Canon EF-S 18-135mm IS verdict
The EF-S 18-135mm IS becomes Canon's standard kit lens for buyers of mid-range EOS bodies or those who simply want something longer than the basic EF-S 18-55mm IS. And it's certainly very long: with a 7.5x range which extends from wide-angle to fairly powerful telephoto, it's only out-gunned in Canon's range by the EF-S 18-200mm IS super-zoom.
It's also a sensible move for Canon to introduce what's effectively its first intermediate EF-S kit lens. Previously it was a big jump in price from the basic EF-S 18-55mm IS to either the EF-S 17-85mm IS USM or its successor the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM. Now the EF-S 18-135mm IS slots in-between in terms of price for those who want something classier than the budget model without breaking the bank.
It's a great idea, but one that's been a long time coming. After all, Nikon launched its D80 body with a DX 18-135mm kit lens over three years earlier. This lens delivered a step-up over the budget DX 18-55mm model in power and build, although was sorely lacking any kind of stabilisation. Nikon added stabilisation to the DX 18-105mm VR lens launched with the D90 two years later, albeit at the cost of a slightly shorter maximum focal length. That said, it still did the job on the shelves of boasting a longer focal length than most of the Canon lens kit options. As such it's no surprise to find when Canon finally joined this particular party, it did so with a slightly longer focal length than its rival. Canon doesn't like being beaten on numeric specifications, and now it finally has an intermediate kit lens option that's a little longer than Nikon.
So is it any good? Well, remember it's designed as a bundled kit lens, so don't expect miracles, but learn how to work within its limitations and the results really can be rather good. If you avoid the largest apertures and looking too closely at the extreme corners, you could be very happy with the image quality. Certainly as you move away from the corners towards the centre of the frame, the recorded detail becomes close to that from higher-end models. The stabilisation also proved effective in our tests with three stops of compensation, albeit not the four promised by Canon.
Like all zooms with long ranges though, there's noticeable geometric distortion and vignetting at both ends of the focal range, not to mention fringing in high contrast areas when fully zoomed-in. But both the vignetting and fringing (the latter respectably minimal elsewhere in the range) can be effectively reduced in software – and Canon's more recent DSLRs can also reduce the effect of vignetting in-camera using Peripheral Illumination Correction. If you're willing to accept some wrangling of pixels and a little cropping, you can also correct for geometric distortion in software later, but without modification you should be prepared for bendy lines towards the edges of the frame. Architectural photographers be warned.
The biggest optical issue facing the lens though is its corner softness, and sadly this isn't something which can be corrected in software. Looking at our results pages, you'll see the extreme corners of images taken with the EF-S 18-135mm IS could be quite fuzzy at larger apertures. As the aperture was closed to f8, the situation improved, and this also had the added benefit of reducing vignetting. But if you like shooting with the aperture open and examining your entire frame for sharp and consistent detail, you could be disappointed.
Beyond the optics, the build quality was good enough for a lens of this class, but again don't expect something to match the physical confidence of a higher-end model – there's certainly no environmental sealing, and like all of Canon's non-L models, no lens hood supplied in the box either. On the upside though, Canon has at least equipped it with a metal lens mount unlike the plastic mounting of the equivalent Nikkor DX 18-105mm VR. Interestingly despite a mere 35g difference in their respective weights though, our Nikkor DX 18-105mm VR sample has never suffered from zoom-creep (even after a year's use), whereas the Canon did fresh out of the box – see our design page for details. The Nikkor model also came with a lens hood.
More importantly, in order to maintain AF compatibility with its budget bodies, Nikon had to equip the DX 18-105mm VR with one of its SWM focusing motors. Now this particular SWM motor may not be as quick and quiet as those on the higher-end Nikkor lenses, but its mild squeaks are much more discreet than the loud motor and gearing which turns the Canon's focusing mechanism. And again unlike the Nikkor equivalent, the manual focusing ring turns as the lens autofocuses – you can see and hear this in our video tour of the higher-end EF-S 15-85mm IS USM. Users of polarising or other directional filters will however be pleased to hear the end of the barrel on both models remains static.
