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Canon 70-300mm IS
© 2006 KenRockwell.com

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Canon 70-300mm IS

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM. enlarge

I'd get mine here, here or here. It helps me publish this site when you get yours from these links, too.

More Canon reviews

February 2007

INTRODUCTION

Top   Specs   Performance   Recommendations

In a Nutshell

I love this lens. I prefer it to the twice-as-expensive Canon 70-300mm DO IS.

When I first picked it up I thought it was a toy - but when I saw the great heavyweight image quality, the toy-like lightness became a huge benefit.

When I first felt it I wasn't impressed: it feels flimsy and light, and the zoom on the worn one I borrowed flops out to 300mm any time you point it down. Worse, the focus ring moves as it autofocuses, so if you touch it bad things happen. There is no focus distance scale. You have to move a switch to move between auto and manual focus, a primitive throwback to the 1980s.

In actual use it's wonderful! AF is fast and accurate, zooming is linear and precise, Image Stabilization relegates my tripod to permanent residence in my trunk, and it's very sharp all over. What feels like a toy in a store translates to easy to carry all day, making it a joy to have with me.

I borrowed one of these, and I'd probably have bought one for myself except that I got a Canon 70-200mm f/4 L IS in July 2007 while it was on $75 rebate instead. I'm a sucker for a deal. If I was on a budget, I would have gotten this Canon 70-300mm instead; in fact, having 300mm is so nice I may still get one of these for myself, too. Image quality is first rate with this lens.

Good News:

1.) Great optics.

2.) Light weight.

3.) Great image stabilization.

4.) Long zoom range.

5.) Fast autofocus.

6.) Easy to zoom precisely.

7.) Resistant to flare and ghosts.

8.) Most importantly, I consistently get excellent images with the Canon 70-300mm IS lens in all conditions. Not every lens works this well in real-life shooting.

Bad News:

1.) Floppy zoom slides back and forth from 70mm to 300mm and back when pointed up or down. Use the zoom lock if you want to hold it at 70mm.

2.) Needs to have a switch thrown for manual focus.

3.) Focus ring turns during autofocus!

4.) No focus distance scale.

SPECIFICATIONS

Top    Introduction   Performance   Recommendations

Name: Canon calls this the CANON ZOOM LENS EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM.

   EF: Electronic Focus. All modern Canon lenses do this.

   IS: Image Stabilization, which means no tripod needed except at midnight. See Why IS Matters.

   USM: Ultra-Sonic Motor: The focus motor operates silently.

Focal Length: 70-300mm. Used on a 1.3x camera it gives angles of view similar to what an 88-377mm lens would give on a 35mm film camera. On a 1.6x camera it gives angles of view similar to what a 114-486mm lens would give on a 35mm film camera. See also Crop Factor.

Maximum Aperture: f/4 - 5.6

Optics: 15 elements, 10 groups, including one of UD glass. UD glass is the same as Nikon's ED glass, which helps reduce color fringing. All the glass is lead-free, which means that Canon isn't polluting Japan's lovely streams and rivers with glass dust that occurs from grinding.

Diaphragm: 8 blade rounded, stopping down to f/32-45.

Filter Size: 58mm.

Close Focus: 4.9' (1.5m) from the image plane (the back of the camera), marked.

Maximum Reproduction Ratio: 1:4.

Size: 3.264" diameter (max) x 5.63" extension from flange (82.91 x 143mm), measured at 70mm focused at infinity. Focusing to the closest focus distance adds 15mm, and zooming to 300mm adds 53mm to the length. These add linearly depending on the combination of focus distance and zoom setting.

Weight: 22.205 oz. (629.5 g), measured, naked.

Hood: ET-65B, not included and sells for 45 bucks.

Case: LP1222 pouch, not included.

Introduced: August 22, 2005.

PERFORMANCE

Top    Introduction   Specs   Recommendations

Autofocus   Bokeh   Color   Color Fringes   Construction   Distortion   Eyeblow

Falloff    Film   Filters   Flare   Flash   Macro   Serial #   Sharpness   IS    Zooming

OVERALL

It works great. I'll get into the details, but the important point is that I remarked "Holy Crap!" when I saw my first test snaps up on my 30" Apple monitor . This little plastic lens creates virtually flawless images.

As we say in racing, the BS stops when the green flag drops, and this little devil goes like crazy.

FOCUSING   back to Performance or back to Introduction.

The focus is corny, so I try not to pay attention to it. I use it on AF all the time and try to keep my hands away from the spinning focus ring.

It's fast, but the manual focus ring spins during autofocus. You have to move a switch to disengage the AF motor to allow manual focus.

