Getting to know Canon

We are not a complete stranger to Canon. My wife has an AE-1 which I have used from time to time. The 50mm standard lens seems to be pretty good (most 50mm primes are). It also has a Sigma 28mm wide angle lens. The Sigma lens is not so good, and whatņs worse is it fouls the inside of the camera when it is mounted, leaving a silver arc in the matt black of the body behind the lens mount. I quite liked the Canon, despite my preference for the more compact Olympus cameras. But now the shutter makes a horrible scronking wheezing sound like a childņs push along friction toy. The camera has entered old age. But at least the lenses will come in handy with the new Canon bodies right? Wrong!

In the mid-eighties Canon changed the lens mount, to the dismay of many Canon owners. Other manufacturers, most notably Nikon, tried to maintain backwards compatibility with their manual focus lenses. At the time, SLR cameras used mechanical linkages between the body and the lens both to sense the aperture selected and stop down at the moment of exposure, and this included Canonņs "AF" mount. Most manufacturers used the same approach for autofocus, with a motor in the camera body engaging mechanically with the focussing ring in the lens. But Canon decided to change to a fully electronic coupling for its new "EF" mount when it introduced its autofocus "EOS" line. If you look at a Canon lens you will see a set of contacts in an arc and no mechanical catches or levers. The lens has its own focussing motor and also an electromagnetically controlled aperture. The approach makes it easier for Canon to add improvements to their lenses and and bodies and to add electronics into the lens itself, such as for image stabilisation. In fact some off-brand lens manufacturers have been caught out as the design has been refined.

So the old manual lenses are famously not compatible with the "new" autofocus system.

The 28-80 story.

When the cameras eventually arrived (the courier having driven me almost insane with anticipation over a week while they faffed about - I had gone from intense and eager anticipation to furious indignation - I prefer to be in control) I was in a mood to find them unsatisfactory. I shot a roll of film and had it developed using a one-hour high-street service. Even from the 4x6 prints you could see the difference between the 50mm prime and the 28-80 zoom - at f8!. When you opened up the zoom (which wasnņt saying much - f4) it got a lot worse. I was dissatisfied with the performance of the 28-80 zoom. Surely technology has moved on in twenty years and todayņs zooms outperform those primitive fixed focal length lenses of yesteryear. This lens is rubbish - get it out of my sight! Luckily I have the 50mm/1.8 prime for comparison, and also one remaining Zuiko 50mm prime for comparison. The 28mm Zuiko is gone, but I have some old test shots. Letņs compare:

The Canon 50mm prime looks better than the Zuiko 50mm. But not much. The stolen 28mm Zuiko looks as though it was better than the 50mm Zuiko, but edged by the Canon. The 28-80 Canon Zoom, when compared with the various primes - the technical term is it sucks.

I also took some actual pictures of the same landscape subject and the differences really stood out - it was like the difference between pro and am.

The lens is everything. Thatņs what determines the technical quality. Almost any body can get the exposure right if you do enough work. A modern body winds the film on, loads and rewinds, focusses, does intelligent metering. None of these things ultimately result in a better picture, although it might make it easier (in some cases the advantage seems really tiny).

But if you read around you start to pick up stuff like:

Hmm. And the last comment is a precis of what Canon say about their own lens range. More specifically, their are certain lenses which are optically made to the same standard as their pro (L) lenses. This seems to include most of the primes.

I visited a number of camera stores and explained that the 28-80 zoom (3.1) was unsatisfactory and I was looking for a replacement which would give me results comparable with my old Zuiko primes.

Wallace Heaton: The more expensive zooms wonņt be much better unless you go to L lenses at a grand a throw. Suggested prime lenses and would trade the 28-80 for £70 against the £200 28mm/f2.8 Canon. I very nearly took up their offer, but decided to investigate further.

Dixons: These are the only lenses we sell - 28-135mm IS(3.5), and the 28-70L(3.9). They let me try them and take some test shots - would I be able to tell the difference. And that was close to their optimum aperture, hand-held (with flash). Yes, I certainly could. The results corresponded almost exactly with what would have been predicted by the photodo tests in terms of relative optical performance. This makes me think those guys might know a thing or two about lenses.

