Ugly Ducklings: The Early EF Primes
Even among non-Canonians, Canon is known for its « L » series of lenses: optical marvels that incorporate the latest and greatest in technology, push the envelope in performance — and cost a quite a bundle too, although not more than any other brand of professional lens, and a good deal less than some. Among Canon shooters, L fever is a known affliction: many people who really only shoot album pictures of the cat and the kids succumb to it, while among many more ambitious shooters it’s pretty much the accepted wisdom that « nothing less will do. » I used to own an L, once, but sold it. My lens love affair is a more modest one. It’s with the first-generation EF primes, introduced between 1987 and 1989 along with the EOS system, in the days before bells and whistles like ring USM and image stabilization. I’m planning on doing a full write-up of all the lenses in this series that I’m lucky enough to own.
What with Canon’s tight grip on the number-one spot in the digital SLR market today, it’s easy to forget where it was back in 1987. I remember it quite well, since that was the year I bought my first very own SLR — a Canon T70, bought from a market in Singapore. At that time, Nikon still ruled the professional and high-end amateur roost, and Canon was the up-and-coming underdog. Then, in 1985, the Minolta Dynax/Maxxum 7000 hit the market, and nothing was the same since.
Auto-focus had been in the making for a while. Pentax was first out of the gate with the focus-assist ME-F already in 1981, Canon had responded with its focus-assist camera, the AL-1 QF in 1982, and Nikon had the first fully auto-focusing professional camera on the market, the F3AF, in 1983. The same year as the Minolta 7000 was introduced, Canon marketed the short-lived T80 — a fully functional auto-focus SLR based on the FD lens mount. However, due to a number of technical and design issues, largely related to the problems of maintaining backwards compatibility, none of these cameras had quite managed to deliver an auto-focus performance capable of truly superseding the mature manual-focus cameras dominating the market at the time. Many people (myself included) felt that AF was a gimmick rather than a useful photographic tool.
« Cat Merchant. » Canon FD 50/1.4 S.S.C. on Fuji Provia 100F.
The Minolta 7000 changed all that. Here was a camera that could undeniably focus and track faster and more consistently and precisely than even the most practiced manual-focus SLR shooter. It took the camera market by storm, and for a space Minolta looked set to take the top spot in the professional market as well. It was clear that Nikon, Canon, and Pentax had to do something — or go the way of Olympus and give up on the SLR market. Nikon and Pentax focused on working out the problems in their backwards-compatible lens mounts, and eventually succeeded. Canon decided to make like Minolta. It scrapped its FD mount, killed off the T80 barely a year since its introduction, started from a clean slate, and introduced a new system, named EOS — for « Electro Optical System » and the Greek goddess of dawn — and a new lens mount, named EF, for « Electronic Focusing. » Many professionals and advanced amateurs with a long-time investment in FD gear have still not quite forgiven Canon for this. Plainly, Canon had a knife at their throat: either the EOS system would beat the Minolta 7000 and 9000, or Canon would be relegated to niche status.
With so much at stake, Canon could not afford to take risks in the lens line-up it offered for its new system. The first EOS lenses had to be optically beyond reproach, mechanically reliable, fluid in use, and auto-focus well enough to put up a fight with the mighty Minoltas — or they would risk tarnishing the name of the new system at the most critical point in its lifecycle. They also had to be priced to make the cost of entry into the new system low enough to make it appealing to the largest possible market, and the system had to be broad enough, even at its inception, to inspire confidence in the versatility and staying power of the new standard. A new mount was a « bet the company » strategy: Canon abandoned the gains it had made against Nikon with the very well-received AE-1 and A-1 series cameras, and had to start capturing market share from zero. A lemon in the 1987 line-up could have killed off the EOS system almost before it was born, and would have possibly lethally wounded a brand already bruised by the flop of the T80 and the bad-will inherent in abandoning an existing customer base. In 1987, that meant a series of optically impeccable but relatively modestly specified prime lenses: the zoom revolution had not fully bit yet, and the professional’s standard lens was still a 50 rather than a 28-70 or similar zoom.
The upshot was that Canon produced a line of lenses that does not quite resemble anything it has made since. The early EF’s build on the tried-and-true optical designs from the FD line, and have rather conservative specifications. They are engineered for reliability, durability, and optical mechanical performance at the best possible price point. Ever since, Canon has been notably niggardly in introducing prime lenses with compact form factors, reasonable prices, modest maximum apertures, and top-drawer optical performance: a few exceptions aside, the newer primes have been either big, bright, heavy, expensive L lenses or clearly underdesigned either in build (like the 50/1.8 Mk 2) or optics (like the 28/1.8 USM). The first-series « Ugly Duckling » primes strike a unique balance between optical quality, size, and value. Over the past few years, I have developed a real liking for the series, and have collected most of them: I’m only missing the 15/2.8 diagonal fisheye and the 28/2.8.
