It’s no surprise that every world-class camera company has each produced at least a few brilliant prime lenses that legacy shooters claw over one another to buy; Minolta has their 55mm f/1.2, Canon the 50mm f/1.2 L, and Pentax has the buttery smooth 7-element 50mm f/1.4, to name a few. What is surprising is how little attention is paid to telephoto primes. And while these lenses are less versatile than their standard focal length pals, they’re no less impressive when used in the right context.
Most manufacturers have been making excellent fixed length telephotos at least since the 1970s. But they’re not all gems. Even within a single manufacturer’s catalog there can exist wild inconsistency in performance with telephoto lenses. Pentax’s M42 mount Super Takumar 135mm f/3.5 is a compact and beautiful lens that finds its way into my bag all the time. By contrast, the Super Tak 300mm F/4 is slow, unbearably soft, and overweight.
A little time spent with a “bad” older telephoto is eye opening in just how much this category of lenses has improved over the last several decades. That said, the best vintage telephotos still have a lot to offer, and the fact that most modern film and legacy lens shooters overlook them means that they can still be bought at low cost.
Enter the Canon FD 200mm f/2.8.
Of the current big-two SLR manufacturers, Nikon and Canon, Canon is arguably better known for their telephoto lenses; since the introduction of their EF system their bone white telephotos have been as ubiquitous in arenas and sports fields as overpriced player jerseys. Before Canon launched this flagship L line, however, the top of Canon’s lens hierarchy was claimed by the FD mount S.S.C. family of lenses.
When Canon moved to become a major player in the pro-level SLR market in 1971 with the launch of the FD system, they also introduced a whole range of new lenses with up-to-the-minute coatings and improved optics. While the even earlier FL family of glass offered good performance for the day, the new FD lenses put Canon firmly in the company of Nikon and Olympus for the first time. These new lenses featured not only improved optical designs, they also came with updated coatings known as S.S.C., or Super Spectra Coatings. These coatings reduced flaring, improved color rendition, and were generally harder and more durable than previous Canon coatings.
While Canon did launch an S.S.C. 200mm f/2.8 lens very early in the FD mount’s lifecycle, the lens wasn’t a big seller. It didn’t come into its own until the FD mount was revised in the late 1970s, and though the only change from the old FD to the new FD was in minimum aperture (f/32 versus the earlier lens’ f/22), its popularity skyrocketed.
Most versions of this lens offered from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s feature five lenses in five groups. Early versions use the silver lock ring, and the more common later versions use the updated rotating lens barrel version of the mount. There are even later versions with seven elements in six groups, and internal focusing, though these are less common than the older five element variant. Canon’s final “new” FD lens was also a 200mm; an f/1.8 monster from the L series. These lenses are based on the newer 200mm EF lens, and match that lens’ specification, save for the lack of autofocus. All are fully compatible with both fully-manual Canon bodies, like the F-1, and automatic bodies, such as the AE-1P and A-1.
The f/2.8 maximum aperture made the 200mm a very fast telephoto for its day. Where most of Canon’s competitors telephotos featured maximum apertures of f/4 or f/3.5, the Canon lenses were perfectly happy in low light. And while we take open-aperture metering for granted today, when this lens launched in the early 1970s that now-common feature was not a given. Coupled with Canon’s automatic aperture system, the f/2.8 sends a stream of light through the viewfinder, making focusing much easier than with its slower competitors.
In the hand, the lens feels solid. Unlike many of its contemporaries, such as those from Pentax, the Canon does not feature a metal body. Despite this, the lens still feels dense and durable. Drops on all but the hardest surfaces won’t phase the Canon, and because the black housing is dyed all the way through, scratches to the body don’t affect the lens’s cosmetic appearance too badly.
Focusing is smooth, though most of the more common versions of the lens use traditional helicoid focusing. The lens is roughly 20% longer at its minimum focus distance than it is at its maximum, and the air-spaced elements can suck up dust in poor conditions.
If the lens is let down by anything, it’s the slightly flimsy feeling aperture ring. The aperture ring feels cheap and plasticky to the touch, and the 1/3 stop detents feel oddly soft. On an automatic camera this lapse in quality will seldom be noticed, as the lens will likely be set to Automatic much of the time, but on an F-1, for instance, it feels inconsistent with the quality of the rest of the system.
Out in the real world, the lens is surprisingly light and comfortable. At around 700g, it’s lighter than its modern equivalent in EF mount. Coupled to an A-1 it won’t wear a strap-shaped canyon into your neck while hanging for a day.
As I mentioned earlier, legacy telephotos can be something of a mixed bag when it comes to image quality, and we tend to not talk about lenses that are poor performers here. Thankfully, this is one of the good ones.
Like any telephoto, the 200mm is useful for compressing the fore and backgrounds, and creating decent subject separation out of challenging scenes. At middle distances, the depth of field can be as little as a few feet, even at F/16. In-focus areas are typically extremely sharp, and the long focus throw makes setting focus precisely simple, if not necessarily fast. Color rendition is good, though it’s better described as “accurate” than “dynamic.” Images also show good contrast, though not the three dimensional quality for which the best Zeiss, Leitz and even Nikon lenses are known.
With the Canon FD series Canon paid close attention to their lens’ color rendition when the series was revised in the middle of the run. When changes were made to the coatings, the entire family of lenses was updated at the same time. This means that late production lenses, for examples the 50mm f/1.4, 28mm f/2.8, and the 200mm f/2.8, will all produce the same colors in shooting. This is useful if we’re changing lenses often throughout a roll of film, as the images will all have the same look. Post-1980 FD lenses seem to be much cooler toned than the silver lock ring FD lenses.
As I said in my tips and techniques article, I typically like to move my feet before I resort to a longer lens. Because of that, I tend to only use the 200mm on subjects that I can’t possible get close enough to use a 50mm lens. This does sort of pen-in my uses for this lens, but every time I use it I’m very glad to have it. Typically, if I am going out with my A-1 or F-1 in my bag, the 200mm finds its way in as well.
Whether I’m shooting sports or nature, this lens is as dependable as they come. It’s not exciting or glamorous, but it seldom fails to get the shot. Out-of-focus areas tend to be smooth and pleasant, though the rounder bokeh some photographers prefer isn’t automatically evident.
Digitally speaking, I almost never adapt this lens to my X-E1. There are several reasons for this. With a crop-factor such as the one demanded by the Fuji X-series, this lens behaves as a 300mm f/4 when adapted to that machine, which is a focal length I don’t find I need very often. Because of the shallow depth of field at most apertures, it is also more challenging to focus this lens with a focus peaking system than it is with an old SLR’s split-plane focusing screen. Full-frame mirrorless camera shooters will find this lens to be a better fit, and mating it to a high ISO performer will only serve to improve the 200mm f/2.8‘s usability.
And that brings us to the big question – is this lens worth owning?
Standard focal length prime lenses are wonderful for general use, but they’re not the best tool for every situation. If you want to shoot Eastman Double-X at your kids’ baseball games, then you will need more specialized tools in your bag than a nifty fifty or a fast 35mm. And finding a high quality zoom legacy lens is a real challenge. This is where vintage telephotos shine. A good telephoto can help turn your film camera system from something you use when conditions are right, to something you can use all the time.
It’d be disingenuous of me to suggest that a vintage telephoto is a useful addition to every film shooter’s bag. For a lot of us, it’s simply unnecessary. For street shooters, it’s hard to imagine something more conspicuous than an F-1 with a foot of lens hanging off the front end. But in those certain situations when you simply can’t get close enough, there’s just no substitute for a high quality telephoto prime. And at a price of approximately $40, this is a good one to hunt out.