Canon EF 70-210mm f/4 – Review

The lens bug is still with me, and the latest acquisition is another golden oldie, the Canon 70-210mm f/4 telephoto.  This was one of the first EF fast telephotos, originally introduced in 1987.  My copy is from 1987, purchased in like-new condition from KEH.com.

It was my first time buying from KEH and I’m pleased to say that the experience was a good one, and I’ll likely use them again in the future.  KEH appears to be an excellent source for used lenses, although their user reviews are a little spotty – the jist of it seems to be that internet orders take second place to phone orders, so sometimes net orders lose out and folks get annoyed.  (Frankly, if you know that going into the deal, I’m not sure what right you have to get annoyed.)

Anyway, I wasn’t really looking to buy this lens – I was poking around KEH just to see what they had, actually looking more at prime lenses when I stumbled across this one.  I’d never even heard of a 70-210mm f/4, so I had to Google it, and what I found was promising.  I’ve had my eye on the new 70-200 f/4 IS lens for a while now, but I just can’t get past the $1200 price tag.  The fact that the old 70-210mm was only $200 sealed the deal – for $1k in savings, I can live without IS.

Unfortunately my order processed just in time to ship out during one of this year’s snowstorms, and it spent 48 additional hours sitting in a UPS facility in GA because of snowstorms.  So I wasn’t able to test it out at this past weekend’s event, but I do have it in time for an upcoming portrait workshop, which will be its real trial by fire.  But given some informal, around the house testing, here’s what I’ve concluded:

First off, unlike its new cousins, the 70-210mm is a small lens.  Even fully zoomed, its overall length is less than that of the new models, and since it has neither internal focusing or zooming, the overall weight is much less.  The front element takes a 58mm filter, which seems radically small.  For me, this is a big deal – I owned a 70-200mm f/2.8 a while back and although it was a good lens, it was simply too big and too heavy for me to use much; the small size of the old 70-210mm, coupled with the constant f/4, means that I’m much more likely to stick it in my bag when I head out.

The lens is a push/pull style zoom, which isn’t a feature I’m thrilled about, but then beggars can’t be choosers.  And unlike other push/pull zooms, which often have a reputation for being dust vacuums, this one seems to work very well, with nearly no detectable sucking or blowing of air when in use.

I am somewhat saddened to report that it is not super-sharp when wide open.  The whole point of having an f/4 is to use it wide open, but I think that some stopping down will be required, or at the very least, some sharpening in post.  This is a little disappointing, but then I remember what I paid, and I feel better about it.  The good news is that at f/5.6, things are sharp, and by f/8 they are quite sharp.

It’s also noticeably soft past about 200mm.  At full zoom and f/4, the result is disappointing – for portraits you can almost call it “beauty soft” and make it work, but for anything else you’ll need to stop down or hit the Unsharp Mask in post.  I’m fully confident in the lens’ ability to take great photos, but the trick is learning its quirks first.

200mm @ f/4 appears somewhat soft, but works for portraits

Despite the lack of USM focus, the AF is still quite snappy.  It didn’t seem to hunt in low light and overall was quite responsive.  This was a pleasant surprise, since many of the reviews I read for this lens criticized it for having slow focus.  (But also based on those reviews, I have to conclude that many of the reviewers were themselves L-lens snobs who simply don’t like any lens without a red ring on it.)

I’ve got to give props to KEH for their rating: the lens was listed in EX+ condition, and while I forget the exact description that equates to on their scale, the jist of it is that the lens would be about 90% of new.  I looked it over carefully before using it – there isn’t a mark on it.  It actually amazes me how a 21 year old lens can be in like new condition.

The only thing that really annoyed me was the fact that KEH shipped the lens without any caps; I had to dish an extra $20 to get a set of caps from B&H.  After a great deal of Google searching, I managed to find out which lens  hood went with the lens, and I’m going to try and find one on eBay.

As always, the 70-200 range is very useful, and I’m one again equipped for it at very low cost.  Will I keep this lens forever?  It’d hard to say.  I win the lottery, I’ll probably get a new IS version.  But in the meantime, I think this will work out very well.

After further reflection: I was a bit quick to state that I was “fully confident” in this lens’ ability to perform.  Having used it several more times, I became disappointed with it.  At 200mm, it is simply too soft wide-open to be of much use.  Stopped down, it’s not bad – but if you’re shooting in low light, you can forget about getting usable images.  The combination of decreased aperture, low shutter speed, and focal length results in muddy, blurred images, and a great deal of frustration.  Especially when compared to the current f/4 IS model, which has a reputation for being startlingly sharp.

If you can find one of these cheap (around $150) and plan to use it only when the light is good, then it’s still a good way to get into the 70-200 range cheaply.  But if you have any aspirations for it, you’ll quickly outgrow it.  Mine is headed for eBay, and I’ll be picking up the new IS model soon.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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3 Comments

  1. Just a correction and a point. A clean 70-200 f/4 L IS sells used for about $975. The non IS version can be had used for $475. I’ve owned both and they are both great lenses. I would speculate that the 70-200 even in non IS form is a much sharper lens than the 70-210, not to mention that it has USM and focuses internally, for only $250 more.

    • Brent Pennington

      Thanks for the info, Mike. You’re correct, the non-IS version is much cheaper. However at “only $250 more,” it’s more than twice the price of the 70-210mm that I just got, as well as physically larger and somewhat heavier. To me, the 210mm was a no-brainer, and is certainly sharp enough for my uses now that I know it’s strong vs. weak points. As for USM, that’s one of those features I have a hard time getting behind – I almost never use manual focus, nor need to override the AF. So long as the focus is reasonably quick, I’m happy.

  2. The ET-62 / ET-62 II lens hood doesn’t approach

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