Equipment

Canon’s Holy Grail – Using the Canon 200mm f/1.8 L USM

Certainly, you’re probably aware of Canon’s 85mm f/1.2L, and the Canon 50mm f/1.2L, but Canon has a long history of incredibly fast lenses, many of which that have since seemingly disappeared off of the face of the Earth. Many of them are now called the Holy Grails of Canon Glass and for legitimate reasons. Among those ‘Holy Grails’ are the likes of the Canon 50mm f/1.0, the Canon 300mm f/1.8L, the 1200mm f/5.6L, and of course, what we have here… the Canon 200mm f/1.8L.

Canon 200mm f/1.8L Lens

For those of you who have been long-time readers of this blog, you may know that both Roger and I share the same appreciation for the Canon 200mm f/2L IS, with both of us probably naming it our favorite lenses when asked. But back from 1988 til 2004, Canon made an even faster 200mm lens. At an incredible f/1.8, there were only approximately 8,000 units produced in its 16-year run. And with many of them assumed destroyed or lost, many people estimate that just a few hundred of these lenses exist.

So when I got word that my friend and event photographer Air Butchie had one of these monsters, I had to get my hands on it and compare it to the beloved Canon 200mm f/2L.

Build Quality

To start with the comparison, it’s always most natural to look at them cosmetically. One thing you may notice is that it shares the same size and shape of the Canon 200mm f/2L for the most part, appearing only slightly larger at the front element of the lens. And the build quality is exactly what you’d expect from a premium L series lenses. As you can probably see, the Canon 200mm f/1.8L is beaten up, but still works as if it were brand new. As for comparing it to the Canon 200mm f/2L, both share the beefy size and weight. At 6.6 lbs (3,010g) without the half-pound lens hood, the Canon 200mm f/1.8L is well balanced but will give your arms a workout in handheld situations. However, with the Canon 200mm f/2L at 5.6lbs (6.2lbs with the hood), the older f/1.8L version doesn’t feel much more substantial at all.

Canon 200mm f/1.8L Comparison to Canon 200mm f/2L

Canon 200mm f/1.8L Comparison to the Canon 200mm f/2L

Canon 200mm f/1.8L Comparison to Canon 200mm f/2L

Canon 200mm f/1.8L Comparison to the Canon 200mm f/2L (Hood Attached)

The biggest significant difference between the Canon 200mm f/1.8L and the Canon 200mm f/2L comes with the focusing system. Using a focus-by-wire system, the Canon 200mm f/1.8L shares the same focusing ideology as the Canon 85mm f/1.2L (and a few others) where manual focusing can only be done when the camera is powered on and switched to manual. However, to counteract this unique focusing design, the lens also has a switch, allowing you to adjust your manual focusing speeds from the precision mode, to normal, and even a fast pace mode – for fast moving objects. All this aside, the autofocus system seems to be every bit as fast as the Canon 200mm f/2, and I’ve had very little issue with accuracy, even at f/1.8 (and while handholding; which is impressive).

Canon 200mm f/1.8L Review and Comparison

Switches on the side of the Canon 200mm f/1.8L

There is no doubt why this lens has the nickname ‘The Eye of Sauron’. A Hobbit/Lord of the Rings reference, The Eye of Sauron is a symbol of the antagonists’ quasi-omnipotent power and a thing to both fear and respect. The Canon 200mm f/1.8L earns this name for not only its massive front element and legendary sharpness but also its extreme rarity within the modern world. Additionally, the lens holds some manifested danger; built originally in 1988, its creation is before Canon introduced a lead-free policy. At that time, Canon had introduced lead in their grinding process for the optics, so opening a lens like this up might increase your likeliness of lead poison. See, it even shares some of the same danger as Sauron as well.

Image Quality

If I were to describe this next section in a single word, it’d be incredible. With my limited use of the Canon 200mm f/1.8L, it shows absolutely no signs of age. The autofocus is accurate and zippy, and the lens shows no signs of optic issues, despite the fact that it’s beaten up outer shell (which you may be able to see above) shows it’s age and use. Checking the date code of the copy of the Canon 200mm f/1.8L I have access to, it shows it was built in Japan in 1992. With it being impossible to service over the last 13 years, and the prolonged use it gets from its owner, I’m quite surprised that I’ve faced absolutely zero back or front focusing issues. 

