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Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM Gordon Laing, February 2010
 
   
 

Canon EF-S 15-85mm IS USM verdict

Canon's EF-S 15-85mm IS USM is a high quality general-purpose lens for owners of cropped-frame bodies, which at the time of writing included all EOS DSLRs apart from those belonging to the 5D or 1D series.

A worthy successor to the EF-S 17-85mm IS USM, the new lens boasts a flexible walk-around range with wider-angle coverage equivalent to 24mm, a slightly brighter aperture when zoomed-out, very respectable optical quality (especially at 15mm), along with build quality that's as good as any non-L lens in the Canon catalogue. In short, if you're after a decent quality general-purpose zoom for a compatible EOS DSLR, look no further.

It's not a moment too soon for the EOS system where options for a high quality general-purpose EF-S lens have previously been fairly limited. Portrait and low light fanatics may have enjoyed the excellent EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 IS USM, but large, heavy, expensive and with a relatively short range, it was never going to satisfy a mass audience. This left the EF-S 17-85mm IS USM, which while offering a more flexible range, suffered from a number of optical issues which dampened its appeal. In the absence of anything better though, most people wanting a step-up from the basic EF-S 18-55mm IS kit lens bought it none the less and tried to ignore the problems. It might have been more bearable had Nikon, Sony and Olympus not also offered the optically strong (not to mention wider) DX 16-85mm VR, DT 16-80mm and ZD 12-60mm general-purpose lenses to owners of their respective systems.








Thankfully the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM addresses the issues of its predecessor and makes a worthy mate for Canon's latest high-end DSLRs like the EOS 7D. Let's start with the optical quality. At Camera Labs we believe real-life comparisons of landscapes under natural light better reflect how most lenses will be used, so we photographed our elevated view of Queenstown from the Skyline Gondola with the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM alongside three other general-purpose Canon zooms, at all apertures and a variety of focal lengths. We shot in RAW with all lens corrections disabled to see what they were really capable of.

You can see and read the full report and analysis in our results pages, but just briefly here, the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM out-performed the other models overall. The best results were zoomed-out, where the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM was respectably sharp into the corners at all apertures, while avoiding much of the coloured fringing which plagued its predecessor. At a mid focal length of 50mm, the older EF-S 17-85mm IS USM took a brief lead when their apertures were both wide-open at f5.6, but once closed to f8 they essentially became equal. Then when fully zoomed-in, the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM and its predecessor may have equally suffered from coloured fringing, but the newer model was noticeably sharper in the corners.

This is an important point, as while it's always impressive to find a lens (especially a fast or wide one) with minimal fringing, vignetting and geometric distortion, these are all aspects which can be corrected fairly effectively in software. What can't be corrected though is an image with soft corners, and this is something the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM manages to avoid in most situations, again especially when zoomed-out. It's an impressive performer overall.

In other respects, the USM-powered autofocus performance is quick and quiet, albeit no more so than its predecessor. The zoom and manual focusing rings felt a little stiffer and smoother which certainly helped for precision adjustments, although this could simply be due to it being a brand new sample.

The EF-S 15-85mm IS USM isn't without its faults though. Despite our sample being fresh from the factory, it suffered from a little zoom creep between 24 and 50mm focal lengths (actual, not equivalent). At least it wasn't a problem when fully zoomed-in or out though. Vignetting also proved to be an issue with visible darkening in the corners of uncorrected images at large apertures, although this reduced towards f8 and could also be corrected effectively in software.

Of greater concern though was the Image Stabiliser which just didn't perform as well as expected in our tests. Canon claims four stops of compensation and we normally experience around three with its systems, but here we were lucky to measure more than two. Strangely the normal steady view through the viewfinder would wobble from time to time as if the system were either failing or mistakenly identifying panning or tripod use (where one or both axes are automatically disabled). Either way we failed to enjoy more than two stops of compensation with our sample. We hope to test another in the future, but in the meantime would be interested to hear from owners of this lens with their experiences in the Camera Labs' Canon forum.

Finally, it would be remiss of us not to berate Canon for continuing its bizarre and frankly mean policy of only supplying lens hoods with its top-end L lenses. Everyone else gives them away for free with the majority of their lenses so why should Canon owners have to pay extra?

