Canon EF 200mm F/2 L IS USM lens

This stunningly sharp, low-light telephoto lens will blow you and your bank account away.

Oct 2, 2008
By Dan Havlik

Canon EF 200mm F/2 L IS USM lens

The Canon 200mm F/2 IS lens weighs 5.5 pounds but costs $6,000.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Nothing beats a great piece of glass. And with the EF 200mm F/2 L IS USM lens, Canon has built one of its best lenses to date and one, I think, many different types of photographers will find a use for—if they can afford it. Yes, Canon’s L-series luxury glass comes at a price and the 200mm F/2 L IS certainly ain’t cheap, retailing for an eye-popping $6,000, to be exact.

It also ain’t exactly lightweight either, tipping the scales at 5.5 pounds and shipping with its own shockproof strong box to carry it around in. Instead of using the strong box, I mounted the lens on a Canon 1D Mark IIn and put it inside a Tamrac Expedition 6x photo backpack after first removing just about every separator inside the bag to make enough room for the lens. It should be noted that it’s not just the lens that’s big, it’s the extra-long lens hood that adds about five inches to the front end, making the EF 200mm F/2 L IS resemble a small, white rocket launcher.

A Real Head-Turner

I attracted a lot of attention while photographing basketball, baseball, soccer and handball with this lens in New York City, often too much attention. While photographing a softball game from atop a giant rock in the North Meadow of Central Park, I got worried someone was going to call the Department of Homeland Security on me and decided to pack it in early.

On the sideline of a sporting event in the press photographer’s pit, however, you’ll easily blend in amidst all the other giant glass. In fact, you might even feel slightly inadequate but don’t worry, although size does matter, so does sharpness, and this new L-series offering from Canon is one of the sharpest lenses out there.

This all has to do with economies of scale, of course. Though it may seem like a big deal, the new 200mm F/2 is actually over a pound lighter than its predecessor, the 6.6-pound EF200mm f/1.8L USM lens. And while the aperture is a notch slower on the new 200mm, the revamped lens adds an Optical Image Stabilizer for up to four stops of correction and a more weather-resistant design.

Other changes to the new lens include additional fluorite and UD lens elements to correct for chromatic aberration. Autofocusing is faster and quieter thanks to the inner USM (Ultra-sonic Wave Motor) and tweaked autofocus algorithms. Meanwhile, the circular aperture will give your images great blurry background bokeh to help draw attention to your subject.

Razor Sharp

I compared notes on the 200mm lens with wedding photographer Jason Groupp, who recently rented the lens for a shoot with models in Puerto Rico at the old EL Morro fort. (Jason also helped me test the Nikon D700, which is reviewed above.) Both of us pretty much came to the same conclusion: If we had the money and the space for it in our camera bag, this 200mm lens would be a “must have.” Why? It has great all-around sharpness with particularly effective performance in low light.

Even when handholding the lens in dim lighting at shutter speeds as fast as 1/60th of a second, images were bright and focusing speeds very fast, making it a great tool for low-light church wedding ceremony shots, reception work, fashion runways, indoor sports and theater photography. Jason and I also used it extensively in bright outdoor conditions: I shot baseball and soccer matches and Jason worked with a model on a sunny day in Puerto Rico. Though it’s easy to let the lens go on auto-pilot in these circumstances, you need to be careful with your exposure and lean toward underexposing by a stop or a stop and a half to avoid blowing out highlights.

Though using the 200mm F/2 with a monopod is preferable, it’s not completely necessary because of its relatively compact build. (Compare it to a 300mm IS lens and you’ll see what I mean when I say “relatively compact.”)

So, add sports photographers to that already long list of possible users of this lens, especially those who may want to put away their hefty 300mm glass for a down or two to try something lighter and sharper.

Such greatness comes with one major caveat, however: they’re going to need to be rich sports photographers to afford the 200mm F/2’s Puff Daddy-like price tag. (I have seen it listed for as low as $5,200, but that still buys you a lot of Ciroc vodka.)

The Bottom Line

If you’re in the market for a stunningly sharp telephoto lens that looks like it could be used to take over a small town in Afghanistan and money is no object, the $6,000 Canon EF 200mm F/2 L IS USM is about the most perfect piece of glass you can buy. If you’re like most everybody else out there, however, renting may be the more fiscally responsible option. But what would Diddy think?

Canon EF 200mm F/2 L IS USM lens

Pros: Perhaps the sharpest telephoto lens we’ve ever tried; very fast focusing, even in low light; produces stunning background bokeh compression

Cons: Very expensive; though it’s lighter than the previous generation lens, it’s still big and heavy; size draws attention to you when you’re shooting

Price: $6,000

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