anyway) and I didn’t want to take my “best” film camera for fear of getting it dropped in the snow or eaten by Huskies. Hence the purchase of the Praktika MTL5B. It cost me another twenty quid for a 35-95mm Auto Rosley (who??) zoom lens.

Just after I bought it, we had some snow in the UK, so I was able to go out and play in similar conditions and make sure I knew how much compensate for the white of the snow. I think I ran it at least ½-stop under all the time, and that seemed to work fine. So even for quite extreme conditions, you don’t always need the top gear to do it justice. It’s only when you want to do something pretty specialised that you start to hit the limits of your equipment, and more probably, your own abilities! I’m hoping to upgrade to a Canon EOS20D or perhaps 30D eventually which will give me better shooting/writing burst speed, plus ISO3200 equivalence; and also a pro-spec 100-400mm EF zoom with Image Stabilization, both for those times that it really is as black as a coal-hole but you still need to take pictures. It would be great for more gig photography as well as dingy winter trips to the rugby.

And of course, it’s not just cameras. When I first started to teach myself to play bass guitar, I bought a cheap and cheerful 4-string model to see if I would get on OK with it. As I improved, I started getting frustrated. A lot of songs I like to noodle along with seem to be in the key of D. And a 4-string bass only goes down to E, so if I wanted to play them easily, I either had to drop-tune the E do D (a pain in the butt) or get a 5-string bass with a low B. I managed with the drop-tuning for a few months and then bit the bullet, getting a rather nice hand-made bass from a friend who was selling it. Life has been easier since – except when I try and play anything in flat keys (a nightmare for any string player, we prefer sharps any day!). But that’s just because I’m trying to learn harder pieces!

Anyway, I’ve rabbited on quite long enough, I’ll leave you with a picture of my lovely Iceni Funkmeister – looks like a 5-string Fender Precision, and has a custom purple paint job, which looks rather more red in this photo than it should.

Green-Eyed Monster

Envy is a terrible thing!

I’ve had my trusty Canon EOS300D digi-SLR since Feb 2004, and have used it for capturing countless pictures which I’m extremely pleased with. The vast majority of the images on my photographic portfolio have been taken with it, so much so that I haven’t picked up my Canon EOS50E film body since going digital. In the main, I’ve had no complaints at all about the camera, and in the age when whatever you buy is obsolete before you get the credit card bill, it’s been an excellent tool to get to grips with the peculiarities of digital, as opposed to film.

However, in the last few months, particularly at some of the rugby games I’ve photographed, I’ve noticed I’m beginning to hit the limits of its capablilities. There have been times when I’ve been following the action, only to find that the vital try-scoring moment has passed by because the camera’s buffer was full and still writing to the card. It takes 10 shots in 30 seconds, roughly – the first 4 in quick succession and then you have to wait for subsequent frames to write to the card (it’s definitely the camera, I tried a 100x CF card and it made no difference!)

Similarly, in the depths of winter, when it’s cold and sometimes pretty dim by 5pm when some games wrap up, it can be pretty difficult to get enough photons onto the sensor – its just too dark, even with the floodlights on and the ISO setting cranked right up to its maximum of 1600. This can lead to some interesting “movement blur” type shots, which is all well and good from an arty perspective , but useless if you actually want to freeze the action.

Photographing games in the rain can be fun, and not just for the sight of 30 beefy blokes rolling around in the mud! I have a Cameramac for the body and Sigma 135-400mm lens which I use at the rugby – basically it’s a waterproof “cloak” which slips over the hardware while still allowing access to the lens, top plate controls and LCD on the rear. I remember one match where it was pelting with rain, but even though I ended up soaked below the knees (my Goretex didn’t stretch down to my ankles!), the camera and lens remained pretty dry.

Anyway, I digress. The point of this post was to comment that, having seen my dad’s new Canon EOS20D this weekend, I’m seriously thinking about upgrading to a 20D or probably 30D (which now supercedes the 20D) in the near future. First catch a spare 800-odd quid. Maybe I should take my bass out and do a spot of busking on the Underground?