I suspect you'll break something if you try jamming manual focus without first moving the AF/MF switch to MF, and that it also won't be happy of you get your hands in the way as it autofocuses. This is the only complaint I have with this lens; this will get in your way. This is as bad as Nikon's first AF lenses were in the 1980s, but a lot faster. Tough. It does everything else so well I'll let this slip.

Focus Distance Scale

NONE.

Speed

AF speed is fast - about as fast as my eyes can focus. Just keep your fingers clear of the spinning focus ring, which isn't always easy.

Sound and Noise

Manual Focus: Plastic on plastic, with some gear and track noises.

Autofocus: About the same.

Ease of Manual Focusing

Awful - you have to move a switch!

Once you've moved the switch, it's fine, albeit rather flimsy feeling.

I rarely manually focus tele lenses. They require too much precision, unless I'm shooting at a small aperture and focusing manually to set focus at a phantom point midway between two objects for depth-of-field.

Autofocus Accuracy

I get dead-on autofocus, no problem. This isn't hard with an f/4 - 5.6 lens.

Focus Breathing

Breathing is a motion picture term which refers to what happens as you pull (change) focus from near to far. I list this for people putting these lenses on their Canon XL-1s for shooting video.

The Canon 70-300mm IS changes magnification as it focuses, like most still camera lenses.

BOKEH   back to Performance or back to Introduction.

Bokeh is neutral and pleasant.

These shots are made from the same 10 foot (3m) distance with trees about 50 feet (15m) behind my Nikon.

The first shot is at the 300mm setting and the second shot is at the 70mm setting.

The 300mm shot is the complete uncropped image.

At this small screen size I show only the central part of the 70mm image. I cropped the middle 25%, which gives the same angle of view by coincidence, and made that fit the same small size as the 300mm shot.

canon 70-300mm IS
canon 70-300mm IS
Full image, 5D, 10' (3m), 300mm at f/5.6
Central 25%, 5D, 10' (3m), 70mm at f/4

Pretty good character. Not perfect, but quite good. It's better at the long end, where you're most likely to care.

Stopped down you will see octagons from the 8-bladed diaphragm if you look hard enough.

COLOR FRINGES
(Lateral Chromatic Aberration or LCA)

back to Performance or back to Introduction.

This lens is approved by the PPLFPA, Professional Patio and Lawn Furniture Photographers' Association, with a grade of "A-."

On a full-frame 5D it has no color fringes except at the farthest corners at 300mm. On a 1.6x camera like a 30D, no problem anywhere.

canon 70-300mm IS canon 70-300mm IS
Full-frame image at 70mm
Full-frame image at 300mm

 

canon 70-300mm IS

canon 70-300mm IS
Crop from 100% 5D image at 70mm
Crop from 100% 5D image at 100mm

 

canon 70-300mm IS

canon 70-300mm IS
Crop from 100% 5D image at 135mm
Crop from 100% 5D image at 200mm

 

canon 70-300mm IS

canon 70-300mm IS
Crop from 100% 5D image at 300mm
300mm, crop from further right

 

I noticed that it got worse in the very far corners at 300mm, so I show two crops. The first is from the same spot as all the others, the left side of the gazebo, and the second 300mm crop is from the far right. Look at the guide image if this is unclear. The easier crop is more representative of what you'll see on a 30D or 1.3x camera.

This is excellent; far better than any of my L-series wide angle lenses!

COLOR RENDITION

I see no differences from my other Canon lenses.

CONSTRUCTION QUALITY

back to Performance or back to Introduction.

Exterior: Plastic.

Filter Threads: Plastic.

Focus Ring: Plastic with ribbed rubber ring.

Markings: Silver paint.

Switches: Plastic.

Mount: Metal.

Internals: Mostly plastic.

Noises when shaken: Dull klunking. This is normal.

Made in: Japan.

DISTORTION   back to Performance or back to Introduction.

Distortion performance is typical.

Like almost all zoom lenses, it becomes barrel (bulged out) at the shortest end and pincushion (sucked in) at the longest end.

Distortion vanishes around 100mm if this is a problem. It's trivial to fix in Photoshop CS2 at other focal lengths.

I had to go out of my way to shoot something lame, like this proverbial Bad Photographers' Wall of Shame, to expose the distortion. I never saw it in the hundreds of real shots I made with this lens.

