Is the “L” worth it: Comparison of Canon’s 100mm F/2.8 Macros (Day 1)

I’ve been a Canon shooter for years. I used my dad’s AE-1 until I picked up a Canon Rebel XT about 7 years ago. Due to budgetary constraints, I’ve always looked for the best value lenses instead of just running out and getting the “L” variant of whatever lens I needed. It’s no secret that Canon puts out some great lenses that won’t break the bank, e.g. Canon 50mm F/1.8 or the Canon 85mm F/1.8, but most Canon shooters lust for the lenses with the magical red ring. Now that I’m older, with a better job/income, I’ve been able to pick up a Canon 5D and a few L lenses, specifically the Canon 17-40 F/4L and the Canon 70-200mm F/4L IS. I adore both lenses but they weren’t cheap and I often ask myself if they are REALLY worth the price. I’ve recently been bitten by the macro bug and I’ve looking for a solid 100mm macro lens. I noticed that Canon has two offerings that fit the bill, one is an L and the other is not. I’ve heard great things about both lenses so I thought I would give both lenses a shot to see if the L variant is really worth the extra money when it comes to 100mm macros.

The Contenders

Specs

Canon Telephoto EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
Focal Length 100 mm 100 mm
Aperture Maximum: f/2.8 Maximum: f/2.8
Minimum: f/32 Minimum: f/32
Camera Mount Type Canon EF Canon EF
Format Compatibility 35mm Film / Full-Frame Digital Sensor 35mm Film / Full-Frame Digital Sensor
Canon (APS-C) Canon (APS-C)
Angle of View 24° 24°
Minimum Focus Distance 1′ (30.48cm) 1′ (30.48cm)
Magnification 1x 1x
Maximum Reproduction Ratio 1:01 1:01
Groups/Elements 8/12 12/15
Diaphragm Blades 8 9
Features
Image Stabilization No Yes
Autofocus Yes Yes
Tripod Collar No No
Physical
Filter Thread 58mm 67mm
Dimensions (DxL) Approx. 3.1 x 4.7″ (7.87 x 11.94cm) Approx. 3.06 x 4.84″ (7.77 x 12.29cm)
Weight 1.28 lb (580g) 1.38 lb (625g)

Look and Feel

Surprisingly, the two lenses look and feel the very similar at first glance but as you take a closer look, you will notice a few differences. The F/2.8L has a much smoother focus ring, a larger front element, and the quality of plastic just feels better on the L. Neither lens feels cheap, but the L does feel a bit more polished. One thing you can’t tell just by feel is that the L is weather sealed. Just make sure your camera is weather sealed before you go out and play in the rain with a weather sealed lens.

I was actually surprised at how light the L was compared to the non L version. I figured with more elements and IS, the L would be significantly heavier. When I was holding both, I honestly couldn’t tell a difference in weight at all. I had to look at the spec sheets to see which one was heavier which happens to be the L by a few tenths of a pound. Impressive.

While both lenses are 100mm F/2.8 Macros, most of the significant differences between the lenses are internal. The L has Image Stabilization (up to 4 stops of assistance), one more aperture blade, and it has more lens groups and elements.

Initial Observations

I’ve only had the chance to take a few shots but I’ve noticed a few differences already. The F/2.8L seems to focus faster and the focusing motor is dead quiet. The F/2.8 USM isn’t slow or what I would call noisy, but when shot side-by-side with the F/2.8L there is a noticeable difference. One thing I really like about the both lenses is the switch to limit the AF range. My Canon 70-200 F/4 IS has the same switch and it actually comes in quite handy. Because macro lenses have huge focus ranges, it can take a long time for the AF to move through this entire range. By limiting the AF’s search range, you are able to significantly speed up your AF times.

Side note, using these macro lenses on my Canon 5D (original) really shows how bad the AF system is with this camera. Even with good light, if I use anything other than the center focus point, the Canon 5D will just hunt back and forth for something to lock on to. Canon should be ashamed of themselves for making a “pro” camera with AF this bad. I’ve used a Canon 5D MkII and while AF is slightly better, it is still not even close to Nikon‘s offerings. I have yet to use a Canon 7D, but I’ve heard it’s MUCH better that the Canon 5D.

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