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Review – Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Zoom Lens


Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM All-Purpose Zoom Lens

Canon’s serious entry for a consumer-grade kit lens (18-55mm) replacement for their DSLR line first started with the EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM lens, commonly found as an ‘upgraded’ kit lens for the EOS 50D onwards. Soon after, Canon released three more consumer-grade lenses that are commonly available to be purchased with an EOS crop body. First came the much awaited Canon EF 18-200mm f3.5-5.6 IS all-purpose zoom lens, then the EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS and the Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM UD Wide Angle Zoom Lens followed with the release of the EOS 7D.

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We’ll be looking at the Canon EF-S 15-85mm lens today and see how it stands on its own merit, as well as finding out if it’s worth the upgrade from the  standard 18-55 kit lens and as a replacement for the other Canon all-purpose zoom lenses such as the 17-85mm, 18-135mm, and 18-200mm mentioned earlier.

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Technical Specs

From Canon:

The new EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM sets a new standard for everyday photography on APS-C sensors. With a focal length range equivalent to 24-136mm in 35mm format, image stabilization and high-precision optics, the EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM offers stellar performance from wide-angle through to telephoto.

Focal Length & Maximum Aperture 15 – 85mm 1:3.5-5.6

Lens Construction 17 elements in 12 groups

Diagonal Angle of View 84° 30′ – 18° 25′

Focus Adjustment Inner focusing system with USM

Closest Focusing Distance 1.15 ft./0.35m

Filter Size 72mm

Max. Diameter x Length, Weight 3.2 x 3.4 in./81.6 x 87.5mm, 20.3 oz./575g

 

Physical Observations

 

The EF-S 15-85mm is a crop-sensor-only camera lens. It will work on all Canon DSLRs other than the EOS D30, D60, 10D, and the non-APS-C cameras such as the 5D (MK1 and II) and all 1D series cameras.

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With the APS-C sensor’s crop factor of 1.6x, the EF-S 15-85mm will provide the view of 24-136mm on a 35mm (full-frame) format. Needless to say, this is a highly useful focal range to work with and no other current Canon lens line-up has this range. The closest would be the old EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM and the popular EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lenses, both of which have significant wide-angle disadvantages on a crop-sensor camera due to its 38mm equivalent wide-end coverage.

Size and Weight

The EF-S 15-85mm looks and feels very much like the EF-S 17-85mm lens, handling is quite similar but the former is 100g heavier.

The length and weight feels OK on a mid-sized EOS xxD body, if not a little heavy on a Rebel. Then again, most lenses will feel heavy on a small Rebel.

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Handling is good and tactile, with the wide zoom ring and good weight balance. However, the manual-focusing ring is quite narrow and it takes a while to get used to locate the ring without looking at the lens itself.

The front element does not rotate as the lens utilizes an internal focusing system, making it easier for filter use.

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The lens uses an uncommon 72mm filter size. I wish it used a more standard 77mm though.

A lens hood is NOT provided, as with all other non-L lenses, this practice of not including a hood by Canon is getting more ridiculous with lenses over $500, in my opinion. In any case, the EW-78E lens hood is available for this lens.

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Focal Range

As mentioned, the EF-S 15-85mm covers roughly the same field-of-view as a 24-136mm lens on a 35mm full-frame camera, which makes it the widest all-purpose zoom lens that Canon has to offer right now (the EF-S 10-22mm isn’t exactly all-purpose, neither is the newly released EF 8-15mm pro-grade fish-eye lens) and it naturally appeals to users who are looking for a single-lens solution for a wide-range of photographic subjects from landscape to tight portraits.

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15mm Sample

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85mm Sample

 

The EF-S 15-85mm doesn’t have the reach of the EF-S 18-135 nor the EF-S 18-200, however, it does offer more useful wide angle coverage. A focal length increase at the telephoto end is often less useful than an increase in field-of-view offered by a wider lens, particularly on consumer, small-aperture lenses.

Having the option of taking wide environmental portraits or zooming in close is always a nice dilemma to have.

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The EF-S 15-85mm is a variable aperture lens. It sports an f/3.5 maximum aperture at 15mm and a maximum aperture of f/5.6 at 85mm. Specifically, the maximum aperture changes at the following focal lengths:

  • 15mm – f3.5
  • 17mm – f4
  • 28mm – f4.5
  • 35mm – f5
  • 60mm – f5.6
Essentially, this could very well be an f/4-5.6 lens like the EF-S 17-85mm, as the 1/3 stop is only applicable at 15mm. This isn’t a fast lens by any means.

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Build Quality

The build is decent and doesn’t exhibit any discernible wobble unlike the EF-S 18-55mm kit lenses. The zoom ring is nice and tight (but has issues about zoom creep, see below), while the switches for the image stabilization and auto-focus options feel very much like the pro-grade EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM. The lens mount is made of metal as well.

