Canon EF 300 L f/2.8 IS II USM Fixed Telephoto Lens – Field Review
I bought my own Canon EF300 L f/2.8L IS I some four years ago, the predecessor to this lens. From the first frame that I took with that lens, I never looked back. This has been my workhorse wildlife photography lens ever since. In fact, when I am in the field, I will often choose my shooting distance to suit that lens. It is that good! When I heard that Canon had released a new version of their 300f2.8 fixed telephoto lens, I was most interested to see just how they would go about improving it. Of course, technology and time move on, and the version 1 IS lens is no longer a new design, having first been released in mid-1999. At that time digital camera technology was in its early stages and there has been marked progress in camera bodies and sensors in the interim.
The Canon EF 300L f/2.8 IS USM II lens.
What Is New?
The moment you take a proper look at the version II lens, it becomes apparent that it is indeed a completely new design that shares little with its predecessor except for its final specifications.
EF300 L f/2.8 IS I on the left, EF300 L f/2.8 IS II on the right.- copyright © Grant Atkinson.
To begin with, the new lens is 4mm shorter than the old one. The large switch panel that was found on the side of the old lens has been made much smaller. The smaller, redesigned panel is home to the stabilizer on/off switch, the stabilizer mode switch and the preset focus mode switch. This panel is narrower, and contours more closely to the shape of the lens barrel. The switches also require slightly firmer pressure to move them. As a result of these two changes, it is now much more difficult to accidentally bump a switch and reset it. This is something that happens to me quite a lot with version I of this lens. Of course, covering the switch panel with a neoprene lens protector is one way to solve the problem on the older lens.
The EF300 L f/2.8 IS II switch panel- copyright © Grant Atkinson.
The EF300L f/2.8 IS II comes with Canon’s very latest image stabilization technology. The IS provides stabilization equivalent to four stops of shutter speed, and has three modes to choose from.
The remaining two switches, to switch between AF/MF and the distance limiting switch, are now positioned in one panel that sits very close to the lens mount, completely tucked out of harm’s way.
The tripod collar is new, and is now an integral part of the lens barrel. It can no longer be removed. The new ring rotates very smoothly, and has a very distinct click to it when it is centered, which is useful. The old lens had a black line that could be lined up to do the same thing. The locking knob for the tripod ring is now positioned high on the lens barrel, which is another improvement. It is much easier to reach it now without having to lower your hand far from the lens barrel. The new tripod foot itself is more robust, and it sits further from the lens body, allowing more room between the lens barrel and the foot.
Fast-flying avocets. Canon EF300 L f/2.8 IS II, Canon 1Dmk4 – copyright © Grant Atkinson.
The focus ring is wider on the new lens. This does make it easier to grip and turn, even with gloves on. I am not a big fan of these wider focus rings though, as I hardly ever use manual focus on these long lenses. I have found that the new wider focus ring can quite easily get shifted accidentally when holding the lens, or shooting it off of a beanbag.
As before, there are four rubber-covered buttons on the front collar of the lens, that can be programmed to perform various functions, depending on which camera body you use. I keep mine set to the default which is AF Stop, meaning that if you are shooting in Ai Servo, and you need to compose in such a way that none of your AF points will fall on your subject, then you can compose and push in one of these buttons in order to stop the lens from focusing temporarily.
The new lens hood is identical to the old one in size, which basically means big, but it too features improvements. The locking knob on the new hood has been redesigned and doesn’t protrude as much as before. This makes it less likely to catch on the sides of camera bags, etc. The new hood has been further improved by the complete omission of the four tiny mounting screws that were found at the base of the old lens hood. Those screws were very annoying in that they used to regularly come loose and fall out.
Changes are not restricted to the outside of the lens only. Big news inside the redesigned lens is the replacement of one lens group that was made up of three elements, with a new grouping of just two elements. This is made possible by the new grouping being structured of two fluorite elements. The old lens had two UD elements and only a single fluorite element in its construction. Flourite is highly effective at combating chromatic aberrations as well as flaring and ghosting. It also weighs less than some other optic materials. It is also extremely costly to manufacture. The extra fluorite element is one reason for the higher cost of this new lens. The new EF 300 L f/2.8 IS II has 16 elements in total, arranged in 12 groups, compared to its predecessor, which had 17 elements in 13 groups. The removal of the lens element, along with other changes, means that this new lens hits the scales around 340g lighter than its predecessor. There are now 9 aperture blades in the diaphragm, which should result in smoother edges to the shape of the aperture circle.
How Does It Work?
The new lens feels much lighter than its predecessor. I am very used to the weight of the older model, and am comfortable shooting it handheld. It is not just the 340g that has been shed, but where it has been taken from that makes the difference. The lens feels much lighter toward the front end, with the consequence that the bulk of its weight is now closer to the camera. This makes it much easier to control. The weight loss also counts more the longer you are handholding or carrying the lens.
