Photographers can be both nostalgic and habitual, finding a piece of gear they really love and sticking with it for a long time. Most of us have some piece of gear we love and won’t ever part with. This one is mine.
I’ll be the first to admit that I love gear. I’ve always been a tech nerd, and I enjoy the gadgetry of photography and seeing what these amazing little boxes can do almost as much as I do the artistic side of it. Several years ago, I saw a photo in a Facebook group that I could tell was unlike anything I had seen before. It was clearly from a long telephoto lens given the compression, but it had remarkable sharpness and an undeniable three-dimensional pop. I’d seen 85mm and 135mm wide aperture shots a lot, and I owned a few lenses of that nature myself, but this was something else. It turned out that it was the Canon 200mm f/2L IS USM lens.
A little background on this lens: if you’re a Canon fan, you might know of the EF 200mm f/1.8L. It was a legendary lens, known for its extreme aperture given its focal length, wide-open sharpness, ruggedness, bokeh, autofocus performance, and more. About 8,000 copies of the lens were made, before it was discontinued due to lead in the manufacturing process. Canon released an updated version in April 2008, reducing the maximum aperture by a third to f/2.0, but improving sharpness and adding image stabilization, a great feature given the lens’ longer focal length, and thus became the 200mm f/2L IS USM. Given its rugged build, autofocus speed and accuracy, sharpness, and focal length and aperture, it was quickly adopted by sports shooters and photojournalists, also finding a secondary place with fine art portraitists and the occasional wedding photographer. It’s the shortest of the Canon “big whites,” so named for their light exterior paint coatings that help to deflect heat and prevent the elements from expanding inside.
When I saw that photo, I immediately found other photos made with that lens on Google and became more enamored. There’s really nothing that compares to the combination of such a wide aperture at such a long focal length. Then, I found the price, and my heart sank. At around $6,000, my poor grad student budget couldn’t even afford to dream of such a lens, let alone afford it. Once I finished a big project for my master’s, I treated myself to renting it for three days — big mistake. I was hooked. The photos were just as gorgeous as I had hoped. And unlike most wide lenses, this was stunningly sharp even at the maximum aperture (I mean, notice how every photo in this article was shot at f/2); it begged to be shot wide open. I was awfully sad to put it in the box when those three days came to an end.
So, I started taking on extra jobs in between my academic duties and slowly putting away money. After about a year of saving, I was about two-thirds of the way to what I needed, and I was getting too excited to wait much longer. So, I hopped on Fred Miranda and started watching the used forum. Unfortunately, such a lens is relatively rare, and those who own it generally hang onto it for the entirety of their careers. One copy came up after three weeks, but it was in pretty rough shape and not particularly well priced. Then, two weeks later, a like-new copy came up at a ridiculously good price, as the owner needed to sell it quickly. I messaged him within two hours of the listing going live, and half a day later, it was on its way to me. I named it the “butterfly bazooka,” because using it in most situations is like killing a butterfly with a bazooka — way more than you probably need, but you’re sure to get the shot.
As I quickly learned, 5.5 lbs will wear out your wrists rather quickly, so I purchased a nice monopod to use and set about shooting with it. While I initially fell in love with it for portraiture, which it most assuredly excels at, part of what makes it such a great lens is how versatile it is. I shoot a lot of classical music concerts, and unlike regular concerts, I can’t get anywhere near the stage, which means I need long lenses with wide apertures to deal with the dim concert hall lights. Enter the 200mm. Shooting sports? The 200mm has blazing autofocus speed, sharpness, reach, and lets in plenty of light. Weddings? It’s a great lens for artistic portraits. In addition to the light-gathering power, that wide aperture throws everything in the background into a gorgeous, nebulous blur, meaning you can aim and fire with ease. It’s by far the most versatile lens I’ve used, and I can drop it into numerous shooting scenarios, and it always excels and amazes me with what it produces.
I’ve mostly moved away from Canon bodies and lenses, but this lens will always stay with me, and it’s hard to beat the combination using it with a Sony sensor. Is it weird to have a somewhat emotional/nostalgic attachment to a piece of gear? Probably a little. But then again, isn’t that part of the creative process? If you have a tool that inspires you and makes you happy and excited to get out and make images, by all means, embrace that tool. Some artists have a muse. I have a big hunk of glass.
I buy and sell a lot of gear just because I enjoy playing with camera gadgets and the like, but the 200mm f/2L will forever be in my possession. It’s incredibly versatile and delivers stunning results no matter what situation I put it in.
Do you have a piece of gear you’ll always keep? What is it? Tell me about it in the comments.