A few words on my favorite Canon L lenses

Canon EF 100mm 2.8L Macro IS USM, f/8.0, 1/125s. Copyright Michel Botman Photography ©

Canon EF 100mm 2.8L Macro IS USM, f/8.0, 1/125s, ISO 2500. Copyright Michel Botman Photography ©

Since I often get questions about the equipment I use, I have decided to embark on a quick practical comparison of my favorite Canon L lenses; the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, and EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM.

The pictures included in this article were taken without a tripod, in AF mode (with center point only) at a 100mm focal length, on my balcony (on a fairly overcast and windy day). All picture were taken in Aperture priority (Av) mode at f/2.8 and f/4.0 with Image Stabilization (IS) activated. (At 5.6 and beyond, the difference between lenses is far less perceptible). The light was fairly constant, although some variations are noticeable.  The dresses of the small dolls I used as model were moving in the wind and some movement blur can be seen on some of the images – but that is the point of a real life test.  The dolls were set approximately two meters from the camera.  As can be seen, the depth of field at such distances is minimal.  Although standing only ten centimeter behind the first doll, the doll in the black velvet dress is entirely out of focus.  In fact when focusing on the bust of the front doll, the small necklace, located only millimeters away already starts to lose focus.  This clearly emphasizes the importance of focus and depth of field in proximity photography.

I am including below copies of RAW files (converted to JPEGs in Aperture).  I am not including JPEG images generated in-camera (with my Canon 6D), since the point of this article is not to compare RAW files with JPEG images.  Suffice to say that although in-camera JPEGs were pleasant and vivid, RAW files were far more detailed.  All RAW files were slightly edited with the exact same parameters for contrast, definition and general sharpening.

Note: click on the gallery above and then click on “Full Size” below each picture to see full resolution images. Copyright Michel Botman Photography ©

Result Analysis:

In terms of details, color rendition, contrast and sharpness, the 100mm 2.8L IS Macro is clearly the winner in this particular exercise – particularly at F/2.8. The amount of detail in the lace and material is superb.  It is not surprising, since, in general, Prime lenses are sharper than Zooms, and since Canon’s 100mm 2.8L Macro is considered to be one of the sharpest prime around.  It is also debatable if the difference would have been as noticeable if the subjects had been photographed at a farther distance.  Macro lenses are designed to be most effective at short distances, and in this case, the subject being only two meter away from the camera, the 100 Macro had perhaps a bit of an unfair advantage.  Photographing live models fifteen meters away may not have resulted in such a noticeable difference or may conversely have advantaged the 70-200mm zoom.

The 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II is a very close second.  The 70-200 tends to focus slightly behind the 100mm.  (I.e. in general I have noted that my 100mm tends to front-focus a bit more than the other lenses, although AF results always vary slightly).  At 2.8, the 70-200 renders fewer details in the material, but the necklace and skin tones are very similar (although slightly darker with the 70-200).  For a zoom lens, the results of the 70-200 are simply astonishing.  Competing with the 100mm Macro on such subject and at such distance is something few zooms could attempt.

At f/4.0, as expected, the results already start to equalize.  In fact, the 70-200 seems to have a slight advantage of the 100mm macro.  In my opinion, these lenses were already fairly close at 2.8 and at 4.0 may generate virtually equivalent results.  Other parameters, such as blur induced by the wind in this case (more prevalent in the photograph taken with the 100mm Macro), may impact results in a greater way than the intrinsic qualities of the lenses themselves.

Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the 24-105mm 4.0L is the loser in terms of clarity, detail and sharpness.  I am saying “sadly”, because I love the incredible versatility of this lens.  It covers the most useful of focal lengths from a fairly wide 24mm angle to an ideal portrait focal length of 80 to 105mm.  It certainly remains my lens of choice for 80% of my shooting assignments, with contrast and sharpness well beyond most requirements.  (Until a 24-70mm 2.8L IS USM is eventually developed by Canon it will remains my primary workhorse).  In all fairness, though, it should be noted that the test with the 24-105 was done ten minutes after the other two lenses, and after the wind had toppled the small dolls.  The luminosity had dropped slightly and the position of the dolls may have impacted the amount of light reaching the front part of the dress.