Canon 200mm f/1.8L Example Photo

Photo taken with the Canon 200mm f/1.8L at f/1.8 (Handheld)

Canon 200mm f/1.8L Example Photo

100% Crop of Photo Above (Shot using Canon 5DS (Click to Enlarge))

Sharpness is something I can’t really describe in a single adjective, but rather, you need to use a Canon 200mm f/2L IS for yourself to understand how incredibly sharp this lens is. There is a reason why so many people often argue that the Canon 200mm f/2L IS is the sharpest lens in the Canon lineup, and while using the Canon 200mm f/1.8L, I’ve found where Canon got its sharpness inspiration from. While the f/1.8L version might not be able to match the incredible sharpness of the newer f/2 version, it does put up quite a fight and looks every bit as sharp when using 100% crops. We’re hoping to be able to ship this f/1.8L version out to Roger in Memphis so that he can give it his proper Olaf MTF testings if there is enough interest for it. So if you want to see how it holds up to his tedious testing, be sure to leave a note in the comments below.

Canon 200mm f/1.8L Example Photo

Photo was taken with Canon 5DS and Canon 200mm f/1.8L at f/4. Actor headshot for Michelle Alexander.

Canon 200mm f/1.8L Example Photo

Photo was taken with Canon 5DS and Canon 200mm f/1.8L at f/4. Actor headshot for Michelle Alexander.

So Why Was It Discontinued?

This is the age old question that seems to leave everyone scratching their heads. This lens, among a few listed in the intro, is considered one of the holy grails of Canon glass; so why did Canon decide to discontinue it and replace it with a slower version? Well, one culprit seems to be sales. From its introduction in 1988, until its retirement in 2004, the Canon 200mm f/1.8L only saw 8,000 sales. And the slow sales have plenty of its contributing factors. For one, 200mm is a strange focal length. A bit on the long side for portrait photography, and short on the sports photography side, 200mm is limited to indoor sports and is a bit of a black sheep in many of the sport telephoto scenes. Especially when you consider that in its retirement year of 2004, 5-megapixel sensors were considered the cutting edge of technology, so cropping while maintaining a high-resolution image was not yet possible. So for it being replaced with the f/2 version, there are several contributing factors. For one, is f/1.8 really needed on a 200mm lens? Bokeh snobs would argue that of course it’s required, but it doesn’t serve much need, which is why we see Canon replacing their f/1.2 lenses with f/1.4 lenses.

Canon 200mm f/1.8L Image Example

Shot using the Canon 5DS with the Canon 200mm f/1.8L at f/3.5

Another thing to note is that while this lens was retired in 2004, its replacement with the Canon 200mm f/2L wasn’t introduced until four years later in 2008. With a new autofocus system and image stabilization, the Canon 200mm f/2L IS proved to be the better option for photographers obsessing over the 200mm focal length. Along with limited sales, many also believe that the culprit for the four years without a wide apertured 200mm comes with Canon needing to uphold their environmentally-conscious agreement to remove lead from their lens manufacturing process.

Conclusion

For a full week, I had both the Canon 200mm f/2L and the Canon 200mm f/1.8L in my arsenal, and time and time again, I chose the f/1.8 version to be mounted to my system. Was it better? Probably not, but I just seemed to have more appreciation for the f/1.8L version. This has plenty of contributing factors, and possibly all lead back to my ego and knowing I’m shooting with a lens that is far rarer than its counterpart. But even ego aside, I saw no disadvantage to using the Canon 200mm f/1.8L and saw the incredible sharpness that made me fall in love with the Canon 200mm f/2 during my first ventures into this prime focal length. That said, this is all a pipe dream. With only a few hundred of these lenses still in existence, and the inability to get them serviced and repaired if damaged, one can only assume that finding one of these will only become more and more difficult as time goes on, and those prices will continue to creep up as a result. That said, Canon has done an incredible job with the Canon 200mmf/2L, a lens still being manufactured and is just as beloved as it’s older, and slightly faster brother.

 

Special thanks again to my friend and esteemed photographer Air Butchie for handing off his Canon 200mm f/1.8L to me to use and test. For even more photos with the Canon 200mm f/1.8L, be sure to follow my Instagram as I release images as they’re retouched.

