What is the best combination of "affordable" lenses to use with my Canon EOS digital SLR camera? I have been asked this question many, many times. I will do my best try to share my experiences, research, opinions and thoughts on this subject.
This guide will specifically address the owners and potential owners of the Canon EOS Digital Rebel, Digital Rebel XT, XTi, 30D, 20D and 10D cameras. These models all share one very important attribute; they have a digital image sensor that is a little smaller than the physical dimensions of a full single frame of 35mm film. This has a profound effect on lens selection. These SLR cameras all have a “crop factor” of 1.6 X, which must be considered carefully as you are shopping for a lens for any particular application. The focal length of any lens that will be used on these models must be multiplied by 1.6 to reveal the “Effective Focal Length”.
As an example, a 28mm lens mounted on an EOS film body has a true “wide-angle” focal length. These are great for interior architectural shots, group photos and landscapes, where you want the field of view in your picture to include a bit more area than your eye’s normal angle of view would perceive. However, as soon as you take that same 28mm lens and mount it on a Canon 20D, you will see that a good portion of the picture, that was visible with the film camera, has been “cut off” or “cropped”.
When you multiply 28mm times 1.6, you get an effective focal length of 44.8mm. That becomes a “Normal” lens equivalent, very similar to a standard 50mm lens when it is used on a “Full Frame” film camera. This has certain advantages and disadvantages that you must take into account as you search for the right lens for the images that you want to capture. The good news is that an affordable 200mm long telephoto lens instantly displays the "field of view" of a 320mm monster telephoto on these models, and the extra focal length is yours for free. I can vividly remember when a fast, high quality lens with that much "reach" was totally beyond my meager budget! The bad news is, if you need a true-wide angle lens, you must buy a more expensive “Ultra-Wide” to get the desired results. Oh well, no free lunch after all. If you are into "birding" or sports photography, where you need a fast long telephoto, ding!, ding!, ding!... you are a winner! However, if you specialize in large group shots or interior architecture, get ready to dig a little deeper into your pocket.
There are “full frame” digital cameras available, but for the time being, they are very expensive professional models, and not the subject of this particular guide.
With all of this in mind, I have found a combination of great Canon EF auto-focus lenses that will cover the most popular “effective” focal lengths on your digital SLR, without putting you in the “poor house”.
Remember, this applies specifically to photographers who must live within a “real world” budget. I know that there are better lenses out there. I am trying to show the “biggest bang for the buck” models that offer near-professional performance at a hobbyist’s price. When your rich uncle favors you in his will, you can always trade-up to that coveted “L” glass. In the meantime, these lenses will allow you to capture a lot of awesome pictures, without getting your camera kit repossessed.
Let’s start at the wide end. The Canon EF 20-35mm f/3.5-4.5 USM is a compact ultra-wide to wide angle zoom, ideal for travel, landscapes, group portraits, artistic shots, adventure photography and much more.
The Canon EF 20-35mm f/3.5-4.5 USM "Ultra-Wide to Wide-Angel" Zoom Lens
This is an affordable alternative to the Canon EF 17-40mm “L” professional lens. Unlike the 17-40 L, this one can be used with your camera’s built-in flash. The “L” lens causes an annoying shadow in your pictures, unless you use an auxiliary flash. It won’t quite match the “L” in optical performance, but for about half the price it comes incredibly close!
This lens is threaded for 77mm filters and accessories. That is it’s one minor drawback, filters of this size are fairly expensive. This is not a major problem, considering the superior quality of photos that you will get. It has the HEAVY DUTY STAINLESS STEEL METAL LENS MOUNT that professionals demand and amateurs desire. This beauty features a true ultra-wide angle range, with an angle of view of 94° to 63°. It has a very useful close minimum focus distance of only 13.2 inches. There are 12 lens elements in 11 groups, the rear group performs all focusing functions. This lens is a pleasure to carry around, it weighs just 12 ounces and is only 2.7 inches long.
This lens employs Canon’s “top-of-the-line” ultra fast and quiet “Ring Type Ultrasonic” Auto-Focus design, just like the “L” models. Manual focusing and zooming are performed buy two easy to grip rings that are well positioned for fast adjustments. Auto or Manual focusing is selected by an “AF-MF” switch, which is conveniently located where your thumb normally rests, to make switching very fast and easy to do. THIS IS AN FTM LENS, "FTM" stands for “Full-Time Manual” focus. This allows you to make focus adjustments WHILE THE AF SYSTEM IS ENGAGED! This is an awesome feature that I use very frequently. The front lens group does not rotate while focusing or zooming, making it very convenient to use polarizing and special effects filters. The rear element “Internal Focus” design means that the lens does not change in length during zooming or focusing. These professional grade features insure that focusing will always be lightning fast, very precise and dead silent.
Image quality is superb! Sharpness and contrast are very impressive throughout the zoom range. Flare is very well controlled, thanks to an ingenious “Flare Cutting Diaphragm” that is featured in this model. That makes it an excellent choice for sunrise and sunset photography.
