Through the looking glass: a brief guide to camera lenses

A primer and overview of Canon lenses with recommendations

Lenses are one of the most important pieces of equipment in your camera bag. Besides the obvious fact that you won’t be able to take any pictures without one, every lens is unique and can significantly change the perspective, feel and mood of your photographs. While I previously discussed the virtues of investing in a solid camera, arguably good lenses are a better investment for your dollar and open you to new opportunities that would not have been obtainable otherwise.

I’m a Canon shooter, so the lenses I will be talking about are specific to that side. (For Nikon folks or those using other camera manufacturers, please refer to your fellow shooters of that respective platform for equivalent recommendations on this list.) There are a ton of numbers, abbreviations and nomenclature on camera lenses that might be bewildering and I’ll do my best to explain them.

Using the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM (what a mouthful) lens as an example, EF simply refers to the mount type. The EF mount was introduced in 1987 and generally all Canon film/digital SLR cameras and EF lenses made over the past three decades are all compatible with one another. There is another mount called EF-S that was introduced in the early 2000’s, but lenses for this mount is intended for crop sensor (APS-C) cameras only. There is also an EF-M mount for Canon’s mirrorless camera line.

70-200mm is the focal length of the lens. As this is a zoom lens, the two numbers represent the lowest and highest focal lengths the lens is capable of. Prime lenses use one single focal length and thus have one number. These numbers are only accurate on full-frame (35mm film) cameras. Consumer cameras typically use a crop sensor and a 1.6x multiplier has to be applied to the focal length. To explain this simply, a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera would be a true 24mm, while the same lens on a crop sensor camera would be roughly 38mm.

f/2.8 refers to the aperture. As unintuitive as this sounds: the smaller the number, the bigger the aperture can open up to let in more light. Lenses with apertures like f/1.4 and f/2.8 are called “fast glass” as they allow a lot of light, as well as achieve more shallow depth of field (good for isolating subjects from backgrounds). Other lenses that start at f/4 and higher are considered “slow” and may be troublesome in darker environments, but these lenses can still work in good light, higher ISO speeds or when used on a tripod. Some lenses might have a variable aperture rating like f/3.5-5.6, meaning the maximum widest aperture will get slower as the focal length is increased: this is common on cheaper kit lenses that come with camera bodies.

The L is simply a branding term for Canon’s more expensive line of lenses containing better build quality, optics or weather-sealing than their lower-tier collection. They’re expensive, but are often worth it and it’s not unusual to get most of your investment back when selling older lenses in good shape. There are also more-affordable third party alternatives from companies like Tamron or Sigma that are getting better all the time, and whether you sacrifice a little bit of performance for saving some money is a personal choice.

IS is image stabilization, helpful for stabilizing handheld shots and allowing you to get sharper pictures with lower shutter speeds than what is usually possible. However, image stabilization will NOT help you with moving subjects (think action or sports) and a larger aperture may be a more desired option in those situations.

The numeral designation of a lens – like II or Mk II – is just the generation of the lens. Like with many products, newer generations of lenses comes with modern improvements like improved optics or lighter weight.

There are also other terms attached to these lenses like USM and STM which refer to the motor inside them, but that’s a subject in itself and I’m not going to get into that.

I either own or have rented many of Canon’s line of lenses, and no single lens fits ALL situations. If you’re confused on what to buy, here are some of my recommendations or thoughts on particular lenses in the Canon lineup.

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II

Despite it’s praise and legendary workhorse status, I was not a big fan of the Mk I version of the 24-70 lens. The Mk II is a different story and the image quality is what you’d expect out of modern Canon lenses: sharp, vivid and remain so even when opened wide at f/2.8. From wider shots to a shorter telephoto range, this versatile lens has it all. The extra stop of light over f/4 counterparts is incredibly helpful when indoors or in darker areas.