Conclusion:

These are very different pro-level lenses to be used in very different circumstances.  This is why they complement each other so well for most photographic assignments.

Although contrast, saturation, color rendition and sharpness are always desirable in any given type of lens, there are situations where too much sharpness may hinder the desired result.  I recently photographed a lady who, upon receiving the photographs, complained of the excessive sharpness of the lens.  She found that it revealed too many imperfection of the skin.  (And these were taken with my 24-105mm 4.0L IS and not the 100mm Macro or the 70-200mm!)  Although such imperfections can be corrected with skin smoothing tools in post-production, it is clear that the extreme sharpness of the 100mm Macro, for instance, would have been more of hindrance.  Sharpness is not always the Holly Grail of photography.

My non-scientific, informal test, done within fairly fluid and variable conditions, confirms what has been said about these lenses on many websites.

The 24-105mm f/4L IS USM (list CAN$1,299 – street CAN$899) is a fantastic lens, with a highly desirable set of features: great versatility, extremely well built, very good image quality, optically stabilized and with an excellent price-quality ratio.  It has, in fact, come down in price quite a bit recently, making it even more attractive and desirable.  It is a well-rounded lens that remains on my 6D most of the time.  If I had to take only one lens on a trip or an assignment (other  than perhaps a small 35mm for street photography), it would be the 24-105mm IS.

The 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM (list CAN$2,745 – street CAN$2,499) is a superlative lens.  Arguably, the ultimate 70-200 optical benchmark in the industry.  It is build like a tank and priced like a Rolls.  (It weighs and cost about twice as much as the 24-105mm).  Its image quality is simply outstanding for a zoom, and as a matter of fact, for any lens of any brand. It is not surprising that is used by so many event photographers.  Go to almost any wedding, and if the professional photographer is a Canon shooter, you will likely see the 70-200mm 2.8 IS in action.

The 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM (list CAN$1,299 – street CAN$1,099) is a specialized Macro lens, although it can also be used as an ultra sharp portrait lens.  Its contrast, color rendition and sharpness are dazzling.  It opens doors to a universe that is seldom explored by photographers.  Macro photography can be a lot of fun and with an Imaged Stabilized lens, such as the 100mm 2.8 IS, the use of a cumbersome tripod is not always required.

The pictures below were all taken hands-free with Image Stabilization ON and AF center-point on my 6D.  If you have any concern about potential Auto-Focus issues with the 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, I have posted below an additional review of its AF operation.

Copyright Michel Botman Photography ©

Review of the Auto-Focus problems with the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM:

READ THIS IF YOU ARE HAVING AUTO-FOCUS (AF) PROBLEMS WITH YOUR 100MM MACRO OR ARE CONCERNED ABOUT AF ISSUES WITH CANON MACRO LENSES.

As described in a number of reports on various websites there is a known issue with the 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM refusing to focus when attempting to focus from a very near distance to a very far distance or vice-versa.  In some cases, the 100mm Macro’s AF system will not attempt finding focus and will not react or move at all.

THIS IS NORMAL.  IT DOES NOT MEAN THAT YOUR LENS OR YOUR AF SYSTEM IS DEFECTIVE.  THERE IS NO NEED TO RETURN YOUR LENS OR YOUR CAMERA TO CANON.

Do not throw the baby with the bathwater.  There are two options to easily resolve this problem, but first, a little background explanation about the nature of the issue:

There are fairly common issues with most AF macro lenses when there is a need to focus instantly from 2 inches to 200 yards (or vice-versa).  When a lens is that far out of focus, and the background on which the AF is attempting focus is totally blurred, the AF system will not find sufficient contrast and will simply “give up.”  This happens mainly with Macro lenses, because of their extreme auto-focusing range and requirements.  Auto focusing problems also occur when there is insufficient light (again a common problem of macro lenses due to high magnification) or simply insufficient contrast.  To avoid situations where AF lenses keep “hunting” (searching) for focus endlessly, Canon has buried in the firmware of many of its high-end cameras a software switch that simply disables Autofocus when there is insufficient light or contrast to reach focus.  THE REAL PROBLEM IS THAT MOST MEMBERS OF CANON’S TECHNICAL SUPPORT STAFF DON’T KNOW ABOUT THIS FIRMWARE SWITCH AND WILL THEREFORE RECOMMEND LENSES OR CAMERAS (OR BOTH) TO BE RETURNED FOR SERVICE WHEN THERE IS IN FACT NOTHING WRONG WITH THESE LENSES AND CAMERAS.

