Anything long, fast, and cheap?

I received this e-mail today, from a Canon Digital Rebel XT owner:

I shoot pictures mainly for my kids marching band. Which means I’m usually shooting at dusk or night. It also means I’m either in the stands on on the sidelines but still want good close-ups. What is a good (read affordable) lens for shooing long distance in low light?

What he wants is a lens that has the reach, is wide (for night shooting) and is cheap. Image Stabilization isn’t an issue because I’ll assume he’ll be buying a monopod or owns a tripod. He’ll have to push the ISO to get the shutter speed up to 1/60 or better which is what he’ll need to prevent bluring of a moving marching band.

Unfortunately there is no such lens that is both long, fast, and cheap.

[Recommendations after the jump]

There are different buying strategies:

Going “Cheap”

If you go for a budget telephoto then your aperture is f/5.6 which will probably have too low a shutter speed for this photography. It will definitely have trouble focusing so you’ll have to manual or trap focus. The quality of many of these lenses are low so you’ll see some barrel distortion and some chromatic abberation. The latter won’t be much an issue because of artificial lighting and you can fix the former if you find a model supported by DxO Optics Pro (which costs about as much as most of these lenses).

In general, many of these lenses make a great compliment to the kit zoom that comes with your dSLR because they allow you to dip your toes in the telephoto end without costing you a leg. Canon’s line, like all telephoto and telephoto zooms which are its strength, is sizable:

  • EF 80-200mm f/4.5-5.6 II (I think this model may be discontinued because it’s selling for $90 used. It probably has some serious chromatic aberration and barrel distortion, but it might be good for a budget.
  • EF 75-300mm f/3-5.6 III. This sounds like your traditional cheap zoom. At $170 street. I’d pass this for the next model up.
  • EF 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6 III USM. This is the same as the previous model but adds an ultrasonic motor. This is going to be useful because assuming you can get autofocus at all, you’ll want to be manually adjusting it. Without a piezoelectric motor, you’ll be working against the screw. This model probably will have some nasty purple fringing on a bright day at tele. ($200 street)
  • EF 55-200mm f/4.5-5.6 II USM ($220 street). Sounds like a lens they might bundle with a two-lens kit to go along with the EF-S 18-55mm. I’d really questions the quality; I definitely question the speed.
  • EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM. The addition of image stabilization isn’t worth the price on such a low quality lens. Unlike the non-IS version, this adds UD glass, but I think people should graduate to a “baby L” (see below) at this price point: $560 street. The main use is if you want a zoom and never carry around your tripod or monopod.
  • EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM. This uses “diffractive optics1 in order to make the lens very compact. To be blunt, high price would steer me away from this product despite what Michael Reichmann says. If someone can explain why someone might need a $1000 for a soft, slow, zoom just because it is compact, I’d be interested. Please explain in the comments.

Going “pro”

Quality optics costs money and the quintessential balance for getting pro performance in a telephoto zoom is 70-200mm f/2.8. Of course, the pro budget isn’t in cheap:

Going middle

Unlike Nikon, Canon has a range of luxury lenses that split the two stop difference between the cheap zooms and the pro. These are called “baby L”s and are often praised because they offer “L quality” at a more affordable and compact price.

As a Nikon photographer, I’m biased because the prices seem slightly too high for what you get. But most Canon people I know rave about them. If you own a Canon, you do yourself a great disservice by not at least giving this line a consideration.

In this zoom range there are now two offerings:

  • EF 70-200mm f/4L USM. People just love this lens. It’s definitely worth looking at if you’re a Canon photographer. Many people feel that f/2.8 is “too soft” and the price is very reasonable: $590 street.
  • EF 70-200mm f/4L L IS USM. Just recently released. This adds Image Stabilization, but at a point at which I’d recommend people bump themselves up to a f/2.8 L instead of paying the $1200 street for this lens. In many ways the price is because this lens new, but it’s also because the premium Canon charges for IS is, in my opinion, unreasonable.

Going Prime

Another option is to go for a fixed telephoto. Because of its limited use, the specialization means it is sold only to a vertical niche: the offerings tend to be high quality and therefore expensive. On the other hand, the optics are better for the price and because there are less lens elements, it is less prone to flare.