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Focus

The famous Canon Ultrasonic Motor (USM) allows fast and near-silent focusing throughout its focusing range. You can cycle through the entire focusing range in less than a second. AF tracking is quite accurate and Single-Shot AF locking is instantaneous. Low-light focusing is above average as well as long as enough contrast is present, particularly at longer focal lengths.

 

Image Stabilization

The redesigned image stabilization (IS) mechanism boasts a 4-stop hand-holdability according to Canon. While the new IS system seem to be less ‘jumpy’ on the viewfinder compared to the older systems, real-world hand-holdability is more like a 2.4-3 stop advantage rather than a 4-stop claim. The internal tripod-sensing system seems to easily confused as well as there are cases where the IS system doesn’t start until it detects a more significant lens movement.  It’s definitely not as impressive as the EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM‘s HIS system.

The images below were shot at 85mm focal length, shutter priority, center AF point, hand-held (no bracing or support).

IS test

While the samples above do show good image stabilization assistance, the ratio between blurry and sharp images was quite high at the 4-stop point.

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At 1/10, the edge sharpness of the number “5″ is much blurrier than the 1/25. However, you can clearly see the advantage of having the IS mechanism for the lens.

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

0.3 sec, f/4.5, ISO 640. Hand-held

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

1/8 sec, f/3.5, ISO 1000. Hand-held

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

0.4 sec, f/5, ISO 1250. Hand-held

Results may vary as there are many ways to stabilize a hand-held camera further and the photographer’s ability to steady the camera. I do have shaky hands by the way.

 

Lens Creep

 

One of the more common annoyances for all-purpose zoom lenses that doesn’t have internal zoom mechanisms is the “lens creep” or “zoom creep” phenomenon, wherein the lens’ barrel extends or collapses when the lens is held at certain incline or decline angle.

The popular Nikon 18-200mm lens made this phenomenon well-known in the market and they have subsequently added a physical lock to stop the creep. However, most other lenses still have the same problem, including Canon’s own 18-200mm lens.

The main issue with lens creep is when the lens is facing downwards (like when the camera is hung around your neck or when you’re shooting downwards), the lens will not hold its zoom position and gradually extends on its own. The same issue applies when you’re shooting upwards, where the lens will collapse its length if the zoom mechanism isn’t held in place.

You’ll then be forced to hold the zoom ring at that exact zoom position in order to prevent the focal length from changing.

The EF-S 15-85mm lens creep is rather unusual. While the lens isn’t equipped with a lock, when the lens at its widest focal length (15mm), the lens will not extend whatsoever even if pointed downwards. At the other extreme, the lens will also not collapse when you’re shooting upwards while zoomed out to 85mm either. That’s a good thing!

However, when you leave the lens at 20mm and you aim the lens downwards, it will creep up to about 55mm rather quickly. Naturally, if you’re at around 55mm, the lens collapses to about 20mm as well when you point the camera upwards.

You can really feel the zoom ring loosen significantly as you reach the 20-55mm mark compared to the 15-20mm and 55-85mm range.

 

Optics Performance

 

Naturally, a lens’ worth and value is in its ability to reproduce sharp images with minimal flaws and compromises. Given the fact that this lens is trying to cover the difficult wide-angle coverage and extends all the way to a short telephoto, some sacrifices are expected to occur.

With many all-purpose lenses around, optics are usually compromised significantly in the name of convenience and versatility. The greater the discrepancy of field-of-view, the higher the compromise in many cases.

 

Sharpness

 

I’m glad to announce that in terms of detail rendering and sharpness, the EF-S 15-85mm is top-notch in its class regardless of aperture setting.

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While most consumer zooms are mediocre, at best, at their wide apertures, the EF-S 15-85′s center sharpness is excellent throughout its focal range even at its widest apertures. This is even more evident at the 15mm range as the previous EF-S 17-85mm is awful at its widest focal length and max aperture.

Even the corner details are commendable. Despite the natural distortion of a wide angle lens, the edges are very respectable in sharpness and the details are held well on an A4 print.

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For an all-purpose zoom lens, this is a big, but pleasant surprise. Narrowing the aperture down a stop or two will improve sharpness and resolution even more, but I’m confident to say that most folks will find it sharp enough wide-open. Diffraction is evident at around f/13, but I doubt many will shoot at this aperture except landscape enthusiasts.