In its defence, the Canon EF-S 18-135mm IS will focus sufficiently quickly to follow most action, but it's not as fast as its higher-end counterparts and nowhere near as quiet. Speaking of action, you may be considering the EF-S 18-135mm IS to capture more distant subjects. It'll certainly zoom-in much closer than the basic EF-S 18-55mm IS, but with a maximum equivalent focal length of 216mm, it'll still be too short for grabbing detailed shots of distant sports or wildlife. For that you'll really need a separate lens with an equivalent of at least 300mm.
So before our final wrap-up, how does it compare to other Canon general-purpose lenses?
Compared to Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS
The Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS is the basic kit lens supplied as standard with the more affordable EOS bodies. Owners of this lens may be considering an upgrade, or buyers of new bodies may be offered the choice between it or the EF-S 18-135mm IS from day-one. So is it worth making the move?
Most obviously the EF-S 18-135mm IS delivers a much longer zoom range. Both models may start at the same 18mm focal length, but by zooming to 135mm, the EF-S 18-135mm IS enjoys more than two and a half times the reach of the basic kit lens. This lets you get much closer to distant subjects while also offering all the classic portrait focal lengths. As mentioned above, it's not sufficiently close to grab distant sports or action, but it will let you get much closer than the EF-S 18-55mm IS range.
Also, while both models rotate their manual focusing rings during autofocus, the EF-S 18-135mm IS features a wider ring to grab hold of, and importantly does not rotate the end of the barrel – this is good news for users of polarising filters. The build quality is also a step-up, with the EF-S 18-135mm IS featuring a metal lens mount.
That said, the autofocusing is no quicker or quieter than the basic kit lens, and with its shorter range, the EF-S 18-55mm IS also manages to avoid much of the distortion and vignetting which plagues lenses with longer zooms. Most obviously, the EF-S 18-55mm IS is additionally smaller, lighter and cheaper. In terms of image quality, the EF-S 18-55mm IS also performs better than you might expect, although while it'll edge ahead of the EF-S 18-135mm IS in one test, the longer lens will take a small lead in another.
So don't upgrade to the EF-S 18-135mm IS expecting better image quality, or faster and quicker focusing. You will enjoy a small boost in build along with a polariser-friendly filter-mount, but it really boils down to the difference in range from a single lens. If you want something which zooms longer than the EF-S 18-55mm IS in a single general-purpose lens without breaking the bank, then the EF-S 18-135mm IS is the one to go for. But the EF-S 18-55mm IS remains a very respectable performer for its low, low price and remember you could always complement it with the EF-S 55-250mm IS or the EF 75-300mm for longer reach.
Compared to Canon EF-S 15-85mm IS USM
Canon's EF-S 15-85mm IS USM was launched alongside the EF-S 18-135mm IS as a higher-end option for more discerning photographers on a bigger budget.
The EF-S 15-85mm IS USM may not zoom as long, but does zoom comfortably wider. It features a step-up in build quality with smoother zoom and manual focusing rings, along with a focus distance window. It features quicker and quieter USM focusing, and full-time manual focusing too. The image quality is superior, with the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM comfortably out-performing the cheaper model in the corners, especially at larger apertures and it suffered from less geometric distortion (although to be fair the vignetting was frequently worse).
But it's not all one-sided. In its favour, the EF-S 18-135mm IS most obviously 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.
While the EF-S 18-135mm IS represents good value for those wanting something longer than the basic kit zoom without breaking the bank, the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM is ultimately a much classier lens overall, and the general-purpose option we'd recommend to Canon owners who can afford it. If you demand sharper performance in the corners at larger apertures along with quicker, quieter focusing and of course the wider coverage, this is the lens to go for. It's a great match for higher-end Canon bodies. See our Canon EF-S 15-85mm IS USM review for more details.
Compared to Canon EF-S 18-200mm IS
Canon's EF-S 18-200mm IS is the company's super-zoom lens. It starts with the same 18mm wide-angle coverage as the EF-S 18-135mm IS, but zooms 50% longer with a maximum focal length of 200mm. This may be all you need to know: it features the longest zoom in Canon's EF-S catalogue, so if you want the maximum range from a single lens with a Canon badge, then this is the model to go for.
