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Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L USM Macro Lens

by Philip Greenspun, 1998

This is an expensive high-quality lens that focusses continuously down to 1:1 (i.e., you can take a picture of something that is 24x36mm in size, the dimensions of the standard 35mm frame). The lens has an ultrasonic motor that allows manual focusing even in AF mode. However, I found that the brand new lens I borrowed from my friend Rob was not able to reliably AF at all, even at normal distances of 10-12 feet. It worked great as a manual focus lens, though. The lens comes with a tripod collar and works with the 1.4X and 2X teleconverters.


Construction: 14 elements, 12 groups
Focus motor: USM
Closest focusing: 0.48m (1.5 ft)
Filter size: 72mm
Lens Hood: ET-78
Length: 186.6 mm (7-3/8 in.)
Weight: 1090 g (38.2 oz)

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PhotoCD scans by the good folks at Advanced Digital Imaging.
Text and pictures copyright 1998 Philip Greenspun
Many of these images are from Philip's California Deserts article.

Article created 1998

Readers' Comments

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Lekbb. -- , August 09, 1998; 08:03 A.M.

This lens is very sharp. Really sharp! But I can't use it with my EOS1 and EOS630. Because both camera without MLU function. When I mount lens on my Manfrotto 190 and take a macro shot. My camera have a vibration(from mirror slap) and make the picture is blur (very often). Color and contrast is the best but AF speed is the other story.

Paulo Bizarro , August 10, 1998; 08:18 A.M.

I have used this lens in various situations, so I will try to contribute my experience. It's funny, because my first roll with this lens was to photograph my son's face up close, while he was asleep. This was under low availble light, with multisecond exposures. I soon found out that the focusing range limiter is really useful, and makes AF much more reliable. Of course I end up using manual focus to fine tune, but AF makes a good job of getting the focus close enough.

Outside is entirely different, and AF really shines. I have used it to photograph some insects, under open shade, with a flashgun as the main light (I was also testing flash settings for this, but that's a different story). The point is, AF is fast. Of course, one has to get used to the AF range switch, but that's easy for me, because my 135 f/2 works the same way.

Remember that macro lenses going from 1:1 to infinity, even with ring USM, will focus slower than other lenses, after all, they have to travel a lot longer. Anyway, no one is going to buy this lens, or the 100 macro, to shoot fast action sports, right?

Overall, this is a dream lens, probably one the most versatiles around (1:1, TC compatible, smooth AF and operation), which I highly recommend.

Ken Sheide , February 08, 1999; 05:42 P.M.

I bought this lens as an "upgrade" from a 50mm macro lens. There are two things I wanted to address: the autofocus speed and the diaphragm.

First, if you set the focus limiter switch to 1.5m-infinity, the lens WILL quickly pop anything you point it at into focus (provided the thing is further than 1.5m away). However, if you try to focus on anything closer, or leave the limiter switch set to the full range, the lens is ridiculously slow, and many times never does achieve focus. But who uses autofocus for macro shots anyway? Bottom line: when shooting subjects at a distance with the focus limiter set, the lens is fast, and when shooting macro shots, you'll need to focus manually.

Now let me mention the only thing I don't like about the lens; the aperture. For being THE Canon L macro lens, I think Canon should really have put more than an eight blade diaphragm in it. With the large amount of background blur used in macro shots, a nine (or more) blade diaphragm would have made those blurs more smooth and natural. I can't imagine this adding much to the production cost of the lens, and I think it definitely would have helped some shots taken with the lens (especially those with lights or other bright spots blurred).

Overall, though, I'm extremely happy with this lens, and love exploring the tiny world around us with it!

Paulo Bizarro , May 05, 1999; 05:47 A.M.

Yes, the above is true. You have to be careful to avoid the "eight blade" out fo focus highlights. So far, I only have two or three shots where they show up, because it depends on the aperture set, distance between subject and background, and lighting. This is more conspicuous with backlighting, for instance when photographing backlit flowers to get a "halo" effect. Stopping down beyond around f/8 might give some nasty surprises...

Besides this, the lens is a joy to use, and with a 2X converter it still produces amazingly sharp macro results, with careful technique. Anyway, the above issue IMO is a serious design flaw on Canon's part.

Clive Culverwell , October 23, 1999; 03:05 A.M.

Having owned the Canon 100mm(2.8) macro and now this lens, I believe it to be worth the extra money (my opinion only). Backround blurr at the wide open side is inspiring and I believe it to be as sharp as the 100mm macro. I think the 180 L has a slight edge on the 100mm macro in contrast and colors though (UD elements). As mentioned above, the Canon 2x converter still produces good color contrast and detail at the 2:1 magnification region where it is used most. Results with the 2x I believe to be better than the 100mm macro with 2x (and 25mm extension tube).

