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December 2008

You may not think that there is much of a difference between the f/2.8 and the equivalent f/4 focal length lenses in the Canon range, so you will probably be surprised to see what the differences are and how many of the lenses, from wideangle zooms up to long telephotos, allow for a direct comparison. Each optic also has its own shooting benefits and physical make-up that can be of great use to photographers in many shooting situations and for a variety of reasons.

If you examine the f/2.8 and f/4 lenses in the Canon professional lens range those that can be directly compared by focal length are:

  • The EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM and the EF70-200mm f/4 IS USM
  • The EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM and the EF70-200mm f/4L USM
  • The EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM and the EF300mm f/4L IS USM
  • The EF400mm f/2.8L IS USM and the EF400mm f/4 DO IS USM

The following Canon f/2.8 and f/4 lenses have different, but close, focal lengths:

  • The EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM and the EF17-40mm f/4L USM
  • The EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM and the EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM

There are many real world reasons for choosing and using the Canon lenses with different f-stops. Canon’s drive to achieve the ultimate in lens quality is never ending. The L series lenses featured here, and the EF400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens, incorporate specialised optical materials such ground aspherical glass and fluorite in order to achieve super high sharpness and delineation. These lenses are all built to achieve maximum performance and operability under harsh environmental conditions.

© Helen Atkinson

Skyline of Chicago from Ferris Wheel on the pier in Chicago, USA. Shot on EOS-1Ds Mark III with EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, 1/15sec at f2.8, ISO 1000.

I have found that my prime lenses excel in situations when I know that I can control my subject; when I know that I will be able to move my feet to capture the moment; and when I want to create an extremely shallow depth of field in the image. However, when I am covering many editorial and commercial events I still find using the zoom lens range to be more advantageous - especially when I’m penned in, stuck up a tall ladder, crushed in a pack of fellow shooters, or simply don’t know how the event is going to unfold and shooting time is of the essence. The one thing I don’t want to do is miss the moment through not having the right lens.

Starting from the wideangle end of the spectrum, the EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM replaces the previous mark I version of this lens. While the focusing distance is the same, the construction has changed with 16 elements in 12 groups, compared with 14 elements in 10 groups in the mark I. The other major differences are the larger dimensions of the mark II with an 82mm filter size compared to the previous 77mm and an additional 40 grams in weight, thus totalling 640 grams.

The closest f/4 lens comparison to the EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM is the EF17-40mm f/4L USM. It is 165 grams lighter and is smaller in size with a filter size of 77mm (rather than 82mm). While the closest focusing distance is the same at 0.28 metres, the maximum focal length is slightly longer at 40mm. The size of these wideangle lenses is a very important consideration for underwater photographers because some underwater housings may only cater for a maximum lens diameter of 77mm (or thereabouts).

I upgraded my EF16-35mm f/2.8 L USM to the mark II version for my editorial work on land as the wide aperture is essential for me to shoot at the fastest possible speed possible when working in low light conditions and at night. I have also found that the image is much sharper towards the edge of the frame. It’s also worth noting that there is no limited edge distortion when you use the new 16-35mm lens on the EOS 5D full frame body.

© Helen Atkinson

Swimming with Seals by Lundy Island, Devon, UK. Shot on EOS 5D with EF17-40mm f/4L USM at 17mm end of zoom, 1/200sec at f/8, ISO 200.

For my underwater work I currently use the Ikelite housing, which allows a maximum lens diameter of 77mm, so I now use the EF17-40mm f/4L USM on an EOS 5D body. For wide vistas I generally shoot with an f-stop ranging from f/5.6 to f/11 (visibility permitting), so a small f-stop is not really a major concern for this type of shooting. The maximum magnification of the 17-40mm zoom is also slightly greater than the f/2.8 equivalent at its maximum focal length of 40mm.

When working overseas I have found that the lighter weight of the EF17-40mm f/4L USM lens, combined with other lighter, smaller lenses, the 5D body without grip, and other lightweight equipment such as the 10inch Asus eeePC has facilitated a significantly less stressful travel experience (given the increasingly tighter airline 'carry on' restrictions). I have been very impressed with the quality of the images shot on both these lenses. The difference of one f-stop for the majority of landscape and aerial work, and for shots showing an overall scene, is for the most part negligible.

The mid-range Canon EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM and the EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lenses are the closest comparison for this focal length range. The EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens is shorter in length and 280 grams lighter than the EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM. This lens also has a greater focal length range and with image stabilisation this can be very advantageous in low light conditions or when it’s necessary to shoot at slow speed. Examples of this are when taking a panning shot of a vehicle or close-up sport action such as motocross or basketball. It’s also useful during weddings when the light is low, artificial light such as flash cannot be used, and space restrictions combined with the need for discretion and constant movement of the subject require a zoom lens to maximise the number of different shots taken from one position.

