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
  • mrvco

    short-termwiferentals.com!

  • Michael Clark

    Possibilities that have been long suggested:

    Pretty Expensive
    Physical Education (the class you’ll need to ace to be able to handle it)
    Physically Enormous
    Prototype EF

    Almost all known PE lenses were originally sold to clandestine agencies of various governments. A few were sold to military and slightly less exotic law enforcement agencies.

    To the best of my knowledge, which has been extremely limited with regard to PE lenses since a new job I got in the 1990s didn’t require a security clearance like the one I had before that did, Canon does not officially acknowledge or document their existence publically.

    That’s all I’m going to say about that.

  • Michael Clark

    The way most Canon cameras [everything from around 2005 to at least through the 7D Mark II at the end of 2014,. The new 80D sensor may be different] handle the 1/3 stop ISO settings makes the +1/3 settings (125, 250, 500, 1000, 2000, etc.) noisier than full stop and even -1/3 stop settings that are quite a bit higher.

    Basically the sensor stays at the nearest full ISO setting. If the camera is computing exposure based on metering it “pulls” exposure 1/3 stop for the +1/3 settings and “pushes” exposure 1/3 stop for the -1/3 stop settings. The raw files include instructions to “push” exposure 1/3 stop for the +1/3 stop settings when converting the raw to a raster format and to “pull” exposure 1/3 stop for the -1/3 stop settings when converting them. Even when shooting in manual exposure mode the meter will be biased by the 1/3 stop either way. If the meter shows proper exposure at ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/250, it will show exposure as 1/3 stop too bright for ISO 250, f/5.6, 1/250 when metering the exact same scene, even though the sensor amplification and ADC will be identical.

    The net effect is that the +1/3 stop ISO settings have the same effect as exposing to the left 1/3 stop. When exposure is pushed in raw conversion, the noise floor is raised 1/3 stop as well. The -1/3 stop ISO settings have the same effect as exposing to the right 1/3 stop. When the exposure is pulled in raw conversion the noise floor is lowered. Both the +1/3 and -1/3 settings come at the expense of 1/3 stop dynamic range. You lose it on the top end when “pushing” development for the +1/3 setting, you lose it on the bottom end when you “pull” the development of the -1/3 stop settings.

    In good, controlled studio lighting you’ll probably not notice unless you are killing the ambient or doing other types of low key work. In low existing ambient light, though, ISO 125 can be noisier than ISO 1250! ISO 1000 is about the same as ISO 3200!

  • Miguel Trujillo

    If you take my wife for a joy ride, please don’t bring her back.

  • I like the 300/2.8 too, and often can’t decided which one to pick LOL. The Canon 200/2 is one of the oldest “big whites” on the market along with the 800/5.6. The Nikon 200/2 VR II is newer/better I think.

  • shooter2jim

    I’d ship it insured for $6k and hope they lost it so I could get a 2.0. Why would someone want to hold on to “ancient” technology that can’t be repaired, all for the sake of 1/3 of an f-stop and octagonal bokeh balls? The 2.0 is superior in every way and won’t leave you with a $6000 paperweight when something malfunctions.

  • Jan Madsen

    I have a really nice sample (1996, hardly used), and concur with the article. It is really sharp, and the AF is very good. Scared about the fact that it someday may malfunction – somebody hopefully will be willing/able to service it. But I don’t use it much, that 3kg (+ hood!) is really annoying when walking around. Test on OLAF: Yes!

  • ChainedToTheWheel

    “Pretty Expensive”

  • jrconner

    A fascinating lens and report. A third of a stop is of little practical difference, but of great advertising value. The lens was designed when films, then sensors, were slow compared to today’s high ISO cameras. With today’s fast cameras, a 200mm f/2 is more than fast enough for shooting action in dim light, and the focal length is more than adequate on an APS-C camera. Indeed, the focal length seems odd only when not viewed in historical context: the 200mm has a long and honorable record of useful service.

    That said, I hope that Roger, et al, can put the Canon f/1.8 on his test bench and compare it to the contemporary f/2.

  • whereisaki

    And you can bet United Airlines gave that gorilla a bonus.

  • darylcheshire

    I have the 50mm f/1.2L lens and I was fascinated to read about the 50mm f/1.0L.
    I understand there were back focus issues and perhaps the razor thin DoF not being fully understood.
    Plus it doesn’t have all the modern coatings. Maybe it had lead glass too, I think it was discontinued in 2006 or so.

  • Øystein Søreide

    It might be fun for someone.

  • Carleton Foxx

    And there you have the difference between the American sense of humor and the rest of the world.
    Here in America it is considered humorous and somewhat acceptable if you can get away with a small crime as long as no one is hurt or actually loses their property. So for instance, teenagers here in the US once thought it was hilarious to steal a car, drive it around for a while and then return it to the exact same spot so that the owner never knew it was missing. In a work setting, the office jokester will play similar pranks with staplers and other small work tools.
    So the thought behind my humor was that it would be funny if someone borrowed the lens for an hour or two while it was in the baggage transfer labyrinth, shoot some photos and then sneak it back in before anyone notices, with print of the photos taken neatly tucked inside the case.
    Obviously not as funny as I thought it would be, but now you know a little more about how the American mind works.

  • Øystein Søreide

    Steal it? Seriously, almost noone know about the lens in the first place. And secondly I really believe that most that do know about it are more kind than you. I would never lend any lens from anyone without the owners permission.

