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Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM Lens vs. Non-L Lens Comparison

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM L vs. non-L LensesWhen Canon announced the 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens late last year, we took it as very welcoming news. We could not think of a customer who was not happy with their 70-200mm L lens in terms of performance (whatever version it may be, although the f/4 non-IS is our most popular seller most likely due to the size, weight and price), but many of those 70-200mm owners wished they could have just a little more reach without the heft and weight of the 100-400mm L lens, in addition to the more awkward "push-pull" zoom function (the 70-200mm f/4 L is approx. 1.5 lbs., the 70-300mm L is approx. 2.3 lbs. and the 100-400mm L is just over 3 lbs.). The 70-300mm L lens now fits perfectly in that void of L lenses: a good compromise in size, weight, and focal length.

The non-L 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM lens has always been a good seller for us. The price is right for the quality and features packed into this lightweight and portable zoom telephoto lens. Our customers on the whole have always been pleased with this lens, although we normally do not market it to the most discerning enthusiasts or professionals. One question that we have been hearing for a little while now is how does this lens compare with the newer L version of the same focal length zoom? In terms of L lenses, the 70-300mm L lens is not necessarily considered expensive, but compared to the non-L 70-300mm lens, it certainly does seem expensive, considering it is close to $1000 more. So, again, customers wonder, how do they compare? Is the L lens really that much better? We decided we had to definitively find out for ourselves, so we got out our old lens test chart from the basement, and had a look. What we found was interesting.

We first tested both L and non-L 70-300mm lenses at the 300mm focal length. Customers purchasing a longer focal length telephoto lens are most likely purchasing it because they are planning on using the longer focal length. So, it only makes sense to start testing the lens at the longer focal length end of the zoom. We decided to try the testing with the Canon 60D, which is currently our most popular selling Canon digital SLR camera body. We set up the camera on a tripod at 26 times the focal length being tested, and shot with the exact same settings, only changing the lens in between shooting through a couple of apertures. We made sure to turn off any in-camera corrections, like Canon's peripheral illumination correction, noise reduction, etc.. The differences between these two lenses at the 300mm focal length are very, well, different. The L lens, hands-down, wins. Browse through the images below to see for yourself. Each image is a 100% crop of the lowest most right-hand corner of the lens test chart.

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens at f/16

non-L @ f/16

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM Lens at f/16

L @ f/16

We took a shot at f/16 to see both lenses closed down a bit. Looking at just the non-L image, you would consider that fairly sharp considering it is a 100% crop at the very edge of an image taken with a lens at 300mm. But, when you scroll down to see the image taken with the L lens, you realize the first is really not all that good. The clarity of the image taken with the L lens is phenomenal. The green and red Chromatic Aberrations of the non-L lens are very unsightly and distracting. The L lens holds them in check quite wonderfully.

We then wanted to check the lenses both wide open. At the largest aperture, the optics of a lens are put to the test.

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens at f/5.6non-L @ f/5.6
Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM Lens at f/5.6

L @ f/5.6

As you can see, the non-L lens falls apart and turns to mush while at the largest aperture of f/5.6 for this focal length. Although no longer tac-sharp, the L lens still maintains definition--you can make out what some of the numbers are supposed to be.

We then wanted to see what the images looked like at the shortest focal length of both these lenses--70mm. S0, we moved the tripod closer to the test chart and gave it another go. Here we are including just the image taken with these lenses wide-open, at f/4.

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens at f/4

non-L @ f/4

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM Lens at f/4

L @ f/4

As you can see, at 70mm, there is not as great a difference between the two lenses as there was at 300mm. Both lenses are very sharp. If you quickly scroll up and down the L 70-300mm appears to have a little bit more clarity. As the aperture was stopped down, the differences between the two became less apparent.

Although we did not have the time (this test was to just quickly see if there was a noticeable difference between the lenses) it would be interesting to try the lenses at other focal lengths to see how they compare. We imagine that most people purchasing a telephoto zoom will be leaning more towards the longer focal length end than the shorter focal length end of the zoom, and in comparing the two lenses at 300mm the L is therefore a much better lens to have in your camera bag. If you are looking for a telephoto zoom that will produce tac-sharp images, the L 70-300mm is an obvious choice. Also, you have to keep in mind that when purchasing this lens, the image quality is not the only part of the equation. The L lens is more solid, and better weather sealed. It just feels more sturdy in the hand. In addition, the speed of the autofocus is phenomenally fast. If you are looking to capture images of wildlife, the L 70-300mm is a great choice for getting quick-moving animals (think birds in flight) in focus and capturing them in a tac-sharp image.

If you are interested in purchasing either of the lenses mentioned here, please visit our retail website by clicking here.


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