Jacobs: Canon low end lenses not very good. He had a 28-105(3.3) and it was rubbish. Now replaced by 28-135 which is probably not much better but has IS (Image Stabilisation). Probably use plastic lenses (?). He recommended the Sigma EX lenses in the £400 - £500 range to see a noticeable improvement. He suggested the Sigma 28-70/f2.8EX lens at about £350 (3.0). Also consider the Sigma 28-300 super zoom (2.7) - "Thatņs definitely glass, not plastic" he said producing a lens considerably larger than the camera. Or possibly depleted uranium, I thought as I weighed it in my hand. With some difficulty I mounted it on the camera, or rather it was the other way round. It would just fit in the shoulder holster if I took the spare films out. With a firm twist of the barrel two telescopic sections extented quadrupling its length. You couldnņt really hold the camera comfortably and had to support the lens, and one worried for the plastic lens mount on the EOS300, particularly if the camera body were on a tripod. I imagined zooming from 28 to 300 one would ideally want to change to a faster film. Sounds like two bodies and two zooms would be less weight and cost.

Photo-optix: Modern amateur lenses will not match Zuiko lenses - would need to go to Zeiss or something. Forget Canon, Sigma etc. His pro-photographer friend uses Zuiko because they are the only thing that comes close to large format lenses - youņd be better of buying 2nd hand Zuiko. (incredible!). This rather played to my prejudices, maybe he picked this up from something I said. But frankly I find this hard to believe, much as I like the notion. I donņt think Canonņs prime lenses are any less good than Zuiko, and I doubt if they ever were. And even Olympus produced a few poor quality zooms over the years.

Jessops: Oh, that 28-80 zoom is quite well regarded. These type of lenses are built for cost. Of course Canon make some very expensive pro lenses. But you really need primes if you are going for optical quality - I use only primes. But try these good Sigma zoom lenses.

Some thoughts

As cheap consumer zooms go, the 28-80 I started with isnņt bad at all. Itņs worth keeping as a lightweight wide zoom you can afford to lose. Iņm really glad I didnņt trade it. A lot of camera users are trying to get 4x6 prints and even cheap zooms are going to look sharp. They want a camera that will get a result without needing them to do anything except point and shoot. But they donņt want a p&s camera because it is not butch enough. Hence the proliferation of cameras with sophisticated electronics and rubbish optics.

If you run a camera shop, and someone wants a better lens, then sure, let them try out some test shots, preferably hand-held at around f8, of a changing scene in changing light. The more random the results the better because, confused, you will convince yourself that one of the lenses, probably one of the more expensive ones, is better, and trade up.

Why buy an SLR and then use a lens that turns it into a heavy bulky point and shoot? A compact without the compactness.

There must be a market for SLR cameras with awful optics, but why? Male jewelery? A manņs camera?

Why pay for image stabilisation on a wide angle lens?

Why fit a zoom lens that is so bulky that it dwarfs the camera body and is twice the weight and size of the prime lenses that do the same job?

Zooms are more useful for longer focal lengths, where "perambulatory zoom" is less likely to be possible.

Even modest lenses can be used to get acceptable results if used carefully by controlling the aperture range and using a lens hood.

Yes, absolutely get your technique right. But why use put all that effort in and use rotten gear which isnņt even exactly cheap. You might as well P&S. Why should a lower standard be acceptable now than 20 years ago? It doesnņt make sense.

Camera shake is a sharpness killer. The formula 1/f is nothing like fast enough, you need 1/4f to be safe. Otherwise you need to use a tripod. If you are working at f8 you are going to be needing a tripod a lot of the time.

Most of the R&D effort seems to have been expended in making the cameras cheaper to manufacture and in adding pointless features.

I use Kodak Royal Gold - supposedly finer grain for film speed (crude tests seem to support this) with good latitude. I scan and print digitally, so the fact that it is negative film doesnņt really affect me.

My rules for good technical quality images (none of these things involve much cost) - break any of these rules and youņve lost it:

I would consider spending a grand on a lens if I thought the results justified it, even if it meant the lens was worth five times as much as the camera. But it isnņt worth it, because I can get the same quality or better with inexpensive prime lenses. At the wide end I can "zoom with my feet". If Iņm using a tripod itņs not such an issue. If I need to take something NOW then I hope I have the cheap zoom on the camera to get something. Itņs just the inconvenience of changing lenses. But to get the same quality and max aperture in a zoom you end up with this huge heavy thing which dwarfs the camera. Thatņs not very convenient either.

I bought a second-hand 28mm/f2.8 Canon prime for £110. It has a metal lens mount. I think Iņm all set now, mystery solved. I can go back to doing some photography.

Update 12/2000

The OM40s got nicked, along with the excellent 28mm lens and the not-so-good but useful 135mm, and a 50mm standard lens. The insurance company rather generously replaced them with about a grandņs worth of brand new Canon kit. I would have been happy with about £400 to buy exact replacements on the second hand market.

What did we find? What has 15 years of technological development brought?

I think I prefer the OM2 - I must be becoming a camera snob!