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
  • Uneternal

    “…absolutely zero back or front focusing issues.”
    Very next picture: Focus on the hair instead of the eyes.

  • Zachary Reiss-Davis

    To the credit of everyone who works at Lensrentals, I’ve rented much smaller dollar value packages from you that effectively arrived in bomb-proof packaging.

    Heck, this custom pelican case has a Fujifilm X-T20 and two lenses in it; probably MSRP $2500 total, and felt pretty bomb-proof when it arrived a couple of weeks ago!
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/564f60ca4cf5bfcbcab734fc105d532db4f6a2a56eec649dba90a2fd10e3055b.jpg

  • teila

    (1) A significant number of people who regularly use the 200/f2 shoot it wide open most of the time.

    (2) Depending on the lens, it may or may not give you the same colour/quality results of the 200 f/2 even at the same aperture. I can’t attest to the 200 f/2.8, but I am familiar with the 200 f/2. A 100mm Zeiss macro doesn’t look like the same from Canon or Nikon irrespective of what aperture you’re using… and all of them great lenses.

    (3) Even though you have your aperture *set* at f/4…. the camera focuses with the lens wide open first and the difference between f/2 and f/2.8 is more than just academic.

  • David Williams

    Dang,…i’m not even sorry i was wrong, a little embarrassed…however this is not an EF lens or even F lens. PE? interesting.

  • Liam Kelley
  • Arthur Meursault

    No loss if this lens gets the usual treatment from Spirit Airlines.

  • Arthur Meursault

    THESE PHOTOS AREN’T SHARP!!! Not even close. Especially considering it’s a 200mm lens.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/af797f1db29f0e3256497b5e3ac375a70e71fd151bc09528c991bf4070f5c641.jpg

  • David Williams

    The very 1st paragraph is wrong, there was never a Canon 300 F1.8. It would be as big as a car.

    So they added faster AF, sharper glass, and massive weight reduction for only a 1/3rd of a stop. I owned the 200 F2.0 and it was miles ahead of this old tank….but it really didn’t set my work apart like the 300 f2.8 L IS USM did. That one was in an entirely different realm.

    Maybe the got rid of the 50mm f1.0 cause it sucked as much as the current 85 f1.2 does now.

    I’m a die hard Canon fan, but those lenses are junk…ok maybe not the 200 f1.8 but the F2.0 version far make up for it’s 1/3-stop handicap, especially since cameras are so much cleaner than film ever was, so just boost the ISO one click.

  • MEJazz

    So what’s the point of a 1.8 lens if you shoot at f4? Even the prime-pipe (200/2.8L) would get you exactly same results at f4

  • David B

    This is my dream lens. Something tells me
    There are more than few hundred left because I see a number of them owned by people all over the world. Also their used prices are much much cheaper than f2 version. By the way Sony photographer Jason Lanier uses it on Sony A7r2 and despite its age the af speed with adapter is perfectly fine and you get a benefit of IBIS with a Sony on this lens.

    Please have Roger do the test. I will get this lens one day…

  • I used to have one of those between 1994 and 2007 and very much regret selling it along with all my other heavy Canon gear. It was in perfect optical condition, since the 200mmF1.8 saw much less action than my 400mmF2.8 and 300mmF2.8. Today, I would love to use it on my Fuji GFX with a Techart EF adapter. The results (not sports photography, but portraits) would be just magical.

  • Peter Kelly

    Although the sharpness is praised to the rafters, the first shot illustrates perfectly why there is very limited use for such a lens (apart from the weight, price, and health reasons!).

    For while the tip of the model’s nose is in perfect focus, her eyes are dreadfully soft, and therein is the difficulty with all ‘extreme fast’ lenses: nailing focus becomes very difficult and demanding of the camera.

    Given the autofocus abilities of cameras from the same era (the modern 5DS fails here!), it’s little surprise that this lens never would have fully served its purpose and was discontinued. After all, why pay so much for a lens to use its maximum aperture, but have an appalling ‘keeper’ rate?

