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Review – Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro


Canon’s impressive EF 100mm f/2.8 macro lens sports an “L” ring!

In a surprising move, Canon released the new EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM macro lens with the same focal length as the popular consumer-grade Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro but sporting a red-ring L badge and an all-new Hybrid Image Stabilization system.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM

Realizing that many photographers hand-hold their cameras when shooting macro, especially with a medium telephoto lens, the original EF 100mm f/2.8 lacks image stabilization compared to its Nikon counterpart, the Nikon 105mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor Lens.

The new Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro features the same 1:1 magnification capabilities as the non-L version but offers all the advantages of an L lens such as weather-sealing, superior build quality, faster auto-focus, ultra-low dispersion elements, and circular aperture blades for softer out-of-focus edges.

Let’s take a look at Canon’s official specifications for the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro:

Focal Length & Maximum Aperture – 100mm 1:2.8

Lens Construction – 15 elements in 12 groups

Diagonal Angle of View – 23.4°

Focus Adjustment – Inner focusing system with USM. Full-time manual focus available.

Closest Focusing Distance – 0.99 ft./0.3m (maximum close-up magnification: 1x)

Filter Size – 67mm

Max. Diameter x Length, Weight – 3.1 x 4.8 in./77.7 x 123mm, 22.0 oz./625g

Build

Being an L-grade lens, the construction is rock solid with virtually no wobble.

Unlike most 3rd party lenses, the lens has an internal focus system which minimizes lens barrel wobble as well. The lens is roughly the same length as the non-L version but is actually narrower in diameter than the non-L, partly because of the more streamlined barrel design of the new L-lens, particularly where the switches are located, the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS just feels good and balanced when shooting, very tactile yet not too heavy and bulky.

In 2009, Canon revamped the exterior barrel design for the new L lens lineup. The EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro has a very sleek design where the lens tapers gradually from the lens opening towards the lens mount. Unlike the older EF 100mm goes from narrow-to-wide then tapers off to a narrow barrel near the mount area.

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The lens hood  works really well and is very deep, you can pretty much guarantee that nothing will hit the front of your lens even when shooting at closest focusing distance.

I especially like the feel and tension of the manual focus ring. It’s so smooth that you can easily make minute adjustments with one finger while shooting, but stiff enough that your focus won’t move if you accidentally tap the focus ring. Some MF rings like the Sigma 105mm and Tamron 90mm are a less accurate, which is a little more challenging to make minute adjustments without significantly moving the previously selected focus, especially while shooting hand-held.

Focus

The EF Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro’s focusing is completely internal, meaning the lens does not change in length throughout its focusing range. The USM motor powers the lens quietly and very quickly, but more importantly, it focuses very accurately, which is paramount for a macro lens. While most true macro work will require the accuracy of manual focusing, auto-focus accuracy is still important when shooting close working distances without a tripod.

The AF performance is much faster and more accurate on a pro-grade AF system like the new EOS 7D and the EOS 1D Mark IV compared to the standard Canon EOS 40D to 11pt AF system.

If you’re new to AF macro lenses, you may find the lens to be slower than your usual auto-focus lens, that is because a macro lens needs to focus a lot closer to obtain the 1:1 magnifying and the distance for the AF mechanism has to travel a lot farther between minimum focusing distance and infinity. If your non-macro lens’ minimum focusing distance is one-meter, a macro lens’ minimum focusing distance is just 0.3 meters or less, that means that the AF mechanism has 0.7 meters more to find focus, and that can be the difference in AF speed assuming both lenses are of the same focal length.

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In order to minimize that problem, Canon has provided an AF range limiter that allow you to choose between close macro focusing (0.3m-0.5m only), normal macro focusing (0.5m to infinity), or full AF range (0.3m to infinity).

Selecting the appropriate focus limiter will speed up AF considerably as it tells the lens and camera to ignore elements outside the selected AF range and adjusts the distance the AF mechanism has to travel.

The AF is more than capable of locking focus on a flying bird. The quality of the image is the fault of the photographer’s limited birding skills rather than the lens’ inability to focus. The AF pretty much locked instantly and accurately for this shot.

[IMPORTANT: See note below] There is an issue, however, about switching focus modes that is peculiar with this lens. I’ve tried it on a 40D, 5D Mark II, and 7D, they all exhibited the same thing, which concludes that it is a lens issue.

