Canon made the entire photography industry do a double-take when they unveiled their mirrorless 70-200mm f/2.8 flagship lens. (Remember? It was about the size of an iPhone Plus!) Indeed, at first glance, it looked downright bizarre- short and stubby, and (gasp!) the front of the lens extends while zooming!
Some photographers immediately loved the idea of a highly portable, well-balanced 70-200mm f/2.8, while other photographers were horrified that such a beloved flagship workhorse lens wouldn’t zoom internally like literally every other modern 70-200mm flagship lens does.
So, was this a brilliant idea, or a huge mistake? After spending a good long while with it, I still have mixed feelings. There’s definitely a lot to love, (spoiler: it’s a Canon “L” lens; the image quality is flawless!) …but a few major quirks will leave some photographers scratching their heads.
Either way, this lens completes the “holy trinity” of f/2.8 zooms for Canon’s full-frame mirrorless system. Click here for our review of the Canon RF 24-70mm f/2.8 L IS, and, click here for our review of the Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8 L IS. Simply put, all three lenses have unquestionably raised the bar for what modern f/2.8 zooms have to offer.
Unfortunately, due to not being able to take this 70-200 2.8 to any weddings yet this year, (thanks, COVID!) we’ll have to do a review of this Canon 2.8 trinity later this year, or in 2021. We want to see how each lens fares in real working conditions, and on a flagship body such as the forthcoming Canon EOS R5.
With that said, let’s dive into this review! I’m going to tell you exactly why I love this Canon L lens, and then I’ll show you exactly why it also left me a bit frustrated…
Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS Specifications
- FOCAL LENGHT & ANGLE OF VIEW: 70-200mm, 34°-12°
- LENS MOUNT(S): Canon RF full-frame
- APERTURE: f/2.8 to f/32, rounded 9-blade aperture
- STABILIZATION: Yes, Optical, 5 stops
- AUTOFOCUS: Yes, quiet Nano USM, two motors
- MANUAL FOCUS: Yes, electronically controlled, no focus markings
- OPTICAL CONSTRUCTION: 17 elements in 13 groups, Ultra-Low Dispersion element, Super-UD element, 2 aspherical elements, Air Sphere Coating
- MECHANICAL CONSTRUCTION: All-metal barrel, fully weather-sealed
- MAGNIFICATION & FOCUS DISTANCE: 0.23x, 70 cm (2.3″)
- FILTER THREADS & HOOD: 77mm, lockable, reversible hood w/ polarizer window
- SIZE: 146 x 90mm (5.75 x 3.54″)
- WEIGHT: 1.07 kg (2.35 lbs)
- PRICE: $2,699
Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS Review | Who Should Buy It?
As a high-end flagship lens, any photographer who buys this lens is going to be making a serious investment, in a realm where the competition is fierce. (If you use the EF DSLR adapter, that is.)
So, the question is not just which types of photography the lens is good for, (answer: virtually ALL types of photography!) …but, really, which types of photographers could actually benefit from the specific advantages this lens offers, that other 70-200’s don’t?
Weddings are the type of event where a photographer is likely to hand-hold a 70-200 for 8-12+ hours a day. While every wedding photographer has their own style, and some prefer primes, or wider focal lengths, having a 70-200mm f/2.8 in your bag is still an absolute necessity for most.
If you make almost all of your favorite wedding images with a 70-200mm f/2.8, then this one is likely going to be a delight to hand-hold all day long. Oh, and not only are the images gorgeous, but the low-light autofocus speed & accuracy is incredible, too, for those tough wedding reception dance floors.
If your favorite, most-used telephoto wedding lens is actually an 85mm or 135mm lens, though, you might opt to just stick with a cheaper DSLR 70-200mm f/2.8 on an EF-RF adapter, at least for now.
Portrait sessions don’t usually last as long as the average wedding day, however, a full-time portrait photographer might schedule multiple photoshoots in a day. Either way, you’ll likely appreciate the balance of this lens, whether you’re only holding it for 1-2 hours, or 8-12+ hours a day.