I think Nikon’s selection/quality is slightly better than Canon’s in this range. But the difference is slight and the Canon’s can be slightly cheaper because of their EF-S mount has a larger bore:

  • EF 135mm f/2L USM. I’m worried this won’t have enough reach. But it has a large enough aperture. The high price means that it’s pretty much a lens for 35mm portrait and event photography—think weddings with a Canon 5D. Maybe you can put a teleconverter on it and get the reach you want but at that point, you might as well have bought the lens you needed. There is an f/2.8 model that is much cheaper, but the Softfocus feature gives away Canon thinks this is a 35mm portrait lens for an event photographer on a budget.
  • EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM. Probably the one to get if you need f/2.8 speed but can’t plunk down 10 Benjamins on a lens. ($650 street) For reference: the Nikon version goes for $740 street and is 20mm shorter. Nikon also offers a 200mm f/2 VR model that someone gave the jocular title of “the Real LensBaby 2.0”. It is probably the single best indoor sport photography lens on the market. The price is astronomical.
  • EF 300mm f/4L IS USM. I mention this in the unlikely even that 200mm doesn’t give enough reach. Unfortunately, this model has the premium associated with image stabilization making it better suited for event photography and news gathering. ($1110 street). Nikon makes one similarly priced, as well as an expensive 300mm f/2.8 model which has “birding” written all over it.

Going Third

Whenever you’re faced with lenses out of your price range, it never hurts to see what the third party companies Tokina, Sigma, and Tamron are offering.

  • Tamron AF 55-200mm f/4-5.6 Di II LD Macro. This is a digital specific lens that Tamron is marketing to all you Canon people who have got the 18-55mm with your kit. It’s costs about $170 (Bob Atkins’s review. If you see a 5D in your future and you really are too cheap to drop this lens when you upgrade, Tamron still sells the AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di LD Macro 1:2, but at that point I’d recommend sticking with the Canon offerings mentioned in the “Go cheap” section above. Macro features on third party lenses are notoriously bad. To translate Tamron’s nomenclature: Di II = Canon EF-S = Nikon DX; LD = Canon UD = Nikon ED
  • Sigma APO 70-200mm f2.8 EX DG HSM ($830 street). They also released the APO 70-200mm f2.8 EX DG MACRO HSM. To translate Sigma’s nomenclature: APO = Canon UD = Nikon ED; EX = Canon L = Nikon “homey-don’t-play-that-marketing”; HSM = Canon USM = Nikon AF-S; DG = Canon EF = Nikon non-DX.
  • Tokina has no offerings yet. I imagine they will soon because of their deal to manufacture and distribute Pentax lens designs.

When buying third party, be sure to do a lot of research because sometimes they’re a great value and sometimes they’re crap.

Me and my 70-200mm

I purchased the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR (IS in Canon speak) so as to never need a medium distance telephoto zoom again for the rest of my life. It cost a fortune. I have a problem visualizing in this distance range so most of my shots are unimaginative. Here are some of my better ones:

three pelicans
Three Pelicans
Point Lobos, California

Nikon D70, Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G VR
81A + polarizer
f/2.8 at 1/1250 sec, iso 200, 200mm (300mm)

Angel Island, San Francisco Bay, California

Nikon D70, Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G VR
1/800sec @ f/2.8, iso 200, 70mm (105mm)

advice to the son
Advice to the son
Rancho Santa Fe, California

Nikon D70, Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G VR
f/3.2 at 1/640 second, iso 200, 70mm (105mm)

Silver Keys Videography
Silver Keys Videography
Mountain View, California

Nikon D70, Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G VR
f/2.8 at 1/320 second, iso 200, 200mm (300mm)

I dropped in a TC-20E II doubler mostly for birding:

Playing chicken with a pelican
Playing chicken with a pelican
La Jolla Cove, La Jolla, CA

Nikon D70, Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G VR, TC-20E II
Gitzo G1227LVL tripod, RRS BH-55 ballhead, Wimberley Sidekick
f/5.6 at 1/1000 second, iso 200, 400mm (600mm)

…and other sorts of animal photography…

Brothers grooming
Brothers grooming
San Diego Wild Animal Park, Escondido, California

Nikon D70, Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G VR, TC-20E II, SB-800
1/400 sec @ f/5.6, iso 200, 400mm (600mm)

I also have a Canon 500D diopter for closeups:

Western Blue-eyed Grass
Western Blue-eyed Grass
Angel Island, California

Nikon D70, Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G VR, Canon 500D close up filter
f/5.6 at 1/500 second, 200mm (300mm)


What I recommend is to go to a glass rental website or ask if you can rent a lens at your local photography store. In particular, I recommend renting the 70-200mm f/2.8 IS. Shoot it at 135mm. Shoot it stopped down to f/4 and f/5.6. Shoot it on and off your monopod. Shoot it with the IS on or off. Also, I hope that you don’t need more length or more aperture because it’s going to cost you.

