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Canon EOS 70-210/3.5-4.5 USM Lens

by Russ Arcuri, 1997


General impressions

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 weight.

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.

Aperture range

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 steady hands.

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 comparison.

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.

Construction

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 ring USM 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 carry tripods).]

Conclusions

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 85/1.8 USM. 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 portraiture.

[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 pen... :-)


(c) Copyright 1997 Russ Arcuri.

Article created 1997

Readers' Comments


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Glen Johnson , February 24, 1997; 11:01 A.M.

This may not be the right place for it, but I can't think of a better place to stick it right now. Yes, I know there are some that will help me identify a place. :-)

In the portrait discussion, one of the lenses that hardly ever comes up here is the 135 f/2L. This is an exceptional lens. It sets the standard in virtually all categories, and it is a very nice focal length for portraits. It costs about two thirds of what the 70-200L. It weighs in at about half as much as the 70-200L. For those that are really interested in getting the most effective background blur, the f/2 will blur better than the f/28 (although, frankly, if you've chosen your background well and work close to your subject, even f/4.5 will provide a sufficient blur in my opinion).

This lens won the what one UK magazine called its highest honor for 1996 - Lens of the Year.

Glen Johnson , February 24, 1997; 11:04 A.M.

Obviously, I meant f/2.8, not f/28.

Russ Arcuri , March 17, 1997; 09:52 A.M.

This is just a quick note to address a particular question I've gotten several times via e-mail regarding this review.

I'm not saying that this lens is a poor portrait lens. I'm saying that the others listed are better portrait lenses. Read just a bit further down to where I discuss image quality -- you'll see that for small enlargements (no larger than 8x10) I think it works fine as a portrait lens. But you'll have to stop it down to f/6.7 or f/8 for bigger enlargements, which increases depth of field -- a problem for portraiture when a sharp background is less than desireable.

Summary: if you can live without the flexibility of a zoom, and your PRIMARY use will be for portraiture, the 85/1.8 USM is a great choice. If you want a flexible general purpose lens in the 70-210 range with reasonably good image quality, the 70-210/3.5-4.5 USM is a good (inexpensive) choice.

Russ Arcuri , May 19, 1997; 01:12 P.M.

Jim,

Basically I think we agree here. Philip's editor's comment about telephoto lenses usually being used wide open is true if you're shooting in the 90 minutes before/after sunrise and sunset, when the light is not so harsh. It's also true for almost all indoor shots.

I agree with you about the term "publishable" -- as I mention at the bottom of the review, "publishable" varies quite a bit. I was hesitant to use the term, but couldn't think of a better one. How about this for ambiguous? I think the images the 70-210 is capable of making are good.

See? It doesn't really work just to say they're good. People want to know HOW good. The best description I can give is relative: they're better than the images produced by the 80-200/4.5-5.6, and not nearly as good as those produced by the 70-200L. But you'll only notice the differences under a decent loupe or blown up to 8x10 or larger. Unless you're forced to use too slow a shutter speed because of the relatively slow max aperture, in which case the loss of sharpness will probably be visible in 4x6 prints.

This is actually the reason I want to get some sample images posted :-)

Kent Anderson , July 29, 1997; 04:04 P.M.

One quick addition to the original review. My 70-210, while I love it and also while I can't afford the pro lenses, does have a bad case of zoom creep where the zoom ring needs to be held in place when shooting down at an angle of greater than about 45 to 60 degrees from level (unless your focal length is already 210). It is better when pointed upward, but still needs assistance when the angle exceeds about 60 to 75 degrees above level.

Maarten Meijer , January 12, 1999; 03:25 P.M.

Addition to Kent Anderson's comment above: my 70-200 has the same problem. I had it repaired during warranty. But within a few days the problem was back. Apparently, it's a (very annoying) flaw inherent to the construction of the lens.

Kay Simon , May 12, 1999; 11:51 P.M.

Thanks for your discerning review.It's tough to get an honest and critical opinion. Reviewers for photo magazines always have to be careful about what they say, and this is one of the few places where people can be frank.

