Canon reveals details for future telephoto lens line

A new 400mm supertele is just the beginning. Canon also says it plans a replacement for its 100-400mm zoom and new compact models using diffractive optics.

Canon's EF 400mm f/4L DO IS II USM fixes shortcomings of its first-generation predecessor, Canon says. It'll be joined by more new telephoto lenses.
Canon's EF 400mm f/4L DO IS II USM fixes shortcomings of its first-generation predecessor, Canon says. It'll be joined by more new telephoto lenses.Photo by Stephen Shankland/CNET

COLOGNE, Germany -- Beefing up its telephoto lens line, Canon plans to revamp an aging 100-400mm zoom and bring a novel technology called diffractive optics to more models.

Lenses are key to camera company profits: the more lenses a photographer has, the harder it is to move to a rival's system of camera bodies and lenses. And unlike camera bodies, lenses don't go out of date so fast, which means they're more profitable to sell once investments in engineering and manufacturing are paid off.

The 100-400mm zoom is a good example. Canon introduced it in 1998 with its first-generation image stablization technology, which counteracts some camera shake, and still sells it for $1,700. But a new model is in the works, said Canon technical advisor Chuck Westfall in an interview here at the Photokina show Monday. "It's definitely on the boards for replacement," he said, though declining to say when.

In addition, Canon is working to spread a technology called diffractive optics, or DO, into more lenses, he added -- maybe even cheaper lenses.

"There's still a ways to go before we have a popular-type lens...The manufacturing costs have to come down," he said. But a new DO lens did improve those costs, he said.

Lenses have become more important in the market with a profusion of new camera-lens systems from Olympus, Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, Fujifilm, Pentax and, most recently, Nikon and Canon. With many of those companies smaller new "mirrorless" models now established, the race has turned to providing photographers a rich assortment of lenses. Canon and Nikon, meanwhile, are defending their higher-end franchise of more traditional SLR lenses. That's changing the nature of today's camera industry competition.

"I think we're starting to shift away from camera body vs. camera body to optics vs. optics," said InfoTrends analyst Ed Lee.

Telephoto lenses, which magnify distant subjects are rarely the first lens most people buy since they're bulky and comparatively expensive. But they're important for enthusiasts who want to photograph wildlife or the kids playing soccer. High-end supertelephoto lenses are mammoth affairs that cost thousands of dollars, but Canon is working on spreading some high-end technology lower down into the product range, Westfall said.

More DO lenses

Monday at Photokina, it introduced an unusual supertelephoto, the $6,900 EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM. Its "DO" stands for diffractive optics, a technology unique to Canon that lets the company offer a dramatically shorter, lighter supertelephoto. Lens elements typically bend different colors of light to different degrees, a problem when trying to focus on a single subject, but DO technology bends colors the opposite way from conventional lens elements. That lets Canon bend light through a sharper angle and thus use a shorter design.

Canon's diffractive optics (DO) technology pairs two unusual lens elements to bend light.
Canon's diffractive optics (DO) technology pairs two unusual lens elements to bend light.Photo by Canon

But DO's technical challenge makes it a rarity. The new lens is only Canon's third DO design, replaces an earlier 400mm DO lens and joins a 70-300mm model.

"There was a technical issue we had to overcome," Westfall said. The DO designs were marred by lots of distracting flare when shooting backlit subjects. Also, out-of-focus areas behind the main subject had distracting patterns instead of a smooth blur.

The new DO takes a new approach, putting the paired DO elements close to the camera instead of at the outer end of the lens, Westfall said. The new approach fixes the flare problem and improves sharpness, too.

One of the keys to making the new DO lens was better close-tolerance manufacturing that let Canon completely remove the air gap between the two lens elements in the diffractive optics pairing, Westfall said.

Another Canon Novelty is the built-in 1.4x telephoto extender in its mammoth EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x lens . Flipping a lever converts it into a 280-560mm f5.6 lens for extra magnification.

The teleconverter technology is used in Canon's broadcast-TV lenses, too, but it's possible Canon could bring it to more EOS lenses, Westfall said. People don't like paying extra for something they don't think they'll use, but so far, "based on the 200-400mm, it's been very popular to have that feature," he said

A third Canon lens ecosystem

Canon's original EOS line of cameras, introduced during the 35mm film era, brought Canon's EF line of lenses to market. They're still necessary for Canon's midrange and high-end "full-frame" digital SLRs whose image sensors are the same size as a frame of 35mm film. Next came the EF-S line, used today on entry-level and midrange SLRs with smaller APS-C-sized sensors. Also at Photokina, Canon announced its EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM, a slim "pancake" lens that's handy for traveling light.

Canon's EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM lens, a new model for crop-frame cameras like Canon's new EOS 7D Mark II.
Canon's EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM lens, a new model for crop-frame cameras like Canon's new EOS 7D Mark II.Photo by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The newest range of Canon lenses is the EF-M series for the company's new "mirrorless" cameras, a line that's more compact than traditional SLRs. Canon only has a handful of EF-M lenses, but during a press conference here, the company committed to adding more.

That's notable, since it indicates that Canon is playing a long game with its mirrorless models, which were late to market compared to many rivals' models and thus far haven't spread widely.

Another sign Canon might be feeling the competitive pressure. Two weeks ago Canon cut prices by $40 to $1,000 on many of its high-end L-series lenses. The ostensible reason was that the company was celebrating sales of its 100 millionth lens -- quite an achievement but not usually the kind of thing that will permanently turn a $1,500 lens into a $1,000 lens.

It's more likely the company has its eye on the important fourth-quarter sales season. "We have to be competitive," Westfall said.