The EF 300 L f/2.8 IS II focuses extremely quickly. Canon list revised AF computing, as well as new AF motors all being part of the new design. I was not able to say that I could detect any faster focusing, but it felt as least as fast as the old lens, which was already extremely fast. Any differences may be too fast for me to detect. I shot the two lenses side by side, with fast-flying birds for targets, using 1Dmk3 and 1Dmk4 bodies on the backs. The results were equally impressive, and reviewing the images did not show up a noticeable difference between the two in AF accuracy. The lighter weight of the new 300 made a difference in tracking moving subjects whilst handholding. It was noticeably easier to use due to its reduced and repositioned weight.
I also tested the image quality of the new EF 300L f/2.8 IS II by shooting it off a tripod alongside its predecessor. I used two different camera bodies, for their different sensor characteristics, on both lenses. I made use of the 5Dmk2 for its full-frame sensor, and the 1Dmk4 for its finely detailed captures, a product of its 5.7 micron pixel pitch. In low light the new 300 had a slight edge when it came to detail and sharpness on the older lens, particularly at wide-open aperture settings. From f/5.6 upwards there was little to choose between the two although the new lens is just that tiny bit better with slightly finer details. What was quite astounding with this new lens is just how good it is wide-open, at f/2.8. I was not able to really see any significant differences in sharpness and detail in images captured in low light at f/2.8 and f/8.0 using the EF 300L f/2.8 IS II. My evaluation of image quality was performed on a static subject, a furry toy baboon. I felt this gave me a close approximation of real-world wildlife usage. I also shot a few thousand frames of birds with the new 300 and was very impressed with both AF performance and image quality. I have not used a better lens.
EF 300L f/2.8 IS II, 1Dmk4. 1/800s at f/2.8, 100% crop – copyright © Grant Atkinson
EF300 L f/2.8 IS II, 1Dmk4. 1/100s at f.8.0, 100% crop – copyright © Grant Atkinson
For this test I once again made use of the furry toy baboon to simulate a wild animal, as there are no wild animals that I know that will stand still long enough for lens comparisons of this type.
The new lens showed that it is far less likely to suffer from flare or ghosting when shooting into very bright or direct light. The old 300 was already quite good in this regard, but the new lens is still better. Flare happens when stray light gets reflected off surfaces inside the lens and either shows up in the image as small circular, bright patches, or even sometimes as large areas of low contrast.
EF300 L f/2.8 IS I. Note pink colour caused by flare. 1/3200 at f/7.1 – copyright © Grant Atkinson
EF300 L f/2.8 IS II. Little or no flare visible. 1/3200s at f/7.1 – copyright © Grant Atkinson
I was not able to notice enough light fall off on the edges of the image circle that would have any significance to a wildlife or sports photographer with the new lens.
The IS system is very effective on the new lens. As I usually do a lot of my shooting whilst handholding, and I often photograph moving subjects, I spent a lot of time shooting the lens using the new Mode 3. Mode 1 is for regular shooting, in handheld situations. Mode 2 is for panning, which you are most likely to do from a tripod. Mode 3 is for photographing action and is a new mode from Canon aimed at sports and wildlife photographers. During operation, the IS function is active but electronically locked. When the shutter is fully depressed, the camera releases the electronic lock and the IS responds to camera shake based on the running calculations. This means that the viewfinder is not stabilized during tracking, and one does not struggle with the image in the viewfinder jumping around due to the IS corrections. Canon claim that the IS system will detect when the lens is mounted on a tripod. They claim that the IS is still beneficial even when shooting off a tripod in that is will be effective against even slight camera shake or vibration. Many shooters prefer to turn IS off when they are shooting from a tripod, or at shutter speeds over 1/1000sec, and this is still an option. I generally prefer to keep the IS on and have had no reason to change this.
Alongside the IS switch panel there are also controls for the focus preset function. With this feature one can preset a focus distance into the lens memory and then recall that focus distance instantly at any time just by turning the collar on the front of the lens. A new feature is the power focus option. This feature allows video shooters to make controlled focus pulls, driven by the electronic AF motor by using the front collar as a controller.
The second switch panel is much reduced in size and is situated just ahead of the lens mount. It has a switch to change between manual focus and autofocus. The other switch in this panel controls the focus distance of the lens. The lens has a three-position focus limiting switch. By limiting the focus distance to match your shooting conditions, you can speed up focusing as the lens need only work in a smaller focus range. That said, if you are shooting in situations where you have little idea of how close or how far your next subject may end up, make sure to leave the focus limit switch set to “2m – OO” which represents 2m to infinity. You really don’t want to have your closest focus limited to 6m and then have a subject suddenly appear much closer. That is a sure way to miss shots. I usually leave all my lenses on the setting that gives the minimum focus distance all the way to infinity to prevent any such surprises.
