Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II Review

The 70-200mm focal length f/2.8 lens has become a staple in the photography world with each camera manufacturer offering their variant on this now classic design. The history of the autofocus-capable 70-200mm f/2.8 lens within the Canon universe stretches all the way back to 1989 with the introduction of the Canon 80-200mm f/2.8 L lens, whose high quality and innovative design went a long way in cementing Canon’s strong market position heading into the 90’s.

This lens was updated six years later with the legendary Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L USM lens which featured not only fantastic image quality but also a fast and quiet internal focusing motor with instant manual focus override. This model became an instant classic and has since been updated three times, first in 2001 with lens stabilization, then with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L USM IS II in 2010 featuring a new optical formula and better stabilization and now again in 2018 with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L USM IS III which adds new coatings to the 2010 model.

Today, I will be reviewing the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L USM IS II, whose introduction in 2010 ensured that one of Canon’s most popular lenses would be able to keep up with the megapixel rich sensors which would follow in the coming decade. Compared to its predecessor, the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L USM IS II features a complete optical redesign aimed at improving the image quality of the lens at wide open apertures and especially at the 200mm focal length where the original IS model fell short of expectations.

Chromatic aberration should be significantly mitigated thanks to the use of one fluorite glass element in the optical design which also features 5 UD glass elements. The lens also receives Canons 4-stop Image Stabilization system. Canon also stated an improvement in the build quality of the lens with better weather sealing and better durability. I obtained a copy of the lens four and a half years ago, and it has been my companion on several trips across the world over that time. I first paired the lens with Canon’s 1DIII body and later a Canon 1Dx.

Canon 70-200mm f2.8 II

2. Mountain Gorilla, Uganda
Mountain Gorilla, Uganda

1. Lens Specifications

Main Features

  • Versatile 70-200 focal length range is ideal for portraits, landscapes, travel, and sports
  • Fast f/2.8 constant aperture allows for excellent low light performance
  • 4 stop Optical Image Stabilization
  • Fantastic all-metal build quality and weather sealing
  • Canons professional grade ultrasonic motor for fast focusing including better subject tracking
  • Compatible with an optional external 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters
3. Morning over Eastern Yellowstone
Canon EOS-1D Mark III @ 170mm, ISO 200, 1/400, f/5.0

Technical Specifications

  1. Mount Type: Canon EF
  2. Focal Length Range: 70-200mm
  3. Maximum Aperture: f/2.8
  4. Minimum Aperture: f/32
  5. Lens (Elements): 23
  6. Lens (Groups): 19
  7. Compatible Format(s): EF, APS-C
  8. VR (Vibration Reduction) Image Stabilization: Yes
  9. Diaphragm Blades: 8
  10. UD Glass Elements: 5
  11. FL Glass Elements: 1
  12. Autofocus: Yes
  13. USM (Ultra Sonic Motor): Yes
  14. Internal Focusing: Yes
  15. Minimum Focus Distance: 3.94 ft (1.2 m)
  16. Focus Mode: Manual, Manual / Auto
  17. Filter Size: 77mm
  18. Dimensions: 3.5 in. (88.8 mm) x 7.8in. (199mm)
  19. Weight (Approx.): 3.29 lb (1.49 kg)
4. Hotspring Runoff, Yellowstone
Canon EOS-1D X + EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM +1.4x @ 205mm, ISO 100, 3/10, f/36.0

2. Build Quality and Handling

As part of Canon’s top of the line L series telephoto lenses, the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II has a superb build quality. It features a sturdy, all-metal body that is weather sealed throughout. This guarantees that it holds up to the rigors of professional usage. Measuring 88.8mm in diameter, 199mm in length and weighing 1490grams, the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM IS II is a heavy lens and honestly, it feels more substantial than its weight would suggest. Akin to its predecessors, the lens does not extend during zooming nor focusing. There is no play or wobbling whatsoever, and the rubberized 137°-rotating focus ring operates very smoothly. The weather sealing is very effective, and after repeated usage in different weather conditions, including getting caught with the lens in torrential rains while hiking in Costa Rica, I can say that it functioned flawlessly and at no point did it seem as if any extraneous material was entering internally.

The lens’s front element doesn’t feature fluorine coatings (something Canon addressed with the Mark III model released this year) that make it easier to wipe off dirt and fingerprints from the front element. Even without these coatings, the front element of the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM IS II is very easy to clean off.