These are shot on a full-frame camera. The distortion will be less on a 1.3x or 1.6x camera (see Crop Factor).

canon 70-300mm IS
canon 70-300mm IS
At 70mm, f/7.1, full-frame 5D
At 100mm, f/7.1, full-frame 5D

 

canon 70-300mm IS
canon 70-300mm IS
At 105mm, f/7.1, full-frame 5D
At 135mm, f/7.1, full-frame 5D

 

canon 70-300mm IS
canon 70-300mm IS
At 200mm, f/6.3, full-frame 5D
At 300mm, f/5.6, full-frame 5D

Plug these figures into Photoshop CS2's lens distortion filter to correct the distortion on a full-frame camera. The values will be less if you're using this on a 1.3x or 1.6x camera. These figures are for you to enjoy in your photography. These took me hours to calculate and are all © and registered, so you'll need permission to use these figures for anything else. Thanks! Ken.

 
Distortion at 50' (15m)
70mm
+4.0 barrel
100mm
0.0 (none)
135mm
-1.5 pincushion
200mm
-2.5 pincushion
300mm
-3.0 pincushion

I see no DxO correction module for this lens, although I do see a DxO module for the doubly expensive 70-300 IS DO (Fresnel) lens.

EYEBLOW

back to Performance or back to Introduction.

The Canon 70-300mm IS gets longer and shorter as you zoom. The air has to go somewhere, and like most zooms, blows out the back of the lens mount, through your camera, and out the eyepiece.

No big deal, but you can feel this as you zoom out quickly. I feel this on my Canon 5D but not my Canon Rebel XTi.

FALLOFF (Darkened Corners)

back to Performance or back to Introduction.

The Canon 70-300mm IS has very little falloff, even on my full-frame camera. It won't have any falloff on a 1.6x camera. The examples below are from my full-frame camera which exaggerates it. See Crop Factor for more.

For portraits and many other subjects, falloff makes a better picture by concentrating the viewer's attention on the subject and away from the corners, so don't worry about it.

Here are shots of an Expodisc focused at infinity. This is a tough test which shows even the slightest falloff. You'll almost never see this in normal photography.

 
f/5.6
f/8
f/11
70mm
100mm
135mm
200mm
300mm
maximum aperture
is f/5.6 - - >

 

 

USE ON FILM CAMERAS   back to Performance or back to Introduction.

It works great, live it up.

USE WITH FILTERS   back to Performance or back to Introduction.

No problem!

Use the fattest filter or stacks of 58mm filters you want. The worst thing that will happen is some additional light falloff at the 300mm end. At 70mm the Canon 70-300mm IS looks only through the center of the front of the lens, so it will see through a stack of filters without issue.

FLARE AND GHOSTS  back to Performance or back to Introduction.

Ghosts are no problem unless you ask for them. The Canon 70-300mm IS works great, even for sunset shots.

Sunset

Sunset, Amboy, California, at 300mm, f/8 at 1/500, Canon 5D at ISO 50.

If you ask for it, you can get it to do this:

Porsche Cayenne Turbo S

Porsche Cayenne Turbo S, Baker, California, at 95mm, f/5.6 @ 1/60, Canon 5D at ISO 100.

In this second shot I'm exposing for the shadows, but the 5PM sun is blazing directly into the lens. If you were photographing the sun and ridge you'd use much less exposure, hiding the ghosts.

This better performance than most of the other Canon teles I've pointed into the sun.

USE with FLASH   back to Performance or back to Introduction.

There's no problem, even with the built-in flash of my Canon Rebel XTi at any focal length at its closest focus distance.

Built-in flashes are often so close to the camera that some lenses can see far enough down to see their shadow cast by a built-in flash.

MACRO   back to Performance or back to Introduction.

The Canon 70-300mm IS focuses reasonably close for 300mm.

Here's what it does on a 1.6x Canon Rebel XTi. It won't get as tight with a 1.3x or full-frame camera.

Canon 70-300mm IS macro

Canon 70-300mm IS at 300mm at closest focus, full image from Rebel XTi.

Canon 70-300mm IS

100% crop from above, no extra sharpening.

It's OK, but not as sharp as a true Canon 100mm macro lens. It is sharp enough to show me that I should have cleaned the smudges from my watch crystal first, and sharp enough to show tight enough depth of field to throw the hands slightly out of focus!

Canon fanatics take note: I'm using my classic Nikon F2AS as a paperweight to hold my watch!

SERIAL NUMBER  back to Performance or back to Introduction.

The serial number is laser-engraved in black on black on the bottom rear of the plastic barrel.

SHARPNESS  back to Performance or back to Introduction.

In actual use I see no difference between this Canon 70-300mm IS and my brand-new $1,000 Canon 70-200mm f/4 L IS. On test charts the difference is dramatic wide open and in the corners, but not in the middle of the image at normal apertures where we actually use these lenses.

