LENSTOPIA – The 5 Top Lenses For Your Camera, Part I: Canon

So you just dropped an entire month’s pay on a super nice camera body. Ok. Take a breath. That was a big jump, and we want you making smart moves going forward. Yes, the lens is important. And yes, you can spend 10x what you just spent on a body on good glass. But before you go cashing in that 401k to buy one of each (dear god don’t), soak in the knowledge below. We shoot almost EVERY camera brand for one thing or another. Nikon for stills. Canon dSLR for video. Hasselblad for high end studio / fashion, etc etc. So my video guru Erik, yours truly, and my gear editor pal Sohail decided to put together a little series of blog posts. Over the next weeks we will break down the top lenses from several manufacturers, with an eye on application. If you know what kind of photography you want to do [or are already doing], there’s a great lens or two for you.
Update: Here’s the Nikon lens post. Here’s the Hasselblad lens post. Here’s the Mirrorless and Micro 4/3 lens post.

“Which lens should I buy?” is a question I get just about as often as “which camera should I buy?”, and in both cases, I respond with the same two words: “It depends.”

Yet despite that rote answer, there are a few standouts from each major manufacturers that can be cited as their “top” lens. We’ve had the (somewhat dubious) privilege of using pretty much all of them, and we’re going to present the five best lenses for each platform we use on a frequent basis. This is a four-part series, and we’ll be publishing them in the following order:

  1. Canon
  2. Nikon
  3. Hasselblad
  4. Mirrorless cameras, including Micro 4/3, Sony E-mount, and Fuji X-mount.
That said, we’re starting today with Canon – our default dSLR video rig but you can consider the below advice for stills too.


100mm f/2.8L IS Macro

Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro

Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro

This is perhaps my favorite single lens of all time. When the folks over at DPReview did a review of this lens, this was the first sentence of their conclusion:

Just occasionally a lens turns up which delivers such implausibly good results in our studio tests that I have to go back and repeat everything, double checking all settings to make sure I haven’t done something wrong.

This lens really is that good. You start with a hybrid Image Stabilization system that compensates for horizontal and vertical shifts as well as lens direction, then throw in an 9-bladed rounded iris that makes for dope bokeh. Add optics that give you the some of the most razor-sharp images you can imagine, and you have a knockout combination.

And if you’re looking for a good portrait lens at the same time as a solid Macro offering, look no further; the 100 L Macro makes for an tidy portrait lens as well.

Buy it here.
Borrow it here.

Image from a work in progress series of still lifes. Shot with a 5D Mark III and a 100mm f/2.8L Macro. © Sohail Mamdani

Image from a work in progress series of still lifes. Shot with a 5D Mark III and a 100mm f/2.8L Macro. © Sohail Mamdani

85mm f/1.2L USM

Canon 85mm f/1.2L

Canon 85mm f/1.2L

The “Magic Canonball” [sic] as it’s come to be known, is perhaps one of the most popular portrait lenses, ever. If you’ve got the coin to drop on it, the Canon 85mm f/1.2L has some of the creamiest bokeh we’ve seen. It’s also one of the largest 85mm lenses outside of the Zeiss or Canon Cine versions. That front element even makes the posers look like pros.

Sohail once wrote of this lens, “You could shoot a portrait in front of a dumpster and as long as you shot it at f/1.2 or f/1.4, all you’re going to see is some soft, blurry shapes in the background that give no indication that you’re in that nasty alley behind your local convenience store.” That’s completely true, but be aware of one thing: I’ve often gotten a subject’s eyelashes in perfect focus, while their irises are soft. Be aware.

Then why would you buy an f/1.2 lens? Because, to quote my homie Zack Arias, “The optics in faster lenses are ‘typically’ much better than in the slower lenses. f13 can still yield a better image from a pro fast lens than a slow kit lens. Not all lenses are equal once you get past f8.”

Buy it here.
Borrow it here.

Canon 24mm f/3.5L TS-E II

Canon 24mm f/3.5 TS-E II

Canon 24mm f/3.5 TS-E II

Tilt-shift lenses are strange ducks, but they are, without a doubt, some of the coolest lenses to play with. I used to shoot action sports with them in the early 2000’s and it would blow the minds of art directors and editors everywhere. Get to know them well and you’ll find yourself using them for all kinds of things you didn’t know you could pull off with them. (But don’t overuse them or you’ll be “that guy/gal”

That said, it’s not the Canon 24mm f/3.5L TS-E II’s tilt-shift functionality that we love this lens for (though have used that extensively). We dig it because it is one of the sharpest 24mm optics that Canon puts out. And that makes it a go-to landscape lens on the Canon platform as well. It’s fun. Even wide-open, the lens is tack-sharp. Close the aperture down a bit and you’ll kill the tiny bit of purple fringing in your stars overhead, and sharpen up that image even more. Then use the shift functionality to ensure against converging lines and viola! You’ve got a killer combo in your hands.

One last thing to keep in mind here – this is a manual-focus lens, as most tilt-shift lenses are. Bad eyesight? Get glasses or pass on this sucker.

Buy it here.
Borrow it here.

Taken with a 5D Mark II and 24mm f/3.5 TS-E II lens

Taken with a 5D Mark II and 24mm f/3.5 TS-E II lens

Canon 24-70 f/2.8L II

Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 Mark II

Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 Mark II

While it was certainly a workhorse, the original Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 was getting long in the tooth, and enjoyed a love-hate relationship with many a photographer. On the one hand, it was the ideal mid-range zoom, had a fast aperture, and was the first lens most photographers, pro and aspiring, bought. On the other hand, it suffered from less-than-stellar optics (compared to the current crop of lenses from Canon) and was notoriously soft in the corners. When Canon announced the new version of the 24-70, the first thing that hit most folks was sticker shock. The lens retailed for a groan-inducing $2300 (street price), far more than its original counterpart. Worse, there was no image stabilization included, despite the high price. Add to that the fact that Tamron had just introduced a 24-70 f/2.8 with Vibration Compensation for about half the price, and the photographic community was ready throw rotten tomatoes at Canon’s money-grubbing tactics.

After the fervor settled down and folks started to realize that the optics on this new lens weren’t “pretty good” they were “Superb, almost flawless -DPreview.” This was born out by even the simplest of tests – shooting an Edmunds resolution chart with the old and new models side-by-side. People began to rave about the build quality, the flare resistance, the quick and accurate focusing, and sure enough, Canon turned what could’ve been a liability into a new legend.

Buy it here.
Borrow it here.

Canon 600mm f/4 II

Canon 600mm f/4 II

Canon 600mm f/4 II

Got about $13,000 lying around? That’s how much this baby from Canon is going to set you back (though of course, you could rent it for a lot less).

But for those needing a long, fast lens (wildlife photographers, for example), this is about as good as it gets in the Canon lineup. Pair it with a 1Dx and you’ve got what is easily one of the finest long lens combos we’ve ever had the pleasure of playing with. It’s a good 3 lbs lighter than the Mark I version of this lens, which honestly does make a good bit of difference when you’re lugging this down a rough path to get to that perfect vantage point. Moreover, Canon has improved the autofocus speed and accuracy on this lens. On tests with the 1Dx and the 600mm Mark II, Sohail shot about six or seven bursts of between 8 to 17 shots each, and each time, I’d have no more than one shot out of focus. For someone who photographs birds more as an amateur passion, getting this sort of accuracy is nothing short of remarkable.

This is, no doubt, a specialty lens, and requires a few accessories to go with it, such as a sturdy tripod, a gimbal head, and a fast camera at the small end. But get all those in place, and the first time you fill your frame with a swooping bird as it comes in for a landing, or a tiny hummingbird hovering in mid-air, and you’ll find that it’s well worth the cost and hassle.

Buy it here.
Borrow it here.

Great Egret touchdown. Shot with a 1Dx and a Canon 600mm f/4 II

Great Egret touchdown. Shot with a 1Dx and a Canon 600mm f/4 II

That’s it for this edition of Lenstopia. In the next installment, we’ll take on the best Nikon has to offer.

Gear provided by BorrowLenses.com – where still photographers and videographers can rent virtually everything.

61 Responses to LENSTOPIA – The 5 Top Lenses For Your Camera, Part I: Canon

  1. Chase November 22, 2013 at 10:02 am #

    No love for the sharpest DSLR lens on the planet? The Canon 70-200 MKII?

    • Colin November 22, 2013 at 10:35 am #

      Tough to exclude the 70-200 f2.8, the workhorse zoom in everyone’s bag… but I’m not sure which I would knock off the list. I doubt I could narrow it down to just 5!

      • Chase November 22, 2013 at 6:36 pm #

        Out of pocket here… But we ruled out the 70-200 2.8 because, even while this post is relative (ie all canon) we think the Nikon version is so much stronger we though we ought not drop it here… Looking at some other lenses where canon glass truly stands out (even from itself)

        • Daf November 25, 2013 at 5:29 am #

          Significant price difference too! (Here in UK Nikon is ~£1600 Canon is £1900)

        • Chase November 25, 2013 at 7:13 am #

          Not starting a brand war, Im really curious to see the thoughts on the Nikon 70-200 2.8. Its always seems darker and less contrast to me, but Im open to hearing and looking at it.

        • Alex December 29, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

          Weird that you’re saying that because from the tests i’ve seen the canon beats the nikon in image quality plus its minimum focus distance is way smaller which is really important IMHO. Note that I haven’t used any and think both brands are great.

  2. Michael Comeau November 22, 2013 at 10:43 am #

    I stopped reading at ‘dope bokeh’.

    • Chase November 22, 2013 at 6:38 pm #

      So I take it you didn’t like the tongue in check vernacular :-/. Sorry u missed it or it wasn’t even more blatant. (More than 1000 posts on this blog and never said that word before cause I hate it so much

      • Moses November 23, 2013 at 12:53 am #

        Hey Chase, you don’t really need to be sorry for the words you used just because someone feels offended by something mild like dope. You can’t please everyone and I feel you have every right in the world to express yourself in whatever words you deem fit. Heck you even used “fuck” in your one of your shows and we’re all cool about it :)

    • Tim Roper November 23, 2013 at 4:51 pm #

      I was actually stoked to hear about the dope bokeh.

      • James Ogle May 30, 2014 at 5:31 pm #

        I’ve got it and have to say the the bokeh is indeed Dope as.

      • Peter June 7, 2014 at 7:28 am #

        You were stoked to hear about the dope bokeh, BRO.

  3. runbei November 22, 2013 at 10:54 am #

    Hey Chase, this is way too Canonical a list for me – will look forward to your review of Nikon glass. For my (lack of) money, a photographer on a budget could make do quite wonderfully with just three Nikkor lenses, assuming a full-frame sensor: 20mm/2.8, 24-70/2.8, 80-200/2.8. I found those three lenses stupendously useful when I worked in sports and journalism. (Now carry a pocket Sony.)

  4. Daniel Rodriguez November 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

    If we talk of a real Lenstopia we have to talk about 50mm f1.0 more than a 85mm f1.2, and a 1800mm than a 600mm. Those are really epic lens, and of course the 70-200mm f2.8 IS USM II. Personally i love too the 8-15mm because its unique fish lens zoom capability!!!

  5. Melissa- Continuum Weddings November 22, 2013 at 6:11 pm #

    The 85mm is my go to lens… it’s pretty great. I’ve also heard good things about the Sigma 85mm

  6. faisal November 23, 2013 at 6:51 am #

    NIce, yes, expensive, another yes.

  7. Martin Klimek November 23, 2013 at 9:45 am #

    I bought a later iteration of the original 24-70mm in 2010 – and of course the Mark II was released a few moths later :( – but I shoot with that lens wide open all the time and am never, ever disappointed; tack sharp, every time. And I must concur on the 100/2.8. Again, shooting portraits wide open and hand held at 1/15. It’s a game-changer.

  8. Nicolae Cioloca November 23, 2013 at 11:06 am #

    Number ONE, Canon. Just the right place :-)

  9. Anthony November 23, 2013 at 1:30 pm #

    Paid for by Canon. Thanks. But no one canon is better than its Nikon counterpart.

    • MikeD November 25, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

      It’s hard for a Nikon to be on the list of best Canon lenses no matter how good it it..part 2 is Nikon. I ‘ll bet not even one Canon lens shows up on that list

    • Alealeale December 29, 2013 at 3:29 pm #

      @anthony well actually most canon lenses are better than the nikkor/nikon’s ones. Example: 24 tse, 24-70, 70-200, 200-400, 100mmL, 200f2, 300 f2.8 is v2, 400 2.8 is v2, 500 4 is v2, 600 is 4 v2. And the list goes on. The only nikon lenses that are better are the 14-24 2.8, the 80-400, and the 800 f5,6 which is normal because canon are gonna release their updates for these lenses soon and beat the crap our of nikkor’s. Only the sensors are better from nikon but they ain’t even nikon’s their sony’s. And when canon is gonna come out with their OWN high mp body every one will be blown away. It’s not that nikon’s bad, its actually quite good but canon is amazing.

  10. Tania Gail November 24, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

    Rented the Canon 100mm f/2.8 L this weekend and plan to rent the non-IS version in order to determine which lens to buy. So far, I agree with your assessment of this lens. It’s a fantastic lens, I’ve no complaints and can see this becoming a go-to lens.

    Also, I own the 70-200 f/4.0 lens and love it!

  11. Ray Urner November 25, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

    Wanting the hell out of that 100……!

  12. Dan Thompson November 27, 2013 at 1:02 pm #

    I stopped reading at dope bokeh too, but to start day dreaming of using that lens…. Then I started reading again :)

    I’ve got to say I’ve got the 70-200 f4 non-is and it’s super sharp, I love using it when I can.

  13. Leon November 27, 2013 at 1:58 pm #

    I agree that you should continue to use your natural language chase – it’s the reason I love your review videos. They are not pretentious and very naturalistic :)

  14. Rainer Behrens November 27, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

    Thanks for putting this list together.
    I have to agree with the order of your list.
    We have two 100mm f2.8 V2 Canon Macros and they are the goto lenses for most projects.
    They display the same sharpness which shows that Canon has a good handle on quality control. (bought two years apart)
    For the 85mm f1.2 I have to agree with the focusing issue. The lens is very sharp but you have to punch in with the focus assist when shooting wide open. When you nail it, its awesome.
    For the Tilt-Shift I would spend my money on the TS-E 17mm f4, when going wide, go all the way.
    I have rented both lenses and was definitely drawn to the 17mm.
    Love our 16-35mm f2.8 this could have made the list. Not?
    We use the f24-105mm f4 for video projects as is has IS and has proven itself to be very versatile. F4 is fine especially for one-man-band shoots.
    The 600mm is very specialized and maybe used too seldom by most people.

    I agree with previous posts that the 70-200mm f2.8 should have made the list.
    It is the most popular lens at B&H for a reason.

    Thank you Chase Jarvis for all you do to advance the art form that we love.

  15. DQ November 29, 2013 at 8:45 pm #

    the 70-200, which you don’t like, is a very sharp lens but it weighs a ton; i sold mine and carry the f4 which is sharp enough a pleasure to use. i bought the 24-70 2.8 II — it is UNBELIEVABLY sharp and i have a LOVE/HATE relationship with it. it just makes me mad, it’s so heavy. yes, i have a weight bias… but you’ll feel the effects of this after a full day’s shoot.
    stlll, if you can live without “dope bokeh,” you can also live without your 28, 35 1.4, 50 1.4 and probably your 85.1.8 if you decide to use this lens. i used to own the 24-105 f4, a nice lens, but nowhere near as screaming sharp as this.

    carry on Chase!

  16. Monte December 9, 2013 at 11:41 am #

    Looking for Part II … coming out anytime soon?

  17. Abbey December 26, 2013 at 9:40 am #

    Hi Chase, thank you for the info, definitely going to check out the 100mm f/2.8 IS Macro. Already have two of the others on the list and absolutely love them.

    Looking forward to reading about the next brands. I’m really interested in why Nikon makes your list for stills over Canon. I have to make due with what I have since I own Canon and won’t be switching to Nikon anytime soon and only shoot stills for the time being. Hopefully my trusted Canon will keep me going for a long time.

    Also, do you recommend any filters for 82mm that aren’t polarizing. Thanks!

  18. Alealeale December 29, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

    My pick would’ve been : 24-70 2.8 v2, 70-200 2.8 is v2, 200-400 4 is 1.4x, 17 tse, 600mm 4 is v2
    Nikon: 14-24 2.8, the rest ain’t great

  19. heri February 5, 2014 at 12:40 pm #

    For photography, my #1 canon lens would be the 135 f2L lens. Amazing bokeh, 3D effect, wonderful colors. (see her http://www.boredpanda.com/animal-children-photography-elena-shumilova/ )

    Also : all the Canon wide angle lens s*ck, even the L ones. There. I said it. Better get a Zeiss (or last choice, a Nikon).

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  25. Isaac Insoll September 3, 2014 at 4:55 am #

    You are right, I love the 100mm 2.8L IS Macro lens. It’s amazing.
    I agree with your 24-70mm 2.8L Mk II, but, like others have posted can’t believe you missed the 70-200mm F2.8L IS MkII.

    I’d be very interested to hear what options 6-10 are :)

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    Zeiss branded but Canon/Nikon mount… 85mm f/1.4 really rocks :D

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  28. Matt Saunders December 20, 2014 at 8:18 am #

    What about 13mm f/2? It’s a beauty! I rely on it heavily.

  29. Matt Saunders December 20, 2014 at 8:18 am #

    Ah! Typo, 135mm!

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  35. David Huff February 10, 2015 at 7:32 am #

    The 200 f/2 deserves a mention if the article is about the best. If the topic is “Top 5″ then the 70-200 II cannot responsibly be left off the list. Good article. Will Leica make it to the discussion?

  36. art meripol February 11, 2015 at 5:58 am #

    When I went digital years ago Canon was way ahead of Nikon digitally. No longer but I have Canon glass so still with Canon.
    Your list is excellent. I never liked the 24-70 simply because it never seemed wide enough or long enough. The 100 macro is uncommonly lovely. Using it today. No need for the 600 but desire the 85. My 85mm :1.8 is fine and lightweight but hungry for the speed of the one on the list. I’ve used the 24 T/S for years. Probably time to upgrade to the newer model. But of everything you wrote your comment on needing good eyesight to use it shows exactly how much thought you put into this list. Since I often use it inside or outside at dusk it’s nearly impossible to be secure on focus unless I enlarge the image on the camera to focus or shoot tethered. Great work on the list. Just wish I had the $ to throw at the 85 and a new 24 or even 17 T/S.

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