And while we're wishing for the unlikely, how about an EF-S lens with L-quality construction? We know owners of cropped-frame bodies can use L lenses already, but with their 1.6x field-reduction, there's no general purpose options which include wide angle and short telephoto coverage. The argument that cropped-frame bodies are inferior to larger format models (and therefore not worthy of L lenses) is also invalid as models like the EOS 7D are physically superior to the EOS 5D Mark II. Surely there's demand for a general-purpose EF-S lens with environmental sealing and the silky smooth zoom and focusing rings of an L-model, not to mention one which includes a hood in the box as standard.

That short rant over, let's now see how the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM compares against other Canon general-purpose lenses.

 

Compared to Canon EF-S 17-85mm IS USM

 
 
     

Canon's EF-S 17-85mm IS USM was one of the first general-purpose EF-S zooms, and the model Canon owners used to go for if they wanted a step-up from the kit model. It certainly fulfilled a number of upgrades over the basic kit lens with slightly wider and comfortably longer coverage, quicker and quieter USM AF with full-time manual focusing, along with Image Stabilisation which was absent on the original EF-S 18-55mm. The EF-S 17-85mm IS USM may have suffered from vignetting, corner softness and coloured fringing especially when zoomed-out, but most accepted these compromises in the absence of anything better, at least from Canon's own range.

The new EF-S 15-85mm IS USM addresses most of the issues concerning its predecessor. It zooms wider to an equivalent of 24mm not to mention with a slightly brighter aperture too, and crucially manages to be sharper at both extremes of its range right into the corners, while also avoiding much of the fringing when zoomed-out. The older model may have taken a slight lead in corner sharpness in our tests halfway through its range with the aperture open, but once both were closed to f8 they became even. Vignetting may have been worse on the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM, but geometric distortion was lower. Most importantly the new model was consistently sharper in most situations while featuring wider coverage.

While the new model is certainly preferred overall, it's also around 50% more expensive. We think it's worth spending the extra for the superior optical performance and wider coverage, but if your budget won't stretch, the EF-S 17-85mm IS USM could still be worth considering. The only fly in the ointment for price-conscious buyers is the EF-S 18-135mm IS launched at the same time as the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM. It may not be quite as sharp in the corners as either the EF-S 17-85mm IS USM or the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM and also be lacking their USM focusing, but it does zoom 50% longer for an even cheaper price.

This puts the EF-S 17-85mm IS USM in an uncomfortable position, currently priced between these two newer lenses. But it's worth keeping an eye on prices as if this older models falls closer to the EF-S 18-135mm IS, you could have a compelling alternative on your hands. See our Canon EF-S 17-85mm IS USM review for more details.

 

Compared to Canon EF-S 18-135mm IS

 
 
     

Canon's EF-S 18-135mm IS was launched alongside the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM as a more affordable general-purpose lens, and one that's frequently bundled with the EOS 7D body in some regions.

Most obviously in its favour, the EF-S 18-135mm IS has a maximum focal length that's more than 50% longer than the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM. Depending on where you buy it, the EF-S 18-135mm IS could also cost up to half the price of the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM, and before you get too concerned, this cheaper model does feature Image Stabilisation to iron-out any wobbles.

So what's not to like? Well in our tests, the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM comfortably out-performed the cheaper model in the corners, especially at larger apertures and suffered from less geometric distortion (although to be fair the vignetting was frequently worse). The EF-S 18-135mm IS also lacks quick and quiet USM AF with full-time manual focusing (and a distance window), and while it zooms longer, it doesn't zoom anywhere near as wide.

But if you close the aperture to f8 and avoid looking too closely at the extreme corners, the EF-S 18-135mm IS can deliver pretty good results and a useful range at a compelling price. We believe the EOS 7D and 50D deserve superior lenses to make the most of their demanding sensors, but the EF-S 18-135mm IS is a good general-purpose option for older or more affordable Canon bodies and offers a nice upgrade in coverage over the standard kit zoom. See our Canon EF-S 18-135mm IS review for more details.

 

Compared to Canon EF-S 18-200mm IS

 
 
     

Coming-in around 15% cheaper than the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM is Canon's super-zoom lens, the EF-S 18-200mm IS. This may be all some people need to know: it zooms almost two and a half times longer while costing less. Surely it's a no-brainer, right?

