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Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Rusty's Review: Canon EF-S 15-85mm Zoom Lens

** Versatile Value

As a full frame shooter, I have not ventured down the EF-S lens path since my old 20D days. I actually thought I would never be shooting a APS-C camera again, but FullHD Video has enticed me back and I must say that I have been extremely impressed with the 550D and how far things have come since the 20D.

It was original intention to use my existing 17-40 L lens with the 550D, as it had seen little use on my full frame camera since the purchase of a TS-E wide angle. Unfortunately, as good as the 17-40 is, it's left wanting as a video lens thanks to the lack of Image Stabilisation.

So this set me on my quest for a wide zoom that would not only provide me with the IS that I needed for video, but would also give me the high image quality that I was use to with the 17-40. It only took a short research time to realise that there are not that many options in the "wide zoom with IS" area and that the 17-55 2.8 topped the list.... or so it seemed.

The 17-55 2.8 is often hailed as the very best wide zoom solution for EF-S only cameras. The constant f2.8 aperture is a big draw for those who shoot low light, or those who shoot video and like to have fixed exposure while zooming. But after viewing many, many full size sample images from this lens, I felt it was just not good enough on the outer edges for me.

So what else was there?.... During my research I often read comments in forums about how the EF-S 15-85 was the "best value" or "most versatile" lens for APS-C cams. OK... so if the premium priced 17-55 2.8 was not good enough for me, perhaps I should get the "value" lens? At least then my hip pocket would be left more comfortable and that would make the step down from the 17-40 easier to deal with.

Once again I trawled the net for quality full size image samples and soon realised a surprising trend. This lens actually seemed better than the 17-55 2.8 by providing sharp images across the frame.

But could I live without the constant aperture of the 17-55 2.8 for my video? Well there are other ways to transition between focal lengths in video, so at the end of the day sharp images won out.

...and sharp they are! The 15-85mm lens renders detail beautifully across the frame and is crisp all the way to the corners, while the circular aperture provides a lovely smooth bokeh in the out of focus areas of the image.

Like all lenses it does have it's "sweet spot" and f8 seems to be where it performs best. Closing the lens down further introduces a slight softness due to diffraction and does not produce an any more "usable" Depth of Field for me.

(For the techies: A 15mm lens @ f8 has a Hyperfocal Distance of 1.5m. Focusing at this point provided DOF from 0.75m to Infinity. So f8 is perfectly suited for landscape work.)
When shooting wide angles, Chromatic Aberration is evident around high contrast areas wide in frame, but this is easily dealt with in post production.

As one would expect, there is some barrel distortion wide, but this is quite well controlled for a lens of 15mm and does not really become "intrusive" in the image. Once again, this is easily dealt with in post if you feel the need.

At longer focal lengths this lens performs equally well and once again f8 seems to be it's sweet spot. If smaller apertures are to be used, then expect to run a little more sharpening in post than you would at f8.

This lens sports the new 4-stop image stabilisation. It is silent.... I mean "dead silent"! The only way I know that it's actually working, is that I can see the viewfinder image become smooth. This is a HUGE plus for video, as internal noise from an IS system would not be welcome.

To test the usefulness of the IS, I decide to shoot my non-IS 28-70 2.8L against the 15-85 in a "10 shot, 70mm, handheld, close focus" situation. Surprisingly, the images from the 15-85 were far superior, as it provided 10 from 10 crisp detailed images. The 28-70 provided me with only 1 sharp image from the 10, with 9 being unusable due to movement. This is a great testament to Canon's 4-stop IS and how easy it makes getting good images.

Build quality of this lens is excellent, but don't expect it to be lightweight. It's quit a chunky bit of glass and seems to weigh around the same as the camera body itself. Some may find this combination a little heavy, but I love how light it is after shooting with the 1Ds.

If there is any problem with the build for me, it would be the narrow manual focus ring. I have chunky fingers and would like just a little more room. This is more ergonomics than build and will vary with each user. I find it still perfectly usable though and it's no deal breaker. Of course if you always use AF (which is fast and accurate) or plan to use a Follow Focus for video, then this is a non-issue.

Zoom Range is great with the lens too. The extra 2mm at the wide end makes a big difference over the 17-55 2.8 and the extra 30mm at the long end is huge. In full frame terms, this lens provides and effective range of 24-136mm and that is quite versatile indeed.

They say hindsight is 20/20, so looking back now, how do I feel about my decision? .....
Well I am convinced that I made the right choice. OK, so I don't have constant 2.8, but I am a self confessed "pixel-peeper" and the image quality is where things are at for me and where the 15-85 delivers in spades.

As the many forum comments suggest, this is a fantastic versatile lens that makes for great value. If your in the market for a wide EF-S, then this lens must be considered along side the more expensive 17-55 2.8.

***Highly Recommended***



Click image to view this lens at DigitalRev:
Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM

Keys: canon camera equipment dslr lens reviews test owners opinion zoom lense wide angle canon 15-85 EFS lens reviews canon 15-85 EF-S lens reviews aps-c

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