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A comparison test of the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 IS mk1 and mk2

(This article is now several years old, but since there are many copies of the older version available used, the information should still be helpful.)


I recently had the opportunity, thanks to Canon Professional Services, to use the new Mark 2 (mk2) EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM, along with
the 1.4x EF Multiplier III and 2x EF Multiplier III (Teleconverter),
the latest versions of their focal length multipliers.

I have owned and used extensively the prior version of this lens and multipliers, and in fact, depend upon them for making my living. When Canon announced that they were coming out with the new version of the 300 f/2.8, my reaction was “they have to be kidding.” The Mark 1 (mk1) version of this lens has long been considered one of the sharpest, fastest focusing, lenses ever made by anyone, and I was seriously skeptical that, other than perhaps upgrading the image stabilization, there was little improvement that Canon could make.

I use the 300 f/2.8 lens almost exclusively with multipliers because I am a wildlife photographer. The small size and relatively light weight of the 300 f/2.8 mk1 better suits my shooting style, which rarely includes a tripod, and often includes long tromps through the marsh or woods. With the 1.4x multiplier, this lens retains its incredible fast focus, and becomes a 420mm f/4 lens that delivers exceptional images. With the 2x multiplier, it becomes a 600mm f/5.6 lens – but this is where I began to wish for more.

I wished for more because the 300 f/2.8 mk1, when married to the 2x, shows significant image degradation at f/5.6, and until I micro-adjusted the lens using FoCal, I could rarely produce a saleable image below f/8 (and after calibration, f/6.3 or f/7.1). The focus speed also slowed to the point where, though still quite usable, produced a lot of out of focus images, and wasn’t particularly well suited for birds in flight unless they were larger, soaring birds, and were against an even background, like the sky.

My goal in testing the new versions was to see if the mk2 version of the 300 f/2.8 could, when used with the latest Canon 2x multiplier, produce saleable images at f/5.6. After all, I was thrilled with this lens at 300mm and at 420 (with the 1.4x), even when shot wide open at f/4. Prior to testing the new lens, I believed that the only reason I could be convinced to shell out the huge difference in price between the old and the new was to gain this aperture.


The Box Arrives

Canon promptly shipped the lens upon my request, and I excitedly unpacked it. There were a few little things that were apparent instantly – a new case with handle on the end, and a newer, better lens nylon lens hood. Nice, but not critical.

However, upon hefting the lens, I instantly noticed the difference in weight – which I did not think I would, since it is only about a half pound lighter in weight than the mk1. The familiar Canon white is now a bit whiter, and the knobs and such on the lens were slightly different. Still, there was little at this point that would make me yearn for this lens.

Uncooperative weather kept me from micro-adjusting this lens to one of my camera bodies (when you micro-adjust a 600mm lens, you need a lot of distance between you and the target, so typically it will need to be done outdoors), but I did manage to start shooting the new system when we got a break in the weather. On the third day, I was able to complete the micro-adjustment.

For the purpose of my testing, I used two Canon 7D bodies. All in camera settings were identical. One body was micro-adjusted to the old lens at 300mm, at 420mm (1.4x multiplier, mk2) and at 600mm (2x multiplier, mk2). The other body was similar micro-adjusted at all focal lengths, but to the new system. All adjustments were made using FoCal software, and each test was repeated three times at each focal length to insure consistency.


In The Field

Because I was already happy with the mk1’s performance at 420mm @f/4, I began by field testing the two systems at 600mm @f/5.6. You probably can find several reviews on line comparing these lenses using targets or other static subjects, but I wanted to shoot in the field, replicating what it is I do every day. That meant finding subjects that were cooperative, and that could be replicated from lens to lens. Because it was autumn, and at the peak of the bird migration, I largely photographed small, sparrow sized birds afield, and in my yard near my bird feeders.

I eventually compared both lenses at apertures up to f/8, but spent most of my efforts on results from f/5.6 and f/6.3. I also eventually shot both lenses using the 1.4x multipliers, and I even tried the new 2x on the old, mk1 lens.