EF300 L f/2.8 I IS at minimum focus distance of 2.5m – copyright © Grant Atkinson
EF300 L f/2.8 IS II at minimum focus distance of 1.9m. Compare how much larger the subject is in the frame – copyright © Grant Atkinson
The minimum focus distance on this 300 has been improved, and it can now focus at 2m. This is .5m or 500mm closer than the older lens. This makes a big difference when shooting small subjects from close distances.
The lens hood attaches firmly and while its threaded locking knob can still get caught up in things, it is now less likely to do so.
The new 300 is fitted with seals, gaskets and O-rings in virtually every place where moisture might gain entry. This is highly desirable. It means you can shoot the lens in light rain if need be. It also means that moisture won’t easily get inside the lens if you live in or use it in damp conditions. This is dependent upon the lens being matched to a suitably weather-sealed Canon camera body though. Further to that, moisture sealing also means dust sealing, so dust will have a hard time getting inside this lens. Canon claim that weather sealing is improved due to design advances with the new lens. As the older 300f2.8 was pretty good in this regard, but the new one should be even better.
Both the front lens element and the rear element (the one closest to the camera sensor) are treated with a fluorine coating, which makes it more difficult for dust particles to adhere to the glass. The coating also makes it easier for users to get rid of smudges and fingerprints without leaving any residue behind.
The new lens cover – copyright © Grant Atkinson
There have been more improvements with the lens cover that comes with the camera. The old cover was made of some sort of artificial leather material, covered the whole lens hood, and was quite difficult to get on and off. The new cover is made from nylon, with a padded front end, and closes with a Velcro tab. It is effective and easy to use. It only really fitted well onto the back end of the lens hood, and is designed to be used when the hood is reversed on the camera.
The 300 f2.8 II also comes with a high-quality carrying case that provides complete protection to the lens and can be locked. There is no space to store anything else in the case apart from the lens, with its hood reversed, its cover and strap. The carrying case is made of hard plastic with molded padded insides to completely support the lens when stored. It is a valuable accessory and a good way to keep your lens safe, dry and dust-free when stored or transported.
For some time, the fast aperture Canon 300 f2.8 has served as the core lens for a system made up of the 300f2.8, as well as the 1.4 and the 2x extenders or tele-converters. Combining the 300 with the 1.4x extender creates a 420mm f/4.0 lens. Combining the 300 with the 2x extender creates a 600mm f/5.6 telephoto lens.
Canon recently introduced two new extenders, the EF 1.4x III extender, and the EF 2x III extender. These new extenders were redesigned, and optimized to work very well with the new range of Canon telephoto lenses.
I did use the new 2x III extender on the new 300, and found that it did work well. In good light there was only a slight quality loss in the images, when viewed at 100 percent. However, be aware that the 2x extender does slow down AF speed quite radically compared to the bare lens. This is of little consequence for photographing static subjects, but it can make taking sharp pics of fast-moving subjects quite challenging.
I did not have the newest version of the 1.4x extender, so used an EF 1.4x II attached to the new 300, and had good results from this combination. Image quality is just barely degraded compared to the bare lens and is noticeably better than the results from the EF 2x III extender. AF speed is also only slightly slowed down. Even with the EF 1.4x II attached, I was able to comfortably AF track fast-moving subjects.
I find that I tend to get better results when shooting with extenders attached when I am using the 1D Canon bodies. It feels to me as if the AF speed and accuracy of the 1D series is less affected by the extenders, whereas the 5Dmk2 and the crop sensor cameras give away a little more in this respect.
For those who find the EF 300 L f/2.8 IS II too costly, which is probably the single biggest reason not to buy it, used versions of the EF300 L f/2.8 IS I are a viable option. Perhaps the single biggest advantage the new lens has over the older one is the weight difference.
The old EF 300L f/2.8 IS I on the left, and the new EF 300L f/2.8 IS II on the right – copyright © Grant Atkinson
If either of these lenses are too big, or too heavy for you, Canon have a good alternative in the form of the Canon EF 300 L f/4.0 IS telephoto lens. The f/4.0 version weight around half the weight of its bigger brother, and costs much less than half as much. I owned two copies of the f/4.0, and found it a good performer. Both f2.8 lenses are sharper though, and also AF significantly faster. The f2.8 lenses also hold a significant advantage when it comes to image quality, and focusing ability in low light. The f2.8 lenses also allow one to shoot with a shallower depth of field, and will break up the background more effectively than the f/4.0 can. On the other hand the EF 300 L f/4.0 IS is very light, easy to carry and shoot with and is an excellent lens for its price range.
As at the time of this writing the Canon EF 300 L f/2.8 IS II stands out as probably the best fast aperture telephoto lens in its class. There have been so very many improvements made to this lens, some bigger, like the reduced weight and tucked-in switches, and some smaller, like the fluorine lens coatings, new tripod foot, that the end result is truly deserving of the label “State Of The Art.” The EF 300 L f2.8 IS II impresses in every way.