I'm a beginner to Photography with a Canon T3i, and love travelling and outdoors activities. Planning a trip to Africa to see wildlife this summer, and would love some help to chose between these two lenses.

Will the autofocus on either be a problem? Especially since we will be shooting at moving animals, birds - sometimes from a car, specially in Kenya.

Also when there is low light, will it be a problem with the 70-200 not having IS? Keeping in mind I won't set my tripod up every shot I take, I mean I might be moving and want to shoot in the same time.

Also I need to use the lens I will buy in other outdoor activities afterwards, travelling, carnivals, night events as well. I really love taking photos during the night, like Whirling Dervishes, or sports such as sand boarding.


(later edit of my answer: for a newer photographer, most of the suggestions made in this thread including mine are overkill. For a trip like this, something like a T5i (or choose a body. APS sensor is fine), the 24-105, and the Canon 100-400 would be a great setup and cover pretty much any need you could have that wouldn't require $10,000 lenses to shoot. And that set would cost about the same as just a 70-200 F2.8L IS II, which is why my suggestion on retrospect wasn't a good one. If you're a more advanced photographer? Maybe. But for a new one? the 100-400 is a great option and will solve the problems he asked about and the ones we're trying to solve for him...)

You're going to be in situations where tripods are going to be unrealistic. That generally means you should lean towards an IS lens over a faster non-IS lens.

Something not covered by others here: you're going to Africa. You have to carry all this gear. For an experienced photographer, renting a 500mm and hauling it to Africa is do-able. for a new person who's never done this before? That can be a challenge. Remember, you don't want to pack it, it has to carry on (with all your other photo and electronics gear you don't want to disappear), and that turns into a hassle fast.

My thought: buy the 24-105 lens. It's a good all around lens. The 70-200F4 is a good second lens that goes well with it. You can put a 1.4x teleconverter on it to push it to 320 F5.6 and it'll work okay.

But what I'd consider doing for this trip: RENT the 70-200 F2.8L IS II and a 2.0X teleconverter and use those instead of the 70-200 F4. the 70-200 F2.8Lis a lot bigger and heavier than the F4, but it's faster, and the IS II version handles a 2.0x tele fine, so you get that extra reach with a 400 F5.6 equivalent, and it's a really sharp combo. (note: IS II, not the older IS. the older IS isn't sharp enough to use like this).

Even better, you do that without adding a big, heavy third lens to your setup, saving you a hunk of weight and hassle. My pack (7D, T3i, 24-105, 70-200F2.8L IS II, 20.x) lives in a backpack with all of the other stuff you need to carry and weighs in at just under 20 pounds. If you add a 400mm or 500mm prime, you'll need a bigger pack that might not fit carryon capabilities (or a second person to also carry camera gear in a second pack), and you're now well over 25 pounds of gear headed towards 30 pounds.

So don't just think about what lenses, think about where this person is going and what they need to do to get there. Which makes it even more complicated. you certainly odn't want to BUY the big, heavy 70-200, but this is a perfect opportunity to rent one and solve the weight/bulk problem while still getting a reasonably big hunk of glass that goes to 400mm.

(and then I'd probably but the 70-200F4 as my every day lens when I got back... It's great, unless you need to push it to 400mm with a teleconverter...)

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  • Without the Hoods: The EF 400 f/5.6L is only 2" longer and weighs over 1/2 a pound less than the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II. The EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II does weigh almost 2pounds more than the 70-200 but is still only 2" longer while about 2" fatter as well. – Michael C Apr 4 '13 at 8:04
  • The EF 70-200mm f/4L IS, released in 2006, is a much newer design than the EF 70-200 f/4L released in 1999 and performs much better optically as well. – Michael C Apr 4 '13 at 8:08
  • but the 400mm is ONLY 400mm. The combo I suggest covers 70-400mm. And he'll want that flexibility. – chuqui Apr 4 '13 at 17:48
  • On a wildlife safari, I would venture that 99.999% of the time zooms are at the longest setting. There's virtually no such thing as too long when photographing animals in the wild. And with the 2X extender, the 70-200 is both longer and a pound heavier than the 400 f/5.6. Size/weight was the basis of your argument in your answer. If he does take the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, I would recommend he buy it. It is certainly the best money I've ever spent on any single piece of photo gear. – Michael C Apr 4 '13 at 18:25
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    since the questioner is self-admitted as a beginner in photographer, I'm really unable to suggest he spend huge amounts of money for lenses when I have no idea what his plans are beyond the trip, or what his preferred photographer is. Which they may not know, iether. And the 70-200F2.8 IS II is a seriously expensive lens. I can't suggest they invest 7-8,000 on camera gear as beginners... – chuqui Apr 4 '13 at 20:04

What this seems to boil down to is which is better: f/4 without IS or f/5.6 with IS?

There's also the difference in reach between 200mm and 300mm but they are still within the same ball park (just crop 33% out of the frame if you want). So basically you're asking whether IS can make up for a smaller maximum aperture at reach.

A few points you might want to consider:

  • IS doesn't help with motion blur caused by movement of the subject, only angular movement of the photographer. If the animals are moving, and you can't get 1/500s or faster, IS won't help. If you always operate in bright sunlight, this may not matter.

  • f/5.6 to f/4 gains one stop. That will enable you to go from 1/125s to 1/250s if you need to in lower light. Unlike with the IS, the benefits help equally in all conditions: fast/slow subject movement, high/low light. However, it's only 1 stop. IS boasts to be able to get you 2 stops or even more benefit. I'd say 1 to 1.5 is realistic, and remember it is ineffective if your subject is moving.

