Photography 101: The 70-200mm Versus 100-400mm Conundrum

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Many photographers would literally kill to have this problem. An either-or decision between two of Canon’s premier telephoto zoom lenses: the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM or the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM.

Both are Version 2.0 lenses and both have stellar reputations for build quality, reliability and image quality. They are both true photography workhorses and good buying decisions if you can afford them—they are frightfully expensive.

Thankfully price wasn’t my main concern—I’ve done pretty well (financially) since destroying my life seven years ago. I’ve written about that period many times before, here on Expat Journal, so I won’t go any further this time around (if you’re new to this blog feel free to visit my archives to get the gory details if you’re interested). My bigger concern was duplicating effort—buying two lenses that do virtually the same thing (albeit a little differently). They have a focal range of 100-200mm in common (a little wider at 70mm on the 70-200mm and substantially longer at 400mm on the 100-400mm). So which Canon L-lens to buy?

Innocence – Rzeszow, Poland (200mm @ f/2.8)

They are both fully capable of crossing into the other’s photographic territory, though each performs its specialty task a little better than the other one. The division of labour breaks down this way: I prefer the 70-200mm for portraits (mostly Street Portraits) and I like the 100-400mm for wildlife. The 70-200mm can shoot wildlife and the 100-400mm can shoot portraits—however the results, in each instance, are a little different. As an example: you can mount a 70-200mm (with a 1.4x teleconverter) on a APS-C crop-sensor body (like the Canon EOS 7D Mark II DSLR) and get an EFOV (Effective Field of View) of almost 450mm.

Young Poles – Rzeszow, Poland (200mm @ f/2.8)

The tradeoff is a slight degradation of image quality with the 1.4x teleconverter and lower resolution of the crop-sensor camera body. Will you see that degradation on your screen (even at 100% magnification)? Probably not. Where it comes into play is when you want to print large. The 100-400mm will capture nice portraits but the tradeoff is bokeh (the quality of the out-of-focus background). The f/5.6 maximum aperture at 400mm just can’t match the creamy bokeh of a f/2.8 lens shot wide-open. You can mitigate that difference somewhat by paying close attention to shooting distance: camera to subject and subject to background.

Roseate Spoonbill – Yucatan, Mexico (400mm @ f/5.6)

Both lenses are evenly matched when it comes to: size, weight and cost. They’re both big, heavy and expensive. I follow a young (about half my age) Canadian travel photographer on YouTube. Brendan van Son recently had to make a decision between these two quality lenses—he chose the 100-400mm. Considering the type of photography he does I’m not convinced that was the best choice but it was his decision to make. He rarely shoots wildlife but is often faced with-low light situations, I think he would have been better served with the 70-200mm f/2.8—just my opinion of course.

Great Blue Turaco – San Diego, CA, USA (400mm @ f/5.6)

Unlike Brendan I don’t pack a drone, or carry YouTube vlogging kit, so I opted for both. Some photographers might criticise that decision as an extravagance but for my kind of photography I see it as a necessity. I need the 400mm reach for wildlife in the field and I need the f/2.8 aperture for Street Portraits and other low-light work. Neither lens will completely replace the other in my opinion. They’re designed to do different things well—and they do. Photography is all about compromise and tradeoffs, especially where equipment is concerned. Think long & hard and buy wisely.

Field Notes: You can save thousands of dollars buying alternative kit. For years I covered these focal lengths with two relatively inexpensive alternatives: the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L (non-IS) USM telephoto zoom and the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L (non-IS) USM super-telephoto prime lens. Buy them pre-owned (gently used) and you can save even more. With good shooting technique (they are not image stabilised) you can get virtually identical results at a fraction of the cost (both are L-series Pro-lenses). If your equipment has limitations (and it all does) learn to overcome those limitations with: education, experience and perseverance. SFD 


2 responses to “Photography 101: The 70-200mm Versus 100-400mm Conundrum

  1. Great post on 2 great lenses! I must agree that neither one can replace the other. Being a travel photographer and a wildlife photographer is definitely not and easy task. I am not a professional such as yourself, so for me the budget was definitely a factor however I have owned the Canon 70-200mmL F4 IS version for a few years now. I must say for myself, doing a lot of outdoor work I don’t really need the 2.8 as much as say a wedding or portrait photographer would, however there are some times I wish it was there. I am also using a 7D with a crop sensor so for my wildlife shots it seems to work good enough. Down the road maybe the 100-400 will be an option for me. Or I’ve even considered the 300mm F4 Prime. However if there are any readers out there that are looking for a similar lens to the 2 you mentioned, I can say that the cost savings on the f4 is huge and so is the weight savings for travel. If you can sacrifice the F2.8. Once again, great post Steve!

    • I agree with you Jeremy, the 70-200mm f/4L (IS or non-IS) is just as sharp as the f/2.8L II version 2.0 (maybe even a tad sharper if you’re a pixel peeper) and MUCH lighter, smaller and cheaper. It’s an excellent choice.

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