When testing, I’d photograph a subject trying to keep track of the number of frames, then quickly snatch up the next body and lens, and try to repeat it. As you might guess, this is not an easy thing to do with living critters, but I wasn’t so much interested in exactly duplicating the same number of shots from each lens (though I wanted to keep it similar), but had decided that I would be better off evaluating the “keeper” rate from each lens. Because shooting wildlife means dealing with the subject’s movement, and with passing clouds (thus changing light conditions affecting shutter speed) a keeper rate would also help evaluate not only critical sharpness due to any improvements in the actual optics, but also autofocus consistency and image stabilization changes.  In the course of the week I tested the lens, I shot approximately 4000 images.

None of the shots were taken using a tripod. I photographed from my vehicle, resting the lenses on the window sill. I also shot hand held, and with a BushHawk (my favorite field tool) shoulder mount. This is the way I shoot every day, so this is the way I tested the lenses.

One of the first things I noticed is that the image stabilization on the new lens is vastly superior – when viewing a subject through one lens, then the other, there was a huge difference in the amount of “wavering” around. Second, the new lens IS is almost completely silent. Since I sometimes shoot video for my clients, this is a huge plus. With the old lens I had to turn IS off because the microphone (even using an external microphone) picked up the whirring noise of the IS. Although the mk2 has a third, new, IS setting, I shot both lenses in IS 1 (stationary subjects), and IS 2 (panning subjects, such as birds in flight).


The Results

I won’t keep you waiting. Even before I micro-adjusted the new lens and multipliers, it was clear that at 600mm and f/5.6, this system was superior. Once I completed micro-adjustment, the improvements were even greater.

How great? While the old mk1 lens and mk2 2x multiplier at f/5.6 could occasionally yield an image that was nearly as sharp as the mk2 lens and mk3 2x multiplier, they were few and far between. At f/6.3, the gap narrowed, but not by a significant amount. And at all apertures, the new lens was superior in sharpness and the number of images (especially in a burst) that retained focus.

My routine was to download the images from each system into a separate folder. I would go through my normal editing routine judging the images only for critical sharpness AT THE FOCUS POINT. I did not judge images for composition (such as, was the bird or animal’s eye visible). At this point, all I was evaluating was sharpness.

After doing that, I would calculate my “keeper” rate – which was done by dividing the number of remaining files in the folder by the original number. Finally, I would go through the remaining images, and pick the absolute sharpest from the mk1 and mk2 so that I could do a side by side comparison.

On relatively still subjects, such as birds feeding on the ground, the keeper rate wasn’t vastly different, but always the mk2 came out ahead of the mk1. On average, the mk2 with the 2x multiplier at f/5.6 yielded a 78% keeper rate, while the mk1, a 64% keeper rate.

But, not all “keepers” are created equal!  After all, critical sharpness is, to a large degree, in the eye of the beholder. What is sharp to one person may not be sharp enough for another. And on any given edit, a photographer may keep an image he or she deemed sharp, only to later wonder why in the world they did, when, on a second or third viewing, realized that it isn’t worth keeping.

I decided that evaluating the images from each system separately may be causing me to subconsciously give one lens a break over the other. In order to try to avoid this, I selected from over a hundred images the sharpest shots of an American Pipit taken with each system, and copied them to a new folder, ending up with 34 from each system. I then went through three rounds of ruthless editing, all done with the images sorted randomly, doing my best not to be aware of which system they came from. When all was said and done, I had whittled the original 68 photos down to 14. Of those 14, 11 were taken with the new mk2 and new 2x, the remaining three with the old system. Finally, I selected the sharpest from each system – and you guessed it – the sharpest image came from the new mk2.

I repeated this procedure on several other subjects – mallards, juncos, geese, etc. – and the results were essentially the same. In every instance, the vast majority of the remaining images originated from the new lens and multiplier, but also in every instance, the old system produced some images that were as sharp as some of those taken by the new system, but also never yielded the sharpest image in the test group.

On moving subjects, the new system, with the 2x multiplier, really shines. The autofocus is not only noticeable faster, it is more consistent, and is superior when trying to focus on a bird that is flying against a complex background, such as a forest. I spent two days photographing birds in flight, again using the 2x multipliers and shooting at f/5.6. On day one, I ended up with a 74% keeper rate with the mk2, versus 43% on the mk1, and on day two, 62% for the mk2, versus 38% mk1.

