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Canon Lens Comparison -  EF 80-200mm f/2.8L 'Magic Drainpipe' vs EF 70-200mm f/4 USM

The Canon 80-200mm f/2.8 'L' lens, produced between 1987 and 1995, was one of the very first widely accepted, professional quality zoom lenses for their EOS bodies, both film and digital.  It quickly garnered a reputation for excellent color reproduction, extreme sharpness, and build quality second to none.  Drawbacks?  It's a heavy beastie, and it does not accept any of the Canon teleconverters. Also, since it's been out of production for nearly 15 years, Canon Service is not likely to be of much help should something go wacky, and those units which show up on the used market sometimes are pretty badly beat up - a pristine, gently used model often sells for two to three times its original price! The all-black lens took on the "magic drainpipe' moniker due to it's unassuming visual presence, since it was produced before Canon began it's run of highly visible, white-bodied tele and zoom lenses.

The "Magic Drainpipe" ("MDP")  was supplanted in the late 90s by a quartet of 70-200mm lenses - these lenses come in two maximum apertures - f/2.8, and f/4.0, and with or without Image Stabilization. The f/2.8 with IS, in version II, is the top of this line, and is highly prized by portrait and wedding photographers for it's superb image quality. It's low-light capabilities quickly shot it to the top of the lens ranking class for many indoor and gymnasium-type  sports photographers,  Ranging in price from a low of around $700US  for the f/4.0, non-IS model, to a high of $2500 for the f/2.8 IS II model,  there's a 70-200 lens to fit nearly every budget.

There are a fair number of 70-200 lenses on the used market at any one time, especially the lower end f/4.0 models, as owners "trade up" to the f/2.8 low-light masters.  I've seen used 70-200 f/4, non-IS models as low as $400-500, and f/4 IS models for well under $1000.  (The IS model is $1350 new). So, given a choice between a slightly used 70-200 f/4, or a, in some cases, VERY used 80-200 f/2.8, which is better?  Well, the best answer is "Either one."  Unless you get one that's got an optical flaw or some mechanical defect from age or misuse, either lens will produce shots far and above any other lens from pretty much any manufacturer, in the 70/80~200mm zoom range.

For this comparison, I'm using two lenses that very often sell for similar prices - anywhere from $500 to $750 or so. They're both used, and I think that the comparisons are valid - most people aren't choosing between the 20 year old, non-IS, non-USM, 80-200 f/2.8 and the brand new $2500 70-200 f/2.8 IS USM II lens. They're looking at the 'pipe and one of the less expensive 70-200s in f/4 mode, either with or without IS. 

Ignoring for the moment physical condition and price, there are some obvious differences right off the bat - the extra 10mm at the wide end of the newer lens, and the extra stop of aperture (f/2.8 vs f/4.0) on the old classic.  There's also about a half-pound weight difference between the all metal MDP and the slimmer f/4.0 lens, although an f/4.0 with IS does add a few ounces.  Both lenses will stop down to a diffraction-inducing f/32.  The MDP has a front  filter thread of 72mm, while the 70-200 is a slightly smaller 67mm.

For these sample pics, I tried to even out the playing field as much as possible. These shots were taken with a Canon 6D on a tripod with a remote shutter release, to minimize camera movement as much as possible, ISO 100, automatic white balance, in Canon raw form, and converted with no additional processing such as color adjustment or sharpening. I also used the center focus point only, and on the non-cropped shots, I focused on the tree trunk at the top split onto four or five branches, pretty much the exact center of the frame.  Since image quality per se is usually held in high esteem for any of lenses, I think what most people are looking for are differentiations in color rendition. Some have noted a 'warmer' color cast in the older MDP, while others opine that the newer 70-200s are sharper.  Obviously, there can be variations from unit to unit, and I can only compare the two specific lenses I own, but even so, I think you'll see differences.  My MDB has a date code of UE0601, which translates to June of 1990, while my 70-200 is tagged UU0815, so it's from August 2006. Both came from the Canon lens factory in Utsunomiya.

Here are the pages in the Canon Lens Museum for the 70-200mm f/4.0, and the 80-200mm f/2.8 Magic Drainpipe (not an official Canon designation, of course...)


Here's the Magic Drainpipe, wide open at f/2.8, and wide open at 80mm - as wide and as fast as it gets - this was just my test scene.

Here are crops of the truck - the difference in the red is quite apparent. The MDP appears deeper and richer across the board, and does not have the reflection below the tool box that you see in the example from the 70-200 lens.

and here's the MDP at f/4.0, for an exact comparison to the above pic -

Here are two crops at f/11:

And just for grins, here's my 24-105L, at f/11, and 100mm on the pickup truck. Notice the sunbursts on the door, and above the wheels seem more pronounced here, than on either of the wider zooms. Also, the crease in the body work above the rear wheel is much more visible on the 24-105 shot ~

Here's an even more telling difference - a detail of the window and shutter, at f/11 and 200mm. Note how darker and richer the MDP seems to be..

"I shutter to think..."


An interesting close up of the street signs, and one really enlarged - notice the slight banding on the 70-200 version, whereas the 80-200 sign is uniformly orange throughout -

The 'pipe seems a bit sharper as well - look at the bottom screw, and the contrast along the letter edges.

Admittedly, these are very unscientific examples, and may not be representative of the two lenses across the board and in all configurations. But they seem to show a couple of points:

1) The Magic Drainpipe is deserving of its name, and exalted status among Canon shooters. Even as a virtual 'antique' in the digital age, it hold it's own with a newer 70-200mm lens, and probably nearly every other zoom in the same range.
2) There  seem to be noticeable color rendition differences, compared to the least expensive 70-200 f/4.0 variation. Deeper and darker, if not 'warmer' colors, are apparent.

I would still like to test with a wider range of colors and also look at things like color consistency and fringing, so this page may be updated soon ~ Check back if you care to!

JMH 3/2/2013

3/5/2013 - Here are some samples with the 80-200 MDP that show how it handles blues. The sky was pure and spotless. Notice the red stripes on the flag. The contrast and edges look almost perfect. Handheld, out the car window (while stopped..)