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Home > Reviews > Cameras > Canon EF 70-300 f/4-5.6 IS USM

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Review
06/11/2006

Now that I have the super wide angle covered with the EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM and the wide to moderate telephoto with the EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM, the next logical progression for me is to go for a telephoto zoom lens. There are quite a few out there by Canon, and there are other manufacturers to consider, such as Sigma, Tamron and Tokina.

I opted for Canon's EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM because it seemed comparable in build and quality to the lens I already have and the 4X+ zoom factor appealed to me. It has 15 elements in 10 groups of which 1 element is UD (to minimize chromatic aberrations). Also, it is a newer lens with a more advanced IS (image stabilization) and it was something I could afford at the time.

On my Digital Rebel XT, with APS-C size sensor, Canon's EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM lens would be equivalent to 112mm to 480mm on a full frame sensor. That is quite a range for a telephoto lens and my concerns were, at 300mm (480mm equivalent), will I be able to take pictures when hand holding the camera or, will it necessitate the use of a monopod/tripod (or some support).

What's in the box
1 - Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM
1 - E-58U Front lens cap
1 - Rear lens cap
1 - Instruction pamphlet (in different languages)
1 - 1 year Warranty/Registration

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Specifications
Image size Full frame
Focal length   70-300mm
35 mm FOV (Digital Rebel XT)   112-480mm equivalent
Construction   15 elements in 10 groups
Diaphragm   8 blades
Maximum aperture   f/4.0 - f/5.6
Minimum aperture   f/32 - f/45
Closest focus   59" (1.5m)
Max magnification   0.26x (at 300mm)
Distance information   No
Image stabilizer   3-stops
AF actuator   Micromotor USM with switch to manual focus
Filter diameter   58mm
Dimensions (diameter x length)   3.0" (76.5mm) x 5.6" (142.8mm)
Weight   22.2 oz (630g)
     
Other Information
Angle of view - Full frame
(horiz, vert, diag)
  28.8º, 19.5º, 34.3º (70mm)
6.9º, 4.6º, 8.2º (300mm)
Angle of view - Digital Rebel XT
(horiz, vert, diag)
  66.3º, 47º, 76.2º (17mm)
14.9º, 10º, 17.8º (85mm)
Front element extends (focusing)   Yes, +0.65" (16.5mm) at closest focus
Front element rotates (focusing)   Yes, 100º
Front element extends (zooming)   Yes, +2.1" (53.3mm) at 300mm
     
Optional (Canon) Accessories
Lens hood   ET-65B
Soft lens case   LP1222

A close up view of Canon's EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM
Front Lens Lock Switches
FD 70-210mm (lt)
EF 70-300mm (rt)
FD 70-210mm (lt)
EF 70-300mm (rt)
Left to right:
EF 50mm 1.4,
EF 20mm 2.8
EF-S 10-22mm
EF-S 17-85mm
EF 70-300mm
I would have to admit that I was somewhat surprised and dismayed when handling Canon's EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM lens for the first time. The zoom ring, and focus ring, would not turn. Hmmm... maybe I should read the instructions.

In order to rotate the focus ring, you need to switch AF (auto focus) to MF (manual focus). Now I understand what it means when this lens is NOT full time manual focus. Okay, I can live with that. I would have to constantly remind myself that when I need to manual focus, switch AF to MF. When rotating the focusing ring from infinity to near, the front elements extend. Not only that, the front elements rotate. That could be a problem when using certain effects filter or a polarized filter.

In order to rotate the zoom ring, you'll need to unlock the "LOCK" switch. At first I was a bit puzzled as to why a "LOCK" switch was required for this lens and no sooner than I tilted the front of the lens down... "BANG", it was fully extended. Now I'm looking at the lens and it appeared to have doubled in size. Carefully raising the front end of the lens and... "BANG", now it's fully collapsed (how convenient). Canon's older FD 70-210mm f/4, with a slide zoom/focuser, was fairly well damped and didn't exhibit this trait. I should also mention that the lens "LOCK" switch only works in the collapsed (70mm) position. It would have been nice if you could lock the lens at other focal lengths (but that's just me).

The quality of the build is less than what I expected. The zoom ring doesn't rotate all that smoothly, but, on the plus side, there is no slop in it. The focus ring, on the other hand, is very smooth, but, has a bit of slop in it. The other thing I've noticed is, this lens does not have a distance scale. Probably not important in my case but still...

Using Canon's EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM
At 70mm
Focus: Infinity
At 70mm
Focus: Closest
At 300mm
Focus: Infinity
At 300mm
Focus: Closest
When zooming to 300mm, you can almost feel the weight transfer to the front on Canon's EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM. It's not a heavy lens so most people may not notice it.

The focus motor is fairly quite. In a quiet setting, you will definitely hear it working. Autofocusing on the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM seems slower compared to shorter lenses. Probably because that is the nature of long lenses, or maybe it's just my lens. When using AF (autofocus) at shorter focal lengths (70 to 200mm), the focus is generally accurate. However, at 300mm when lower light conditions drops the shutter speed down to 1/60 sec, it misses the focus frequently even when there is enough detail in the scene or on the subject. Also, it's lack of "full time manual focus" requires you to search for the AF/MF switch when you need to manual focus.

