Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
Okay, here's the deal. If you're debating between getting this lens or the
70-200/2.8L, and you have $1500 burning a
hole in your pocket, don't read any further. Call up
a camera store and place an order for the L series
lens. You won't regret it. This is not to say that the 70-210/3.5-4.5 lens is
bad; on the contrary, it's quite a good bargain, with decent image quality and
low price. But the 70-200/2.8 L wins any comparison except for price and
Canon also makes a couple 80-200/4.5-5.6 lenses, which I've used briefly. They
are garbage. Don't even think about them. Seriously. I've already wasted too much
space in this review on them.
Focal length range
70-210 mm are typical portrait focal lengths. Unfortunately, the 70-210 zoom
doesn't make a great portrait lens because it isn't very fast or very high
quality wide open. The 85/1.8 USM, 100/2 USM, 100/2.8 (non-USM) macro, 135
soft-focus (non-USM), 200/2.8L USM, and 70-200/2.8L USM lenses are all much
better choices for portraits.
What about animals? Unless the animals are in a zoo, 210 is not nearly long
enough (and no, this lens isn't designed to work with a teleconverter). Animal
photography starts at 300mm + 1.4X teleconverter.
The 70-210 zoom can be useful when you are able to get moderately close to
well-lit action, e.g., for photographing sports in sunshine from the sidelines.
Placed on a tripod and stopped down to f/8 or f/11, this lens can be useful for
isolating detail in landscapes and architecture.
f/3.5-4.5. In my review of the 28-105 lens, I said that an aperture range of
f/3.5-4.5 was reasonably fast, and for focal lengths under 100 mm, that's
certainly true. However, things get a bit tricky above 100 mm. The rule of thumb
is that to get sharp handheld results, you have to use a shutter speed that's the
reciprocal of the focal length. i.e. if I'm using a 60 mm lens, I can expect
reasonably sharp results shooting at 1/60 of a second or faster with fairly
This creates a problem when you're trying to shoot handheld at around 200mm,
where this lens's maximum aperture is f/4.5. Unless you're in bright sunlight or
using fast (ISO 400 or faster) film, you're not going to be able to use the 1/250
second shutter speed suggested for sharp results. Simply put, you'll be lugging a
tripod with this lens more often than you might like. However, most third-party
zooms in this price range are f/4-5.6, making the Canon lens seem fast in
Often, a portrait photographer will want to blur ugly backgrounds by using a
wide aperture. Of course, f/2.8 would be better than f/3.5-4.5, but out past 135
mm, depth of field is pretty shallow anyhow, so the lens's f/4.5 max aperture at
200 mm isn't as inconvenient as one might expect. Just don't place your subject
too close to an ugly background, and you'll have little to worry about.
Fairly well built, with a metal lens mount. You turn a ring to zoom it, which
is nicer than a push/pull zoom arangement, in my opinion. It has a non-rotating
front lens element, so using a polarizer is not a problem. (It takes 58 mm
filters.) The 70-210 uses Canon's
motor for focusing, so it blows away the third-party options for focusing
speed, quietness, and AF/MF flexibility. Flare isn't particularly bad with this
lens, but the optional ET-65II lens hood is useful and only costs $20.
Image quality *
Great for shapshots and most amateur applications. Can be used for portraits
wide open, as long as you don't enlarge them much. (I've done 8x10s which look
okay, but 11x14 is out of the question unless you stop down the lens.) Contrast
is reasonably good throughout the zoom range, and sharpness is good below 150 mm,
acceptable at 200 mm.
If you want maximum sharpness, you've got to put this lens on a tripod, and
stop it down to f/8, at which point the image quality is very good from 70 mm to
150 mm, and not quite as good but still publishable quality at 200 mm. Stopping
the lens down also eliminates some minor vignetting, but increases depth of field
(a problem for portraits.)
So, if this lens can produce publishable images, why would anyone pay so much
more for the 70-200/2.8 L? Because even wide open, the L lens is sharper and more
contrasty than this lens is stopped down. In other words, you can get better
quality images from the L-series lens even if you don't stick it on a tripod and
stop it down to f/8. Much more convenient, except for the weight. (The L series
lens is a veritable brick).
[Ed: note that telephoto lenses are almost always used wide open. So if you
are looking at a Popular Photography SQF chart to see how well a
lens performs, ignore everything below the top line. A lot of cheap zoom lenses
perform reasonably well when stopped down to f/11 but unfortunately they are
virtually never used at that aperture (esp. since most of their owners don't
Stopped down, this lens performs quite well, and at approximately $220 (Feb
1997), it's a bargain. Rumor has it that it's being discontinued, which is a real
shame, since that leaves only the $1500 L-series and the aforementioned "garbage"
lenses in Canon's line. Get yours now.
If you can't get your hands on one, or you're looking for a higher quality
option under $400, consider the
It doesn't have the flexibility of the zoom, but it's so fast and so sharp that I
use it a lot more than the 70-210 nowadays -- and it's the only lens I use for
[Ed: a cropped image from the 85/1.8 will probably look a lot better than a
full-frame image from the 70-210 at 210.]
A note about image quality: What constitutes "publishable"?*
Standards of publishability aren't the same for a typical newspaper as they
are for a magazine like Life or National Geographic. Furthermore, a
technically poor photo might get published simply because of the subject matter.
(For example, Life recently published some technically terrible pictures
because they documented Binti the gorilla's exploits in helping a toddler who
fell into her gorilla enclosure.)
No camera lens is going to make your subject more interesting. Therefore, when
I say that the 70-210 lens is capable of making publishable images, I mean that
the pictures are good enough in terms of contrast, distortion and sharpness that
they wouldn't look out of place in a magazine such as Life. Just stop down
a couple stops, put it on a tripod, and toss your toddler into the nearest animal