FOCUS ON: EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM

November 19, 2012

Are great images a product of the photographer, or their camera equipment? The Focus On series explores the idea that it's BOTH: Featuring a professional photographer and a Canon lens, the Canon Digital Learning Center focuses on the relationship that artists can have with their gear.

Canon Digital Learning Center (CDLC): When did you start shooting with the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM?

Eric Meola (EM): I started making images with the 70-300mm f/4-5.6 L IS right after it came out. I made a day trip into Manhattan and walked around the city shooting skyscrapers, people, street scenes and reflections. What was unique to this lens was its incredible sharpness at smaller apertures, so I could stop it down for increased depth of field. I’d shoot at f/16, and yet be able to hand hold the lens at below 1/30th of a second, which opened up all sorts of possibilities!

CDLC: Before shooting with this 70-300mm, had you worked with other lighter-weight tele zoom lenses? Any in particular?

EM: Nothing in this range that I felt was a compelling reason to walk around with a zoom. My favorite lens before was More Canon’s equally stellar 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS, but it’s heavier and somewhat larger, so I had been hoping for a lighter weight lens that still had great “build” quality.

CDLC: Great sample images, especially isolated parts of landscapes and similar distant subjects. Its close-focusing range is pretty impressive, too… do you find many uses for that? Any that stick out in your mind?

EM: This lens has terrific “bokeh”--the visual quality of using a long lens to selectively focus on a subject is great for isolating your subject from the background. I’ve found it’s a great close-up lens, as it focuses very close and at 300mm it allows you to shoot almost macro close-ups and yet maintain a great working distance to your subject.

CDLC: The Image Stabilization is one key to this lens’s hand holding ease. Do you have any sense of the slowest shutter speed you feel safe hand-holding this lens, when the IS is active?

EM: One of the most outstanding aspects of this lens is that the image stabilization if vastly superior to anything that came before it. I’ve been able to hand-hold this lens at as low as 1/8th second at the 300mm focal length, which is unprecedented. It gives you the ability to do all sorts of shots you could never do before.

CDLC: AF performance is one factor that separates this lens from other 70 or 75-300mm compact zooms in the Canon line… how has it performed for you? Any particular situations where its responsiveness seemed to stick-out, and make a difference for you?

EM: I used this lens in India last year to photograph a ceremony called “Holi” which is a celebration of the arrival of Spring. It’s a fast-moving event, as everyone is in a very festive spirit and part of the celebration involves throwing handfuls of colored powder on anyone who is close to you...so having fast and responsive autofocus was essential, as without it I would have missed many shots.

CDLC: Can you tell us about your impressions of the optics on this lens? Any particular “sweet spots”, in terms of zoom range or lens aperture, that you try to stay within? Has it been a lens you feel good about shooting wide-open when you need to?

EM: The “sweet spot” of this lens is f/5.6-f/8, although it is very good wide open. But what is particularly gratifying to me is that it seems to handle “diffraction” better than any longer lens I’ve previously used. So I’m confident in shooting with it at, say, f/11, and even at f/16.

CDLC: How would you compare this lens’ optics to other tele lenses you’ve used recently, including fixed focal length tele lenses?

EM: I’d say that without question this is the best 70-300mm lens on the market today. It’s very, very good at all the focal lengths, and the only long lens I have that beats it is the much larger and heavier EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II.

CDLC: What are the situations where you tend to pack this lens and ultimately rely on it for a lot of shooting? Any types of assignments where you might by-pass it and reach for some other telephoto lens options?

EM: I like to travel “light,” and work with the right lens for the job, so this lens fulfills 75% of my needs for most shooting--just this ONE lens ! But when I need speed I’ll pack, say, the 300mm f/2.8L IS II, or the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II. But all in all, because of the ability to shoot at lower shutter speeds due to the improved image stabilization, I find myself packing this lens as y one favorite “go to” kit.

CDLC: What camera(s) do you most frequently combine with this lens? Any particular way you prefer to set-up the AF system in the camera(s), given the lens and the types of subject matter you anticipate shooting?

EM: I use it with the EOS 5D Mark III and now with the EOS-1DX. I use both one-shot and AI Servo depending on whether my subject is stationary or not. And I prefer to set focus to the AF-On button on the back of the camera, so I separate the focus and shutter release functions. I like to use selective single point focus as well as zone area focus, and occasionally spot focusing--and the 61-point AF system is second to none because it allows me to set the focus point(s) over a far greater area.

CDLC: How often (if ever) do you tripod-mount this lens, vs. hand-holding it?

EM: I very seldom use this lens on a tripod, as the increased low noise capability of the EOS 5D Mark III and the 1DX, along with the better image stabilization have just about made tripods extinct, other than for shooting in the dark !

CDLC: You mention that this lens has turned into a real “go-to” lens for you. Any other lens or lenses that you previously got a lot of mileage out of, that this 70-300 seems to replace much of the time for you?

EM: I “see” the way telephoto lenses see, so long zooms have always been in my bag. Previously, the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS was my favorite lens, so to have a much lighter, more compact lens that also has better stabilization, has opened up many opportunities. I’ve always appreciated Canon’s offerings in the long tele and long zoom range--there’s the 70-200/2.8L IS II, and the f/4 version of that lens, and the 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L is complemented by the 400mm DO, the 400mm f/5.6 and the 400mm f/2.L IS II, so there’s a vastly larger selection of great long glass than with any other manufacturer.

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