Canon RF 70-200mm f/4 L IS Review | A Tiny Telephoto Marvel
A 70-200mm f/4 lens is an excellent choice for photographers who want something a little more affordable and portable, but without sacrificing professional quality. And in this Canon RF 70-200mm f/4 L IS review, I’m going to tell you why this is the best 70-200mm f/4 zoom on the market!
Aside from being incredibly compact, very lightweight, and stunningly sharp, it has a few other perks, plus a few drawbacks or annoyances. The bottom line is that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this lens, at least for those who aren’t able to afford its f/2.8 older sibling.
With that said, let’s dive into this review!
Canon RF 70-200mm f/4 L IS Specifications
- FOCAL LENGHT: 70-200mm, (full-frame) 112-320mm (APSC)
- ANGLE OF VIEW: 34° to 12°, (full-frame) 18°-6.4° (APSC)
- LENS MOUNT(S): Canon RF (full-frame)
- APERTURE & RANGE: f/4 to f/32, 9 rounded blades
- STABILIZATION: Yes, 5 EVs compensation; up to 7.5 stops with certain Canon EOS bodies
- AUTOFOCUS: Dual Nano USM focus motors (nearly silent)
- MANUAL FOCUS: Electronically controlled
- OPTICAL CONSTRUCTION: 4 UD elements, Air Sphere & fluorine coatings
- MECHANICAL CONSTRUCTION: Metal mount & barrel, full weather-sealing
- MAGNIFICATION & FOCUS DISTANCE: 0.28x, 2 ft (60 cm)
- FILTER THREADS & HOOD: 77mm, locking hood w/ sliding filter-turning window
- SIZE: 3.3 x 4.7″ (83 x 120 mm)
- WEIGHT: 1.5 lb (695 g)
- PRICE: $1,499 (with common/frequent $100 savings)
Canon RF 70-200mm f/4 L IS Review | Who Should Buy It?
This type of lens has been around for a long time, and it has always made an excellent choice for many types of photographers. Whether you are a hobbyist or a working professional, the type of photography you do is almost more important than your budget when it comes to WHY you might choose this lens.
There are certain types of photography where I will absolutely recommend saving up for the larger, heavier, and more expensive f/2.8 version. However, with the advancements in both image stabilization and sensor high ISO performance, I am seeing less and less of a truly critical need for f/2.8.
In other words, now more than ever, many types of photographers should consider this lens first and foremost before most others. With that said, let’s dive into specific categories of photography…
The Canon 70-200mm f/4 L IS makes a perfect portrait lens. Especially if you photograph a lot of active, lifestyle types of portraits, such as families, kids, or pets, then a 70-200mm zoom lens is a bread-and-butter workhorse. Some photographers literally pay their bills with this lens!
Even if you have a favorite portrait prime, such as an 85mm, 105mm, or 50mm, you’ll still want to have a lens like this for active situations. Additionally, the constant f/4 aperture has quite a few benefits, such as not needing to change any exposure settings when using flash photography, and beautiful bokeh (background blur) that will almost match the softness of an f/2.8 lens.
Wedding photographers are the one category who I would strongly encourage to think twice before going with this f/4 lens instead of its f/2.8 sibling. Even though it’s a great portrait lens with plenty of sharpness and beautifully blurry backgrounds, a single stop of light can make a big difference. If you frequently work in dim lighting conditions, such as dark churches or dark reception ballrooms, then even after 15+ years of digital camera advancements in low-light capability, we still consider f/2.8 to be a bare minimum.
Having said that, yes, there are some photographers whose business is entirely outdoors in daylight. For example, if you are an elopement photographer who literally climbs mountains with your clients, then you’ll love how lightweight this versatile lens is!
Fashion & Editorial Photography
As I hinted at, if you value sharpness more than extremely shallow depth, you can rest assured that this lens is every bit as good as its f/2.8 counterpart. Often, fashion photography jobs require more in-focus details than blurred backgrounds. So, in other words, if you’re planning to spend all your time at f/5.6 or f/8, this lens is perfect for you.
Candid & Street Photography
Every photographer is different, and some may prefer a simple prime lens for candid & street photography, while others may find that this relatively compact, relatively fast zoom lens is perfect. It will mostly depend on what subjects you’re photographing. Are you going on a family vacation, or to a county fair, renaissance fair, etc? You might want this zoom lens.
Action Sports & Wildlife Photography
Unlike candid & street photography, action sports and wildlife are only getting started by the time you get to 200mm. Sometimes, you’ll wish you had 300mm, 400mm, or even 500-600mm at your disposal. Therefore, if you’re into these types of photography, then I would strongly recommend either opting for a lens like the Canon RF 100-400mm IS, ($649) …or if your budget can grow enough, the Canon RF 100-500mm L IS. ($2,699)
The entire category of landscape, nature, outdoor, and general adventure travel photography is where this lens truly shines. Whether you like to go for long, strenuous hikes, or you simply find yourself doing a lot of outdoor photography in rough weather, then you want a lens like this.
