Review date: 15 September 2005.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Unless you only want a DSLR to connect it to a telescope or microscope, or you're profoundly and perversely old school, you're going to need at least one lens to go with your new camera.

Four lenses

Part of the DSLR deal is that quality lenses aren't cheap. Some lenses are cheap, of course; they're often sold on eBay, and loved only by people who type in ALL CAPS.

Lenses worth having are more expensive.

Canon sell the 20D bare, or with two different lenses, as I mentioned above.

Both of the bundled lenses use Canon's new "EF-S" format, specially made for the mainstream EOS digitals, which have a sensor that's the size of an APS frame - smaller than 35mm film.

The 20D's non-pro ancestors back to the D30 all have this sensor size. It's the same shape as a 35mm film frame, but about five-eighths the size, giving a 1.6X "field of view crop" or "focal length multiplier". Because of the smaller sensor, you only see the middle of the circle of light thrown by the lens, so the lens behaves as if it's 1.6 times as telephoto as it would on a 35mm camera, or one of the expensive pro DSLRs with a "full frame" sensor. The upcoming 5D ain't cheap, but it'll be the cheapest full-frame camera on the market.

It's perfectly possible to use regular 35mm lenses on DSLRs with smaller sensors, but it's a bit of a waste of glass - the lens is built to throw a circle of light into the camera that's bigger than it needs to be. This can be a good thing if you want more magnification, or if (as is often the case) your lens isn't optically great around the edges of the 35mm frame. But there's still room for lenses better matched to a smaller sensor.

Hence, the EF-S format, and various other "digital" lens formats adopted by different companies. EF-S lenses don't bother to light a 35mm-frame sized area inside the camera, so they can be smaller, lighter and cheaper than an equivalently specified full-frame lens.

EF-S lenses can only be used with the 300D, 350D and 20D (so far); they physically don't fit other cameras (unless you make a minor modification). Despite this, they're still specified as if they were regular 35mm lenses, not taking the field of view crop of these DSLRs into account, so for all of the cameras that can use EF-S lenses so far, you still have to multiply the quoted focal lengths by 1.6.

Aaaanyway, the cheaper 20D-plus-lens kit gives you an 18 to 55mm lens (29 to 88mm on a 1.6X camera) that's... adequate. Much better than nothing. Certainly better than a lot of lenses that genitally challenged young upwardly mobile professionals have put on expensive film and digital bodies over the years.

Really, the 18-55 doesn't suck too badly at all, and since the package including it only has a $US100/$AU175 price premium over the lensless 20D package, it's a good deal.

The 20D "Enthusiast Kit" gives you something rather more exciting, though; a 17-85mm image stabilised (IS) lens that's excellent, and sells by itself for about $US550. Getting it for $AU800-odd more than the body-only 20D kit is, therefore, an OK deal.

The reason why the 17-85 costs more than most people's whole cameras is, besides all of the coated aspherical multi-group ultrasonic motor blah blah blah, because of the image stabilisation.

The stabiliser lets this quite lightweight f5.6-fully-zoomed lens behave much like an f3.5 model, which matters not at all when you're shooting in brightly lit areas (because you'll need a fast shutter speed then even if you stop the lens down to f16, or whatever), but which is a big deal for lower light shooting, like most indoor night-time shots.

The rule of thumb for Canon's IS lenses is that the stabilisation gives you another "two stops" of shutter speed latitude. In English, that means the camera shake cancellation lets you get away with shutter speeds about four times as long as you could without it. At full wide angle with the 17-85, that means a handheld shot with a shutter speed of about an eighth of a second will probably come out OK. For ordinary indoor night shots, image stabilisation often lets you avoid popping flashes all over the place.

The only down side of stabilisation, besides price, is that it's nearly useless for tripod shots - though it can still be handy if you're a sports shooter who can't give the tripod time to stop vibrating before taking a shot - and it uses a bit of battery power. All of the digital EOS cameras have excellent battery life, though - not least because, like other DSLRs, they can't use their back-panel screen as a viewfinder - so this is no big deal.

