HomePhotography Index



Canon EF-S 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM

Kit Lens Deluxe

Peter Kun Frary


Kit Lens for Weekend Warriors & Well-Heeled Travelers

Most photographers want an all purpose zoom encompassing wide, normal and short telephoto ranges, AKA, normal zoom. Mount a normal zoom on your DSLR and you're good to go for scenics, group shots, candids and portraits. For most holiday shooters this is the only lens they need.

Morning Dew • Seaside, OR • Canon EOS 7D, EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM: 85mm, F8, 1/125, ISO 100

Introduced Fall 2009 along with the EOS 7D, the EF-S 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM continues the legacy of the EF 28-135 3.5-5.6 IS USM, my favorite walkaround optic during the film era. The 15-85 is an impressive feat of engineering: exotic lens elements (3 aspherical & 1 UD element), high-performance Image Stabilizer (IS), ultra fast ring-type USM, wide zoom range (5.6x) and petite size and weight. The weight and size savings are due to the smaller image circle of the APS-C format. The main compromise is aperture size: F5.6 at the long end is slow. Everything else is top notch for consumerville.

Canon EF-S 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM The 1990s USM gold ring of consumerville has been replaced with silver. Silver goes better with the post industrial Gothic vibe of the finish. Photo courtesy Canon.

Fit & Finish

The predominantly plastic 15-85 has a metal mount, weighs 575g and stands a petite 87.5mm at the 15mm setting (fully retracted). Build quality is very good but not at L series standards: no weather seals and cosmetics aren't as attractive as the EF 24-105 4L IS USM or EF 17-40 4L USM. However it feels a little better made than the EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM and EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM.

Styling is understated and post industrial Gothic: lightly textured flat black paint; tightly ribbed rubber zoom and focus rings; and white sans serif lettering. With lens cap installed, it resembles a plastic travel mug. Gone is the flashy gold USM stripe of earlier premium EF-S designs such as the EF-S 17-55 2.8 IS USM. The 15-85, like other recent EF-S designs, sports a silver ring near the front. Obviously this is part of a new EOS prosumer design ethic as the ring matches the sliver rings on the EOS 7D Command Dial and QCD.

Although fit and finish appear excellent at close examination, from afar it looks like a $400 lens rather than a $700 one. Compared to the elegance of the metal barrel and engraved Pentax Limited series, the 15-85 is plain--almost homely.

Gulls at Dusk • Lincoln City OR • Canon EOS 7D, EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM: 40mm, F5.6, 1/60, ISO 400

Focus and Zoom

A ring-type USM (Ultrasonic Motor) achieves focus by driving an internal lens group. AF is extremely fast and sure-footed on my EOS 7D. The front element does not rotate and the barrel does not expand or contract during focusing. Of course, being an USM lens, it is silent during AF.

It has FTM, allowing you to manually focus without switching out of AF mode. The focus ring is narrow, rather coarse in pitch and ribbed. Nevertheless it's surprisingly smooth turning, improving on the EF-S 17-55 2.8 IS USM, although a bit stiff.

If you prefocus manually, the distance window in meters and feet is extremely useful. Although not a macro lens, it focuses close enough for tight head shots and moderately small details (35cm/.21x).

The twist zoom action is smooth, damped and does not creep, again a tad better than the EF-S 17-55 2.8 IS USM. Zooming is accomplished by expanding and contracting two nested barrels. The barrel extends considerably--nearly doubling in length--when zoomed to 85 mm. The zoom ring is large and covered with a ribbed rubber surface.

Guillaume-Joseph Chaminade • Canon EOS 7D & EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM

The EF-S 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM has a variable maximum aperture. Thus, as you zoom, the maximum aperture changes. From 15-17mm, maximum aperture is F3.5. At 18-26mm it slips down to F 4.0. By 27-37mm it's touching F4.5. From 38-60mm only F5.0. Finally, the remaining 61-85 range is a pokey F5.6.

