Life Through a Lens – Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM

This is the lens I picked up when I was over in Hawaii, and used to shoot some decent photos. I took it for a walk around the Melbourne CBD today, to see just what it can do.

The 70-200 f/4 L IS is probably the entry-level lens for Canon’s really top-end glass. It has the nifty Image Stabiliser built in, which is the same as having an extra three to four stops(!) of lens speed – a godsend when you’re shooting at the long end of the zoom – and gives you a bit of a taste of the image quality you get from a really top-notch lens. (Also, like the rest of Canon’s pro telephoto lenses, it’s painted white, so you can chuck it on a big SLR body and pretend you’re a big-shot sports photographer if that’s what floats your boat.)

And there’s no denying it’s a great piece of glass. Here’s a shot of the Rialto building on Collins Street, taken at the wide end of the zoom range.

The Rialto Clock

The full photoset is available here, or read on for more.

The rule of thumb for a long lens (anything longer than about 50mm) is that to avoid a blurry picture, your minimum exposure time in seconds should be at least 1 divided by the focal length in millimetres. So if you’re shooting at the long end of this lens (200mm), you should use, at most, a 1/200 sec exposure. There are two problems with that:

  1. If it’s a cloudy day, or if you’re indoors, 1/200 sec is not going to give you much more than a grey or black mess;
  2. If you’re like me and drink a lot of coffee, the caffeine jitters will mean you have to use an even shorter exposure. See point 1.

This is where the “IS” part of the lens comes in. It wasn’t a particularly bright day outside today, so I kinda got lucky when I got this shot off at 1/400 exposure:

Five Hundred

If I were shooting this at night to capture the neon lights (which I might do on Monday), I wouldn’t be able to do it – it’d probably be a 1/60th exposure, and it’d be a blurry mess because I’d be waving the camera around. The IS would be stepping in at that point, and keeping it tack-sharp, as though I was shooting at 1/200th or more.

It’s great at picking up building details that you simply wouldn’t get with a shorter lens – I grabbed this shot of the Rialto building from across the street, but it perfectly picks out the details in the tiles. This one of the Manchester Unity building (corner of Swanston and Collins streets) was shot from diagonally across the intersection, but it still picks up all the details on the coat of arms – even though they’re hidden by what seems like fifty years of pollution and grime. If that building was cleaned up, it’d be a gem.

At the short end, this lens is also great at portrait photos. If you shoot people with a wide-angle lens, it appears to compress the distance between their nose and the rest of their face, making them look kinda squishy. The longer the lens, the better – and the 70mm range is a nice compromise between wider wide-angle (for more facial definition) and not having to stand ten metres away from your subject. (Also, Canon’s L-series lenses are renowned for being high quality, so you have a better chance of taking sharp photos with minimal chromatic aberration and other funny effects.)

What isn’t it suited for? Pretty much anything outside its zoom range. The minimum focusing distance is 1.2 metres, and it’s totally unsuited for group photographs or panoramas – that’s what wide-angle lenses are designed for. It’s also probably not great for photographing indoor sports – if you’re going to be doing that, every f-stop counts, and you’d probably buy the 70-200 f/2.8 non-IS, or something really hardcore like the inexplicably-discontinued, only-available-second-hand-from-some-guy-in-Korea, four-and-a-half-thousand-US-dollar-in-minty-fresh-condition 200mm f/1.8 prime.

But if you want a great portrait lens, or a decent zoom lens for your kids’ sports, or something that’ll give you the best holiday snaps ever, this might be exactly what you’re after.

(Also… someone was flying the skull and crossbones over one of the buildings in Swanston Street today. Anyone know why?)

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