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
  • Gosh1

    Same observation- accepting very shallow DoF of these superfast lenses – these shots with 200 f1.8 are not sharp.
    I have the current model of both the 200 f2G and 300 f2.8G Nikkors – both exhibit remarkable acuity fully open. So does the updated 70-200 f2.8E FL. Would like to see comparisons to these top Nikkors, and also Nikon’s new 105 f1.4E

  • John Robert Williams

    Interesting article, Zach. Your story states the EF200 1.8 build dates as ‘1988-2004’, and a contributor below mentioned that there were two types of 200 1.8’s built….this review is on the first series, the one I’ve owned since new is a series 2 with the flat front glass. The build date shows it left the factory in May 2006. (UM0550) and a serial # 17505. Who knows? I may have the last one built. Good news to those that own or have a broken 200 1.8, Mr. Eddie Houston in Scotland (The Lens Doctor) can repair the EF200 1.8’s if needed. http://www.thelensdoctor.co.uk/page18.html A point that may have been missed on the EF200 1.8, is that it indeed had leaded elements. Canon, and all of the top lens makers knew that leaded glass dropped the refractive index and raised the contrast of the lens. As a result, the 200 1.8 (type 2) has a resolving power and contrast that makes every other lens seem foggy and veiled. I have the EF135 f2 and the EF85 f1.2II and both of those lenses seen hazy and foggy compared to the rendition of my EF200 1.8. I have used the lens daily in the studio and on location. It has no performance loss in focus speed or accuracy using the EF 2XII. Compared to the sample images in this article, my lens is WAAAAY sharper. Attached is a 100% crop, subject 15′ from the camera, made with my 1Dx. Roger, if you want to test my EF200 1.8 type 2, here it is…….. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/697b6611db4a65e8761d9b48523ebb0131d8ad9a8e2067ba6c2e0de1c0eae6f8.jpg

  • Adam Fo

    Nikon made a 300 f2 AI and later AIS. A large expensive lens most of which have ended up converted for the film industry.

  • Adam Fo

    Most of the FD 200 f1.8 L had their backs chopped off and converted for use in film industry rental houses.

  • Peter Kelly

    Focus and recompose works least well with fast lenses wide open.

    As you move the plane of focus tilts and is then out for the important part. That’s why pros regard the joystick moving focus spot after composition as so important.

    I suspect what you recommend could well have been used in these examples, highlighting the difficulty and the mistake.

  • Weed Man West Vancouver (BC)

    By all means, give it a Olaf MTF test.

    One thing to pay attention to is that TWO versions of this lens exist. The one you had is the first version, it has a curved front element and the coatings tend to look yellow/orangey. The second version has a FLAT front element and its coating look green and bluish. The front element is actually a coated optical window made to protect the first UD element behind it.

  • Weed Man West Vancouver (BC)

    Which is why you use the single AF pip to focus on the eyes, recompose then make your exposure

  • Weed Man West Vancouver (BC)

    That is an interesting project. I liked the SuperWasp one. Do you have any links to websites about it?

  • Weed Man West Vancouver (BC)

    You forgot the small tripod foot it has, easily fixed with a Really Right Stuff one, along with a LensCoat. https://imgur.com/a/iMLbw

  • Weed Man West Vancouver (BC)

    Canons lenses are as well made as virtually anyone except possibly Zeiss or Leica. I first tries this lens at an open house at an optical company. Even with a mere Canon 40D handheld, I could see his fine hairs on his nose from across the room at 1/15 second. I found a 2nd hand one being sold by an senior who bought it thinking it weighed 3.6 POUNDS not Kilograms, and found it too heavy to use much. Otherwise I would have needed to buy a beater released by a news agency.

    I also found a pair of NOS focus motors on eBay around the same time for $750 each, so I have a way to repair the most common fault this lens has.

    I do use it often and people ask to look through it and I seldom allow it as you really can’t discern much this way. I will mount their camera and take a photo or two but this is a problematic thing to do, as this is how I came to own mine.

  • Adam Sanford

    Zach, the 85mm f/1.4L IS is not a replacement for the 85 f/1.2L II. Those will continue to be sold alongside one another.

  • WKYA_Radio

    LOLOL

    I thought the writer must be nuts or something…that eye is way off.

    Maybe it’s just..uh, subjective?

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