It’s been a while since I’ve done any gear reviews, but this is one that I’ve been thinking about for several months now and finally have the time to sit down and share. A while back I was looking for a better wildlife lens – and to qualify “better,” I mean a lens that would produce sharp images at a much wider aperture than the Sigma 120-400mm that I had been using. The Sigma required f/8 for best quality, which was a real PITA when it came to chasing birds in the early morning light.
Looking to switch to something faster, financially it came down to two choices: the 300L f/4 IS and the 400L f/5.6. The trade-offs are clear: an extra stop + IS at the cost of 100mm extra. Knowing my difficulties hand-holding telephotos without IS, I opted for the 300L. Several thousand shots later, I’m glad I did.
This was my first experience with a telephoto prime and I had some initial concerns; although I had primarily used the Sigma in the 300-400mm range, it was nice knowing that I could go wider if I needed to, and I was worried about losing that ability on a prime. Turns out that it wasn’t a problem at all and it was very easy to adapt to a fixed range. I learned to foot-zoom when possible, and on the rare occasion when the shot just wouldn’t work, it was a push to figure out another solution.
The quality is what you’d expect from an L-series lens: a well-dampened focus ring, excellent construction, nice finish, and a good feature set. The built-in lens hood is a real genius idea, and I’m at a loss as to why it isn’t more common in the Canon lineup. It’s certainly more space-efficient than a removable hood, and less likely to be lost or damaged. Add to that your typical two-mode IS and a focus limiter option, and the lens is capable without being overburdened with controls. (On a side note, it’s well reported that the IS is somewhat noisier than on other lenses, and has a tendency towards “clunking” sounds – something that I’ve noticed with mine as well. It’s not an issue, but something that potential buyers should be aware of, least they think their lens is defective.)
Perhaps best of all, in my mind, is the wide-open performance. Shooting at f/4 produces very good results and I have very little hesitation shooting wide open, although I usually stop down to f/4.5 – whether this actually gives a little extra sharpness or not is debatable, but I’m comfortable with it. Shooting in the pre-dawn light, the difference between f/4 and f/8 is huge – I cannot overstate it. The 300L lets me get shots that the Sigma never could, which alone makes it well worth the cost. Even in good light, shooting at f/4.5 lets me dial the ISO back at least a stop, which is always a good thing.
The only real compromise is the focal length; 300mm isn’t always as long as I would like. I’ve had the opportunity to try this lens with a 1.4x teleconverter and, despite my previous poor experience with TCs, what okay with the results. There is a slight loss in image quality, but it would be acceptable in most cases, compared to the expanded 420mm range. But on the other side of the coin, the 300L is relative small, light, and inexpensive – something that it’s longer, faster cousins miss on all counts. As nice as a 400mm f/2.8 or 500mm f/4 would be, both are much larger, much heavier, and cost as much as a good used car.
My overall conclusion is that anyone looking for a well-priced telephoto lens with excellent performance should strongly consider the 300L f/4 IS. It’s more than capable for bird and wildlife photography, although you’ll have to learn to work your way a little closer to the critters, and it’s sharp & fast enough for any application I can think of. I’m thrilled with mine and the doors it’s opened – it’s definitely earned its keep.
After further review: I still see the 300L f/4 IS as the gold standard in Canon’s line of affordable telephoto lenses. It is an excellent lens for an excellent value and I have no reservations about shooting with it wide-open anytime I can get within range of a critter. Of course, that’s the catch 300mm is really the entry to true telephoto shooting, and I almost always have the 1.4x TC mounted, too. In which case the combination really becomes a whole new lens, a 420mm f/5.6 IS. The increased reach is great, but the effect on the images is noticeable, if subtle. I usually end up stopped down to f/7.1 or so, as I just don’t trust this combination wide-open. So in the end, it’s a compromise. Which is by Canon’s design, as it will push some users to upgrade to a (much) more expensive 400mm, 500mm, or 600mm telephoto. If Canon came out with an improved and affordable 100-400L, I’d likely trade the 300L for one, just for the native range and TC-less optics. But such a lens is only theoretical, and given the steeply rising prices of the newest telephotos, I plan on sticking with the 300L.