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I'm having a hard time deciding which lens I should add to my bag. I currently have the 600D + 18-135 kit lens. I wanted to get a telephoto for my next lens, and I have two options to choose from for the trip I'm planning to Africa: the Canon 300 f4L IS and the Canon 70-200 f4L IS.

Since I have never used a 300mm lens I don't know if there will be a significant improvement from 200mm.

So my questions are:

  1. Is a 300mm focal length on a crop sensor is long enough for the African safari (I've never been to one so I don't know how much further away I'm going to be from the animals)?
  2. What are the other differences between these two lenses (image quality, focusing speed and accuracy, image stabilization versions.. etc.)?

I don't mind the size and weight if that's something you think I should bare in mind.

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5 Answers 5

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Versatility & Tradeoffs

A lot of arguments for the 70-200mm at the moment, so I feel good about providing my own counter opinion. I don't deny that the 70-200mm lenses, in all their variants, are excellent lenses. There is also something to be said about versatility, and the 70-200mm definitely has that. There are drawbacks to it as well, and there are certain tradeoffs that the 70-200mm lens (or any zoom lens for that matter) has to make in order to offer that kind of versatility.

The Excellent 300/4

As a bird and wildlife photographer myself who has recently tried the EF 300mm f/4 lens, I have to state that it is an excellent lens! From an IQ standpoint, since it can be optimized for a single focal length, it is superb. It is not the fastest lens at f/4, it is more middle-ground...but it is better than f/5.6. Since it's IQ is so high, you also have the option of safely adding the EF 1.4x TC III to extend the lens to 420mm f/5.6 when you do need extra reach. Combined with an APS-C body, you get extended reach.

The wide aperture at that focal length also helps produce a very nice, pleasing out of focus background, and since background blur is dependent on entrance pupil, boke remains high quality even with a 1.4x TC attached. This would be a key benefit over the 70-200, which while it has the same relative aperture, its entrance pupil is smaller, thus reducing the maximum amount of blur. The longer focal length of the 300mm also helps produce a thinner DOF, which can be key to isolating your subjects.

Safari and the Vaunted Supertelephotos

If you are indeed going on a trip to Africa and intend to go on a Safari, then even a 300mm f/4 with a 1.4x TC for 420mm is probably going to end up leaving you a bit short in many circumstances. As a "Next lens purchase" option, you really can't go wrong with either the 70-200mm or 300mm lenses. I would recommend either, or both, depending on your general usage patterns and funds. Personally I have found that I rarely actually zoom when photographing birds or wildlife. Both tend to stay or simply be far enough away that if I need to change my composition, I move myself and just stay at the longest focal length...or use a prime. You have the added benefit of improved IQ and near-perfect IQ at maximum aperture with prime lenses, something that is rarely the case with zoom lenses (although there are a couple exceptions.)

If you are really intending to go on a Safari to Africa, I'd pick up the 300mm f/4 as your next lens purchase, but also bring along a supertelephoto rental as a backup. Either the 500mm f/4 or 600mm f/4 are both excellent options. You might choose the 500mm if you intend to only photograph the wildlife, or the 600mm if you want to photograph birds as well. The 500mm with a 1.4x TC becomes a 700mm f/5.6 lens, which gives you a pretty broad range of focal lengths with two lenses and a single TC: 300mm, 420mm, 500mm, 700mm, at apertures of f/4 and f/5.6. The HUGE entrance pupil of the 500mm lens also brings the added benefit of fantastic background blur and a thin DOF, which will really help you add that extra professional touch to your wildlife photographs.

If you also want to do some bird photography while you are there (and there are a number of species unique to the African wilderness), I'd recommend renting the EF 600mm f/4 rather than the 500mm. The extra reach, which with a 1.4x TC becomes 840mm, could be essential for getting quality bird photographs from your Safari vehicle. It could also help you get some close-up facial portraits of the more dangerous creatures such as Lions and Hyena. The 600mm f/4 lens from Canon sports their largest entrance pupil at 150mm, giving it the most power to create incredibly pleasing, creamy smooth OOF background boke. Subject isolation, either for birds or wildlife, won't be a problem with this lens, even at great distances or when paired with the 1.4x TC.