If having done so, you have other intended uses, try out those conditions before returning the lens.

Go back and then buy the lens that best serves your needs and budget. You will almost always get what you pay for, but what you pay for may not be what you want! Also remember that bulk is a factor so if you find an f/4 or f/5.6 is good enough, then go to the store and check them out. Trust me: if I can get away with it, I use my 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G VR kit lens instead of my 70-200mm f/2.8 VR because all the strange looks I get when I whip it out. Plus, the latter requires special consideration in my photography bag purchases, the former fits in anything designed to carry my dSLR.

I hope this helps.

Also, for those people more versed in Canon and third party lenses than I. Please comment with recommendations or point out errors I made in this post. I’m sending the URL to the person who asked so I guarantee that you’ll influence at least one purchase. 🙂

By the way, if you buy from Amazon, then click on the links provided. 4% of some of these lenses is a lot of $. 😀

1 I know next to nothing about diffractive optics for photography. Though I did make a diffraction transmission hologram for my sophomore optics lab. I seem to remember needing very monochromatic light to recall the hologram.

The description sounds like marketing-speak for a Fresnel lens, done to optically better tolerances than your pocket magnifying glass/bookmark. In particular, a very in-depth description sounds to me like all they did was make a Fresnel lens and sandwich it in between a different index material in order to minimize the diffractive scattering. In this speak, “diffractive scattering” is a bad thing and has nothing to with diffractive optics.

Note that there really are such things as diffractive lenses (a.k.a. holographic lenses) which work on the principles of diffractive optics. But for it to be a true diffractive lens, it’d either have a diffraction grating (light loss, requires monochromatic (laser) incident light to be of any value) or be composed of microlenses on the order of the wavelength of light being focused. Possibly they using diffractive qualities inherent in a Fresnel lens cut on a microscopic level. In the last case, I don’t know if the math even works out for non-laser (monochromatic) light and I don’t know if it is even possible to manufacture such a beast. I strongly suspect neither is true. (You could find this out by looking at the front element of one of these DO lenses and seeing if light incident at an angle reflects a rainbow pattern back to you or you just see etching in concentric circles: if the former, it’s probably some fancy diffractive optics that’s beyond my ken; if the latter, it’s probably just a fancy Fresnel lens.)

Therefore, my best guess is a marketer confounded Fresnel lenses with near-field diffraction mathematics that bears a similar name. In which case, as a physicist, I’d like to extend a big middle finger to whoever did that.

If it is a Fresnel element, it’s going to replace the largest lens group with a thin Fresnel lens which explains the savings in weight. It’s probably difficult to manufacture a Fresnel lens at that quality which explains the difference in price. Also, lenses based on Fresnel’s shortcut are going to have a little softness associated with them because of the wave nature of light. This explains the recommendation in the review to use a stronger unsharp mask. I can’t help but think there is a severe quality loss that the DxO lab setup isn’t measuring. The point is moot, because the price means the manufacturing costs are exhorbitant unless weight is paramount.

As a rule of thumb, I’d look twice at any optical innovation that comes from Canon. Just as I look twice at any focusing engineering innovation from Nikon—such innovations play outside the respective companies’ strong suits. Since this Canon lens “technology” has been out for six years now (with the introduction of the Canon 400mm f/4 USM DO) and I don’t hear anyone saying that Nikon should be emulating it, it sounds like a bust to me.

*Picture me doing the “Nikon rules consumer optics” dance just like I did when Canon replaced flourite lenses with UD glass.* You Canon people can gloat over piezoelectric motors and image stabilization. 🙂

(Not that Nikon has never done something like this, but they have limited this to pocket camera tele-adapters and called it a phased Fresnel lens—umm, Nikon marketer, what sort of Fresnel lens doesn’t work by exploiting the “phased” nature of light in a glass to bend it?)

Update: A list of lenses

On rereading my post I noticed that it is very confusing. It sounds like I’m recommended the 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS. Nothing of the sort. Here is a list of my picks sorted by price:

  1. $170: Tamron AF 55-200mm f/4-5.6 Di II LD Macro. This sounds like a good compliment to the 18-55mm Canon Rebel kit lens. Read the reviews before pulling the trigger on this one.
  2. $200: Canon EF 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6 III USM. Probably a little optically worse than the previous, but it has a piezoelectric motor (not sure if the Tamron does). Buy this over the Tamron if you want the 300mm reach.
  3. $590: Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM. An excellent value. You gain a stop relative to cheap zooms lenses which means faster focusing and it’s tack-sharp with little distortion. On the other hand, you lose a stop relative to the 70-200mm f/2.8L USM (at almost double the price) which may be a deal killer if you need nice background blur or you need that extra stop to stop movement. Just like the 70-200mm f/2.8L USM, you’ll stand out in a crowd with a long barrel white lens. This has it’s negatives (people stare, bulky) as well as it’s positives (one of the cheapest ways to part a crowd).
  4. $650: Canon EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM. Get this if you always shoot at 200mm and need the extra stop relative to the previous lens. Primes are good.
  5. $830: Sigma APO 70-200mm f2.8 EX DG HSM. Sigma’s version of the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM. I’d read the reviews or use the thing before deciding if the $200 saved is worth it.
  6. $930: Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM. I highly recommend this as a portrait lens event photographers who own a 5D. It’s the fastest lens in the list and you can do the foot-zoom thing. The quality of the photo is unmatched by anything in the list. I heard it has pleasing bokeh, but I don’t know because I’m priced out of this lens.
  7. $1100: Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM. Pro optics, but pro price. Get this if you need a very large aperture zoom. Many people who own the Nikon equivalent never buy another lens in this zoom range, because they rarely need IS.
  8. $1660: Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM. Same as the previous, but adds image stabilization. Get this if you will do a lot of shooting without a monopod or tripod. If you have the money, you’ll never need another lens in this zoom range again.
  9. Infinity: Nikon AF 200mm f/2G ED-IF AF-S VR Nikkor. Okay if you can afford the $4000 this lens costs, you can afford a Nikon camera to attach it to.

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11 thoughts on “Anything long, fast, and cheap?”

  1. Do you think the IS on the 70-200 is really worth it? I read it doesn’t work if your subject is moving. And its not as sharp as the non IS version.

  2. Just to be clear, my advice is to rent the 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS, not buy it. This model can “emulate” nearly the entire range of lenses available for purchase. In the case of a 70-200mm f/2.8 L or 70-200mm f/4 L, you turn off the IS or turn off the IS and stop down. (In the latter case, you’ll have to rent the f/4L before making a final purchase because the focusing won’t be as fast—focusing occurs at the largest aperture.)

    I think the IS versions are just as sharp as the non IS when the IS is turned off. It might be marginally less sharp because the floating lens elements that create the optical stabilization are mechanically locked into place, but I think the only real cost (besides price) is probably the extra lens ghosting/flare you get. In the Canon models, IS does also an adequate job of stabilizing really cheap tripod setups; Nikon trades this off for really agressive stabilization optimized for shooting out of a moving car, plane, or helicopter.

    Image stabilization does not work when the subject is moving, however if you are really good, there is a mode that will allow you to pan with the subject and it will only stabilize along one axis.

    I do not think it is necessarily “worth it” especially for the cheaper lenses. There is a >$400 markup that Canon is asking you to pay. On the low end this can double the price of the lens; on the high end it’s still a 50% markup! But the real answer lies in what type of shooting you are planning on doing. Do you have a tripod or monopod handy for most of the shooting you do? Wedding photographers often have no such luxury. Light hikers or tourists might feel the same.

    Then again, carrying a dSLR with a 70-200mm f/2.8 IS attached is hardly light hiking *shrug*.

  3. Bill mentions this positive review of the 70-200mm f/4L IS. Also, starfish235, whose analysis I trust implicitly points out that the 70-200mm f/4L IS is one of the few cases where it outperforms the 70-200 f/2.8L IS even when stopped down to f/4. My guess is that the f/2.8L IS is a venerable design. For instance, I think the Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8G VR is slightly sharper than the Canon version (I can’t prove this because you cannnot compare MTF curves across vendors).

    This is in counterpoint to my mostly derogatory opinion of this lens (viz. you should either save money and get the 70-200 f/4L or get the 70-200 f/2.8L at the same price or pay a little more for the 70-200 f/2.8L IS).

  4. What about the 120-300mm f/2.8 by Sigma ?

    I heard favourable reviews of it, compared against the 70-200 f/2.8 ; considering its price, it is difficult to judge how much the positive critics are influenced by buyer’s guilt. It is not stabilised, but at this length, I would assume that it is often used on a stand of some kind (wall, tripod…), and that the subject moves too fast for the IS to be much use (birds or other animals, sports, etc.).

    For someone with the 5D / 24-105mm combination, it might be useful. Maybe a bit heavy to handhold, and a bit long for portraits…

  5. @Rama: Good point. I don’t know anything about that model but I recommend people reading this entry look it up.

    As for IS, that only applies to freezing, Both Canon IS and Nikon VR have a mode which will stabilize only one direction. Just thought I’d mention that.

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