The best of the Eighties meets the best of the Noughties. At the back, the EOS-5D sporting the the 50/1.8, the first EOS kit lens — almost twenty years of age difference, but still a handsome couple… In front, from left to right, the 24/2.8, 35/2.0, 50/2.5 Compact Macro, and 135/2.8 Soft Focus. Absent are the 15/2.8 diagonal fisheye and the 28/2.8.
The Ugly Duckling primes share many build characteristics. All have metal mounts, similar hard, lightly textured plastic barrels, narrow, ribbed focusing rings, focusing scales visible behind a window with depth of field markings and an infra-red focus distance spot. They give a strong impression of being styled by engineers rather than designers. All use the « Arc Form Drive » (AFD) system for focusing. AFD is basically a regular DC electric motor shaped to fit the lens barrel. They’re highly reliable, pretty fast at least on small lenses with light focusing groups like these… and somewhat noisy. All except the 24/2.8 and 15/2.8 (which has a built-in hood and rear filter holder) have a 52 mm filter thread and lens cap. All except the two wides and the 50/2.5 Compact Macro have a 65 mm clip-on hood bayonet. The 28, 35, and 50/1.8 can share the EW-65 lens hood, and the 135 and 50/1.8 can share the ET-65 hood.
There was also a hood specially made for the 50/1.8 Mk 1, the ES-65, but it’s rather hard to come by — and not really very necessary, since the front element on the 50/1.8 is quite deeply recessed.
The family can be split into two further categories: the « light primes » and the « nice primes. » The light primes have the simplest optical formulas that could possibly work, use five-blade irises, have the front bezel facing forward, and feel just a little bit flimsier in handling. The nice primes have somewhat more complex optical formulas, use six-blade irises, have the front bezel aligned with the lens barrel, feel heavier for their size, and feel somehow more rugged and reliable. I don’t really know if this means much in practice; I’ve certainly had no issues with any of my lenses. The 28/2.8, 35/2.0, and 50/1.8 fall into the « light » category, while the 24/2.8, 50/2.5, and 135/2.8 are « nice. » The 15/2.8 is a bit of an oddball — it shares the five-blade iris and relatively simple, eight-element optical formula with the « lights, » but has the heavier build of the « nices, » probably to support the heavy objective lens and maintain the tight tolerances needed for an ultra-wide, even if it’s a fisheye. And, perhaps, to justify its rather salty price tag.
The Ugly Duckling lenses feel like their optics were engineered to more or less the same specifications. All are contrasty, and very sharp at their sharpest. They’re quite usable wide-open, and peak around f/5.6 to f/8.0. On the EOS-5D, diffraction starts to become visible around f/16; on a few of the lenses, f/11 is already very slightly softer than f/8. There are no really significant differences in color rendition. None of them have any major problems with flare, and most are excellent at resisting it. Canon’s long history as a lensmaker shows in them: they’re all highly refined, well-balanced designs. Most are improved versions of the already excellent FD and « new FD » series of lenses. The « light primes » are no-frills optical designs using a minimum number of simple, spherical lens elements — five on the 28/2.8, six on the 50/1.8, and seven on the 35/2.0. The « nice primes » have more complex optical formulas: 10 elements in 10 groups with internal focusing and a floating system on the 24/2.8, 9 elements in 8 groups with a floating system on the 50/2.5 Compact Macro, and 7 elements in 6 groups with internal focusing and a floating aspherical element on the 135/2.8 Soft Focus. They have no glaring flaws — but no single, individual characteristics that make you go « wow » either, unless it is that very feeling of mature, refined design created for balance rather than to look impressive on the marketing data sheet. What’s more, all of them shoot better than they test — it’s reasonably easy to trip them up by some specifically engineered test, but real-life photos generally look splendid, unless it’s the photographer who has screwed them up.
All of the Ducklings I’ve tried have very similar contrast and color, and no huge differences in sharpness either — all are sharp in the center even at pretty wide apertures, and all are sharp in the corners stopped down. The longer ones tend to sharpen up a stop or so earlier than the shorter ones, as is to be expected.