Front Element of the EF 20-35mm USM, Showing The Flare Cutting Diaphragm
I think the EF 20-35mm USM actually has some important advantages over the EF 17-40mm L. Distortion looks better controlled in many shots that I have taken with the EF 20-35mm USM! For architectural shots, this lens is quite capable. Architectural lines remain reasonably straight, even toward the edges of the frame. Pictures produced through this lens are quite sharp with good contrast and are very rich in color saturation.
When it is used on a Canon Digital Rebel XT, 20D or 10D, this is equivalent to a 32-56mm zoom lens. That's due to the 1.6 X "crop factor" magnification. That makes it more of a “Wide-Angle to Normal Zoom” on these cameras. This lens would probably stay on your digital camera most of the time. It covers most of your “normal” and “wide” focal range needs and it won’t cost a fortune.
To cover your "normal" to short telephoto requirements, I recommend either of the following two USM lenses. One excellent choice would be the EF 35-135mm f/4-5.6 USM. This is a wonderful model that has, unfortunately, been discontinued and no current model can quite fill the gap that has been created. The other great choice would be the EF 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 USM. This lens covers a slightly narrower range but it is faster and a bit easier to find. This model was recently discontinued and replaced by the TERRIBLE Canon EF 28-105mm f/4-5.6 USM, which is a total disappointment, in every possible way. PLEASE, DO NOT CONFUSE THIS NEW MODEL WITH THE FANTASTIC CANON EF 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 USM! THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO COMPARRISON BETWEEN THESE LENSES!
The Canon EF 35-135mm f/4.5-5.6 USM. They are a little difficult to find, but I see them fairly regularly on eBay, and they are not too pricey. This very compact telephoto zoom lens is relatively light and incredibly versatile. This model was designed by Canon to be the Ultimate "TRAVEL" lens. It is light and compact but does not sacrifice optical or mechanical performance. It is an excellent performer, capable of capturing crisp images with fantastic colors with striking contrast.
The Canon EF 35-135mm f/4.5-5.6 USM "Wide Angle to Telephoto" Zoom Lens
This one also has “Full-Time Manual” focus so you can make fine focus adjustments while the AF switch in activated. This is especially useful for setting the exact focus point in a close shot. It will allow you to emphasize a particular picture element while other parts of the image are intentionally blurred by a narrow depth-of-field. This lens also uses the Top-of-the-Line “Ring” type USM Ultrasonic AF design. There are 14 lens elements in 12 groups. Focusing is performed internally, the front lens does not rotate, making it much easier to use polarizing and special effects filters. These features are also found on the much more costly “L” professional models! The large zoom ring is very comfortable to use and quickly goes from 35mm all the way out to 135mm in about a quarter turn. The barrel extends for zooming, but the front lens element does not rotate at all. The position of the zoom ring relative to the focus ring makes this lens almost as easy to use as a "One Touch" lens design in manual focus mode. In Auto Focus mode, it is just a pleasure to handle.
Image quality dramatically outperforms all of the popular “standard kit” zooms, and is just about equal to the much more expensive EF 28-135 f/3.5-5.6 IS USM !!! Sharpness and contrast are quite impressive throughout the entire zoom range. While very good wide-open, the image sharpness gets really crisp past about f/8 or so, depending upon the focal length. In spite of the impressively wide zoom ratio, only slight distortions are visible, and then, only at the widest end of the focal range. Flare is also very well controlled.
When used on a small frame Digital, this is equivalent to a 55-215mm zoom lens. This is a great focal range for portraits, nature landscapes and sports photography. This is the perfect mate to use with a Canon EF 20-35mm wide angle zoom.
This model is very compact in size, about 3.75” at 35mm to 5.5” at full zoom. It is reasonably lightweight at only 15 oz. It has a very solid "feel" with smooth operation. The wide-angle to medium telephoto range make this an ideal “travel” lens. You will find that it will probably stay on your camera nearly as much of the time as the EF 20-35.
The Canon EF 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 MACRO USM
The EF 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 Macro USM is very affordably priced. However, be certain to find the best version. Avoid the earlier model with the yellow flower on it instead of the actual word "MACRO". Also, it is important to get one that was Made in Japan. As stated above (but well worth repeating), avoid the new replacement model, the Canon EF 28-105mm f/4-5.6 USM. It is simply JUNK by comparison!
This wonderfully compact wide-angle to telephoto zoom lens is reasonably light and incredibly versatile. This model was designed by Canon to be a great "walking around" lens at a reasonable price. It is light and compact but does not sacrifice too much in performance. It has very good optics, capable of capturing crisp images with good color and very impressive contrast.
The Canon EF 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 “MACRO” USM is considered to be a "Wide Angle to Telephoto" Zoom Lens. This model also has “Full-Time Manual” focus so you can make fine focus adjustments while the AF switch in activated, just like the “L” lens. This is especially useful for setting the exact focus point in a close shot. It will allow you to emphasize a particular picture element while other parts of the image are intentionally blurred by a narrow depth-of-field. This inexpensive little workhorse also uses the top-of-the-Line “Ring” type USM Ultrasonic AF design.
