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Equipment

Lenses I Love: The Canon 200mm f/2L IS

Published October 5, 2015

As a photographer who has used nearly every lens in Canon’s repertoire, it’s rare to find one that truly impresses me beyond the ones I own and love. For the longest time, I’ve grown content with my current lineup (which is an overwhelming collection of prime glass), and haven’t had much gear lust over the last few years for new stuff. Well recently, on a trip to Albuquerque for headshot sessions, I decided to go overboard, and rent the Canon 200mm f/2L IS, only to have my somewhat low expectations be broken, giving me that feeling of want for new equipment once again. So let me walk you through my newest love, the Canon 200mm f/2 IS; my favorite lens I’ll never be able to afford.

I wanted to try this lens for a number of reasons, but largely because of how it doesn’t fit in with what else is available for photographers. For starters, the 70-00mm f/2.8 is considered one of the must have lenses for many photographers, and one of the best selling lenses on all platforms. This lens, regardless of the manufacturer, is often sharpest at 200mm, and does a fantastic job of serving as an alternative to the 200mm f/2L that Canon offers. Secondly, Canon also has a 200mm f/2.8L available that is smaller, lighter, and nearly as sharp as the f/2 older brother. Both of these lenses, are much cheaper, much smaller, and just as good for most shooting…but that’s precisely what I love about the Canon 200mm f/2 IS….its absurdity.

The Size

Designed for (or at least that I can only assume) indoor sports photography, the Canon 200mm f/2 IS is a lightning fast shooter. However, being a sports lens, the lens itself is giant when compared to its predecessors, and weighs enough to give you a workout when shooting handheld. It’s size and weight make it a very difficult lens to work with, but when it works well, it works outstandingly.

A photo posted by Zach Sutton (@zsuttonphoto) on

 

We live in a world where many people believe that great photography can simply come down to a great camera. Photography is constantly being devalued, and I was able to use the 200mm’s size to leverage that belief into paying clients. Let me explain. I was in Albuquerque for a wedding, and while there, I had booked a couple headshot sessions for actors. My business of headshots is well established in Albuquerque, as I lived there until recently moving to Los Angeles. However, being there for a wedding left me often working in coffee shops, where I’d often bring this beast of a camera system along instead of leaving in the trunk of my rental car. Setting this camera and lens set up on a table as I built a proof gallery for my clients, garnered more attention that anything else I could have possibly done. This lens, in all of its size, generated a lot of conversations from people, asking why it’s so large, what I’m shooting with it, and who the hell I was. I told them I was using it and size is because it was the world’s best headshot lens, and I was in town from LA to shoot headshots for actors for the weekend. Believe it or not, this story, got me two additional clients while in town, who booked me for headshots, as their previous photographer certainly didn’t have the gear I was using. While that may not justify the size for some people, I kind of liked making it a talking point, and garnering the interest from others around me.

While many could debate if the Canon 200mm f/2L IS is really the best headshot lens in the world, the lens certainly dominated its presence and made for an interesting conversation starter for my newly acquired clients. Somehow, I was able to leverage this lenses worst feature, its size and weight, into a positive, booking two clients in the process.

The Sharpness

One thing I rarely did when shooting with the Canon 200mm f/2L IS this weekend was shoot with it wide open. As you could imagine, 200mm at f/2 could make for some overwhelmingly shallow depth of fields, making focus a challenge, especially when working with moving clients, and shooting handheld. Instead, I used this lens for its incredible sharpness. As you may know, lenses are generally their sharpest when stopped down 1-2 stops from their wide open settings. When shooting headshots for actors, sharpness is among the most important things to gain the attention of agents and casting directors. So by stopping this lens down to f/4, I was able to maintain an incredibly shallow depth of field, while having unmatched sharpness.

As the MTF charts put together by Roger Cicala show above, the Cannon 200mm f/2 IS is a bit sharper in the center at f/2 when compared to the Canon 200mm f/2.8L at f/2.8. However, when stopped down, the 200mm f/2 pulls ahead considerably in sharpness. In fact, the lens is often regarded as one of the sharpest lenses ever built on the EF platform.

The Bokeh

While I don’t want to bore you too much with talks about bokeh, it’s certainly something I wanted to touch base on at least briefly. As mentioned earlier, I didn’t shoot this lens wide open at f/2 for the majority of the time I was working with it, but I had to give it a shot at least for a brief moment. I found, that the depth of field, while shallow, worked really well at f/2. In a headshot framing, I found the depth of field to have a quick falloff, but maintained sharpness in the eyes and other details of the face. The quick falloff was able to provide a nice creamy bokeh to bring the attention back to the face. Below is a shot taken at f/2, and is uncropped to show the quick falloff.

