Building A Canon Lens

“You can't go wrong mixing classic graphics in black and white. It's very Parisienne.”— Brad Goreski


The definition of classic is a “work of art of recognized and established value”, and lenses can be works of art. The title of Canon’s eponymous book, Lens Work III, says it all.  One way to assemble a lens kit was to start with a normal lens, such as Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM ($349.99), and add another lens by doubling the focal length on the long end of the focal length range or dividing in half of the short end. Looking at longer focal lengths, I’ve put together a kit that adds the Canon EF 100 mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens ($799.99), and doubling that, picking a zoom, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens ($1,949), both of which are part of the legendary L-series lenses.


Canon’s “L” series lenses are considered part of their professional line and there’s as much folklore about what that designation means, as what the “442” badge means on an Oldsmobile. The definitive answer is found in Lens Work III; The L stands for luxury. Like all L-series lenses, these two lenses are dust and moisture resistant and share a rugged build quality that typically results in them being heavier than their siblings. The Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, for example, weighs 3.28 lbs while my Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM non-L lens ($499) is 1.56 lbs.


When planning focal lengths for your lens system, the elephant in the room is the so-called multiplication factor, format factor or focal length multiplier and is the ratio a camera's imaging sensor’s dimensions compared to a reference format, typically the 24x36mm. Canon’s DSLRs with smaller APS-C (22.4 x 15.0mm) sensors, like the Canon EOS 7D Mark II, have a 1.6 ratio, so you multiply the focal length of the lens by that number to get the lens’s equivalent field-of-view. Be careful in your assumptions: the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM, for example, does not magically become a 80mm lens, but it’s angle-of-view is reduced to that of an 80mm lens. All other aspects of the lens, including depth-of-field remain the same as a 50mm lens.


The kit I’ve suggested includes both prime and zoom lenses. The whole zoom vs. prime lens controversy has long been laid to rest and zoom lenses are more than capable of producing sharp, crisp images that are the technical equal to primes of similar focal lengths. One question remains: What’s the best zoom focal length range? It seems to me and lots of other photographers that the most versatile range is 70-200mm.


Zoomin’ with the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM


The optical design of the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens uses one fluorite and five ultra-low dispersion optical elements for sharpness and reduced aberrations. The IS II optical image stabilizer provides up to for stops of correction and features two modes: Mode 1 for still images and Mode 2 for panning. An ultrasonic focusing motor provides fast and quiet AF with manual focus override. This lens has a minimum focusing distance of 3.9-feet at all zoom settings so you can shoot close to your subject even in crowded spaces.


As an internal focusing lens, it doesn’t change physical size during focus and that’s a good thing because this is a big one. It’s 7.8 inches long without the lens hood. A focus range limiter lets you set the range of focus enabling faster focusing times from 3.9-ft to infinity or 8.2-ft to infinity. On an APS-C sized (22.3mm x 14.9mm) sensor, like my Canon EOS 60D, it produces an angle-of-view of a 112-320mm lens.



The Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens is 7.8 inches long, but the lens hood adds 3.878 inches to its overall length. Here, the lens is mounted on an EOS 5D Mark I, that, in turn, is mounted on a tripod. © Joe Farace

For bokeh fans, the “truly round” aperture produced excellent out-of-focus areas during my outdoor portrait session. I mounted the lens on a tripod for the shoot because my left hand was suffering carpal-tunnel pain. When attaching the tripod’s quick release to the lens’s rotatable tripod collar, it interfered with my tripod’s tilt/pan head, preventing attachment the head. It worked perfectly when the QR was instead mounted on the camera body.


Tip: Shooting portraits on a tripod? Why not? I know some high school senior photographers who always place this lens on a tripod because of its triple-threat possibilities. It lets you shoot three images of the subject from the same camera position: full-length, three-quarters and a headshot. There’s other benefits as well, especially being able to make eye contact with the subject. Tip from my wife, Mary: With the camera on a tripod and not blocking your eye, you can look at the subject and smile and so will they!



Zooming the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM out to 135mm, I made the three-quarter length shot of Bella with a tripod-mounted Canon EOS 5D Mark I with an exposure of 1/125 at f/11 and ISO 320. And yes, the exposure of all three shots was identical due to the soft lighting created by overcast skies. © Joe Farace

Wildlife photography? Why not? It depends on how friendly the wildlife is. Most nature and wildlife photographer consider 400mm to be the starting point for their work, but for occasional shooting the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM isn’t too bad as can be seen by the accompanying image. Adding an Canon Extender EF 1.4x III ($429.99) increases the length to 280mm while reducing the effective maximum aperture by just one stop. You can cheat this to 448mm by mounting the lens/extender combo on an APS-C camera giving the field-of-view of a 448mm lens. I did something similar by attaching the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens to my Canon EOS 60D to photograph a young mule deer resting while digesting their food aka local landscaping. At 200mm (320mm equivalent), I was able to fill the frame with one young deer while including his sibling in the background.


Shooting the Nifty Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM


In my review of this lens. I suggested the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM is the perfect first lens for a Canon system because the focal length is so versatile. Everybody knows the best focal length for portraits is from 85 to 105mm but I put the lens to the test in a studio session and shot a few portraits with the nifty fifty. The first portrait you see was made using my Paul C. Buff monolights and maybe I cheated by shooting it with my Canon EOS 60D, giving me the angle-of-view of an 80mm lens. I was so pleased with the look of the flash portrait that I decided to test the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM’s low light capability at the same time and cranked the camera’s ISO up to 800 and shot a brief series of portraits using only the light’s modeling lights. I also changed the camera’s white balance to incandescent and the resulting portrait is slightly warmer and softer with shallow-depth-of-field. Which is better? You decide.


With the lens still attached to the Canon EOS 60D, I headed out to photograph automobiles at a local Cars and Coffee event. Ernst Haas once said, “Best wide-angle lens? Two steps backward.” I employed that technique at the car show to photograph both full-length shots and close-ups of sections of classic muscle cars. I took two steps back but cropped one image using the 16:9 ratio because all Cars and Coffee events have lots of people walking around and into and out of the frame. Tip: This cropping ratio minimizes distractions and places the viewer’s focus on the cars.


A fast lens like the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM is obviously useful for low light photography and my previous real world testing showed that this lens was less than crisp when shot wide open. When photographing O’Brien Park’s gazebo illuminated for the holidays, it became quickly apparent when shooting hand held at the f/8 sweet spot was a non-starter, so I cranked the aperture wide open and, while technically less than perfect, it perfectly captured the mood and memories of being there.



For this shot of O’Brien Park’s gazebo illuminated for the holidays, I could, of course, used a tripod and shot the images at the lens’s sharpness sweet spot of f/8, but the couple in the center of the frame would have been blurred by the resulting slow shutter speed. Exposure for the hand held shot was 1/25 sec at f/1.4 and ISO 640. There are those photographers who always keep a tripod in their car’s trunk; I am not one of them. © Joe Farace

Adding an extension tube, such as Canon’s Extension Tube EF 25 II ($168), lets you increase the lens’s close focusing beyond its modest 18-inch limit. Using Canon's EOS 60D did give me the angle-of-view of an 80mm lens, without having to crop in post- production.


Two or Three lenses in One: The Canon EF 100 mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM


By using the Canon EF 100 mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM on a Canon DSLR with an APS-C sensor, you’ll get the equivalent field-of-view of a 160mm lens. That may seem a bit too long for portraits in small spaces like my 11x15-ft home studio, but it turns out that it’s perfect for the headshots that I made of a mathematics professor.


You can use longer focal length macro lenses to shoot portraits but like everything else in photography every decision involves a tradeoff. Or as Rumpelstiltskin is fond of saying, “Magic comes with a price.” It’s a good idea to avoid cross lighting in the studio or on location that can skim a subject’s face because no matter how beautiful your subject may be, this kind of lighting is not flattering. Keep your portrait lighting simple and soft, or you can also just shoot and, as I often do, use various soft focus and diffusion software in the digital darkroom.


Tip: Portrait too sharp? One of my favorite fixes for a super crisp portrait is the Glamour Glow filter that’s part of Color Efex Pro package of special effects plug-ins. The best part is that the effect is applied to a new layer, so you can use Photoshop’s Opacity slider in the Layers palette and reduce the effect’s opacity to achieve a more natural look than most soft focus/diffusion filters normally produce at full strength. Another tip: Zoom in on the subject’s face, start at 100% then back off the opacity setting until the effect almost disappears, then move it slightly forward (higher) for the best look for a particular image. As always, season to taste.


On an unseasonably warm November day, Mary and I took a walk around 17 Mile Farm Park and I brought along a Canon EOS 5D Mark I with the Canon EF 100 mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, shooting some close-ups, which it excelled at as well as the kind of shots a well-made 100mm lens could also make. In shooting the farm’s Loafing Shed, I made two images: one is an overall view of the rustic fence surrounding it, and then I went into close-up mode capturing the top of one of the fence’s slats. Impressive performance all around. The lens comes with a hood and, although I never encountered a hint of flare when shooting outdoors without it, it’s a good idea to keep it attached if only to protect the front element of the lens.


Building a lens system is not a simple process, but you have to curate it by making sure the focal length ranges covered by the lenses meet your photographic needs. What you’ve seen is just one possible scenario aimed at the normal to longer-than-normal focal length ranges. A landscape photographer would flip this approach around by starting with a 50mm lens and dividing the focal length range in half, then dividing that in half, perhaps sprinkling in a zoom or two. As always, let your piggy bank be your guide and add lenses one at a time as you gain experience with each new lens added to your system. Happy hunting.


Sidebar: EF vs. EF-S Lenses


The EF (Electro-Focus) lens mount is the standard mount for the Canon EOS family of SLR film and digital cameras and was originally introduced in 1987 for the Canon EOS 60D. In the EF lens system, auto-focus is produced by an electric motor built into the lens. The EF-S lens mount introduced in 2003 is designed for Canon DSLRs that use APS-C sized image sensors. Cameras with the EF-S mount are backwardly compatible with EF lenses, but EF-S lenses will not physically mount on cameras designed with EF mounts. That’s mostly because they have a flange focal distance of 44mm, allowing lens elements to be closer to the sensor than the EF mount permits.