When you switch from manual focus to auto-focus, or when you throw the focus limiter from one setting to another, the lens will not seek focus at all. You’ll need to pre-focus manually (or at least help the lens reach the approximate focusing distance of your subject) before it will start focusing.

For example, if you just shot a subject at 1-meter distance and you try to shoot a subject 5 meters away for the next shot, the focus will not work. The lens doesn’t seek out focus throughout its entire focus range even if you’ve set your focus limiter to “Full”, you’ll need to manually turn the manual focus ring to approximately 5 meters for the lens to pick up enough contrast on the scene to find a focus spot.

This doesn’t occur with any of the macro lenses I’ve tried in the past, however. Usually, the lens will attempt to ride it’s entire focus range to find a focus in such a situation, this lens doesn’t. It could be user-error, but I don’t think there’s anything unusual with just leaving the auto-focus on “Full” to expect the lens to find focus by itself without needing to manually pre-focus.

[UPDATE NOTE: A reader named “spheredome” brought up a good point. The cameras I’ve used the lens on (at least on the 7D and 40D, I can’t confirm with the 5DII) had the Custom Function – “Lens Drive when AF is Impossible” was set to “Off” hence the lens didn’t attempt to seek focus throughout its entire focus range. As expected, this was a user error on my part. I don’t use this CFn option to speed up my AF for all my other lenses, but I should’ve done so when testing a macro lens.]

Sharpness

Prime lenses are often sharp as tack, but macro lenses take it a step further. With large magnifications and importance of capturing minute details, a macro lens has to be ultra-sharp, and this is where the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS excels.

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To be honest, most macro shots will require a small aperture, so wide-open performance is not that big of an issue for true macro photography, however, many photographers use a macro lens as a general-subject lens as well as a dedicated portrait lens, in which wide-open performance is a big factor.

Granted that you’ll be better off purchasing the affordable and popular Canon EOS 85mm f/1.8 or the legendary Canon EF 135mm f/2.0 L USM prime lens for portraits, a macro lens offers the versatility of getting close when the need arises such as shooting details on a wedding cake, for example, which a non-macro lens may not offer the required magnification.

Back to the sharpness of the lens, the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro doesn’t disappoint, it’s very sharp even at f/2.8 and is insanely sharp at f/4 onwards.  At 100mm, you might have to stop down to f/3.5 or f/4 when shooting portraits anyway to get enough depth-of-field, so rest assured that you will get tack sharp photos all the time with this lens.

However, as mentioned earlier, a macro lens often has a more accurate AF motor with longer travel distances than normal lenses, which means that if you rely on AF a lot, you will really benefit with higher-end AF systems.

Vignetting and Chromatic Aberration

The older non-L controlled vignetting sufficiently, but was still easily visible on a 1.6x crop camera when used wide open but disappears at around f/4 or higher.

Chromatic aberration is next to none at any aperture opening. There’s a very, very slight magenta edge CA at f/2.8, but it’s hardly visible in real-world usage, all CA virtually disappears at f/3.5 onwards.

@ f/2.8 (cropped)

@ f/8 (cropped)

Flare is very well controlled as well, especially with the deep lens hood attached.

Magnification

The Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro has a maximum of 1:1 life-size reproduction magnification and this is achieved at a minimum focusing distance of 1 foot. The details captured at 1:1 magnification is stellar and you can obtain larger magnification with appropriate extension tubes (sold separately).

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At closest focusing distance, you’ll need a very small aperture in order to get adequate depth-of-field with a 100mm lens. Once you stabilize your camera, be prepared to be treated with very sharp details in every photograph.

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As long as you can stabilize yourself and your camera, with the aid of a tripod or image stabilization of the lens, you can pretty much leave the worries about sharpness out. Diffraction doesn’t noticeably kick in until f/16 or so, which is quite good.

Bokeh

The nine, rounded aperture blades of the EF 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro produces wonderful bokeh (out-of-focus pattern) qualities. The OOF areas doesn’t exhibit hard edges and does not appear “cluttered”, all you get is a smooth, creamy transition from sharp to blurry areas of the image.

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Color and Contrast

As expected of any L lens, the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro stands up to its other pro-grade siblings. The colors are punchy and just a tad warm while high contrast is maintained even if the light source is within the frame.

