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Canon Wide Primes

Peter Kun Frary


Modern zoom lenses are convenient and the best of them rival prime lenses in quality. If you get the equivalent of three or four primes in one zoom, why do people still use prime lenses? There are still a few things primes do better than zooms:

Sharpness and Contrast • All things being equal, primes have an edge over zooms in sharpness and contrast. However, good zooms are good enough that this is a moot point for many people, especially if they don't print larger than 8 x 12.

Distortion • Primes are favored by architectural and macro photographers because they have less distortion than zooms. For example, the EF 28-135 3.5-5.6 IS USM zoom has nearly 3% barrel distortion at 28 mm. In comparison, the EF 28 2.8 has less than 1%. Buildings look bad with curved walls unless they are supposed to be curved.

Large Apertures • Available light photographers (sports, nature, etc.), especially those using telephotos, favor primes because they have larger apertures than zooms. A stop or two more makes a big difference when shooting in twilight or stadium lights. Plus, you get a brighter viewfinder and better autofocus in low light. Portrait photographers favor primes because they like large apertures to throw the background out of focus and make the subject pop. Most zooms in the portrait range of 85 to 135 mm are too slow to get decent background blur. For example, the EF 28-135 3.5-5.6 IS USM's largest aperture at 135 mm is only 5.6. Canon's primes in the portrait range are relatively fast: EF 85 1.2 USM, EF 85 1.8 USM, EF 100 2.0 USM, EF 135 2.8 SF and EF 135 2.0 USM.

Flare Resistance • Primes have simpler optical formulas and, hence, fewer lens elements. Fewer elements mean less reflective surfaces to cause flare, ghosting and loss of light. Moreover, because designers are dealing with only one focal length, they can design the largest possible lens shade to block glare.

Development of the Inner Eye • For a beginner, the perspective of a single focal length is easier to remember and bond with than a zoom. If you keep it simple, you will soon begin pre-visualizing images in the perspective of your focal length. With a zoom, beginners spend too much time zooming back and forth trying to find a pleasing image.

Here are the primes in my camera bag.

Canon EF 24 2.8

My widest prime is the EF 24 2.8, purchased new in 1990, so it's stood the test of time. There are a lot of things to like about this lens: small, light, close focusing (25cm), well corrected for distortion, sharp, contrasty and flare resistant. It complements a travel kit nicely due to its 58mm filter size and diminutive statue.

Slopes of Diamond Head • Canon EOS 630, EF 24 2.8 & Kodachrome 64

It employs a rear focusing group so the lens doesn't rotate or change length during AF. Although it uses the Arc Form Drive (AFD), focus speed is reasonably peppy due to an internal focus (IF) design. AFD designs aren't silent like USM or STM, emitting a pianissimo buzz. This lens is nearly impossible to hear on the street a few feet out, but seems louder than it is since it's right next to your head. Unfortunately, AFD designs lack the Full-Time Manual focus (FTM) feature of ring-type USM lenses.

Build quality is solid and has taken a lot of knocks, zips and bumps these 24 years. I suspect the review comments about it appearing cheap has more to do with the dated 1980s cosmetics, loose-as-a-goose MF ring and buzzy focus motor. The polycarbonate plastics are every bit as sturdy as modern designs and it has a metal mount.

Gap Boy with Taro, Ala Moana Shopping Center • EOS IX, EF 24 2.8, Advantix 400.

The EF 24 2.8 uses the EW-60 lens hood, a twist-on cutout design. It takes less than a quarter turn to lock and is easily twisted back and knocked off. Oddly the Canon logo doesn't align with the top side of the lens on my copy. 

EF 24 2.8 & EW-60 • The widest easy to use prime

Using a full frame 5D MKII, I find 24mm ideal for landscapes, street and architecture. If you like an exaggerated, ultra-close foreground object set against a sharp but distance background, this lens can do it. For maximum depth of field, switch off AF, dial in F11 to 22, set the hyperfocal distance on the distance window and everything from 2 feet to infinity will be in focus (the distance window has DOF markings for only F11 and 22). If candid street photography is your bag, wade in a crowd and start shooting with AF off and the lens set for maximum hyperfocal distance. With 84 degrees of coverage, you can shoot off-center subjects and they won't realize you took their picture because the camera isn't pointed at them. This is also a great architectural lens due to its virtually distortion free design.

My copy of this lens is sharp wide open from close focus to infinity. On APS-C/1.6x cropped frame DSLRs it's sharp edge to edge at F2.8 with no light fall-off. Full frame suffers from mild softness in corners and edges and moderate light fall-off. Corners sharpens up nicely and light fall-off is nominal once stopped down to F4. I use it mainly from F8 to F16 as sweeping vistas look best with plenty of depth of field.

EOS 5D & EF 24 2.8 (ISO 800) • F2.8

Pixel View Crop From Center (F2.8)

The EF 24 2.8 was replaced in 2012 with the EF 24 2.8 IS USM and is only available as old stock or used. However, image quality compares well to the newer design and, if you can live without image stabilization and USM, a used EF 24 2.8 sells for one-fourth the cost of the replacement model.

Canon EF 28 2.8

This stubby is tiny (42.5 mm L), light (185 g), focuses close (30 cm) and is well corrected for distortion, making it great for architecture. The front element does not rotate, but the lens changes length during focus. Although it uses AFD, it focuses fast due to the small extension needed to focus (slightly slower than the EF 24 2.8). This lens has 52 mm filter threads and uses the clip-on EW-65 II (or EW-65) lens hood, two features it shares with the EF 35 2.0. The manual focusing ring doesn't turn as smooth as the EF 24 2.8 and has a slightly gritty feel. This lens has one of Canon's best DOF scales: F5.6, 11 and 16 are marked on the distance window.

EF 28 2.8 • This sharp lens is so small you won't know its in your bag.

Some people think the 28 mm focal length is a yawn since it's common on point 'n shoots and normal zooms. Nevertheless, this petite lens is easy to handle and take pictures with. Its moderate 75 degree coverage makes it especially suited for group portraits and scenics. Moreover, the EF 28 2.8 is an extremely sharp lens, sharper than the 28 mm end of Canon's best zooms. Finally, with only 5 elements, there is virtually no flare, ghosting or loss of light.

The EF 28 2.8 was replaced in 2012 with the EF 28 2.8 IS USM and is only available as old stock or used. I often see used ones going for $95 to $150.

Canon EF 35 2.0

1/5/2002 • Updated 08/19/2014

©Copyright 2002-2014 by Peter Kun Frary • All Rights Reserved

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