Of course, there are sometimes real focusing defects, but in the case of the 100mm Macro, the vast majority of so-called focusing problems are very likely due to a lack of experience with Macro lenses or a lack of knowledge of the Camera’s firmware options.

HERE IS HOW YOU CAN RESOLVE THE “SO-CALLED” FOCUSING PROBLEMS WITH THE 100MM MACRO (AND OTHER CANON LENSES):

1) The first option available to most high-end Canon lenses, is to utilize the manual focus override to move the focus ring towards focus (closer of farther), at which point the AF system will take over and achieve focus properly.

2) The second option is to modify the AF control in the Firmware of your camera: From you Camera Menu, go to Custom Functions: C.FnII:Autofocus. Lens drive when AF impossible. > Continue Focus Search. (This is option 6 on my Canon 6D).

I believe it is C.Fn. III #1 on the 5D Mark III, where it’s called “AF/Drive when AF impossible.”

Please note that other cameras may call this option something else, or may not have that option at all. With the Focus Search ON, the camera will keep looking when it can’t find sufficient contrast to focus. (I.e. it will keep “hunting” for focus).  Set this option to OFF, and if the image is totally out of focus, the camera will simply hang and give up (unless you help it out with the manual focus ring as explained in option #1 above).

You may want to revert this setting as needed, if you are getting too much “AF hunting” with your other lenses – particularly if you are using lenses that do not offer a manual focus override option in very dark conditions.

In most instances, the 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM, is an extremely responsive lens that focuses almost instantly.  It focuses faster than my 24-105L and even my 70-200 F2.8LII.  Focusing with this lens is certainly not an issue, once you understand how to utilize it and how to configure your camera.  It is one of the sharpest lens in Canon’s line of L glasses and good value for money.  The only minor issue I personally have with this lens is the fact that it is built of high-grade plastic instead of metal.  The lens is fairly light, but does not feel as solid as most other L lenses.  Furthermore, plastic being not as good at soundproofing, USM and IS micro motor noises are also more noticeable.  The 100mm 2.8L Macro is indeed a fairly noisy lens (particularly with IS turned ON).  The plastic construction and noise issues are reasons I am not giving this lens a perfect rating (4 stars out of 5).

I have written to Canon and have requested for a notice to be included with the lens documentation explaining the focus issues and solutions described above.  (I have not heard back from Canon yet). Such notice would avoid for many lenses to be mistakenly returned as “defective” or sent in for service at considerable cost to Canon and/or its customers.  It would further increase the satisfaction level of customers purchasing this lens.

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About Michel Botman

Michel Botman was born in Belgium, where visual arts have always flirted with the limits of reality. In the eighties, Michel Botman started exploring the first tools to manipulate images though computers. For about 15 years, Michel Botman worked throughout Europe in the emerging field of Computer Applications for the Graphic Arts. Extensive experience in Digital Imaging allowed Michel to move into the field of computerized systems for Diagnostic Imaging. As VP Sales & Marketing for eSys Medical and later with Eclipsys, Michel Botman always remained dedicated to the creativity and innovation that are at the heart of his career. At the present time, Michel Botman is refocusing his life towards graphic arts. “I studied photography in Europe, but never had time to practice it enough. Life took me on other paths towards computer technologies and running a business. I enjoyed it very much, but I also love art. I always keep my eyes open for exciting opportunities and people that touch my heart.” Michel Botman lives in Toronto with his wife Lindy and son Noah. Above Gravatar pictures are of Michel Botman, his wife Lindy Amato and his son Noah Botman.
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