Introduction

Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6l IS USM is a one of relatively few extreme zooms that was released by Canon back in 2004. The extreme zooms seem to be getting a resurgence in popularity lately and both OEMs as well as 3rd party lens manufacturers now have at least one such extreme zoom in their lineup. This particular lens has a 12x focal length coverage, from moderately wide to telephoto, and obviously is targeted at users who would prefer carrying one lens that would suit all their photography needs. But, with extreme coverage comes also extreme price - at ~US$2,200 (as of July 2008), the lens is certainly pretty pricey and as such is probably not going to be the first choice for mainstream users.

The optical construction of the lens consists of a whopping 22 elements in 16 groups! This is by far one of the most complex optical designs implemented in a lens. The lens incorporates 3 UD (Ultra Low Dispersion) glass elements and 2 aspherical lenses to improve the optical performance and reduce various amounts of chromatic aberration. All this results in a pretty bulky and heavy form factor - the lens weighs 1,670g (3.7lb) and measures 92 x 184mm (3.6 x7.2in). And that's when the lens is fully collapsed at 28mm. The overall length of the lens actually almost doubles when the barrel is fully extended at 300mm. Speaking of the barrel - the lens incorporates a push/pull zoom mechanism, similar to that found in Canon's EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens. To zoom in our out, you need to first loosen a collar ring next to the zoom ring, then pull or push the front of the barrel to the desired focal length, and finally tighten the collar ring again to ensure that the barrel does not collapse or extend during shooting. If you leave the collar ring loose, you will be able to zoom the lens pretty fast, but all that at cost of some accuracy. Furthermore, the barel sticks a little bit when fully extended at 300mm, making precise zooming in the 200-300mm range somewhat difficult. Personally, I find this zooming mechanism less convenient then the traditional roatating one, but then again, you can get used to this pull/push process so it might not bother you much at all.

 

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The build quality of the lens is superb - the barrel is made of lightweight metal, radiating the feel of quality and sturdiness. Despite its many moving parts, EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM does not show any wobbling inside or out. The focusing ring is a little bit narrow and not as smooth as it could have been. The lens incorporates a second generation image stabilization system that can provide correction for up to two full f-stops during hand-held shooting. The IS supports two modes of operation - mode 1 provides stabilization in both vertical as well as horizontal vectors, while mode 2 provides correction only vertical trembling and thus is more suitable for panning. The mode of operation can be controlled using a small switch on the side of the barrel. And the IS system can be completely disabled if necessary, using an IS ON/OFF switch. The lens includes a silent and pretty fast USM type AF system. Full time manual focusing is also supported - the AF/MF switch can be found on the side of the barrel, next to the IS ON/OFF switch. The minimum focusing distance is 70cm (2.3ft), although Canon decided to incorporate a focusing distance limiter switch that can limit the focusing range to improve the speed of the AF. The first setting will support focusing from 0.7m to infinity, while the second setting will support focusing from 2.5m to infinity. Like all other modern Canon lenses, EF 28-300mm f/3.5-4.5L IS USM has a fully electronic aperture control, meaning that the aperture settings are set directly from the camera. The minimum supported aperture is f/38. The front lens element does not rotate during operation so this allows using circular polarizers (at least when the lens hood is not attached). The filter thread is 77mm.

The factory box includes Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM lens, front and rear caps, EW-83G petal shaped lens hood, LZ1324 semi-hard lens case, tripod mount ring, manual and registration card. The lens is compatible with Canon's Gelatin Holder Adapter IV and Extension Tubes EF 12 II and EF 25 II. Since the lens was originally designed for full frame cameras, when used on APS-C type bodies with 1.6x crop factor, the field of view of the lens will be similar to that of a 45-480mm zoom.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 22 elements in 16 groups
Angular Field 75-8 degrees
Minimum Focus 70cm/2.3ft
Focusing Action AF/MF, USM
f-stop Scale f/3.5-f/38, camera-controlled
Filter Size 77mm
Lens Hood EW-83G (included)
Weight 1670g/3.7lb
Dimensions 92x184mm/3.6x7.2"
Lens Case LZ1324 (included)

 

Field Tests

Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM handles pretty much like any other Canon autofocus lens, with one notable exception - the push/pull type zoom mechanism. More on that later though. As mentioned above, the lens is pretty heavy, so shooting it off-hand is a pretty strenuous task. The IS system obviously helps here, but any IS has its own limitations, especially at the longer focal lengths. The AF system is pretty fast and more or less accurate, meaning it focused on target quite well in most situations.