  • Seconded on OLAF, if there’s time. I know it’s only one copy and there are hazzards with that, but still…

  • Mike

    Ha! I worked on a web series pilot with Michelle in Toronto. It’s fun to see her show up here. 🙂

  • MrPeabody

    That’s good to hear. I want to use ISO100 equivalent with my Nikon D700 that has a base ISO of 200 and I was wondering if image quality would be affected. Even if contrast is affected a bit, it’s something that can be easily adjusted in post-processing.

  • asad137

    I worked on a stratospheric balloon project where we used 200mm f/1.8Ls as the lenses for our star-tracking cameras (they were mounted on Redlake scientific CCD cameras and placed inside a pressurized canister for high altitude use). And then we stopped them down to f/4 to get uniform PSFs across the frame! I sadly never got the chance to put one of them on my 60D…

    Oh, and definitely YES to measuring on OLAF and comparing to the f/2L IS!

  • I did, though they weren’t the most flattering shots of Michelle, and the difference at that point was pretty minimal, simply because of the large distance from the subject and the background

  • Yeah, I think that is true….though I’m not 100% sure. I’ve heard rumors of people claiming that you lose contrast when you shoot at ISO 50, since it is a digital representation of 50…but I’ve done independent tests and have seen no changes in the contrast or color between the two.

  • Brian F Leighty

    Isn’t iso 50 not a real iso? I thought I’d read the camera just takes the raw image and halves the levels. Can you confirm? I’d like to shoot at 50 but I don’t for that reason

  • They were pricey, but similar to the 300 f/2.8 of the day, which is about where they are now. Interestingly, when these could be bought fairly easily used, the biggest source was wedding photographers, especially in South Korea and other areas in Asia. It was, for a while, apparently the “Badge of Professional Wedding Photographer” in some areas.

  • David Alexander

    Did you take any comparison shots of the same subject at f/1.8 and f/2?

  • Zak McKracken

    One piece of information I’m missing (and which I think may play a crucial role in the story of why Canon only sold 8000 of these lenses): What did they used to cost, compared to the 200 f/2 IS?

  • Christopher J. May

    It would be interesting to see how it stacks up in testing. Back in the days when Photodo was the place everyone went to get their numbers to argue about the supremacy of their lenses, the 200mm f1.8L was the king of them all, clocking in at a 4.8 (whatever that means). It gave Canon shooters the world over something to quote to Leica and Zeiss aficionados (who could only muster 4.6’s, IIRC).

    It would be nice to see some metrics from Roger that actually mean something, though.

  • Yes, please have Roger measure it on OLAF!

  • A lot of my work is actually shot at ISO 50. I use a lot of lighting on location, so high ISO isn’t my priority, but rather low ISO. Anything that can help cut down the power of the sun is always helpful.

  • Hahah. I’m actually flying from LA to NYC tomorrow, and the owner of the lens said I’m more than welcomed to take it with me to NYC. I’m not going to though, cause I’d be terrified the entire time. If it was shipped out to Roger for MTF testing, you can be it’ll be sent in a nearly bombproof case to make sure it arrives unharmed.

  • Carleton Foxx

    By the bye, when you shoot headshots are you always at base ISO?

  • Carleton Foxx

    How DARE you even THINK of shipping this lens?????!!!!! You might as well just throw it off the Santa Monica Pier. It must be hand carried in one of those briefcases handcuffed to your wrist. I don’t even know if I’d trust flying in an airplane (they have been known to crash). It would be much safer traveling in an all-steel, impenetrable four-wheel vault like a ’67 Plymouth Belvedere.

  • You’re a lucky person then. These 200mm f/1.8L are getting harder and harder to find out in the wild.

  • MM

    Have one of these gorgeous lenses….images are stunning & unique…..will use it til it dies……

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