Sunday, January 23, 2011

Canon Lenses Chat - Part 2: Telephoto Zoom Lenses


Hello again, this post will be a sequel to my previous post where I chatted about the Canon standard zoom lenses. Today I will chat a little about some of Canon's telephoto lenses.

Well, if you have read the previous installment you should know that I don't really fancy the super zooms like the Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS (7.5x) , Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS (11x) or the Tamron AF18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD (15x), they usually say that if a lens has more than 5x zoom then there will be some compromises, I am not saying that these lenses are useless but you have to give up some quality to get this amazing zoom range, they are very useful as walk around lenses given how small and light they are but that sort of defeats the purpose why I would want a DSLR. I have bought the Canon EF-S 15-85mm lens to replace my default kit lens because I didn't like the kit lens' performance regarding sharpness, focusing speed, chromatic aberration and range.

Anyway, back to our topic, I made my lens choice when I bought the camera, it was my first DSLR and I had no idea how things would go with the lenses and stuff (maybe if I knew then how much I will end up paying I wouldn't have done the switch), but after lurking around the dpreview forums for a while I found about the ultimate cheap kit for beginners which was the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS kit lens ($170 or $0 for me since I would get it with the camera anyway) + Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS ($250) + Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II ($100). So by just spending $250 for a lens I would get an excellent range and the reviews were very happy with how this lens performed given its price, so that was it for me, I didn't want to pay a lot of money on the lenses and I would have the range from 18mm to 250mm all covered so I bought it, what else would I ever want? Little did I know then.

UPDATE: This post is updated with samples of the "close focusing distance" capability of the 55-250 kit lens.

Generally with budget lenses like the kit lens or the 55-250 you have to stop it down a little to get good sharpness, but usually when I shoot wide open @ 250mm I get some nice surprises and the pictures come out acceptably sharp (click the picture below to see a large version).

Click to see a larger version


As for the auto focusing I find that the speed is fast enough and I am able to track moving subjects using AI servo pretty much all the time, it is not as fast as ring USM but it is excellent for the price, and the 4-stop image stabilization helps A LOT, it is really amazing when you get sharp hand held shots like the one below at a mere 1/25 sec shutter speed @ 250mm on a crop sensor, the subject distance was 11.4 meters (without IS, shutter speed should be at least 1/400 sec). Click on the picture to see the large version, all of the EXIF data is preserved.

Click to see a larger version
And here's a couple of images to show you how well the auto focusing works in AI servo mode.


So, am I happy with the 55-250? Pretty much yes, it is compact, light, has good reach, good performance, good image stabilization and cheap. What else would you want? I am currently halfway through the process of upgrading my initial kit (18-55, 55-250, 50 f/1.8), so what other options do I have for telephoto zooms?

  • First of all would be the Canon EF 70-300 f/4-5.6 IS USM, unlike the EF-S 55-250 it works with full frame cameras so that's a plus, it is marketed to have USM but it is not the ring USM found in the more expensive lenses, it has a micro USM motor and there is no full-time manual focus. As far as performance goes some reviews say that it is almost a tie between this lens and the 55-250 over the common focal range. As for the focal range, I think that I will miss the 55-70 range, while at the longer end the difference between 250mm and 300mm for becomes less obvious. So for twice the price of the 55-250 I get the almost the same performance but with a larger and heavier lens. No thanks.
  • There's also the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM with true ring USM, weather protection and a compact size, but for $1300 it is too expensive for me to consider, especially with the variable aperture and all. I didn't read lots of reviews regarding its performance but I imagine it wouldn't be as good optically as the 70-200 lenses I am going to mention in a while.
  • Just 2 months back Canon has released a new 70-300 L series lens, meet the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM, reviews are extremely good and people are very happy with this lens and its relatively compact size. But since I don't gain any money from photography, paying $1600 for this lens is too much, and I won't even get a constant aperture. One final thing that I have to admit, I don't like to have a big white lens on my camera, I am already quite shy at producing my camera in public places, so carrying a white lens with a red ring would bring too much attention for my comfort.
  • Now we come to the quartet of the 70-200 L lenses, they are the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM and finally the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM. All of these lenses are -to say the least- optically remarkable, and you also get constant aperture in all of them, so with the 70-200 f/4 non-IS being sold for just $660 it is a real bargain and I almost made the purchase more than once but always hesitated due to the lack of IS which is more important at such long focal lengths. The 70-200 f/2.8 non-IS is also a real great value at ~ $1000 but still no IS, and since the IS version costs more than double this amount; I have excluded it from my list. That only leaves me with the 70-200 f/4 IS, but would I really pay $1300 to get less focal range than my 55-250 and a much bigger size? Not to mention the white "Look at my big lens!" color? Remember that I don't take photos for a living, I'm just a serious amateur, so the answer was a no for this one too.
So, what is the conclusion from all of this? As an amateur that doesn't use his telephoto lens most of the time and doesn't get paid when he uses one, I wasn't able to justify upgrading to any of the above lenses. However I think I might have found a solution, the Canon EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM, I know that it is a fixed lens, but I find that 90% of my shots with the 55-250 were at the long end, so I might as well go for a fixed 200mm lens which is extremely sharp being a prime, it is black, smaller than the other zooms and has a wide aperture of f/2.8. And for $750 I think it is a great value, so I think this might be my next telephoto end purchase, and when you combine it with a 2x extender you end up with a quite small 400mm f/5.6 lens, a real bargain, eh?

I hope this article was of any help for you, and since you have reached so far here are a couple of bonus pictures taken with the 55-250, you want out of focus backgrounds? You would have to buy the 70-200 f/2.8 to get that, or do you?

Bird on a tree - Click to see a larger version.
Bug on a rail - Click to see a larger version.
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 55-250mm IS. You can check the gallery here as well.

EF-S 55-250 Close-Up Focusing - Click to see a larger version.


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