I still recommend that any Canon DSLR buyer should get a spare battery, but feel free to buy a suspiciously inexpensive off-brand battery on eBay; you may well find you hardly ever use the thing, so there's no point paying four times as much for a genuine Canon battery that'll be dead in a few years anyway.

17-times-1.6 gives you 27mm, which is as wide as most people are ever going to need. 85-times-1.6 gives you 136mm, which is usefully telephoto - and that 5X zoom ratio is more than most consumer cameras can manage.

If you're thinking about buying a 20D - or a 350D, or a cheap-ish 300D on eBay, for that matter - seriously consider the 17-85 IS, rather than the 18-55. If you can afford a fancy camera like this in the first place, you can save up a bit longer for a lens that can do it justice.

You don't have to get the 17-85 as your everyday lens, though. My everyday lens is the old regular-EF 24-85mm, which Canon used to push as a good "digital lens" before EF-S existed.

The 24-85's $AU590-odd locally, a bit cheaper on local-warranty-free eBay, around $US300 in the States. It's a good piece of glass, and it was the best midpriced option before EF-S existed, but if you're using a 1.6X multiplier camera it's really not incredible value compared with the 17-85.

If you're currently lens-less and really want to pinch those pennies, you can buy a DSLR body with no lens and then pick up your first lens second hand on eBay. The EF-S 18-55mm kit lens isn't sold separately by Canon, but plenty of upgraders are selling 18-55s on eBay; the going rate is about $US80, at which price it's fine value. You can even get it to fit on non-EF-S cameras, if you're brave.

It's extremely unlikely that you'll ever get a full eight megapixels of value out of the 18-55, though. Actually, it won't even do justice to an EOS-D30.

However, if you also buy an EF 50mm f/1.8 ($AU155 new, about eighty US bucks used, for the version 2 plastic edition; the metal-mount original will cost you at least twice as much second hand), you'll have something optically terrific, and good for low light work too (f/1.8 lets 3.8 times as much light into the camera as the f/3.5 that's common for most affordable zooms).

The down side of this strategy, of course, is that you'll be stuck with one, only moderately useful, fixed 80mm-equivalent focal length if you want high image quality. Still, at $US160 plus shipping for both lenses, you really can't complain.

Lots of people only get one lens with their new DSLR, but that's not where you should stop. If you're happy with only one lens, a DSLR is a waste of money - and also unnecessarily big and heavy.

People who have a film SLR with one cheap consumer lens to go with it aren't, necessarily, being silly; quite competent film bodies are cheap these days, and the basic models are smaller and lighter than DSLR bodies. Older manual 35mm SLRs, like Olympus' rightly celebrated OM System, are smaller yet.

Back in the autofocus present day, Canon's more-than-adequate EOS 3000V (known in the USA as the Rebel K2) goes for about $AU260 (or less, in the States); Rebel film bodies of various flavours can be found in a lot of professional photographers' kit bags with lesser-used lenses on them, or just doing in-emergency-when-your-fancy-back-dies-break-glass-and-use-this duty.

At that price, a film body with just one half-decent lens on it is not a nutty purchase.

But if you're dropping at least six times as much money on a digital body, you must, eventually, get more than one lens. That's the whole idea.

If your budget doesn't stretch to more lenses right now, then buying them should be next on your to-do list. If you've no need for anything that your main lens can't do, then you've just spent money on a camera into which dust can get (find more about the joy of foreign bodies on your image sensor elsewhere...) for very little reason at all.

It's possible to spend very, very large amounts of money on lenses for an EOS camera, or indeed for almost any SLR. The larger L-series lenses you see photographers using at sporting events (making their biggest lenses white was a marketing coup for Canon, even when they're only used as furniture) cost as much as basic new cars, except for the special-order 1200mm, which costs as much as a very non-basic car.