There are 15 lens elements arranged in 12 groups. Focusing is performed internally, the front lens does not rotate, making it much easier to use polarizing and special effects filters. These features are also found on the much more costly “L” professional models! The zoom ring is comfortable to use and quickly goes from 28mm all the way out to 105mm in about a quarter turn. The barrel extends out for zooming, but the front lens element does not rotate at all. The position of the zoom ring relative to the focus ring makes this lens very easy to use. Image quality easily outperforms all of the popular “standard kit” zooms. Sharpness and contrast are impressive throughout the entire zoom range. Flare and distortions are also respectably controlled.
When used on a small frame Digital, this is approximately equivalent to a 45-170mm zoom lens. This is a great focal range for portraits, nature shots, landscapes and general “normal” photography. This is an excellent mate to use with a Canon EF 20-35mm f/3.5-4.5 USM ultra-wide angle zoom.
This model is very compact in size; about 3” long at 28mm to 4.75” at full zoom. It is very lightweight at a bit over 13 oz. It has a nice solid "feel" with fairly smooth operation, although not quite up to the silky feel of the “L” lenses. Auto focusing is lightning fast and whisper quiet. The wide angle to medium telephoto range make this a superb “walking around” lens.
That covers the majority of your photographic needs with only two, relatively light, compact zoom lenses. However, there are some additional requirements to consider. I recommend at least one “fast prime” lens for low light situations, where the zooms just can’t do the job. In this budget range, I must suggest the Canon EF 28mm f/2.8 wide angle prime.
The Canon EF 28mm f/2.8 wide-angle prime Lens
This is one of the MUST HAVE affordable lenses for every Canon EOS camera bag, for Digital or Film! This model has a very easy to use manual focusing ring, a real distance scale window with a depth-of-field scale and an infrared compensation indicator. Auto Focus is very fast and accurate, using the Arc Form Drive (AFD) mechanism. It is threaded for inexpensive 52mm filters and accessories. It sports the HEAVY DUTY STAINLESS STEEL LENS MOUNT.
This is an excellent quality prime lens, it has even been compared to "L" series professional zoom lenses and was found to be surprisingly close in optical performance, but at a very tiny fraction of the price. You can get wonderful depth-of-field with this lens! You will be amazed by how much of your subject can be kept in focus within the shot.
Zoom lenses are very convenient, but they tend to be slow, with a widest aperture of 3.5 or higher. The EF 28mm f/2.8 has a respectably fast aperture of 1:2.8, it "drinks in" plenty of light to allow you to get nice sharp pictures in less-than-ideal lighting situations, without activating your camera's built-in flash! Avoiding the pop-up flash is well worth the trade-off of the fixed focal length. You might have to compose your shots by using your feet as the "zoom mechanism" (by stepping closer or farther away from your subject), but this is a very small price to pay for the superior picture quality that you will get in return.
On non-full frame Digital SLRs, this lens equal to a 45mm focal length. It is well suited for all of your "normal" lens photography. It becomes the closest thing to a standard 50mm and it is just as indispensable.
OK, now that we have saved a lot of money, if the budget will permit, there is one more lens to consider, a long telephoto. The Canon EF 100-300mm 4.5-5.6 USM Telephoto Zoom Lens is my choice.
The Canon EF 100-300mm 4.5-5.6 USM Telephoto Zoom Lens
Optically and mechanically, this lens outperforms the popular Canon EF 75-300 f/4.5-5.6 series of lenses. This a the highly respected model featuring “FTM” Full Time Manual focusing, super fast “Ring” type USM motor and a real distance scale window with infrared compensation indication. There are 13 lens elements in 10 groups. Focusing is performed internally, making it easy to use polarizing and special effects filters.
If you need a great lens for wildlife, candid shots, concerts and sports, you would be very pleased that this excellent telephoto lens is still available for purchase. Canon has not been able to top it in over 15 years. They “got it right” the first time!
When it is used on a semi-pro Digital, this model becomes equivalent to a 160-480mm “monster” zoom lens. That makes this a VERY long, yet surprisingly compact telephoto lens. It is unbelievably comfortable to carry around for such long focal capability.
Well, there you have it, my idea of the best set of four cost-effective lenses for the complete Canon EOS Digital camera kit. They all have the stainless steel mount, exceptional performance for the price and they work together as a great "team”. The three zooms all share the “FTM” feature, a useful distance scale window and the top-of-the-line ring type Ultrasonic AF drive.
I truly believe that this combination of four compact and lightweight lenses would be very hard to beat in terms of optical performance, at least within this relatively modest price range.
Obviously, this is not the only compatible combination of lenses to allow you to get the most out of your EOS Digital camera. I recently completed a more "upscale" list of lenses that would be more appropriate for the semi-pro and serious amateur photographer. This list includes the Canon EF 17-40 f/4 L Professional Ultra-Wide Angle Zoom, the Canon EF 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 USM Wide Angle to Telephoto Zoom, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L USM Professional Telephoto Zoom, the EF 50mm f/1.8 MARK I Normal Prime and the Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 Wide Angle Prime lens.
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