Petteri's Pontifications
My musings about photography, mostly.
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The Primepipe -- Canon EF 200/2.8L Mk 1

The Primepipe -- Canon EF 200/2.8L Mk 1

A Canonian shopping around for something around a medium tele must feel like a kid in a candy store, especially if he has enough of a budget to bring the L's within reach... new or used. There's simply so much to choose from, and almost none of it is actually bad. Choosing a medium tele becomes a matter of choosing which trade-offs you'd rather make.

Pelicans on a rock by Bandon Beach, Oregon.

Long lenses are fun, but they have one problem: the good ones tend to be big and heavy. I like to move around, but I don't like the idea of carrying around a kilo and a half of lens or more -- in addition to the rest of the gear. My quest for the portable tele has ended with a second-hand Canon 200/2.8L Mk 1. At its native focal length, it is flawless at every aperture, and with a 1.4x and, I hope, 2x teleconverter it makes a highly usable 280/4 and 400/5.6. And, most importantly, the whole kit fits easily into my MicroTrekker, with room to spare for the rest of the gear.

Where does it fit in?

Canon is especially strong in telephoto lenses, and there's a large variety of lenses that include 200 mm in their focal-length range to choose from. And, of course, some of the third-party lenses are very good too. Here are some of the ones I've looked at -- these are all professional spec lenses in price, build and optics; I haven't included consumer-grade alternatives, although some of them (such as the 80-200/4.5-5.6 "Pocket Rocket" or the pricey but IS-equipped 75-300/4-5.6IS) would put up a very good fight in this company:

  • Canon 70-200/2.8L IS USM: The standard to which all other 200's must necessarily be compared: this is the sports shooter's white workhorse. Built like a tank, fast-focusing, image stabilized, and excellent at all apertures and all focal lengths, but also big and heavy -- not at all fun to use hand-held, which to a degree defeats the purpose of image stabilization. The older, non-IS version is optically and performance-wise at least as good, but also at least as big. The wide aperture means that the lens will work with both 1.4x and 2x teleconverters without compromising AF.
  • Canon 70-200/4L: I was very tempted by this lens. It's optically just about as good as its big brother and focuses just about as fast, and trading off that stop of brightness (and the IS) has brought the price and especially the weight down to a much more reasonable level. It's a clean, compact design, and weighs about half as much as the 2.8L.
  • Canon 80-200/2.8L: The "Magic Drainpipe." Out of production for a while now, this lens still packs a wallop. One of the sharpest zooms Canon ever made, it's by all accounts very fast-focusing too, despite its noisier non-USM motor. It's big, black, and heavy, though. It could be a very good buy on the used market. Incidentally, this is the design the Primepipe is based on: hence the nickname.
  • Canon 100-300/5.6L: Another out-of-production L, this one is too dark to use effectively with a TC, but it has more reach natively instead (and does therefore a better job optically beyond 200 mm). It's a pump-zoom design that focuses very slowly: this puts a major limitation on its usefulness.
  • Canon 50-200/3.5-4.5L: The little brother to the 100-300/5.6L: compact, dark, slow-focusing, and optically excellent. It could be a bargain on the used market.
  • Sigma EX 180/3.5 Macro: Optically excellent, this lens does a very decent job at macro, too. However, it's almost as big and as heavy as the Canon 70-200/2.8L telezoom.
  • Tokina AT-X Pro 80-200/2.8: Avoid this lens. While it's quite decent stopped-down, halation makes it go very soft wide-open, it focuses slowly, and the nearly unusable maximum aperture makes it simply a slow, unreasonably heavy substitute for the 70-200/4L -- and not even much cheaper. Build is nice, though.

So, given all this choice and the convenience and quality of the telezooms, why did Canon bother making the Primepipe? I believe the answer is that it combines some of the best qualities of the 70-200/2.8L USM and the 70-200/4L USM: the brightness and optical quality of the big one, and the portability and price of the little one. If you're the kind of person who doesn't want to carry a lot of weight and spends most of his time at the maximum tele setting on your zooms, the Primepipe starts to look very attractive!

Mk 1 and Mk 2 -- what difference?

Canon built two versions of the 200/2.8L USM. There's actually very little difference between them: optically and mechanically identical, the only significant difference appears to be that the Mk I has a rather ineffective integrated collapsible hood, while the Mk II has a rather better and deeper twist-off one. The Mk I's are significantly cheaper on the used market, though, so here's a possibility to save some money while making pretty minimal trade-offs. In other words, I believe that these observations pertain to the Mark 2 just as well as my Mark 1.

Build qualities

Canon "L" build needs little elaboration: these lenses are built to take PJ abuse and get in the working pro's way as little as possible. Like all L's, there's little to criticize with the 200/2.8L.

Size and weight

The Primepipe on the 10D, with hood extended.

The Primepipe is small for a bright, pro-level tele lens. It weighs in at under 700 grams and measures around 20 cm long -- slightly smaller and lighter than the 70-200/4L. The size is one of its major strengths: this lens will get pictures under the same conditions as the Drainpipe, but will go places even if bulk is a constraint. Of course, compared to the 80-200/4.5-5.6 "Pocket Rocket," this is no lightweight.