5. Crow and Dead Tree, Yellowstone
Canon EOS-1D Mark III + EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM @ 200mm, ISO 400, 1/1250, f/5.6

Both the rotating zoom and focus rings are very smooth, with the former a bit tight when initially receiving the lens. A counter-clockwise zoom ring rotation selects the focal length. The zoom ring is smartly located towards the rear of the lens and behind the focus ring, which is functionally ideal as you never inadvertently bump the focus ring while changing the focal length.

At the front of the lens is a filter-friendly non-rotating 77mm filter thread, surrounded by a bayonet mount for the ET-87 lens hood lens hood supplied with the lens. The push-button release allows the hood to stay locked into place and is much more secure than the old lens hood which used a screw-into-place design which loosened over time. The hood’s interior has anti-reflective flocking which helps reduce any stray light.

Four switches adorn the side of the lens barrel and sit right below the distance scale window. The first switch is a focus distance limiter with a couple of options; 1.2m- infinity and 2.5m- infinity. The latter is especially useful for speeding up the focus for sports and wildlife photography. The next switch is a simple AF/MF switch. The last pair of switches control image stabilization. The first actives and deactivates the IS system (ON/OFF) while the second selects the image stabilization mode. Mode 1 is the ‘standard’ setting that stabilizes in both dimensions and is best suited for general use. Mode 2 automatically detects panning and turns off stabilization in the direction of movement.

Towards the back of the lens barrel is a removable collar that holds the tripod mount foot. The foot rotates smoothly, but it, unfortunately, lacks click-stops at the 90-degree marks for portrait and landscape positions. I’d have loved to see Canon implement a built-in Arca-Swiss style quick-release shoe to complement the foot and make it easier to operate on a tripod.

6. Blue cloud over Lamar, Yellowstone
Canon EOS-1D Mark III + EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM +1.4x @ 135mm, ISO 200, 1/200, f/5.0

Overall, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM IS II handles beautifully, with its all-metal, weather sealed design easily holding up under inclement weather conditions and in demanding environments. Both the zoom and focus ring operate very smoothly, with the focus ring especially well dampened. I also like the new design of the hood which makes it much easier to mount. The EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM IS II is undoubtedly a heavy lens, and you’ll surely feel your neck after carrying it around for a whole day, but it’s a small price to pay given the quality of its build.

3. Focus Speed and Accuracy

As a professional wildlife photographer, autofocus is one of the most important things that I look for in a lens/camera combination. These days even the most basic lenses offer a solid focusing performance, primarily when used in good light, but where the top of the line lenses come into their own (along with the better camera bodies) is in being able to focus accurately under challenging conditions. Conditions such as low light, fast-moving subjects, and complex backgrounds require lenses that make the most of the cameras tracking capabilities, and thankfully the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM IS II excels in this regard.

7. Volcanic Landscape, Costa Rica
Canon EOS-1D X + EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM +1.4x @ 280mm, ISO 500, 1/800, f/10.0

An important aspect to consider when judging a lens’s focusing capabilities is that the camera body plays an integral role in the quality of the autofocus and due to this, it’s important to match your lenses with high-quality bodies that can deliver good focusing performance. I have been able to use the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM IS II alongside the reliable Canon 1Dx body whose exceptional focusing capabilities rank as some of the best I have experienced.

The overall focusing performance of the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM IS II is fantastic, with the lens snapping into focus almost instantaneously. In fact, I would rate the speed of the focusing on this lens on par with my Canon 300mm f/2.8L USM IS lens which has long been considered a benchmark for focusing speed in the EF mount. The EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM IS II lens features Canon’s USM motor so focus operation is extremely quiet, with only a very slight whirr heard as the lens elements move inside. This lens also features an advantageous minimum focus distance of just 1.2m which makes it very good for close-up photography.

Initial autofocus acquisition is very fast, and I have no hesitation about engaging the focus system the moment the target is in the viewfinder. In good light, focus locks almost instantaneously onto the subject with almost no delay. The large f/2.8 aperture also means that focus speeds are excellent in low light situations. This is especially useful when taking photos at dusk and dawn or when hiking in dense forests where light levels are very dim. In such situations, the one-stop advantage of the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM IS II over lenses like the EF 70-200mm f/4L USM IS II becomes quite evident and I have found that I can get about eight extra minutes of shooting time at dusk when using the f/2.8 vs. the f/4 lens.