Just to make sure I wasn’t fooling myself again, I took an equal number from each system’s “keeper” birds in flight, and copied them into a new folder. I then sorted them randomly so that I didn’t know which one came from which lens, and did another edit, tagging some, deleting the others. After three rounds of edition, when all was said and done, of the 200 images I began with in this folder, 78% of the images that remained after the edits had originated with the mk2 and new 2x.

I did do some other comparisons – such as comparing the mk1 lens with mkII 2x shot at f/6.3 and f/7.1 to the new mk2 lens and new 2x mkIII multiplier at f/5.6. Here, the results are less dramatic. A properly calibrated mk1 with the 2x is as sharp at f/6.3 as the calibrated mk2 and 2x is at f/5.6. A properly calibrated mk1 at f/7.1 is clearly sharper than the mk2 at f/5.6. This really shouldn’t surprise anyone, as most lenses get sharper as you stop them down a bit. However, there was still the large difference in the number of “keeper” images as a percentage of the total photos taken. At all apertures, the new system’s improved autofocus yielded much more consistent results. And while I always believed that the older system, when shot at f/8 was about as sharp as a lens could ever get, across all apertures, when compared head to head (including f/8), the new system always produced the sharpest image in the batch.  

Finally, after I was convinced I had determined that the new lens and new 2x was clearly superior, I did tests with the 1.4x on each lens. I really didn’t expect to see much difference, because, as I said earlier, I love the mk1 lens with the mk2 1.4x multiplier, and didn’t expect that Canon could improve much on that combination. Wrong again.

A yard full of pine siskins at my feeders, along with the occasional chipmunk looking for seed, gave me ample opportunity to repeat the virtually same photo with both systems. If anything, the results at 420mm wide open (f/4) were more dramatic in favor of the mk2 system. I was stunned by how crisp the side by side comparison images were. Feather detail is very hard to render under many circumstances, yet the new system really made those details pop. And although both systems focused very quickly, even in focus speed with the 1.4x, the nod indeed goes to the mk2 and new multiplier.

I’d heard of some photographers had purchased the latest version of the multipliers in an attempt to eke out a bit more sharpness from their older “L” telephoto lenses. Although I did not spend nearly as much time on testing this theory, I did indeed shoot the mk3 1.4x and 2x multipliers on the mk1 lens, and based on my results, it isn’t worth the money to replace your mk2 multipliers for the mk3 versions. I could see no improvement in the tests I ran.


The Big Question

The mk1 version of this lens, only recently discontinued, had a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $4,878.00 USD (and very clean used ones can be purchased for around $4000.00 USD). Canon tags the new mk2 at $7299.00 USD – about $2400.00 more. Yikes! So is it worth the price difference?

That depends. It depends largely on what you are going to do with your images. If, like me, you are competing with some of the best photographers in the world for a sale, photographers who may be shooting professional 500 and 600 millimeter prime lenses, I’d have to say “yes” to that question. If the only improvement had been simply being a stop or so better with 2x multiplier, I’d seriously think twice about spending the extra money. But the improved autofocus speed, the improved consistency of that autofocus, and resulting higher yield of saleable images means that most pros would be better off with the upgrade. What really sold me was the improved image quality at 300mm and 420mm, when I was simply hoping for more sharpness at 600mm. And the image quality improvements go beyond increased sharpness – there is noticeably less chromatic aberration resulting in truer colors and less purple fringing, especially in the shadows.

If, however, you are a talented amateur that shoots photos for fun, who makes prints for gifts, who likes to just shoot exceptional wildlife photos for your own enjoyment, and who can wait until there is good enough light to be able to shoot the mk1 lens and 2x multiplier at f/8, I’d say you can keep your wallet in your pocket. If Canon had not developed this new lens, I’d still be pleased with the mk1 lens and mk2 multipliers. The old system still delivers incredible results. It is far superior to any after-market non-Canon lenses of the same focal length.




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