5 Affordable Hidden Gems in the Canon Lens Lineup

5 Affordable Hidden Gems in the Canon Lens Lineup

Canon makes a wide variety of fantastic lenses, but they are rarely cheap, and you can quickly find yourself spending a lot of money trying to build out your lens library. Luckily, after decades of releasing lenses, there are a few hidden gems if you know where to look. Here are five lenses you should check out.

The nice thing about Canon's EF lens lineup is that there are hundreds of different lenses in the library, and with a little searching, you can find some real gems that are significantly more affordable than other options. And the other great aspect is that EF lenses perform very well on RF bodies, so you don't need to worry about using them in the mirrorless future. 

1. EF 135mm f/2L USM

Oof, do I love this lens. It was my first real professional lens, and years later, when I needed to downsize my kit, I sold it. A month later, I was sitting in a local Cheesecake Factory, meeting someone from Craigslist to buy it again, as I had almost immediately regretted my decision. 

This lens was often overshadowed by the EF 85mm f/1.2L. And at 25 years old, it might seem a bit long in the tooth. But even to this day, it a fantastic performer and prized by many photographers for its beautiful rendering. And unlike the aforementioned 85mm, it performs quickly and accurately, without a fuss. It is quite sharp wide open (though not clinically so) and becomes much sharper by f/4. It produces deep colors and contrast that are rich and moody, and bokeh is smooth and buttery. It really is a wonderful lens and one that is a joy to shoot with. 

With lenses like RF 85mm f/1.2L and EF 85mm f/1.2L priced at around $2,000 or much more, the EF 135mm f/2L is a much more affordable portrait or indoor sports option at $999.

2. EF 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 II USM

Image by Wikipedia user Thegreenj, used under Creative Commons.

I have always liked 24-105mm f/4 lenses more than 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses, just because I find 70mm to be just a little short for a walkaround lens. Most such lenses are around $800-1,000, and if you are just using it as a travel or walkaround lens, you might not be keen on dropping that much money.

That is why I love the EF 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 II USM lens, which is basically permanently glued to my Canon 1V. First, at just a little over 13 oz, it is very portable, an important attribute of such a lens. It has a quick USM motor, produces good colors and contrast, and is decently sharp with a reasonable maximum aperture. Furthermore, it has a non-rotating front ring, making it great for using with a polarizing filter. Don't expect it to be clinically sharp, but if you are looking for good image quality in an affordable, versatile, and portable lens, this is a great option. You can generally find it for under $100 on eBay. One thing to remember is that because it's an older lens, Canon will likely not service it if needed. 

3. EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

If you do not care about listening to me blather on about how beautiful the bokeh is and how magical the rendering is and just want a lens that is going to produce sharp, high-quality results without fuss, this is the one. The 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM is sharp, has top-notch image stabilization, weather-sealing, and excellent autofocus performance, making it great for anything from macro work to portraiture. Sure, it does not have the crazy-wide apertures of other portrait lenses, but f/2.8 is plenty for creating subject-isolating bokeh. And that f/2.8 aperture gives it an advantage: it is light and easy to handhold. With great control of aberrations and excellent sharpness, this lens produces quality images no matter what the environment and won't let you down. 

At $899, you get a fantastically sharp lens with some of Canon's best image stabilization that can do anything from taking great portraits to ring shots at weddings or normal macro work. It is definitely one of Canon's best values. 

The “Magic Drainpipe”: The EF 80-200mm f/2.8L

Image by Wikipedia user Adholmes, used under Creative Commons.

A 70-200mm f/2.8L lens is a staple for many photographers in a variety of genres, but they are never cheap. The EF 80-200mm f/2.8L, affectionately known as the "magic drainpipe" due to its shape and great image quality. It is very sharp wide open (arguably more so than even the first version of the 70-200mm f/2.8L), and it offers very smooth bokeh. Colors and contrast are quite good, plus it is a parfocal lens. Autofocus speed, though not as fast as today's best, is quite good and also accurate. You won't get image stabilization, but rumor has it that the new R5 and R6 cameras will both have IBIS. Still, keep a fast shutter speed, and you'll be fine. You can generally get a used copy on eBay for $350-500. Like the 28-105mm, Canon will likely not service it if needed. 

5. EF 17-40mm f/4L USM

Portable and affordable, the EF 17-40mm f/4L USM is a fantastic alternative for landscape photographers who do not want to shell out the big bucks for a 16-35mm. Released in 2003, it is a bit of an older design and does not reach the ultra-high levels of sharpness of more top-shelf lenses, but image quality is still very good and a huge step up from kit lenses, making this a popular choice for a first pro lens for a lot of photographers. In addition, it is a parfocal lens, making it a great wide-angle zoom for video shooters. It is also weather-sealed and delivers fast, reliable autofocus along with pleasingly smooth bokeh. 

