A Personal Selection
An Abundance of Choices
Canon currently has some 50 different lenses in its EF arsenal for the EOS series of film and digital camera bodies. The line is one of the most extensive available, and includes a large number of zooms, fast fixed focal length lenses, and specialty optics such as their proprietary tilt/shift and Image Stabilized lenses.
After several of years of slowly building a system that suits my particular needs, here is what is in my current optical arsenal:
Sigma 14mm f/2.8 Canon 17~35mm f/2.8L zoom Canon 24mm f/3.5L Tilt /Shift Canon 28~70mm f/2.8L zoom Canon 28~135mm f/3.5-f/5.6 IS zoom Canon 50mm f/1.4 Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro Canon 70~200 f/2.8L zoom Canon 100~400 f/4.5-f/5.6L IS zoom Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS
Most of these lenses are from Canon’s "L" series. This family of lenses are Canon’s finest, utilizing ED and Fluorite elements as well as aspherical designs where appropriate. Needless to say they are pricey — but I believe well worth the money.
About This Report
Please note that this report contains my impressions and opinions, not scientific data.
I have also include the Grade given to these lenses by Photodo, a site which has the web’s most comprehensive rating system for lenses. My subjective opinion usually matches their MTF (Modulation Transfer Function) test results pretty well so I have a fair degree of confidence in their ratings.
Here is how they describe their rating system: "Higher is better….on a scale going from 0 to 5. The grade is based on the average weighted MTF for the lens. No other variables, such as distortion, flare, or ghosting are taken into account". I urge you to visit their site and read the full explanation of their testing methodology.
It’s my sense that any lens with a Grade above 3.2 is capable of critically sharp images. Ratings above 4.0 are lenses that won’t disappoint even the fussiest perfectionist.
All lens photographs are copyright Canon Corporation unless noted otherwise.
Sigma 14mm f/2.8 EX HSM
Photo ” Sigma Corp.
Nine of my ten Canon EOS mount lenses are of Canon manufacture. I likely wouldn’t have purchased an ultra-wide lens such as this if it wasn’t for the Canon digital EOS D30 camera. With the 1.6X multiplication factor caused by using an imaging chip smaller than a full 35mm frame, my other widest lens, the 17~35mm zoom now became 27mm at it widest end ” not wide enough.
In brief, this lens has minimal linear distortion and a great resistance to flare. Fall-off is very low at wide apertures and essentially none-existent once past f/5.6. Sharpness is very good, no better and no worse than other top-tier ultra-wide angle lenses.
You can read my preliminary write-up on this lens to understand why I purchased it, rather than Canon’s 14mm. I’ll add here that after having used it on several serious photographic projects I have no regrets with that decision.
Canon EF 17~35mm f/2.8L USM zoom
While a highly versatile lens I’ve never been totally happy with the overall image quality. I use it when needed but I don’t feel that it’s as sharp as it could be. I’ve read other’s comments to this effect. Some folks claim to be satisfied. But, the lens has pretty good flair characteristics and distortion is low.
The front element doesn’t rotate when the lens is focused, making it well suited to the use of a polarizing filer ” though care needs to be exercised at the widest end, both due to vignetting with any attached filter and uneven polarization. There is provision for rear-mounted gelatin filters as well.
Canon TS/E 24mm f/3.5L
Canon makes the most versatile range of Tilt / Shift lenses available ” three of them in all. Image quality is high and I have used this lens numerous times to obtain images that would otherwise have required a much larger camera with movements. Focusing is manual.
The lens rotates, and thus left/right shifts can become rise and falls. The swing axis is placed at 90 degrees to the shift axis. If you’d like to have both movements on a single axis a Canon service center can modify the lens to accomplish this.
I regard this lens as a must for anyone serious about doing landscape photography in 35mm.
Canon EF 28~70mm f/2.8L USM zoom
This is my "normal" lens. It produces very high quality images, and though a bit bulky it handles well. Unless I have a special need this is the lens that "lives" on the camera body that I’m currently using. Interestingly, the lens gets longer at it’s wide setting and shorter as you zoom out.
