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22/1/17 Camera gear – and a review of the Canon 200mm F2L

I get a lot of people asking my about the gear that I use when photographing events, why I use what I do and what makes a great photographer. Wow, Shropshire people do ask some great questions! My choice of equipment is a bit subjective at best. I don’t like to fall into the trap of just using one lens for every similar type of shot, preferring to mix it up a bit (within reason of course, portrait or equestrian photo shoots with a fisheye lens wouldn’t go down too well).

The main point is that for commercial work, every client has their vision for their photos, they have a corporate identity and branding and I have to maintain that as well as bringing some creative and fresh options to the table at the same time. I do have my mainstay kit though. For commercial/products it’s a 24-70 f2.8l or a tilt shift TS-E 90 if the shot needs something a little different. For indoor studio portraits I’ll use an 85mm f1.2, outdoors I’ll occasionally use a 200mm f2 to get some separation between me and my subjects (especially children if they’re nervous of the camera). For sports it’s a 400 2.8, or a 70-200 2.8 – and the 200 f2.

Camera manufacturers obviously keep pushing the latest technology, it’s a fast paced area and research and development costs are huge to enable them to stay ahead of their competitors. I prefer not to renew my cameras until they’re worn out or there’s something that’s REALLY important that I decide I can’t do without. I can’t actually think of any technical developments in the last 5 years that have made me dive for my credit card and replace my gear, but it was different about 10 years ago when the technology was developing much more rapidly. I have a nine year old Canon 1ds mark iii which I still use for product shots, I happen to prefer the quality of images it produces. It’s still reliable and when you look at magazine photos from 10 years back they certainly weren’t poor quality (in fact they’re indistinguishable from what you see now). I have a 1dx body that’s used for sports and equestrian where some weather proofing is handy and the frame rate results in more “keepers”, and a 5d mkiii which occasionally comes out at the end of a long day when I feel tired (pathetic I know, man up). But having said that, my portfolio still contains great photos shot with a 5d classic.

it’s very easy to get caught up in “a lens for a purpose” approach – of course there’s the right lens for the job but improvisation is relatively straightforward. I’ve been caught a few times with clients who want an additional couple of photos and while I don’t have my go to lens in the bag, I can still get the right shots with the gear I have with me. I always tell people it’s about their creative vision – a lot of my favourite photographers managed with just one 50mm lens, their legs were their  “zoom” and the photos were better for it. Getting that interaction with the subject is often more important than the equipment (unless it’s a pork pie of course). You don’t need all the latest gear or a bag of lenses to get a great photo.

which brings me (in a roundabout way) to Canon’s 200 f2L. I can honestly say it’s a lens that spends a lot of time on my camera, to the extent that I rarely go anywhere without it. I’m not going to go into the geeky charts to look at sharpness and distortion etc (honestly don’t understand why some reviewers get so hung up on this sort of thing. It’s all about having a great photo at the end of the day).

Beautiful form and one of my favourite jumping photos, the white mane provides just the right amount of reflection to fill the shadows on the rider’s face. Canon 1DX, 200mm F2L 1/1250 sec @ F2

 

Yes it’s a moderately heavy lens, but certainly not unmanageable, weighing about 1kg less than the 400 2.8. The design is ergonomically perfect, I’m not a heavyweight by any means but I shoot it hand held for hours on end (sometimes for 8 hour sessions over ten consecutive days) and rarely get a poor shot – because it’s my main lens I’ve learned the balance and how to use it to its best effect. Depth of field at f2 is very shallow, an advantage for the fantastic separation and bokeh but you can’t use it for some subjects without careful thought, it’s all about knowing when it will work for you. Contrast is exceptional, I often use the drop in polariser when shooting against a sky to pull the contrast and colours up a little more, image stabilisation is excellent so the 1 stop reduction in shutter speed is easily handled.

It does happily take a 1.4x converter, stepping it up to a 280mm f2.8, but it does affect the balance and I personally don’t find it as comfortable to use. For those who hope it will rival a 300 2.8 at that length – sorry but it just won’t wide open. Stopped down to f5 it’s perfect, at 2.8 it’s ok and for the photos we sell it’s sharp enough across the range. I sold my 300 2.8 because I just didn’t use it enough after buying this one but that’s because for the majority of my photography 200mm is fine and 300 is an occasional need. If I went back to photographing something where 300mm was the optimum focal length, I’d get another 300mm 2.8 rather than getting by with a 200 and 1.4x.

I’ve heard a lot of grumbles about the lens cover, it’s honestly not a problem. In fact I’d go so far as to say that I quite like it. It’s fondly known as an “elephant’s foot”. I do look after my gear but the lens has a sacrificial front element and although the cover takes about 10 seconds to fix in place it does spend all day with the front element exposed even when not in use but it’s not exactly a challenge – although it was a bit of a fumble when I first got it. Hardly worth mentioning though. Let’s face it, it should be off the lens most of the time!

Overall I’d say it’s the best lens I’ve owned. I’ve had it for a long time, it’s been used for countless thousands of shots and I wouldn’t dream of changing it for anything else. But that’s because it suits me and my style. Anyone thinking about buying one should also consider the Canon 200 2.8 though at significantly less cost, or the 135 f2 if you don’t need as much reach, both excellent alternatives. If you’re looking at this lens then you’re buying for one thing and that’s the big f2 aperture, and it absolutely excels wide open (which at the end of the day is what it was designed for) – but like everything, it’s a tool. You have to learn how to handle it to get the very best from it.

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