Canon includes a lens hood with EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM, which unfortunately is not going to be very practical in all situations. The hood is pretty shallow, and is much more suitable for wide end of the zoom range. The hood is unlikely to block any stray light at the long end of the zoom range. The good news at least is that despite a pretty complex optical design with so many glass elements, the lens is not very prone to flare. Yes, if you try to shoot with a direct light source right in the middle of the frame you would obviously get some flare, but other then that, the lens shows quite good handling in backlit as well as near-frame lit conditions.

The entire push/pull mechanism is pretty controversial. Many users swear by it and love it. Others... Well, I belong to that other group. There are a number of problems with such zoom mechanism in my opinion. Firstly, in order to zoom precisely, you need to loosen the collar ring enough to reduce the friction. This makes the lens susceptible to occasional zoom creep when the barrel is tilted up or down during shooting. Refastening the collar ring takes valuable time. On the other hand, if you don't loosen the collar ring to make the barrel movement smoother, then your entire setup can roil back and forth during zooming - not an ideal case during composition. Finally, the frequent push/pull moves the air inside the lens and blows it right onto the camera's chamber, disturbing the dust inside. Care about dust bunnies anyone?

Image quality was decent, but not quite on par with some of the best dedicated lenses in wide or telephoto categories. The lens did seem to perform somewhat better at wider apertures, although the difference was marginal to the naked eye. Generally speaking, both borders as well as center image quality was best with stopped down apertures - f/8-f/11 range produced best resolution. And there did not seem to be much difference in image quality when the lens was used on a FF vs APS-C type cameras.

 

Vignetting @ f/3.5 (28mm) - full frame vs 1.6x crop
Vignetting @ f/3.5 (28mm) - full frame vs 1.6x crop

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Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM produced pretty noticeable vignetting on a full frame camera. Vignetting was present at wide apertures throughout the zoom range, which is a bit disappointing. At 28mm vignetting is pretty pronounces and remains visible, albeit at lower level, all the way to f/8. Vignetting is almost as pronounced at longer focal lengths, and even at 300mm the lens vignettes pretty noticeably at f/5.6 as well as at f/8. Vignetting is much better controlled on an APS-C body with cropped sensor, and is minimal to nonexistent throughout the zoom range.

The lens showed minor degree of chromatic aberration, primarily around borders, although the artifact was not that disastrous. The lens also showed minor degree of axial CA (halation) at wider apertures in the 28-50mm range, predominantly in high contrast areas. Again, nothing drastic. Color reproduction was decent, although like with many Canon lenses, EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM produced colors that looked a bit warm. Images generally carried good amount of contrast, except in the 200-300mm range, where the contrast was affected by the somewhat lower resolving power of the lens.

 

ISO 100, 1/1250, f/3.5, 28mm (100% crop)
ISO 100, 1/1250, f/3.5, 28mm (100% crop)

 

Lab Tests

Please note that MTF50 results for APS-C and Full-Frame cameras as well as cameras from different manufacturers are not cross-comparable despite the same normalized [0:1] range used to report results for all types of cameras.

 

Canon APS-C: The lens showcased somewhat mixed performance on an APS-C body. Image quality in the 28mm to 100mm was quite decent, with excellent center image quality throughout the testes apertures. Border quality lagged a little bit, and at wider apertures performance was kind of average, but once stopped down to f/5.6 (f/8 for 100mm), image quality improved quite drastically, reaching very respectable levels. The lens is capable of delivering outstanding 16in prints pretty much throughout the supported aperture settings in the 28-100mm range and even outstanding 19in prints in the 28-50mm range if you stop down the lens to f/8. In the 200-300mm range, the lens would still produce OK 19in prints. Conclusion? The overall results are not that bad. It's that they are not that good either. 28-100mm range is clearly the sweet spot for the lens, but the longer end of the zoom is plain average.

 

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

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 28mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 28mm

 

MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 50mm
MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 50mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm

 

MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 100mm
MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 100mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 100mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 100mm

 

MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 200mm
MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 200mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 200mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 200mm

 

MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 300mm
MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 300mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 300mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 300mm

 

The lens showed more or less handling of CA on an APS-C body, with quite low center CA and low to moderate border CA. Chromatic aberration in the center never exceeded ~0.6px, with generally higher levels at longer end of the zoom range, while CA around borders hovered at ~1px in the 200-300mm zoom range and at ~0.7px in the 28-100mm range.

 

Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) - Center
Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) - Center

 

Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) - Borders
Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) - Borders

Here are 100% crops taken with an APS-C type Canon Digital Rebel XTi.