Auto focus speed is a bit of a pain sometimes but just change focus limiter for longer shots and it is accceptable again (based on EOS 1N)or go manual which is usually default in macro anyway!!!

Build quality is very good and manual focus is pretty smooth. You can't miss the wide focus ring which is a bonus. The tripod collar is pretty sturdy (If I'm not mistaken more sturdy than the 70-200mm 2.8)and is a definite selling point on this lens: I realised the benefits of this having owned the 100mm macro. Overall a dream specialist lens but you pay dearly for it!!

kurt heintzelman , September 23, 2001; 06:50 P.M.

Part II: I shall be brief... Thus far, using Provia 100F and Velvia, I find the optical performance of the EOS 180/3.5L to be superb, and clearly a cut above the EOS 100/2.8 non-USM macro; the 180 delivers images that are razor sharp, with CRISP color. I've so far tested my lens with apertures as small as f11, and I've not yet seen any bad "bokeh" whatsoever.

kurt heintzelman , December 30, 2001; 06:05 P.M.

Kurt Heintzelman's brief report on the EOS 180/3.5L macro, PART I:

I'm surprised to find that it's been almost two years since any further comments have been posted here on the EOS 180/3.5L macro. At any rate, after heavily relying on my EOS 100/2.8 (non-USM) macro for the past five years, I just purchased a new EOS 180/3.5L macro. The factors which eventually led me to this purchase include: 1) The older 100/2.8 macro was not designed to accept a tripod collar/foot plate, which of course means that when relying on a camera body's tripod head mounting plate, flopping the camera/lens from the horizontal to vertical composition is a major pain, which I've endured long enough; 2) While the newer EOS 100/2.8 USM macro lens will accept an optional tripod collar, it appears Canon overlooked the fact that it's not entirely (physically) compatible with the dimensions of a power drive booster. In other words, if you want to freely turn the new 100/2.8 USM macro via its optional collar, you must first remove the PB-E2 power drive booster from the EOS 1V or EOS 3 cameras; otherwise, the bulk of the booster prevents this; 3) I wanted a greater working distance than the 100/2.8 macro could provide; 4) I wanted the option of being able to attach EOS teleconvertors; 5) I wanted USM and internal focusing, at a macro focal length of 180mm.

Because I've only today used this lens for the first time (with EOS 1V HS, 550EX flash, 81C warming filter; Provia 100F pushed one stop) and my slides have not yet been developed, my FIRST report concerns only the much discussed issue of this lens' autofocus SPEED. Now, I must first mention that about four years ago, I borrowed an EOS 180/3.5L macro from my local dealer, and (while using an EOS 1N) over the course of that weekend, I too found the AF speed of THAT lens to be rather slow, sluggish, plodding, and easily confused. Indeed, in Phillip Greenspun's brief review of this lens, he wrote, "...However, I found that the brand new lens I borrowed from my friend Rob was not able to reliably AF at all, even at normal distances of 10-12 feet. It worked great as a manual focus lens, though..." Well, I'm happy to report that at least with the lens I just bought, both the AF speed and apparent AF accuracy (as so far seen only through the viewfinder) have been quite impressive as far as I'm concerned, and at least with my new lens, I immediately experienced a VAST improvement in AF performance when compared to the older 180/3.5L from 4 years ago. More specifically, I can report that: 1) When I first tried this lens out today, I used it strictly hand-held, and I initially had the focus limiter switch set to the 0.48 meter setting (with the focus set to its closest setting), and when I casually pointed it a more distant target, it snapped into sharp focus almost instantly. As I pointed it at either close or distant objects while still in the 0.48 meter AF setting, the AF performance of this lens continued to impress me; 2) When, after focusing on a DISTANT target, this lens was next trained on very CLOSE subjects, the USM-driven AF simply and delightfully breezed through its rather lengthy focus excursion in this case, and almost always locked onto the close target with impressive speed, accuracy, and authority; compared with the older unit I tried out, my new 180/3.5L rarely displayed any autofocus "hunting" or "confusion" (even under a mix of partly cloudy/sunny conditions), and even when the subject was quite CLOSE and optically CLUTTERED, my lens seemed to consistently and quickly obey the AF commands dictated by the EOS 1V HS's operative AF sensor, and if the camera/lens happened to lock onto a line of contrast that was not quite where I'd intended, it typically responded to subtle re-targeting and re-focusing with speed, good manners, accuracy, and no tendency to hunt-in vain; 3) When the focus limiter switch was set to the 1.5 meter position, and the lens was pointed at a wide array of subjects from 1.5 meters to infinity, my lens' AF performed about as swiftly and accurately as just about any other EOS telephoto USM that I've used, "L" series or otherwise. Very impressive, in my opinion; 4) After my first trial-run today, I know that I much prefer the AF performance and handling characteristics of my new 180/3.5 macro, compared to the older EOS 100/2.8 macro; 5) I find the 180/3.5L to be well balanced, QUIET (unlike the older EOS 100/2.8's micro-motor, which sounds like a Waring blender), and its longer working distance is simply a joy; 6) When autofocusing within the more extreme macro range of this lens, its AF speed is a bit slower compared to its performance at the 1.5 meter (or greater) distances, but in my opinion, its ultrasonic motor clearly out-performs the older 100/2.8 macro's noisy and finicky "micro-motor". Also, when autofocusing at the most extreme macro distances, I found my new 180/3.5L was almost always able to surely and accurately lock on to the designated AF target, with little if any tendency to "hunt" for autofocus.