Focusing accuracy is also very high, and I feel that the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM IS II compares favorably with Canon’s best prime lenses in how well it can track fast-moving subjects.

When you mount an external Canon 1.4x Teleconverter, autofocus speed remains very high though focus accuracy takes a slight hit. In good light, you will be hard pressed to notice that the converter is in use, after all, you still retain an f/4 max aperture. When used in low light conditions, there is a slight, yet noticeable drop in the overall tenacity experienced when using the bare lens.

The below photograph of a rare Mountain Gorilla in Uganda was taken with the lens and an external Canon 1.4x Teleconverter, and it highlights how well the combination was able to focus through the dense undergrowth on the eyes of the subject.

8. Gorilla in the Brush
Canon EOS-1D X @ 280mm, ISO 12800, 1/320, f/8.0

When you mount an external Canon 2.0x Teleconverter, autofocus speed and accuracy is noticeably reduced. This isn’t as noticeable when you use the combination in midday lighting but can become quite sluggish in low light conditions. In good light and with the focus limiter engaged, you can successfully track difficult subjects such as the jumping Capuchin Monkey seen below with relatively high consistency. Unfortunately, I find that this combination becomes quite bad when trying to track fast-moving subjects during the wee hours of the day. Overall, while this combination is decent when used in good light, I have never been particularly happy with the overall performance of the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II when its used alongside Canon’s 2x Teleconverter. The issue doesn’t seem to be with the teleconverter as I find it works great on the f/4 max aperture Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS USM lens.

9. Capuchin Monkey Jump, Costa Rica
Canon EOS-1D X + EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM +2x @ 205mm, ISO 640, 1/1000, f/6.3

4. Image Quality

It would have been foolish for Canon to update the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM IS I without fixing some its image quality letdowns, particularly at the 200mm focal length. Thankfully, I can report that the Canon EF 70-200mm F/2.8L USM IS II is not only able to outperform its predecessor at the 200mm focal length but throughout the entirety of its range. This is most noticeable at the extremes of the focal range at max apertures.

At 70mm and f/2.8, the EF 70-200mm F/2.8L USM IS II performance is nothing short of astounding, with tack sharp central sharpness and very strong corners. Things marginally improve one stop down at f/4, with the image now virtually tack sharp throughout the entirety of the frame. At 70mm, the lens is clearly capable of producing a prime-like performance right out to the very corners of the frame. At 135mm and f/2.8, the lens remains excellent in the center of the frame, with the overall resolution just slightly behind the 70mm focal length. Image quality in the periphery of the frame is a bit weaker here though it remains on a very high level. At 135mm and f/4, things significantly improve, with both central and corner sharpness getting a noticeable boost. At this setting, the overall sharpness very nearly matches the extremely high level found at the 70mm and f/4 setting.

The 200mm focal length is usually the weakest on the 70-200mm focal length lenses and this was an especially noticeable issue with the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM IS I lens. At 200mm and f/2.8, the EF 70-200mm F/2.8L USM IS II performs admirably, with central sharpness remaining very high and good sharpness in the corners. At 200mm and f/4, things noticeably improve in the center of the frame with sharpness again reaching very nearly tack sharp levels. The corners improve but not as noticeably as the center of the frame, with sharpness in the periphery of the frame remaining on a reasonably high level.

The EF 70-200mm F/2.8L USM IS II is at its sharpest at the f/4 and f/5.6 apertures, with the effects of diffraction becoming noticeable by f/11. Overall, the sharpness of the EF 70-200mm F/2.8L USM IS II is truly outstanding in the center of the frame at all focal lengths, with the 200mm offering a marginally lower performance. Sharpness in the periphery of the frame is also very good and even excellent at the wider end of the focal range.

10. Steam Over Hot Spring, Yellowstone
Canon EOS-1D Mark III @ 125mm, ISO 200, 1/500, f/5.6

The Canon EF 70-200mm F/2.8L USM IS II is also compatible with Canon’s 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverter’s, but the image quality takes quite a hit. With Canon’s 1.4x Teleconverter mounted and the lens used at f/4, the sharpness in the center of the frame is now just on a good level with contrast a bit on the low side. The corners of the frame fare worse, with details becoming quite mushy. Thankfully, things significantly improve just one stop down at f/5.6, with the center of the frame now very sharp indeed and the corners looking much better. Sharpness marginally improves at f/8 with the f/5.6 and f/8 apertures providing the sweet spot for the combination.