© Helen Atkinson

Grass laid in Trafalgar Square, London, UK. May 24, 2007. Shot on an EOS 5D with EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens, 1/160sec at f/11, ISO 640.

I use the EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM, and prior to that the older EF28-70mm f/2.8L USM. I found this to be an ideal lens when covering a court case or for a press conference and especially good for PR and commercial jobs that involve shooting many different angles in a tight time frame. Using the f/2.8 aperture at the 70mm end of the zoom range has been very useful for portraits during such commissions, especially when working in restricted space, under time pressures that impede the ability to change lenses quickly, and when the need to avoid distortion of the subject is a necessity. The close macro focusing distance is also very useful when needing to copy material and you don’t have room to take a dedicated macro with you.

For the times that I require a longer focal length I generally switch to a second pro camera body from the EOS-1 series with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens mounted. However, the slightly longer focal length range and image stabilisation of the EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens, along with the smaller size and lighter weight of this lens, will outweigh the need for an extra wide f-stop in many shooting situations.

When you want to throw the background out of focus, in particular for portrait photography, it is often preferable to use the widest aperture available. To achieve this effect it can be more beneficial to use the f/2.8 lenses over the f/4 equivalent range. However, if the background is extremely far away from the subject, or you are shooting in a controlled studio situation with flash lighting and a plain background, then the choice of f/2.8 over f/4 will be negligible.

© Helen Atkinson

Model wearing an outfit by British designer Julien Macdonald for his Autumn/Winter collection during London Fashion Week, 18 February 2004, London, UK. Shot on an EOS-1D with EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM at the 200mm end of zoom, 1/160sec at f/2.8, ISO 400.

In general, the longer the focal length of the lens, the more out of focus the background will be at the same wide aperture, so an aperture of f/4 will probably achieve your desired effect at the longest end of the EF70-200mm zoom lens over the EF16-35mm zoom lens. Of course there will also be less distortion in your subject if you are not shooting up their nose, and it is also worth considering the closest focusing distance of the lens you are using. You can achieve some fantastic portraits on very long lenses so long as you are willing to shout directions to your model.

On the longer end of the spectrum of these lenses, one of the most popular lenses used by photojournalists and sports photographers is the EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens (and the non-IS EF70-20mm f/2.8L USM – introduced prior to the IS version), alongside a wideangle optic such as the EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM (and older EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM version) lens.

When combined with an EOS-1D Mark II or III body the magnification of focal length can be a great advantage in order to achieve longer focal lengths whilst keeping the weight carried to a minimum, and also provides maximum zoom range whilst preserving the wide f/2.8 aperture. These factors are essential when artificial light cannot be used - heavily overcast days, press conferences, weddings, sports events (some with artificial light), and for shooting wildlife, when wanting depth of field as shallow as possible.

When the light is extremely low and the ISO is set as high as usable for the designated output (frequently newspapers and magazines), then the speed has to be compromised. This is where the IS (Image Stabilisation) unit, along with steady hands or a monopod or tripod, can help preserve the clarity of the image. Image Stabilisation is included on the EF300mm f/2.8 and f/4 and the EF400mm f/2.8 and f/4 lenses. There is currently a choice of IS and non-IS on the EF70-200mm f/2.8 and f/4 lenses, which affects the number of lens elements and groups in the lens construction and thus makes for a weight difference of 160 grams between the f/2.8 lenses and 55 grams between the f/4 ones.

© Helen Atkinson

"Wave Swinger" on the pier in Chicago, USA. Shot on EOS-1Ds Mark III with EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, 1/200sec at f/2.8, ISO 1000.

The EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM is 710 grams lighter than the equivalent f/2.8 IS focal length lens and the non-IS versions have a differential of 605 grams. The f/4 70-200mm lenses are also smaller in dimensions, taking a 67mm filter, while the f2.8 equivalent (both IS and non IS) take the 77mm filter.

So, using a combination of f/4 lenses, combined with other ‘lighter’ camera equipment can help reduce the overall weight carried. Although this means a sacrifice of one f stop of light, this will not heavily compromise the quality of the desired image. The f/4 lenses can therefore be especially beneficial to those with back problems. And with the severe restrictions now imposed on hand luggage size and weight for airline travel, f/4 lenses can help reduce the overall weight and bulk of your carry-on bag. Of course even smaller aperture lenses can help here, but these will affect the minimum depth of field available.

