Tuesday 19 July 2011

A Review of the Canon 100mm f2.8L IS Macro

A bit of a departure today with a review of some photographic kit. I have a bit of a lens fetish, and have recently bought the new Canon 100mm macro. I like it a lot, and wanted to tell people about it. I know, I thought, why not use the blog? There are plenty of birders who read it in the vain hope that one day it might be about birds. Many birders also take photos of birds, and many of them use Canon equipment. In the summer there are no birds to take photos of, and many birders turn their attention to butterflies, dragonflies, and anything else that will alleviate the tedium of June. Although it is July now, it is worryingly similar to June. Do they have a macro lens already? Are they thinking of buying one? Maybe yes, maybe no. Shall I do a review just in case? Ok then, I will. If this is even more boring than normal, I apologise. I will revert to moths and domestic triumphs tomorrow. So off we go then.

Canon 100mm f2.8L IS USM Review

Anyone who has tried Macro Photography knows that it is a right old pain. First you have to find an insect. Then the insect has to stay still, and the wind has to stop moving the grass stem or whatever. That miraculous combination achieved, you crouch down to take a shot. Wide open aperture for a fast shutter speed and a fraction of the insect is in focus. You try again. This time you stop down to increase your depth of field, and oh dear, the shutter speed wasn't fast enough, and your photo is blurry. The solution? A tripod. Yes, a tripod will make getting good images much much easier. Except you won't have any images because you hate going round with your tripod so much that you would rather give up photography altogether. It is a common problem, and one not easily solved. Until now that is.
Canon have released a new Macro lens with an image stabiliser. Many of Canon's lenses have had image stabilisers added for some time, but this is the first time a true Macro lens has been the lucky recipient. Enter the Canon 100mm f2.8L IS Macro lens. Lying on my sofa, it looks like this:

Although Canon already make a 100mm Macro lens, this one is an entirely new design, rather than the old lens with an image stabliser tacked on. 100mm is probably the most popular macro focal length, being capable of life-size reproduction on the sensor, so it's no surprise that it got the treatment first. Expect the venerable 180mm Macro lens to get a similar update at some point in the future. Like that beast, this one is also an L lens, where "L" stands for luxury. Special glass or something, and a red ring to show off. As with many macro lenses, the old lens was no slouch, so this is merely an opportunity for Canon to up the price tag. That said, you get a lot of lens for your money.

When you first pick it up, it has to be said it feels a little plasticky. This is good plastic though, and while I am loathe to test it this early on, I bet it can stand up to some fair old abuse. And the good thing about plastic is that it weighs less than metal, and so even with the addition of an image stabiliser and a load of pixies to operate it, this lens weighs in at a mere 625g. This is a fraction more than the older 100mm macro, and if you are used to toting a birding lens like the Canon 300mm f4 IS around, or the 100-400mm zoom, this will seem like a toy in comparison. Plastic or not, construction appears to be extremely solid, exactly what you would expect from an L lens. It is weather sealed with a rubber O ring around the lens mount, and weather sealing is completed by screwing in a 67mm filter at the other end. If you want to take advantage of this, do not under any circumstances buy a cheapo five quid filter from Hong Kong off Ebay. You might as well rub water-repelling grease on the front element for all the good it will do your pictures. Buy a really expensive filter from a reputable dealer. You will only buy it once, and you will not notice it is there. Personally I use a B+W UV Haze 010 MRC filter, which in the 67mm variety costs about fifty quid, but there are other equally good ones out there. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

The lens comes with a deep hood which is excellent, and that I recommend you use all the time (apart from in some circumstances of course, which I'll come to later. Obtuse? Moi?). Using the hood makes removing and fitting the lens cap a pain, but you will be pleased when you bash the lens hood and not your expensive filter. What do you mean you didn't buy a filter?! The lens also comes with a useless grey bag which Canon will try and tell you is a lens case. Throw it away immediately.

The lens's minimum focussing distance is 30cm. Those 30cms are measured from the film plane, or whatever the digital equivalent is. The sensor probably. The lens is about 12cm long, so this means that it can still focus when your front element is about 15cm from the subject. This means that you will sometimes want to remove the lens hood, as it is 8cm long. Insects get scared when large black things approach them. With the hood in place, the large scary black thing approaches to within 7cm. Gah!! If you're working tight, the hood can also bump into close branches and stems, the movement of which will cause the insect to scarper. With the hood off, you can stay that bit further away, but of course you have exposed your front element to the elements. Hope you bought a filter.

The focussing ring is wide and smooth, and with a USM motor, full-time manual focussing is available, extremely useful for macro. The lens does not change length when focussing, it all happens inside. The lens takes an optional tripod collar, sold by Canon for an additional two trillion pounds. The whole point of this review is that you can use this lens without needing a tripod, so don't buy it. On the side of the lens are three recessed switches. AF on or off, a focus limiter, and a switch to have IS on or off. I don't think I have moved them since I got the lens, and my settings are AF on, IS on, and the full focal range. But it's nice to know that they are there if you need them. Why the hell would you turn the IS off though? It's the only real reason for buying the new lens over the old one, and why you're paying a premium of 70%.

