I first wrote this Canon lens guide in 2011. Prices and lenses have changed, but I will keep it updated. Like everything on this blog, these are my opinions about these lenses based on use and what I’ve read. Your experience may vary. Please comment with questions or suggestions. And please consider purchasing through my links, it helps keep this blog going.
Lens Guide for your Canon DSLR
Prices as of March 2013
DSLRs are expensive, but remember the lenses are what truly make the shot, along with photography skill of course. You will replace your camera bodies, but your lenses will last a lifetime. Ok maybe a long time. You were serious enough to want “better” than a point-and-shoot, why not get a lens that helps take your shots to OMG level?
If your Canon says “Rebel” on the front, or you have a 60D or 7D, you have a “cropped” sensor (called APS-C) and your effective lens millimeter will be multiplied by 1.6. So a 50mm lens becomes an 80mm. EF lenses work on all Canon cameras, while EF-S lenses are specifically designed for these cropped sensors.
“Zoom” lenses are ones with a range of millimeters and “Prime” lenses have one fixed millimeter. Some people love the versatility of zooms. Others prefer to “zoom” with their feet and love the shallow depth of field you get with primes.
I’ll start with the kit lenses. These zoom lenses are typically cheapest as part of a “kit” and are okay to start with, however won’t hold their value on Ebay. These are nice walk-around lenses, but it won’t take the serious photographer long to want an upgrade.
So-so starter zoom lens most consumers buy in a kit. It feels a little cheap. Very small focus ring on the front that doesn’t hold lens hoods well. It is, however a bit sharper at 18mm than the 18-135mm or 18-200mm. It’s light. You don’t get much reach with this range. Like the two lenses below, it has image stabilization.
Nice walk-around lens. Better build quality than 18-55. Lens creep is bad and annoying. As you walk around it will slide out constantly. There is a new and better version of this lens that is ideal for video. If you don’t care about video, you can probably pick this lens up cheap, new and used.
Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM $449
This is the new upgraded version of the old 18-135mm. They added the lock button to the zoom, so now like the 18-200mm, you can lock it while walking around and it wont zoom all by itself. Just remember the lock is on when you try to quickly capture a far-off shot. They also added a silent motor for autofocusing, which is pretty sweet when paired with the autofocus video capabilities of the Canon T4i.
Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS $569
Same build quality as 18-135mm. Versatile. Lock button is a god send. Though some people claim they’ve missed shots trying to slide the button before zooming, I’d rather not have lens creep. The zoom between 135mm and 200m is minimal.
Next, some lenses to replace a kit lens or for specific needs:
This is the Thrifty-Fifty. You will manual focus a lot at f/1.8 and I found the focus ring a bit too small and too far front. The mount is made of plastic. Everyone should own a 50mm however, and the cost of this one makes it a great first prime lens to buy. f/1.8 will give you a super narrow depth of field, and blow the background out into nice creamy bokeh or blur. On a crop sensor camera this becomes an 80mm lens, and indoors it’s tough to back up enough to get a whole person in the shot. Even outdoors you will be walking backwards a few times to get much into frame. But for portraits of one person, flowers, etc this is a great focal length.
This is the first prime I bought. I love this lens for portraits. The price of this lens has dropped over $100 since I bought it, and it’s build quality and nice/big focus ring make it a better lens than the 50mm f/1.8.
Nice size/position focus ring, you don’t need to switch to manual focus to use. You will have to walk backwards a lot to get a normal pic of friends in frame. Get used to that with primes, your feet are the zoom. The bokeh (blur) is beautiful at f/1.4, though the focus zone is small… tripod time! Canon sells a 50mm f/1.2 for you rich peeps. The “USM” stands for Ultrasonic Motor, which means auto-focus won’t make much noise.
If I could do it again, I would have bought a 24mm or 28mm as my first quality lens. 50mm is the ideal “normal” vision on a full sensor camera like the 5DmkII, but on a crop-sensor camera like the T3i, it’s really an 80mm. This is great for single subject torso portraits and flowers, but that’s about it (without a lot of backing up). This lens is just too zoomed for video.
Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4.0-5.6 IS II $199
This is a decent zoom lens for the price. It’s not very fast, so you’d do well to use it with a tripod or monopod, especially indoors. When an f-stop is listed as f/4-5.6, it means it’s f/4 at 55mm and f/5.6 fully zoomed.
Canon EF 35mm f/2 Wide Angle $289
This is an excellent prime lens to buy if you’re avoiding the “kit” and pairing with a body only. While a 50mm is truest to “normal” eyesight vision on a Canon 5DM2’s full sensor, this 35mm becomes a 56mm on your crop body Canon XSI, T1i, T2i, T3i, T4i, 60D and 7D. Again your “feet will be your zoom.” f/2.0 is a nice spot to be in to not only get nice blurry backgrounds but also have your AF perform better indoors.
Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM Wide Angle $449
Equivalent to a 44.8mm on a crop sensor, this is an excellent wide lens with a nicely-sized and positioned focus ring. This is also an excellent general purpose prime and a great alternative to a kit lens. Yeah it’s pricey, but you will notice the quality of the build and the pictures. f/1.8 is a great f-stop to get a nice blurry background.
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM $408
A decent price for a fast prime. 85mm becomes 127.5mm on a crop-sensor. If you were going to shoot a wedding with all primes, this lens paired with a 50mm and a 28mm would be a good trio. This is also an excellent lens for model and fashion photography. It’s long enough to really complement the angles in a professional models face.
This is a nice wide prime. And I like Sigmas. But know there is talk on the net regarding Sigmas as to whether you got a “good copy” or not. Lenses can and do vary slightly in build quality, but Sigma seems to suffer more from this than other companies. This has paved the way for lens company Tamron to outshine Sigma in quality and consistency. So read the reviews before you buy and if you get a bad version, you can send it back.
Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 $587
This is about as wide as you can get without going fisheye. Canon and Sigma just can’t compete with that F-stop in their wide lenses in the sub $1,000 range. And on a crop-sensor this is a 17.6mm-25.6mm. This lens is GREAT for weddings, architecture, nature and perfect for video. You want fast lenses for video, because you have to capture lots of light. Slow lenses need high ISO = more grain in dark colors.
Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 $619
Sigma makes great lenses usually similar quality to Canon at a cheaper price.
Finally, The OMG, DROOL Canon Lenses:
This lens is highly praised. As good as L glass at a smaller price. Sharp glass favored by photogs. A lens pros will tell you to buy instead of a Kit lens. F3.5-5.6 is kinda slow so this lens isn’t ideal for low-light shooting or video.
Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM $1019
Sharp and photographers often argue whether this or the 15-85mm is best pro starter lens to get over a kit lens.
Either of the above would shine as a first lens for a body-only purchase, provided you have the extra cash. So if you plan to make money taking pictures, start with the best you can afford! One thing to remind you is that EF-S lenses can only be used on crop-sensor bodies. The EF lenses can be used on both cropped sensor bodies and full frame bodies. So if you are deciding between the two above lenses, and you think you will upgrade to a full-frame Canon, you should get the 15-85mm.
If you are a wedding photographer or want to be, this lens along with the 70-200mm is a standard in your bag. It’s pricey but the build quality of these L lenses is oh so magnificent. The focus and zoom rings are “smooth and buttery.” You can still find the version I of this lens for $1900 which isn’t much savings. I’ve read the upgrade fixed vignetting on the edges.
There are IS and non IS versions of both this lens and the below f/2.8 version. You can get the non IS versions for about half of what the IS versions cost. IS is kind of important at this focal length however, unless you shoot on a tripod or monopod. So if you can afford IS, you can run gun and shoot without stabilization.
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM $2129
The pro zoom standard L for weddings, portraits and all-around shooting. THE zoom lens to get for nature, weddings, even portraits. Get a 2X adapter by Canon and it becomes a compact 400mm. There are cheaper versions of this lens that don’t have Image Stabilization or this f-stop if you’re on a budget. (and who isn’t?)
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM $1459
Awesome pro glass for all-around shooting and video. And one of the only ultra-wide angles lenses available for full-sensor bodies. The f/2.8 lets you shoot in low light and gives great bokeh.
I own this lens. I wanted the above 16-35mm but this one is all I could afford. Now, my 5Dmk3 has fantastic ISO range, so that probably makes up for the fact that this lens is only f/4.0. I just have to remember to set a high ISO manually, as the camera sets it low if left on auto ISO. As I said above if you have a crop-body Canon you have many more choices in ultra wide angle lenses across both Canon and non-Canon brands. But if you have a full-frame sensor your choices are limited. Used, you can get these quite cheap and if you want wide and the quality of L glass, you will be a happy camper.
So there is my guide. I didn’t include every Canon lens. And yeah there are other lens alternatives than Sigma and Tokina. I didn’t include the expensive Zeiss and Voigtlaender choices, though both are superb. And I didn’t talk about the giant zooms the guys have at the football games. They cost $10,000. Sell your car.
Also for you people on a budget and/or shooting video. Check out the FD mount (film) lenses on Ebay.
For $25 to $60 you can get old used lenses to mount to your Canon with an adapter like this one. Get the adapter with the glass in it, as it lets you focus to infinity. You’ll have to set your aperture and focus manually, but you’ll be probably be pulling manual focus for video with any lens.
I have read that a Nikon adapter and Nikon film-mount lenses may be a better choice. They always focus to infinity and don’t require image-degrading optics in the adapter. There are also a lot of Nikkor Ai lenses that are cheap and good quality.