Lens Review – Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM is a very versatile medium tele macro prime that I personally think every Canon full frame shooter should have one in his/her bag. I am describing it as versatile because not only its a very competent portrait lens, its macro capability also relaxes your ability to get close to a subject, which a lot of the tele primes often struggle to do.

Canon’s recent introduction of the ‘L’ version is just too good and it will probably my next upgrade, whenever my current macro breaks, which will probably be forever. After testing the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM myself, I can easily say that it’s a great great lens and it merits everything that a ‘L’ lens should: solid build quality and superb professional image quality. But I am here not to talk about the new ‘L’ version but to talk about the original USM macro that I have in my camera bag.

So why this lens?

Ok, there are few reasons that you should know before deciding which version of this fantastic macro lens. First it’s a prime. I love prime lenses because any prime always and almost easily beat any zoom lenses out there. If you are a pixel peeper or sheer sharpness fanatic, then you should always shoot with primes. Second and third, I already mention above, it’s a good medium tele that acts as a good portrait lens and the ability to get close to your subject.

The original EF 100mm macro lens, which offered a 1:1 magnification and introduced in 1990, was criticised for below too slow to focus because it never had the USM motor. Despite being a very capable design, it never won the hearts of many professionals and after ten years, in 2000, Canon released a USM version of this so-so popular Macro lens and instantly turned it into a hit among professionals and amateurs photographers.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro continued to sell in good numbers well into the digital era. I acquired mine in 2006 when I turned professional when I needed something that I could shoot close ups of wedding rings. I never looked back since and it had been a great joy to use.

Construction

To me, any non-L Canon lenses that were built in between 1990 and 2000 had the best build quality. These were the days when the world economy was booming, materials were not scarce and no savings were needed. Most would have glass elements and metal mounts and very importantly, all were made in Japan, well that’s important to me at least.

This Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM was no exception, it’s well built, solid but not overweight. It may not have the ‘L’ treatments so don’t expect weather seals but there’s a metal mount to ensure durability. The lens itself isn’t very heavy and weights around 600g only but be assured, it certainly feels good in your hands.

Using it in practice, good and bad

Canon 100mm Macro is always a joy to use. With this focal length and without any image stabilisation, it needs to be light enough for most hand-hold situation. Apart from macro use, this lens is perfectly fine under normal use. It’s fast 2.8 aperture means I can shoot in reasonably dim conditions too. The USM, as usual, is fast and silent. What I love about the lens is that the focusing ring is so large that makes manual override or manual focusing as easy as flushing the toilet.

Being a macro lens means that sharpness is always going to be good. The ability to resolve details is top notch too. There is no question that this lens is capable of producing some top quality photos. Even by today’s standards, this lens is no slouch and can still produce stunning sharpness even for a 20+ mega pixel DSLR.

Most tele lenses will have a minimal focusing distance of around 0.45m or more but being a macro means that you can do around 0.3m and that’s as close as photographing someone’s blackheads. As a wedding and portrait photographer, I really love this versatility. I can step back for one half body shot, shooting at f/2.8 or 3.5 and get the background perfectly blurred out, and then get really close to photograph the rings on their hands for another shot without the need of changing lens. And of course when getting too close presents a challenge, hand shakes. In normal lights, I can still hand hold the lens and shoot with a shutter speed of 1/100 without any camera movement but anything slower will be a little bit more difficult. This brings to the only downside of this lens, no image stablisation. Perhaps the technology wasn’t advance enough back in 2000 and IS seemed to have been reserved to slightly bigger bodied lenses. In 2009, Canon launched a ‘L’ version that incorporatse a new hybrid IS, together with improved optical performance and weather seals for their latest macro lens. This will solve the only negative I could think about this lens. Well done Canon!

Conclusion

Unless you are an insect admirer and a professional macro photographer, you may not want to spend the ‘higher’ price for the ‘L’ macro. Yes, the ‘L’ brother excels in all areas when compares to the older brothers and can easily be one of the sharpest lens in the Canon lineup but the USM brother is almost as good for half the money. I use it professionally and have absolutely no complaint about it. Yes, I will definitely appreciate the image stablisation that the ‘L’ lens offers but I do not use it enough to justify spending the money. Of course, as digital full frame SLR gets more pixels, this lens, even though its sharp as a pin, starts showing its age and newer design is necessary to accommodate these ultra high resolution sensors. The ‘L’ perhaps is the answer but for a lot of people who doesn’t do a lot of macro photography and may be someone wants to get a portrait lens that doubles as a macro photography tool, then this Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro is by far the best choice.

All product mentioned in this post can be purchased at Amazon.co.uk


Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

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