Summary

Canon's EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 is the general-purpose zoom for anyone who loves to shoot portraits or work in low light; note as an EF-S model, it's not compatible with full-frame cameras. The constant f2.8 aperture doesn't come cheap, but it allows the lens to gather plenty of light and deliver nice blurred backgrounds. There's also quick and quiet USM focusing, along with Image Stabilisation. An ideal wedding and portrait lens for cropped bodies. It's also interesting to note the equivalent lens for full-framers, the 24-70mm f2.8, remains an unstabilised model, so this is one range where cropped-frame owners enjoy an advantage.

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Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM

Canon 17-55mm coverage, wide angle

To compare actual coverage we shot the same scene with the 17-55mm, 17-85mm and 18-55mm lenses within a few moments of each other using an EOS 400D / Rebel XTi; the camera was mounted on a tripod to ensure a consistent position. Here the lenses were set to their widest focal lengths.

With all three images opened alongside each other in Photoshop, the 17-55mm captures a fractionally wider field than the 18-55mm as expected, although interestingly the 17-85mm squeezes noticeably more still; this is apparent even on our shrunken examples below, where the 17-85mm sample is pictured in the middle. Our Canon 17-85mm review also showed it capturing a slightly wider field than the 17-40mm L model.

Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM
Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM
Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6
Canon 17-55mm lens at 17mm
17-55mm at 17mm
(27mm equivalent)
Canon 17-85mm lens at 17mm
17-85mm at 17mm
(27mm equivalent)
Canon 18-55mm lens at 18mm
18-55mm at 18mm
(29mm equivalent)

 

Canon 17-55mm coverage, telephoto

Next up came the telephoto-end of each lens. Again to compare actual coverage we shot the same scene with the 17-55mm, 17-85mm and 18-55mm lenses within a few moments of each other using an EOS 400D / Rebel XTi; the camera was mounted on a tripod to ensure a consistent position. Here the lenses were set to their longest focal lengths.

Here the longer reach of the 17-85mm is clear, and gives it greater compositional versatility than the pair which top-out at 55mm. As for them, the 17-55mm delivered a fractionally tighter field than the 18-55mm when zoomed-into 55mm, although it was extremely close.

Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM
Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM
Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6
Canon 17-55mm lens at 55mm
17-55mm at 55mm
(88mm equivalent)
Canon 17-85mm lens at 85mm
17-85mm at 85mm
(136mm equivalent)
Canon 18-55mm lens at 55mm
18-55mm at 55mm
(88mm equivalent)

 

Canon 17-55mm Image Stabilisation

After the bright constant f2.8 aperture, the big selling point of the new 17-55mm lens is its Image Stabilisation facilities. Like the 17-85mm before it, Canon claims up to three stops of compensation, which should allow you to use shutter speeds up to eight times slower than before. For example, if the slowest exposure you could confidently handhold at a certain focal length was, say, 1/60 of a second, three stops of compensation should enable you to enjoy the same result at 1/8 (or more accurately, 1/7.5).

This clearly allows you to shoot under much lower light conditions without needing a tripod, or increasing the sensitivity and compromising noise levels as a result. The 17-55mm’s bright f2.8 aperture helps even more in this regard, making it an excellent lens for anyone who works in low light.

Like other Canon wide zooms with IS, there’s only one mode available with a switch on the side of the lens to switch it on or off. The system kicks in with a faint click when you depress the shutter halfway and stays on for a few seconds before deactivating to save power.

To test its effectiveness we shot the same macro scene zoomed-into 55mm with and without IS enabled; this was working at an effective focal length of 88mm.

Below are two examples of a handheld macro composition taken with and without IS, using a very slow shutter speed of half a second. We’ve cropped the original images to 1728×1152, thereby showing around one quarter of the original, then reduced them to 282×188 pixels for reproduction here. Viewed at 100%, the shot with IS is perfectly sharp.

Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM without IS
Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM with IS
Canon 17-55mm lens - IS disabled
Canon 17-55mm lens - IS enabled
Canon EF-S 17-55mm at 55mm (88mm equivalent). IS disabled. 100 ISO, 0.5 second, f14 Canon EF-S 17-55mm at 55mm (88mm equivalent). IS enabled. 100 ISO, 0.5 second, f14

 

As with all anti-shake systems, the effectiveness of IS varies between photographers and the particular shooting conditions, but its benefits are still clear. And coupled with the 17-55mm’s f2.8 aperture you can now shoot under conditions you’d previously consider impossible. For example with the lens at 17mm and the 350D / Rebel XT set to 1600 ISO we managed to shoot sharp portraits at f2.8 in a very dark bar environment using exposures as long as one second. This was only possible with the image stabilisation and f2.8 aperture of the lens – along with subjects who kept very still of course!

Canon 17-55mm with built-in popup flash

Canon EF-S 17-55mm popup flash coverage

Canon EF-S 17-55mm at 17mm (27mm equivalent). 100 ISO, 1/60 second, f2.8, popup flash

A quick note to anyone intending to use the 17-55mm lens with their camera’s built-in flash.Like other larger-barrelled lenses, the EF-S 17-55mm will cast a shadow from the popup flash of the 400D or 350D / Rebel XTi or XT when zoomed-out to 17mm. This shadow can be seen as the small arch at the bottom of the image on the left.

This can be avoided by zooming-in slightly, or of course by using an external Speedlite flashgun.

It should be noted though, the slightly smaller barrel of the EF-S 17-85mm lens avoids this problem.

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