Sharpness is always the key component we look for in a lens. Sure, build quality, autofocus and handling are important too, but what we really want is fantastic image quality. So we challenged ourselves to find the ultimate affordable Canon DSLR glass on the market, asking the Japanese giant to send us its three sharpest lenses with a street price of under £1000. We asked for primes only (ie no zoom), as the optical design of fixed focal length lenses generally results in the best image quality.
It’s hard to imagine that one of the key players in the current DSLR market made its way onto the shelves of the UK high streets with pocket calculators in the late 1970s. Luckily for us photographers, the Japanese company was also behind the first SLR to have a micro chip, which allowed the semi-automatic shutter-priority mode to be used. The firm built on this success with its first digital SLRs in the early 2000s.
Canon makes two types of DSLR lens – EF for full-frame cameras and EF-S for APS-C cameras. EF can always be used on APS-C models, but EF-S can never be mounted on full-frame. Nowadays, Canon has a comprehensive selection of over 70 current EF and EF-S lenses, as well as a fairly recent CSC range (EF-M lenses). Its high-end, DSLR L-series glass, marked by a red ring at the end of the lens barrel, is the hallmark of Canon’s top-flight optics. These are regarded by many professionals as some of the best lenses that money can buy.
1. Canon 35mm f/2 IS USM
Canon’s 35mm is a portable prime, tipping the scales at just 335g.
Its ten elements sit in eight groups and there’s an aperture range of f/2-22. The lens is a popular choice with street and wedding photographers. While not macro, it can focus very close with a 24cm minimum focus distance (13cm from the front of the lens). The 35mm may not have as wide an aperture as similar f/1.8 or f/1.4 35mm primes, but it does boast a 4-stop Image Stabilisation (IS) system for sharper handheld shots. This also means it will be less shaky for handheld video shooting.
Another trick the 35mm has up its sleeve is its Ultrasonic Motor (USM). During testing we found this to focus very quickly, though the slight whir it produces was audible in our test movies. The focus ring, which is positioned near the end of the barrel, is a little thin, measuring just 1.1cm wide. However, it has plenty of grip and rotates through 135° to go from the closest to the furthest focusing distances. Another nice touch is the integrated focus distance window, which shows you where the focus is currently set to, making it easy to fine-tune.
The centre sharpness of this lens is very impressive even at f/2. Corners showed very small signs of blooming, with marginally less colour and contrast at f/2. This was hardly noticeable when shooting at f/4 and vanished at f/5.6. We found that f/4-5.6 was the sweet spot, with contrast taking a slight hit when closed down further than this. We also noted a tiny slither of purple chromatic aberration in the corners throughout the aperture range, but nothing to lose sleep over. There’s also a very small amount of barrel distortion.
Minimum focus: 24cm
Filter size: 67mm
Size (DxL): 77.9x62.6mm
4-stop image stabilisation
Compact, lightweight build
Fantastic image quality
Plastic lens barrel
2. Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM
The 50mm f/1.8 STM is the only lens on test under £100.
It’s also extremely light, weighing 160g. With just six elements in five groups, this prime has sleek proportions, so easily fits in a coat pocket. Despite its size, it has some impressive features. This includes a Stepping Motor (STM), which allows the lens to lock on to a subject fast and smoothly. While it’s quieter than the 50mm f/1.8 II model, a slight whir when autofocusing is audible. It also has a fast f/1.8 aperture, so has great low light capabilities.
The 50mm f/1.8 has very respectable image quality. There’s a tiny amount of chromatic aberration throughout the aperture range and corners suffer from a small amount of blooming at f/1.8. Edge-to-edge sharpness was impressive from f/2.8 onwards. There was also a small vignette at f/1.8, which disappeared from f/4 onwards.
Minimum focus: 35cm
Filter size: 49mm
Size (DxL): 69.2x39.3mm
Portable and lightweight
Fast and smooth focusing
Slightly soft corners at f/1.8
3. Canon 135mm f/2L USM
Canon’s 135mm has a fast f/2 eight-bladed aperture for smooth bokeh.
To earn its L-series badge, there are two UD elements, which Canon claims delivers great sharpness and colour. A Super Spectra coating also helps tame ghosting and flare.
The 135mm focal length makes the 135mm ideal for tightly cropped portraits, or for head-and-shoulders portraits with a greater working distance. We found the Ultrasonic Motor (USM) to be fast, though not totally silent, but by no means loud enough to scare off a skittish subject. The lens has a substantial feel in the hand, weighing in at 750g, so it feels perfectly suited to a full-frame Canon DSLR such as the 5D MkIV.
The crisp centre of this lens impressed at all apertures, though the same couldn’t be said for its corners, which were a little soft up until f/5.6. There was a faint amount of pin-cushion distortion and no chromatic aberration.
Minimum focus: 90cm
Filter size: 72mm
Size (DxL): 82.5x112mm
Wide f/2 maximum aperture
Corners quite soft wide-open
This group test was first published in the November 2016 issue of Practical Photography - download back issues here.