Standard zoom choices for Canon APS-C DSLRs

There is a vast range of SLR camera lenses available although we often end up using one or two for most work. The classic general-purpose lens is 28-70 mm f/2.8 on full-frame SLRs. Canon calls such lenses standard zooms. They have a wide to medium telephoto zoom range (around 3x) and high quality examples have constant f/2.8 or f/4 apertures.

In this article, I review three standard-zooms for Canon DSLRs with APS-C sized sensors (1.6x field of view crop factor). I disregard the kit lenses because they are not interesting creative tools, with slow f/3.5-5.6 apertures. I am currently using the Canon EF 17-40mm f4 L USM, choosing durability over versatility. My current lens choices may be unusual for many photographers but I hope the discussion is helpful.

Canon EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 IS USM Tamron SP AF17-50mm F/2.8 XR Di II LD Aspherical (IF) Canon EF 17-40mm f4 L USM
Zoom 3.2x 2.9x 2.4x
35mm Equiv. Focal Length (1.6x) 27-88mm 27-80mm 27-64mm
U.S. Price, Oct-09* US$990 US$449 US$715
Mass (g) 645 434 475
Landscapes Good Good Good
Urban scenes Excellent (IS) Good Good
Portraits Good Good Poor (f/4)
Durability Poor Poor Excellent
Summary table. Standard zoom lenses I have owned.
*I buy new lenses mostly from the U.S.A. because prices are much cheaper than Australia and goods under A$1000 can be imported duty and GST free! Should I feel sorry for Australian retailers?

Technically best, the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 IS USM

In an earlier article I reviewed the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 IS USM lens. It’s a great lens but expensive and I did not find it durable. My copy failed within two years.

So far, Canon has not supported their line of APS-C digital SLRs with professional lenses. The 10,20,30,40,50D series and the new 7D are APS-C DSLRs for professionals but there are no L series lenses in the EF-S mount. I suppose that Canon wants to keep pros away from APS-C systems.

Best value, the Tamron SP AF17-50mm F/2.8 XR Di II

After the Canon, I purchased a Tamron 17-50 F/2.8. This lens was a pleasant surprise. Image quality is very good and it’s a compact and low-priced lens. Build quality is good for a plastic lens. The auto-focus is inferior to Canon’s USM and the manual focus button is inconvenient, too close to the lens mount, but I could get used to that.

The Tamron 17-50 F/2.8 takes good photos but I had problems with internal fogging. Taking this lens outdoors, from cold to warm, water vapour would condense inside the lens. Sure, you can dry it out but you can’t stop it sucking in humid air again. Fogging lenses means missed photos and this lens is not for me. Still, I think the Tamron 17-50 F/2.8 is a good choice for people starting out and on a budget.

Built to last, the Canon EF 17-40mm f4 L USM lens

The Canon EF 17-40mm f4 L USM lens is an exceptional L series lens on three points: compact, lightweight and reasonably priced. It’s weather-resistant too, although I have read that a filter should always be used to seal the front. I like the big focus ring too. Photographers who know what they’re doing zoom less and use manual focus more. After fogging problems with the Tamron 17-50 F/2.8, I had to purchase this lens. Plus, I already had an EW-83J lens hood and 77mm filters from my EF-S 17-55mm f2.8.

The Canon EF 17-40mm f4 L USM lens is actually a full frame ultra-wide zoom. On APS-C DSLRs it has an equivalent focal length of 27-64mm. Compared to the alternatives, it’s a bit short at the long end and one stop slower (table above). I use the EF 17-40mm for shooting big things, landscapes, buildings, group portraits etc. I bought this lens because it is weather resistant and tough. For tight portraits, I bought a Canon EF 85mm f1.8, an excellent lens that outperforms any general purpose zoom for shallow depth of field.

Enough fussing over lenses. I need to get out more and enjoy taking photos.

Murray River in Barmah forest, Victoria, Australia. Canon EOS400D, Canon EF 17-40mm f4 L USM lens at 17mm with polarizing filter. Camping here was free!

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