In summary of my "Part I" report of the EOS 180/3.5L macro lens, I'm happy to report that I'm thrilled with its autofocus and handling characteristics thus far. It seems likely that Canon has perhaps listened to earlier criticisms of this lens, and that they may have somehow tweaked subsequent production runs. I suppose it's also possible that the EOS 1V HS might be better designed to drive the AF of this lens. Who knows. At any rate, in the near future I hope to post "Part II" of my evaluation, focusing more on the optical qualities of this lens. [I should mention that I fully plan to use a tripod in subsequent outings with this lens, but since I do a lot of insect photography, I often rely on flash and hand-holding technique with macro. I happen to have a Gitzo 1325 tripod, Arca Swiss B-1, and RRS plates on order (my older Bogen gear is already sold), and will not report Part II of my comments until I've had ample opportunities to evaluate this lens' optics, both hand-held as well as when optimally supported].

Balázs Horváth , August 14, 2003; 09:42 A.M.

Hi, Kurt,

we've been waiting for your 'part II' for nearly two years! I too plan on buying this lens but first I'd like to know how it performs optically, especially in combination with Canon extenders and Canon two-element diopters (both attached at the same time). My special field of interest is high magnification photography and I'd need a long-lens/extender/diopter combination capable of magnifications well beyond life-size. Could anyone help me?

Balazs Horvath

Randy Heisch , January 31, 2007; 06:55 A.M.

There have been no comments on this lens since Aug 2003 and a quick browse of the top macro photos and I don't see many (any?) users of this lens. Has anyone compared to the EF-S 60mm macro? I was considering upgrading to the L series macro but curious why few seem to be using it.

mark petrie , July 01, 2007; 02:39 A.M.

It's not that there are no users-- we're all just too busy shooting :)

my 180mm image of the day : http://fstopstudios.blogspot.com

Scott Jones , October 16, 2007; 06:43 P.M.

As an extremely pleased user with the 100mm 2.8 USM, I'll say that the sheer number of these excellent lenses is one reason for the low number of responses on the 180mm. Simply not as many users and the smaller number of people with a need for the 180mm are likely out making money with them. However despite that, I'm ordering a 180mm very soon.

All of my shooting with the 100mm thus far has been handheld using either a 30D or a 5D and the performance has been superb. I'm looking forward to comparing the two lenses over the next few months.

It's worth noting that as soon as I mentioned my plan to upgrade, the line for my 100mm 2.8 started immediately.

timothy valade , April 15, 2008; 12:42 P.M.

im a old dinosaur "67" to you youngins. also waiting for kurt h. 2nd report. my thoughts to purchase lens also use as a short telephoto for neices and nephews ball games with a 2X converter. i could have a lens for double duty. pre focus in manual for the certain areas so auto focus wont matter slow etc.. this will be as a type of one time purchase so i dont have the luxury as many of us be buying this and that lens. plus the canon macro flash to match . now thats some serious coin. im just a hobby guy also. with 2X im down two stops anyway. yep i still use film the dig with all accesories i just cant put up the coin. im just throwing this out there for feed back. thank you all. timothy

Siddharth Kundu , August 24, 2008; 03:41 P.M.

Hi, Just bought the 180 3.5L from Hong Kong. Tested the Sigma 180 3.5 too in the shop and found 1) The Sigma Equally Sharp at F8 onwards 2) The Sigma's autofocus was pretty slow 3) Built quality of the Sigma is excellent too... So is the double price of the Canon justified? Please refer to my small gallery...Unable to post more photos... http://photo.net/photodb/folder?folder_id=858208 http://photo.net/photodb/folder?folder_id=858208

Siddharth Kundu , August 24, 2008; 03:44 P.M.

Sorry abt the repeat of the hyperlink... http://photo.net/photodb/folder?folder_id=858208

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