If you have the benefit of getting really close to your subjects, having the 300mm on hand would be a huge bonus, as a longer lens at 500mm or 600mm could preclude getting good composition on shots of closer subjects. The 300mm lens is a great addition to ones kit, especially for domestic wildlife, and is an excellent focal length for such endeavors giving the lens use over a long life. However if I were to go on an African safari, I would be loath to go without some real telephoto power in my backpack. A lot of wildlife frequently stays at a distance, and a lot of the best photos are taken at a distance where the wildlife can pay attention to their normal activities, rather than to the photographer or the vehicle they are romping around in...offering better opportunities for natural shots.

Rental for either the EF 500mm or EF 600mm lenses (the older generation) are relatively cheap...rolling in at around $300 per 5-day rental period ($660 for the 500mm f/4 for a full two weeks, with return on the Monday following those two weeks, from LensRentals.com.) If you have the funds, the newer Mark II versions of these lenses are considerably lighter than their older cousins, and bring to the table true supertelephoto hand-holdability in a pinch. They are considerably more expensive to rent, at almost twice the cost...but there are no better lenses on planet earth from a weight, IQ, and reach standpoint. Safaris don't roll around all that often and tend to be expensive regardless, and when 300mm or 420mm just isn't enough to get your half-decent shots of distant animals, you'll probably be wishing you dragged along that 500mm lens, even if it costs you an extra $800 for a few weeks.

Regarding APS-C Reach Benefit

Using the most common terms, you can apply the crop factor, 1.6x, making the 300mm/+1.4x lens like a 480mm/672mm lens on FF. The actual reach benefit really depends on pixel density differences, but in most cases when comparing to 18-22mm FF sensors the gains are around 2x or more (i.e. for every one pixel in the 1D X, the 7D offers 2.6x pixels in the same area, or 2.3x more pixels than a 5D III).

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1  
agreed on the 300F4+1.4x being a great and cost effective combo. It's my go-to lens these days (I used to preach the 100-400, also a good option, but changed about a year ago. don't regret it; my next upgrade will be to a 70-200 IS II and 2x, but that's about double the cost of the 300F4). Consider retnring a 500mm for the trip, too. You'll likely want it. –  chuqui Dec 13 '12 at 19:45

If you're willing to spend a bit more (about $300-$400 in my neck of the woods), then you can get the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS L. You get extra reach on the telephoto, you don't lose a lot on the wider end (and you still have the 18-135mm to cover you), and it's stabilized. You'll definitely want to ensure that you're stabilized for long lenses, it's very helpful for seeing your subject without constant hand movement.

Also, considering your trip, you may want to invest in a good tripod or monopod. Monopods can be very handy when out shooting wildlife, giving stability while providing for easy movement.

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I was just checking out that lens and can conclude that it is not as good (optically) as the 70-200mm F/4L - so it will be similar to 70-200L with teleconveter in quality, meaning that it is a 1.4degrees difference in FOV with similar light "Speed" but he gains IS. He can also get 70-200 F4 IS USM at that price whihc is even better than the non IS. –  Michael Nielsen Dec 9 '12 at 16:04
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@MichaelNielsen - Reviews versus practical reality are different. I think the 100-400mm is probably going to produce very good results, especially when stopped down to f/8 (very reasonable in the African sun), it is stabilized, and will be still be longer than the 70-200mm with the 1.4x TC. To get to the same reach with the 70-200mm lens, you'd need to use the 2x TC, but you give up AF on the 600D when you do it. Having that reach with African wildlife can be a huge bonus. The Sigma option that Itai mentions is good too, I have the Pentax version. –  John Cavan Dec 9 '12 at 16:23
    
