Review – Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro
Macro lenses can offer a photographer insight and access to a tiny world that is beyond the normal eye. Where wide-angle lenses augment a reality we know, and telephotos give us reach for a better vantage and compressed view, the ability of a macro lens to focus so closely to an object, as to enlarge it is a wonderfully addictive experience. Of course, the first thing anyone will do when they get a macro lens is take pictures of pretty much everything around them. What does a pencil look like in macro? How about the keyboard? My hand? Wonderful levels of texture, detail, dust, and imperfections are revealed through a macro’s optics.
The Canon 100mm f/2.8 L IS was the first in Canon’s macro lineup (60mm f/2.8, 100 mm f/2.8, 180mm f/3.5 L, & MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x) to offer in-camera Image Stabilization, and the first Canon lens to use their “Hybrid IS” system. The new lens complimented, rather than replaced, Canon’s lineup, by offering IS, a 9 bladed aperture and better optics in contrast to the “regular” 100mm f/2.8. I had previously owned the original 100mm but didn’t hesitate to trade it for the improvement the new lens had on bokeh (instead of hexagonal bokeh balls, the 100mm f/2.8 L IS produces wonderfully creamy out of focus backgrounds and smooth balled bokeh), and the IS which would, conceivably, free me from the constraints of a tripod.
The lens took a departure from some of Canon’s more prominent L metal body builds and used a high-quality industrial resin/plastic. While I wasn’t overly concerned about weight, having such a light telephoto lens with built-in IS was a blessing for my kit. I’m also not particularly rough with my gear. That said, I have been known to drop a few cameras and lenses from time to time, so build is a factor for me in my day to day. I’ll also say that anything I buy has to stand up to random toddler destruction, as my kids are prone to whipping my stuff around. I heard a story of someone’s lens falling apart in the field, but that sounded like a fluke since everyone else’s experience seems to have been nothing but positive.
The focus ring is perfectly situated forward on the body and is thick enough for most video uses if that’s your pleasure. There are also a number of switches on the side of the lens: the standard AF/MF switch (full time manual focusing is available in AF mode), the IS switch, and a focus limiter ranging from 0.3m-0.5m, 0.5m – infinity, and “Full”. The latter certainly helps speed up your autofocus, since it’s a very wide range within which to work, and while I wouldn’t count the AF as particularly slow, the closer ranges do take some time to lock focus.
The lens takes a 67mm filter, which isn’t anything I own, but it is what it is. It also comes with a lens hood, included with all L-series bodies, but not the 100mm f/2.8 macro. This was actually another deciding factor for me when purchasing the lens. After owning the 100mm f/2.8 macro for a while, I realized I very much needed a lens hood to prevent flare from entering the lens. The cost was close to $100 at the time and I figured that was value I could apply towards the 100mm f/2.8 L IS.
Something I ran into once, and this shouldn’t alarm anyone; but if you remove the lens from the camera body while IS is engaged and the body still on, the lens will rattle, as the optics inside the lens will be loosened (part of the hybrid stabilization I imagine). If you’re not prepared for this you may just think you broke your lens, but it corrects itself the next time you take the time to remove your lens properly.
Sharp. Sharp sharp sharp. Have you ever used a macro lens? They’re all pretty sharp, as primes tend to be, but HOLY MOLEY this thing is sharp. It’s “cut you sharp”, it’s “I don’t need extra sharpening” sharp. This lens is the sharpest lens I’ve ever used, out of the box, no adjustments needed. I can take Adobe Lightroom’s default sharpness setting of 25 down a bit and it will still be sharp.
Now that I have that out of the way, I can talk about the quality of the bokeh, which is about as pretty as this lens is sharp. I upgraded from the Canon 100mm f/2.8 because I was unhappy with its hexagonal shaped bokeh blurs. The extra and rounded aperture blades of the 100 mm f/2.8 L IS promised to drastically improve on this, and it truly did. The world fades to beautiful colours when shot wide-open. The included lens hood is quite long, offering protection to the relatively small front lens element, but also serving to shield it from the sun and potential flaring. So much so that after three years of shooting with this lens I don’t think I’ve ever been affected by any level of direct flare. The most flaring I do encounter is when shooting products against a white or reflective background. These are the scenarios that make or break a lens for me; if a lens can’t stand up in potential direct light, it’s of no use to me. But the 100mm f/2.8 L IS holds up well, and what flare there is can be recovered through software. All of the lens product photos I’ve done for my CanonRumors.com reviews have been shot with the 100mm f/2.8 L IS Macro (except those OF the 100mm f/2.8 L IS Macro).
If this isn’t a perfect lens, I don’t know what is. It’s hyper perfect, taking images that my eyes (which are noticeably poor, maybe f/1.4 close-focus only?) don’t perceive. Just have a look at some close detail.
It’s also important for me to note that while 4-stops of image stabilization seems like a boon and an excuse to castoff your tripod for good, remember that once you start focusing at very close macro distances, your depth of field becomes desperately thin. Even at the minimum aperture of f/32, you may not have everything you want in focus. Many macro photographers use a macro rail to slide the lens to stack the focus of certain objects, then blending them together later in Photoshop. You can’t do this without a tripod, so IS isn’t going to save you there. A macro shot at f/2.8 may be a lovely abstract, but for anything other than a flat surface it will also reveal a quick decline of detail into blur.
Another factor of macro photography is “light loss”. This occurs when you focus closely on a subject, which uses a circle of illumination larger than the digital sensor of your camera, and a lens element further away from the sensor than a normal lens. What occurs is that light is allowed in, but essentially “misses” the digital sensor, thus requiring more of it (a longer shutter speed) to achieve a proper exposure… or something. There are math people out there who can probably explain this better than I can. Suffice to say; there is less light when shooting macro distances.
It’s a macro lens, so you take macro photos with it – duh.
Actually, not so fast. Aside from product photography, I don’t end up doing a lot of macro work myself. After the initial “What does a blade of grass look like macro?” novelty wore off, I started using the lens as my only fast image stabilized telephoto lens (I had yet to purchase the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L IS II). Light and relatively small, I was able to take some excellent portraits with this unassuming telephoto lens. The sharpness was actually a slight disadvantage for these, though it’s easier to clean up some skin than having everything out of focus or soft in the first place. Another advantage of the 100mm Macro is that you can pull into your subject tighter than you otherwise would be able to with this focal length. While my 70-200 f/2.8 L IS II’s minimum focusing distance is 4 feet, the 100mm Macro allowed me to approach my subjects for a much, much tighter shot while still maintaining flattering compression on the facial features.
So you can use it for macros which is great for landscape and commercial photographers working in product photography. It’s wonderful for portraits, benefiting any portrait artist especially those working in tighter spaces. There’s also the entire wedding photography industry, which requires a multitude of images shot over the period of a day. While I find the macro feature a bit unnecessary for ring photos at a wedding, it doesn’t hurt to have that kind of leverage, while taking away reliance on a tripod with IS and a lighter build for a long day… I’d strongly advocate this lens’ use at weddings, as long as you don’t need the variability and reach that a 70-200 can bring you.
I don’t always advocate buying the more expensive piece over the lesser one – though I rarely regret it when I do – but I wouldn’t even consider the 100mm f/2.8 macro. Go straight for the 100mm f/2.8 L IS and experience lens perfection.
- Sharp like a Katana
- Light and compact for a telephoto
- Image stabilized for hand-held macros (when the light allows)
- Build is plasticky in feel, but still solid.
- Bothering all your friends with uninteresting macro photography for the first few months of ownership