Canon Europe has put together a great article about the history of Canon L lenses, including what they consider to be landmark lenses in the evolution of the series. It's no surprise that innovation of lenses at Canon seems to be accelerating as every few years, there seems to be a new “world's first”.

Below are some of the landmarks in the evolution of Canon L lenses:

1969: FL-F 300mm f/5.6
Canon's first fluorite lens

Fluorite has some terrific properties for lenses, notably the complete removal of residual chromatic aberration and the ability to shorten the total lens length. And it’s widely used in current Canon L super-telephoto lenses. However, natural fluorite contains too many impurities to be used for lens manufacturing, as large crystals can't be obtained. In 1969, Canon developed the technology to artificially ‘grow' pure crystals, allowing for the production of the FL-F 300mm f/5.6, its first fluorite-based lens, and a revolutionary super-compact telephoto lens of its time.

1982: FD 14mm f/2.8L
Ultra wide-angle generated by original design tool

Ultra wide-angle lenses require complex designs and sophisticated manufacturing techniques. The FD 14mm f/2.8L was developed using an in-house design tool with an aspheric lens element to eliminate distortion, and produce the widest rectilinear prime lens in the FD range.


1989: EF 50mm f/1.0L USM
Standard lens boasting the world's largest aperture

Fast prime lenses are not a modern invention! In 1989, this lens offered the world's widest aperture for a 35mm single lens reflex camera. It was achieved using a sophisticated optical design that included two ground aspherical lenses and four high-refractive index glass lenses to produce high contrast and low lens flare even wide open at f/1.0. A floating lens construction was used to ensure image quality even at short focus distances, and the USM (UltraSonic Motor) autofocus motor offered high-speed, silent autofocus with full-time manual override.


1993: EF 35-350mm f/3.5-5.6L USM
World's first 10x zoom

This was the first 10x zoom lens for an interchangeable lens SLR and proved a powerful and versatile lens for sports photography, where speed and manoeuvrability are paramount. Designed with a six-group configuration, this lens used the fifth group for zooming, and achieved both a high zoom ratio and a compact design. Two UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) lenses provided good correction of chromatic aberration, high resolution and high contrast, and it came with an easily adjusted tripod foot.


1997: EF 300mm f/4L IS USM
First L lens with image stabiliser

Handheld telephoto photography is always a risky business for sports and wildlife photographers because of the potential for camera shake, but when Canon introduced its IS (Image Stabilisation) system for the first time on a professional lens, it offered effective shake compensation of two stops. This made handheld photography possible in situations where a tripod might otherwise have been needed, and offered photographers much more mobility. The IS unit offered two modes: Mode 1 for stationary subjects and Mode 2 for panning/tracking shots. Chromatic aberration was suppressed with two UD lenses and the lens was developed for high resolution and contrast.


2008: EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM
World's first lens with SWC (Subwavelength Structure Coating)

Lens coatings are not the most glamorous-sounding lens technology, but they are one of the most important, playing a vital part in the suppression of ghosting, flare and contrast loss. The SWC coating adopted for this lens has a structure finer than the wavelength of visible light, which was the first time this had ever been done. This minimised flare and ghosting caused by large angles of incidence, which could not be prevented with regular coatings. The EF 24mm f/1.4L also incorporated two glass moulded aspherical lenses and two UD lenses to eliminate aberrations. The SWC system was earmarked as one of Canon's key technologies for future development.


2009: EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
World's first Hybrid IS

Macro photography poses special problems for image stabilisation systems because it introduces a second type of potential camera movement parallel to the camera position. The solution was the EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS, and the first use of a new Hybrid IS system, designed to compensate for this ‘shift’ blur. In addition to a regular angular shake sensor, this lens introduced an additional acceleration sensor for movement parallel to the image plane. Data generated by the two sensors was used to drive the optical correction unit using specially-developed algorithms, and brought improved shake correction for macro photography.


2010: EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM
First EF lens with fluorine coating

Telephoto lenses are particularly prone to picking up dust, moisture and grease on their front elements, partly because of their sheer size and partly because of the harsh outdoor environments they’re typically used in. The newly-developed fluorine coating on the EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM, however, was designed to repel dirt, which could have a negative impact on image quality, and reduce the need for manual lens cleaning. The fluorocarbon coating is water- and oil-repellent, and even if dust does stick to the surface, it's easier to remove. The fluorine coating also makes it possible to wipe away finger grease, for example, without solvents.


2011: EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM
First all-round-to-diagonal line fisheye zoom

Fisheye lenses come in two types: circular fisheyes, which create a fully circular image within the frame area, and diagonal fisheyes which fully fill the frame area with a rectangular image. Normally, if you want both types you have to buy two lenses, but in 2011 Canon launched the first lens to offer both a full 180-degree circular image to a full-frame diagonal 180-degree field of view in a single lens. Fisheye lenses are specialised tools you won't need often, so being able to carry one lens offering both types – rather than having to carry two – is a major advantage, and this lens’s operation is very simple because the frame coverage is linked to the zoom setting. At the widest focal length a circular image is produced and this enlarges to fill the frame because the zoom setting is increased, with a marker on the zoom ring showing the point where the view fills the frame.


2013: EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x
First super-telephoto lens with a built-in extender

Teleconverters, – often known as ‘extenders' – are widely used by sports and wildlife photographers to extend the reach of telephoto lenses. The gain in focal length is offset by a loss in maximum aperture, so they work best with a lens that has a wide maximum aperture to start with. The EF 200-400mm f/4L is the first super-telephoto to take this to its logical extreme and have a 1.4x converter built in. This extends its focal range to 280-560mm with a maximum aperture of f/5.6. Not only that, it can also be used with a regular EF 1.4x III extender to produce a further reach advantage up to 780mm, with an aperture of f/8 – still within the autofocus limits of cameras like the EOS-1D X II.


2014: EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
First lens to adopt ASC coatings to further reduce flare

ASC stands for Air Sphere Coating, a film which contains ‘balls of air', which is evaporated on to the lens surface as a thin film. This strange-sounding coating provides a large reduction in flare and ghosting at light angles close to perpendicular, making it particularly suitable for telephoto lenses and their relatively narrow angles of view. The lens also makes use of one fluorite lens and one super UD lens, plus an image stabiliser unit offering four stops of shake compensation.


2015: EF 11-24mm f/4L USM
World's widest angle ultra-wide zoom

One of Canon's most spectacular ultra wide-angle lenses, the EF 11-24mm f/4L USM boasts the widest angle of view of any rectilinear (non-fisheye) lens, including primes. It makes use of some of Canon's key imaging and manufacturing technologies – including a ground aspherical lens, UD and super-UD lenses for chromatic aberration suppression, and both SWC and ASC anti-reflection lens coatings.


2015: EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM
First use of BR lens

2015 was the year of another landmark lens launch. The EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM is the first lens to use Canon's BR (Blue Spectrum Refractive Optics) lens technology, with a material that provides ‘anomalous' dispersion characteristics with strong refraction of blue light (hence the name). This makes it perfect for correcting the kind of chromatic aberration found in large aperture lenses. There is high image quality from the centre to the edge of the frame, and excellent performance even wide open, allowing the unusual combination of a wide angle of view and shallow depth of field for creative background blur. Read more…

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