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Pixel Peeping - 70-200 IS Showdown

Side by Side

In another installment of my lens sharpness comparison series, I now pit the solid, renowned workhorse, the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS with its new younger and more svelte sibling, the Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS.

Hoods On

The 2.8 IS is big, heavy, and fast, weighing in at 3.2 lbs and 7.7" long while the 4 IS is significantly much smaller, lighter although a bit slower, weighing in at 1.7 lbs and 6.8" long. Diameter-wise, the 4 IS is smaller by 10mm which doesn't sound like much but when you see it in person it definitely is.

Top View

Word on the street is that the 4 IS is possibly the sharpest and best resolving zoom lens Canon has made to date. At half the weight of its 2.8 older brother and with a newer IS that's supposedly good for 4 extra stops of light, it almost makes the 2.8 obsolete. Or does it...

Setup is basically the exact same as my previous test with the mid-range zooms with the exception that I left the ISO at 100 and did this during the evening with the only light source being a fluorescent lamp to the right and slightly behind the camera.

Well here goes nothing, first off, both lenses wide open at 70mm.

70mm Wide Open

I'd be hard pressed to say which lens wins here. Both seem pretty darn sharp in their wide open apertures. Seems like the 4 is sharper by a smidgen.

70mm @ f/4.

70mm @ f/4

Again, I'm hard pressed to declare a winner here. Both look pretty much the same to me. The depth of field for the 2.8 does seem to be a bit farther back than the 4 though as the books to the left of center on the 2.8 crop seems to be sharper than on the 4 while the books to the right of center on the 2.8 crop is fuzzier. Remember that the 2 books to the right of center are about an inch closer while the 2 books to the left are an inch behind.

70mm @ f/5.6.

70mm @ f/5.6

At 5.6, same old story although the 4 seems to be a bit richer in the purple color.

70mm @ f/8.

70mm @ f/8

And again at f/8, practically no difference between the two. Now let's see what 200mm will bring.

Starting off with 200mm wide open.

200mm Wide Open

Ahh, now things get interesting. The 4 is definitely sharper at f/4 than the 2.8 is at f/2.8.

200mm @ f/4.

200mm @ f/4

Now, a fairer fight as both lenses are now at f/4. And still the 4 lens comes out ahead. The 4 resolves so well that you can see that the lines in the background are actually very tiny zig zags. On the 2.8 crop, it's just a line. That's pretty sick.

200mm @ f/5.6.

200mm @ f/5.6

At 5.6 the letters are starting to look similarly sharp but again, you can see the zig zags on the 4 crop pretty well while it's just starting to show up on some parts of the 2.8 crop.

200mm @ f/8.

200mm @ f/8

And finally at f/8, the sharpness seems to be pretty comparable but the 4 lens still seems to be able to resolve more detail than the 2.8.

So, is the hype over the 4 IS to be believed? I'm inclined to think so. At about half the weight and 2/3 the cost of the 2.8 IS you get an incredibly sharp lens seemingly throughout the entire zoom range and at all apertures. And what makes it more amazing is that almost every single 4 IS owner is reporting the same results. I've yet to read about someone who wound up with a bad copy of the 4 IS. That's practically unheard of. I think starting from the 24-105 f/4 IS through the 17-55 f/2.8 IS and now the 70-200 f/4 IS, Canon is really honing their lens technology and lens assembling skills or something cause it seems with every new lens the image quality just keeps getting better. Although I guess the new 50 f/1.2 is an anomaly since there are reports of bad lenses from that one.

I think my new standard 2 lens kit will now be the 17-55mm f/2.8 IS and the 70-200mm f/4 IS. The size and weight of the f/4 IS makes it almost a no-brainer to throw in your bag on outings. Although I never hesitated bringing the f/2.8 IS out and about, the f/4 IS should save me some room and energy.

So then, what's the 70-200mm f/2.8 IS good for then? Indoor work I guess. Just as I found the 24-105 f/4 IS a bit too limiting for an indoor zoom, that may also be the case for the 70-200 f/4 IS as well. Plus the f/2.8 IS still gives a better bokeh for portraits. But overall I can definitely see the new f/4 IS cannabilizing sales of the f/2.8 IS. They're both great lenses but I think the f/4 IS will find more owners with its all-around sharpness and size/weight benefits.


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