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Canon Lenses
A Personal Selection

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An Abundance of Choices — Updated October, 2005

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:

Prime Lenses
Zoom Lenses
Canon 15mm f/2.8
Canon 16~35mm f/2.8L
Canon 24mm f/1.4L
Canon 17-85mm f/5.6 EF-S IS
Canon 24mm f/3.5L Tilt /Shift
Canon 24~70mm f/2.8L
Canon 50mm f/1.4
Canon 70~200 f/2.8L IS
Canon 85mm f/1.2L
Canon 70-300mm f/4.5-f/5.6 DO IS
Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro
Canon 100~400 f/4.5-f/5.6L IS
Canon 135mm f/2L
Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS
Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS
Canon 400mm f/5.6L
Canon 500mm f/4L IS
Canon 1.4X & Canon 2X

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.

Curiously, many people who write to me have commented that they perceive from the information accompanying my published work that I shoot mostly with zooms. As you can see, in fact I own more primes than zooms, and prefer them, but the truth is that zooms are more versatile and therefore see more use. For me getting the shot is more important than counting every last line of resolution, and zooms often make the difference between getting the shot and not.

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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 had the web's most comprehensive rating system for lenses (they now appear defunct). 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 3.5 is capable of critically sharp images, especially when used at medium apertures. Lenses with ratings above 4.0 are ones that won't disappoint even the fussiest perfectionist.

All lens photographs are copyright Canon Corporation unless noted otherwise.

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Canon 15mm f/2.8
Grade: Unrated

This is a specialty use lens that produces a rectangular fisheye image. I discuss its use in an article that includes digital image control and adjustment of its unusual imaging capabilities. It can be a real boon to anyone shooting with a D30, D60, 10D, 20D, 300D, 1D or other Canon digital body with less than a full-frame sensor. On a 1Ds or a film body it provides a unique perspective in some situations.

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Canon 24mm f/1.4L
Grade:
Unrated

This is Canon's widest fast lens, or fastest wide lens — depending on your perspective. It also is extremely sharp. Expensive, but worth every penny if you need this combination of characteristics.

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Canon EF 16~35mm f/2.8L USM zoom
Grade:
Unrated

 


For several years I used the Canon 17~35mm f/2.8L wide zoom and was never been totally happy with the overall image quality. In 2001 Canon brought out the new 16~35mm version and it's a far superior lens. It is possibly the finest wide angle zoom available for any SLR. A review can be found here.

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EF-S 17-85MM f4-5.6 IS USM zoom
Grade:
Unrated

I have been cynical about Canon's (as well as other maker's) reduced frame lenses. This lens will only work on the Canon 20D and 300D Rebel (and likely future 1.6X factor DSLRs). It seemed to me that a lens that couldn't also be used with a film body, or a full-frame or 1.3X factor DSLR like Canon's 1 Series cameras, was a poor investment. But after testing and using this particular lens for several weeks I changed my mind. It fits on the 20D like it was made for it (it was). It is small and light, and when combine with its IS capability and you have a lens that at the equivalent of 28-135mm, is about as close to an ideal walk-around lens as one could want. Oh yes, did I say that the image quality was high? Review here.

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Canon TS/E 24mm f/3.5L 
Grade: 3.3

 

 

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 and architectural photography in 35mm.

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Canon EF 24~70mm 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. This replaces my previous 28-70mm f/2.8L, because it is an optically superior lens in most respects.

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Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM
Grade: 4.4

 


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. 

At f/1.4 this lens is one to two whole stops faster than almost anything else I own. I don't use it often, but when I do — particularly at ISO 800, 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 compression 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. 

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Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS zoom

Introduced in September, 2005, the 24-105mm is the lens that many photographers have been waiting for. It combines the small size and versatility of the 28-135mm along with a while stop of extra aperture, Image stabilization, wider coverage, and L lens image and build quality. Tests show its image quality to be comparable in many respects to the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8, one of the finest medium range zooms available, and a bread-and-butter lens for many pros. Two comparative reviews are found on the size, one against the 24-70mm and the other with the 28-135mm.

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Canon EF 70~200mm f/2.8L IS zoom
Grade: 4.1

 

Once upon a time zoom lenses were regarded as inferior to primes. That was then and this is the Canon 70~200 f/2.8. 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. An IS version became available in the second half of 2001 and I upgraded. The best just got better!

This lens works exceptionally well with the Canon 1.4X Extender.

