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The Canon 100mm Macro vs 100mm Macro ‘L’ For Fashion & Beauty Photography

By Julia Kuzmenko on February 11th 2018

If you are a portrait or beauty photographer and are thinking of getting a new 100mm Macro lens, but don’t know which of the two to go with – original or L-series – you may want to continue reading. If the difference in their price is not a big deal for you and you like the red line on all of your working lenses, then the L-series lens is obviously your best bet, but if you are on a budget and want to make sure that the extra few hundred bucks are worth the investment, stay with me, as this article is for you.

I have been shooting beauty and portraits in-studio with my Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens for about four years by now. Almost everything you see in my portfolio is photographed with this baby. My one and only reason for choosing this lens over its L-series sibling is its cost, which was a little over $1,000 at the time, practically double the price of the original 100mm Macro lens. I didn’t care much for the Image Stabilization feature because I was only going to use it in a very controlled environment, so it was an easy decision for me to go with the one that was much less expensive.

Over the years, I have had a couple of opportunities to shoot with the L-series 100mm Macro lens and I have also been asked dozens of times by fellow photographers and my students if the L-series lens was worth the investment.

And I just didn’t think so.

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While shooting and filming our Go Pro: Studio Beauty video course a couple of years ago, my co-author Aleksey Dovgulya was using his favorite Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens while I was shooting with my 100mm Macro. When we downloaded all of our images into a shared folder we were amazed at how much sharper my 100mm Macro lens was.

There was a seriously noticeable difference, and paying more for the lens that provides that much more sharpness in the images would make total sense, only, ironically, my 100mm lens was almost 3 times cheaper than his zoom lens. Of course, it’s pointless to compare a prime 100mm lens to a very versatile 70-200mm zoom lens, as they are not really interchangeable. But what about 100mm original vs 100mm L-series lenses? Is there a significant difference in the quality of the images they produce to justify the difference in their price regardless of all of the marketing praise?

Finally, thanks to SLR Lounge, I got to do it. I shot and tested both lenses to compare I am delighted to share my discoveries with you.

I recently fell in love with macro beauty photography, which is a perfect field for comparison of the two lenses, so last week I brought both lenses to my shoot. Being an artist, I am not overly technical, so I don’t think I am qualified to do the most technical comparison of the lenses, and that wasn’t my intention. The idea was to compare how these two lenses behave in the hands of a studio beauty and portrait photographer and what the extra few hundred dollars really buys you when you’re purchasing the 100mm L-series lens.

CANON 100mm L-SERIES

In July 2009 Canon announced the development of their new Optical Hybrid Image Stabilization system which compensates for both rotational and linear camera shake. And later that year the new Canon EF 100mm F2.8 L IS USM Macro lens came out becoming the first lens in which the new technology was used. As Canon stated in their press release the new lens, “…enables photographers to capture stunning close-up shots without the need for a tripod.”

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The new IS wasn’t the only extra feature added to the older 100mm lens, as the optics and weather-sealed build that come with the “L-series” title caused the new lens to hit the market at a significantly higher price (US $1,049 at the time of its release).

There is a handful of technical claims and praises, but I am just an artist and being a girl, all those technical terms phase me out, so I judge a lens quality solely by the quality of my images. I believe there are many artists out there like myself, so let’s just look at the practical usage and the actual results from my shoot.

Since my test was performed specifically for studio beauty and portrait photography there are a few things that mattered to me:

1. The overall sharpness of the details in the image
2. AF speed
3. Lens performance at various distances for Macro Beauty

THE OVERALL SHARPNESS

I was shooting on my new Canon 5Ds at ISO 200, f/10 and 1/125, handheld since Canon’s press release suggested we shouldn’t need a tripod when shooting with this lens.

The images I captured with both lenses looked perfectly sharp in the head-and-shoulders images in full size as well as zoomed in at 50% and 100%:

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at 50% zoom:

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And at 100% the sharpest details captured with both lenses:

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Image credits: Model Lauren Johnson of NOUS models, skin work by Lupe Moreno makeup by Vlada Haggerty photography & post-production by Julia Kuzmenko

When you’re inspecting the details to compare, make sure you are comparing the details that are captured along the focus plane. You may notice some softer edges on the teeth, but it’s not the sharpness of the lens that caused it, they are simply slightly outside of the depth of field.

So far, I am not noticing any advantages.