Above, center crops at medium apertures. Not easy to guess which is which, no? From top to bottom: the 24/2.8, 35/2.0, 50/1.8, 50/2.5 CM, and 135/2.8 SF. The only differences that I can easily see are that the 50/2.5 and 35/2.0 look a hair cooler than the others. And it’s just barely conceivable that the 35 and 50/2.5 are a hair contrastier than the others. The differences, if they’re there, are very small, and could easily be due to my less-than-laboratory-perfect testing conditions. I did shoot all of these during one session, though, and the main light in the room didn’t change. All are very, very good: the fine, low-contrast texture on the spine of the gray Edward Gorey book is very challenging to render, and all of the lenses make it look easy.
The difference a floating system makes: corner crops of the 24/2.8 and the 35/2.0 at far and near focusing distances at f/5.6.
Twenty years later…
Taken on their own merits, the early EF primes make an excellent, well-rounded family. The set does a great job at covering most general photography needs — from landscape and architecture to street, situational, event, and portrait photography. There are certain synergies with buying into a set of lenses like this, too — hoods, caps, and filters can be shared, and the similar usability designs make switching between them very fluid. Optics have hardly progressed at all since the turn of the Nineties, except where true exotics are concerned: even with zooms, Canon has not managed to improve things optically over its 1989 « Magic Drainpipe » 80-200/2.8L, or the 100-300/5.6L, for that matter. Various bells and whistles like USM and image stabilization have made their appearance, of course, but since most of the development has been in zooms, primes have not profited much from them. Most new primes have been in the heavy-duty super-bright, super-big, super-expensive L range: brighter and more rugged, but not necessarily significantly better optically. Indeed, zooms have improved to the point where they’re the default choice nowadays, for amateurs as well as most professional applications. Even so, the ugly duckling primes taken as a family offer an alternative approach to general photography — something a bit quieter, slower, lower-key… but very rewarding in its own way. And, of course, much lighter: my set weighs in at 1,340 grams, and does 24-135 at f/1.8 to f/2.8, plus a very decent macro. It’s also much easier to carry most of the weight in the bag rather than on the camera, if you have the camera on your wrist all day.
« Odd One Out. » I took this with the 5D and the 35/2.0, my favorite street lens. In street shooting, timing is of the essence, light and discreet-looking gear is a major advantage, and since it takes time to find anything worth shooting, light weight is a major bonus too.
The advent of APS-C digital SLR’s has put a whole new spin on the Ugly Duckling primes. Most lenses work best on the formats for which they were designed, and the Ducklings are no exception: with perhaps one exception, you really should put them on a full-frame camera to make the most of them. However, this doesn’t mean it’s pointless to put them on a double- or triple-digit Canon.
The only one of the ugly ducklings that is no longer in production is the 50/1.8 Mark 1. It has been downgraded to the all-plastic Mark 2, which is optically identical but has much less attractive build. In particular, it has a reputation for falling to bits if given a sharp knock, a much fussier hood setup, and no proper manual-focus ring — and, of course, a plastic mount. This has made the Mark 1 something of a coveted, cult lens — it’s fetching prices on the used market that are higher than what it was new. However, Canon has come up with a great variety of lenses since 1990. Most of them are zooms, but there have been a good many primes as well. Therefore, it should be no big surprise that the ducklings have been somewhat sidelined in favor of newer, more modern designs. In particular, the introduction of ultrasonic focusing has made the AFD auto-focus these lenses use look decidedly down-market — even if in practice it’s just about as fast and exactly as precise.
« Antiquarian. » Canon EF 35/2.0 on the EOS-10D.
The 15/2.8 diagonal fisheye is still the only lens of its type in the Canon line-up. It enjoyed a period of increased popularity before the advent of APS-C-specific wide-angle zooms, as it was one of the few ways to get true wide-angle on them. Since the introduction of the likes of the Canon 10-22/3.5-4.5 and similar lenses from Tokina, Sigma, Tamron, and others, it’s lost a lot of its appeal for this niche. It’s not easy to frame and align a fisheye image to look good after « de-fishing, » since it’s hard to tell where the horizontals and verticals are. With full-frame, it has regained its spot as a special-purpose lens. However, in this role it has been upstaged by Sigma: their EX 15/2.8 dia-fisheye is very highly regarded, it comes with HSM (the Sigma variety of USM) focusing, and is a quite a bit cheaper to boot. There aren’t really very many good reasons to pick the Canon over the Sigma — other than the usual excuses trotted out by those in the « use Canon on Canon » camp.