 

Image borders @ 28mm (100% crop): f/3.5 vs f/8
Image borders @ 28mm (100% crop): f/3.5 vs f/8

 

Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/4 vs f/8
Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/4 vs f/8

 

Image borders @ 100mm (100% crop): f/5.6 vs f/8
Image borders @ 100mm (100% crop): f/5.6 vs f/8

 

Image borders @ 200mm (100% crop): f/5.6 vs f/8
Image borders @ 200mm (100% crop): f/5.6 vs f/8

 

Image borders @ 300mm (100% crop): f/5.6 vs f/8
Image borders @ 300mm (100% crop): f/5.6 vs f/8

 

Canon FF: On a full-frame Canon 5D, Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM exhibited characteristics that patterned the behavior on a cropped camera. 28-100mm was the strongest range, with generally excellent center performance and somewhat lagging borders.  f/8-f/11 aperture settings produced the best overall results across the frame, but the lens struggled a little bit at wider apertures. 200-300mm range was again the weakest range, with mostly pretty decent center performance and kind of average border quality. Conclusion? The good news is that the lens shows pretty consistent overall results on both APS-C as well as FF bodies. The bad news is that it does not quite deliver in the long end of the zoom range.

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 28mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 28mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 100mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 100mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 200mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 200mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 300mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 300mm

The lens showcased moderate level of barrel distortion at 28mm, which gradually changed to pincusion distortion towards the longer end of the zoom range. At 28mm, distortion is ~1.2%, which can become quite noticeable in certain types of photography. At 100mm, the lens still shows mild barrel distortion at ~0.6%, while at 200mm and 300mm the lens shows mild pincusion distortion of ~0.5% and 0.6% respectively.

 

Distortion (FF) @ 28mm, 100mm (top), 200mm, 300mm (bottom)
Distortion (FF) @ 28mm, 100mm (top), 200mm, 300mm (bottom)

 

In general, the lens showed pretty good handling of chromatic aberration. CA in the center was pretty low throughout the entire zoom range and all aperture settings. 300mm exhibited the worst case of center CA, but even here it never exceeded ~0.6px. CA around borders was slightly higher, especially at longer end of the zoom range - 200mm and 300mm show the maximum CA of ~1px.

 

Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) - Center
Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) - Center

 

Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) - Borders
Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) - Borders

Here are 100% crops taken with a full frame Canon 5D.

 

Image borders @ 28mm (100% crop): f/3.5 vs f/8
Image borders @ 28mm (100% crop): f/3.5 vs f/8

 

Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/4 vs f/8
Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/4 vs f/8

 

Image borders @ 100mm (100% crop): f/5.6 vs f/8
Image borders @ 100mm (100% crop): f/5.6 vs f/8

 

Image borders @ 200mm (100% crop): f/5.6 vs f/8
Image borders @ 200mm (100% crop): f/5.6 vs f/8

 

Image borders @ 300mm (100% crop): f/5.6 vs f/8
Image borders @ 300mm (100% crop): f/5.6 vs f/8

 

Alternatives

Canon currently offers a wide variety of zoom lenses, but none an exact match for EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM. The closest match in terms of focal length coverage is EF 28-200mm f/3.5-5.6 USM, however this consumer grade lens does not really offer good optical characteristics. Users of APS-C type cameras can try Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS or Sigma 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS, or its non image stabilized version 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 DC. But, the best option would actually be getting two zooms with shorter focal length coverage - one for a wide to standard focal range and another for standard to telephoto focal range coverage. Here the selection list is much more comprehensive. Among wide to standard zooms, you should take a look at Canon's EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM and EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lenses. While for telephoto needs, you should explore Canon's four 70-200mm zoom (EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM, EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM and EF 70-200mm f/4L USM), along with Sigma's APO 70-200mm f/2.8 II EX DG Macro HSM (or its older APO 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro HSM version). Granted, users will end up relying on two zooms instead of one, but price-wise you might actually be better off (for example, a combination of Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM and Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L iS USM will cost you about the same as Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM reviewed here).

 

Recommendation

Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM looks pretty interesting on paper - extreme zoom coverage will certainly appeal someone who does not want to own/carry multiple lenses for use in different shooting conditions. But, like any other extreme zoom lens, EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM has its own drawbacks. Setting the weight and size aside (these characteristics might not necessarily be an issue for some photographers), the main concern about this lens is its uneven performance - overall image quality is better in shorter zoom range, where the quality is good enough to satisfy even most demanding needs. However, quality starts to suffer at longer end of the zoom range and in the 200-300mm range results are rather unimpressive. What else? Chromatic aberration is more or less under control, so is distortion - more or less at least: 28mm exhibits pretty noticeable barrel distortion, but the rest of the zoom range is OK. So is this lens worth its high sticker price? That depends on your needs and preferences obviously, but keep in mind that you can buy two premium quality L lenses that would provide same coverage as EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM (but will offer significantly better image resolution) and about the same price.