Last winter as my shooting evolved to encompass a lot more backcountry shooting, I increasingly found myself shooting at long end of my 70-200mm F2.8 L IS. Half way through the season i purchased a Canon 1.4x Teleconverter to use with it , creating a 280mm F4. Usable in terms of image quality but not great, I was left a little disappointed unless the lens was stopped down to f8 and that’s a pretty tall order when you are shooting action requiring at least 1/1000 shutter speed.
This summer then i decided to pick up something that was naively a little longer. What are the options out there? I limited myself to looking at the canon L lenses. As i’ve said before on here, i dont think its worth taking shortcuts when buying lenses. If you take care of them they will last you 10 years and the quality of the canon L Telephoto lenses is considerably higher than equivalent 3rd party lenses such as Sigma. I wanted the ability to get to around 400mm so i would either need to get a 300mm and use my 1.4x converter, or buy a 400mm. The choice then comes down to the 300m F4L, 300mm F2.8L , 400mm F5.6L, 100-400mm F4-5.6L or the 400mm F4 DO. The 400mm F2.8 was not a consideration due to its size and weight.
I crossed the 400mm 5.6 off the list straight away due to its lack of IS (image stabilization). Whilst this isn’t a feature I use all the time, it certainly comes in handy every now and again. The next one to get crossed off was the 100-400 zoom. I read so many mixed reviews about the quality of this lens, some people swear by it and some swear at it and i hate the push-pull zooming mechanism that it employs. also a lens that is long due an overhaul and there have been rumblings on the internet about a replacement very soon so i’ll wait to see if that materializes.
With a 1.4x teleconverter on a 300mm you get 420mm and with the quality of both the 300 f4 and 2.8 I felt that the slight degradation caused by using the 1.4x was probably acceptable so getting a 300mm seemed like a good option as I would have something to fill the gap between 200mm and 400mm. The image quality of the 300mm F2.8 is well know for being the best of any Canon lens in their lineup but the 300mm F4 is not that far behind it and considerably sharper than my 70-200 2.8 that has been my main lens since the beginning of my career. The biggest difference between the two comes in the price and the weight. The f4 can be picked up for about $1300 but the f2.8 comes in at around the $4000 mark these days. For me, the price was not really a factor though, if i came to the conclusion that the 2.8 was better for me and my business, that’s the lens i would get. I know it would pay off in the long term.
The weight/size difference was a key factor though. The f4 weighs in at 2.6 lb (1,190g) but the f2.8 come in at 5.6 lb (2,550g), more than twice as heavy! Bear in mind that I have to ski with these lenses in my pack and I plan on using the lens alongside my 70-200 as well as all the other wide angle lenses that I take with me every time (including also a second camera to set up as a remote sometimes). When I did the math, I just couldn’t justify the extra weight of the f2.8. I’m sure that I would not carry it around with me as much as i would the f4, and a lens left at home is pretty worthless to me. You know if you ever left it behind, that would be the day you need it the most! The f4 weighs less than my 70-200 and the differences in image quality between the 300s are negligible unless you are really looking for it. Granted the f2.8 performs better with the 1.4x converter (and even reasonably well with the 2x) but the 300 with the 1.4 is still on par with my 70-200 and i know that both myself and my clients can certainly live with quality like that, its all relative.
As a side note, I also considered the 400mm DO and did some considerable research into it. Whilst the quality isnt quite up there with the other super telephoto lenses its still pretty stunning and Canon’s diffractive optics technology (DO) has made a 400mm lens that is considerably smaller and lighter than the 300mm 2.8. A number of well renowned landscape and nature photographers ( Michael Reichman, Art Woolfe) swear by this lens simply because of its combination of reach and portability which is something that is extremely important to me in my field of ski photography. I have a feeling this might be something that is added to my kit sometime in the future……