Also, I might add, if you’ve worked out a wireless or on-location backup system that allows you to shoot professional work on the ultra-lightweight Canon EOS RP, or the relatively light EOS R, then you’re in for a real treat as a professional portrait photographer; it will feel like you’re not even holding a full-frame setup! Having a smaller setup can also help put shy subjects at ease, too.
Fashion & Editorial Photographers
When hand-holding turns into tripod work, and shooting conditions become highly controlled & static, the image quality becomes one of the only things that matter.
We’ll get to the sample images in a little bit, but suffice it to say, this lens is clearly intended to compete with medium format digital, or the likes of the 61-megapixel Sony A7R IV. We’ll have to wait and see how many megapixels Canon’s future RF-mount bodies have, but judging from the results we’re seeing so far, it’s pretty clear that this lens is ready for the highest-end work you can throw at it.
Candid & Street Photographers
Personally, for candid and street photography, I’d rather have a few tiny primes. Whether your favorite focal length is 70-85mm, or 105-135mm, I feel like candid work is easiest when your camera isn’t an obnoxiously large, intrusive element in the more quiet, genuine moments of life.
I’m excited to see “tiny” lenses like Rokinon/Samyang’s new AF 75mm f/1.8 FE get turned into an AF 75mm f/1.8 RF as soon as possible, and I’m even more excited to see if Canon makes a non-L RF 85mm f/1.8, or a 105mm/135mm f/2 L These lenses could be even more portable than the RF 70-200 2.8!
If you do like zooms for candid & street work, though, this one makes a compelling argument, as it is indeed one of the most unobtrusive 70-200’s out there. (Especially if you leave that enormous hood at home; more on that later.)
Action Sports & Wildlife Photographers
We don’t have a flagship sports mirrorless RF-mount camera from Canon yet, but I can only imagine that an “EOS R1X”, when paired with a lens like this, would be a dream setup for action sports and wildlife photographers.
In the meantime, if the autofocus of the Canon EOS R is already up to the task of whatever type of action photography you do, then you won’t be disappointed with the reliable autofocus and stunning image quality of this lens.
Most landscape photographers spend their time at apertures such as f/8 or f/11, and in my opinion, an f/2.8 zoom is overkill, that is unless you also do low-light photography.
Having said that, how many landscape photographers don’t also love to photograph the occasional wildlife image or nightscape scene? If this sounds like you, then just know that the Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS will give you the sharpest, clearest, most vibrant landscape photos you’ve ever seen.
Only if you shoot nothing but traditional landscapes, and/or if you do a lot of hiking, then maybe you ought to stick with a 70-200mm f/4, or wait to see if Canon makes a mirrorless version that could be even more lightweight and portable. (Or, if weight isn’t a concern, but you do also shoot a lot of wildlife, you might want to see what Canon’s mirrorless 100-400mm eventually looks like, of course!)
Nightscape, Astro, & Timelapse Photographers
If you photograph not just traditional landscapes but also time-lapse photography, especially at sunrise or sunset, then f/2.8 does become a lot more useful for those day-to-night transitions.
Also, if you do general nightscape or astro-landscape photography, or dedicated deep-sky astrophotography, image quality at f/2.8-4 is likely all you care about. Good news: this is one of the best 70-200mm’s we’ve seen at these apertures. See below for our breakdown on things like resolution, vignetting and coma performance.
Videographers & Vloggers
While it would be a bit of a stretch, you could actually mount this lens on one of the larger, more powerful gimbals! Or, of course, on a monopod or a slider, you’ll still enjoy the balance of this lens.
Oh, and if you’re doing more 4K video, or you’re ready to do 8K video when the EOS R5 arrives, then you’ll need one of the sharpest lenses around. See below for image quality samples.
Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS Review | Pros
Here’s the quick-and-dirty overview of all the “Pros” in favor of the Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS: The image quality is incredible in every way. The flagship build quality is top-notch, and Canon’s move to shorten the traditional optical design significantly, although controversial to some, has paid off.
We’ve never seen more similar sharpness test crops from, well, pretty much any lens we’ve tested. From 70mm to 200mm, from the dead-center to the extreme corners, it’s amazingly sharp even at f/2.8. In fact, the extreme corners of this lens, at f/2.8-4, are sharper than most competitors EVER get at any aperture. Need we say more?
