Introduction

Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM was announced in early 2006. The lens is designed to fit APS-C type cameras and has a reduced imaging circle with protruding back element which would cause mirror clearance issues if used on a full-frame camera. Priced at about US$1,000 (as of March 2007) it does raise quite a few brows though since this makes it the most expensive non-L lens available on the market. The price starts to bug you even more once you consider the lens' build quality - not really bad per se, but nowhere close to an L type lens. The build quality is actually identical to that of Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens - the barrel is made of durable polycarbonate, so it is not as flimsy as it looks. Furthermore, Canon decided not to include a lens hood or a lens case at that price - what's up with that?

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The lens construction consists of 19 elements in 12 groups, including  three aspherical glass elements. It offers a fast and silent USM ring-type auto-focusing as well as full-time manual focusing. The lens has a minimum focusing distance of 35cm (1.15') and a maximum magnification of 1:6 at 55mm. Canon EF-S 17-55mm IS USM is relatively compact and lightweight, measuring 84x110mm (3.3x4.4in) and weighing 645g (22.8oz). Both focus and aperture rings are rubberized and very smooth. On a slightly negative side, the lens cam extends when zooming towards the long side of the zoom range, but does not rotate, which allows attaching a polarizer. The lens accepts 77mm filters.

The lens includes an image stabilization technology which helps gain an equivalent of 3 f-stops when hand-holding the camera. The IS works for static scenes only and is not suitable for tracking moving targets. The factory box includes the Canon EF-S 17-55mm IS USM lens, front and rear caps, manual and warranty card. The lens accepts EW-83J lens hood, which as mentioned earlier has to be purchased separately.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 19 elements in 12 groups
Angular Field 78-27 degrees
Minimum Focus 35cm/1.15ft
Focusing Action AF/MF, USM
f-stop Scale f/4-f/22, camera-controlled
Filter Size 77mm
Lens Hood EW-83J (optional)
Weight 645g/22.8oz
Dimensions 83.5x110mm/3.3x4.4"
Lens Case LP1219 (optional)

 

Field Tests

The first thing I noticed after attaching the lens is that it dwarfed my Canon 400D XTi - not in a bad sense, but because Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM is longer and wider then its close brethren the EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM, it kind of feels big on the camera. Of course one might argue that there are even bigger lenses out there. Yes, that's true if we consider telephoto zooms, but standard or ultra-wides? Anyhow, just an observation.

The lens performed really well in the field. It was very sharp across the entire zoom range with very high center and border image quality. Furthermore, the results were very consistent throughout the zoom range - the borders never really fell off like with some other lenses. The lens did produce some noticeable vignetting, so be careful using polarizers when shooting panoramic scenes with vast blue skies - vignetting can become more pronounced. But stop down to f/5.6 and vignetting is pretty much gone. I did not notice any significant chromatic aberration even around corners. Furthermore, flare was very well under control, even in harsh back-lit conditions.

Canon does not supply a lens hood with the lens (Yes, I repeat myself here, but the fact that I need to spend extra $30-$40 for a hood after paying $1,000+ for the lens actually bugs me. After all, Canon included a lens hood and lens case with EF 17-40mm f/4L USM which is priced a few hundred dollars less then 17-55mm lens), so be mindful of bright side light sources. Oh, and the lens is not weather sealed, so think twice before exposing it to rain, sand or other harmful nature elements.

Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM covers one of the most useful zoom ranges (for me at least) from ultra-wide 17mm to standard 55mm. At 17mm the lens is wide enough to help you in landscape photography and at 55mm it can become a good portrait lens. Image Stabilizer is obviously a bonus here, but I'm wondering how much it adds to the price tag and would see a cheaper version of the lens without IS? Combined with its high speed, the lens is a very interesting choice for a standard walk-around lens.

 

Lab Tests

Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM continued to produce very impressive results in the lab and was tack sharp across all tested focal lengths. The center quality is on par with the best L lenses and border quality is not far behind. As a matter of fact, the border quality remains consistent and only drops off slightly at 55mm. The lens produced best results between 20mm and 35mm where you would be able to get high quality 16in prints and very descent 19in ones. Even at 55mm where the lens seems to be the weakest (relatively speaking), you will manage to get very good 11in prints. Conclusion? One of the best walk-around lenses for APS-C cameras, covering ultra-wide to normal zoom range.

 

MTF50 (Line Width / Inch on the Print) @ 17mm
MTF50 (Line Width / Inch on the Print) @ 17mm

 

MTF50 (Line Width / Inch on the Print) @ 20mm
MTF50 (Line Width / Inch on the Print) @ 20mm

 

MTF50 (Line Width / Inch on the Print) @ 28mm
MTF50 (Line Width / Inch on the Print) @ 28mm

 

MTF50 (Line Width / Inch on the Print) @ 35mm
MTF50 (Line Width / Inch on the Print) @ 35mm

 

MTF50 (Line Width / Inch on the Print) @ 55mm
MTF50 (Line Width / Inch on the Print) @ 55mm

 

Chromatic aberration was not a major problem with this lens - with less then 1 pixel band around corners and practically nonexistent in the center, even at 17mm. Quite a positive surprise! Vignetting is slightly on a higher side though, especially around 17mm with wide open aperture - this can be partially attributed to the fact that the lens is specifically designed for APS-C digital SLRs and has a reduced imaging circle. Stopping down to f/4 or f/5.6 will reduce the problem to minimum. Distortion seemed to be well under control as well, even at 17mm.

 

Image borders @ 17mm (100% crop) f/4 vs f/8
Image borders @ 17mm (100% crop) f/4 vs f/8

 

Alternatives

Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM is a very versatile lens for APS-C cameras that produced best resolutions results among EF-S lenses tested to date. As such it is rather difficult to find an alternative EF-S type lens with similar characteristics. One lens that has received a fair share of attention is Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4.5 DC MACRO (review), which by many is considered the best APS-C type lens currently manufactured by Sigma. The lens is obviously slower then the Canon's EF-S lens, but it is also cheaper (50% cheaper to be precise) and produces very decent results (unfortunately, based on the user forum discussions, it looks like there are quite a few bad samples floating around due to Sigma's subpar lens quality control). If you're willing to switch to an EF lens and forgo the ultra-wide focal length, then Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM (review) is a worthy candidate. Like Sigma, this lens is also slower as well as priced lower then Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM. Finally, if you're willing to spend a few hundred dollars more, you might want to look at Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM (review).

 

Recommendation

Canon EF-S 17-55 f/2.8 IS USM is a superb lens, with fantastic image quality and overall characteristics. Build quality can be improved and the lens does not come with a lens hood or a soft case, which comes as a disappointment considering its high retail price. Nevertheless, the lens is probably the best EF-S lens currently manufactured and is going to be a worthy addition to anyone's collection. Anyone with an APS-C camera that is...