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Canon EF 70~300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS zoom
Ungraded

This lens was added my to arsenal in the Fall of 2004, following an opportunity to test one of the first lenses to become available. I immediately went out and bought one, and haven't regretted it for a moment, even though I already have the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS. This lens' big advantage is its remarkably small size, due to the use of Canon's exclusive Diffractive Optics technology. For urban shooting, and hiking, this lens is one that I now find to be a must.

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Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L
Grade: 4.6

For landscape work slow lenses are fine. For wildlife one needs fast long primes and zooms. But for documentary and street photography fast primes are the way to go, and the Canon 85mm f/1.2L is unique in its combination of focal length and aperture. It's a huge chunk of glass. Autofocus is very slow, but its superlative image quality and extreemly shallow depth of field makes these compromises worthwhile.

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Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM
Grade: Unrated

This macro lens 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 an extremely sharp lens, even when used at normal distances.

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Canon 135mm f/2L

Grade: 4.5

135mm lenses have fallen out of favour during the past 25 years, but to Canon's credit they have continued to produce this classic focal length, and with this f/2 L series model have produced one of the fastest medium telephoto lenses around. It also ranks among Canon's highest resolution optics.

This lens works exceptionally well with the Canon 1.4X Extender.

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Canon EF 100~400mm f/4.5-f/5.6L IS USM zoom
Grade: 3.6

For a while after it was first introduced this was one of the most used lens in my selection. I used it for compressed landscapes as well as wildlife when the 300mm f/2.8 was too bulky to carry. It is a remarkable value for the money and is capable of decent results, even wide open. Stopped down it is very good. My only real complaint is that the zoom is a push/pull design — not one that I'm very partial to and the lens hood attachment point is flawed. Every one I've ever seen has a lens shade that falls off easily. It also can be a bit soft at 400mm wide open.

The IS capability has allowed me to hand-hold the lens at 1/125sec while at 400mm, while achieving very fineresults. But, once I got the Canon 1Ds I found that the lens was not as good as I had originally believed, since this camera shows up every deficiency in lenses attached to it. Today it is among my least used lenses.

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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-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.

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Canon 400mm f/5.6L
Grade: Unrated

When I started using the Canon 1Ds I found that the 100-400mm IS, which had been a real workhorse for me previously, was wanting. It just wasn't as sharp at 400mm as I would wish, and this was in fact the focal length that I used it at most often. After testing the 400mm f/5.6 I found it to be a much sharper lens, and it has become my preferred long lens for when the 500mm f/4 is too large to travel with. It's built-in lens shade, rotating and removable tripod mount and light weight make it an ideal go-anywhere long lens. My review can be found here.

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Canon 500mm f/4L IS
Grade: Unrated

This is the biggest gun in my arsenal. I use it for wildlife work, and in this role it is unparalleled. You can read about how I decided between this and the 600mm f/4L IS lens. Optically it's almost on a par with the 300mm f/2.8L. In other words, this is as good as it gets. Expensive but indispensable for serious wildlife work.

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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 on film 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 difference in a small print. But when the lenses are wide-open is when the top quality glass comes into its own. And, if you're using an unforgiving high resolution camera like the EOS 1Ds then L lenses really come into their own. Also, these lenses typically have wider maximum apertures and greater freedom from distortion and flare. Finally, L lenses are more ruggedly constructed and will take the hard knocks meted out by pros who often use their gear under unforgiving conditions. Several of the more recent L lenses have a rubber "O" ring on the lens mount to create a more waterproof seal when used with Canon's 1 series camera bodies which have a matching "O" ring on their lens mount.

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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 in the mid-1990s. 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 which I was very fond of. 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. Also some dogs.

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. 

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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.

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Other Brands

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.

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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.

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 lens than not to be there at all! Enjoy — and stop fretting.

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Concepts: Photographic lens, Telephoto lens, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Focal length, Canon EOS, Wide-angle lens, Zoom lens, Angle of view

Entities: Canon, Nikon, Canon Corporation, Tokina, Leica, Tamron, Contax, Autofocus, Michael Reichmann, Canon, Cartier Bresson, Ron Reznick, French Magazine, SLR, DSLRs

Tags: image, image quality, Nikon, camera, prime lenses, focal length, superior lens, lens shade, canon 1.4x extender, lens selection, long lens, lens line, lens mount, fastest wide lens, ideal walk-around lens, Canon EF, fast super-telephoto lens, Canon 1Ds, particular lens, designs, normal lens, preferred long lens, go-anywhere long lens, medium tele lens, lens photographs, sharp lens, lens hood attachment, Canon EF lenses, used lens, built-in lens shade, grade lenses, consumer grade lens, bread-and-butter lens, party lens, macro lens, specialty lens, lens design, inexpensive lens, camera bodies, removable tripod mount