A Buyer’s Guide to Canon Normal and Telephoto Lenses

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Canon 400mm lens

Canon EF 400mm f2.8L IS II USM lens

Andrew S. Gibson is the author of Understanding Lenses Part II: A Guide to Canon Normal & Telephoto Lenses, on 40% now at Snapndeals for a limited time only.

With so many lenses to choose from, it’s little wonder that photographers become confused about which option is the best. In this article I’m going to take a look at some of Canon’s best or most interesting normal and telephoto lenses, to give you a head start when it comes to understanding just what Canon offers in this part of their lens range.

But first, let’s take a quick look at the state of Canon’s lens line-up. I have no inside knowledge about which lenses Canon may introduce this year, but I do see a couple of emerging trends.

Trends in Lenses

The first is that Canon is not afraid to take an old lens and update it with a newer version. Good recent examples are the new EF 24mm and 28mm f/2.8 IS USM lenses. Both replaced older versions and included an Image Stabilizer (IS) which the previous models didn’t have.

The second trend is that newer lenses tend to be more expensive than the ones they replace. This is reasonable, as the newer lenses are better quality. If a new lens comes out and it seems expensive, you can be patient and wait a year or so for the price to drop if you don’t need it urgently. The two wide-angle lenses mentioned above have dropped in price by over 30% since their release.

That does mean it is possible that Canon will replace some of their aging normal and telephoto lenses in the near future. If you’re thinking about buying one and are worried about this, it’s up to you to decide how badly you need the current version. While the rumour websites like to speculate about forthcoming lenses, and are sometimes accurate, you never really know what will happen as Canon keep the details of new releases under wraps until the official day of release.

A good example of this is the EF 50mm f/1.4 lens. Some rumours sites are saying this is due for an update. But if this is true, and how far in the future it will happen, no-one really knows. Plus the replacement is likely to be more expensive than the current 50mm f/1.4 lens (but it may have IS). In the end, it’s up to you, but my advice is don’t spend too long waiting for new lenses – you could be waiting a long time.

Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM – the beast!

Let’s start off with this beast. It’s fun to speculate who would buy such an expensive lens. A professional sports photographer? Agencies like Getty or Reuters? This L series, super telephoto zoom, comes with a built in 1.4x extender (the only Canon lens to do so), a four stop Image Stabilizer, and a fixed f/4 aperture throughout the zoom range. It weighs over three and half kilos (7.9 pounds), but is not Canon’s heaviest lens. That honour belongs to the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM lens (below), which weighs four and half kilos (9.9 pounds) and is another option for those of you with $13,000 to spend on new glass.

Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM

At the other end of the scale is one of Canon’s lightest, smallest and least expensive lenses. This 40mm pancake lens delivers excellent image quality, and excellent value for money. However it doesn’t have IS or a distance scale on the lens, features which may be important to some people.

How does this lens give such excellent quality for such a low price? It contains just six optical elements that measure little more than a centimetre across (0.4″). They are cheaper to manufacture than the larger elements found in Canon’s other lenses, and the result is a lower price.

This focal length is a short telephoto on an APS-C camera or a normal lens on a full-frame camera.

Canon 50mm f1.4 USM

Canon users aren’t lacking for choice when it comes to 50mm lenses. Canon makes four models, including the 50mm f/1.8, the 50mm f/1.2L and 50mm f/2.5 macro. But my favourite is the EF 50mm f/1.4 USM. It’s a third of the price of the more expensive L series 50mm lens, but has better autofocus and smoother bokeh than the f/1.8.

50mm lenses make great portrait lenses on APS-C cameras and deliver value for money in terms of image quality and versatility. You can use a 50mm lens with extension tubes or close-up lenses for close-up photography, or with a reversing ring on a longer lens for macro photography.

Read more about 50mm lens in my article Nifty Fifties – Why I Love 50mm Prime Lenses.

Canon 85mm f/1.8 USM

Canon 85mm lens

Another of my favourite lenses is the 85mm f/1.8. It’s an ideal portrait lens for owners of full-frame cameras. It’s also great for close-up photography with the addition of a 500D close-up lens. It’s a shame it doesn’t have IS, but that would push the price up. If you have deep pockets you can also consider the EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens, but bear in mind the wide f/1.2 aperture means it has a large front element (to let in the more light) and that makes the lens heavier and slower to autofocus.

Read more about this lens in my article How a Humble 85mm Lens Became My Favourite.

Canon 70-200mm zooms

Canon has four 70-200mm zoom L series lenses. Two of these have maximum f/4 apertures and cost less. The other two have maximum f/2.8 apertures. For each aperture setting there is both a non-IS and an IS model. This gives you plenty of choice, for what is a very versatile focal length. The EF 70-200mm f/4L USM lens is Canon’s cheapest L series lens and a great option for anyone wanting to experience L series quality on a low budget. The EF 70-200mm f2.8L IS II USM (above) is the most expensive and comes with a collar so you can mount it on a tripod.

Canon 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM

If 200mm isn’t long enough for you then Canon’s trio of 70-300mm zooms may appeal. The only drawback of these lenses is the variable aperture, but it’s hard to avoid this along such a long focal length range. The EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM is the most recent model, but also the most expensive. The EF 70-300mm f4/-5.6 IS USM lens is the least expensive and ideal for those on a tight budget.

The EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DO IS USM lens is an interesting alternative. DO stands for Diffractive Optics. The construction of the lens elements in DO lenses means they are smaller and lighter than their non-DO equivalents, making this a good option for photographers concerned with size and weight. In every other respect DO lenses are equivalent to L series lenses. Will Canon make more DO lenses in the future? I hope so, because they are a great idea. The only other DO lens in Canon’s range is the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM.