Well if you prioritise convenience over performance, it is a no-brainer. The EF-S 18-200mm IS delivers an enormous range that takes you from wide angle to pretty serious telephoto coverage and could end up being the only lens some people ever need. The convenience aspect can't be underestimated either as there's many people who really don't want to carry more than one lens, nor have the inconvenience of changing it and running the risk of dust entering the body. And remember while the more discerning photographer is wasting time swapping their lens for an unexpected opportunity, the EF-S 18-200mm IS has grabbed it with a mere twist of the zoom ring.

But with convenience comes compromise. A DSLR lens with this kind of optical reach will never perform as well as one with a more modest range. The EF-S 15-85mm IS USM, along with most of the others mentioned here, will optically out-perform the super-zoom and are ultimately better matches for Canon's higher-end bodies. For some bizarre reason Canon also omitted to fit a USM motor to the EF-S 18-200mm IS, so the focusing is slower and much noisier than it could have been – shame.

So it comes down to a question of convenience versus quality. The EF-S 18-200mm IS can certainly be out-performed by numerous zooms, especially the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM, but none can match its range. If you want it all in one lens – or have an older DSLR which isn't as demanding as the latest models – then it's the model for you. See our Canon EF-S 18-200mm IS review for more details.

 

Compared to Canon EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 IS USM

 
 
     

For all the praise we've heaped-upon the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM, there's still a more appropriate model in the EF-S range if your priorities are low light or portrait shots. Canon's EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 IS USM may have been launched three and a half years previously, but it remains a superb option for specialist photographers who can stretch to its higher price.

The big selling point here is the f2.8 aperture, constant throughout its range, which allows the lens to gather more light and deliver a shallower depth of field than average models. Zoomed-out, the EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 IS USM is two thirds of a stop quicker than the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM, and when zoomed-in, it's a whopping two stops faster. Not only does this mean you can use quicker shutter speeds under the same lighting conditions, but it allows you to achieve much greater blurring on backgrounds of portraits – both reasons why the EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 IS USM has become a favourite of wedding photographers.

The optical quality is also very strong on the EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 IS USM, but there's a number of significant downsides: it's large and heavy, employs a relatively modest zoom range especially at the telephoto end, and is by far the most expensive of the EF-S lens range. As such, the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM makes more sense for anyone looking for a non-specialist general-purpose zoom, but if you're really into low light and portrait work - and can afford it - the EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 IS USM comes Highly Recommended. See our Canon EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 IS USM review for more details.

 

Canon EF-S 15-85mm IS USM final verdict

The EF-S 15-85mm IS USM is arguably Canon's best all-round general-purpose zoom for its range of cropped-frame EOS bodies. It delivers a compelling focal range with decent optical quality, quick and quiet focusing and Image Stabilisation.

Don't get us wrong, it's not perfect. Vignetting is its biggest optical issue, with visible darkening in the corners of uncorrected images at larger apertures. The Image Stabiliser also proved strangely modest in our tests, although we're not ruling-out a problem with our sample at this point. It's also important to note portrait or low-light specialists will still prefer the brighter aperture of the EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 IS USM.

But for anyone else wanting a high quality general-purpose Canon zoom, the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM has become the model to beat. Vignetting aside, it comfortably out-performs the earlier EF-S 17-85mm IS USM, crucially maintaining superior sharpness in the corners while also zooming wider. Vignetting, fringing and distortion are all things which can be corrected fairly effectively in software, but there's little you can do to improve an image that becomes soft towards the periphery. Thankfully this was rarely an issue facing the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM in our real-life tests, where it performed very respectably.

A perfect upgrade from an existing kit zoom and the ideal combination for higher-end bodies like the EOS 50D and 7D, the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM is one of Canon's better lenses and comes Highly Recommended.



Good points

Flexible range including 24mm coverage.
Sharp details into the corners.
Quick and quiet USM AF with non-rotating barrel.
Smooth manual focusing ring and distance window.

Bad points
Poor vignetting with visible darkening in corners.
Modest image stabilisation in our tests.
Some creep between 24 and 50mm (actual).
As usual for a non-L lens, no hood supplied.



Scores

(relative to EF-S 18-55mm IS kit lens)
 

Build quality:
Optical quality:
Specification:
Value:

Overall:

20 / 25
21 / 25
21 / 25
20 / 25

82%

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