The 72mm filter size makes for pricey filters, but at least I can share filters with my EF 200 2.8L USM. Canon recommends removing the hood while using a polarizing filter. If you have agile fingers it's easy to rotate the filter through the petal cutouts of the lens hood. Unfortunately that lens hood will cost you extra--a lot extra. Like the lens, the hood sports textured flat black paint, and seems to be more scratch resistant than the smooth satin black finishes of most other Canon hoods.

Hunts Neon (Las Vegas) • Canon EOS 7D, EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6: 55mm, F5, 1/20, ISO 400.

Optical Quality

This is among the best zooms I've used. I have no second thoughts about shooting wide open as it's sharp and contrasty edge to edge at all focal lengths from macro focus to infinity. At the same focal length and F-stop, it's at least the equal of the EF-S 17-55 2.8 IS USM, often slightly better around the edges. It's so good wide open, there is little improvement when stopped down!

Racked out to 85mm and shot wide open it is an excellent portrait lens. Of course, not comparable to the creamy bokeh of the EF 85 1.8 USM wide open, but still a pleasant look. Plus, the circular 7-blade diaphragm produces attractive blurred highlights when stopped down.

Kewalo Twilight • Canon EOS 7D, EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM: 15mm, F6.3, 1/20, ISO 500

The contrast and snap of this lens is apparent through the viewfinder. After all, there's plenty of exotic glass in there, e.g., three aspherical lens (AL) and an ultra-low dispersion (UD) element. Amazingly, there are 17 elements in that petite barrel. Despite all those elements, this is a fairly flare resistant free zoom, thanks to excellent lens coatings and barrel flocking. It certainly bests the EF-S 17-55 2.8 IS USM and EF 28-135 3.5-5.6 IS USM in flare control. Hawaiian sunsets, stage spot lights and night scenes with street lamps are no problem!

The short end, like all wide zooms, suffers from barrel distortion. In this case, the barrel distortion is a little stronger than average, e.g., worse than my EF-S 17-55 2.8 IS USM. You'll see it in images with long horizontal lines. Nevertheless, such distortion is easily corrected in DPP or Photoshop.

Downtown Honolulu • EOS Rebel SL1 & EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM

The middle range is virtually distortion free. The long end has a tiny amount of pincushion distortion. I can't see even a hint of pincushion distortion in the macro image below, taken at 65mm. For most types of images, distortion isn't readily apparent.

Macro Range • Canon EOS 7D, EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6: 65mm, F11, 1/4, ISO 400, Bogan 3001 tripod, RC-1 remote & sliver reflector. The macro range is sharp and good enough for small items like this Nikon MD12. Disable IS while using a tripod.

Like all wide zooms, the 15-85 reveals a small amount of light fall-off wide open. In typical night scenes and portraits, light fall-off is unnoticeable since edges are naturally dark or de-emphasized. Stop down a little and light fall-off is gone. I found light fall-off a minor issue and less pronounced than that of the EF 24-105 4L IS USM (with FF). Only those shooting blue skies or white walls wide open will notice the slight darkening of corners. Light fall-off is easily removed in DPP or with the Lens Peripheral Illumination Correction function set in a DSLR such as the 7D or 50D.

Image Stabilization

The 15-85 boasts the newest generation of Image Stabilization (IS), with papa Canon claiming a 4-stop hand held advantage over non-IS lenses. Unlike earlier designs, it is able to compensate for movement in all directions and, thus, is effective for both static subjects and panning moving objects. I spend lots of time shooting at twilight and in dark casinos and bars, and my experience agrees with Canon's claims. This is the best IS yet and one stop better than the EF-S 17-55 2.8 IS USM. It's a good thing too: F5.6 at the long end is slow!

Red Goose Shoes • Canon EOS 7D, EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6: 85mm, F5.6, 1/15, ISO 400. IS helped keep this photo sharp. As a kid, I really wanted a pair of Red Goose shoes. Got freakin' Sears instead!

Of course, Image Stabilization does nothing for subject movement and will not replace a large aperture prime for action shooters. However, IS is a Godsend for general hand held photography.