Hopefully that has given you a good overview of some of Canon’s more notable normal and telephoto lenses. It’s impossible to include every model, let alone those made by other manufacturers, but that’s where you come in. What normal or telephoto lenses have you purchased? How have they performed and what would you recommend? Let us know in the comments.


Understanding Lenses Part II: A Guide to Canon Normal & Telephoto Lenses

Understanding Lenses ebookMy ebook Understanding Lenses Part II will teach you how to get the most out of Canon’s normal and telephoto lenses. It contains a buying guide, takes a deep look at aperture and bokeh, and shows you how to focus accurately with telephoto lenses. It’s offered for a special price now on 40% off at Snapndeals for a limited time only.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

  • Spoonie

    I think you’ll find the real reason updated lenses are more expensive than the ones they replace is because the old lenses drop on prove as they have paid for their R&D. One of the advantages of the EF mount over Nikon is canon made high quality L lenses early on that are still very good and compatable with all the cameras made today. The 135 F2 is a prime example, the original design is still outstanding today and it is majorly cheap as the R&D would be entirely recouped by now.

  • Daryl

    Now, what are the equivalents to those using Sigma or Tokina lenses and the many others that are the same but cheaper?

  • nadine

    Thank you for this useful article. I have one question though. I’m planning on buying the 50mm f1.4 prime lense. But do you think the fact that it does not have IS might have an impact on it’s image quality? I would love to try it and the price i within my budget. .thanks again.

  • Joel Penner

    Nadine, I own the 50mm f1.4 lens. Because the actual lens quality is better, IS would actually make the image quality WORSE. When you open the aperture more and let more light in, you can increase the shutter speed to decrease the amount of camera shake. Ultimately, in situations where IS is not needed, IS **decreases** image quality by trying to apply anti-blur to images that don’t always need it. Unless I’m shooting with considerable lens shake in the cold, the 50mm f1.4 lens always does better than any photos I’ve taken with an IS lens… except for the 70-200 f/2.8 L2 lens. THAT lens is absolutely amazing.

  • Joel Penner

    I own the EF 75-300mm f4/-5.6 which isn’t mentioned in this article (note the 75, not 70). The fringing on this lens is downright horrible. Massive green and purple fringes, grainy and soft edges. Don’t make the mistake I made. If you want a longer zoom, get at least the 70-300 USM or better.

  • JvW

    Hi Nadine,
    A general rule of thumb is that image stabilization is handy if you’re hand-holding at shutter speeds longer than ‘one divided by focal length’ second. For a 50mm lens that means that if the speed goes slower than 1/50 sec. Couple 1/50 with f/1.4 and you’re photographing in pretty low light., with thin depth of field.
    Another point is always that IS may help with camera shake, but motion blur can also come from your subject. Like someone walking across your frame at 15 meters (50feet) will show definite blur at their feet at 1/85 sec, and more at 1/50.
    So, Image Stabilization is probably less important for a 50mm lens than a 200mm lens (where IS would be useful below 1/200 sec). Just make sure you’re holding and shutter technique are solid when going to slower speeds.

  • I haven’t used any equivalant Sigma or Tokina lenses, but perhaps readers who have may be able to give us their opinion on them.

  • Hi Nadine,
    Image quality and IS are two separate things. I own a 50mm f1.4 lens and I can tell you that you will get great results from it as long as you use it properly. IS may be useful in low light as it lets you set a smaller aperture or a lower ISO, but within the limitations mentioned by the others here. Whether Canon will ever introduce a 50mm lens with IS only Canon itself knows – you may be waiting a long time if you hold out for one.

  • Hi Joel, thanks for the tip, chromatic aberrations are often a problem with inexpensive zoom lenses. At least now if you use Lightroom or DPP it’s easy to minimise these things. I wrote another article about that here:

    https://digital-photography-school.com/why-lens-quality-doesnt-matter-quite-as-much-as-you-think-it-does

    Another option is to try DxO Optics Pro software. It has a reputation for bringing the best out of lenses by compensating for chromatic aberrations, poor image quality etc. I haven’t tried it yet (I should though), but it’s worth a test to see if it helps. You can download a trial here:

    http://www.dxo.com/intl/photography/dxo-optics-pro/photo-software

  • Joel Penner

    Thanks Andrew. Good article. I usually try adjusting Lightroom’s chromatic settings, but sometimes Lightroom just doesn’t want to play nice. Didn’t know the difference between Highlight and All Edges before. I’ll also give DxO a shot.

  • Didereaux

    Any review of Canon lenses that does not include the venerable 100-400mm IS USM lens is a joke.

  • Gabriel Homoly

    And if you are outdoor activities guy, especially check if the lens has the red line marking around its perimeter meaning it is sealed. If not I would say the UV filter and the sun protection hood is a must for those lenses ( i.e. EF-S 18-135mm kit lens )

  • Jeff Hunter

    The 300mm f2.8 gets no love?

  • Peter Cleife

    Please call them lenses not glass, it’s only a few more letters to type. I guess calling the glass is an American thing.

  • Eduino de Mattos

    olá Peter

    *observe este MEDIDOR eu ainda UTILIZO para “conferir” (os fotometros atuais) Utilizei Muito Com Máquinas de FILME, CINEMA (movie),..Abraço. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3126cf763be9685bb4595b9023c840e4e18335a9ed654dd352936b10d45d5e2d.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8361c91f16a2be72f8afb669a0fd1df4b1a0b45222c212baefd23689edbf423e.jpg

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