Those of us for whom money is an object still have plenty of options, though. What, exactly, you should buy depends on what kinds of photos you take, but here are some

(Canon lens names, like those of other manufacturers, are almost always very utilitarian. The things are identified by focal length, F-number, and optional extras like an "L" to indicate Canon's luxury high-grade lenses, or "IS" to indicate the lens has a stabiliser in it. A zoom lens with a dual F-number, like "f/4-5.6", can manage f/4 at its wide angle end and f/5.6 at its maximum telephoto end. When two lenses have the same specs, the newer model gets a "II" in its name. Canon, and the other manufacturers, have a few more acronyms of their own, like "USM" to designate lenses with the ultrasonic motor that makes autofocus quieter and also usually lets you crank the focus around without disengaging autofocus.)

Wide lens: Really wide angle photography used to be a bit of a problem for 1.6X-multiplier cameras, but now all you need is money.

Both of the 20D kit lenses solve the problem well enough for most people, though. Canon have also extended the EF-S range to include a 10-22mm hyper-wide (16 to 35.2mm equivalent on a 1.6X multiplier camera); it sells for about $US740. If you don't need quite that much wide angle, the older 17-40mm L is a bit cheaper ($US680), is optically better (if it's got an L in its name, it's guaranteed to be top quality), and is likely to be more useful for most photographers. 16 to 35mm is a range of "very wide to wide".

(If you're happy with that, this Tamron may be of interest to you.)

Prime (fixed focal length) wide angle lenses aren't something most photographers need, but I must confess something of an affection for my 8mm all-manual Peleng fisheye. It matches 1.6X-multiplier cameras very well, giving an almost full-frame image missing only the corners, it costs a mere couple of hundred US dollars on eBay, and it looks cool.

Not everyone agrees that fisheye projection is actually useful for anything, but I think it looks better than rectilinear projection for extreme wide angles.

This situation's quite familiar to a lot of geeks, thanks to First Person Shooter games. Anyone who's played with field-of-view variables in an FPS will know that linear projection starts looking very weird indeed at wide view angles; things in the middle look a million miles away, and things around the edge are ridiculously stretched. With fisheye rendering, a 360 degree view is usable.

Macro lens: A macro lens is, technically, one that can focus close enough that the image on the film or sensor is as big as, or bigger than, the actual object you're pointing the camera at (that one-to-one ratio is called "1X"; "0.5X" means a lens can only throw an image half the size of the object onto the sensor, at its closest focus distance).

In common usage, "macro" just means a lens that's good for extreme close-up work (but can almost always also focus to infinity - macro lenses are often good portrait lenses, too). True macro lenses are always primes (no zoom), and there's a 60mm one in the EF-S lineup now, for $US450. There are a few other Canon EF macros, the cheapest of which is the 50mm f/2.5 0.5X Compact Macro for $US240. It's optically good, it's all the macro most people need, and it's not a big dumb lump of a lens so you may actually get out there and use the thing.

If your budget doesn't stretch even to that, though, allow me to re-recommend the cheap macro I mentioned in my D60 piece. It's the 100mm f/3.5 0.5X-macro lens (with screw-on adapter to give full 1X magnification, without infinity focus) made by Cosina and sold under the Phoenix, Promaster and Vivitar brands. It costs about $US170 for a "Phoenix" one like mine, and it feels like a pure piece of garbage even before its autofocus motor damages your hearing. But it takes great pictures, its screw-on adapter lets it go twice as close as the more expensive Canon, and mine is several years old now and hasn't broken yet.

Long lens: You'll never take a decent picture of a bird in a tree with an everyday zoom. For that, you need something that goes to at least 200mm, and preferably more. A 200mm lens on a 1.6X camera like the 20D is 320mm-equivalent, which is quite useful. 300mm-times-1.6 is better, and still affordable, for shooting small-things-at-a-distance.