Canon EF 28~135mm f/3.5-f/5.6 IS USM
This is the most recent lens addition to my kit. It duplicates focal lengths that I already have and isn’t an "L" series lens. In fact it’s quite inexpensive in large measure because of the small minimum aperture. But, performance is very good indeed when stopped down to about f/8 or f/11. Its real strength though is that it is a Stabilized lens ” the only wide coverage one that Canon currently makes. This is an excellent high-tech "walk-around" lens at a very reasonable price.
The IS hand-hold-ability gain ranges from about 1.5 stops at the wide end to 2 stops at the long end of its focal length range. Unlike other more expensive IS lenses there is no second mode for panning, which allows stabilization on one axis only rather than two. This makes the lens most suitable for stationary subjects.
Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM
So-called "normal" lenses are not in vogue right now. For a long time a 50mm lens was what was sold with a camera body and the only real choice was whether to get the f/2.0 or spend a bit more and get the f/1.4 version. Today zooms predominate. But, zooms are generally slow.
All of my other lenses are f/2.8 or slower. At f/1.4 this lens is two whole stops faster than anything else I own. I don’t use it often, but when I do ” particularly at ISO 400, I’m able to shoot in extremely low light conditions. Considering the high image quality that this lens is capable of and its relatively low price, I consider it a must for every photographer’s kit.
A normal lens is likely the hardest to become proficient with for beginners. It lacks the extreme coverage and excitement of a wide angle and the compressions and intimacy of a telephoto. Yet, for street shooting it’s almost ideal. Probably half of Cartier Bresson’s work was done with a 50mm lens.
Canon EF 70~200mm f/2.8L USM zoom
Once upon a time zoom lenses were regarded as inferior to primes. That was then and this is the Canon 70~200. Superb image quality and superior handling make this one of Canon’s most highly regarded lenses. It has a rotating and removable tripod mount collar. As IS version has long been rumoured and should be available in the second half of 2001.
This lens works exceptionally well with the Canon 1.4X Extender.
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM
I don’t yet have much experience with this lens. It focuses down to 1:1 without an adaptor and works well with Canon’s new macro ring light. Macro work is best done with a medium tele lens and this is Canon’s offering. It is reputed to be an extremely sharp lens, even when used at normal distances. As I gain experience with it these comments will be expanded.
Initial impressions of this lens can be found here.
Canon EF 100~400mm f/4.5-f/5.6L IS USM zoom
This is probably the most used lens in my selection. I use it for compressed landscapes as well as wildlife when the 300mm f/2.8 is too bulky to carry. It is a remarkable value for the money and is capable of very crisp results, even wide open. Stopped down it is nothing short of excellent. My only real complaint is that the zoom is a push/pull design ” not one that I’m very partial to.
The IS capability has allowed me to hand-hold the lens at 1/125sec while at 400mm, while achieving flawless results. If you can buy only one lens over 100mm in focal length this is the one to get.
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM
Grade: Unrated ” But the French Magazine Chasseur D’image ranks it as one of the sharpest lenses they’re ever tested.
I am in awe of this lens. Image quality is the finest that I’ve ever seen. It’s large, it’s heavy and the price is extremely high, but if one needs a fast super-long telephoto lens this is as good as it gets. This lens is as sharp at f/2.8 as it is stopped down. That’s what one is paying for. My more comprehensive write-up can be found here.
As the clichÃˆ goes, "The proof is in the pudding". Below I provide links to various photographs on my site that were taken with each of these lenses. No lens can be judged by just one or two frames, but I hope that these give you some idea of what each of these lenses is capable of.
The first link is to a large version of a photograph and the second to the portfolio which it’s found in.
Sigma 14mm f/2.8 ” Lower Antelope #3 ” Lower Antelope Canyon
Canon 17~35mm f/2.8L zoom ” Cholla Dawn ” Joshua Tree National Park
Canon 24mm f/3.5L Tilt /Shift ” Yellow Striped Road ” Monument Valley
Canon 28~70mm f/2.8L zoom ” Little Colorado River ” Grand Canyon Rafting
Canon 28~135mm f/3.5-f/5.6 IS zoom ” Tahoe Tree ” Lake Tahoe Winter
Canon 50mm f/1.4 ” Aurora ” D30 Aurora
Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro ” Fern ” Costa Rica Wildlife
Canon 70~200 f/2.8L zoom ” Agathla Peak ” Lesser Know Locations
Canon 100~400 f/4.5-f/5.6L IS zoom ” Muskoka Heron ” Muskoka Summer 2000
Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS ” Tiger ” Captive Wildlife
Some Thought on "L" Lenses
Almost every manufacturer these days has a line of consumer grade lenses and a line of "pro" grade lenses. Some don’t give them a special name, some do. Some provide them in a special "finish" while others differentiate with some small cosmetic touch or letter scheme. Canon does so with the designation "L" series.