When the lens is used alongside the Canon 2.0x Teleconverter, the overall sharpness further degrades with this much more noticeable at the 200mm (now 400mm) end of the focal range than at 70mm (now 140mm). At 400mm and f/5.6, the overall image is not very sharp, with mediocre resolving power in the center of the frame and a nearly unusable performance on the edges of the frame. Thankfully, things improve dramatically in the center of the frame just a third of a stop down. At f/6.3 and 400mm, the sharpness in the center of the frame is now highly usable. Unfortunately, the corners of the frame remain quite weak. By f/8, sharpness in the center of the frame is further improved with mid-frame sharpness also becoming quite usable. The quality in the image periphery improves only slightly and never reaches a reasonable level at any aperture combination.

5. Vibration Reduction

The EF 70-200mm F/2.8L USM IS II comes with Canons 4-stop lens stabilization system which doesn’t disappoint. I have found the vibration reduction system of the lens to be excellent and it has enabled me to take some handheld shots that shutter speeds that are far below what I would usually go for with the older generation telephoto lenses which only had 2 stops of stabilization. There are two stabilization mode settings to be found on the lens. Mode 1 is for stationary subjects, and it does a phenomenal job of both reducing vibrations in the viewfinder as well as the actual image itself. This is my go-to mode when I am handholding because it makes it much easier to frame and keep track of your subject as it moves across the frame. Mode 2 IS is used for panning with a subject. In this mode, only 1 axis of stabilization is provided – allowing a linearly-moving subject to be tracked. Overall, the image stabilization system on the lens is excellent and makes an already versatile lens that much more flexible.

11. Eastern Entrance, Yellowstone
Canon EOS-1D Mark III + EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM @ 200mm, ISO 160, 1/400, f/5.6

6. Bokeh

The quality of the bokeh of the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II is excellent. Out-of-focus highlights are almost perfectly circular in shape throughout most of the image frame, with the quality in the corner remaining very solid. This lens is perfect for portraiture and subjects stand out beautifully from the background when using this lens at f/2.8. The quality of the blur is not quite as good as the best primes, but I would rate it as among the best I have seen on a fast aperture zoom lens.

12. Chimpanzee, Uganda
Canon EOS-1D X + Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM @ 200mm, ISO 12800, 1/320, f/5.0

7. Vignetting

The EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II exhibits a moderate amount of vignetting that improves as the lens is stopped down. At the 70mm focal length, there is very little vignetting at f/2.8, and it becomes nonexistent one-stop down. At the 135mm and 200mm focal lengths, there is about a 1.5 stop of darkening in the corners at f/2.8 and about half a stop at f/4. By f/5.6, vignetting becomes almost negligible at all focal lengths.

13. Volcanic Landscape #2, Costa Rica
Canon EOS-1D X @ 98mm, ISO 400, 1/320, f/11.0

8. Flaring

The Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II handles flare quite well and much better than its predecessor. The original lens struggled mightily with handling brightly lit objects in the frame and new lens offers a much better resistance in this regard. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to be careful when shooting against the light but contrast remains very good and internal reflection are handled well enough for a lens of this type.

14. Ishasha Sunrise, Uganda
Canon EOS-1D Mark III + Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM @ 200mm, ISO 200, 1/400, f/5.6

9.Chromatic Aberration

Modern lenses have become increasingly good at mitigating chromatic aberration, and the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II shows very little even when shooting in high contrast situations. The performance is best in the midrange of the lens 100mm-150mm where you will be hard pressed to find any chromatic aberration in even the most extreme situations. Chromatic aberration is more noticeable on the extreme ends of the lens, namely at 70mm and 200mm, but even here it is very well controlled. Lateral chromatic aberration is also very well corrected on this lens and only begins to become pronounced when adding teleconverters. Adding the Canon EF x1.4 Teleconverter adds a bit more chromatic aberration though it remains easily fixed in post-processing. With the EF x2.0 Teleconverter, the amount of chromatic aberration increases noticeably, with visible magenta colored halos around high contrast areas and in the periphery of the frame.

10. Comparisons

Given the popularity of this focal length, there are many options available that compete directly with the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II lens.

