Friday, January 14, 2011

Canon Lenses Chat - Part 1: Standard Zoom Lenses


Hey everyone,

This is my first post since Mic made me a contributor to this blog, so you're going to have me around more frequently, I hope that you don't mind.

Anyway, here I am going to talk a bit about a pleasant dilemma that you face whenever you decide to get a new lens, choices, lots and lots of choices. So before I start with the lenses that I am choosing from, I must talk for a while about my own lens collection and why do I need another one.

UPDATE: This post is updated with samples of the "close focusing distance" capability of the 18-55 kit lens.


My Lens Collection - Standard Zoom

When I first bought the Canon 550D it came with the EF-S 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 IS, all the reviews and the forums praised this lens for its value; i.e. how it performed for the small amount of money it cost, it covered a nice range but I was never quite happy with it's sharpness. (Disclaimer: I love to look at my pictures at 100% magnification and see them perfectly sharp, and I am fully aware that if I print these pictures on 6x4 they will look fine. Apparently these are the symptoms of a modern disease they love to call pixel peeping, so I am sick, continue reading on your own risk, you've been warned)

Back to our topic, I wanted a sharp zoom lens that covered the wide angles and had a nice bit of zoom, the super zooms like the 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 or the 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 were not an option for me, they had an excellent range but compromised the image quality. There were also the L grade lenses (these are the ΓΌber Canon lenses with the best image quality and weather sealing) like the EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L or the EF 24-105mm f/4 L, and while these are excellent on full frame cameras they were not wide enough on a crop sensor like mine, the widest I can go with these lenses would be 38mm (35mm equivalent).

So my remaining options were the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 and the EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6, if you don't know what EF-S is, these are lenses that can only fit APS-C crop sensor Canon cameras but not full frame ones, and though some of them have better optical qualities than the L grade lenses, they have never gotten the red ring that designates their more expensive brothers. They say Canon will only keep this honor to its top end lenses, so by buying an EF-S lens you know that it will never work on your full frame camera and that it has no weather sealing.

So which one shall I get, both lenses are extremely sharp. The 17-55 had an excellent f/2.8 constant aperture but the 15-85 had a much better range (by the way, although 17mm sounds close to 15mm, there is actually BIG difference in the viewing angle), Anyway, I could get around the f/2.8 aperture by using bounce flash indoors, I already know this from experience since I usually shoot indoors using my f/1.8 prime lens stopped down to f/4.

The 17-55 weighed and cost more than the 15-85. The 15-85 had a newer 4-stops image stabilization system while the 17-55 had the older 3-stops IS system. It was a very tough decision and I almost bought the 17-55 only to change my mind in the last second because I found several reports that the IS (image stabilization) system on the 17-55 usually fails after one or two years requiring a Canon service center repair, and since I will be getting it without warranty, it was a no brainer. I got the 15-85 and I am very glad I did, it is quite heavy on my 550D and I couldn't imagine what the heavier 17-55 would have felt like. I am not really fond of big and heavy cameras and lenses. Another added benefit of choosing the 15-85 is that I had enough left-over money (17-55 cost ~ $1000 while the 15-85 cost ~ $700) to get myself a nice macro lens, but that's for another post.

I have kept my 18-55 kit lens for three reasons:
  • In case of selling my camera, I'd want a kit lens to sell it with.
  • The small size and weight in case I am traveling somewhere and I don't need extreme quality but the flexibility of the zoom.
  • And it is cheap enough that I won't be worried that it would get stolen if I'm going somewhere suspicious.
    I took this lens with me along with the cheap EF 50mm f/1.8 II prime lens on my recent trip to Sudan, and I got a couple of good looking pictures for sunrise and sunset, check them out.

    Sunrise in Sudan - Click to see a larger version.
    Sunset in Sudan - Click to see a larger version.


    Before I end this post I would like to show you how sharp the 15-85 lens is, so I will post a picture I took for a small kid (a quick one using bounce flash) and show you a 100% crop of his eye, and by the way, I always shoot RAW and I always leave the default ACR sharpening setting like the images shown below. Click on the images to see them larger.

    Little Boy - Click to see a larger version.
    Little Boy - 100% Crop - Click to see a larger version.


    In the next part, I will talk about the telephoto zooms and if it didn't turn out to be as long as this one, I might talk about the prime lenses as well.


    UPDATE: Kindly enough, dpreview member Charles Durrant has shared a very important point that I missed, so I am going to quote him here:

    One thing worth mentioning about both the 18-55 IS and 55-250mm IS EF-S lenses is how close they focus. Far better in this respect than any comparable lenses. The maximum magnification with the EF-S 18-55 IS is 0.34, and with the EF-S 55-250mm lens it's 0.31. Compare this with the EF-S 15-85 which has a maximum magnification of just 0.21 (although I agree it's better than the 18-55 in almost every other respect, excluding weight and cost).

    Here's an example (uncropped full frame) from the 18-55mm IS. You can check the gallery here as well.

    EF-S 18-55 Close-Up Focusing - Click to see a larger picture.



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