Sharpness is great for real photograpy. The first time I saw its images on my 30" monitor I was knocked over, since I wasn't expectiing much and the images are excellent.

So long as you stop down a stop or two, your technique will be your biggest barrier to sharp photos. I have a page on How to Get Sharp Photos.

Here are my observations. Letters correspond to center - side - corner, or center - corner. Possible ratings are E - VG - G - F - P. These are subjective. Don't fret over differences between adjacent grades.

Diffraction is usually the sharpness-limiting factor for all lenses, especially digital SLRs, at about f/11 and above. See also How Sharpness Varies with Aperture.

On a 1.6x camera (my Canon Rebel XTi in this case), center - corner:

 
f/5.6
f/8
f/11
70mm
G - G
VG - VG
VG - VG
VG - VG
100mm
E - G
E - VG
E - E
E - E
135mm
VG - VG
VG - VG
VG - VG
VG - VG
200mm
G - G
VG - VG
E - VG
E - VG
300mm
 
VG - G
E - VG
E - VG

On a 1.3x camera (1D etc.), center - far corner:

 
f/5.6
f/8
f/11
70mm
VG - F
E - F
E - VG
VG - VG
100mm
VG - F
VG - G
VG - G
VG - G
135mm
G - G
VG - VG
E - VG
VG - VG
200mm
VG - G
VG - G
E - VG
E - VG
300mm
VG - G
VG - VG
VG - VG

On a Full-Frame camera (my Canon 5D in this case), center - sides - very farthest corner:

 
f/5.6
f/8
f/11
70mm
VG - F - P
E - F - P
E - VG - F
VG - VG - G
100mm
VG - F - F
VG - G - G
VG - G - G
VG - G - G
135mm
G - G - VG
VG - VG - E
E - VG - VG
VG - VG - G
200mm
VG - G - G
VG - G - G
E - VG - VG
E - VG - VG
300mm
VG - G - G
VG - VG - VG
VG - VG - VG

Sharpness Discussion: Forget these ratings. In actual use, the biggest limit to this lens' sharpness is depth of field, motion, and, at 300mm, atmospheric seeing conditions (heat shimmering, even in winter).

When I went out of my way to find a target with details in the farthest full-frame corners, what do you know, it is soft at 70mm, wide open. So what - if you want to shoot test targets, get the Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro which costs less and works much better at 100mm. With real subjects, there almost never is anything in the far corners at the same distance (and therefore in focus) as the main subject.

In real photography the Canon 70-300mm IS amazed me with its consistently excellent results. This doesn't show up in tests: the fact that it always gave a sharp image without any of the autofocus or other problems other lenses have. These other issues, which affect your and my photos, are usually cancelled out of other peoples tests, since magazines and others focus manually with microscopes to null out any camera autofocus issues!

IS (Image Stabilization)

back to Performance or back to Introduction.

IS works great: it bolts down the image and lets me make sharp shots at 1/15 second at every focal length.

Read Why IS is Important to understand what these ratings mean.

When IS is active, you'll hear what sounds like a motor running inside the lens and feel some vibration. This is normal.

This lists the percentage of sharp shots that I get with and without IS on my Rebel XTi. The first figure is with IS OFF, and the second is with IS ON.

Read Why IS is Important to understand more about what these ratings mean.

1/2
1/4
1/8
1/15
1/30
1/60
1/125
1/250
1/500
70mm
0/30
0/20
0/40
10/60
30/100
80/100
100/100
100/0
100/100
135mm
0/5
0/15
0/30
0/50
20/100
40/100
80/100
90/100
100/100
300mm
0/0
0/5
0/20
0/50
0/50
5/70
20/100
70/100
100/100

Now let's chart the slowest speed to get 50% sharp shots at each focal length, and with that, we can calculate how many stops we gain with IS.

No IS
IS

Real
Stops Improvement

Marketing
Stops Improvement
70mm
1/40
1/15
1-1/3
2
135mm
1/60
1/15
2
3
300mm
1/200
1/15
3-2/3
4

"Real Stops Improvement" are how many extra stops I got, IS ON compared to IS OFF.

"Marketing Stops Improvement" isn't comparing the speed I can use from IS OFF to IS ON, but instead comparing the speed one can use with IS ON to the old-wives-tale speed of 1/focal length. That's called Lying with Statistics, and that's par for the course for marketing departments.

This is great performance, as most IS and VR systems offer. It's critical to have more performance at the long end; where camera shake is critical, and that's exactly what this does. The Canon 70-300mm IS easily gives me three to four real stops improvement at 300mm where I need it. This means I can use it in daylight at 300mm. Without IS, even in full sunlight I'd have to boost ISO to get sharp shots handheld. God bless IS!