Canon is legendary for smooth bokeh, and this lens is no exception. Background blur is gorgeously smooth, and it stays smooth even in the nastiest conditions that portrait etc. photographers ought to avoid.
Colors & Contrast
Again, as with the other RF L-lenses, images out-of-camera are just more beautiful than other lenses. When your raw photos require less fine-tuning in post-production in order to look gorgeous, that’s a huge plus.
Vignetting & Distortion
Vignetting and distortion are pretty minimal, but then again they’re never a huge drawback on a 70-200mm, either. Distortion is perfectly corrected when the in-camera profile is turned on, and vignetting is either beautifully subtle and natural when un-corrected, and virtually nonexistent when corrected.
Sunstars & Flare
Flare is another thing that Canon L lenses handle beautifully, whether your aperture is wide open or stopped down. Sunstars look good at f/11-16.
Color Fringing, Aberration, Coma & Astigmatism
We weren’t able to get this lens out into the wild for any serious astrophotography, however, judging by the sharpness tests we performed in broad daylight, it’s safe to say that things like color fringing or aberration, and coma or astigmatism, are extremely minimal.
Macro & Close-Up Photography
70-200mm lenses aren’t exactly known for being “true macro” lenses, however, at their closest focusing distance, and especially at 200mm, they can create some beautiful close-up images even if they’re not real macro.
The problem is, even the best lenses can be a bit soft at their closest focusing distance, and some lenses will either limit their close-focusing distance to avoid the worst image quality, or they’ll just be unusable until you stop your aperture down to f/5.6 or f/8.
The RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS suffers from neither shortcoming, with one of the shortest close-focusing distances of any 70-200mm at just 70cm, giving it a maximum magnification of 0.23x. (Most other 70-200mm’s are around 0.15x to 0.21x) And, even at this closest focus distance, sharpness at f/2.8 is still impressive, and by f/4 it is just as flawless as more normal focusing distances.
Needless to say, when focusing this close, background blur is just super “creamy”, by the way.
Design & Durability
Okay, moving on from image quality, let’s talk about the physical design, construction, and ergonomics of this lens. It’s a Canon L-class lens, so as you should expect, it’s made of all metal, with extremely smooth operation, and the weather sealing gaskets are the best in the industry.
It’s got all the control switches you might expect from a flagship lens. (Meanwhile, the lightweight competitor on Sony’s E-mount, the Tamron 70-180mm f/2.8, has no switches except a zoom lock switch.)
One design facet that I miss compared to the two most modern third-party flagship alternatives, from Tamron and Sigma, is an Arca-Swiss dovetail tripod collar foot. This is a really nice convenience, though not a necessity. It’s easy enough to just clamp a small Arca plate to the foot of any tripod collar.
The other thing about the physical build that is a huge plus for this RF 70-200mm is its hand-holding balance. The shortness of the lens makes it a wonderful experience when hand-holding, especially at 70mm; you can almost shoot one-handed without wrist fatigue.
Of course, the lens does extend when zooming to 200mm, but the balance doesn’t seem to change much. It becomes more beneficial to add your left hand to support the lens+camera combo, of course.
For virtually everything you would use a 70-200mm for, having powerful, accurate, and quiet autofocus motors is extremely important. Canon delivers the goods in this regard. L-class 70-200mm lenses have always had some of the most snappy, accurate autofocus around, and this lens is no exception.
Unfortunately, I have to wait and see how the lens performs on a flagship sports camera body before I speak about the most demanding autofocus conditions. But, I have every confidence that if Canon’s autofocus technology in their camera bodies can soon match the likes of the Sony a9, (or, their DSLR flagships like the 1DX III) …then this new 70-200mm will be up to the task.
Keep in mind that the “value” of a $2.7K lens is not going to be determined by how many people can afford it, but by how much it has to offer those who can pony up such a large pile of cash. In other words, it’s expensive, but it’s worth it.
In terms of flagship options, it’s a great value to any professional who is doing high-dollar work, and even the hobbyists or part-time pros who simply want a lens that will stand the test of time and deliver the best images possible.
Are there alternatives out there that cost half as much? Yes, absolutely. They certainly offer more than half the performance that this lens does, but no other lens offers nearly as good of a combination of image quality, compact portability, and overall flagship durability.
Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS Review | Cons
While high praise was deserved for the image results from the Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS, we must now discuss the controversial decisions Canon made when designing this lens. Indeed, it is a wild departure from all other (DSLR or mirrorless) 70-200mm f/2.8 designs.
Lens Extends When Zooming
First and foremost, let’s talk about the “con” that I honestly am not bothered by: The fact that this lens extends when zooming doesn’t really bother me, because plenty of other flagship-grade, fully-weather-sealed lenses also extend. Pretty much every 24-70mm f/2.8 that I can think of also extends, and so do a few of the other flagship zooms out there. Some lenses may have fixed filter threads, but have a front element that still zooms, too, and this can create false sense of security because unless you attach a weather-sealed filter to such lenses, they’re much more vulnerable to the elements than you might assume.
Long story short, I’m happier to have such a compact, portable lens that takes up less space in my camera bag.
Zoom Ring Thow Greater Than Past Canon 70-200mms
Here’s something that actually did bother me a little bit. When you first start playing with the RF 70-200, you immediately notice that the zoom “throw” is much greater than previous 70-200mm’s. In fact, as a wedding photographer who has shot many hours with the mk1 and mk2 generation EF 70-200mm f/2.8’s, one of my favorite things about those older lenses was the ability to zoom from 70mm all the way to 200mm almost effortlessly, with an easy push from just my pinky finger as I support the lens with the rest of my left hand.
Not so on the RF 70-200. You have to grab the entire zoom ring and crank it, and even with large hands, it usually requires two turns to get from 70mm to 200mm. I imagine anyone with smaller hands will find it impossible to zoom all the way in or out with the same efficiency as they did their DSLR L-lens.
Is this really a deal-breaker, though? No, not at all, I’m still happy to make this trade-off in exchange for the portability.
Zoom And Focus Rings Switched Position
This is one other thing that isn’t too big of a deal if you can get used to it, but some people really have a hard time wrapping their brains around it.
The focus ring is a relatively small ring, and it’s back where the zoom ring used to be on most DSLR 70-200’s. In fact, if you’re already used to a modern Tamron or Sigma 70-200, of course, then you’ll feel right at home.
Personally, as someone who reviews camera gear for a living, it’s my job to get used to these types of switch-ups as soon as possible. I’ve already spent years reprogramming my brain repeatedly whenever zoom or focus rings rotate in the opposite direction, so my advice is to just get used to it.
Having said that, I don’t think it’s optimal. I think having the focus ring at the front, and the zoom ring back closer to the body, is actually optimal/superior. But, it’s a compromise I’m willing to accept if it means a more portable lens, and better autofocus performance and/or better image quality, for whatever reason.
Lens Hood Is Incredibly Large
This is the one thing that frustrated me the most. The lens hood for this “compact” mirrorless lens is, well, relatively massive. Canon’s 70-200 hoods were always a bit more substantial than, say, Nikon 70-200 hoods, but I liked them that way, and they didn’t take up that much extra space in a camera bag or lens pouch, especially when reversed.
The RF 70-200 hood completely forces you to re-arrange the dividers in your camera bag, and it simply doesn’t fit in most of the belt-mountable lens pouches that were a snug-but-manageable fit for other 70-200’s.
Bottom line- as a wedding photographer who is dropping these lenses into a waist pouch (and then yanking them back out rapid-fire) all day long, I would leave the hood at home. Also, as a landscape photographer or anyone going on hikes or walking long distances with a small-ish backpack, I’d also be inclined to leave the hood at home.
This is a bit disappointing to me, because I like to use hoods religiously for not just flare protection but also just as a general damage/impact protection since hoods actually do a lot better job of that than UV filters.
Control Ring Not In Same Place As Other RF Lenses
Last but not least, anyone who has held one or two Canon RF mirrorless lenses will notice that the “command ring” or control ring on the lens is always at the very front of the lens. The only other lens with its command ring at the back is the superzoom RF 24-240mm f/4-6.3 L IS, and of course there’s the EF-RF adapter that has a command ring on it, giving any EF lens a command ring in that same rearmost location.