Canon's own current 75-300 f/4-5.6 II zoom is cheap ($US190) and optically OK for the money (it also comes in a $US650/$AU870 stabilised version). The 100-300mm f/4.5-5.6 is better, as it'd want to be for $US280. The 70-200 F/4L is the choice for image quality fanatics on something resembling a budget ($US580, or $AU1330 for some reason...), and the 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DO IS is $US1150 (or $AU2045, a slightly less painful mark-up), but worth it if you want a startlingly small (thanks to the diffractive optics) zoom with a stabiliser.

If you can afford the 70-300 DO IS ABC BLAHBLAH, though, Sigma's $US1000 50-500mm f/4-6.3 hyper-zoom ($AU1990...) is another option. The amazing thing about the 50-500 is that unlike every previous hyper-zoom, it does not suck like a gaping dimensional rift into a universe whose physical laws permit the average pressure to be minus one billion atmospheres.

The Sigma's quite big and heavy (its nickname is "bigma"). It also only goes to f6.3 at the long end, and has no image stabiliser, which means you're likely to need a lot of light for full-zoom shooting, especially if your camera's not on a tripod. But it's also actually quite cheap, for what it is.

(It has been noted that zooms that go to this length are also useful for money laundering.)

There's a newer, more expensive version of the 50-500 that's supposed to have better coatings; if you ask me, the new one's major feature is that it's pushed down the price of the older one by a couple of hundred bucks.

(Canon's EF f/4L IS 500mm can let in 2.5 times as much light as the f6.3-at-best Sigma. With its stabiliser, the Canon lets you use a shutter speed ten times as long as the Sigma permits at 500mm, and still get a sharp image. But the big white Canon has no zoom, weighs 3.9 kilos, and {the gripping hand} costs $US5500. The even bigger Canon prime zooms are so big and cost so much because their minimum F-numbers are even lower, letting more light in so you can use faster shutter speeds, which are essential for telephoto action photography. Large aperture plus long focal length equals a serious optical engineering challenge.)

For better image quality than the 50-500 Sigma and almost as much reach, Canon's 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS is $US1400, which is good value (or $AU3110 here in Australia, which is a hard price to love). The stabiliser makes this a great lens for shooting birds, sports and so on.

But, coming back to reality, if you're a regular Joe who just wants to take pictures of birds/aeroplanes/football players occasionally, then even if you can easily afford a DSLR and a big old 100-400, it's the wrong choice. You should instead buy one of the several "10X zoom" stabilised prosumer integrated-lens cameras. No, they don't have the same optical or image sensor quality, but they have the enormous advantage that they're not enormous.

A giant camera that's a huge awkward lump to carry around will not be carried around, if you take pictures for fun and not for a job. And even people who do take pictures for a living - which, to be fair, is not the world's worst job - often use prosumer integrated-lens cameras as standbys, or when they're going to be up a mountain or down a hole and don't want a photographic boat-anchor dragging on them.

There are some pictures you just can't take with certain kinds of camera, but that doesn't mean that you can't get anything done unless you have a DSLR and a big ol' bag full of lenses. Many of the photographs widely agreed to be among the world's best are, technically, lousy. The image of the intrepid non-studio artist photographer, after all, is of some bloke with an all-manual Leica, 50mm prime lens and ISO 100 black and white film.

That photographer may not even know the focal length of his lens. It's the only one he's got, and the rangefinder viewfinder shows him what it sees.

Most photographers aren't quite that hard-core, though. Let's weigh up some options.

The rest of this review:
Introduction Resolution Strengths Confusion Alternatives

Review EOS-20D kindly provided by Dirt Cheap Cameras.

Australian digital camera shoppers should check out

Shoppers from the USA might prefer DealTime.

See also

The first page of this review is here.

If the photo-jargon in this review baffles you, my photo tutorial may help.

Or perhaps you'd prefer a book.

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