 

The end result, was I didn’t expect to really enjoy the Canon 200mm f/2L IS as much as I did. I had shot at 200mm before using my Canon 70-200mm f/2.8, and thought I had a good understand on how great this focal length could be while still thinking I preferred an 85mm over this 200mm. While I don’t plan on purchasing this lens for the insane price of $5,700, I will likely rent it again. With the sharpness of this lens, and the incredible compression 200mm can provide, I’m hard pressed to find another lens I’d rather be shooting with while outdoors photographing headshot sessions.

The Canon 200mm f/2L IS can be rented for as low as $15.40 a day.

 

Author: Zach Sutton

I’m Zach and I’m the editor and a frequent writer here at Lensrentals.com. I’m also an editorial and portrait photographer in Los Angeles, CA, and offer educational workshops on photography and lighting all over North America.

Posted in Equipment
  • Oleg

    The 200mm f/2 is a helluva lens. On the 5dsr the sharpness wide open is mind blowing https://flic.kr/p/AuEVo4. The weight is acceptable for hand holding (compared to the Sigma 120-300 f/2.8 S 😉

  • Heinz

    Haha Brandon, you nailed it. I also thought I am now reading a user review on the Steve Huff website.

  • MikeD

    It seems like a lovely lens but I can rarely get the 200mm length to work for me, it’s either too long or too short :-). Something about it doesn’t ring my bell so to speak. I feel its too long for headshots, but Zach has a different opinion. I do like my 300 2.8 for “loose” headshots and I just picked up a mint Nikkor 105 1.8. Have not used it much yet but from what I see so far, I like!

  • Wombat

    I owned a 200mm f/2L IS for about 4 years, but I rarely had a chance to use it. It’s awfully heavy, and I have no experience using a monopod, so I was trying to use it handheld. I was using a 1D IV at the time, which helped balance it, but made for a 4kg combination.

    It is a brilliantly sharp / limpidly clear lens, and I sometimes regret selling it, but honestly, I simply didn’t have a lot of use for it. I’ll stick to its baby brother: the 135mm f/2L

  • Brandon

    Wally,

    CaF2 has suitably low birefringence when it is of optical grade. <1nm/cm is typical spec – you would need a block about a half meter thick before it mattered. Here is a datasheet from Corning:

    https://www.corning.com/media/worldwide/csm/documents/Calcium_Fluoride_PI_Sheet_September_2014.pdf

    Regards,
    Brandon

  • KeithB

    Zach:
    You should have stuck around until this week. You can borrow Canon equipment at the Balloon Fiesta for free. Just give them your Drivers License!

  • Wally

    Looking at the MTF curves it looks like the f/2 lens has strong astigmatism which is similar to the other Canon lenses with fluorite elements. The f/2.8 just has UD elements but no fluorite and does not show the same thing. Wonder if they are having trouble getting the fluorite cut right.

  • Roger Knight

    Brandon, Your inferences from Zach Suttons’ experience with the Canon 200L are closer to in-your-face ramblings on a DPreview forum than anything he said.
    You quoted the author: “lens itself is giant when compared to its predecessors”. “you must mean the mentioned 70-200 and 200mm f2.8, as the 200mm f2 predecessor was the 200mm f1.8, and that wasn’t small.
    then you didn’t shoot it at f2 cause you say that you couldn’t focus, or DOF or something, then later you do shoot it at f2 and holy cow it does work out okay.? that’s pretty much what you said right?
    then you finish up with how you never really seemed to understand 200mm with your 70-200 but now fixed at 200mm all is revealed? the 200mmf2 has more compression than 200mm from the 70-200mm at 200mm? the lens you want for outdoor headshots? but you just told us how great it worked for you in a coffee shop”?
    I read the article twice and couldn’t find those comments from the author, only your rambling assumptions.
    You’re only accurate quote was the first sentence.
    One of us has a bit of a problem with reading comprehension, could be me, could be you Brandon.
    If nothing else, you lack style.

  • brandon

    “the f/2 older brother” you must mean larger, not older.

    “lens itself is giant when compared to its predecessors” you must mean the mentioned 70-200 and 200mm f2.8, as the 200mm f2 predecessor was the 200mm f1.8, and that wasn’t small.

    then you didn’t shoot it at f2 cause you say that you couldn’t focus, or DOF or something, then later you do shoot it at f2 and holy cow it does work out okay.? that’s pretty much what you said right?
    then you finish up with how you never really seemed to understand 200mm with your 70-200 but now fixed at 200mm all is revealed? the 200mmf2 has more compression than 200mm from the 70-200mm at 200mm? the lens you want for outdoor headshots? but you just told us how great it worked for you in a coffee shop?
    Am i on an alien planet, or did i really just read some crazy ramblings on the most informative and technically detailed sites around? I must be on dpreviews forum……

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