Canon SLR Lenses: Finding the Right One

I'm going to begin this discussion of Canon SLR lenses with some definitions.

It's important to get these out of the way first, since you're going to be seeing a lot of abbreviations once you start comparing lenses.

For example, this may not make a lot of sense to you right at this moment: 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM.

It will once you read the next section.

Canon SLR Lens Terminology

The problem when it comes to selecting a digital SLR lens is that every manufacturer seems to delight in using different terminogly to describe what is essentially the same feature.

It makes sense why - no company wants to seem like a copycat.

The only problem is that you must learn a whole new set of acronyms for every manfuacturer when you're comparing digital SLR lenses.

Hopefully the following examples will help clarify the Canon SLR lens jargon for you.

Lens Example 1: Canon 50mm f/1.8

This first example is pretty straightforward - there's not a lot of acronyms that you have to decipher. This is an example of a prime lens, which is also called a fixed focal length lens.

50mmThe millimeter number represents the focal length of the lens. Lenses with longer focal lengths allow you to get closeup photos of your subject even from far away.
f/1.8This is the maximum aperture of the lens: the widest f-stop that the lens can be set to, which also lets in the greatest amount of light. Lenses with smaller f numbers let in more light and are more useful for low-light photography. Lenses that let in a lot of light are also called fast.

Lens Example 2 - Canon 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM

Here's a lens with all the bells and whistles. Not only is it a zoom lens (where the focal length changes) but it also has a lot of the extra features typical of Canon SLR lenses.

28-135mmSince this is a zoom lens, there are two numbers for the focal length that represent the zoom range of the lens. The first number represents the wide-angle setting for the lens (zoomed out) and the second is the telephoto setting (zoomed in).
f/3.5-5.6The maximum aperture of many zoom lenses gets smaller the more you zoom. This means that the wide-angle setting lets in more light than the telephoto setting. The aperture f/3.5 is the maximum aperture at 28mm (wide angle) and f/5.6 is the maximum aperture at 135mm (telephoto). Some special zoom lenses have constant maximum apertures, and will only display one f number instead of two.
The L designation is reserved for Canon's professional lenses. These lenses use better glass elements, are weatherproofed and can take quite a bit of abuse. They are mainly used by professional photojournalists and sports photographers, but occasionally you will see a regular amateur toting one of these around. You can spot them from a mile away since they are (typically) pure white instead of black (see example at right). They also cost significantly more than lenses without the L.
ISIS is Canon's anti-shake, and it stands for Image Stabilization. When a lens has IS, it allows you to use slow shutter speeds and still get clear photos even when holding the camera in your hands. IS is also very useful for lenses with long focal lengths (200mm or longer) since these telephoto lenses magnify camera shake.
USMThis acronym stands for Ultra-Sonic Motor, and it means that the lens focusing mechanism is dead quiet. USM lenses also tend to focus faster and than their non-USM counterparts, even when both lenses are attached to the same camera. These silent lenses are ideal for wildlife photographers who don't want to disturb their subjects, but also work for anyone who wants to be discreet about their photography.

Which Canon SLR Lenses Do You Need?

Phew. We made it through all that terminology.

You should now be much more prepared to evaluate (and understand) the different options that are available to you when it comes to Canon SLR lenses.

I am going to introduce the Canon lenses to you based on photography style.

What's a photography style? It's defined by the photos that you really want to take with your digital SLR camera.

I use these photography styles when I help people searching for a digital SLR camera:

  • Action and Sports
  • Portraits
  • Landscapes
  • Macro (also called close-up)
  • Night and Low Light
  • Travel and Outdoor
  • Indoor
  • Spontaneous
  • Planned / Studio

In reality, there aren't special lenses for all of these different photography styles. But the types of photos that you most want to take should drive the features that you get in your Canon SLR lenses.

In order to help you find the right Canon lens, I've broken them down into the following categories to make your search a bit easier:

  • Wide Angle Lenses - great for landscape photography
  • Wide Aperture Lenses - a requirement for action and low-light photography
  • Medium Zooms - all-purpose lenses that work best for portraits
  • Compact Lenses - ideal for the travelling photographer
  • Mega Zooms - for those who only want to carry one lens
  • Macro Lenses - used for extreme close-up photography

NOTE: I will be linking these categories as time goes on. I didn't want to wait to create all these pages to post this one, which is why it's not 100% complete. Keep an eye on the Digital SLR Guide Weblog to be notified when new pages are ready.

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