Brief Canon Lens Reviews

The topic of DSLR camera lenses will be esoteric for most readers here. However, it won’t go out of date and will remain on this blog for future reference by Chicagoboyz readers and parachutists from Google.

What follows is more a list of impressions than formal reviews and, perhaps, can provide some helpful perspective for prospective buyers. (Note that I link to outside discussions and reviews when I think this may be helpful to do.)

I prefer lenses that 1) are portable and 2) can serve multiple purposes adequately as opposed to being ideal for one purpose but markedly less suitable for others. I also greatly prefer lenses with built-in stabilizers (“IS” in Canon’s nomenclature). My sense is that online photo-equipment reviewers as a group skew toward gear-headedness and sometimes overemphasize technical perfection in one or another lens feature at the expense of versatility. In particular, I think that automatic focus is worth a lot even if some lenses that are optically superior don’t have it, and if you can get IS in a macro lens it’s a no-brainer because despite conventional wisdom you might want to use your macro without a tripod if you are, say, walking around outdoors.

Note that these particular lenses will fit any Canon SLR or DSLR camera made after 1986 and that my comments are based on my use on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. Their optical qualities will be at least as good if you use them on a camera with a smaller image sensor, because in that case your camera will be using only the center of the image as it comes out of the lens, and with most lenses the center of the image field is the sharpest part of the image.

Note also that I earn affiliate fees if you buy these products (or anything else) via the B&H or Amazon links on this blog.

Note also that there is sample variation between lenses. It’s possible to get a bad one, and if you want the best quality it may make sense to buy multiple samples of the lens tht you want and then keep only the best one, as a reviewer I link to below suggests. For these reasons I recommend buying from B&H as they have a generous return policy.


EF 17-40mm f4L USM:

Buy: Amazon, B&H

This is a versatile wide-angle zoom with some limitations.

Based on experience I wanted a wide-angle lens, with field of view equivalent to 21mm or so on a full-size sensor, for landscape photography but wasn’t sure what to buy. I started a discussion here to get more information. Based on many thoughtful replies I decided to buy the Canon EF 17-40mm f4L USM as a first approximation, since it’s inexpensive and might be adequate. I reasoned that if it wasn’t good enough I could sell it and buy the more expensive Canon EF 16-35mm f2.8L USM, the still more expensive Zeiss Distagon T* 21mm f/2.8 ZE, which has an excellent reputation, or possibly the Tokina AT-X 16-28mm F2.8 Pro F.

The 17-40 is relatively light and small and has a very useful zoom range. It uses a common filter size, unlike the Canon 16-35, and per reviews is more flare resistant. It’s a popular lens and capable for the money. The downside is its mixed reputation for sharpness. User reviews typically include some that say it is unacceptably soft or soft in the corners. Usually, a noticeable minority of negative reviews that all say the same thing is a deal killer for me. In this case I decided to risk buying it and am satisfied so far. Center sharpness is fine, particularly in the range of 20-30mm. But the edges are indeed soft, and the extremes very soft, unless you stop down to at least f/8. Since I am using this lens mainly for landscapes at low ISO and usually on a tripod, my solution is to stop down to f/16 and be done with it. This yields good sharpness across the field, and even at f/16 there isn’t much of a diffraction hit on the 5D MkII. The tradeoff is long exposure times, which makes the lens marginal for handheld use except in bright sunlight, unless you don’t mind opening the aperture and getting less-than-sharp image margins. It’s sometimes difficult to avoid blurriness from camera movement on very windy days, again because I stop the lens down and this means a long exposure. This might also be a problem for photographing night skies unless you are trying for a star-trails effect. On the whole a good lens for landscapes on a full-size image sensor. You can probably do better for handheld use or for a crop-sensor camera.


EF 35mm f/1.4L USM:

Buy: Amazon, B&H

A fantastic lens for night photography, people, environmental candids, street.

The 35L has a great reputation, I think mostly deserved. It is extremely sharp in the center of the field from f/1.8 on. f/1.4 is a bit soft and less contrasty but still quite usable, particularly when it’s very dark and you are happy to be able to make any kind of reasonably clear image. Out-of-focus backgrounds are smooth and attractive in a way that isn’t available from zoom lenses. The 35mm focal length is just right for making make head-and-shoulders and full-body portraits of people at conversational distances, though it’s a bit short for close-in facial portraits. At night you can use this lens wide-open, focus on people’s eyes and get good results (or use Live View with autofocus and face recognition activated). And you can make surprisingly good high-ISO night landscape images without a tripod at f/1.8. On the 5D MkII it makes nice in-camera B&W jpegs in dim restaurant lighting at ISO 6400; I assume the next generation of DSLRs will do much better.