  • Carleton Foxx

    I meant that someone would probably steal it along the way because it is so rare and desirable.
    I personally would have a hard time resisting the temptation to swipe this lens—but I would only take it on a joy ride and then bring it right back.

  • Arthur Meursault

    That’s pretty sharp esp for 1000 – f2 @ 200mm is some very shallow DOF. I sometimes shoot the 300mm 2.8 Nikon for portraits and get similar results. Getting both iris reflections in critical focus isn’t a priority for me as it requires both to be in the same focal plane which is rare with toddlers.

    Bottom line, I am not impressed with the Canon 200mm 1.8 or Zach’s definition of ‘sharp’. I know that the Nikon 70-200 VRii, the 200mm f4 and f2, the FL 70-200, the 300 2.8 VRii can all do significantly better than this old Canon lens. Clearly, your 200mm f2 can also.

  • It’s ISO 1000, some detail is lost, but the sharpness is still there. The DoF is ~2mm at best. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/cdb60d1730655b0bb4f40f6f0ad052a7c4b74aacbda1c18eadb262d78f753b41.jpg

  • It’s ISO 1000, some detail is lost, but the sharpness is still there. The DoF is ~2mm at best.

  • Click on the photo, a full size image is available on Flickr. It’s not about sharpness, it’s about getting both eyes in focus 🙂 This picture is a composition of two. While the left eye (which I aimed for) was perfectly in focus, the right eye was completely off. I always shoot in bursts, and luckily had another frame with the right eye in focus. All I’m trying to say is shooting this lens wide open close to your subject is as hard as the 85/1.2, maybe even harder – the DoF is tiny and proper focusing is critical. Unlikely Zach would be able to get full lashes in focus.

  • kirill krylov

    my 200/1.8L worked with x1.4 converter quite well with I ds mkIII.
    but I am agree with all other Your’s point.

  • Claudia Muster

    I think Roger only does Olaf tests when he has at least 10 copies?

  • teila

    Irrespective of why someone may or may not buy the faster lens has nothing to do with whether or not an f/4 lens yields the same results. “Results” are important both in the form of utility (lack of hunting, focus speed, lens features, etc.) and image quality / rendering. Whether those results in the form of utility and or the final image rendering between the faster and slower lens is worthy of spending over $5k for the faster lens is an entirely different topic and has nothing to do with your false statement.

    Please don’t speak for others based on your experience in photography. The fact of the matter is that many photographers who shoot everything from portraits to fashion/glamour indoors have realized that using a faster lens can greatly minimize hunting whether the lens is a 17-35 f/2.8 or 500mm f/4. I find it inefficient and embarrassing to stand in front of clients with a 120mm f/4 lens loudly whirring back and forth hunting focus (I quickly resort to man. focus). Using a modeling light isn’t always practical and in most of the *same cases*, using a much pricier $4k, 90mm f/2.8 lens eliminated hunting and provides a markedly brighter viewfinder than the slower lenses. The same between using a 70-200 f/2.8 vs. the f/4 version in many cases…. and is why a significant number of photographers and myself, buy faster glass by default.

  • Arthur Meursault

    Granted – focus is slightly off in my photo as it should be on the iris and not the lashes. But still, I don’t see any lash definition in Zachs photos.

  • Arthur Meursault

    Post a 100% crop of the eyes. No one can tell anything from a tiny little photo.

  • Phil Aynsley

    The other unique point with the EF200f1.8L is that it was the only EF lens that became available as a NFD lens as well, the year following the EF’s release. Apart from the different mount that meant the diaphragm had to be mechanically actuated, the focus was mechanical etc. The number of those built would be really low!

  • Profoto

    I had the EF 200/1,8L for a few years, but changed to the, in my view, more usefull EF 200/2L IS.

    There are a few things about then 200/1,8L I want to point out:

    – It was discontinued around 2006 due to a ban on products with lead. The lens elements contains lead.
    – It stopped being produced in 1998 along with the other non-IS supertelelephoto lenses. (Source: Canon Europe). They had large amounts in stock due to low sales.
    – The minimum focusing distance is 2,5 meter and can be a challange when taking portraits
    – I don’t fint the 200/1,8L to be well balanced at all. It’s front heavy just like the Nikon 200/2 VR and therefore the tripod mount is placed on the front. The 200/2L IS is much easier to handheld. This is of course subjective.
    – The FDn-version, FD 200/1,8L, is much more rare than the EF-version.
    – The 200/1,8 do not perform well with teleconverters

  • Øystein Søreide

    They are professional lens. And they ship nicely. The can take a beating and still live well.

  • The DoF is just too shallow. Otherwise it’s quite sharp.
    I shoot the f/2 version and it’s pretty much impossible to get both eyes in focus @ portrait distance wide open.
    https://flic.kr/p/Xm5c4v

  • No idea what the PE stands for, but it has AF and has an EF mount on it–fourth sentence in.

  • MEJazz

    I am sure one does not buy a $5000 lens (200 f2) over a $650 one (200 f2.8) to use it at f4 just because the “look” from it is different or because the camera can’t autofocus at f/2.8 and NEEDS f/2 for AF to work.

    When you pay like 10x times the price of a lens to go from f/2.8 to f/2 is to shoot at f/2. I know cause i leave my 50/1.2 at 1.2 all the time, or else I’ll just use 50/1.4 if I’ve to shoot at f/2.8 or smaller.

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