AUTO-FOCUS SPEED

When it comes to auto-focus, the more expensive L-series lens, unfortunately, loses points for me, as it wasn’t as quick and confident as that of my old 100mm Macro.

Not only does it get very confused as soon as the modeling light becomes slightly dimmed, it often “spins it wheels” trying to focus even in normal light conditions. And this wasn’t just this very lens that I had for the test, the other lenses of this model that I had shot with before were just as slow to focus. Not always, but much too often for me.

MACRO PERFORMANCE

The minimal focus distance setting on both lenses was set to 0.5m to infinity for these shots and my good old non-L-series lens didn’t let me down here as well.

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Let’s take a look at what I got, these are identically sized crops of the frames captured with Canon 5Ds at ISO 200, f/16 and 1/160 sec.

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Image credits: Model Morgan White of NOUS models, makeup by Vlada Haggerty photography & post-production by Julia Kuzmenko

 

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Image credits: Model Morgan White of NOUS models, makeup by Vlada Haggerty photography & post-production by Julia Kuzmenko

 

And at 100% zoom:

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SLR_Lounge_Julia_Kuzmenko_Macro_Lips_Original_100%

 

Additionally, I have taken a few more shots to test the Minimal Focus Distance on both lenses. I photographed a little tube of lip gloss Melted by Too Faced, that I inherited after some of our shoots with my colleague, Makeup Artist Vlada Haggerty.

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For this shot, I got real close, and again my old lens was doing much better in terms of focus speed than the L-series lens.

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Again, I really don’t see any sharpness differences, but there is a difference, and it’s in the colors. Both images are photographed on the same camera, with the same lighting and have absolutely the same Raw file settings, yet the photo captured with the L-series lens is more vibrant and has slightly more contrast, while the colors in the picture captured with my old lens are slightly washed out. I am not completely convinced that this is a positive difference, though, and it may also be that my old lens is just really old.

It was difficult to nail the same focus plane shooting handheld at such a distance, but a tripod would defeat the purpose of the test.

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I hope these images will help you decide whether or not you need the more expensive L-series lens. I went into this test slightly biased towards the original lens, and the test has only confirmed my pre-existing opinion.

Maybe there are other applications where the L-series’ high-end features will make a difference, but if portrait and beauty photography is what you need this lens for you might choose the less expensive version of the lens and not miss out on anything.

[REWIND: BEAUTY & FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY | THE SPECIFICS THAT DIVIDE THE GREAT FROM THE MEDIOCRE]

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Gear:

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM Lens

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM Lens

Canon EOS 5DS R

 

*This review was originally published in June 2016

Los Angeles-based internationally published professional Beauty, Fashion & Portrait photographer, digital artist and retoucher. An International College of Professional Photography (Melbourne, Australia) graduate.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Dmitry Krasitsky

    Sold original 100mm for L and was absolutely happy. Better colors, IS, weather sealing. But then I got Carl Zeiss 100mm f/2. It’s another step up!

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  2. Mark Teng

    The lips on the L series are bright red, but rather dull on the non-L series. I would say that the non-L series seems to be having problems capturing true red color.

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  3. Jonathan Brady

    “Being an artist, I am not overly technical” 

     “but I am just an artist and being a girl, all those technical terms phase me out”

    I’ll be sure to tell my daughter that because she’s a girl, she unlikely to be a technical person and God forbid she’s an artist, there’s literally no hope of ever being technical.

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    • celine saki

      I completely agree with you.  That exact sentence really pissed me off enough that I created an account here just to drop a comment.  Being a woman, and a photographer, we already have enough hurdles.  Why she would create another, I don’t know.  Comments like that really hurt women and girls.  aghh I could go on and on.

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  4. Felix Wu

    The 100L macro is arguably one of Canon’s sharpest lenses made for beauty!

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  5. William Emmett

    I feel your test here is basically flawed, by some important reasons.  I. would be not shooting each lens on a tripod.  2. Having a preconceived outcome of the test.  3. Not giving the type of setup for the lighting  4. Not giving the post processing RAW handling.  5. Not revealing the basic setting of the body, ie any “auto” setting such as “Auto White Balance.  Hand holding during a comparison, even though the finished shots look very much alike the lighting changes just by the virtue they are hand held and light is a ever changing aspect to the image, related to distance from the subject.  There is also changes made in camera based on the lens id to the camera.  For the 100mm L the camera reads a logerism just for that lens vs the non-L version.  Obviously all these shots are converted from RAW, to JPEG, or TIFF.  What program was used?  How was the color white balance, and exposure adjusted?  Lightroom make a correction based on the lens data in the EXIF data, was this enabled?  Also, both of these lenses are identified individually in   Canons EOS utility.  Your own preconceived results take ultimate effect.  I have used both of these lenses as a photographer, and have always found the Canon “L” quality lens, to be supieror to the non “L” lens, depending on the contrast and lighting the focus speed is about the same.  The color, is just as your article says.  Photographically, the “L” version is a much superior lens, even if the IS was turned off, and shot from a tripod.      

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    • Joel Germain

      If you don’t know the work of Julia, you should go read and look a little bit about her.  As far as program goes, i know she use photoshop a lot. 

      That being said, like she said, it was on a tripod because of the main goal of the shooting was product adn beauty… and a lot of people shoot on tripod. and she already said that everything was the same. 

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  6. Katie Jean

    are you using a tripod with your original lens? 

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  7. Manny Manuel

    I have a Sony A7Rii and the canon 100mm 2.8L macro. I was thinking of buying the Sony 85mm 1.8 G Master since I read amazing reviews about it. I am not a pro, I will never do this professionally but I am trying to buy something that will be great and not having the feeling I could have done better. Would you recommend to keep the canon since it can do macro and portrait? can it be a great portrait lens?  (I am not interested on using it for action photography).

    Anyone with experience with this combo?

    Thanks

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Manny, hi there.  While I can’t speak for Julia there are a few things you should know. The native Sony lens is going to perform better than an adapted Canon on the Sony body. Now, if you’re shooting portraits that’s less of a concern since your subjects are unlikely to be moving around.  Also, did you mean the 85 1.4 G Master or the 85 1.8 (Non-G)? This makes a big difference in terms of price and performance. The G is characterized by really nice bokeh and speed – but you pay for it.  Personally, I prefer shooting portrait headshots with the 100mm and 105mm range than with the 85.  The 100mm L is a solid buy and if you have it already it sounds like it would suffice. 

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  8. Karen Borter

    I FINALLY purchased this lens last month (L version) and I dig it. A lot. I also decided to spend the extra cash for the L version and glad I did.

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  9. Andrew Fishkin

    I recently bought the L version for travel, portrait and of course macro use. IS was the main selling point for me and at events in low-light or just shooting flowers in my wife’s garden (I’m too lazy to muck around with a tripod) IS makes all the difference. Weather sealing and what to me look like better color and contrast are just bonuses.

    As you clearly show, both lenses are outstanding, but since glass is a long-term purchase I decided to spend the extra money and get what I considered the better lens.

    Thank you for the great review, your images really helped with my purchase decision.

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  10. Lee G

    I bought a used 100mm L Series a couple years ago. Didn’t use it much at first besides for weddings and product shots. Then I found myself using it more for portraits.

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  11. Matthew Saville

    I feel I must stand up for the Canon 70-200 f/4 L IS, by the way. It is just as sharp, if not sharper than, any of the Canon 100 macros, especially at 100mm. So, it was probably a case of a lemon 70-200 or improper comparison parameters / methods, if you saw such a dramatic advantage of one over the other.

    If you plan on shooting studio work at f/5.6-f/11, and don’t actually need the macro capability of a lens, then the 70-200 f/4 L (with or without IS) is probably a fantastic choice.

    Then again, a lot of fashion shooters love a macro lens because they do sometimes need to focus rather close, for editorial close-ups and stuff.

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    • Trey Mortensen

      I agree. I’ve shot with all 3 lenses mentioned. I personally own the 70-200 F/4 and it is far and away my sharpest lens wide open (or at f/4 for comparing my f/2.8’s). I bet that particular lens was just a bad production. As for the other two, I love the colors from the 100 L, but I don’t do macro, so I don’t own either…. yet :D

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  12. Stephen Velasquez

    I too notice how the L lens renders the colors so well with pleasing saturation and contrast in the lip images. Great comparison Julia, something we can all apply to any genre of photography to save some coin. Macro photographers don’t care about AF speed. They care more about precise manual focus. IS, OS, VR and VC are luxury items that we could do with out.

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    • Julia McKim

      Thank you Stephen! And yes, to each his own, and for photographers who do similar work as me – I am convinced – the original lens is just great.

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  13. Donna Macauley

    I have used the 100mm f/2.8 old lens for many years now and have been very pleased with it. I have never had the urge to upgrade to the L version for exactly the reasons you explain so eloquently here.

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    • Julia McKim

      Donna, I’m glad to hear that I am not alone in my pleasant discoveries. I am actually very glad that the non-L lens is so great so it’s very accessible for beginner photographers and hobbyists.

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  14. robert s

    no images of the lenses side by side?

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Dealing more with performance here than aesthetics, Robert. Neither lens is particularly special to look at either, though arguably the ‘L’ is prettier

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    • Julia McKim

      It’s a joke, right?
      Why would you need the images of the lenses?
      And I agree with Kishore – the L-series is prettier, take my word for it :D

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    • robert s

      would be nice to see size comparison. what was changed from the two versions. why so defensive?

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    • adam sanford

      There you go, knock yourself out:

      http://goo.gl/X9mruo

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    • robert s

      they should add those pics to the article. people do look at the size of the lens and weight as well for purchase. cheers adam

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  15. Karen Borter

    This is going to be my next lens purchase (after a new body) and I had often wondered what the differences were other then the obvious technical aspects. But what it comes down to is this; does the glass produce quality images. Since I would be using the 100mm for mainly portrait photography and only occasionally for macro / product photography, I may save a couple of hundred dollars and get the original 100mm … if I have the money and it doesn’t break me, I’ll get the L series glass but see here that it doesn’t make all that much difference. Thanks for taking the time and writing!

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    • Julia McKim

      Karen, yes, that was exactly my goal – if you don’t want to spend the extra dollars, then the original 100mm is perfectly fine.
      Full disclosure though, I took the L-series lens with me to another shoot last Sunday, mounted it on my camera intending to do the whole shoot with it, but swapped it for my old lens within the first 10 minutes – the slow AF was just driving me insane. For me personally, the old 100mm is the absolute best choice.

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    • Karen Borter

      I would be using it on a crop sensor and had considered the 90mm Tamron macro lens but decided that I wated the Canon. I’ll rent both before buying and see which suits me better. Slow AF would drive me crazy too. I only have 1 L lens (the 70-200 f/4) but that lens compared to my other lenses is just a dream so it surprises me the 100mm L is having these issues … I can SEE the image quality. In regard to not having IS, I am not opposed to using a tripod if needed, but at higher SS it’s not really necessary. When I shoot macro, I almost always use a tripod and a focus rail (if applicable) so that’s a non issue.

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    • Donna Macauley

      I’ve used my old 100MM macro on a crop and full frame. It performs beautiful on both. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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  16. adam sanford

    The L outclasses the non-L once you leave the studio:

    * It is weather sealed
    * It has IS to let you walk the ISO back down to earth in handheld + tough lighting situations, IS is also huge for video
    * The AF is quicker and more accurate — see LensTip testing
    * It has an extra ‘regimes of AF’ switch if you want macro or non-macro distances considered; helps considerably with focus speed to not have to hunt too close.
    * Rounded blades for smoother f/2.8 bokeh
    * It’s 9 years newer — less copy to copy shenanigans
    * Longer focus ring throw for more careful MF work

    My advice: go non-L for dedicated studio product/macro work, but go with the L if you *also* want an all-purpose / all-battlefield 100mm telephoto for portraits, video, etc.

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    • Julia McKim

      Good point Adam!

      However, the non-L also has the same AF regimes, it is also great for video, and the AF was not quicker or more accurate on the L-series lenses that I have had a chance to shoot with over the past few years.

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    • adam sanford

      The non-L is missing one AF regime: 0.3m-0.5m (i.e. dedicated macro), which is a nice feature for quicker first focusing on the bugs and such — the non-L could have to run through the entire focus range to find the target, which can take time.

      LensTip AF hit rate studies:
      Non-L = 90% accuracy (didn’t state which rig)
      L = 100% on a 1D rig, 97% on crop rigs

      And the Non-L without IS will be a chore for video if you are shooting handheld for some reason.

      The non-L is a fine lens — I don’t mean to take anything away from it. But you get what you pay for with the L.

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    • Julia McKim

      Adam, yes, I agree – they both have their own audiences and applications.

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    • Donna Macauley

      I think you are correct in your assessment about it depending on your uses. Auto focus differences don’t bother me since I’m manually focusing if I’m doing tight macro work on tiny subjects, such as bugs. If I’ve used it as a portrait lens, then yes, I’ve noticed it hunts quite a bit more than say my 70-200 f 2.8 L.

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