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Saturday, 20 March 2010

The Canon 35-80mm F/4-5.6 III in not terrible shocker!

Some lenses are just destined to be unpopular and this is a classic example. The problem starts not so much because of the actual deficiencies of the lens but because of snobbery. Time and time again we hear about people who have "all the gear but no idea" and how many times have we frequented forums where members have spent thousands on the kind of equipment and software we can only dream of only to post the most mediocre photos that could have been taken with a compact? These people are the worst for spreading false information, often commenting on equipment they have never owned purely out of snobbery.

Disclaimer of sorts:

Before I proceed I want to make it clear that this IS a less than stellar lens, it does have a low build quality, it does have distortion and chromatic aberrations but none of these factors account for why most people hate this lens, people hate this lens because it's CHEAP and people who have limited photographic skill but lots of money need to feel they are justified in spending thousands on lenses.

Any lens can capture a good photo, I honestly believe that. If you have a stunning sunset you can take a picture of it with your phone and it will still be a good photo, the subject is already there and will be the same no matter what medium is used to record the scene. The difference the equipment makes to me is in the actual image quality, you can watch a great movie on an old black and white TV set or on a brand new 1080p system and it will still be a great movie, the expensive equipment does however increase the viewing quality and in turn raises the overall enjoyment. So while the gear doesn't make the photo I do believe that there is a level of quality to which we must adhere to at least do a scene justice, the more expensive the equipment gets the more the law of diminishing returns comes into play but at a more affordable level there is a great leap between let's say a camera phone or cheap compact and an entry level DSLR with even a mediocre lens, in some cases you could pick up the DSLR for less than the phone/compact but even brand new an entry level DSLR and kit lens will not cost more than a few hundred pounds or dollars more than one of those ultra high pixel count cameras or camera phones. The DSLR will have much, much greater per pixel sharpness, better colour, better noise control by a ridiculous margin, almost incomparable features and functions and even with the cheapest of kit lenses will have a better lens with less optical flaws and improved sharpness and contrast. Now to make the equivalent upgrade over the entry level DSLR you would not have to spend a few hundred or even a few thousand, there is simply no DSLR/lens combo available that will improve upon an entry level DSLR as much as that DSLR improves upon a camera phone or a cheap compact.

The point I'm trying to make is that once you reach a certain level of image quality the returns of spending more money quickly become harder and harder to discern. There is a level of image quality that is nowadays affordable to reach by most people, any entry level DSLR and lens will will take photos that are almost immeasurably superior to a cheap compact or camera phone. There are a lot of people who own very expensive cameras and lenses yet don't have the technical skill or sheer photographic eye to make the most of entry level equipment let alone top of the line professional gear. There are people out there that would not be able to use a Canon 35-80mm F/3.5-5.6 III to it's full ability yet will passionately slate it and condemn it as "The worst lens canon ever made" having never touched one and having never taken a decent photo in their lives.

The purpose of this entry then is not to say that this lens is anything special because it's not but to say that it is vastly better than popular opinion would suggest, it's not a top performer and you WILL see a difference between this lens and let's say, a Canon 17-55mm F/2.8 but just try to remember that I bought the 35-80mm for about the same price as the hood for the 17-55mm costs! Let's say you picked up a second hand 350D body for £150 then you picked up a 35-80mm for £15, that £165 combo will shame any camera phone or cheap compact for image quality and functionality. But if you were to buy the aforementioned 17-55mm along with an EOS 7D to put it on would this £2200 combo shame the £165 350D/35-80mm in the same way? Of course not, it would be a considerably better but it would not be the same giant leap, the same monumental step forwards and it certainly would not represent the same value for money. It's hard to break the image quality down into measurable units but certainly the 350D/35-80mm would represent a better quality/pound ratio than the 7D/17-55mm.

So what is this lens if it is not great? It's simply good enough. It represents that first jump in image quality over basic imaging devices and a price/performance ratio that more expensive lenses will never reach. It will take decent shots, it will do most scenes justice, it will allow you to make decent A3 prints and it will deliver enough sharpness once stopped down to mid apertures to keep up with most digital sensors. It is a world away from a camera phone but only a city away from a Canon L lens. Obviously the aperture is slow and there is less scope for using the depth of field creatively but it is still immensely more useful in this respect than any compact will ever be purely because a compact camera is limited by it's tiny sensor.

Build Quality and finish:

This lens is actually kind of solid feeling in a strange way, it's very light and very basic in it's construction but it seems to at least be made out of hard plastic that wouldn't break easily, it's more substantial looking than the Canon 50mm F/1.8 which isn't saying much but might at least give you some idea. The finish is very basic and as with many entry level Canon lenses the focus ring is ridiculously small, it's almost like a vestigial structure such as the human appendix, it's a throwback that through disuse has shrunken to the point of being barely functional. The autofocus motor is quite noisy and the lens cannot always be trusted to get a focus lock first time every time, this may be just the lens or a combined effort between the lens and my 350D but either way I found it wise to take a copies of each shot where possible, making sure to half press the shutter in between to allow the lens to have another try at getting it right. The failure rate wasn't high but I would say maybe 2 out of every 10 shots could be mis focused so it was worth taking several shots to assure at least one was focused correctly, this issue was more prevalent at the tele photo end of the zoom. The lens features only 5 aperture blades so out of focus highlights will not be circular once the lens is stopped down and some people will hate this but personally I appreciate most types of bokeh be it silky smooth or bold and quirky so I didn't feel hard done by in this area. Overall the lens displays all the hallmarks of an object that was built to a tight budget because it was!

Image quality:

Even wide open the central sharpness is perfectly decent, corners inevitably become soft, more so at the telephoto end but even so we are talking about a lens that is worth about £15. Colour and contrast are totally fine in my eye, faithful to real life with maybe a slight bias towards magenta which gives a nice warmth to images. As for flare and colour fringing, this only occurred in challenging situations such as back lit tree branches and although unpleasant were relatively mild and easy to correct in software. Overall the lens is capable of taking punchy photos with usable sharpness wide open and once stopped down to F/8 sharpness that appeared to exceed the resolution of 8mp sensor inside my 350D. Considering the used value of this lens the quality is quite remarkable.

I'm going to provide a brief comparison between a Casio EX-Z77 (typical entry level compact) a Sigma 18-50mm F/2.8 EX DC (supremely sharp mid to upper range zoom) and the 35-80mm (dirt cheap piece of junk!) It was hard to get the same field of view with the Casio due to the different crop factor and lens focal length involved but I got it as close as I could, The Sigma and Canon lenses were both set to 35mm and F/8.

First of all some web sized shots:







Even at low resolution it's possible to see a lack of detail in the Casio photo compared to the others but in terms of colour and overall appearance the images are quite close, the Casio and Canon lenses have more of a magenta hint and the sigma is slightly more neutral, Note also that the sigma exhibits less slightly distortion, particularly visible at the bottom right of the frame

Now lets do some pixel peeping, first up some 100% crops from the Casio:



Now the Canon:



And finally the Sigma:



It's plain to see that the Casio image is very soft at the pixel level with noise reduction killing detail even at the base ISO setting, the sensor is 7mp but I would personally say there's only 4mp of information being recorded at most. The 350D/35-80mm combo is immediately more impressive with improved sharpness and detail and better contrast. The 350D/Sigma combo does provide a tiny amount more detail but not by much and by looking at the green fence in particular it appears that both the Canon and Sigma optics out resolve the 8mp sensor inside the camera. Overall then the the Canon lens completely outclasses the Casio compact and runs the Sigma very close, the difference being the Canon lens cost £15 and the Sigma lens cost me £370 when it was new, now I'm not saying the Canon lens is as good because it simply isn't, the Sigma is sharper, has less distortion and is less prone to colour fringing and flaring (compare the cladding around the chimney), not to mention that fact that the Canon lens cannot physically compete with the Sigma's faster aperture and superior build quality. All I'm trying to point out is that at F/8 they are very close and with a scene like this in particular I would always be shooting at F/8 even with the Sigma so whilst the Canon is somewhat inferior overall both lenses are capable of getting a decently sharp and colourful shot in at F/8, both lenses will do the job and produce a file that will print nicely at A3.

The following pictures are all clickable and will take you to my Flickr page where you will be able to view the full size images:

80mm F/5.6 (wide open):


35mm F/5 (half a stop from wide open, focus is on the TV aerial):


80mm F/5.6 (wide open):


35mm F/5.6:

None of them are prize winners obviously but they give you an idea of how the lens performs.


Put basically the 35-80mm is a decent enough lens and an amazing one when it's value is taken into consideration, it receives universal scorn for being a bad lens but it seems very few people are willing to give it a try. I suppose to some people it would be pointless to even bother but to me it is interesting to use different lenses just for the sake of variety because all lenses have unique characteristics and never render a scene in quite the same way. I bought this lens to see just how bad it was and it turned out I was surprised by just how OK it was! If you see one for cheap then I recommended trying one out, take it somewhere you would normally use a more expensive lens and see how it does, make an effort to squeeze the most out of the equipment and challenge yourself and remember, if you don't like it you can always take out the front element and use it as a super macro lens capable of greater than 1:1 reproduction, but that's for another entry!