There are simply very few areas where the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM doesn't excel. It's very sharp corner to corner from f/2.8 through f/8, the bokeh looks superb in most situations, and distortion and chromatic aberration are virtually nonexistent. It's not a perfect lens (there's no such thing), and there are specific issues macro shooters will need to look out for, but generally it's a very strong performance.
If you’re looking for a dedicated macro lens to use with a Canon DSLR, you’ve got a few choices. Within Canon’s own lineup, there are two great options: the EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro and the EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM. The "L" version is bigger, heavier, and more expensive, but also features image stabilization, a quiet USM focus motor, and improved performance.
Both lenses are perfect for close-up photography. The 100mm focal length gets in good and close, and the lens’s 1:1 magnification means that objects will be just as large on the image sensor as they are in real life (the definition of a true “macro” lens).
We put the 100mm f/2.8L through its paces in our lab to see if it’s worth the extra $300 over its non-L cousin. If you're looking for a TL;DR summary, it's this: This is the best macro lens for Canon DSLRs—especially if you like to shoot handheld. But if you want more detail, read on.
The L version of this lens is best suited to photographers who will use it in a professional capacity. The rugged build quality common to all L-series lenses will help it stand up to hard work in the field, and the extra weight may actually improve handling.
That said, you don't need to be a pro to appreciate what this lens has to offer. Optical image stabilization, for instance, ups the 100mm f/2.8L's versatility vs. its cheaper counterpart, allowing for handheld shooting with little worry of motion blur.
The 100mm f/2.8L is a stellar macro lens, but it's useful for more than that. It can also function quite well as a portrait lens in a pinch. It's more expensive than wider aperture primes like the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8, but if you enjoy both portraiture and macro work, you can kill both birds with this one sub-$1,000 stone.
A lens's sharpness is its ability to render the finest details in photographs. In testing a lens, we consider sharpness across the entire frame, from the center of your images out to the extreme corners, using an average that gives extra weight to center performance. We quantify sharpness using line widths per picture height (LW/PH) at a contrast of MTF50.
In our lab testing, the Canon f/2.8L Macro IS USM produced excellent results across the frame, from wide open at f/2.8 all the way to its peak sharpness at f/8. In that range, it consistently averaged over 2,100 lines across the corners, midway, and center regions. That kind of consistency is a hallmark of macro lenses, which photographers turn to when they want to fill the entire frame with a given subject.
Sharpness drops off once you move beyond f/8, as the diffraction limit kicks in. By f/11, resolution drops to just 1,800 lines across the frame. At f/16 it dwindles further to about 1,650 lines, and at the minimum aperture of f/32 you'll get less than 1,100 lines—far too soft for pro-level work.
We penalize lenses for distortion when they bend or warp images, causing normally straight lines to curve.
There are two primary types of distortion: When the center of the frame seems to bulge outward toward you, that’s barrel distortion. It's typically a result of the challenges inherent in designing wide-angle lenses. When the center of the image looks like it's being sucked in, that’s pincushion distortion. Pincushion is more common in telephoto lenses. A third, less common variety (mustache distortion) produces wavy lines.
The Canon 100mm f/2.8L, like most macro lenses, is virtually distortion-free. It produces just 0.4% pincushion distortion, which is hardly noticeable.
Like other L-series glass, the EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM is an extremely well-built lens. Its focus ring has a pleasing level of resistance and a long enough throw that you can reliably make minute focus adjustments. That's especially useful at macro working distances, where you'll want incredibly precise control over the focal point.
Just behind the focus ring you'll find a switch to engage or disengage the autofocus motor. Just below the AF/MF switch is the focus limiter.
You know the long focus throw I just mentioned? Well, it takes the AF system a while to search through the entire throw, which can be a real problem if you're only using one end of the focus range. When you're shooting insects, for instance, you can set the limiter to the 0.5-0.3m setting to keep it from trying to find bugs on the horizon. There's a similar setting for distant subjects, or you can choose to give the AF system free reign.
Image stabilization is also useful for macro work. This was the first of Canon’s macro lenses to utilize its IS system, and it provides up to two stops of stabilization at macro shooting range. That's essential for handheld work, where every little movement becomes extra evident.
The Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L is, first and foremost, a macro lens. It was clearly designed with that in mind—something the performance we observed both in and out of the lab made that abundantly clear. The lens doesn't shoot for world-class center sharpness or an outsized maximum aperture at the expense of corner performance.
In the lab, the 100mm f/2.8L (mounted on the Canon 5D Mark III) didn't quite match up to the sharpest primes in Canon's lineup. It's very, very good, but there are lenses that are sharper in the center. What's remarkable, however, is that from wide open at f/2.8 to its peak around f/8 it's very good everywhere, with no noticeable difference in sharpness between the center and the corner.
One word of advice: Avoid apertures smaller than f/11. Though f/16, f/22, and f/32 will give you more depth of field, the resulting shots are very, very soft. If you absolutely need more depth of field to get all of your subject in focus, we highly recommend using a wider aperture and focus stacking.
Of course, the quality of the out-of-focus areas is just as important as sharpness. At macro working distances we were very impressed with the 100mm f/2.8L's bokeh—it's nice and creamy smooth. When using the lens at more conventional working distances (say, 10 to 15 feet) the bokeh is still good, but it's slightly more nervous and can be distracting with "busier" backgrounds.
Below you can see sample photos taken with the EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM mounted on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. Click the link below each photo to download the full-resolution image.
Chromatic aberration refers to the various types of “fringing” that can appear around high contrast subjects in photos—like leaves set against a bright sky. The fringing is usually either green, blue, or magenta and while it’s relatively easy to remove the offensive color with software, it can also degrade image sharpness.
Continuing the theme of strong corner-to-corner performance, the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro also keeps chromatic aberration to a minimum. It ever so slightly crosses from the "insignificant" range into "minor," but it's a venial sin at worst.
You might notice it in certain situations at the extreme corner of the frame, but it can be easily corrected in any photo editing software.
Bokeh refers to the quality of the out of focus areas in a photo. It's important for a lens to render your subject with sharp details, but it's just as important that the background not distract from the focus of your shot.
While some lenses have bokeh that's prized for its unique characteristics, most simply aim to produce extremely smooth backgrounds. In particular, photographers prize lenses that can produce bokeh with circular highlights that are free of aspherical distortion (or “coma”).
With your typical 100mm lens, an f/2.8 maximum aperture wouldn't produce the subject/background separation necessary to produce truly stellar bokeh. But with its 1:1 macro capabilities, the 100mm f/2.8L IS USM isn't your average 100mm f/2.8 lens. Indeed, at macro working distance the bokeh is nice and smooth, free of the distracting "busy" quality that plagues lesser lenses.
At more longer working distances, bokeh is still good, but we weren't quite as wowed. Points of light in the background, for example, aren't rendered as perfectly round shapes. They're smooth and creamy, but you will notice some coma near the edge of the frame.
For macro work and professional product photography, the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro is about as good as it gets. But even that's selling this phenomenal piece of glass short. Top-shelf build quality, excellent sharpness, and image stabilization make this a lens that's useful for more than just speciality shooting scenarios.
While it's a no-brainer for macro photography, we also found that the 100mm f/2.8L is an excellent portrait lens. With a short telephoto focal length and admirable bokeh, it can easily function as a stand-in for classic portrait lenses like Canon’s 85mm primes.
And even if you’re shooting on a smaller sensor—the kind found in Canon’s Rebel line of DSLRs—the EF 100mm f/2.8L is a solid choice. You’ll have to cope with the longer 150mm effective focal length, but that only increases the lens's magnification while also making it an effective choice for sports and wildlife shooting (as long as you make use of the focus limiter).
The biggest drawback here is the price. If you don't care about macro work, you can get a fast prime like the EF 85mm f/1.8 for far less. And even if you do love macro work, the cheaper non-L 100mm f/2.8 Macro is a serious bargain at a little more than half the price. It's not as good, of course, but few lenses are.
Meet the tester
TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.
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