Choosing a lens

After reading Richard’s blog posts about “Picking a Lens” here and here, I thought that I would post something along a similar vein too. The main difference (apart from being an exclusive Canon mount lens choice) is that my next lens that I will pick will be in the telephoto range.

Canon EOS 5D3+24-105

Since purchasing the Canon 5D Mark-III (5D3) early this year I have had to make do with its “kit” lens the Canon EF 24-105 f4 IS L and the borrowed lens the 100-300 f4-f5.6 USM. Both of them have acquitted themselves well, the biggest surprise being the 100-300mm lens. The extra reach of this lens have allowed me to capture shots that were not possible with the kit lens. I always envisioned an additional number of lenses when I purchased the 5D3; at the time I was just not sure of which lens(es) to buy.

What follows now is my though process in picking my next lens.

Canon EF 70-300mm f4-5.6L IS USM

Looking at the zoom lenses available we have the following:

  • 70-200 f4 L USM
  • 70-200 f4 L IS USM
  • 70-200 f2.8 USM
  • 70-200 f2.8 L IS USM Mark-II
  • 70-300 f4-5.6 IS USM
  • 70-300 f4.5-5.6 DO IS USM
  • 70-300 f4-5.6 L IS
  • 100-400 f4-5.6 L IS

And that is just the Canon lenses, a bewildering list of lenses to choose from. The 70-200 f4 lenses can be discounted at this time I want as much light as possible to make the best use of all of the 5D3’s AF sensors and Image Stabilisation is also required if I am hand-holding the lens; typically this is when I am at work when I only have a short time during my lunch break. This leaves the 70-200 f2.8 L IS USM Mark-II which is one of Canon’s top quality lenses, the only problem with the lens is that 200mm is about 100mm less than I want it to be. I will add that this is a very versatile lens going beyond just Wildlife subjects and is an essential addition that belongs in any serious photographers’ kit bag.

Other lenses to dismiss straight away are the consumer 70-200 IS USM and the 70-300 f4.5-5.6 DO IS USM lenses. Although I have seen a couple of good reviews of the consumer lens the general consensus is that the lens isn’t very good (it is the cheapest lens here). The solitary DO lens gets many unfavourable reviews; Canon only released two DO lenses, the 70-300 and the 400mm f4 prime lenses, since that time we have not seen any more and the rumour mill predicts that a non-DO f4 400mm lens will be released this year, if this is the case it looks like the DO lenses were failures from a marketing perspective if nothing else.

The remaining lenses are the 70-300 IS and the 100-400 lenses, both of these are from Canon’s L range and are therefore amongst other qualities better optically and weather sealed too. I have owned a couple of 100-400 lenses in the past, the first was used with a Canon 1D Mark-IIN where I was happy with the lens and the second time round was paired with a couple of EOS 7D’s where I wasn’t happy with the quality (at 400mm). The 7D is merciless when used with sub-par quality lenses and from what I can ascertain the quality of the 100-400 lens varies quite a bit; if you can get a good one then this a lens to go for. This lens is long overdue for a replacement, maybe 2013 is the year that this happens; Nikonians have it worse as their equivalent the 80-400 VR lens is even older and does not have AFS so is very slow at focusing and cannot be used with anything lower than a D7000.

This leaves the 70-300 f4-4.6 L IS USM lens, the reviews all state that this is an awesome lens. It focuses extremely quickly and the optical quality is amazing. The only lenses that are better are the L prime lenses and the 70-200 f2.8 L IS Mark-II lens at the equivalent focal lengths. There are a couple of disadvantages with this lens, it’s slow at 300mm (f5.6), is quite expensive for a 70-300mm zoom lens and cannot be used with extenders which is what Canon call tele-converters. The aforementioned 70-200 f2.8 L IS Mark-II lens is more expensive and can use both the 1.4x and the 2x extenders.

Canon EF 400mm f5.6L USM

If we look at prime lenses we have the following (at greater than 200mm):

  • 300mm f4 L IS USM
  • 300mm f2.8 L IS USM Mark-II
  • 400mm f5.6 L USM
  • 400mm f4 DO IS L USM
  • 400mm f2.8 IS USM Mark-II
  • 500mm f4 IS USM Mark-II
  • 600mm f4 IS USM Mark-II
  • 800mm f5.6 IS USM Mark-II

From a realistic point almost all of these lenses are too expensive to purchase, the most expensive (the 600mm lens) is over £10,000. So straight away we are limited to the top 2 items (both around £1,000 each), the next cheapest is the 300mm f2.8 at around £5,000. I don’t think that the 300mm f4 lens gives me enough reach so the 400mm f5.6 L Lens is the natural choice – this gets rave reviews and is very good optically, it is only bettered by the faster 400mm primes and the 70-200 f2.8 L IS Mark-II lens + 2x Mark-III extender combination. The optical quality of this combination is debated on this internet quite a bit, although Art Morris an amazing Wildlife Photographer was the first to evangelise about the quality of the combination. However you will note from its name that the 400mm f5.6 lens has no image stabilisation and is a bit slow at only f5.6.

So to summarise I have short-listed the following lensest:

  • 70-200 f2.8 L IS USM Mark-II; a 1.4x and/or 2x mark-III extender will be required at some point.
  • 70-300 f4-5.6 L IS
  • 400mm f5.6 L USM

You will note that these are all “L” lenses, i.e. the top-lenses in Canon’s range. I have also looked at some of the 3rd party lenses too and the only one of any real interest is not out yet, the “Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 DG OS HSM Lens”, this also retails for £3,599.00 which puts it out of my reach for now; this is the 3rd variant from Sigma of this lens. The second version added Sigma’s version of IS that they call “OS” or “Optical Stabilisation” and this variant moves everything up a notch and uses some excellent quality glass. This lens at 300mm gives Canon’s £5,149.00 L lens a run for its money, the difference in price should start to increase once the 120-300mm lens becomes available – I am waiting patiently for the reviews to come in.

Sigma 120-300 f2.8 DG OS HSM

I am limited in which lens to choose as it will ultimately come down to price. I have been looking at the second hand market via London Camera Exchange (LCE)‘s website for any of these lenses in excellent (boxed) condition. My view is that someone who has the box probably looked after their lens better than someone who threw it away.

An excellent condition (boxed) 400mm f5.6 L lens at Manchester’s LCE branch came in (at £300 cheaper than new), but unfortunately for me it was sold because I dithered too much. However, a couple of days later two mint condition (boxed as new) 70-200mm f2.8 L Mark-II lenses appeared on Bristol’s LCE website, these were also £300 cheaper than new and I am pleased to say that I dithered less and I now have one of these. The Mark-II 70-200 lenses don’t appear on the second hand market much so I am pleased that I managed to get one. I did ask the salesperson to make sure it was a Mark-II version as there are a lot of the Mark-I’s around from people who upgraded. Whilst the quality of the Mark-I’s are very good optically, the Mark II’s are much better.

Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8L IS II USM

I also purchased a Kirk plate from WEX’s website here.


My next post will go through my first thoughts and use of the lens (probably at Whisby). I am also looking forward to trying out the new Pro version of GPS4Cam too.


2 thoughts on “Choosing a lens

  1. Pingback: Picking a Lens 3 | Richard & Caroline's Blog

  2. Pingback: If Sony and now Nikon can do it why not Canon? | Chris Bennett's Photo Blog

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