The Best Walk-around Zoom Lens for a Canon DSLR

I’ve had it for about six months now and given it more than a fair shake, but ultimately I’m not happy with the Tamron AF28-300mm F/3.5-6.3 XR Di LD Aspherical (IF) I got for my primary lens for the EOS 50D. When I put this lens on, I want to be able to shoot at the long end, and I spend a lot more time there than at the short end. Unfortunately it’s just not nearly sharp enough for my tastes at 300mm. Even on a tripod with image stabilization turned on, it needs a shutter speed below 1/400s, ISO no bigger than 200, and aperture f/8.0 to f/11.0 or thereabouts to achieve adequate sharpness. That’s just too limiting. Even then, it’s far from perfect. I’ve gotten a few good shots with it like this Snowy Egret in Mason Park in March, but that’s about it:

Snowy Egret perched

Outside direct sunlight, it really doesn’t perform well at all. In fact, this image stands out precisely because it is so sharp. By contrast, I routinely get images that sharp while handholding my non-stabilized Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM, like this Great Blue Heron from San Joaquin a few months later:

Great Blue Heron close-up

Most of my Tamron shots end up looking like this American White Pelican from the Salton Sea instead:


So I think it’s time to look for a new general purpose zoom lens. What are my options?

Ideally I want a lens with the following characteristics:

  • 16mm wide end
  • 600mm long end
  • Perfect sharpness at all extensions
  • Auto and manual focus
  • Image Stabilization
  • Minimum focusing distance 10cm with 1:1 macro
  • Under $500 price tag
  • Under 500g weight
  • A pony

Unfortunately this fantasy uber-lens doesn’t exist. Where am I willing to compromise, and what lens comes closest?

I’m much more concerned about the long end than the short end. I could certainly live with a wide end that was 50mm, or even 100mm. I’m not nearly as picky about landscape and portrait shots as I am about nature shots. I could just throw a Cheap Canon or more likely 3rd party 18-55mm lens in my bag to cover the occasional landscape or portrait shot. Maybe the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS? Macro mode is nice to avoid switching lenses, but I do have an excellent macro lens, and prefer to use it when I’m actively seeking out bugs. I can go up somewhat in price.

I don’t want to compromise too much on the weight, In particular, if a lens can’t be reasonably handheld I’m not interested. If you have to put it on a tripod, then I’m a lot less likely to use it. So let’s say what I’m willing to settle for is:

  • 50mm wide end
  • 450mm long end
  • Perfect sharpness at the long end.
  • Image Stabilization
  • Auto and manual focus
  • Under $1000 price tag and 500g weight

Does this lens exist? Near as I can tell it doesn’t, even if I bump the price up further. Handholdable zoom lenses with acceptable sharpness just don’t go over 300 or maybe 350mm at the outside. Also, past 300mm the weight jumps to the point where a tripod is a necessity. Canon makes some great L-series lenses in the 300-600mm range, and maybe one day I’ll buy one; but I’m not going to throw one in my shoulder bag for a casual outing in the park.

The best one can do is probably

  • 50mm wide end
  • 200-300mm long end, and maybe you can add a 2X teleconverter
  • Acceptable sharpness at the long end
  • Image Stabilization
  • Auto and manual focus
  • $1000+ price tag and 500g weight

With this much compromise, we’re finally intersecting with reality. There are a few lenses that come close to this.

Canon EF 28-300/3.5-5.6L IS USM

An L-series superzoom though the heaviest one in this list at 1.7kg. Is there any remote possibility I could handhold that? It’s also damned expensive at $2600. OK, maybe I could scrape together the cash, but the weight? Fact is, the only time I would consider carrying this lens around was when I was driving somewhere, with a tripod, specifically to shoot birds. And if I’m doing that I might as well carry a lens that’s more optimized for birds rather than a general purpose lens like this one. Most of the time this lens would just be an expensive piece of shelf art. Pass.

Canon EF-S 55-250mm f4.0-5.6 IS lens

Relatively cheap at about $250. However this one doesn’t seem to have too great a reputation for sharpness. It may not be an improvement on the Tamron I already have, and doesn’t have quite as much zoom.

EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Standard Zoom Lens

A kit lens that maybe I should have just bought with the 50D body instead of splurging on the Tamron. Less zoom than I’d like but better wide angle ability. Fairly expensive for what you get though at $600. Since I really care a lot more about the long end, I’d probably prefer the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L IS USM Telephoto Zoom for roughly the same price if I felt I could live with only 200mm.

Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS

An L-series lens, which offers excellent sharpness and lots of zoom. However weight wise, it tops out at around 1.4kg. That’s damn heavy, and probably beyond what I can plausibly hand hold. It’s also expensive, around $1300. The short end is too long for plausible landscapes or portraits. Still it’s probably the highest quality of any of the lenses I can consider. Maybe I’ll rent one for a week and see what I think.

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM

Not quite as good as an L-series, but probably the best short of one. Much lighter at 720g though still heavier than I’d like. It has a somewhat wider short end, which is nice, though not as much magnification on the long end. A little cheaper at around $1100. If I had to pick one lens right now, this is the one I’d pick. However I have heard some negative reports about sharpness at the long end which concern me; it doesn’t work with the Canon teleextenders; and it’s not very sharp with 3rd party telextenders. If it can’t maintain sharpness at maximum extension, then it might as well be shorter and lighter. I may try and rent one of these too.