At $649, the EF 17-40mm f/4L USM is by far one of the cheapest L series lenses currently in production. If you want a bit better image quality, consider the EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM, which at about $1,000, sits between the 17-40mm f/4L and 16-35mm f/2.8L III and also gives you image stabilization.

Conclusion

Canon lenses aren't always cheap, but thanks to the company's deep lineup, there are some hidden gems to be found. Do you have a favorite? Share it in the comments! 

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17 Comments

Matt Williams's picture

I always found the 17-40 to be rather poor.

One hidden gem I never hear talked about is the 90/2.8 TS-E. There's the L version which is an actual 1:2 macro (like the Nikkor 85 PCE), but the non-L is a 1:3 macro (so still great for product work, for example), and a lot cheaper. It uses a Gauss design and is really sharp with well-controlled CA. You can find the non-L for $500 used. As a big fan of longer Tilt/shift macros, it's one of my favorites (the L version is of course better, but over twice the price).

Alex Cooke's picture

Funny you said that, I was debating between that lens and the 17-40mm for the last spot.

Michael Hickey's picture

Until the 8-15 and 11-24 came along Canon had pretty much fumbled all (16-35 vI and II and 17-40) of their wide zooms. But they’ve more redeemed themselves with the 16-35 vIII which is absolutely stellar!

Malcolm Wright's picture

Interesting that all your hidden gems are for full frame cameras?

Andrew Eaton's picture

I was digital tech for a friend a year ago and she was shooting on with the 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, I was very impressed, very sharp, very nice

Shang-Hsien Yang's picture

I thought all of these lenses have long history of good reputations already.

Pradipto WP's picture

My fellow photographer says, the EFS 18-55mm F4-5.6 IS STM is sharper than EF 17-40mm L

Bob Wang's picture

Have you tried 24-85mm? It's much better than 28-105mm. I got a very good condition one for $100 Canadian. I have used most of canon ef lenses, i had 200mm 1.8, currently own 400mm IS II and that 24-85 for the price can't be beat. Not as sharp as 24-70 obviously but at f8 is pretty close. I picked up a 50mm 1.8 metal mount at the same time for the same price and the lens is new but made in 1987, well made and the arc motor I think it's called is built to last. 35-350 is also a good one, i prefer it to 28-300L. Lenses is like cars, in the 90s things were better made.

Carlos Calvo's picture

I gave the 28-105 a try years ago and I was disappointed. Good optics but terrible zoom creep, it was always extended at 105, very loose. Sold it after a few months. I just can't stand zoom creeping.

Daniel Lee's picture

I would have included the Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS. It’s amazing amazing lens for the price

Tony Tumminello's picture

I absolutely *love* my 35mm f2 IS, such a wonderfully flexible lens! I could probably do about 99% of my professional work with the 35mm and an 85/135mm. The only downside to the 35mm that I can find is that the coma on the edges makes it woeful for any astro work.

Rick Rizza's picture

My "cheap" L lenses :
50mm f/1.0, L bought second hand from a young man I met in a bar for 400€.
24-105 f/4 II L bought new in white box in China. Tested on the spot, recognized by the camera, paid for 500 USD.
8-15 f/4 L bought 2nd from eBay for 305€ on a bidding. Looks never used at all.
100-400 L bought new in 1998 from a Canon warehouse keeper in Singapore for 500 USD. No warranty of course.

Dion White's picture

I have all these lenses except the 24-105 is f4 in my collection. That 100mm Macro is my favorite as well as my 24-70 and 70-200... when I was starting out I purchased the 1-40 but now on the 16-35 and I purchased the 80-200 but now on the 70-200... I have a hard time selling my lenses so I keep the older ones that I started out with as backups in case I ever drop one and break it. That way I'll have something to hold me over until I can either get a new one or get the lens repaired. Red rings are the best

Sebastien Desnoulez's picture

I switched from Nikon to Canon EOS 1 in 1990. I used to own a 80-200mm f/2.8. It really was a piece of shit. A lot of vignetting, specially with a polarizer. The first one I owned was stolen in 1992, unfortunately I had no other choice than to buy a new one.
I really enjoyed the first 70-200mm f/2.8. The quality was a lot improved and it was usable with the Teleconverter 1.4x. On Motorsport tracks It was a great lens mounted on one camera with the 1.4 extender to achieve 280mm f/4 to shoot wider than the 500mm f/4 mounted on the second EOS 1 body.

To conclude on the 80-200mm, buy it if you use an APS-C, otherwise ditch it.

Ryan Davis's picture

if you like the 28-105, you should take a look at the 35-135. It's an odd focal length, but It was my go-to lens back when I shot Canon, even more so than my 24-70 2.8 L. IQ just about as good, and super light.

Michael Hickey's picture

The 135 is a stellar performer optically but I think the AF needs an upgrade with IS as well which is likely never happening unfortunately.