The most obvious comparison is with this lens’s predecessor, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM I lens. The older lens features many similarities, but it lags behind the mark II in almost every way. Image quality is improved on the new lens, especially wide-open sharpness and contrast at f/2.8. This is most noticeable at the 200mm focal length in the corners where the Mark I version is quite soft. With both lenses stopped down to f/5.6, sharpness is fantastic right to the corners of the frame, and there is very little to tell them apart. The EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II handles flare much better than its predecessor. The new lens also features a better stabilization system along with a better performance with Canon’s Teleconverters. They are quite similar regarding their handling of chromatic aberration and vignetting.

For photographers who find the 70-200 f/2.8 lenses too heavy, too large or too costly, there is a wonderfully light alternative in the form of the Canon EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM and the newly released EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM II. The f/4.0 versions weigh less than half the weight of the f/2.8 versions and cost around half as much. The EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II is ever so slightly sharper at wide-open apertures than the EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM lens, but the tables flip with the newly released EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM II which is every bit as sharp as the f/2.8 lens. Due to its one-stop aperture advantage, the F/2.8 lens holds a distinct advantage when shooting in dim lighting. The f/2.8 is also a touch quicker to focus on fast-moving subjects, although the f/4 versions are no slouches. Naturally, the f/2.8 lens offers a shallower depth of field at wide open apertures, and this gives it better background to subject separation. The EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS USM II is also more suited for Canon’s x1.4 and x2.0 Teleconverters than its F/4 counterparts.

15. Castle Geyser, Yellowstone
Canon EOS-1D Mark III @ 280mm, ISO 100, 15/1, f/8.0

For photographers interested in finding better-priced alternatives to Canon’s native 70-200mm focal length lenses there are several third-party options. The best of these is the Tamron SP 70-200 mm f/2.8 Di VC USD lens which offers a good build quality with weather sealing, excellent image stabilization, fast and accurate autofocus, and great image quality. The Tamron doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II with its build quality, focus accuracy and image quality in the center of the frame but for $500 less the Tamron is worthy of attention.

For a very similar price to the Tamron lens, Sigma offers their 70-200mm f/2.8 lens in the Sigma 70-200 mm f/2.8 EX DG APO OS HSM lens. The Sigma 70-200 mm f/2.8 EX DG APO OS HSM was released back in 2010 and offers a solid overall performance that lags that of the Canon lens. The Sigma is well built and has good image stabilization and high sharpness in the image center. Where it falls behind the competition is in the accuracy of its focus which isn’t nearly as consistent as that of the Canon lens. Corner sharpness is also relatively weak.

16. Poas Volcano
Canon EOS-1D X + EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM +1.4x @ 98mm, ISO 800, 1/800, f/10.0

11. Summary

The Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II lens has been around for nearly a decade now, but it remains one of the best 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses on the market. In fact, when Canon recently updated it with the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM III, they kept the mark II’s optical formula and only added new coatings to help reduce flare and ghosting.

Optically, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II is excellent throughout the entirety of its focal length range including the frequently tricky 200mm focal length settings. When adding a Canon EF 1.4x Teleconverter, the performance remains very high, especially one stop down. Adding the Canon EF 2.0x Teleconverter creates a useful focal range of 140-400mm with a max aperture of f/5.6 but I have found the performance of this combination leaves much to be desired, especially when it comes to its focusing performance. The lens shows negligible levels of lateral chromatic aberration and bokeh fringing is well controlled for a lens of this type.

Optically, the lens also features other strong qualities including a good performance against sources of bright light, a moderate amount of vignetting that improves as the lens is stopped down and excellent bokeh. The build quality is nothing short of outstanding with a sturdy, all-metal body that is weather sealed throughout. When paired with a professional grade body like the Canon 1Dx, focus performance is highly impressive. This combo can keep up with fast action even in low light, and the lenses 4-stops of image stabilization proves essential for photographing handheld in dim lighting conditions.

Overall, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II remains an outstanding lens eight years after its introduction. It has exceptional build quality, a robust feature set, excellent focusing capabilities and fantastic image quality across the entirety of the focal range and bearing in mind that the lens has as a new price tag of just $1,799, I can’t help but give it my highest recommendation.

17. Chimpanzee #2
Canon EOS-1D X @ 190mm, ISO 12800, 1/800, f/3.5
%d bloggers like this: