300mm f/2.8 or f/4 — The $3,000 Question

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By Steve Russell

Last week I listed my photography equipment. This week I thought I would write about the decision making process I used to decide to buy one of the lenses.

The first time I had the privilege of holding and looking through a Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens I was hooked. It was at a collegiate dual swim meet. I was watching the 10 meter diving competition when a newspaper photographer sat down near me and started taking photos of the competition. One comment led to another and the next thing I knew I was holding the camera and lens and actually taking photos of the divers. I don’t know if any of the images I took were ever printed in the newspaper but from that moment, I’ve wished for a 300mm f/2.8 lens.

Unfortunately, at the time I had one child in college and three in high school. There was no way I could afford such an expensive lens so I opted for a Canon FD 300mm f/4L. I did rent the f/2.8 model a couple of times, but the f/4L was a great lens and I was very happy with it.

This is the current model of Canon’s 300mm F/2.8L IS USM lens.  An awesome piece of equipment.

1Vendo Canon EF 300mm F/2.8L USM IS

Recently, I decided it was time to purchase a new 300mm lens and my first thought was to buy the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM. Emotion and the potential delight of opening the box of the f/2.8L aside, common sense told me that I should also consider the f/4L. As you know, common sense frequently gets in the way of fun, but now I had a difficult decision to make. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my decision, nor would everyone come to the same conclusion if they considered the same factors. However, this is the process I went through to decide which lens to buy. Your process might be different.

Why did I need a 300mm lens?

My first love in photography is nature photography and if you want to take photographs of wild birds and animals without scaring them away, a long lens is essential. This was the easiest part of the process. I needed a 300mm lens – at least that’s what I told my wife.

Price

Comparing the price of the two lenses is easy. The f/2.8L is, depending on where you look, around $4,400 plus tax and/or shipping. The f/4L is $1,270. Since I don’t work for a newspaper or a magazine and don’t have an employer buying the lens for me, price is an important consideration. Through a series of fortunate circumstances (some people would call it luck) I had saved enough to buy the f2.8. However, I could either spend all my photography earmarked savings on the f2.8 or buy the f/4L and have money left over for other “toys.” The f/4L won on price.

Physical Size

If you’re going to be involved in nature photography, you eventually have to get out of the city and out of the car. Lugging the lens and all your other gear across rough terrain isn’t the same as carrying it around the sidelines of a football field. Mountains, lakes, marshes, woods are common locations. The f/4L weighs 2.0 pounds and is 8.7” long and 3.5” in diameter. The f/2.8 weighs 5.7 pounds and is 9.8” long and 5” in diameter. The 3.7 pound difference is significant when added to all the other gear – tripod, camera, other lenses, etc. The f/4L won this one going away.

Maximum Aperture

The f/2.8 is clearly faster than the f/4L but only by one stop. Can one stop overcome the price and size advantage the f/4L has?

I’m not a sports photographer so it’s unlikely I’ll ever be shooting fast action in the low light of indoor stadiums or at lighted fields at night. However, the best shooting times for wildlife are early morning and late evening so photographing in low light is a strong possibility.

When I first fell in love with the f/2.8, DSLR’s weren’t widely available (EOS cameras hadn’t been introduced) and film photography was still king. My film of choice then was Kodachrome 64. There were tricks you could use to “push” the film, but, for the most part, ASA 64 was the fastest you could use and still get excellent image quality. At that speed, a lens that was one stop faster was a big deal. Today, the lowest ISO on my Canon 7D is 100. I can easily increase the ISO two stops to 400 with little if any IQ degradation. Therefore, I can get faster shutter speeds with today’s f/4L than I could with the f/2.8 using Kodachrome 64 which makes it even more difficult to justify the over $3,000 difference.

There is also the issue of my current camera having a cropped sensor compared to the full frame sensor of my old Canon F-1 but that is the same with both lenses.

In the end, I purchased the Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM. You may have different considerations and you may buy, or want to buy, the f/2.8, but I’m very happy with the f/4L. Besides, I can always rent an f/2.8 if I really need to use one. I’ll review the lens in a few weeks when I’ve used it enough to really put it though it’s paces.

Since I don’t own an f2.8L lens for visual comparison, for this photo I placed my 70 – 200 mm f/2.8L lens next to the 300mm f/4L.  As you can see, they are similar in size and the 300mm is actually 1.2 pounds lighter.

Canon 300mm f4L

In photography, money, or lack of it, is frequently our overriding consideration, but even if we can afford what we’re thinking about buying, using a disciplined, decision making process before we buy is always helpful.

Wish List

As promised, here is my wish list, in no particular order. Keep in mind that it’s dynamic and can always have items added.

  • Second camera body – I’d like a 5D Mark II, but I may decide to get the T2i or the new 60D instead. Both have advantages – the 5DMark II has a full size sensor and is an awesome camera. The T2i and 60D have the same sensor as my 7D. I could also buy two of the 60D’s and have money left over for the amount of money it would take to purchase the 5D Mark II.
  • Filters – I’ve never been a big user of filters because I don’t like paying top dollar for lenses and then putting another piece of glass over them. However there are three that I think are essential – a circular polarizing filter and two neutral density filters – a 0.9 optical density or 3-stop filter and a 1.8 optical density or 6-stop filter.
  • Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM Wide Angle Lens – Yes, I have a 24 to 105 zoom lens, but I would like to have a prime lens that is equivalent to a 50mm lens with a full frame sensor.
  • Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash

I’m sure this list will grow, but these are the items I think about most often.

Keep in mind that equipment doesn’t take photographs. Anyone can take bad photos with the best equipment available. Only good photographers can take good or great photos.

Photo credits (in order of appearance)
- “Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM” by corvo72corvo on Flickr Creative Commons.
- “Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM” by Steve Russell

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  • Anonymous

    Steve – nEnjoyed the post. I read the blog often and follow on twitter as well. As you predicted, I do not completely agree with your choice BUT it is certainly the right one because you made it based on what you think will work the best for YOU. After all, that is and must be everyoneu2019s primary focus when making expensive gear decisions like this and I appreciate you sharing your thought process. I recently went through a similar discussion with myself (and my wife) but my decision revolved around a body upgrade. I feel your pain. Just like your situation, some may not agree with the direction I went but, it was the best decision for me and what I shoot. I am currently in my 2nd season shooting football for a university in Florida. As you mentioned, while shooting sports, my priorities and shooting environment are different (Georgia dome = TERRIBLE light). I still purchase my own gear so sadly I do have budget considerations along with the need to satisfy my employer. Just like you, I had tons of things to consider before spending my hard earned money on gear. nMy only thought/concern that you didnu2019t mention in your analysis is to the possible difficulties in shooting wildlife at the hours you mentioned especially as a lot of your possible subjects may be hiding/living in shaded or woodsy areas is available light. I guess the primary consideration in this case should be based on the light available in the areas where you normally shoot wildlife. Of course you can “push” your film or as we “Generation DSLR’s” call it ISO up a bit. Fortunately with the new advances in sensor technology it shouldn’t harm the IQ very much at all. Another great thing about using either 300 is with your crop sensor. Automatic reach without costing any more f stops! This was an advantage I used to enjoy shooting with my 300 2.8 and my Nikon D300. Even with this extra reach however, I would just hate to be looking for that one perfect shot all morning or afternoon in the heat or freezing cold, have the reach you need and finally get the chance and not be able to get what you want because you can only shoot at f/4 1/200 or slower. I have been there and it is not fun. With all of that said, you still have to measure the value u2013 is it worth the cost/possible marital discord of the 2.8? Carrying the extra weight of a 2.8 and breaking your back on a 10 mile hike? Maybe not. To be honest, probably not for most people who do not make their primary living shooting wildlife. I think your decision is definitely the right one for most of u201cusu201d but disagree because of my background, experiences, and the need for that extra stop. So in short, I agree, and disagree at the same time which is why I love the post. Thank you for sharing your thought process in this situation that a lot of us go through every day. n

  • Anonymous

    Tim, thanks for your comments. I can promise you that if I were in your situation, my decision would have been for the f/2.8. As I mentioned, there are times when I’ll probably rent the f/2.8, but 90% of the time, the f/4 will be fine. I only hope I will have rented the f/2.8 the 10% of the time when I really need it.

  • Melinda

    After reading your first article I was going to ask you how I could get better pictures inside of a gymnasium. This article helps tremendiously!

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/13931652@N00/ Dillan

    I bought a 300mm f/4L IS very recently too. I have to say, it’s a stellar lens! It’s really sharp, not too heavy and the IS works very well. I couldn’t be happier! Money was a factor in the decision, but also weight. Really, though, if I’d had the money I would have bought the 300mm f/2.8. As it stands, I have no regrets about the 300mm f/4L IS at all.nnFor me, because of my limited budget, the alternatives were either the 100-400mm L IS and the 400mm f/5.6L. The 100-400L was several hundred dollars more. I have to admit, I’d rather have a prime than a zoom, so even if I had the extra cash, I probably would have picked a prime. A tougher decision was facing me concerning the 400mm f/5.6L. It is, by most accounts, considered to be a very good lens. So, did I want a shorter, yet faster 300mm f/4L IS or a slower 400mm f/5.6 without IS? What pushed me to the 300mm was the IS. I tend to shoot mostly hand-held, despite the fact that I know a tripod is usually a good idea. I knew that I’d get a lot more good use from the IS lens. I made a good decision. I love the 300mm f/4L IS!nnThanks for posting this article. You made me feel even better about my decision!

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