Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
The Canon EOS system of digital single-lens reflex (SLR) bodies and lenses is a standard choice among professional photographers worldwide. This page makes it easy to compare and search for for Canon digital bodies and EOS lenses. Every component manufactured by Canon is covered, plus a few exceptionally good third-party components. If you are new to photography, you might want to start with our article Factors to Consider when Choosing a Digital SLR Camera.
This article goes through every section of the Canon EOS system and concludes with some starter system recommendations.
Small sensor bodies are good for telephoto work, such as wildlife photography. A 100mm telephoto lens that would be ideal for portraits on a film or full-frame sensor body gives a 150mm equivalent perspective on a small sensor (“APS-C”) body. APS-H sensor bodies are good for sports photography and photojournalism delivering fast performance. The full-frame sensor bodies are good for wide angle photography, low-light photography, and ultimate image quality.
Current Small-frame Sensor Bodies
Canon EOS 7D, (compare prices) (review), (Sept. 2009), 18MP; 19 AF points; ISO range 100-6400 (12800 with boost); 3-inch LCD 920,000 dots; 8fps continuous capture; video 1080p HD; CF cards
Canon EOS 60D, (compare prices) (review), (Aug. 2010), 18MP; 9 AF points; ISO range 100-6400 (12800 with boost); 3-inch LCD 1,040,000 dots; 5.3fps continuous capture; video 1080p HD; SD/SDHC cards
Canon Rebel T3i, (compare prices) (review), (Feb. 2011), 18MP CMOS sensor; 9 AF points; ISO range 100-6400 (12800 with boost); 3-inch LCD 1,040,000 dot resolution; 3.7fps continuous capture; 1080p HD @ 30fps; SD/SDHC cards
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, (compare prices) (review), (Sept. 2008), 21MP; 9 AF points; ISO range 100-6400 (up to 25600 with boost); 3-inch LCD 920,000 dots; 3.9fps continuous capture; video 1080p HD; CF cards
IS is “image stabilization”, a technology lifted from camcorders in which the camera electronically compensates for unsteady hands. IS is especially important at long focal lengths, e.g., 200mm and above, because the lens magnifies camera shake at the same time it is magnifying the subject. An IS lens will allow you to use slower shutter speeds without introducing camera shake. The alternative to an IS lens would be mounting the camera on a tripod or using a high ISO setting, which reduces image quality but allows the use of higher shutter speeds.
USM is “ultrasonic motor”. All Canon EOS-system lenses have built-in focus motors. There is no motor in the body as is the case with Nikon, for example. The cheaper Canon lenses have a motor that must be clutched out with a switch if the photographer wishes to focus manually. When using a USM lens, the photographer can push the shutter release (or a button on the rear of the camera, if a custom function is set) and let the autofocus system do its best, then touch up the focus manually by twisting the lens ring.
The L lenses are Canon’s expensive lenses designed for professional photographers. An L lens will always have good optical performance, even if it is a wide-range zoom that is challenging to design. An L lens will always be mechanically tough and well-sealed against water and dust. An L lens might be very heavy and expensive. Note that there are some non-L prime (fixed focal length or non-zoom) lenses, such as the 50/1.4, that offer extremely high optical quality. The non-L Canon zoom lenses are optimized for light weight and low cost and won’t be especially high in optical quality.
EF-S lenses are designed for Canon’s small-sensor digital cameras, such as the Digital Rebel. The “EF” in “EF-S” is the standard Canon EOS “Electro-Focus” mount, introduced in 1987. The “-S” stands for “short back focus” and means that the lens design protrudes more deeply into the camera body. This protrusion would damage a full-frame camera’s mirror, so a mechanical interlock prevents these lenses from being mounted on a standard EOS camera. An EF-S lens will work with any of the small-sensor bodies introduced since 2003, including the original Digital Rebel (300D) and the 20D.
To enhance your search for the perfect lenses for your camera gear bag, check out our guide on Building a Lens Kit.
A normal or standard lens is light in weight and approximates the perspective of the human eye. Normal lenses have large maximum apertures, indicated by small f-numbers such as f/1.4 or f/1.8, and thereby gather much more light than zoom lenses. It may be possible to take a photo with a normal lens in light only 1/8th or 1/16th as bright as would be required for the same photo with a consumer-priced zoom lens. Another advantage of the large maximum aperture is that the viewfinder will be correspondingly brighter and therefore easier to use in dim light. (SLRs keep the lens wide open for viewing and stop down to whatever aperture you have set just before taking the picture; this is why the viewfinder always looks the same even if you switch from f/1.4 to f/8 to f/16.)
In terms of flare, contrast, and sharpness, these are the highest quality lenses that you will ever attach to your camera. If you can do the job with a 50/1.4, as many of the 20th Century’s greatest photographers did, you can save yourself a lot of weight and cost. There are good zoom lenses, mostly in the Canon L series, but they are very expensive and heavy.