Bottom line- it’s just a little annoying to have to switch back and forth between this 70-200 and the other two in the holy trinity, the 24-70 2.8 and 15-35 2.8, which have both their command ring and their focus/zoom rings in the opposite configuration. However, it’s not that big a deal, and in my opinion, it’s good to keep your brain flexible, and learn to quickly change your muscle memory.
Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS Review | Compared To The Competition
So, to recap, the “cons” are minor ergonomic quirks, and the “pros” are, basically, that this lens is otherwise perfect. What competing lens could offer the same level of perfection, and yet not have any ergonomic quirks? Well, at present, there’s a grand total of ZERO other mirrorless RF lenses that natively mount to a camera body. So, right off the bat, you’ll have to use the EF-RF adapter with either a Canon EF lens, or a third-party alternative.
If you already have, say, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS mk2, which has been a classic workhorse lens for many serious and pro photographers, then you might be disinclined to spend $2700 on an upgrade. Canon EF lenses work perfectly smoothly on the EF-RF adapter, and you can get the adapter the command ring if you’d like to enjoy that perk of the new mirrorless platform.
Really, the only reason(s) to upgrade from a previous Canon EF 70-200 2.8 would be if you absolutely want the portability, and/or the improved corner sharpness. Otherwise, just keep shooting with your tried-and-true Canon L lens, it was built to last forever, so go ahead and let it do its job for as long as you want!
On the other hand, let’s say you have a Sigma or Tamron 70-200mm, and are switching from your Canon DSLR to mirrorless. Unfortunately, there have been a few compatibility issues with third-party lenses, and there’s always a chance for issues when new systems and new bodies are released. Tamron and Sigma do work hard to resolve these problems, and eventually, things work smoothly, but you never know what major Canon firmware update might cause another bug.
Long story short, to get the best mirrorless experience out of your Canon mirrorless body, you’ll want to start saving up for a Canon mirrorless lens. You might be better off waiting for a Canon RF 70-200mm f/4 LIS, or an RF 70-300mm, if you shoot more in broad daylight than indoor or low light conditions, but either way, native is best.
This might change in a year (or three) when Tamron, Sigma, and other companies get better at reverse-engineering the RF mount and making fully compatible lenses with as few bugs as possible. I could see Tamron’s new Sony E-mount 70-180mm f/2.8 FE being a perfect low-budget alternative to such a high-end, exotic lens as the Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8.
Either way, the Canon RF stands above all the competition so far, setting the bar for mirrorless flagship lenses. We could talk about other systems too, but the reality is that if you’re already shooting Sony, you’re probably not going to switch systems just for this lens unless you REALLY want the portability. (Sony’s own 70-200mm f/2.8 GM is great, but already showing its age a little bit by comparison, and who knows, maybe Sony has a mk2 up their sleeves already!) Nikon, on the other hand, also has an exotic mirrorless Z-mount 70-200mm f/2.8 coming, and it’s probably just as incredible as this Canon, but again you’re unlikely to “jump ship” for this reason alone.
Having said that, after experiencing the oddity that is this lens, I will say that I doubt other flagship lenses will ever adopt this same compact design. So, if you want it, Canon will likely be the only choice.
Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS Review | Conclusion
At $2,699 this is one of the most expensive 70-200mm’s on the market. It earns its keep, however, by delivering truly stunning image quality that “destroys” not only the current competition, but its own legendary predecessor of the DSLR world. The RF 70-200’s image quality is not just about resolving power (that we can only assume is ready for a 50-60+ megapixel sensor), but also the gorgeous colors, contrast, and bokeh that Canon L glass has been known for.
If the 70-200mm lens is already your favorite focal ranges, and you’re either curious about or already jumping to Canon mirrorless, then start saving up for this lens. It is very likely that the annoyances are worth the overall experience and end results.
Canon might have an even more portable RF 70-200mm f/4 L IS up their sleeve, of course for those who don’t need f/2.8, or an RF 70-300mm L (or non-L), which also might be better suited to your type of photography. Then again, it may be a few years before we see any of those lenses. Either way, if you’re a wedding or portrait photographer though, or any type of photographer where low-light and/or shallow depth is/are important, then just make this investment!
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