There’s also a cheaper, non-DO model; but most sources seem to agree the diffractive optics on the more expensive model are noticeably better.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS USM Telephoto Zoom Lens

Another L-series. Smaller, wider, and with a much reduced zoom, but still quite heavy at 1470g. Expensive at $1250. This one compromises too much. If I’m carrying that much weight I want at least 300mm for my trouble. The Canon 100-400mm L series is about the same size and price; and much better covers the range I’m interested in. The extra 200mm on the long end easily beats an extra 30mm on the wide end.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L USM Telephoto Zoom Lens

Same zoom range as the previous one, but maximum (minimum) aperture of f/4 instead of f/2.8 makes it quite a bit lighter and more handholdable. In fact, at 760g it’s about half the weight of it’s bigger brother. At less than $600, it’s also one of the cheapest options on my list, but no image stabilization. Maybe if I added a teleconverter I’d be happy with it?

Sigma 50-500mm f/4-6.3 EX DG HSM

The most zoom of anything I’m looking at. However that large zoom seems to come at the expense of sharpness past 200mm which is the one thing I really don’t want to compromise on. It’s also extremely heavy at almost 2kg. I think this is a pass.

Tokina 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 ATX840 D Zoom Lens

Can’t find a lot of information on this one. It’s about $650, and zooms a little further than most other options. No image stabilization could be a problem for hand holding though.

Sigma 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 DG IF Macro Aspherical Lens for Canon SLR Cameras

Possibly the cheapest option in this range at $300. Is it any good, or do you get what you pay for?

That’s what I’ve looked at so far. Any other notable lenses I’m missing?

6 Responses to “The Best Walk-around Zoom Lens for a Canon DSLR”

  1. Dolan Halbrook Says:

    Back when I shot Canon I had the 70-200/4L (non-IS version). That thing was sharp as a tack — an absolutely awesome lens and reasonably sized for what it was. Might be a bit short on the long end for birding, but I can vouch for it’s sheer awesomeness. The 100-300L might be worth checking out.

    Superzooms are pretty much always compromises. I’m currently shooting with a Pentax (Tamron underneath) 18-250, and it’s impressively sharp for what it is, but it will never touch a dedicated tele zoom. If you want an all-rounder, it’s a great lens, but if what you’re after is great bird photos, spring for something made for exactly that.

  2. Farhat Kaleem Says:

    The Canon 70 – 200mm F4 L that you mention as being less than $600 is not IS. The IS version of this lens is more than $1000.

  3. Andrew O'Malley Says:

    I’ve done a couple of 6 months trips around Australia with the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS and have been happy with the results for hand-held bird photography.

    The weight is a bit of an issue, but I found I soon “toughened up” and took it on numerous day hikes. The IS really does work and I wouldn’t consider a tele lens without it now. Auto-focus also seems quite responsive (according to family members who owned Tamron and Sigma lenses of similar specifications before moving to the Canon).

    The lens seems quite sharp at f/6.3-7.1 @ 400mm and is marginally softer fully open.

    I wouldn’t consider it as a general purpose lens. In fact I found I very rarely used anything but the 400mm end for bird photography. My solution was to buy a second body and I tend to keep a 17-40mm on that for landscape photography, switching to a 100mm macro occasionally.

    Feel free to contact me if you want a few sample images of the lens.

  4. Spencer Kormos Says:

    I think you have the best solution in renting. Some you can evaluate in a couple of days, some in a week. I’ve rented from Calumet here in NYC, and they have a store location in Santa Ana.

    Good luck, buying a lens is always a difficult task.

  5. Anon Y Mouse Says:

    If I could find the 70-200 f/2.8 IS for $1250 I’d buy it. But it retails for $1899. Your quote is closer to the f/4 with IS. I’ve read that the 100-400 compromises on quality images. I’ve concluded there is no bargain in the zoom range so why bother with a 300 +/- an extender? I’d rather get quality and live with the specs than over drive the cup and end up in a bunker wishing I’d picked a shorter club. The f/4 version of the 70-200 is light enough to handhold for some people. It really craps me out that the manufacturers determined that if you want your car to come with doors and windows you need to pay double the price. At least the car came with wheels. I am planning on trying out the f/4 sans IS. If it doesn’t play my tune I’ll drop the experiment and go fishing. But thanks for the valuable tips. I wish I had read this a year ago. I’ve seen pictures online using the 50-500 and I thought they were good. But the problem is none of the online photo sharing sites require one to disclose the use of post editing software. I’d be surprised if a 10x telescopic lens with a max aperture of 4 could be that good. Nor would I choose it simply because at $1599 t’s way out of line for a third party lens. My thoughts on third party lenses are the same when they offer something so cheap you dive in. The thing is it is impossible to find an answer online except very general information. People have egos and want to be heard and they all think they’re the holder of the truth. Just go to a Canon or Nikon forum and pick any subject. Before long the Grand Wizard of Photography will explain why you know nothing about anything. So on that note I will add that one only chooses third party sources when you’ve exhausted your DSLR manufacturer’s choices. And anything that claims macro and zoom is baloney.

  6. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    I think you’re right about the price. I must have been looking at the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L non-IS model.

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