Wide-to-Telephoto Zoom Lenses
A wide-to-tele zoom is what you get as a standard “kit” lens with a cheaper digital SLR body. The range goes from moderately wide through normal to moderately telephoto. They are good when you are too busy to change lenses, e.g., at a wedding reception. The 24mm perspective (full-frame) will capture a table of guests; the 70mm or 105mm long end is good for a flattering portrait. The main weakness of these lenses is that the cheaper ones have a very small maximum aperture, e.g., f/4 or f/5.6, and can only be used in bright light, on a tripod, or with a blast of on-camera flash that gives everyone a moon face.
Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM, (compare prices), image stabilization will enable you to handhold slower shutter speeds indoors and therefore despite the slow maximum aperture, you might not have to use flash all the time—you will still suffer with a dim viewfinder
Good for general-purpose dramatic wide angle photography. More distortion than wide-angle prime lenses, which makes them less suitable for photographing architecture (though many kinds of distortion can be fixed by a PhotoShop wizard).
Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM, (compare prices) (review), remember that these slow maximum aperture lenses aren’t good for stopping action, even if the image stabilizer cuts down on camera shake; sports photography would require a maximum aperture of f/4 or f/2.8 rather than the f/5.6 this lens provides
These let you get close to your subject while still showing a lot of background information. Wide angle lenses are good for “environmental portraits” in which the subject occupies most of the frame, but nearby objects are in sharp focus. Photojournalism has gone gradually wider and wider over the years. A typical photo in a newspaper these days might be taken at 20-24mm on a full-frame camera.
A prime wide angle lens will have much lower distortion of vertical and horizontal lines than a zoom lens and is therefore preferred for architectural photography. All of these lenses are designed for film and full-frame sensor cameras.
A prime or fixed focal length telephoto lens offers maximum image quality, light gathering capability (aperture), and magnification. The good ones are big, heavy, and designed for use on a monopod or tripod. Sports and wildlife photography require these lenses.
The better Canon telephoto lenses are designed to work optically with the tele-extenders. Image quality will be acceptable, even at maximum aperture. As noted above, however, there is no free lunch. A tele-extender provides additional magnification, but the overall amount of light gathered by the lens remains the same. Thus, you lose one f-stop of light with the 1.4X converter and two f-stops with the 2X converter. The viewfinder will be dimmer and the camera will have a tougher time autofocusing. With the 2X converter and a slower lens, therefore, you will lose the ability to autofocus with many bodies.
These are heavy lenses. If you have a tripod quick-release system, get plates for each lens and remember to mount the lens, not the camera body, to the tripod.
Macro lenses let you fill your photograph with a subject that is physically small. The longer the focal length of the macro lens, the farther away you can be from your subject, which is important with live insects, for example. A macro lens that goes down to “1:1” can be used to take a frame-filling photo of something that is 24×36mm (1×1.5 inches) in size, the same dimensions as a frame of 35mm film or the sensor on a full-frame digital body. All Canon macro lenses, except for the MP-E 65mm, can be used for ordinary photographic projects as well, i.e., they will focus out to infinity if desired. In the old days, a lot of photographers would get a 50mm normal lens and then a 100mm macro lens that would double for use with portraits and macro projects.
Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM, (compare prices) (review), goes down to 1:1, but remember that the “1” of a small-sensor camera is actually smaller than the 24×36mm film standard, so you can fill the frame with a subject as small as 15×22mm (the size of a penny)
Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5X Macro, (compare prices) (review), a unique lens that lets you take pictures of things much smaller than the 24×36mm frame; good for photographing details in jewelry, for example; will not focus to infinity like the other macro lenses (see example image at right)
If you are using a non-macro lens and need to focus closer for some reason, you can place either Canon EF 12 II Extension Tube, (compare prices) or Canon EF 25 II Extension Tube, (compare prices) between the body and the lens. Extension tubes move the lens farther away from the plane of the sensor. You could, for example, take pictures of just part of a person’s face with a telephoto lens. If, however, you then wanted a sharp picture of a subject at infinity, you’d have to unmount the lens, remove the extension tube, and remount the lens.
The shift part of the tilt-shift lens lets you take a picture of a building, from ground level, without the lines converging and making it look as though the building is falling over. To some extent, this is obsolete because these kinds of linear distortions can be fixed post-exposure in a digital editing tool such as Adobe Photoshop. The tilt part of a Canon tilt-shift lens lets you control the plane of sharp focus, e.g., if you want everything on a table top to be sharp. This is an effect that must be done at exposure time. A Canon tilt-shift lens lets you do many of the perspective and focus adjustments available to a photographer with a cumbersome 4×5 view camera (cloth over head, bellows in between film and lens)… at a price that is only about double what a used view camera sells for.
To enhance your search for the perfect lenses for your camera gear bag, check out our guide on Building a Lens Kit.
The easiest way to ruin a photograph is to use on-camera flash, which blasts the subject with an unflattering light. The resulting lack of shadows means that it is tough for a viewer to make out the features of the subject. On-camera flash is useful outdoors for filling in harsh shadows. Otherwise, the professional uses flash mostly bouncing up towards the ceiling or held as far away from the camera as possible. This is why the professional camera bodies don’t incorporate the pop-top flashes the way that consumer bodies do.