For the price of the 100-400 he can get the 70-200 IS and the 1.4x teleconverter (with which the AF will still work). It's quite the investment, but that set is good for the rest of his life. If he finds a gazelle that will be 2000 pixels wide in the 400mm lens it will just be 1400 pixels in the 280mm lens. But those 1400 pixels will be less blurry, so it might result in the same image when rescaled to whatever resolution he needs. –  Michael Nielsen Dec 9 '12 at 16:40
1  
When you're in a dusty environment and you don't want to change lenses, you may find a longer range zoom results in more keepers than a prime plus extenders. –  Eric Dec 9 '12 at 17:44

The 70-200mm F/4L lens is awesome, I own the unstabilized version a cropped-sensor body. That is an excellent lens for sports and action photography.

However, for an African safari, unless you are very lucky, you will need a longer reach. The 300mm will equate to a 460mm and that is very usable. It is a fixed lens, so you have to work harder and crop to get perfect framing. In a typical African safari, the problem is that your shooting position is fixed at any one time, give or take a few feet, depending how many others or on the vehicle. So a zoom is makes things easier. Something like a high-end Sigma would fit the bill nicely, their 120-400mm F/2.8 F/4.5-5.6 goes for about $1000.

One thing to consider if this is a once-in-a-decade kind of trip, is simply to rent the perfect lens which may be too costly to buy. Canon has a 100-400mm F/4.5-5.6 which is very well regarded.

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That's the wrong Sigma. –  Itai Dec 9 '12 at 16:37
    
@MichaelNielsen - The thing about Sigma is that they produce poor and superb lenses, with the entire spectrum in between. You cannot simply substitute a similar one based on focal-length, especially across generations and types of technology. –  Itai Dec 9 '12 at 16:45
    
120-400 is still considered pretty poor: photozone.de/canon_eos_ff/581-sigma120400f4556eosff?start=1 "The Sigma AF 120-400mm f/4.5-5.6 DG HSM OS is a consumer grade tele zoom lens with a relatively decent albeit not spectacular performance.", whereas the OP was consideing a "pro grade" lens . –  Michael Nielsen Dec 9 '12 at 16:46
    
PS: I didn't intend to "substitute", that was an error. –  Michael Nielsen Dec 9 '12 at 16:48

Talk to your safari tour operator. Ask for recommendations based on their past experience. Depending on the type of safari and the animals you want to capture, a 70-200 may be best. Or maybe you need an 800mm. Are you looking for the big animals (elephants, rhinos, etc) or are you mainly looking for smaller varmints and birds? How many people will be in your vehicle? What type of working room will you have? A smaller lens might actually be easier to use and then crop later than a larger lens, if you are constantly bumping against other tourists.

I would tend toward versatility if it were me. I'd consider renting the 100-400 ahead of time to see if you like it, and then again for the trip.

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A 70-200 L lens is pretty much epic. The local lens rental says it is the most rented lens they have (its the 2.8L version, though) but the F/4 is very good as well. I think for your African trip you might not only want to take pictures of animals far away, but also the landscapes, villages, locals, etc.

On the crop sensor your FOV is pretty narrow, but I do suggest you get the best tele-converter 1.4x (2x would take too much light) such as Tamron 1.4x PRO (not the non pro ), making it a 100-280mm lens, with FOV like 160-450mm @35mm) with F5.6. Outdoor at day this is fine and at dusk or for portraits of locals you can take the teleconverter off.

It is also much more likely to be used when you get back from Africa.

If you have extra money, you can consider the IS version, which is slightly sharper without teleconverter but helps a lot with the IS.

200mm:

http://www.the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/ISO-12233-Sample-Crops.aspx?Lens=404&Camera=453&Sample=0&FLI=4&API=1&LensComp=104&CameraComp=453&SampleComp=0&FLIComp=4&APIComp=1

280mm:

http://www.the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/ISO-12233-Sample-Crops.aspx?Lens=404&Camera=453&Sample=0&FLI=5&API=1&LensComp=104&CameraComp=453&SampleComp=0&FLIComp=5&APIComp=0

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