Again, however, depending on your style and budget, either the 100-400mm or 100-500mm that I just mentioned could possibly suit you a little better. Both of those other lenses are very sharp, HOWEVER, neither lens presents the same incredible value compared to the professional build quality.
Nightscape & Astrophotography
Believe it or not, this lens’ extreme sharpness at f/4 makes it a decent performer at astrophotography! That is, if you use an astro tracker, AKA a guided camera+lens mount, that perfectly synchronizes your camera to the earth’s rotation, thus allowing you to capture long exposures without any star trailing. Don’t believe me? See the sample images below…
Canon RF 70-200mm f/4 L IS Review | Pros & Cons
This whole Canon RF 70-200mm f/4 L review could be summed up very simply: the lens is almost perfect; all you really need to decide is whether or not you’re okay with the f/4 aperture, and/or whether or not you could possibly save up for the f/2.8 version. It’s almost that simple!
There are only a few minor caveats, which I’ll describe in greater detail now:
Sharpness is absolutely stunning; this is one of the sharpest 70-200mm lenses ever made, even when you count an f/2.8 version that is stopped down to f/4.
The above animation compares a 100% crop at 200mm, and apertures set to f/4, f/5.6, and f/7.1. As you can see, this lens starts off almost flawlessly sharp, and just gets shockingly sharp as you stop down.
Bokeh, Colors & Contrast
Everything else about the Canon RF 70-200mm f/4 L IS’s image quality is very impressive. As I mentioned, the background blur is so smooth, viewers will never know you used an f/4 zoom versus an f/2.8 zoom, especially the closer you get to your subjects, and the farther the background is. Honestly, the bokeh is just dreamy; Canon really did a great job of utilizing the extra freedom of their mirrorless lens mount to create a stunning piece of glass.
When using the in-camera “Picture Styles”, and matching them up in Adobe Lightroom, you’ll barely need to apply much editing at all to your raw photos. Simply throw the camera in “Landscape” or “Portrait” Picture Style according to your subject matter, and you’ll likely only have to make minor adjustments to exposure and white balance in post-production.
Vignetting & Distortion
All modern mirrorless lenses rely on a correction profile to eliminate distortion and vignetting. This is unfortunate, but also a welcome compromise in some ways. To make an optically flawless lens, it would need to be significantly larger, heavier, and more expensive!
Having said that, with the correction profile left on by default, you won’t notice any distortion, and you’ll barely notice the vignetting. This can be problematic for applications such as nightscape photography, but for this lens’ intended use, I wouldn’t worry about it.
Sunstars & Flare
Thanks to all the optical coatings. flare “dots” are minimal, indeed nonexistent in most photos. Thanks to the nine rounded aperture blades, sunstars are not as “pointy” as they could be, but are still nice and prominent when stopping down to f/11 or more.
Color Fringing, Aberration, Coma & Astigmatism
For those who really want to pixel-peep, let’s look at the most challenging use of this lens: astrophotography! The good news is that the Canon RF 70-200mm f/4 L IS performs impressively well. Not only is color fringing and chromatic aberration very minimal or nonexistent, but also, even in the extreme corners there is little to no aberration visible.
Would this be an optimal/first choice for astrophotography? No, but it presents a great opportunity for those landscape and nightscape photographers who may want to just dabble in deep-sky astro.
Macro & Close-Up Photography
Adding to this lens’ versatility, it can focus relatively close-up, although it is not a true macro lens. Indeed, while many of Canon’s non-L prime lenses are capable of 1:2 reproduction (0.5X) this 70-200mm can only reach 0.28X, which is just slightly better than the RF 70-200mm f/2.8.
Having said that, it’s more than enough for general close-up photography, and most photographers will find it adequate.
Design & Durability
This is where the Canon RF L-series lenses all pull ahead of any non-L RF lens, indeed. Physically, this lens is built rock-solid, and I would expect it to endure even the most extreme conditions.
Having said that, there is a bit of controversy over Canon’s decision to make both this lens and the f/2.8 version an “extends when it zooms” design. Some photographers prefer fully internal zooming and focusing, and they argue that any external movement is a structural compromise. In my experience, this just isn’t the case. If you drop your lens on a rock or concrete, you’re in trouble either way. If you drop your lens on grass, dirt, or carpet, you’ll be fine. But, also, just don’t drop your lens!
Ergonomics & Portability
The aforementioned controversy about this lens’ physical design has one huge advantage: when retracted to 70mm, it becomes far more portable than any other 70-200mm lens. This thing will fit vertically into a slot in your camera bag, which could be a huge deal for many photographers. It’s a bit more lightweight than its DSLR ancestor, as well, though not by a staggering amount.
Having said that, there’s one major caveat here: the lens requires 77mm filter threads, whereas most other f/4 aperture 70-200mm’s worked with 72mm filters. Also, I believe Canon re-used the same ENORMOUS lens hood, which increases the space this lens takes up in your camera bag by a massive amount. Chances are, you’ll find yourself highly inclined to leave the hood at home, which is very unfortunate. I know Canon might have had no other choice in this regard due to the optics, but it’s a blow to overall portability, indeed.
