CanonEXPO Hands-On: Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6 L IS and 8-15mm F4 L Fisheye Zoom Lenses

Canon showed off at its expo two new zoom lenses that are as different as night and day. On one side, the 70-300mm F4-5.6 L IS zoom lens offers a range of high-powered telephoto reach with a seemingly excellent image stabilization system. On the other side, the 8-15mm F4 L fisheye zoom lens offers a wide to really-super-ultra-wide angle, accomplishing some impressive optical gymnastics in the process. I spent some time with both lenses, and I was impressed (and at one point, amazed) by what I saw.

Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6 L IS

The 70-300mm lens got remarkably close to Canon’s demonstration subjects, a group of ice dancers in a mock-up of the Rockefeller Center ice rink. At full 300mm reach, I could capture sharp close-ups of the dancers’ faces as they spun on the faux ice.

Unfortunately, Canon didn’t let me use the lens with my own camera, or record the pictures on my own CF card; I had to use the EOS 60D they paired with the lens, and I couldn’t keep the pictures for analysis. However, from what I saw on the 60D’s screen, the lens managed to take incredibly clear, accurate pictures even at high speeds. The seeming sharpness is a testament to both the lens’s optical elements and its image stabilization system; my hands aren’t particularly steady, and a 300mm zoom would usually be a blur-fest under any conditions.

While the lens is certainly solid, it’s not particularly heavy and seemed very easy to carry on the 60D’s small frame. The focus and zoom rings are large and and grippable, and the three autofocus and stabilizer switches are similarly big, making thumbing the different settings and adjusting focus and zoom while staring into a viewfinder very easy. The autofocus seemed quite fast, rapidly locking on the faces of the ice dancers at full zoom.

Canon 8-15mm F4 L

The 8-15mm lens impressed on a different level. At 8mm, the lens offers a 180-degree field of view with an extreme fisheye effect; the picture literally looks like a circle in the middle of the viewfinder/screen. The view is dizzying, and difficult to see in detail on the camera. However, by zooming in to 15mm, the view undergoes a seemingly miraculous transformation. All fisheye warping vanishes as the field of view shrinks, and at 15mm the frame seems geometrically excellent, without a hint of vignetting. Again, I was unable to test the lens with my own camera or record the pictures on my card, so I can only offer my impressions based on the screen of the 5D the lens was paired with.

This is what the lens looks like at 8mm. Notice the large amount of vignetting because of the design of this lens.

And this the view of the lens at 15mm.

Ergonomically, the 8-15mm lens feels about the same as a 50mm prime. Its focus and zoom rings are relatively narrow but still easy to grip. Considering how much the dome-shaped lens sticks out past the edge of the lens casing, though, I’d be very leery about accidentally brushing my fingers against the glass when making adjustments. Autofocus seemed quick, but I couldn’t verify its accuracy.

Canon has yet to announce the pricing or availability of the 70-300mm lens, but it will start to sell the 8-15mm lens in January 2011 at an approximate retail price of $1,400. Obviously the fisheye lens will be a niche item, too expensive for most wide-angle use. It’s a shame, because at 15mm it ceases to be a fisheye lens and instead becomes an impressive, straight-edged wide-angle lens. The price tag of the 70-300mm lens will determine its viability and placement in the market, but considering its placement on the 60D, Canon looks to be aiming it at the talented, semi-pro tier of users.