I have the 70-210 lens, and do not particularly care for it. I recently took photographs in Monterey of birds, rocks, and crashing waves. After viewing with a loupe it was noticeably apparent that my photos with this zoom were never crisp and sharp, whereas my photographs with the 28-70L mM zoom and the 100 mM macro were far better. At first, I thought this might be because focusing at closer range is more difficult. But even in my photos where the birds are not moving and shutter speed is at 250, things are not sharp. I used an F8 aperture because I thought this would be optimal for a mid-quality lens. Basically, I am very reluctant to use this lens again unless I have no choice. It does seem to produce acceptable portraits with an F8 and F6.7 setting, though. Also, I've noticed that when I study charts evaluating lens quality, the zoom lenses always have their worst ratings at the upper end (i.e. 150-200mM for a 70-210 zoom, or 80 mM for a 30-80 mM zoom). This makes this lens even less desireable, since I almost always pull it out because I need to use exactly the worst the range, 150-200 mM. I'm going to consider a fixed L lens of 180 or 200 mM. The 70-210 mM zoom is a monster, and I don't know how people manage to casually roam the streets shooting with it.

James Burris , February 21, 2000; 11:55 P.M.

I just purchased one of these lenses in nice user condition and my initial tests show that my lens is very good throughout its range. Sure it softens up a bit at 200mm but at 70, 135mm it nearly matches my 50mm f1.8 (original) in terms of sharpness and contrast (stopped down). It is also quite useable wide open as contrast declines, but centre sharpness is still impressive. My suggestion is like many other inexpensive zoom lenses, this lens may also suffer from sample variation where some are excellent and others are OK. The serial number of mine (in case older versions are better is 27060xxx. My lens suffers the same amount of zoom creep which is a little annoying, but other than that I'm tickled pink.

Desmond Robinson , July 01, 2000; 01:27 P.M.


70-210usm @ f/5.6

This is one of Canon's best consumer zoom lenses. The optical quality is good @ 5.6 and very good @f/8. If you can't afford the 70-200f/4 L or the f/2.8 L buy this one used.On a whole, this is an excellent lens. Here is a sample of work done with it. This picture was done for the Cleveland metro park Zoo, featuring a recently aquired k. bear for their new Austrailian exibit. EOS 3 w/ 70-210 usm

Puppy Face , July 14, 2000; 09:01 P.M.

I've owned the Canon EF70-210 USM for about 8 years and it is a fine lens for the money. My sample is extremely sharp from 70 to 135 and still pretty sharp at 210mm, at least good enough to make nice 11 x 14 enlargements. However, if I handhold at 210mm with a 1/250 sec shutter speed I usually can't get a really sharp image--some people can but this lens is too light and tends to bob around. All my sharp enlargements at 210mm were tripod or monopod shots so technique does matter more with longer lenses. Oddly, I can handhold a really heavy rig--EOS3, drive booster & 200 2.8L--and get sharp results at 1/250 sec.

The super fast rear element focus, USM and FTM really make the 70-210 USM a gem of a zoom telephoto compared to lemons such as the EF75-300.

David Frech , July 15, 2001; 06:19 P.M.

I have a Canon 70-200mm, 4.0 L. I opted for it a couple of years ago because it's a better travel lens that the 2.8 (smaller, lighter).

Well lit, nightime scenes are a disaster though. Cityscapes, lighted Christmas trees in the snow and the Eiffel Tower. What I get is a lot of ghosting and reverse images when I am shooting Velvia and Provia 100F. Canon says "to reduce this problem it is suggested to use a lens shade, try to change your position slightly or adjust your zoom." None of these seem to work.

Any suggestions?

Rainer NAGEL , October 21, 2002; 08:44 A.M.

