Is the “L” worth it: Comparison of Canon’s 100mm F/2.8 Macros (Day 3)

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM Lens

In day 2 of the review we found that, when used on a tripod, the performance was very close between these 100mm macro lenses. So what happens when we take the camera off of the tripod? Let’s find out.

Equipment

Results

Canon EF 100mm F/2.8 USM Macro Autofocus Lens

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM Lens

Note: I was slightly closer to the flower in the first image than I was with the second. This created a shallower depth of field which also means less room for error. Remember, all photos in this post were taken hand held. I tried to get similar framing to make it easier to compare these lenses but that can really only be done accurately with a tripod. Hey, I tried my best. Also, no post processing has been done except converting from RAW to JPEG. Click on an image to view the full sized version.

As I stated in day 2, the F/2.8L had a minor edge over the F/2.8 USM when using a tripod. The thing is, you can’t always bring a tripod with you and some people simply refuse to use tripods. This is where the F/2.8L starts to creep ahead of the F/2.8 USM. Besides having more elements and lens groups, the L‘s big selling point is Image Stabilization, or I.S. The F/2.8L‘s I.S. allows for up to 4 stops of compensation which can be the difference between grabbing the perfect shot or getting a useless blurred image. Keep in mind that I.S. can only help you grab a clean shot if your subject isn’t moving which is something that doesn’t always happen in macro photography. Having said that, it is quite confidence-inspiring to see your shaky image snap into focus and become almost perfectly still when I.S. kicks in. I have the Canon 70-200mm F/4 IS and I.S. is a lifesaver with this lens. For me, I prefer to have I.S. with any lens over 135mm on my 5D. I definitely had more keepers with the F/2.8L when shooting close to the minimum focus distance of these lenses. If there is enough available light to keep your shutter speeds up, I.S. can still help but it will be come less of an advantage over the F/2.8 USM.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro Autofocus Lens

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM Lens

As you can see from the images below, both lenses can produce images with razor thin DOF. Because of this, hand holding these lenses at their minimum focus distance while shooting wide open (F/2.8) can be extremely challenging. I.S. certainly does help but it cannot account for any front to back motion that may occur which is very hard to eliminate when shooting these lenses at close range, while shooting wide open and hand holding the camera. If you plan on shooting wide open and near the minimum focus distance with either of these lenses, you should really use a tripod.

Other Observations

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM Lens

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro Autofocus Lens

The results are pretty consistent with what we saw on day 2. Images from both lenses look excellent but the F/2.8L has a slight edge over the F/2.8 USM. The L is sharper, has better contrast and saturation is more consistent and natural. Charts and complicated tests will most likely show the F/2.8L being superior to the F/2.8 USM, but I personally don’t think there is a drastic difference between the two. Yes, there is a visible difference if you compare them side by side but with very minor adjustments in post processing you could make the F/2.8 USM look indistinguishable from the F/2.8L.

If you simply refuse to use a tripod, which is a bad idea for macro photography, and you want the best out of camera image possible, the F/2.8L will most likely produce more keepers while producing slightly better results over the F/2.8 USM.

Even after three days, it’s still hard for me to recommend one lens over the other. We still have a few more comparisons to do with these lenses so be sure to check back for more on this lens comparison.

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