IS is great. I mean really great. Canon's latest inception of IS is worth 4 stops of light. That means that in the normal course of taking photographs, you can use a shutter speed a full sixteen times slower than you might otherwise without the benefit of IS. I think that's right, but you might want to go and check. Whichever, it's a lot. Yes, I know what you're thinking. Wow. For the uninitiated, an F stop is either the halving or doubling of light hitting the sensor. One stop down is the halving, one stop up, the doubling. Two stops and you halve it again. A quarter the light. Three, and it's an eighth. And so on. In practical terms, an exposure of 1/1600s at f2.8 on a lens with no image stabliser can be reproduced at 1/100s at f16 with no apparent camera shake on a lens with a four stop image stabiliser. In macro photography, stopping down to increase your depth of field is pretty important. Very important in fact. But without IS, you get shutter speeds so slow you cannot possibly hand-hold the camera and take a sharp photograph. So you need a tripod to keep the camera steady. By the time you have set up your tripod, the insect has probably moved off or been eaten. With the new IS lens, this isn't a problem any more. You can leave your pain-in-the-ass tripod at home and have a much better time out and about.

With IS on. 1/640s @ f7.1, Evaluative metering -1/3rd.

With IS off. Please note that I may have faked this test.

The IS system in this new lens is a little bit different. Canon calls it hybrid IS. This combines correction not only for normal angular movement like all previous IS systems -  ie you wobbling the camera up and down a bit - but also side to side movement which can be extremely noticeable when you are close to your subject. Little tiny pixies inside the lens detect which way you're wobbling, and move the lens elements the other way so that the wobble, or most of it at least, is eliminated. When you engage focus, you can actually hear the pixies, they kind of hum. Move the lens a bit more rapidly, and they begin to whine. No really. Does it work? Yes it does. You actually see the image in the viewfinder steady and then become still. Of course there is a limit to what you can get away with, but it is pretty miraculous. Canon say that at 1:1 Macro distances the hybrid IS system only gives you two stops of correction. I'll take those two stops. I have no way of testing it, and it's far too boring anyway, but my at my personal level of shakiness, I can take a sharp handheld macro pic at 1/15th of a second with this lens. They're not all sharp at this speed, and of course IS has absolutely no bearing on subject movement which is often the real killer, but being able to rely on this very slow shutter speed with a still subject pleases me a great deal, and it will please you too. Please note that all people wobble differently. You may wobble more than me, or you may wobble less than me. I have no way of knowing. Anyway, a macro lens with IS means you can simply wander around and expect to take decent hand-held photos of insects with no messing about. For a birder on the move, this is brilliant.

1/200s @ f10, evaulative metering -1/3rd.

Anything else you need to know? Well yes actually. The lens is sharp even at f2.8. Normally, lenses reach optimum sharpness when you stop down the aperture a bit. Not so with this one, and it is sharp all the way to the corners. I actually tested this, but the resulting test shots don't fall into the "interesting" category. And anyway, mostly it doesn't matter, the centre of the lens is largely what is important in a macro lens. Colours are vibrant and contrasty, just as you would expect from an L lens, and the out-of-focus blur at f2.8 is excellent. Focussing is quick, and accurate. Moving from minimum to maximum is really really fast, not something I was expecting at all. This makes the lens much more versatile. Imagine, there you are taking photos of a small bug. All of a sudden your mate ten metres away pulls a funny face. You quickly recompose, the lens snaps into focus on his mug, IS means the resulting image is sharp, and you have some excellent blog material. You couldn't do that with many macro lenses. 100mm is an excellent portrait length, which is another use for this lens. I use it on my kids all the time.

So there you are, it ain't just birds. A tedious review of the Canon 100mm f2.8L IS Macro lens. The quality is assured, so the question most people will ask is is it worth the price premium over the older lens, which takes excellent photos, and can be snapped up for around £300 on the second-hand market? Well, I can only speak for me, but the IS system, even if the hybrid thingy is less effective at macro distances, means I can use this without a tripod almost all of the time. If I'm out birding, I just bung it in my pocket and off I go. Brilliant. So that is extra cash that I am willing, if not wildly happy, to pay. Its versatility means it sits on my camera a large percentage of the time.

Vital statistics
Focal Length: 100mm
Aperture: f2.8 to f32
Minimum focussing distance: 30cm
Minimum working distance: 15cm
Weight: 625g
Length: 12.3cm
Width: 7.7cm
Filter thread: 67mm
Cost: £725 new, s/h £600ish if you can find one. I did.

1 comment:

  1. Holy shit, that's expensive, although I know that's just how it is for lenses. You did a very good job selling it, though. The only thing you forgot to note is that, no matter the quality of the photo (very good) grasshoppers are still kind of creepy.

    I would love one (lens not grasshopper) for portraits, but I am not luxury enough at this date.