Negatives are the plastic body (though still built well and lighter as a result) and the 82mm filter threads that can be a pain in the butt when most of your filters and attachments are 77mm. The lack of image stabilization (IS) is also a bummer, but I wouldn’t consider it a deal killer. There is a switch that locks the barrel in place, but the lock only works at 24mm.

Despite the shorter range, I much prefer this to the Canon 24-105L f/4 lens and think the extra cost is worth it if you can swing it. The price was excessive when it was first released, but the lens has since dropped down a bit and sales and rebates can be found if you wait

Recommended for: All-around photography, indoors

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II

It’s big, long and very heavy…but does this lens ever deliver. The image quality is delightfully sharp, the auto focus is ridiculously fast, and I’ve found this lens works exceptionally well with the most recent teleconverters (more on these in a sec) for additional range.

Aside from being decent for certain sports and wildlife (to an extent), this long length of this lens is absolutely terrific for model and portrait photography where subject isolation and flattering features through compression is highly desired. This lens is also fantastic for event photography (especially concerts) when subjects are off at a distance, though I would compliment it with a shorter lens for closer shots. Unfortunately, this big lens is an attention-getter and the white color of Canon telephotos doesn’t help much.

I think a 70-200 lens absolutely belongs in your collection, but you may leave it behind more often than not due to the large size and weight of the f/2.8 version. If you don’t need the extra stop of light and want a smaller and lighter alternative, try the 70-200 f/4 instead.

Recommended for: Sports, events and portraits

Canon Extender EF 1.4X & 2X III

Not a lens by itself, the Canon Extenders are teleconverters that you place between your camera and lens in order to extend the range. There are two options, the EF 1.4X and EF 2X that extend your focal length by those multipliers accordingly. I own the EF 2X and it essentially turns the 70-200 lens into a 140-400mm lens.

These adapters come with a technical cost, though. The EF1.4X will cut your aperture by one stop while the EF2X will cut it by two, but that tradeoff might be worth it to gain additional range. Aside from not being compatible with all lenses, the speed or functionality of the autofocus may be affected depending on the lens. (As I just said, the extenders work splendidly with the 70-200 II). A teleconverter may cut the quality of the image a bit – though I don’t personally find it a problem with the current (Mk III) generation of the extenders. With these adapters being small and not taking up much space in your bag, it might be worth it to own one of these in situations where you need to travel light and can’t take bigger lenses.

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II

Canon 300mm lensI’ve gotten funny reactions from friends when seeing this lens. “You must be able to see across states with that thing!” In truth, the focal length of the lens isn’t nearly as impressive as it looks but it goes out long enough for wildlife and sporting events. The f/2.8 aperture grants you more light than what variable aperture lenses and teleconverters can and this is a blessing during indoor or night events. Even heavier and larger than the 70-200 I just mentioned, you’re almost guaranteed to need a tripod or monopod to support this on.

With an astronomical cost, it’s likely that you won’t own this lens unless 1.) you have a rich uncle, 2.) you make a good living at wildlife or sports photography, or 3.) you grab a used one for a good price. Your best bet is to simply rent one (like I do), or this might be one area where you might want to consider more affordable third-party lenses.

Recommended for: Sports and wildlife

Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS

Despite some of it’s shortcomings, I always liked the 16-35mm f/2.8 lens and had my heart set on owning one. But after the rave reviews came out on the f/4 version, I carefully considered how I would be using the lens and decided to go with the f/4 version. I’m glad I did.

Wide angle lenses in tight quarters yields interesting results

Wide angle lenses in tight quarters yields interesting results

A 16-35mm lens is most common for subjects like landscapes, rooms and architecture where you’ll often be using a tripod with a higher aperture for maximum sharpness and depth. Having an extra stop of light is a moot point unless the situation calls for all the aperture you can get, such as handheld indoor photography or astrophotography.

We tend to think of wide angle lenses as getting as much of the scene in as possible, but I would actually recommend to do the opposite and get in close to your main subject to gain a unique and unusual perspective. You need to be careful with this as wide angles do unflattering things to subject’s faces and can make buildings look like they’re falling over if the camera is not level.

Ultra wide angle lenses like the 16-35mm can offer so many quirky and creative opportunities and let people see familiar scenes in a whole new way, but it does take a bit of understanding on how the lens behaves at the widest focal lengths to get the maximum benefit out of them.

Recommended for: Landscapes, architecture and close-up creativity

Canon EF 24-105 f/4L IS

Commonly sold as the “kit lens” with higher-end camera bodies, the 24-105 covers the same territory of the 24-70 with a little extra reach and image stabilization. Aside from one stop less of light, what’s not to like?

Though it has it’s fan base, I have to admit that I’ve never been “wowed” by the 24-105. I feel the image quality is a bit soft and the lens barrel has a nasty habit of creeping out of position when the camera is pointed either up or down. (I’ve wrapped a fat rubber band around the zoom to keep it locked in position.) I rarely use this lens now since I own the 24-70 II, but I keep it around in case I need an image stabilized lens for video or to take it into a situation I’d rather not risk my others over.

Though I’d personally pass and save a little more for the 24-70 II, I know that isn’t the right decision for everyone and there are good arguments for the 24-105. Whatever you do, I would NOT pay full price for this lens. Instead, get it used as you’ll have no trouble finding one as it’s commonly traded in at camera stores or sold by owners flipping it for other lenses. (Update 5/26/17: There is now a Mk II version of this lens.)

Recommended for: All-around photography, starter lens

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II

Known as the “nifty-fifty” or the “plastic fantastic,” a 50mm f/1.8 is probably going to be the second lens you own after the kit lens that came with your camera. It’s ridiculously affordable and it’s the easiest way to start experimenting with the effects of wide apertures without breaking the bank.

The “bokeh” or background blur on wide apertures is a bit harsh and there are obviously sharper and better lenses, but the quality of this lens is hard to beat for something that’s had for little more than a single Franklin. By the way, the 50mm works terrific with extension tubes for close-up and macro photography and can be an incredibly affordable way to try your hand at that.

The version I own is very plasticky and noisy when autofocusing, but Canon has since released a 50mm f/1.8 STM version that improves on the old version in nearly every way. These days I don’t use my 50mm very much in lieu of my other lenses and I’m not crazy about the 50mm length personally, but that doesn’t mean this lens isn’t worth recommending for only being a drop in the bucket.

Recommended for: Secondary lens for new camera owners, indoors

Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II

Probably the best friend of many wedding photographers, the 85mm f/1.2 prime lens can achieve an EXTREMELY shallow depth of field, perhaps too shallow at times. But everything about this lens screams quality and along with the perfect focal length for portraits, there’s no denying that it makes for absolutely gorgeous shots when shot at such wide-open apertures. I’d go as far as to say that if you aren’t shooting this lens between f/1.2 and f/2.8, then you’re just not getting your money’s worth out of it.

Downsides to this lens is that it’s literally a chunk of glass and is as heavy as you’d expect, as well as having the slowest autofocus of any lens I’ve ever used. Shooting action with this would be downright comical, and I’ve even heard of parents throwing their hands up in frustration after trying to photograph their very active kids with this. (Wasted money as other lenses would have better suited their purpose.) This lens is for dreamy portraits and still subjects only.

Recommended for: Portraits

Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro

If you don’t already know, macro lenses allow you to focus at extremely close distances at 1:1 magnification, important when photographing the fine details of tiny subjects like bugs and flowers. Canon’s 100mm IS macro lens is typically everyone’s darling and it’s a fine lens, but I find the working distance too short to be useful when working with subjects like bugs who are easily spooked or will sting you. You can also cover the light on the subject if you’re too close.

Instead, I would recommend the older and less common 180mm macro which gives you a much greater working distance – around 12 inches without the hood. No image stabilization, but that is of limited use with macro. The aperture isn’t that much slower than other glass and you typically use higher apertures with macro, anyway. When I go on hikes or camping trips I often take this instead of the 70-200 f/2.8 as it’s smaller and lighter and serves double-duty for macro and telephoto landscapes.

The one ding against this lens is that the autofocus is very slow, so shooting action or wildlife like birds in flight is asking too much. Manual focus is more preferable on macro subjects in order to dial things in.

Recommended for: Macro photography (duh), landscape telephotos

Canon MP-E 65mm Macro

Beyond a typical macro lens and more like a small telescope, MP-E 65mm starts where other macro lenses end. Able to magnify subjects up to 5:1 (!), getting into these levels of magnification comes with a high degree of cost and difficulty.

A tiny mosquito that landed on my pant leg while I was adjusting the MP-E 65

1/30 at f/8, ISO 400. A mosquito that landed on my jeans. Because this shot was handheld, a speedlite was absolutely necessary

The lens works on a formula of (aperture * (magnification + 1)). For example, if I was photographing something at f/16 at 3X magnification, my aperture would basically be f/64. At 5X magnification it would be f/96! As impressive as this sounds on paper, even then the depth of field is extremely narrow at microscopic sizes and focus stacking is essential if you want completely sharp coverage of a non-flat subject.

Besides needing a speedlite or ringlight to illuminate and freeze movement, high magnifications makes the viewfinder on your camera too dark to see through and you’ll need some sort of constant light or strobe to compose things. No auto focus here: investing in a good set of focus rails is highly suggested as even the tiniest movements or vibrations will throw the focus completely off. The working distance between the lens and the subject at large magnifications is nearly “bump-into-the-subject” narrow.

For these reasons, most should pass on this lens and will be better off with a typical 1:1 macro lens. On the other hand, those with extreme patience to master the high learning curve of this lens will reap many rewards, showing subjects in new ways that we otherwise think insignificantly about. Who knew a single bristle of a toothbrush could be so interesting?

Recommended for: Extreme macro photography and those with patience

Canon TS-E 24mm Tilt-Shift

5.0 sec at f/3.5, ISO 100

5.0 sec at f/3.5, ISO 100

Absolutely one of my favorites, another type of specialty lens is a tilt-shift lens. Working on the Scheimpflug principle that is used with view cameras, tilt-shift lenses allows for moving and skewing the lens plane in a different direction/angle than your camera’s film or sensor plane. This allows you to achieve unique perspective effects that no other lens can natively accomplish.

In the picture here, you’ll notice that the aisles of pews are mostly sharp front to back despite my aperture being wide open at f/3.5. I can do this because I tilted the focus plane of my lens to run in the same plane as the aisles. You’ll also notice the area above it blurs out as you would expect of a narrow depth of field.

The shift feature allows you to shift the lens sideways to the film/sensor while keeping it level, allowing perspective correction and avoiding the issue of converging verticals when pointing the camera upwards at such tall buildings (making them look like they’re falling over). While fixable in post processing, doing so requires compromising the quality of the photo by skewing the image and recropping around the edges, whereas tilt-shift lenses allows you to get it completely right from the camera. The shift capability is also useful for stitching panoramas together.

I’ve mostly used Canon’s original 24mm TS-E with my big gripe of that lens being the tilt and shift planes are fixed perpendicularly to one another and cannot be parallel without special modification. The latest generation of Canon’s 24mm tilt-shift does let you change these independently and is also optically superior. Also, this is a manual-focus only lens.

Recommended for: Architecture, product photography, perspectives

Patrick Shannon

About Patrick Shannon

A creative professional, photographer and design+technology advocate based in St. Louis, I have worked with a number of businesses, agencies and clients on design, production and marketing for everyday brands. In my spare time, I enjoy woodworking and am still attempting to build a life-sized replica of Optimus Prime out of wood.