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What the “L” is Going On?

World’s first Fluorite Lens Canon FL-F 300/5.6, 1969

Canon, perhaps more than any other brand has created a very well-known identity for their professional series of lenses. The bright red ring and the nomenclature  designated with the professionally ubiquitous “L” are universally known as “pro” lenses even by photo ‘newbs.’ The off-white heat reflecting paint is a staple at sporting events and was started by Canon in the 1980s. Canon began designating “L” for several high-end specialty lenses in the early 1980s when they decided lenses such as the FD 14/2.8, FD 85/1.2 Aspherical and FD 300/2.8 Fluorite lenses needed some special annotation. The fluorite lenses already had a green ring around them dating back to 1969 with the Fl F 300/5.6. The revamped 300mm with the fast 2.8 aperture was painted off-white, given the famous red ring treatment and thus designated the 300/2.8 L. The rest as they say is history. 

At that time, Nikon was the premier pro SLR system. Although Leica could argue they had a quality and precision advantage, Nikon was the 35mm camera used by at least 75% of working pros. The Nikon F2 and several smaller companion bodies like the FE and FM were superior to the offerings from Canon at the time, although an argument can be made the F1n in the middle 1970s brought Canon to parity at the top of the model line with Nikon. Canon’s A series bodies never had the quality build or professional handling of the FE and FM though, and that played a role in keeping Nikon perched at the top of the pro 35mm food chain. Nikon had a series of high-end tele-photo lenses simply called “ED” or in some cases “ED IF.” ED stood for Extra Low Dispersion Glass and IF stood for internal focus. I do not know whether Nikon or Canon was first to use this “ring” of quality but Canon dates to 1969 and I don’t know when the first ED lens with a gold ring was produced. I doubt it was in the 1960s though.

Canon was a pioneer in the use of fluorite crystals in the manufacture of lenses. Recently they pioneered another technology the use of fresnel glass called “diffractive optics” to create low distortion super compact telephoto lens designs. Canon continues to work on the cutting edge of technology to create amazing new products that quite often become standards of the industry. They also use low dispersion glass to reduce chromatic aberrations in fast teles, they designate theirs as “UD” for Ultra low dispersion. OH, ULTRA LOW! 😉 Marketing 101 use bigger and cooler adjective than your competitor to win 😉

Canon had one of histories greatest lenses innovations in the middle 70s when they created the monster 85/1.2 Aspherical. This lens used not only an custom ground aspherical lens element but a unique new focusing system called “the floating system.” This lens took the world by storm as it was not only the fastest 85mm lens on the planet it was arguably one of the sharpest. It could focus fairly close and didn’t have the usual optical issues with a fast close focusing lens. That would later become the FD 85/1.2 L. 

New FD 300/2.8 L 1981

Despite Canon making amazing technological advances in lens design, the combination of a weak lineup of mostly consumer cameras, F1 and T90 notable exceptions, Nikon persisted as the Professional choice by a wide margin and Nikon still had a better reputation for lens quality. This was in part due to Canon making many inexpensive lenses to support the amateur market. Nikon made a special line of E-series lenses that were good lenses but built to a lower standard to make them economical for entry level photographers buying cameras like the EM and FG in the late 70s and early 80s. Canon never made this distinction, so a flimsy plastic New FD 28/2.8 was not designated differently despite the fact that the more professionally oriented New FD 28/2.0 was much better built with metal internals rather than plastic. The only lenses that had a distinction for quality were the extremely expensive L series lenses. Not all working pros could afford L series lenses, so many owned Nikon and bought Nikon’s middle grade lenses, such as the 105/2.5 with the assumption they were “better” than Canon. Some were, some were not.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that Canon emerged as the top professional 35mm SLR system and in the sports and events field they absolutely dominated. Nikon managed to hang on to a sizable loyal base and they still do today. But Canon did a complete redesign and created the amazing EF lens mount, still in use today. The lenses and cameras were connected entirely through electronics and that was well ahead of its time. Every other camera maker had to simply play catch-up. Nikon was the only one that stayed in the game. Sony has emerged recently as a camera maker, largely through the acquisition of makers that died trying to catch Canon (Minolta/Konica). Using mirrorless technology and an alliance with Carl Zeiss, they have created a professional mirrorless market that they lead over the classic Japanese makers, Nikon and Canon.

Beginning in the late 80s Canon began an impressive run of top grade mile-stone lenses with the L designation. The Canon EF 300/2.8 L, the “Magic Drain Pipe” EF 80-200/2.8 L, EF 85/1.2 L and the ridiculously fast EF 50/1.0 L put the professional photographers on notice that Canon was not messing around in this new era of auto focus. Canon has now cemented their professional legacy into the psyche of photographers the world over. Some have suggested the “L” stands for “Luxury” but that has not been confirmed by Canon as the original purpose, it has however been adopted by Canon in recent years at least in western markets.

So today the L lenses do have some characteristics that are more or less universal and separate from Canon’s prosumer and consumer lenses. Working from the bottom, the consumer lenses are the basic lenses often offered as kit lenses on the less expensive entry-level SLR bodies and often have all plastic construction including the lens mount and use the simple and noisy gear driven motors to focus. The mid grade prosumer lenses are often much better built with a steel lens mount, USM type focusing motor which is fast and silent, nicer feel to the lens with superior materials. These “prosumer” lenses look and feel  definitively different than the cheaper entry level lenses. The L series lenses are further separated by the use of dust and moisture seals, metal lens mounts, heavier grade materials whether composite or metal make up the sturdy and quality design and fit of L series lenses. Generally the L lenses are also designs that have fast apertures and generous zoom ranges.

For a while Canon was producing some L lenses that were not quite as stellar performers as previous L lenses back in the FD days. You are hard pressed to find any FD L lens that wasn’t a top in its class performer for the era. Canon did have a few L lenses in the early to mid 2000s that were only very good performers rather than world-class performers. The fast wide-angle zooms and standard range zooms in the middle 2000s were not as solid optically as Nikon’s comparable lenses. In fact Nikon launched the excellent 14-24/2.8 in 2007. This lens offered a full 7° more coverage than the Canon 16-35/2.8 L same speed and the Nikon was optically better, alot better. Sure it is a big clunky lens with no filter support, but it was optically superior to a much easier design in the 16-35mm. Canon revamped its 16-35 to a MK II in an effort to close the optical gap. In 2009 Nikon launched the 16-35/4 VR (Vibration Reduction which is Image Stabilization). That lens was even sharper and better corrected than the 14-24 and better than ANY of Canon’s ultra wide-angle lenses prime or zoom!

Maybe Canon had become complacent. They owned the tele-photo lenses market for sports and wildlife with gold standards in the 300/2.8 L, 400/2.8 L, 600/4 L. But what about lenses like the 24-70/2.8 L 16-35/2.8 L? Why was Nikon kicking Canon in the face with superior optics in these important standard and wide-angle pro lenses? I don’t know the answer, but I do know this; Canon got the heck out of what ever funk they were in. 2010-2018 has seen a masterful remake of the under performers in the L line and a few new legends that have the world once again looking at Canon with that puzzled look of “How the L did they do that?”

Widest SLR lens ever made! EF 11-24 L

Canon launched in 2011 the superb 8-15/4 L fish eye zoom, 2014 the 16-35/4 IS L which was lauded as the best wide-angle zoom ever made by Canon and on par with the world (finally), 2015 brought forth the unbelievable 11-24/4 L the widest SLR lens ever made! Optically it is amazing, even on par with Nikon’s much less wide, 14-24. 2016 gave us the MK III 16-35/2.8 L also bringing the optics up to snuff with competitors, and last year the EOS R mirrorless camera was launched and with it three new L series lenses that have been met with rave reviews for outstanding class leading optical performance. The RF 50/1.2 L, RF 24-105/4 IS L and the crazy fast RF 28-70/2 L. Yes that is F/2! Compared to Nikon’s mirrorless launch Canon clearly aimed the lenses at a much more serious level than rival Nikon with their Z cameras.

Nikon and Canon need to be very careful in the years ahead as the photography market is in uncharted territory with silly good phones and new tech changing fast. Flagship bodies and glass will always bring the serious crowd to your brand, Canon seems to be winning the flagship lens branding over Nikon, but all three brands need to be aware of the rapidly changing photo landscape if they are to survive over the next 20 years.

For now, Canon is once again bringing its L game to lenses making; the lens world is again in awe as Canon pushed boundaries.

This is a truncated list of L lenses I feel are either world class leaders or excellent values (sometimes BOTH!) These are worthy of your hard-earned cash. The ones in green represent a wonderful value based on current new or used prices.

L lenses to seek out at the next PhotoFair or camera show in your area:

FD lenses:

  • 14/2.8 The original ultra-wide from Canon half the size of Nikkor 13mm and two stops faster.
  • 24/1.4The original ultra fast wide-angle.
  • 50/1.2 This lens can be found reasonably priced.
  • 85/1.2 This lens was a game changer, still fetches $600-$1000.
  • 200/1.8 Legendary speed, will not come cheap.
  • 300/2.8 The gold standard among fast 300s, pretty affordable these days.
  • 20-35/3.5 This lens was sharp and had distortion under control.

EF Lenses:

  • 14/2.8 L Mk II Greatly improved performance over Mk I but at a higher price.
  • 17/4 L TSE The stuff of legends, tilt and shift with a 17mm!
  • 24/1.4 L Mk II This is the pinnacle of high-speed wide-angle performance.
  • 24/3.5 L TSE Tilt and shift more affordable than 17 TSE.
  • 35/1.4 L Mk I These are now very reasonable, much smaller than Mk II excellent lens.
  • 35/1.4 L Mk II Best fast 35mm ever! Superior performance to Mk I but long and heavy.
  • 50/1.0 L God uses this lens! 
  • 50/1.2 Excellent optics.
  • 85/1.2 L Mk I AF is pokey slow, but these can be found for a sweet low price!
  • 85/1.2 L Mk II Much better AF than Mk I more money but used still a value.
  • 85/1.4 L IS These are hard to find used, optically the best 85mm lens Canon has ever made and IS too!
  • 135/2.0 Another gold standard lens!
  • 135/4 L TSE Macro lens with full movements, awesome but it will cost you big.
  • 200/2.8 L Mk I Absolutely equal to Mk II optically but built-in shade sucks, you’ll like the price!
  • 200/2.0 L Optically superior to the faster 1.8 and less money too.
  • 300/2.8 L IS Mk II Simply the best 300mm lens ever made, any questions?
  • 8-15/4 L Can’t decide whether you want a corner to corner fish eye or full 180° circle, have it all then.
  • 11-24/4 The widest zoom in the world, oh, and optically, one of the best as well, abra kadabra!
  • 16-35/4 L IS This lens is the best wide-angle zoom Canon makes, optically outstanding. $1000 NEW.
  • 16-35/2.8 L Mk III Finally the 2.8 Ultra wide zoom is playing with the big kids, Older versions under perform.
  • 17-40/4 L This older Canon lens actually performs really well and you can find them under $500 used!
  • 24-70/2.8 L Mk II Still not as good as it should be, but noticeably better than the Mk I
  • 24-70/4 L IS Small and light for an L series lens, razor sharp!
  • 24-105/4 L IS Mk I A bit too much distortion, but priced right and still very sharp!
  • 24-105/4 L IS Mk II Bigger/Heavier than Mk I but much less distortion at 24 and sharper throughout.
  • 28-80/2.8-4 This is older lens w/variable max aperture, but razor-sharp all over, better than 28-70 L. 
  • 70-200/2.8 L IS Mk II/III A truly exceptional experience with top drawer IS and excellent optics
  • 70-200/4 L IS Mk I Ridiculously sharp lens, price down for used because Mk II which has better IS.
  • 80-200/2.8 The Magic Drain Pipe! Giant, clunky and optically amazing! Fast AF and cheap price!
  • 100-400/4-5.6 L IS Clunky push/pull zoom, but optics are stupendous. IS is a bit dated
  • 100-400/4-5.6 L IS Mk II Better twist type zoom with modern IS system.

I personally own and use several Canon L series lenses and have owned a few FD versions back in the day also.

I currently have the following L lenses in my kit:

  • EF 16-35/4 L IS Optical genius! Love this lens, stabilizer is excellent.
  • EF 24-105/4 L IS Mk I One of Canon’s weaker L lenses, I don’t use this range often.
  • EF 70-300/4-5.6 L IS A solid lens, I like it because it is fairly compact and fits in my bag!
  • EF 85/1.2 L Mk II This lens has a delicious creamy bokeh and is tack sharp in the center @1.2.
  • EF 135/2 This lens is tack sharp right out to the corners.

I used to have the following, back in the day:

  • EF 200/2.8 L Mk I Sometimes I miss this lens, small, light weight and 2.8 fast!
  • FD 85/1.2 L Pure genius!
  • FD 300/2.8The legend began here and continues into the EF era.

 

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Vintage Soft Focus

Have you ever thought about these “soft focus” lenses that are out there? Ever wondered why anyone would want them in this modern age of digital post processing? Do you need one? Well, the answers may surprise you.

First let’s travel back to the 1930s and 40s when America was at the height of Hollywood Glamour. Back in those days one of the tools for making that soft and glowing glamour look was to use Vaseline on a clear glass filter. The Photographer could manipulate the layer to be thick on the perimeter and less so or even none on the face. This was done in an era where film had to be processed and printed largely by hand and took time. Getting it right with a technique that was at best only somewhat consistent required someone who was rather adept at the skill of prepping the lens for the glam shots.

As time marched on the filter companies began producing soft effect filters such as a ‘diffuser’, ‘softener’, ‘duto’, ‘centerspot’ and many more. These and others developed a following and many a page was written about the differences in the various types and why one is better than the other. There are notable differences in the way the various filters achieve a soft effect. The one key problem was having the effect isolated to specific areas. For example having tack sharp eyes and lips but a soft look everywhere else.

In the modern age of Photoshop, we can do some nice dreamy effects and can even imitate some of the style used over the years. But doing it right means taking a fair amount of time in post to pull it off. So enter the soft focus lens. I have two of them, the Canon FD 85mm f/2.8 Soft Focus and the slighter newer Canon EF 135mm f/2.8 Soft Focus. The former is an ideal portrait length for full frame waist up or even head and shoulders. A tight head shot might require getting uncomfortably close to the model. The latter gives a step or two more room when doing head shots. My personal feelings on this type of shot are that they are ideally suited for the glamour “close-up” shot. In that case the EF 135mm has an edge.

There are many lenses featuring a soft focus effect. I would avoid a cheap one because the title of this post is very serious. Soft focus is NOT ‘out of focus’. The key to a good soft focus shot is to start with a very sharp image. This is where filters can struggle. The soft focus lenses I have seen including the two Canon models mentioned above, the Tamron 70-150 SF, Pentax 85/2.2 SF, and yet others still, are all based on a mechanism that deliberately introduces spherical aberration to create a soft glow around out of focus portions of the image and an overall dreamy look. Spherical aberrations are something that all modern lenses do a great job of correcting. The two Canon lenses each have a “0” setting in which no soft focus effect is applied. In that position the lens shoots like a typical 85mm or 135mm lens. Both lenses are reasonably sharp although I feel like the 85 FD version is sharper. When adjusting the lens into one of the soft focus ranges, the FD 85 has three and the EF 135 has two, spherical aberration is introduced through a mechanical shift in the optics internally. I have found that both Canon lenses will require a refocus after shifting the soft effect to get the best result. You never want your soft focus effect to be ruined by an out of focus picture. If it was that easy no one would buy filters or lenses they would just mis-focus. The idea of a well designed soft focus lens is to maintain sharpness at the plane of focus but all of the out of focus bits become overwhelmed with spherical aberration.

The cheap SIMA soft focus lens kits from the 1980s were not very sharp at all and so the spherical aberration tended to overwhelm the whole image giving it a bit of a cheap look. The Canon FD lens has three soft focus setting 1,2, and 3. The lens barrel at the front of the lens moves in and out like a zoom lens but each position 0 through 3 has a detent. Pulling the lens towards you moves further into the soft effect. The EF lens is an autofocus lens and it works fine in AF at the “0” setting but in the soft mode I have to use manual as the AF consistently back focuses. This lens has two soft focus settings 1 and 2 each with a detent but both lenses allow in-between settings. The EF model has a separate twist ring for the soft effect and can be locked into the “0” setting. I prefer the soft focus system in the EF lens with the ring rather than the push pull zoom style. These Canon lenses both get real strong on the effect when shooting wide open at the max setting, many will find the highest setting to feel like overkill. But if you stop the lens down the effect is diminished so the stronger settings can be reserved for shots where you are stopping down to f/4 or f/5.6. The advantage to these lenses is that razor-sharp elements are still rendered sharp even in the soft focus setting. The spherical aberration may create a soft glow that partially diffuses the contrast but it is evident the image is “sharp.” It is very difficult and/or time consuming to get a true soft focus effect post and it is equally difficult and/or time consuming to try it with filters. So in answer to the question, “do you need one?” Yes, yes you do.

I like the effect and when used as a standard lens both are rather sharp even wide open. The Pentax lens mentioned above uses a different system. That lens is designed to induce spherical aberration and has no “settings” for soft focus. Instead the lens is designed to let the stopping down reduce the effect. Wide open yields the largest effect and stopped down to 5.6 reduces it to a minimum. That lens is always soft focus however, there is no setting the yields zero effect. The Tamron lens is rather rare and has the advantage of having a zoom feature that runs through the entire portrait range of 70-150mm. It is a 2.8 lens as well and features a system similar to the Canon EF lens with a ring dial to set the level of soft effect.

Below I have four pictures made with the FD 85/2.8 Soft Focus one at each setting. Again the lens will allow shooting between the settings. Please note that each shot is taken from the exact same spot but the focus was adjusted after each soft focus setting change. You will see that the subject is actually a camera and the point of focus is the lens of that camera. The lettering around the lens bezel is crisp and easy to read even at the max effect and wide open. When stopping down the lens to f/5.6 the number three setting looks more like the number 1 setting does at f/2.8. The FD lens is a premium build much like the higher end Canon FD lenses of the 1980s. It isn’t quite at the “L” level, but features a nice 9 blade aperture diaphragm and a nice build quality. Take a look at the four shots below then after that I have a bit about the EF 135/2.8 with Soft Focus. Click on the photos to enlarge.

 

Canon EOS R with Canon FD 85/2.8 Soft Focus at setting “0” @f/2.8

Canon EOS R with Canon FD 85/2.8 Soft Focus at setting “1” @f/2.8

Canon EOS R with Canon FD 85/2.8 Soft Focus set to “2” @f/2.8

Canon EOS R with Canon FD 85/2.8 Soft Focus set to “3” @f/2.8

The EF lens was introduced in the late 1980s and uses that rather dinky and cheap feeling build of the early consumer grade EF lenses. There is no sugar-coating it, the EF lens is cheap looking and feels cheap too. This lens however was one of Canon’s longest running EF lenses. They made this thing from 1987 the first year of EOS, all the way till 2014! The problem is simply this, they never updated it. To make it for nearly 30 years and not update it was sacrilegious! This lens would be PERFECT if it have been given a face lift around say 2000. They could have introduced the USM to offer full-time manual focus, a real need with this lens due to the need to tweak focus using the soft feature and the Canon consumer grade lenses from the late 1990s through the mid 2000’s was much better than that original consumer build. That said the 135mm is a great lens. With only two soft focus levels versus the three on the FD 85 this lens does not have the overkill setting. Although that is fine for wide open shots when stopped down that non-existent 3 position could be missed.

Canon EOS R with Canon EF 135/2.8 Soft Focus setting 0, @f/2.8

Canon EOS R with Canon EF 135/2.8 Soft Focus setting 1, @f/2.8

Canon EOS R with Canon EF 135/2.8 Soft Focus setting 2, @f/2.8

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