Fit and finish

As is to be expected, the fit and finish are impeccable. The lens feels very tight and "together." The spatter-black finish looks like it can take a lot of abuse and still look pretty decent. The wide and well-positioned MF ring is tight and offers good resistance, although it doesn't feel quite as buttery-smooth as the Tokina AT-X Pros.

Focusing motor and mechanism

If it can track a flying gull this well, it's good enough for me.

The Primepipe is equipped with ring USM. This shows: it's lighting-fast and silent to focus, hunts only in really extreme circumstances (hardly at all if the focus distance switch is set to 3-infinity), and RT-M makes it possible to pick a subject among many to latch on. I did some off-the-hip shots of passing seagulls, and the lens locked on every time... if the gull was against the sky, at least. The lens is internally focusing, too, which means that polarizers are not an issue, and it's likely very well protected against dust and water, even without the weather sealing on some of its more expensive brethren.

Optical qualities

Consistency

A composite of two corner crops: the top left is shot at f/2.8, the bottom right at f/11. Or was it the other way round? Either way, I can't `see much of a difference.

The Primepipe is without any doubt the most consistent lens I've ever shot. Wide-open or stopped-down, near-infinity or at minimum focus distance; center or corner... makes no difference. I really tried to tease out artifacts, but they simply wouldn't show. Shoot it as you like, the lens will add no variables to the picture: no need to stop down to get rid of artifacts or maximize sharpness. The rest of the review will be pretty boring until we break out the cheap-o Tamron 1.4x -- the lens is simply outstanding in every respect.

Resolution

Nothing to see here: both contrast and resolution are exemplary. The slight haze is atmospheric: the subject was quite distant.

The lens comfortably out-resolves the 10D sensor at all apertures and all focusing distances.

Contrast

The 'Pipe is extremely contrasty, at least as good as the 50's.

Bokeh

"Pensive Jackdaw." Nice bokeh. The doubling in the front bokeh is caused by overlapping branches, not the lens.

Bokeh is soft and even. The 8-bladed iris makes OOF highlights look nice and nearly round, too. Again, at least as good as the 50/1.4 USM.

Color

Color is neutral: no shift in any direction is detectable.

Chromatic aberration

No CA or halation is visible at any aperture, even where you'd expect it: corner crop, wide-open. Wow.

No chromatic aberration was detectable in any of my test shots.

Halation

No halation was detectable in any of my test shots.

Flare

I hate to say that I forgot to shoot a proper flare test, but I did take some high-contrast shots where veiling should be apparent if it were a problem... and I saw none at all. Sorry, I told you this was going to be boring.

With Tamron 1.4x TC4

The Tamron 1.4x is one of the cheapest 1.4x's to be found. Still, it's not a bad piece of work for the price: it's decently built, metal all round, with four multi-coated elements. And guess what? It does a very satisfactory job with the Primepipe.

Consistency

With the 1.4x, very slight corner softening becomes apparent wide-open. Stopped down one stop, it goes away. I'm not 100% sure about the softening, either, as my tests shot was slightly flawed: the corner with the best detail was somewhat behind the field of focus, and the corner that was within the field of focus didn't have quite enough detail to judge... so this assessment is subject to change after I re-shoot. I won't include any crops until I'm sure it's the lens and not me.

Resolution

The lens still out-resolves the 10D sensor at all apertures... at least at the center (see Consistency above).

Contrast

A composite image of the lens with and without the TC. I downsampled the TC one to the same resolution as the non-TC frame, adjusted gamma (but did not otherwise adjust levels or curves) to equalize the exposure (I hadn't thought of doing this when shooting the test shots, so the exposures were about 1/4 stop different), and layered them with a checkerboard mask. I can see the squares if I look hard, but it's very hard to tell which is which.

This was a real surprise: there is virtually no detectable loss of contrast with the teleconverter! I looked very hard, and contrast was still excellent.

Color

The TC adds no detectable color cast.

Chromatic aberration

You see it? You see it? The faintest touch of red and green around this highlight. It's CA, but pointing it out is the very definition of nitpicking. Enlarged to 400% from actual pixels...

The teleconverter appears to introduce barely detectable red-green CA near the edges. I had to considerably magnify the picture to see it, though, so this is emphatically not a problem.

Halation

I had to blow this up to 200% for it to really show up, but yep -- that's halation all right. I wish all my lenses did this well...

Wide-open, the teleconverter introduces barely discernible halation around extremely bright highlights. It's still far less than most lenses I've seen when used wide-open, and a long way from being a serious issue.

Flare

The teleconverter had no effect on flare that I could detect.

In summary

The Primepipe is as close to a perfect lens as I've ever seen. At its native focal length it's outstanding in all respects, within the limitations of its design, of course. With the cheap-o Tamron 1.4x, it's still very good: the converter does introduce slight corner softening, slight halation, and barely detectable CA, but contrast is virtually unchanged, and resolution still appears well over that of the 10D sensor. I'm looking forward to experimenting with a 2x.

So, if your main concerns are portability, brightness, image quality, and focusing performance, and you're willing to forego the convenience of a zoom, the 200/2.8L might be just what you're looking for. If you can't get good pictures with a working copy of this lens, you won't have the luxury of blaming your equipment. And, by the way, at least I don't, not every time -- tele photography is rather tricky, no matter how good the equipment.

Sauna. Helsinki, 2003