The main drawbacks of this lens are its size, weight and price. Its hood is quite large relative to the lens itself, and with the hood on the lens looks like a gun barrel on the end of your camera — not optimal for discrete people photos. On my sample it was difficult to attach the hood without cross-threading the plastic bayonet fitting. I fixed this by wiping a tiny amount of Armor All® on the hood’s bayonet lugs. Now the hood slips on too easily and sometimes rotates a bit if I touch it inadvertently. Since the hood is petal-shaped, rotating it can ruin photos by causing asymmetrical vignetting, which I usually don’t notice until later when I check my photos on the computer. I purchased this B&W rubber lens hood as an alternative, partly to make the lens less conspicuous, and partly to facilitate photographing through airplane windows (by pressing the lens hood against the window to block reflections; I haven’t tried this yet). So far it appears that the new lens hood causes slight vignetting, so it may not be a good alternative. Also, this lens can have quite a bit of chromatic aberration, and this can be a nuisance with backlit subjects. But in practice if you forget about this stuff and use the lens you will do very well.

There are rumors that this lens is about to be replaced with an updated model. Unless you are sensitive to price it may be worth holding out for this.


EF 24-105mm f4L IS USM:

Buy: Amazon, B&H

An extremely versatile general-purpose lens. It came with my camera as a “kit lens” and, knowing that lenses so labeled tend not to be the best, I was prepared to eBay it if I didn’t like it. However, unlike the typical inexpensive kit lens the 24-105 is very well made, as it should be for its price, and quickly proved to be very good — adequately sharp, light, reasonably compact, with a wide, highly useful zoom range and very effective image-stabilization. The f/4 maximum aperture turns out to be no impediment to general-purpose use including in dim light. Its only real flaws are somewhat harsh background blur, and a lot of distortion at the wide end. Most reviews I have read say that you can easily remove the distortion in software, and this is true, but the tradeoff for doing so is you lose some image area. If you buy a Canon full-frame DSLR such as a 5D MkII and you do not already own this lens you should buy it as a kit with the camera body, as the combo is typically significantly discounted as compared to buying the body and lens separately.


EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM:

Buy: Amazon, B&H

An excellent lens for a wide variety of uses. Of course it’s a good macro but it also has decent background blur and works well for portraits. Its high level of sharpness and lack of distortion make it particularly good for creating composite (“stitched”) panoramas with extremely high resolution. The image stabilization feature works well and makes this a good lens for walk-around nature photography.

The 100L Macro is often compared to its unstabilized 100mm macro counterpart, and to the unstabilized Canon 135 f/2.0L, which is highly regarded as a portrait lens. The argument is typically that stabilization is unnecessary for macro photography, which is typically done from a tripod, and that the 135 is sharper and makes smoother out-of-focus backgrounds than does the 100 f/2.8L. Both of these assertions are probably correct but miss the main point: the 100 f/2.8L is much more versatile than either of these two other lenses. Stabilization is well worth the extra cost, and macro ability is a great thing to have.


EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM:

Buy: Amazon, B&H

This is a fabulous telephoto zoom, sharp and light with a versatile range.

It’s one of four variants of this design: f/4 stabilized/unstabilized and f/2.8 stabilized/unstabilized.

The f/2.8 version of this lens is very heavy and comes with a tripod collar. Wedding, sports and other event photographers for whom the extra stop is important use it. It’s too heavy for me, since I wanted a lens I could hike or bike with and use without a tripod. The f/2.8 lens is also much more expensive than the f/4 version. However, the current f/2.8 Version II may be sharper than the f/4 version (see this review for someone else’s comparative test results) and is worth considering if ultimate sharpness or low-light capability is important to you.

It’s easy to walk with a DSLR and the f/4 version of this lens around your neck, or to stuff the lens, mounted on a camera, into a padded knapsack if, say, you want to travel off road on foot or a bike. It only takes a few seconds to stop, whip out your camera and start taking pictures. This is an excellent lens for nature photography and landscapes, as 200mm gives beautiful perspective for city skylines as well as long-distance scenics of mountains and other large-scale natural features.

If you buy this lens, either the f/4 version that I have or the f/2.8 version, get it with image stabilization (“IS”). The stabilizer works extremely well and makes it much easier to get sharp images without a tripod. Mount the lens on your camera and look through it. Muscle-induced tremors that are obvious in the viewfinder with stabilization off, disappear as soon as you activate the stabilizer. The stabilizer’s panning mode is especially useful for photographing flying birds, aircraft and the like.

This lens is very good for portraits and people photos, particularly outdoors where the lack of f/2.8 isn’t a big issue. Out-of-focus areas in images look good, though probably not as smooth as they might appear in photos made with a comparable prime lens.

Reviews of this lens typically say that it’s sharp from f/4. That’s true in my experience, but if you need sharpness across the image frame it’s better to stop down. Something in the range of f/5.6-8 works best for me.


(Cross posted on Jonathan’s Photoblog.)