There are two switches for the IS (image stabilizer). One switch turns the IS on or off and the other switch if for different image stabilizer modes. When activating the IS , you can hear a buzzing noise from the lens. This is startling because on my EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM the IS is silent. The EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM has two stabilizer modes. Mode 1 corrects for horizontal and vertical shaking for handheld shots of stationary subjects. Mode 2 corrects for vertical shaking for handheld shots of a moving subject.

A statement I would like to make here is, the image stabilizer DOES work and it works great! Some time ago when I was using an ancient FD 70-210mm f/4, handheld at 210mm, I would frequently end up with blurred images when shutter speeds drop to 1/125 sec. Even at 1/250 sec, I would occasionally come across a bad image. With Canon's EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM, handheld at 300mm, I've managed to capture some surprisingly clear pictures at 1/30 sec but at that speed and focal length, for me, it's a hit-or-miss. At 1/60 sec I may lose 0 to 2 shots out of a dozen due to camera shake. At 70mm I've had a lot of success at shutter speeds down to 1/15 sec, and that is after having coffee in the morning. The only word I can think of to describe the image stabilizer in a lens of this length is... amazing.

Use of the image stabilizer does have it's consequences, and that is, it uses up quite a bit of the camera's battery. For example, using the EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM (IS on), I can almost get 500 shots on a full charge. With the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM, the number of shots is reduced to 320 to 360.

Object:   Waxing Half Moon
Condition:   Light haze, cloudy, city lights
Telescope:   None
Camera:   Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XT
Date Time:   2006-06-03T20:57:50-07:00
Shutter Speed:   1/500 sec
Exposure Program:   Manual
F-Stop:   F/5.6
ISO Speed Ratings:   400
Focal Length:   300.0 mm
Lens:   70.0-300.0 mm
Notes:   Handheld, IS (image stabilizer), cropped, 100%, no filters or adjustments
Object:   Full Moon
Condition:   Light haze, city lights
Telescope:   None
Camera:   Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XT
Date Time:   2006-05-12T22:32:22-07:00
Shutter Speed:   1/1250 sec
Exposure Program:   Manual
F-Stop:   F/5.6
ISO Speed Ratings:   400
Focal Length:   300.0 mm
Lens:   70.0-300.0 mm
Notes:   Handheld, IS (image stabilizer), cropped, 100%, no filters or adjustments
The photographs of the moon above are 100% cropped to 640x480 pixels (no color corrections, levels or sharpening). It should give you an idea of the resolution of the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM.
Photographs using Canon's EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM
Hill of Moreno Valley
Subject:   Moreno Valley
Model:   Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XT
Shutter Speed:   1/320 sec
F-Stop:   f/11.0
ISO Speed:   400
Focal Length:   75.0 mm
Notes:   I had the lens set at 70mm but during the course of taking this picture, I may have dipped the lens down, slightly extending the focal length to 75mm.
Waxing half moon
Subject:   Waxing Half Moon
Model:   Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XT
Shutter Speed:   1/250 sec
F-Stop:   f/5.6
ISO Speed:   400
Focal Length:   300.0 mm
Notes:   This is the full frame picture of the moon. The problem with this shot is making sure you have your hands on the zoom ring at all times. Otherwise the lens will collapse to 70mm.
Road on a hot day
Subject:   Cactus Avenue (hot day)
Model:   Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XT
Shutter Speed:   1/640 sec
F-Stop:   f/9.0
ISO Speed:   200
Focal Length:   300.0 mm
Notes:   I had a lot of trouble with shot. It was 102°F and the lens refused to focus. The heat rising from the asphalt distorted the view.
Stone wall
Subject:   Stone Wall
Model:   Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XT
Shutter Speed:   1/320 sec
F-Stop:   f/6.3
ISO Speed:   200
Focal Length:   300.0 mm
Notes:   Just a filler shot. I simply liked the geometry of the stone wall.
Palm trees
Subject:   Palm Trees
Model:   Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XT
Shutter Speed:   1/500 sec
F-Stop:   f/9.0
ISO Speed:   200
Focal Length:   130.0 mm
Notes:   Welcome to southern California. Palm trees, well... they're just all over the place.
Jacaranda tree
Subject:   Jacaranda Tree
Model:   Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XT
Shutter Speed:   1/500 sec
F-Stop:   f/8.0
ISO Speed:   200
Focal Length:   300.0 mm
Notes:   A beautiful tree that blooms in mid spring in southern California. Unfortunately, it leaves quite a mess in the late spring to early summer.
All the photographs above have been taken in jpeg mode, and reduced 50% in Photoshop with moderate jpeg compression to conserve disk space and bandwidth. Camera was handheld using autofocus (unless otherwise noted). No color corrections, level adjustments, sharpening or croppings were made.

Conclusion
Canon's EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM doesn't have any flaws other than the zoom ring creeping whenever you tip the lens straight up or down, but it does have major inconveniences such as the lens lock and lack of full time manual focus. For all I know, it may be an inherent quality that is typical with lens of this type.

The EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM takes very clear pictures with minimal barrel distortion at the shortest end (70mm) and, maybe, a very slight , sometimes unnoticeable, pincushion at the long end (all of which can be corrected in Photoshop CS2).

In the past, longer exposures with a telephoto lens of this range required the use of a monopod/tripod but, with Canon's EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM image stabilizer, you can almost get away without using any supports. I'll have to confess that I was a bit skeptical about the effectiveness of IS on this lens, especially at 300mm. But, after a few test shots, all doubts went away and I was left with this feeling of relief that this lens turned out to be a decent investment after all.

:-)

Gary Kawamura
 
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