The only three lenses in this comparison that are not water or dust resistant are the EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM, the EF70-200mm f/4L USM, and the EF300mm f/4 IS USM. It is worth considering these factors when working in dusty, sandy or desert conditions in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq in the Middle East, the Australian outback, the Nevada desert, anywhere near a beach, or even when the majority of your work takes place outside under rainy conditions such as for photojournalism, wildlife or sports photography.

© Helen Atkinson

Man smoking a ‘Nargileh’ – a water pipe used to smoke tobacco – Petra, Jordan. Shot on an EOS-1Ds with EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM at the 200mm end of the zoom, 1/125sec at f/4, ISO 100.

The lighter f/4 lenses are ideal to use when working under brighter, sunny conditions and climates, and with the exception of the f/4 DO lens, have closer focusing distances than their f/2.8 counterparts, of course this actual distance will vary dependant on which EOS camera body the lens is used in conjunction with.

When I’m on assignment in bright foreign climbs then I will generally take the EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM with me as I find the difference in f-stop fairly negligible, and utilise the image stabilisation technology for very low light situations, and try to get in close to the subject on a wider lens to reduce the issue of camera shake. For many locations that I visit the probability of dust and rain is high so I prefer the zoom models which are water and dust resistant, and in very harsh conditions try not to remove the lens from the body.

The EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM, EF400mm f/2.8L IS USM and the EF400mm f/4 DO IS USM lenses are all built using fluorite lens elements as well as the Ultra Low Dispersion (UD) glass elements. The development of the fluorite technology, while expensive, has helped to facilitate a reduction in weight and size of these larger lenses while improving the quality and sharpness of the image, and correcting chromatic aberrations (which can also affect the sharpness of the image).

© Helen Atkinson

The late Bobby, (aka Bongo Jnr. - male silverback gorilla) in the Gorilla Kingdom enclosure at London Zoo, UK, 29 March 2007. Shot on an EOS-1D Mark II with EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM lens, 1/125sec at f/2.8, ISO 400.

The EF300mm f/4L IS USM has a much closer focusing distance than the EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM lens - a distance of 1.5m compared to 2.5m - which means you can get closer to you subject. This is ideal for portraits or fashion shoots, especially since the lighter weight makes hand holding the lens for long lengths of time more realistic.

The optional use of the IS (Image Stabilisation) unit allows high-speed correction control whenever the lens detects vertical or horizontal movement. This is highly beneficial when hand holding the lens and shooting at slow speeds, and can be utilised well on stationery objects or for tracking the cars in Formula 1 racing; for runners in track and field events, horse racing, wildlife, and catwalk fashion. However this lens is not water or dust resistant, so weather conditions could affect when you use this lens unless you have a good rain cover to hand.

The EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM is incredibly sharp, as is the EF400mm f/2.8L IS USM, however they are larger and significantly heavier than their f/4 counterparts. The EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM lens is 1360 grams heavier than the EF300mm f/4L IS USM lens and the EF400mm f/2.8L IS USM is a massive 3430 grams heavier than the EF400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens, so you will definitely need to use your monopod with these lenses for prolonged periods of shooting.

© Helen Atkinson

Motorbike circuit at the Canon Pro Experience Day at Silverstone. Shot on EOS-1D Mark II N with 400mm f/4 DO IS USM and 1.4x converter, 1/640sec at f/11 at 560mm, ISO 400.

The EF400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens uses diffractive optical elements, which has leant it a more compact design, whilst preserving a high quality image. This 400mm optic is also said to have one of the fastest autofocusing systems in the world, but I have found in lower light conditions that this lens sometimes struggles to lock onto the subject when in direct comparison to the EF400mm f/2.8L IS USM. Both lenses are incredibly sharp and very expensive, which could be a big factor when deciding which one to go for along with the international travel issues of weight and size. While both these lenses are dust and water resistant I would definitely recommend investing in a fully waterproof rain cover to be ready for the worst-case scenario.

The longer 300mm and 400mm f/2.8 lenses are ideal for news, sport, and wildlife photography, and the f/4 versions of these are good for portraiture and fashion when you can’t get close to your subject, or you don’t want to. The ability to completely throw the background out of focus really emphasises your subject and the lenses really help to create images of good contrast and optimum colour reproduction even at the long focal lengths.

© Helen Atkinson

Motorbike circuit at the Canon Pro Experience Day at Silverstone. Shot on EOS-1D Mark II N with EF300mm f/4L IS USM and 2x converter, 1/640sec at f/8 at 600mm, ISO 640.

The decisions that govern your choice of using an f/2.8 or an f/4 zoom lens of different focal lengths are wide-ranging, from weight and size, purpose of shoot, travel considerations, weather conditions, time factors, cost, and the desired combination with other Canon photographic equipment. Whatever factor influences your choice of lens the Canon lens range has enough beautifully crafted pieces of glass within it to satisfy every shooting situation.