Beyond focal range though, both the EF-S 18-200mm IS and the EF-S 18-135mm IS share a lot in common. Neither has USM focusing nor focus distance windows, both rotate their manual focusing rings while autofocusing, their style, build and dimensions are pretty similar (although the super-zoom is heavier) and both suffer from zoom-creep, along with noticeable geometric distortion and vignetting at both ends of their ranges. So if you opt for the EF-S 18-200mm IS over the EF-S 18-135mm IS, it'll pretty much be down to its longer range alone.
If it helps, the 50% longer range also corresponds to around a 50% higher price tag. So if you want a long range at a lower price, go for the EF-S 18-135mm IS, but if you demand the longest range from a single Canon EF-S lens, then the EF-S 18-200mm IS is the model to go for.
The usual caveats apply: there's compromises in quality with this kind of range, but if you place convenience first, it's hard to beat. See our Canon EF-S 18-200mm IS review for more details.
Canon EF-S 18-135mm IS final verdict
Canon's EF-S 18-135mm IS fills an important gap in the company's range for those who want a step-up from the basic EF-S 18-55mm kit lens without breaking the bank. Until this lens came along, you'd be looking at making a significant jump to models like the EF-S 17-85mm IS USM and its successor the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM if you wanted a better-featured general-purpose option from Canon.
As discussed above, it also delivers an important role in the marketing of Canon DSLR kits. In the absence of a better-featured but still affordable kit lens, Canon previously lost out to arch rival Nikon, which has long offered keenly-priced 18-105mm and 18-135mm kit options. Canon may have offered the ageing Canon EF 28-135mm IS USM in numerous kits across North America, but it was never designed as a general-purpose lens for cropped-frame bodies, lacking wide-angle coverage.
So beyond that, it was really a choice of bundling either the basic EF-S 18-55mm IS (actually quite good, but inappropriate for higher-end bodies) or the EF-S 15 / 17-85mm IS USM (both nice lenses but a big jump in price, making kits look expensive). Now the EF-S 18-135mm IS slots neatly in-between the basic kit zoom and higher-end options, allowing Canon to offer a superior lens bundle while remaining competitive against rivals.
As explained in detail above and in our results section, the EF-S 18-135mm IS performs well for the price, but don't expect miracles. Like all lenses with long optical ranges, it suffers from quite noticeable geometric distortion and vignetting (although the latter can be effectively corrected using software or in-camera on recent bodies), and the corners are also soft at larger apertures. If you're the kind of person who wants sharpness across the entire frame even at larger apertures, you'll need to spend more on a model like the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM.
We'd also recommend the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM for owners of Canon's semi-pro EOS bodies, despite recent models being optionally bundled with the cheaper EF-S 18-135mm IS. Admittedly it's still useful to go for a kit at the time of buying any new DSLR as it gives you an affordable spare and something to sell the body with at a later date, but if you want a general-purpose lens to match the performance of a semi-pro body, you'll really want something classier long-term, like the EF-S 15-85mm IS USM.
But if you close the aperture to f8 and avoid looking too closely at the extreme corners, the EF-S 18-135mm IS really can deliver pretty good results and a useful range at a compelling price. As such, it's an ideal partner for Canon's mid-range bodies or entry-level owners who want a step-up from the EF-S 18-55mm IS at a good price. And again, while we'd recommend a higher-end option for long-term use on semi-pro bodies, it remains a useful backup. Canon's latest kit lens is certainly destined for pretty widespread adoption.
Flexible 7.5x range zooms 2.5x closer than basic kit lens.
Effective Stabilisation with 3 stops in our tests.
Metal lens mount and non-rotating filter mount.
Affordable step-up from basic kit lens.
Soft in extreme corners, especially at larger apertures.
Noticeable vignetting and geometric distortion.
Loud AF motor, and MF ring rotates during AF.
Some creep between 20 and 85mm (actual).
(relative to EF-S 18-55mm IS kit lens)
18 / 25