The 24/2.8 has been badly hit on two fronts: the very impressive, two-stops brighter 24/1.4L, and the variety of 24-something standard zooms, many of which are very nice indeed at 24 mm. For example, the 24-85/3.5-4.5 USM isn’t much bigger, pricier, or darker, and is optically a very solid performer. In other words, if you’re like most people and mostly shoot with a standard zoom, the 24/2.8 will only be a bit sharper and not at all or only very slightly brighter. This means that the only people likely to spring for it are prime-o-philes: people like me, who simply enjoy shooting with primes. For our small and possibly shrinking niche, though, there’s nothing else quite like it in the Canon line-up — nor from third-party manufacturers. On APS-C bodies, the 24/2.8 is a close approximation of a 35 mm lens: if you can live with the relatively slow maximum aperture, its compact size and excellent optics make it a very useful street and situational lens for that purpose.
The 28/2.8 has made something of a come-back with the advent of crop-factor dSLR’s: other than being f/2.8 rather than f/1.8, it rather nicely recreates the characteristics of the 50/1.8 Mk 1 on full-frame. However, in this role it’s less popular than the 35/2.0, because the latter is a stop brighter and still well within the « normal » range. I don’t have it myself, since my wide-angle needs are more than adequately covered by the 24 and 35, but going by what I’ve seen it should be a very worthy lens for this niche. Other than that it’s suffered the same fate as the 24 — eclipsed by standard zooms on the one hand, and its brighter siblings on the other.
The 35/2.0 is probably the most enduringly successful lens in the series. It’s a stop brighter than the standard zooms, optically excellent, light, compact, and much cheaper, more portable, and less intimidating than its f/1.4L sibling. It’s a popular choice for « normal lens » for the APS-C crop cameras, although the excellent Sigma 30/1.4 has ousted it from its spot of being the default choice for this mission. In my view a bit unfairly neglected among full-frame shooters who, with their bigger budgets, tend to gravitate towards the red stripe. Alone in the series, it still has its own, clear niches in both systems.
The 50/1.8 Mk 1 has been discontinued, and is highly sought after. Its successor is probably the most popular EF prime, and should the Mark 1 still be in production, it’s likely that it would be too. I suspect that Canon downgraded its build to make more room for the pricier 50/1.4 USM — at least I used to have both, and ended up selling the brighter, bigger sibling. On APS-C, it makes for a pretty nice portrait-length lens, although the bokeh leaves something to be desired in this mission.
The 50/2.5 Compact Macro is definitely a bit of an odd one out in the EF line-up. It’s a macro lens that doesn’t do « real » 1:1 macro. With the optional life-size converter, its price is getting close to that of the 100/2.8 USM Macro, and goes past the price of some excellent third-party 1:1 macro lenses, like the new Tokina 100/2.8 and Tamron 90/2.8. It’s optically very nice indeed, especially in the mission for which it was designed, but the focusing speed is a bit slow for regular shooting, and the background blur is on the harsh side. You have to have pretty specific needs indeed to spring for this lens instead of, say, the Sigma 50/2.8 Macro (which does go to 1:1) or one of the 100-ish macros, Canon or third-party. This is the lens that actually gains from being put on an APS-C body: its 1:2 magnification becomes the equivalent of 1:1.25, which is much more useful for macro photography. As such, it provides an optically impeccable, compact, and low-cost alternative for macro work on APS-C cameras.
The 135/2.8 Soft Focus has suffered a triple whammy on the prime front: the reasonably priced, well-built, brighter, and full-featured 85/1.8 USM and 100/2.0 USM at slightly shorter focal lengths, and the nec-plus-ultra 135/2.0L at double the weight and triple the price. What’s worse, the reasonably affordable and portable (for L zooms) 70-200/4.0L and IS L give it a run for its money optically, aperture for aperture, and have the additional benefits of zoom, professional-grade build, USM, and circular iris. The only rational reasons to choose it over the competition are an interest in soft-focus photography — or a really tight budget: it does offer top-drawer optical value at a price that’s unbeatable at its focal length, if you can live with « only » f/2.8 brightness. On APS-C it becomes the rough functional equivalent of a 200/2.8. However, it is not a very popular lens on that format either, I suspect largely because tele shooters want ring USM on their lenses — and, of course, the wide variety of telezooms available at all price points.
Despite being upstaged by their newer siblings, the Ugly Duckling primes are worth a close look for some specific needs. If weight and cost are a concern, this series is still the king in optical value per gram and per euro — the trade-offs are in features. They’re also the last connection the EF lens system has to the glory days when primes ruled the roost, lenses were made of crown and flint glass with carefully arranged spherical elements, ridiculously bright lenses were for snobs only, and zooms were for amateurs. In a way, they represent the last and best of an era in photographic lens design. Perhaps that has a certain charm in its own right.
« Bloodrose. » EOS-5D with 50/1.8 Mk 1.