REVIEW - CANON 70-300mm F4-5.6 L IS

Canon’s Newest Travel Zoom - Big Range in a Small Package



The Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6 L IS about a big focal range in a compact body. If the added 200-300mm range is not important for your shooting needs, then the slightly more compact 70-200mm F4 L IS is an excellent choice for travel. And if your back can handle the 70-200mm F2.8 L IS II, then that lens is probably the best choice in terms of sharpness and bokeh. The Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6 L IS is the high-end option in Canon’s super-zoom category, and its long feature list includes:

  1. 70-300mm range in a compact lens size

  2. Two UD elements

  3. Three aspherical elements

  4. Ultrasonic focus motors Fast auto-focus

  5. Canon’s newest Image stabilization

  6. Non-rotating front filter thread

  7. Full-time manual focus

  8. Floating Element Design

  9. Weather sealing

  10. New scratch resistant hoods

That is a long list of goodies, but the lens is still expensive given its slowish aperture. Deciding if the Canon 70-300L is the right lens is mostly about preferences. Canon has a number of telephoto zoom lens options:

  1. Canon EF 70-200mm F2.8 L IS Mark II: This lens is sharper and has faster auto focus, but it was nearly twice as much and is larger. This lens is too big to be considered a good vacation lens. Carrying this lens for 8 to 12 hours while site seeing is “too much”. This lens is for someone who appreciates / demands high quality optics and is not concerned about lens weight.

  2. Canon EF 100-400mm F4-5.6 L IS:  Again, another big lens. The 100-400L is an older lens and its image stabilization (IS) is not as effective as the newer lenses. At 400mm the lens fully extended and quite long (about 14 inches). The longer the lens, the more it benefits from in-lens stabilization. For air shows I think 100-400L is a better choice than the 70-300L. I like the added 100mm of reach. For vacations the 100-400L is marginal. It is a heavy, large lens - but not as heavy as the 70-200mm F2.8 L IS Mark II. If the extra 100mm reach is important, then it is a good choice. Optically the 100-400L and 70-300L are more or less equal when it come to sharpness.

  3. Canon EF 70-200mm F4 L IS: This is the lightweight lens of group, and the least expensive as well. Over the years this lens served me well, but 200mm always felt too short. Optically, it is slightly sharper than 70-300L, and its distortion was less noticeable. If weight is the most important consideration, then 70-200mm F4 L IS would win my vote. If flexibility is more important, then the 70-300L wins.

  4. Canon EF 70-300mm F4-5.6 non-L:  This is the budget minded option. Stopped down performance is good, but wide open performance can be marred with color fringing. The build quality feels cheap, plasticky and somewhat delicate. The lens is very light and a good travel option, but the optical performance is lacking (in my opinion).

With the 70-300mm F4-5.6L IS and 24-105mm F4 L IS in hand, the pair easily addresses 95% of my vacation needs. I have a wealth of other gear and a good portion goes on the trip along with the Canon gear. After the trip I wonder why I bothered with all the other gear because time and time again, the 24-105L accounts for 50%+ of the images. And now the 70-300L accounts for 25-40% of the images. Based on convenience and utility, the 70-300mm L scores very well. Other web reviews may ding the lens a couple points here or there for its optical performance (given its price tag), but that is the trade-off when it comes to reach, size and weight. The 70-300mm L is plenty good enough for my needs, so I expect to use the lens for years to come.

In writing this review I had to borderline make up things to complain about. This review contains a retrospective of our travels during 2011, and honestly, I cannot find a single thing to bitch about. Okay, I’ll bitch about the price. But it is pretty hard to complain about price when the product works like it should and does a good job. If the aperture is too slow, then get the Canon 70-200mm F2.8 L IS Mark II (review here). Either way you will come out on the winning side of deal.