  • The f/4 will be a lot heavier. Can you handle it?

Overall, I'd lean toward the f/4 providing you can afford it and you can carry it.

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  • There's only about 3 oz. difference between the two lenses. 22.2oz for the 70-300 f/4-5.6 IS and 25.0 for the 70-200 f/4. – Michael C Apr 4 '13 at 8:15
  • @thomasrutter, I think I can handle th f4 lens in the weight thing, will buy a battery grip, have big hand, so yes I can control it. – Ahmed Apr 5 '13 at 0:14
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    Well with only 3 oz (85g) difference that would probably just cement my decision. Ahmed, pay attention also to Michael Clark's answer because his answer raises some good points too. – thomasrutter Apr 5 '13 at 1:07

Quick answer, if you can't use a tripod, I'd go with the IS since it will be critical without a tripod at 300mm focal lengths (granted I'm also a little biased since I own that lens and love it).

On the other hand, if you think you'll be shooting on the shorter end or will have a tripod (or at least monopod) for longer shots, the L will certainly give substantially better image quality (though neither is what I'd call bad or even sub-par). It's worth pointing out that the 70-300IS's USM motor is NOT Full time Manual as well. That was a bit of a shocker for me, but the quality of the image stabilization prevented me from returning it.

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  • You saying the IS is better than an extra stop of light gathering ability? The latter will allow you to double the shutter speed. – thomasrutter Apr 4 '13 at 4:54
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    IS is good for 2-4 stops on most Canon lenses - as long as your subject isn't moving too fast. At 300mm with IS and any kind of proper stabilization technique you could shoot handheld at around 1/40 sec on a FF and 1/60 on a crop body. – Michael C Apr 4 '13 at 7:49
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    @thomasrutter - yes, the stabilization is very good. A Canon F4 lens with IS will even take equivalent handheld shots in low light to an F2.8 without IS provided that the subject is not moving. I've actually done this test before when comparing the 24-70 F/2.8L and the 24-135 F/4L. The stabilization on the 70-300 is about equivalent. When light isn't a problem (and fast shutters can be used) the effect is only amplified. A more open lens only really has an advantage on fast moving targets and then you have to be worried about the shallow DoF. – AJ Henderson Apr 4 '13 at 13:12
  • "IS is good for 2-4 stops on most Canon lenses" is something that lens manufacturers say. It doesn't actually give you 2-4 stops, obviously, because the lens aperture is unaltered. However, if your subject is not moving fast (which eliminates sports/kids/animals) and you're standing still and at least trying to hold the camera still, then it can give you maybe 2 stops worth of stabilisation, which is great, don't get me wrong. But only within that limited set of situations, it's not comparable to 2-4 stop upgrade in the aperture. – thomasrutter Apr 4 '13 at 23:21
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    And it does give you 2-4 stops - of hand holdable shutter speed, not aperture. – Michael C Aug 14 '14 at 2:19

Expecting one lens to excel at capturing moving animals from long range, shooting in low light or at night, and serving as a general duty travel lens is not just a tall order: it is totally unrealistic.

For such a rare opportunity like an African Safari, I would consider renting the lenses that could fill each of those roles.

  • For the wildlife you need a lot of focal length and IS. Something like the EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM, or EF 500mm f/4 L IS II USM, or maybe the EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II combined with a Canon EF 1.4x III or EF 2x III Extender. If you use an extender, you will need a wide aperture lens so your camera will still Auto Focus with the extra stop (1.4x) or two stops (2x) of aperture the extender will cost you.

  • For low light and night shots you will need a very large aperture. Consider a prime lens (one with a fixed focal length) with an aperture of f/2 or wider, like the EF 50mm f/1.4 or for a 1.6x crop body the EF 35mm f/2 IS.

  • For a general travel lens I would consider the EF 24-105mm f/4L on a full frame body or the EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS on a crop body if you're using a fast (wider aperture) lens at night. The EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM has less reach but could double for night shots in a pinch.

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  • Very good point about getting a prime lens. But what about a prime telephoto for a little teeny bit more reach - something like a 135/180mm at f/2.0 or f/2.4? – thomasrutter Apr 4 '13 at 4:57
  • At night the longer focal length, and the resulting need for a faster shutter speed, make lenses like the 135mm or 180mm less attractive to my taste. The closer you have to zoom with your feet, the more the inverse square rule helps with the light being reflected off your subject. – Michael C Apr 4 '13 at 5:04
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    while I'd normally agree with the idea of renting a big lens, for a new photographer going to africa for the first time, hauling big glass around may be a nightmare. I'm not sure that's the right approach with someone who doesn't know the details of schlepping gear around. – chuqui Apr 4 '13 at 6:38
  • The EF 400mm f/5.6L weighs about 1/2 pound less than the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II. It is 2" longer and about the same diameter. – Michael C Apr 4 '13 at 8:21

You will only need to use 70-300mm for far subjects and of course it will work better when the light is high especially during midday. Shooting at noon or high light, image stability will not be a problem because you can use a shutter speed of 1/500 to 1/2000 anyway. It will be much more difficult to use in low light. If I can shoot in a near distance, i use a portrait 35mm lens (nikkor 35 f/1.8g) i love its bokeh effect and its capability to shoot in low light conditions. Without IS at 300mm while shooting a fast moving subject will be difficult and a low light condition will be really difficult; better if you have a tripod for it.

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