Welcome to Part 1 of the 100mm focal range of the SLR Lounge Canon Lens Wars series. We have a whopping 9 lenses in this grouping, so in this first part, we will be discussing just the three 100mm Canon primes.
In part 2 we will be comparing the Canon zoom/telephoto lenses that can match the 100mm focal length, and finally, we will compare the Canon zoom/telephotos to the primes in part 3.
For those that are new to the SLR Lounge Canon Lens Wars series, be sure to check out the teaser video where we introduce the series and our testing methodology as well as all the other videos on each focal length.
Watch the 100mm Canon Prime Lens Wars Video
Equipment Used in Canon 100mm Comparisons
- Camera: Canon 5D Mark III
- Tripod: MeFOTO GlobeTrotter Carbon Fiber Tripod
- Remote Trigger: Vello Shutterboss Version II Timer Remote Switch
Canon 100mm Prime Lenses Tested
Image Quality of Canon 100mm Prime Lenses at Wide Open Apertures
Let’s start from the top with the Canon 100mm primes’ aesthetic look and sharpness at their respective Wide Open Apertures (WOA). Once again, this is a visual test of differences, not a technical test. So, we are trying to distinguish differences in appearance while viewing images full screen on a Dell U2713HM 27″ IPS monitor.
Visually, I wasn’t expecting to see such a large difference between these 3 lenses. But, aesthetically, I love the overall look of the Canon 100mm f/2 just a bit more than the other two. As you can see in the image below, because the 100mm f/2 has a WOA of f/2.0, it has more bokeh than the other two 100mm lenses.
The 100mm f/2 prime is a bit softer than the other two lenses in terms of sharpness at its WOA, but it is still incredibly sharp given that it isn’t an L series lens, and given that it is at f/2.
2. Canon 100mm F/2.8L IS Macro
Next, the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS clearly edged out the regular Canon 100mm f/2.8 when it comes to overall image quality. As you can see in the image below, the contrast, sharpness, and color of the 100mm f/2.8L were simply far ahead of the 100mm f/2.8.
Although the 100mm f/2.8L’s image quality in terms of color and contrast looked a bit better than than the 100mm f/2, its bokeh quality and amount of bokeh doesn’t quite match up. As a result, I still prefer the 100mm f/2 when it comes to shooting at wide open aperture.
The 100mm f/2.8L does have one advantage over the 100mm Canon primes here. It is the only prime that has image stabilization, and that can help you take sharper images at slower shutter speed.
3. Canon 100mm F/2.8
Finally, the standard Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro came in last place when it comes to image quality. Not only does it produced the softest image overall in our comparison, but it also produced the least amount of bokeh.
Image Quality for 100mm Canon Prime Lenses at Widest Common Aperture
So let’s take a look at these Canon 100mm primes at their Widest Common Apertures (WCA) at f/2.8, and then zoom in to check out close up differences in sharpness and detail.
1. Canon 100mm F/2.8L IS Macro
While they are all set to their WCAs of f/2.8 though, the bokeh becomes very difficult to distinguish. As you can see below, all three seem to have roughly the same amount of bokeh, and roughly the same quality as well.
Personally, I still prefer the 100mm f2.8L, but at this point it becomes very subjective.
3. Canon 100mm F/2.8
Once again, the standard Canon 100mm f/2.8 lags behind the other two 100mm primes when it comes to sharpness. This is very noticeable in the area of our model’s dress and the details of the sequins.
Image Quality at Aperture f/5.6
Once we get to the aperture of f/5.6, the Canon 100mm primes all seem to level off in terms of sharpness. Nevertheless, the 100mm f/2 appears to be just a bit ahead of the other lenses, which is quite impressive.
The Macro Capability
While I prefer the 100mm f/2 for its overall looks, there is a major difference between this lens and the other two 100mm primes in terms of functionality. The Canon 100mm f/2.8 and the 100mm f/2.8L are both macro lenses that have a minimal focal distance at around 1 foot. In contrast, the normal 100mm f/2 has a 2.95 foot minimum focusing range, which makes it more of a portrait lens.
The Canon 100mm Primes Lens Recommendation
So which of these 100mm Canon prime lenses do we recommend?
The Good Portrait Lens That We Actually Won’t Recommend
When it comes to the Canon 100mm f/2, it is a great lens and it is offered at a great price of around $499. Of the three 100mm primes, I prefer its aesthetic quality and low light performance over the other two 100mm primes. But, it really doesn’t fully compete with the other two 100mm primes because they are macro lenses.
In reality, the 100mm f/2 competes more with the Canon 85mm f/1.8, and between these two lenses, I would still prefer the 85mm 1.8 since it gives me a slightly more bokeh, has a focal range that I am more used to for portraits, and is a little better low light performance. Moreover, the 85mm is the more popular lens of the two and will probably have a better resale value.
The Best Overall 100mm Prime Lens
But if you want to capture macro, or close up photography, in addition to general portraiture, then your best option is really going to be the $1,049 Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro.
It has better overall contrast, sharpness and quality when compared to the standard Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro.
Additionally, this lens also has image stabilization, which is extremely handy for not only still photography, but video as well.
The Cheaper 100mm Macro That is Actually Not a Good Value
While the 100mm f/2.8L IS is $1049, the Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro costs $600. While in most cases I would say that if you are on a budget to go with the lower priced lens which does most of what the more expensive one would do, in this case, my advice is different.
If this standard Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro was only priced at $250, then my advice would differ, but at around $600 it isn’t a fraction of the price of the L version, it is only $450 cheaper.
That sounds like a lot, but in terms of functionality, the 100mm f/2.8L IS has a great image stabilization on top of improved sharpness, clarity, color contrast and so forth.
So in this case, I would say that if you are looking for a macro, simply save your money and go for the 100mm f/2.8L because it is absolutely worth the extra price for performance.
So in conclusion, my pick in the 100mm focal range would be the 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro over the standard 100mm f/2.8 Macro. I would also skip the 100mm f/2 entirely and go with the Canon 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens instead.