I just found that there is a 200mm lens at my school. It is a Canon with Image Stabiliser (with red detail). It is old, at least 10 years. It has been great playing around with it, but I really don't know what it is good for. What type of photos is it built for. I recall vaguely a friend telling me that a lens with no room to change the zoom will give you better focus... but apart from that I am not sure what type of photos it is good for. I want to take it to the sports field and capture some sports in action.

Update: The lens is a "Canon EF 200mm 1:2.8 L II Ultrasonic". It does not say anything about image stabiliser :(

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you asking about the usefulness of prime lenses or a 200mm focal length? \$\endgroup\$
    – stevenvh
    Commented Aug 18, 2010 at 12:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ i think the answer might depend on the aperture also. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 18, 2010 at 14:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ As far as I'm aware, the only Canon 200mm with Image Stabiliser (IS) is the EF 200mm f/2L IS USM... but that was released in 2008? There's 300mm f/2.8L and f/4L both with IS, or 200mm f/2.8L or f/1.8L without IS which this might be? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 19, 2010 at 3:17

4 Answers 4


A 200mm lens is in the category of lenses called "fixed focal length" or "prime", which cannot zoom in and out. The more common lens type is the zoom, which does allow you to zoom in and out.

The primary tradeoffs between prime and zoom lenses are:

  • Aperture - Typically, prime lenses tend to operate at wider maximum aperture than zooms. For instance, Nikon makes 50mm, 85mm, and 105mm prime lenses that can expose down to an aperture of 1.4, whereas the best zoom lenses that cover that range can only focus down to 2.8. In terms of the photo, that can be a noticeable difference in the Depth of Field, which controls how much of the image is in focus and how much is in blurred out.
  • Optical quality - Prime lenses are almost universally better optically than equivalent zooms. They achieve better sharpness by usign fewer optical elements. You can think of this as fewer pieces of glass between you and your subject, thereby reducing the amount of distortion, letting more light through, and having more fine-tuned control of the final image.
  • weight - Prime lenses are always much lighter in weight than their zoom counterparts

You asked specifically about the 200mm lens. This lens is often used for:

  • Wildlife - When you are on safari, or birding, your subject can be as far as 50 to a few hundred yards away, and if you still want to fill the frame of your image with that subject you need a hefty magnification. The 200mm helps accomplish that.
  • Sports - Same as in wildlife, if you are standing on the sidelines of a sports game, you need good magnification to capture the action up close in your frame.
  • Portraiture - This lens is also useful for portraiture, but it requires standing very far from your subject. Some professionals will do this to achieve a very dramatic effect and a maximal blurring of the background.

This lens is best used with a tripod or monopod because when you are using that much magnification, even the slightest bit of camera shake will significantly impact your image.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The lens in question appears to be the 200mm f/2L IS USM so with image stabiliser and f/2, the tripod probably isn't really necessary most of the time (though the OP might be mistaken about the 200mm or the IS or the age, since I don't think such a lens existed 10 years ago). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 19, 2010 at 3:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ good answer. yer second bullet point has a typo: should read: "...better optically than equivalent zooms." \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 19, 2010 at 16:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ more common? hmm... \$\endgroup\$
    – jwenting
    Commented Mar 17, 2011 at 11:27

The usefulness of a lens entirely depends on what use you put it to. Like Karel's excellent statement said, "there really are no limits". So long as you are creative and imaginative, you can put a 200mm lens to excellent use, even in areas where wide-angles dominate. A great example is Andy Mumford's telephoto landscape work...purely genius:

Two by Andy Mumford
Reference: Two by Andy Mumford

The full range of telephoto focal lengths can be useful for landscape, not just 200mm. Here is another example at 80mm:

Capella by Andy Mumford
Reference: Capella by Andy Mumford

This photographer has written a great article about the value of telephoto lenses in landscape at ND Magazine.


Especially with older lenses a prime (fixed focal length) lens will usually have better optical quality than a zoom.

A 200mm lens is a telephoto lens, and can be used in a variety of ways. A telephoto lens will compress the image so it looks like the objects are closer together. It may also be good for bird or sports photography.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Compress the image? Objects won't appear closer together, they'll be bigger, or rather, zoomed in. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 19, 2010 at 0:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Nick: By compress objects, he means the background. Telephoto focal lengths have the effect of bringing things in depth "closer" to the key subject. Its called background compression, and is due to the narrower field of view. \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Aug 19, 2010 at 0:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sorry about the terminology, thanks @jrista for the clarification! \$\endgroup\$
    – chills42
    Commented Aug 19, 2010 at 2:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the concept of background compression is an important one. I did not know of that particular term myself, although I did know of the effect. I think its a sadly undervalued capability of telephoto lengths (and the same goes for background decompression @ wide angles) and I've been glad to see several answers recently discussing it. So thanks! \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Aug 19, 2010 at 4:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ Image compression works at the subject level as well. It's not that the lens distorts anything, but that you are further from your subject for a given magnification, so the difference in distance between your camera and the subject's nose and eyes (for example) is proportionally much less than if you'd shot the same subject from much closer using a shorter lens. That's why teles are used in tight portraiture and beauty -- you shoot from where the subject looks best and use the lens (rather than your feet) to fill the frame. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2719
    Commented Mar 16, 2011 at 19:20

It's good whenever you need this field of view and magnification. Sports and wildlife come to mind first, but it's usable for portrait work also if you have enough room.

Lens with fixed focal length is probably optically better and faster than the zoom in the same range. On the other hand, you have to choose the right distance or "zoom with your feet", frame creatively or just miss the shot.

Be aware that you'll need to look out for camera shake - you'll need either fast enough shutter speeds (it depends on how much your hands shake, but the rule of thumb says your shutter speed should be shorter than 1/200) or a good support.

The best way to determine what you can do with it is to shoot with it. There are really no limits like "you can only shoot sports with 200mm prime lens".


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