Hybrid IS

Much excitement  came out with the announcement of the Hybrid Image Stabilization (HIS) system when Canon explained the technicalities in their press release. While many welcomed the upgrade, a lot of people were skeptical in its first implementation on a macro lens, which is often used mounted on a tripod or other stabilizing support. In my opinion, there are also a lot of instances where a tripod isn’t feasible to deploy whether there is no physical space available to use a tripod or when you’re chasing an active macro subject (such as insects, for example) and having an effective image stabilization system could spell the difference between a sharp image and a blurry one caused by camera shake.

Personally, I can’t quantify the difference between the HIS system versus the older Canon IS system found in the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, for example, as I’m not educated with the technical design of the mechanism itself. However, testing both type of units side-by-side (with the EF 24-105 set to 105mm), it’s quite apparent that the HIS system stabilizes the viewfinder more than the traditional IS system. In the EF 24-105, the viewfinder tends to “float” when IS is activated, while the HIS in the EF 100mm, the viewfinder just stays put, it takes a bit more movement before the viewfinder starts to move with the HIS system.

The series of photographs below shows they toy (roughly 2″ in length) captured at roughly 1:4 magnification, hand-held and without external support (no resting elbows on a table, placing lens on a beanbag, etc.).  The first photo starts with the usual 1/focal length rule, so I started with a 1/100 exposure setting. The exposure settings were adjusted via ISO and/or aperture, shot in burst mode of 3 images per shutter trip. The area of focus is on the toy’s white/grey shoulder patch and the claw.

Source Image

1/100

1/50 (1-stop)

1/25 (2-stops)

1/10 (3-stops)

1/6 (3.75 stops)

1/3 (4.75 stops)

1 second (5.75-stops)

In all practicality, I think it’s safe to conclude that for normal, non-macro subjects, the HIS system can stabilize between 3-5 stops easily in good lighting, while for macro shooting, effective stabilization tops out at 2-stops before things start to get blurry.

Still Life Samples

Portrait Samples

Conclusion

I guess for most people, the main question is, is it worth spending twice as much for the EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro versus the older EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro lens? The answer really isn’t as straight-forward as we’d hope. Like most pro-grade lenses, there are quite a few features that are worth the premium such as the build quality, fit and finish, performance at wide-open apertures, and weather-sealing.

In many cases, these alone should warrant a 20-30% premium over a similar consumer-grade lens. However, unlike other lenses, Canon doesn’t really have an IDENTICAL focal length lens between its consumer line and pro-grade L line like the 100mm f/2.8 units. There may be three 50mm and two 85mm offerings by Canon, but the lenses have different maximum aperture sizes which throws direct comparison out of the window. The two 100mm macro units have the same focal length and maximum aperture, the only difference on paper is the availability of an stabilization system and the build.

So is it twice as good as the non-L?

Optically, I’d have to say no as the consumer-line EF 100mm f/2.8 USM can definitely stand on its own. However, the difference is there, and if you use it on a higher resolution camera (16mp and higher), the image quality differences may be more visible, especially in print.

The new EF Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS USM is a very sharp lens, as proven by its published MTF charts compared to the older non-L variant, and in macro photography, test chart readings vs real-life images do correlate better than other lenses. The auto-focus is also quieter and the manual focusing mechanism is just about perfect for hand-held manual focusing.

The new design also makes it more enjoyable to use than the original Canon 100mm f/2.8 (non-IS)

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Canon has to address the non-focus issue when switching from one mode to another, however, if it is indeed a lens issue and not my user-generated error [Update: It is a user-error on my part, see red note above].

Popular Purchases

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM 1-to-1 Macro Lens for Canon Digital SLR Cameras
Vello Tripod Mount Ring for Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L
Advanced EF 100mm f/2.8L Package
Flashpoint VL48 LED Macro Ring Light
Adorama Budget Macro Focusing Rail

Overall, when you factor the effective IS system, stunning good looks and feel, the improved optical qualities, and the relatively reasonable price point, I say that the new Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro is a formidable macro and portrait lens for any Canon user, particularly if you’re using a newer, high-resolution sensor camera.

This is practically a must-have lens for those who earn from stock photography, macro photography, and food photography.

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