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Chromatic Aberrations

For a lens with 17 elements, CA is quite evident at 15mm and 85mm, though definitely not as bad as the EF-S 18-55mm (both IS and non-IS), EF-S 17-85mm, and EF-S 18-135mm. Between 20-70mm, however, the CA is well controlled for a zoom lens. If you’re shooting RAW, it’s quite simple and predictable to correct the color aberration, so if you’re a JPEG shooter, be more careful when shooting against high-contrast, hard-edge scenes.

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Contrast / Color

 

Contrast is pretty neutral, not as punchy as the L-lenses or the top-of-the-line EF-S lens, the 17-55mm f/2.8, but the straight-off-the-cam images are pretty predictable and the colors are a bit on the warm side.

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Distortion

 

As expected, any lens wider than 18mm will have significant barrel distortion, and the EF-S 15-85mm is no exception. However, this isn’t a unique flaw to the lens and even more expensive pro-grade wide angle lenses will exhibit some degree of barrel distortion. The EF-S 15-85mm is a lot better than its stable-mates (EF-S 18-55, 18-135, 18-200, 17-85) in this regard.

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Zoom in to 30, 50, 85mm, there is hardly ANY noticeable distortion.

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As a matter of fact, the EF-S 15-85mm at 15mm has less barrel distortion than the EF 24-105mm f/4L at 24mm.

 

Vignetting

 

Wide angle lenses are susceptible to vignetting (darkening of corners), and wide angle ZOOM lenses are even more prone to it. The EF-S 15-85mm is no exception. At maximum apertures, vignetting is evident at all focal lengths, particularly offending at 15-20mm range. A light loss of close to 2-stops at 15mm at the corners is quite significant, stopping down improves things marginally at this focal length. Vignetting is minimal at 30-50mm and increases slightly to about 1/2-stop at 85mm.

EF-S 15-85mm vignetting

With such levels of vignetting, I’m curious as to how the lens performs if it indeed comes with a standard lens hood.

 

Flare Control

 

Zoom lenses are often susceptible to flare when the light source is within the frame, the amount of glass elements inside a zoom lens tends to product complex and multiple flare orbs.

The EF-S 15-85 controls flare very well. In most shooting conditions, flare doesn’t appear in the photos until the light source is angled a certain manner. Chances are a UV filter will be the one introducing the flare, not the lens itself.

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

15mm, 11AM sun.

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

With Hoya Pro1D UV Filter

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Bokeh

The following shots are taken at the lens’ minimum focusing distance (MFD) at different focal lengths at their widest apertures, I’ll leave it up to you to decide if the bokeh qualities are acceptable to you as this is a purely subjective analysis.

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

15mm

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

24mm

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

35mm

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

70mm

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

85mm

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For an all-purpose lens, I think the 7-blade aperture produces good enough bokeh although some hard, busy edges are still present in the background. The patterns are nice and smooth though, no ugly pentagonal or hexagonal orbs here.

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM ReviewFor portraits, the transition between the sharper areas to the blurry background is quite pleasing and neutral. Certainly a step-up from the standard 18-55mm kit lens.Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

 

Subjective Opinion and Verdict

 

The Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM is a wonderful lens for its intended purpose and target market, which is an all-around travel and daily lens capable of covering a vast array of subjects and scenes. The build quality, optics, and usability makes it a worthwhile upgrade to users who are fed up with the optical and focal length shortcomings of the Canon EF-S 18-55mm kit lens, the sub-par performance of the EF-S 17-85mm kit lens, and those who find the limited use of longer focal lengths and average image quality of the EF-S 18-135mm and the EF-S 18-200mm.

The strengths of the EF-S 15-85mm lies on the important aspect of a lens. Delivering sharp, contrasty, high-resolution images on high-resolution, crop-sensor cameras such as the newer 15-18MP APS-C EOS DSLRs even at wide-open apertures is a rarity.

Having a fast focusing USM system and efficient image stabilization make this lens very usable and capable in most situations.

However, the EF-S 15-85mm is in strange marketing position as it’s sandwiched between the mediocre EF-S 17-85 and the much more versatile 18-135 and 18-200 in terms of focal range, but all three are inferior at larger apertures compared to the 15-85, which should make the EF-S 15-85mm an easy option for buyers.

The biggest issue is the price, however. At the moment, the EF-S 15-85mm at Amazon sells for US$720, while the EF-S 17-85mm and the EF-S 18-135mm both sells for $450, and the EOS 7D + EF 15-85mm kit costs $21xx. With the EOS 7D body costing $1534, that would drop the lens price down to $622, which is about perfect.

The biggest hurdle for the Canon EF-S 15-85mm isn’t its stable-mates from Canon, but from the 3rd-party offerings like Sigma and Tamron as their wide-to-medium (16-50/17-50mm) lenses sport high-quality optics at a constant f/2.8 aperture with image stabilization as well, and they cost around $600 only.

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Sample Photos

 

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

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