Gear Review: Vintage Canon 80-200mm f/2.8 L “Magic Drainpipe”

In an era of perfect everything, vintage lenses offer a unique perspective on image making. Many old lenses are built to last and are as good now as they were decades ago when they were first made. The Canon 80-200mm f/2.8 L is such a lens.

Physical Aspects

This tank of a lens was built in a way that modern lenses just aren’t. The fact that many of them are still working after all these years is testament to that fact. Something you have to watch out for with old Canon lenses is failing USM motors, however, this Canon 80-200mm does not use a USM motor. It’s one of the few vintage Canon L autofocus lenses that uses a more traditional stepper (STM) motor. That has its own drawbacks because of the gearing needed to drive the focus group, but the motor itself is quite durable and probably won’t quit anytime soon. The lens barrel is all metal and backs that up with a hefty weight of 3 lbs. Yes, this IS your granddaddy’s telephoto zoom lens. And if you’ve ever wanted a Canon L series telephoto zoom in all black, this is the only one they ever made. The only part of the build that I dislike is the lens hood, it’s kind of a weird click on design but I guess it works.

Optical Image Stabilization

Being 30+ years old, the lens was made before IS became available in Canon lenses. So, you’ll have to maintain the correct shutter speed when shooting with this lens. This can be a challenge when shooting in low light, but I don’t really have a problem with this overall. I can usually get shake free shots at 1/200th of a second if I’m careful.

Zoom Range

The range is a slight drawback being that it’s only 80-200mm. Of course, most modern zooms of this type are 70-200mm, or even 70-210mm. Tamron even makes a 70-180mm lens for Sony. The obvious difference is this lens doesn’t zoom out as wide as a modern fast zoom so if you’re using the typical f/2.8 24-70mm with this lens you may be missing the range from 70-80mm. If that really bothers you Canon did make a 28-80mm f/2.8-4 L lens to go with this lens. However, the 28-80mm L is tough to find in perfect working order due to USM motor issues.

Autofocus

Autofocus on this lens is a bit of a mixed bag. It is accurate but kind of noisy. It’s probably not possible to use Servo AF while shooting video due to the noise. If you’re really careful about where you focus you might get away with it but probably not, it’s just that noisy. I have used One Shot AF while shooting video to tweak focus while manual focusing without issue. For photography the AF is surprisingly good. It’s not as good as the latest and greatest, but it’s usable by any measure. Again, the Servo AF is where the lens struggles a little. I tend to just leave it on One Shot all the time.

Manual focusing is good on this lens. While the focus throw is predictably short, it’s very accurate and I was able to easily make fine adjustments to the focus while shooting video.

Optical Performance

Optically the lens is very interesting and has comparable sharpness to a modern 70-200mm lens. Some people report that the lens is a little soft at 200mm wide open, I found that not to be true with my copy. Mine is sharp throughout the range wide open. Stopped down to f/4, it quickly becomes impeccably sharp across the frame at all focal lengths. Below are a series of shots at different apertures demonstrating basic sharpness, bokeh, and vignetting.

Wide open the lens does have some vignette in the corners, especially at 200mm. Portrait shooters will probably appreciate a little vignette in the corners, but landscape shooters might not. The good news it clears up when stopped down to about f/5.6.

I doubt many people are shooting landscapes wide open anyway! If you are shooting landscapes, be sure to focus mid frame rather than center of frame. If you focus at the center you’ll get soft corners due to field curvature. That is a good practice to follow with pretty much all lenses.

There is some lateral CA present wide open at 80mm, but it’s most evident in worst case scenarios like shooting tree branches against a bright sky. At 200mm the CA is very well corrected on my copy. Check out these two example images at 80mm and 200mm.

One thing I noticed is that my RF 70-200mm tends to meter too bright, and the EF 80-200mm tends to meter dark. I don’t know why this is, but the result is that images tend to have a heaviness to them from this lens.

Conclusion

I consider this an excellent lens for the money and I think it still meets professional expectations for image quality. In fact, many users agree that the EF 80-200mm was better than the first 70-200mm Canon came out with and it wasn’t until the release of the 70-200mm Mark II that Canon finally bested what they had done with the EF 80-200mm back in the 1980’s. I feel that price is low for this lens considering its performance. I paid $395 for my copy and it works great. Of course, you’ll have to watch out for issues with old lenses like fungus on the glass, scratches, balsam separation, or broken electronics but for me that’s part of the fun. Sometimes you can get a great deal if you’re willing to accept a lens that is less than perfect. It’s a unique lens that presents its own challenges in shooting that make it less automatic than some modern lenses. You’ll have to figure things out or try different things for different scenarios. But the lens will reward you with its artistic flair. Check out the example images and video to get a better idea of how this lens performs.

Canon EF 80-200mm f/2.8 L Sample Images

Canon EF 80-200mm f/2.8 L Sample Video

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