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Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM Lens Review
by Jim Keenan -  2/12/2010

The heritage of Canon's new EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens dates back to the 1980s when Canon began researching methods to compensate for camera movement. They introduced their first stabilized lens for SLR film cameras in 1995. Since then, and particularly with the booming popularity of digital imaging, stabilization of lenses or camera bodies has rapidly become a way of life for all manufacturers.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM


In July 2009 Canon announced the development of a hybrid lens stabilization system that compensates for both angular (rotational) and shift (linear) camera shake, and promised the new technology would appear in a SLR lens release before the end of the year. From a Canon press release:

The new Hybrid IS technology incorporates an angular velocity sensor that detects the extent of angular camera shake which is found in all previous optical Image Stabilizer mechanisms, as well as a new acceleration sensor that determines the amount of shift-based camera shake. Hybrid IS also employs a newly developed algorithm that combines the output of the two sensors and moves the lens elements to compensate for both types of movement. Hybrid IS dramatically enhances the effects of Image Stabilizer especially during macro shooting, which is difficult for conventional image stabilization technologies.

That promised lens was announced in early September with an end of that month availability - the EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM (henceforth the "100 macro") that is the subject of this review. Again, Canon's own words: "The lens was developed to expand users' photographing range and allow a wider range of users to easily enjoy macro photography".

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

For those of us who don't speak Canon as a second language, some clarifications: EF is the lens mount type; L designates the lens as a member of Canon's premier "luxury" series; IS indicates the lens is stabilized and USM refers to the Ultrasonic Motor that provides the autofocus capability.

I received the 100 macro along with a new EOS 1D Mark IV body that will be the subject of a separate review (including some shooting time at the Olympic Winter Games) about a week before leaving for Vancouver. Here's that lens-camera combo (without the lens hood).

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

This review wraps before we head to the Olympics, so let's take a closer look at Canon's new ground-breaking lens.

BUILD AND DESIGN

Lens Mount
The 100 macro features the Canon EF lens mount which had been the brand standard since replacing the FD mount in 1987. Simple enough, but then Canon muddied the waters a bit and introduced the EF-S variant of the EF mount in 2003.
The EF-S is designed for 2003 and later cameras with APS-C sized sensors resulting in 1.6x crop factors. Cameras with EF-S mounts can accept both EF and EF-S lenses, but EF-S lenses can only be used on EF-S mounts. EF-S lenses have a rubber ring that prevents their being inadvertently installed on an EF mount camera (and causing lens and/or camera damage in the process). Additionally, EF-S lenses use a small white rectangle as the lens alignment mark; EF lenses use a small red dot. EF mount camera bodies have the red dot on the mount; EF-S bodies have both the white rectangle and red dot. Long story short: the 100 macro can go on any Canon digital body.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

Construction
The macro 100's lens mount is metal and the barrel is composite - there are 15 glass elements arranged in 12 groups, including a single ultra low dispersion glass element. Super Spectra coatings help reduce ghosting and lens flare and the circular diaphragm is nine-bladed. Aperture size is established electronically via the camera body - there is no way to open or close the diaphragm manually. The front element does not rotate and accepts 67mm filters; focus is internal and there are dust and water-resistant seals typical for "L" class lenses. The distance scale is good sized and easy to read and lens controls are simple and easy to understand. Here's a look at those controls (note the red alignment dot designating an EF lens) and the distance scale.

 

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

Canon provides a hood and carry bag with each lens.

With an MSRP of $1050 USD, the composite lens barrel was a bit of a surprise, but build quality looks good and feels generally solid. When you consider that as much as 50% of the Boeing 787 primary structure - including the fuselage and wing - will be made of composite materials, having a composite lens barrel seems a fairly tame application by comparison.

Handling
With its fixed focal length, the 100mm macro will shoot like a 160mm lens (35mm film equivalent) on Canon bodies with a 1.6x crop factor; 100mm on full frame Canon bodies and at 130mm on the 1D Mark IV we used for this review. Close focus distance on the lens is 12 inches (to be technical, 0.99 feet) from the subject to the sensor focal plane; distant focus is infinity. The lens permits focus ranges to be compartmentalized - 12 inches to infinity (full), 0.5 meters (19.7 inches) to infinity or 0.3 meters (12 inches) to 0.5 meters. Setting the focus range can sometimes improve AF times as the lens doesn't "hunt" through the distances that have been excluded.

When used as a modest telephoto for distant shots the 100 macro's stabilization system can provide up to 4 stops correction - moving in to macro distances up to 2 stops are available at 1.0x magnification. Before the existence of stabilization, the rule of thumb for a shutter speed to produce a sharp image (minimize camera shake) while hand holding the camera was the inverse of the focal length of the lens - for a 100mm lens you'd like to be able to shoot at 1/100th of a second. With the 1D/100 macro shooting at 130mm, we'd like to have 1/125th of a second or more without stabilization - but how low can we go with stabilization active? Since Canon rates the stabilization of the lens for up to 2 stops of correction, that suggests we can shoot in the vicinity of 1/30th of a second when doing fairly close macro work. Here's a hand held shot of Delta in low light at 1/20th of a second with the point of focus the hairs just adjacent to the eye.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

How low was the light in this instance? It took bumping the ISO to 1600 to get that 1/20th at wide open aperture.
Because of the critical focus and minimal depth of field issues prevalent in macro photography, particularly where the lens is being used near its minimum focus distance, serious macro enthusiasts would traditionally use a tripod or some other form of camera support to position their camera, fire the shutter with the self-timer, cable release or remote control to minimize shake by eliminating human touch, and often lock up the camera mirror before taking the shot to help remove any last vestige of shake.