Bridge & Reflections • Seaside, OR • Canon EOS 7D, EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM, F5.6, 1/3 sec, ISO 1250, -.67 EC, 70mm. I was amazed I hand held 70mm at 1/3 sec and got a pin sharp image. Beat the 4-stop rating by over a stop!

One caution: turn IS off when using on a tripod. The lone exception to this rule is tripod use in a vibration prone environment such as high wind. A rock steady tripod befuddles IS and makes images blurry! IS artifacts look similar to motion blur, as if you gently kicked the tripod in the middle of an exposure. Although I've forgotten to disable IS on other lenses I suffered only a handful of blurry images. For some reason, the 15-85 is less forgiving in this regard. In a recent product shoot with 7D/15-85 and tripod, only 2 among 63 images were critically sharp. I reshot with IS off and all images were sharp.

Image Stabilization on (pixel view) • Canon EOS 7D, EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6: 65mm, F11, 1/4, ISO 400, Bogan 3001 Tripod, RC-1 remote.

Image Stabilization Off (pixel view) • Canon EOS 7D, EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6: 65mm, F11, 1/4, ISO 400, Bogan 3001 Tripod, RC-1 remote.

Nikkor 200 F4 AI Ready for FleaBay • Canon EOS 7D, EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6: 65mm, F11, 1/4, ISO 400, Bogan 3001 Tripod, RC-1 remote.

Popup Flash--Blocked?

The popup flash of the 7D is 100% usable with this lens. From 1 meter out there is no lens shadow from the lens at any focal length. It vignettes a little more with the 70D and 60D due to the lower placement of the popup flash.

As expected, with the EW-78E hood installed, there is a small lens shadow from the 7D popup flash from 15-24. It's not a big deal for fill flash but is distracting when the flash is the main light. From 28-85 there is no lens shadow whatsoever with EW-78E installed. I've not tried XXD series cameras, but I assume performance is similar.

Although the 7D popup covers the wide side of this zoom, older XXD cameras typically start at 17mm, so expect flash vignetting due to a lack of coverage.

No Popup Flash Shadow • Canon EOS 7D & EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM


This able optic performs surprisingly well at Movie Servo on the 70D: no focus noise and very smooth, albeit fast, and accurate focus. The clip below was shot with Movie Servo active on a 70D.

Peter Kun Frary Plays "Plagaria"


I love the range, AF speed, sharpness, IS and small size of this lens. The Goth styling warrants no kudos for beauty but it's well made, sharp, contrasty and surprisingly flare resistant.

Optical quality and mechanical precision approach L zooms such as the EF 24-105 4L IS USM. It does fall down a bit due to barrel distortion at the wide end. Moreover, it lacks the cosmetic detail and weather sealing of its L siblings. After squeezing seven benjamins out of you, Canon should toss in a lens hood.

The high optical quality and petite statue of the EF-S 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM make it a kickin' travel, biking and hiking lens. It's not the best lens for dark bars or European churches. However, 4-stop IS almost makes up for the slow aperture. Luckily, optical quality wide open is top drawer.

Highly recommended for serious amateurs and world trekkers traveling light. Not recommended for night crawlers, those with midget budgets or style conscious photogs.

Fremont Street Snap • Canon EOS 7D, EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6: 32mm, F5.6, 1/125, ISO 100

More Images taken with the EF-S 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM (click to enlarge)


Source Materials

Canon EFS Lens EF-S15-85mm F/3.5-5.6 IS USM Instruction. Tokyo: Canon, 2009. (CT1-7591-000).

Canon EOS Forums

Bob Atkins Canon EOS forum

FM Canon EOS Forum

Canon Asia List

Canon EOS Equipment Resources

Canon Camera Museum

Canon Malaysia

DSLRs, Lenses and Film

EOS Documentation Project

Photo.net • Canon EOS SLR

01/01/2010 • Revised 02/19/2015

Photo Zone • Canon EOS 7D, EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6

Flag Counter

©Copyright 2010-15 by Peter Kun Frary • All Rights Reserved


HomePhotography Index