Hi, I have owned the 3.5-4.5/70-210mm USM for 5y or more, until USM broke down into pieces more and more in 2001. I did NOT want to have it repaired through Canon Switzerland for USD 130. Why? At f=70mm it is really tack sharp even full open. at f/8 it blows away even my 1.2/85mm L USM for portraiture picture quality and autofocus speed (!), but of course the latter has nicer bokeh and more honest color rendition. so I agree with everybody from 70-135mm it is perfectly usable, but then things get more and more worse. at f=200mm one cannot get sharp shots even with a "average" tripod and f/16(and Fuji NPS160) It is my opinion that TODAY a used Canon IS 4-5.6/75-300 IS USM in the 75-170mm subrange is the better choice at USD400/ EUR400 (www.ebay.de). Or the new Sigma 80-400mm Imagestabilized coming soon in 2003 @$$$???

Adam Rosser , January 27, 2006; 01:23 A.M.

I am a bit late to the party in this comments list (4 years since the last comment), but I have to agree with everyone who praised this lens.

At 70mm wide open it is very sharp. Nearly as good as my 50 f/1.8 at its peak and with much better bokeh. It stays excellent until about 150mm and then falls away a bit.

That said, image quality is still decent at 200mm wide open. The problem seems to be with halos (spherical aberation?) rather than resolution. Close 2/3 of a stop to f/5.6 and it is good. Even better at f/8.

I can highly recommend this lens and see no compelling reason to upgrade to an L (except for IS). My next major purchase will cover the big deficiency of this lens -- it is not long enough.

Alex Di , May 26, 2007; 08:27 P.M.

Great lens. Extremely fast focus, light, and compact at 70mm. It doesn't have the outright contrast of more expensive lenses, but it's substantially better than any of the kit zooms and 75-300s that share a similar focal range. The quoted range is a bit optimistic though; it's closer to 185mm on the long end.

The 70-210 regularly goes for around $170-$200 on auction sites. While it's been overshadowed by more recent models, there's nothing directly comparable at that price. Definitely worth it.

William Jennings , July 19, 2007; 05:08 P.M.

I've owned this lens for a very long time, well past 8 years. It was my first piece of 'good' glass. I pulled it out of the bag a week or so ago (after neglecting to use it for a long time) to check it out with plans on selling it.

I won't be selling it.

I was stunned at some of the photos it took. Sharp, contrasty and good color. My 24-105L faled to stun me when I bought it, this one does.

Even being a million years old, some wobble in the tube, zoom creep and a nick on the front element where a UV filter saved it's life, this thing takes great pictures.

Until I have excess $$$ sitting around to grab a 70-200/2.8IS, this one is staying put.

Tuan Pham , July 14, 2010; 01:54 A.M.

Wow, I'm late in this forum. I got a used one from my friend 2 weeks ago.

For portrait, I use 50 1.4usm and 135 2.8 mf and wondering how good the 70-210 can do in portraiture. From 70 to 150 the result is very goods esp. in sunny conndition from wide open to f5.6 or narrower. Over 150mm, it really really usable although you should stop down a 1/2 to 1 stop. I print a 25x38cm with its 180mm f6.3 and all my friends call it too good over ok.

Although, the 70-200 f4L or 2.8L (with or without is) will kick this len away but the 70-210 3.4-4.5 is a very good choice in the price range, with its price no canon zoom len can reach it.

Kevin Sterling , August 07, 2010; 12:15 A.M.

I have owned this lens for about a year.  So far I have mainly used it to shoot my daughter's indoor swim meets.  Even though the lighting was often less than ideal, the AF on this lens has been very dependable and wicked fast.  I haven't done much outdoor work with it, but I expect it will perform still better.  By contrast, my 70-300mm IS hunts a lot for focus outdoors and the AF is just noticably slower.  Considering I picked up the 70-210mm for $50 on the used marked, it seems quite a bargain.  Let's keep the comments coming on this old jewel of a lens.

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Cezary Kucharski , November 26, 2010; 12:34 P.M.

I have my Canon 70-210mm f/3.5-4.5 lens for 20 years now.  It is a great outdoor lens! I find it acceptable sharp at all focal lengths, even at 210mm, when stopped down a bit.  There is some chromatic aberration here and there but nothing major.  The only thing I miss in my 70-210mm is the IS.  I tried this lens for portraits but it is not that great there, my 85mm f/1.8 does much better job. If you can buy this lens for around $100, you will not be disappointed!  You getting great value!

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