Here are two tripod shots to illustrate the depth of field issue - the turquoise bracelet is curved so the edges are farther from the focus plane which was near the top center of the bracelet. The shot at f/4 has minimal depth of field and the edges are out of focus. The shot at f/32 picks up some additional depth of field and the edges are much more in focus. Shutter speed for the f/4 shot was 1/100th of a second, while the f/32 shot took 1.7 seconds.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
f/4
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
f/32

The Porsche badge illustrates the focus/depth issues from top to bottom on the image - water droplets at the top are fairly sharp and in fact you can see the fine metallic grains of the paint reflected in them. The badge itself looks fairly sharp overall, but close examination shows the top is a bit softer than the middle and bottom of the badge. The focal plane here started pretty close to the paint at the top of the image and then angled slightly upward (or stayed straight as the hood and badge curved slightly downward) so the middle and bottom of the badge look sharper while the water droplets are softer than those at the top. This shot was hand held at 1/30th of a second, so closing down the aperture to gain depth of field (and lose shutter speed) wasn't an option. Bumping up ISO would return shutter speed with smaller apertures, but then noise may become a concern with cameras that don't perform well at higher ISO sensitivities.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

With Canon already fielding a 100mm macro EF lens that generally got good marks for image quality, the development of the new stabilization system became the raison de etre for the "L" series 100 macro. The new lens (which replaces the non-stabilized, non-"L" series macro) won't eliminate the need for tripods or other camera support for the most critical close-up work, but it definitely expands the hand-held macro envelope.

Mounted on the large and heavy 1D mark IV body the 100 macro balanced nicely and was pleasant to use. Its length and weight (4.8 inches without hood, 22 ounces) might be a bit much for lighter, smaller bodies, but a fair chunk of that weight is concentrated toward the rear (mount) end of the lens which will put in proximity to the body and should help balance.


PERFORMANCE

Auto Focus
AF with the 100 macro on the 1D Mark IV was quick and generally accurate in good to low lighting conditions. I tended to use the single shot mode for static subjects and AI servo for moving ones.

Manual Focus
The manual focus ring on the 100 macro is wide and smooth - rotation through about 140 degrees is required to go from close focus to infinity. For critical close up work the only viable method is to manually focus to whatever point you want, then move your upper body and the camera slightly to and fro to return to the precise focus point rather than hold the camera with one hand and try to always change focus with the other. If you're backed off from the subject a bit, traditional manual focus works fine.

Image Quality
Image quality is - in a word - excellent! Close up or at a distance. I set the 1D to the highest image quality JPEG for the shots with the 100 macro - all other camera settings were at default except for ISO which I manually set depending on the situation. Here's a shot of the block wall I use to check for various lens distortions - lots of straight lines and good sharpness throughout the frame, corners and edges included.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

Shots that would typically display chromic aberration in lesser lenses were clean with the 100 macro - Canon has done a good job in this department.

Back when we all shot 35mm film, the "portrait" lens focal length was generally accepted to run between 85 and 135mm - with my preference being for 105mm. With the 1D/100macro combination shooting at 130mm, we're right at the top edge of the portrait window - here's Amy after a morning surf session.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

That 130mm length lacks true telephoto "punch", but it gets you a little closer to distant subjects. Police lines wouldn't let me get any closer to this salvage operation, but the distant shot cropped to 12x8 inches and 300 dots per inch eliminates a lot of open space, and after fudging past the yellow tape briefly I got close enough for a more detailed look at the recovery.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
Original
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
Cropped

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

Here's some other shots of a decidedly non-macro nature.

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

The capability to shoot macro without some of the traditional tools for camera stability will be a major selling point for this lens, so I left the tripod in the closet for the hand held close ups that follow. Here's where the difficulty achieving the critical focus and depth of field needed to produce an evenly focused image without resort to camera support and painstaking adjustments can be truly appreciated. We're dealing with the lens needing to be perpendicular to the subject, but in two axes - from side to side and top to bottom - and this only works if the object is perfectly flat and the hand holding is precise.

Finally, I bumped the ISO to 6400 and aperture to f/16 to shoot the 1:1 images of the watch and the baseball hat. I'm fairly happy with the hat 1:1, not so much with the watch 1:1, but both were the best I could do. Shooting at lesser magnifications is a breeze compared to trying 1:1, but even that was possible with the right settings in the lens and camera.

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

CONCLUSION
Canon's new hybrid stabilization system has debuted in a 100 mm macro lens promised to allow "a wider range of users to easily enjoy macro photography." Our results suggest the combination delivers on that promise. The lens itself is an optical gem even without stabilization, but offering up to 2 stops of correction at 1:1 magnification (and up to 4 stops for distant shooting) is a big plus.

Shooting at a 130mm focal length on Canon's new EOS 1D Mark IV body, we got sharp images hand held at shutter speeds as low as 1/20th of a second in fairly close quarters - less than 1:5 magnification. Even at 1:1, with enough ISO to close down the aperture for some additional depth of field there were some pretty respectable results. Purists will still mount the lens and camera on a tripod or some other form of support for 1:1 work. But if your situation doesn't permit that, enough ISO and aperture to give depth of field and shutter speed may save the day.


The lens is expensive - it's a Canon "L" series whose MSRP comes in at about twice that of the non-stabilized 100 macro it replaces - but with enhanced build quality, components and weather sealing commensurate with the higher price. Canon users who have no need for a hand held close up capability might be well served by the older glass, which reportedly had good optics. But if shooting macro on the fly without time for lengthy set up and support equipment is in your future, the new 100mm macro looks to be an excellent choice.

Pros:

Cons: