Saturday, November 13, 2010

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Handheld at night: Canon's EF-S 15-85mm IS Zoom

Canon EOS 7D - EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM - ISO 1600 - 1/6 sec at f / 4.0 - handheld

When I tell people what a great lens Canon's EF-S 15-85mm "kit" zoom is (introduced along with the EOS-7D in 2009), I often times get some pretty skeptical looks. After all, while Canon makes many superb 'L' lenses, they don't necessarily have a reputation for high quality kit lenses. Well people... take my word for it, the 15-85mm zoom rocks! The above gallery contains all images taken with this lens the other evening, all handheld and most are wide-open at f/3.5.  I did some perspective correction on several shots in Adobe Lightroom v3.3RC to square up the buildings when I wasn't quite shooting level and please note that LR v3 now does do some automatic distortion corrections for many lenses too, although even without correction it really is not bad. I have included 2000 pixel images as well so you can better see how sharp this lens can be. Images were shot raw with my EOS-7D, all at ISO 1600 and at shutter speeds ranging from a very long 0.4 seconds, to an 1/8 of a second with a handful being slightly higher. EXIF data shows below each enlarged image, so you can see the camera settings.

Between 15mm and 70mm, I would stack this zoom up against any 'L' zoom from an image quality standpoint although once you approach 85mm, it can get a little soft wide open and starts to give more of a "kit zoom" look. However below 70mm and especially at the wide end, it even manages to equal some primes at any given f-stop.  For example, compared to my EF 24mm f/1.4L II, it more or less matches it for sharpness, even in extreme corners, at f/4 and above.  Of course, on the EF-S 15-85mm, wide-open at 24mm is f/4 and my 24mm 'L' prime opens up all the way to f/1.4.  In any case, I think you get the idea... it is generally an excellent lens!

Another kit zoom, the really inexpensive (and all-plastic) EF-S 18-55mm IS, is also quite sharp although it suffers from some slightly hard-to-describe issues.  Although crisp, images sometimes seem too contrasty or have a "nervous" look about them, almost as though the lens was really working overtime to give you a sharp result.  This is visible in both out-of-focus (bokeh) areas and along high-contrast edges at times. In contrast, a good 'L' lens, or the EF-S 15-85mm zoom, seem to have a more relaxed way of serving up images, rendering them sharply but seemingly doing so without having to break into a sweat. Hmm... not a very technical analysis, that's for sure, but maybe it explains what I see? It still doesn't match the truly "effortless" image quality of the best 'L' primes I've used, such as the 17mm TS-E or the 35mm f/1.4L for example, but the EF-S 15-85mm sure is in a whole different league compared to most other kit zooms.

Comparing it to the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS on a full-frame body like a 5D Mark II, I would most definitely give the EF-S 15-85mm on the 7D a distinct edge from a lens image quality standpoint, regarding edge and corner sharpness as well as distortion.  Also, I have not seen as much IS-induced corner softness on the 15-85mm zoom as on some other stabilized wide-angle zooms I've used.  For example, in my experience the otherwise excellent EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS can suffer badly from random corner blurriness if you happen to snap a photo while the IS system is compensating for your handholding shakiness and has "swung" all the way to one side, so to speak.

What I am getting at, is that especially with wide-angle image-stabilized lenses, you can end up with random corner or side blurriness issues on some images if you happen to take a photo right when the lens' IS optical group happens to be near its max deflection. For whatever reason, the EF-S 15-85mm does not suffer from that issue all that much.  Also, most telephoto IS lenses seem relatively impervious to the problem as well.

Lastly, I recently did some experiments with a Canon 12.5mm extension tube and was quite surprised at what an effective macro lens the EF-S 15-85mm turns out to be. Certainly the working distance is not great and you'd be better off investing in a real macro lens if you do a lot of close-up photography, but if you are trying to travel light and not bring along an extra lens, a tiny and lightweight extension tube might just be the ticket.

So in conclusion, if you own a 1.6x crop sensor Canon body, like a Rebel, an EOS-40D or even an EOS-7D, I'd say you should have a close look at this lens if you want an all-in-one "travel" or "walk-around" zoom. While its range might not be quite as appealing as the EF-S 18-200mm for example, its image quality is way higher and with a 24mm equivalent wide-angle end, it is also as wide as many people will ever want to go. Personally I don't find a 28mm equivalent focal length, 18mm on a crop body, wide enough for really dramatic perspective shots either.

Lastly, I love shooting with a sharp image-stabilized wide-angle lens on a camera body that can give clean high ISO results, like the EOS-7D.  It feels liberating to be able to take photos at night, without the need of a tripod, and know the quality is still there should I want to make bigger prints from those images.

We generally keep this lens in stock at Beau Photo and we also rent it, so check it out some time!


Ben said...

Thanks for post Mike! I met you at the VPW class the other night and you had mentioned your blog to me.
Quick question:
How do you like the 15-85 for portrait photography? Interested to hear your thoughts.


Mike Mander said...

Hi Ben,

The lens is certainly sharp enough to be used for portrait work and it seems to focus accurately and quickly even in low light levels, however it is not very fast (low f-stop) at the longer focal lengths and out-of-focus backgrounds do not, if being picky, have the most pleasing characteristics, being a little bit "nervous". Strictly speaking, for portrait work, you would be better off with a fast prime, like a 50mm f/1.4, an 85mm f/1.8 or even a 100mm f/2. Each of those lenses is under $600. However if portraits are not your only concern, it is certainly a very good "all-purpose" lens. I would suggest renting it to test for yourself!


Oxize said...

I got since 1 week an Canon 60D and i have my old EF-S 18-55mm lens (non IS) which i used on my old 400D.

Now i want to get some better lens for 60D.

Should i get the the 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 IS or get the Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM which you were talking about?

Are the optics on the 15-85mm better? Why is it 300 euro more expensive then the 18-135mm?

The photo's on my site "", i used an 18-200mm Sony Lens + Sony A350. I sold this one to get Canon 60D.

What should i do?

Buy a good kit lens and get the 15-85mm?
Or buy the 18-135mm?

As for now, i want to go for quality!

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