These lenses utilize ED and Fluorite elements as well as aspherical glass designs where appropriate. For the most part they are quite expensive. Many photographers ask, "Is it worth buying these lenses? Will I notice the difference in my photography?"
If you shoot side-by-side with an inexpensive consumer grade lens and an "L" series lens, with both set to f/11, the chances are that you won’t see much if any difference. But when the lenses are wide-open is when the top quality glass comes into its own. Also, these lenses typically have wider maximum apertures and greater freedom from distortion and flare. Finally, these lenses are more ruggedly constructed and will take the hard knocks meted out by pros who often use their gear under unforgiving conditions.
Canon Vs. Nikon Vs. Everyone Else
This article has been a commentary on the lens selections that I have made for my personal needs. When working in 35mm I use Canon EOS bodies and therefore Canon EF lenses. The lenses are the primary reason that I switched from Nikon to Canon about 4 years ago. I found that Canon’s selection of high-end zooms, fast prime lenses, perspective control and Image Stabilized lenses was broader than that of Nikon or any other manufacturer.
This is not a knock against Nikon. They make some superb glass and in many ways I find Nikon camera bodies to be preferable to Canon’s ” particularly the Nikon F5. But, Canon’s lens selection is remarkable, and I’ve had no regrets over the switch.
Other manufacturer’s also have some great optics available ” Leica and Contax in particular. But, these as well as all other camera lines simply don’t have the depth and breadth of offerings that Canon does ” or Nikon for that matter. Of course there are also some fine lenses from specialty independent makes such as Sigma, Tokina and Tamron. When there is a lens from one of these that does a better job, or does so at a huge financial advantage (such as the Sigma 14mm f/2.8), I don’t hesitate to buy them.
One thing to keep in mind. If there’s a specialty lens that you lust after, but it’s not available for the lens mount line that you are married to, consider buying it anyhow and also acquiring an inexpensive body of the same make. A lot of Nikon shooters who need and use Canon’s long Image Stabilized lens will buy a cheap Canon body to go with it.
If you’re a Nikon owner or considering becoming one, Digital Outback Photo has a companion article to this one with Ron Reznick’s opinions on Nikon’s lens line.
I receive emails from time to time asking why I write so much about Canon gear when I’m covering 35mm topics. The answer is that it’s what I own. On this site I only personally review products that I own or have ready access to because I’m interested in them.
If you have extensive knowledge of another manufacturer’s lens line and would like to write a parallel piece I’d love to hear from you. Submission guidelines are available.
Some General Comments
Most newcomers are hung-up on the question of sharpness. Some shoot test charts and otherwise fret over whether this lens is as sharp as that lens. The truth is that while sharpness and resolution are important there are other characteristics of lenses that are of equal if not greater importance. These include contrast, freedom from flare and distortion, mechanical reliability, quality of construction, ease of use and ” of course ” price.
In many ways we are living in the "golden age" of lens design. Modern computer design processes and engineering techniques allow manufacturers to create lenses at reasonable prices with performance only dreamed of as recently as 15 years ago. The other side of the coin is that some designs of the past are superb and have scarcely been surpassed. In fact in some cases, other than in the area of multi-coating technology, some designs from the 20’s and 30’s are every bit as good as those from today’s supercomputers.
Should I buy a less expensive third party lens? Is Nikon better than Canon? What about prime lenses Vs. zooms? There are no simple answers. Some Sigmas and Tamrons are good, others aren’t. Nikon has some lenses which are better than Canon’s, and visa-versa. Primes are great for fast apertures, zooms have greater versatility.
Stop looking for absolute truths! Usually price is a good determinate of quality ” you generally get what you pay for. But, it’s better to be out there on the mountaintop at dawn with an inexpensive kit than not to be there at all! Enjoy ” and stop fretting.
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