TIP: In dim light, fire several shots in the continuous shutter mode and pick the sharpest later. Blur is a random event, so if you fire enough shots, you'll eventually get a sharp one even at slow speeds!

ZOOMING   back to Performance or back to Introduction.

The zoom range is well spaced on the zoom ring. This makes it easy to select the exactly focal length and composition I want. Other lenses can cramp some focal lengths together, making it hard to select slightly different focal lengths.

The zoom ring turns 1/4 turn from one end to the other and runs about 3 cm/octave. It's a little more cramped between 200-300mm, but always a pleasure to zoom.

It has a dry undamped feel. It has a tiny amount of stiction, but it never gets in the way of easy, fast and precise zoom setting.

Zoom Creep

Awful! Point up or down, and it flops in or out to 70mm or 300mm. I borrowed a well-worn one; others tell me theirs are fine.

There is a manual lock to hold it at 70mm.

Canon 70-300mm Zoom lock

The zoom lock switch is on the right.

Focus Shift while Zooming

Focus shifts a little. It's best to focus after you zoom.

Actual Focal Lengths

The focal lengths appear accurate at all distances.

This is as expected with a traditional front-group-focus lens.

This means the focal length doesn't get shorter as you focus more closely, as it does on the Nikon 18-200mm VR.

There's no free lunch: the traditional focus of this Canon 70-300mm IS lets you keep your full 300mm at the close focus distance, but it means that the close focus distance is only 5 feet (1.5m) and not a foot and a half (50cm) as it is with internal focusing (IF) lenses like the Nikon 18-200mm VR.

Maximum Aperture

70mm: f/4.0

100mm: f/4.5

135mm: f/5.0

200 mm: f/5.0

300 mm: f/5.6

Focal Length Encoding Accuracy

The EXIF data agrees exactly with the settings marked on the lens at 70, 100, 135, 200 and 300mm.

I have not correlated the accuracy of the markings with actual focal lengths.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Top    Introduction   Specs   Performance

Buy one! The Canon 70-300mm IS is a great lens. If $600 is your budget, this is a no-brainer.

Why? First-class optics, super light weight, great resistance to flare, wide and well spaced zoom range and excellent image stabilization.

I'm an infrequent tele shooter, so for me weight and size is very important since I spend more time carrying my teles than I spend shooting with them. I worry more about my wide lenses.

Forget that it's not L-series unless you're a full-time journalist who often breaks lenses. Optics are as good, in fact, this 70-300mm IS gives sharper images than my L-series wide lenses. Ultrawide lenses aren't as sharp as teles.

Real image quality of this IS lens will be much better than non-IS L-series lenses handheld. Yes, the 70-200mm f/4 L (non-IS) will be much softer for handheld shots of still subjects at 200mm due to hand motion, which the IS of this 70-300mm IS will cancel.

Personally I bought myself the Canon 70-200mm f/4 L IS because I got it on rebate in July 2007. I'm not on a budget, but I am a sucker for a sale. The 70-200mm f/4 IS is almost twice as expensive, bigger, heavier, and only goes to 200mm. I like this 70-300mm IS so much I'll probably get one if it ever goes on rebate. I like it that much.

Canon makes another 70-300mm IS lens, the 70-300mm DO IS (note the additional "DO.") The 70-300mm DO is shorter and has full time manual focus without needing a switch, but it weights 3 ounces more, has poorer image stabilization and costs twice as much.

I'd not get any non-IS telephoto zoom lens, even an L-series. IS is critical for sharp results, even in daylight, without a tripod. That rules out the not much more expensive 70-200 f/4L and the other two non-IS Canon 70-300mm lenses at half the price.

Recall Note: If you have an early production copy, Canon may have a recall on it and will fix it for free. See this Service Notice. The one I borrowed and liked so much was one of these old serial numbers; I'm unsure if it had already been worked it over by the time I got my hands on it. A reader who had his serviced said Canon also fixed the zoom flop, free! Since mine still flopped, I'll presume mine may have been one of the bad ones, and I still loved it.

PLUG

If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy or a workshop you may have had to take, feel free to help me continue helping everyone.

It also helps me keep adding to this site when you get your goodies through these links to Ritz, Amazon and Adorama. I use them and recommend them personally .

Thanks!

Ken

 

Caveat: The ads below come from a third party and I don't see or approve them. They are sent to your screen directly from a third party. They don't come from me or my site. See more at my Buying Advice page. Personally I get my goodies at Ritz, Amazon and Adorama.

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