With less glass to push back and forth plus two Nano USM focus motors, this lens is lightning fast to focus, as well as precise. and consistent. Focusing does not involve too much focus breathing, although your effective focal length will be slightly reduced when working close-up and at 200mm.
Manual Focus Performance
Electronically controlled, the manual focus with this lens is very smooth and precise. Canon is well known for very easy manual focusing, and the sharpness of this lens makes it totally obvious when you’ve acquired focus on a subject.
Features & Customizations
As I mentioned, the biggest thing that comes to mind in terms of “features” is that the RF 70-200mm’s use a rather large-diameter hood, and it’s downright unwieldy and annoying. If you don’t work in rough conditions that might put your lens’ front element at risk, I’d be inclined to just leave the hood at home and use a UV filter for minimal protection.
Another thing to note is that this lens is so light and compact, indeed downright stubby, that it does not require a tripod collar. This might feel like a drawback to certain portrait or landscape photographers who frequently rotate their camera between vertical and horizontal and appreciate the tripod collar. In general, though, it’s nice to have such a compact lens.
At $1,499, this lens is over $1,000 cheaper than the f/2.8 version. Are you willing to pay that much extra for one stop of aperture? Because aside from that, the two lenses are equal performers.
I would go so far as to say that, flat-out, this f/4 lens provides a significantly better VALUE to photographers. How can I make such a bold claim against a beloved flagship, the professional 70-200mm f/2.8? Because both lenses are incredible performers, the difference in price is far bigger than the difference in performance. When you “upgrade” from the f/4 to the f/2.8, you’re not getting an extra $1,1000 in value by any metric, except for the one extra stop of light.
So, it comes down to this: If you aren’t absolutely needing f/2.8, then this lens is the hands-down winner in terms of spending your money wisely.
Canon RF 70-200mm f/4 L IS Review | Compared To The Competition
As I have mentioned, this lens’ biggest competition is very obvious: the f/2.8 version. Indeed, the Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS is an amazing lens. It’s incredibly sharp, it’s similarly lightweight and compact compared to the DSLR ancestors, …and it also has the drawback of an obnoxiously large-diameter hood.
However, I have already explained that decision very clearly: some photographers, mostly wedding and portrait photographers, absolutely require f/2.8. There is no question; save up for that other lens!
But what about the photographers who don’t critically require f/2.8? There are a few other options. Specifically, pictured above, the Canon RF 100-400mm STM is a great candidate that you should seriously consider depending on the type of photography you do. The 70-200mm f/4 is a general-purpose telephoto zoom lens, and there are some lenses that are a little better for specialized purposes.
If you’re into wildlife or landscape photography, then, as I mentioned, check out the Canon RF 100-400mm STM, on a budget, or the Canon RF 100-500mm, if money isn’t the problem.
If you’re into portrait photography, then check out the Canon RF 85mm f/2 STM for just $499. Or, if you’re a full-time pro, then a portrait prime such as the RF 50mm f/1.2, 85mm f/1.2, or 135mm f/1.8 ought to be what you’re saving up for.
What if you already own the excellent DSLR version of this lens, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L IS? That’s such a good lens that I wouldn’t recommend upgrading unless you’re keenly interested in the compactness (sans hood) of the RF version. Is the RF version also better in every way? Yes, but unless your EF version is in mint condition and you can sell it for as close to $1,500 as possible, you already own a great lens.
Last but not least, keep in mind that if budget is the main reason why you’re considering this lens, and that isn’t likely to change any time soon, then you could also wait a year or two and see what happens when Tamron and Sigma begin making RF-mount lenses. For example, both companies make a lot of excellent 100-400mm telephoto zooms for wildlife & landscape photography, and Tamron’s 70-180mm f/2.8 offers affordable, lightweight access to f/2.8 for those who need that instead.
I should also mention that, if you’re currently brand agnostic and shopping between every full-frame mirrorless lens mount, Nikon and Sony do not have current, modern 70-200mm f/4’s. Sony’s is “ancient” and significantly inferior. Panasonic makes a Lumix S Pro 70-200mm f/4 O.I.S., for $1,697, and it is an excellent lens.
Canon RF 70-200mm f/4 L IS Review | Conclusion
All in all, the Canon RF 70-200mm f/4 L IS is the best lens I’ve ever reviewed, that is, within the category of f/4-class 70-200mm zooms. So, if that’s the type of versatility and value you’re looking for, you absolutely shouldn’t hesitate to get this lens.
Having said that, there are plenty of reasons to go with something else, depending on your specific specialty/subject, your creative passion, your budget, …or all of the above.
I’m honestly interested in hearing form fellow photographers who are deciding whether or not to choose this lens, so, please leave a comment below if that’s you!
Check Pricing & Availability
The Canon RF 70-200mm f/4 L IS has an MSRP of $1,599, but is often found for $1,499 when instant savings/rebates are active. (B&H)