Should you own a 70-200mm lens? Yes you should. On a full-frame DSLR it is a very versatile lens and almost de rigueur for a well-rounded photography kit. On an APS-C crop-sensor body it gets a little more complicated.
Nonetheless it’s important to have this very useful equivalent EFOV (Effective Field of View) focal length range close at hand in your photography. If I was only allowed three lenses for my kit the decision would be easy for me.
Number one would be a 24-70mm followed by a 70-200mm and lastly a fast 50mm (f/1.2, f/1.4 or f/1.8) prime lens. With those lenses you can shoot virtually everything with the possible exception of small wildlife at a distance. Back in my film days I shot with two original Nikon F SLR camera bodies with Nikon 50mm f/1.4 lenses mounted on them 90% of the time. I later acquired a 28mm, 105mm and 135mm but the 50mm was the real workhorse. I also shot with a Leica M-3 and a medium format Rolleiflex TLR—each with a single lens.
Fast-forward to 2018 and I now carry around two DSLR camera bodies (one full-frame and one APS-C crop-sensor) and five lenses (four zooms and one prime) in my Pelican 1510 hard camera case. But I digress—back to the venerable 70-200mm zoom lens. I’ve been a Canon shooter since 2009 so I will be talking specifically about Canon (pro-level) L-glass but Nikon, Sony, Sigma and Tamron all make excellent lenses in the 70-200mm zoom range. Canon actually has four L-lenses in this range (two at f/2.8 and two at f/4). There is a lens for every situation and budget.
The 70-200mm focal length range makes for a good generalist lens and is a great crossover lens for various genres. Zoomed out to 105mm, 135mm and even 200mm it’s an excellent portrait lens (especially the f/2.8 version). The f/2.8 is a favourite amongst wedding photographers for its low-light and beautiful bokeh performance. If low-light photography isn’t a priority, or if you typically have a static subject and can use f/4 with IS effectively, you can substantially save on size, weight and expense with an f/4 copy. What I’m saying here is you have a few viable options when buying this lens.
This lens can be useful in Street Photography too, especially if you’re a shy and introverted photographer who would rather shoot from a distance than up close & personal. I do enjoy using a wide-angle lenses (24mm to 35mm) for general Street Photography because they’re good at capturing environmental context but they usually require that you get closer to your subject—however, for Street Portraits (head & shoulders) the 700-200mm zoom is a terrific lens to use. Other uses for this lens include, depending on subject size, Wildlife Photography (I normally prefer 300mm or more on a full-frame DSLR).
However, on an APS-C crop-sensor body the 70-200mm can be useful for wildlife and reach out to an acceptable 320mm EFOV (Effective Field of View) with the 1.6x (Canon) crop-sensor advantage. I referred to this lens as a good generalist lens that should be included in your kit because it can effectively shoot weddings, events, sports, wildlife, portraits and even the mean streets. Since I bought my Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM super-telephoto zoom lens for wildlife I don’t use my 70-200mm as much as I used to (they share many of the same focal lengths except I get a longer reach at 400m.
If I’m shooting larger critters and/or in a low-light situation (sunrise & sunset) my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM telephoto zoom lens (especially on my 7D Mark II APS-C crop-sensor body) would be a great first choice. I have included some images (various genres) that I’ve taken with my older Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L (non-IS) USM telephoto zoom lens. This older lens is still available at a terrific price (a huge bang for your buck). It’s optical image quality and build quality are both superb and rival (if not surpasses) the newer versions. If you can live without f/2.8 and IS you might consider this lens.
If you’re a Nikon or Sony shooter you will want to look into their offerings. Sigma and Tamron also make versions of this lens and I understand that the Tamron lens is very good indeed and getting great reviews. As in all things photography subject matter, shooting environment, cost and budget are all important considerations when making a buying decision. So do your homework, buying too much lens can be almost as bad as not buying enough lens. No camera or lens is perfect so you learn to work around their limitations. My two vintage non-IS telephoto lenses were great performers.
Field Notes: All of the images on this page were captured using my old technology vintage Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L (non-IS) USM telephoto zoom lens and my old Canon EOS 5D Mark II full-frame DSLR. This older technology lens is still available at a bargain $600 US compared to my new Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM telephoto zoom lens at $1,950 US. The image quality and build quality on this old lens is excellent so you might want to check it out if you’re on a budget. It’s also much smaller and lighter in weight. Excellent results at a fraction of the cost. SFD