Many people have interesting stories of how they started photography; I do not. One of my chief motivators for starting was being a part of a car community in which a few members used to take macro photographs of insects. I was fascinated by the detail and intricacies of things I'd previously ignored, and so, I bought a cheap second-hand DSLR with a kit lens and a macro filter. After establishing that photography was the expensive mistress I'd always dreamed of, I decided to buy a proper macro lens and sought out advice on the right purchase for me. Then I bought the wrong one.
In my defense, there were an inordinate quantity of letters, numbers, and nuances between lenses that I could not decipher. "Get the Canon 100mm Macro," they told me. "it's brilliant for those starting off in macro and can be used for all sorts." I looked at a whole host of black cylinders on eBay but didn't feel as if I could particularly differentiate. Some had a bit of red on them — they made my eyes water and my wallet hide — and some of them were seemingly developed for the United States Military (that's what "USM" means, right?). This was the first time I went on Ken Rockwell's compendium of technical data, and for someone who knew nothing about photography whatsoever, it was like trying to read an Ikea instruction manual that's in Mandarin while drunk and partially blind. Eventually, I pulled the trigger and missed... sort of.
What I meant to purchase was the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM from 2000. What I actually purchased was the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 non-USM from 1990. That three-lettered disparity and resulting mistake isn't even funny to the nerdiest of camera technicians; it was an easy mistake to make for someone still very much wet behind the ears in photography. I thought I had just gotten myself a good deal on the right lens. Instead, I had gotten myself an average deal on the wrong lens, but a lens I would use more than any other, even to this day. At first, I thought I had been a complete idiot, but few photographers I spoke to about this recently even knew my 100mm existed. Googling "Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro" will invariably return pages and pages of its more popular and newer counterpart. In terms of build, the 1990 and the 2000 models aren't particularly different as you can see from the Wiki comparison below, with the "hidden gem" being the far left lens:
|Attribute||f/2.8 Macro||f/2.8 Macro USM||f/2.8L Macro IS USM||f/2.0 USM|
|Construction||9 groups / 10 elements||8 groups / 12 elements||12 groups / 15 elements||6 groups / 8 elements|
|# of diaphragm blades||8||9||8|
|Closest focusing distance||12" / 310 mm||11.88" / 302 mm||35.43" / 900 mm|
|Diagonal viewing angle||24°||23.4°||24°|
|Weight||1.43 lbs / 650 g||1.32 lbs / 600 g||1.38 lbs / 625 g||1.01 lbs / 460 g|
|Maximum diameter||2.95" / 75 mm||3.1" / 79 mm||2.95" / 75 mm|
|Length||4.15" / 105.5 mm||4.7" / 119 mm||4.8" / 122 mm||2.89" / 73.5 mm|
|Filter diameter||52 mm||58 mm||67 mm||58 mm|
|Lens hood||ET-67||ET-73||ET-65 III|
|Currently in production?||No||Yes|
|MSRP $||72,200 yen||$599.99||$1049.00||$479.99|
One might ask why, in a new state of semi-enlightenment, would somebody opt to use this lens over its more contemporary counterparts? Well, I have used the USM versions of this lens and I still prefer my old workhorse. Firstly, it's cheaper. It's not a great deal cheaper, but it's still a lower price than the 2000 and newer models, although admittedly tougher to find. The real selling points for me are technical, however.
First and foremost, the image quality difference between the 1990 model and the 2000 USM model was almost nonexistent in practical terms. I say in practical terms because I'm sure there are scientific comparisons that prove the 1990 model to be a lesser beast, but I could not detect them in any way. I won't argue that the 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM isn't producing better-quality images, but even then there isn't a big enough chasm to warrant the assault on my bank balance. What sets the 1990 model apart is the fact that the glass is deep inside the barrel, embedded in a sort of built-in lens hood.
This particular lens design is invaluable to me for three key reasons: firstly, macro photography requires a lot of light and the front element being buried so deeply within the lens's shell means it is incredibly well shielded from these light sources and thus retains the sort of contrast required from the resulting images.
Secondly and relatedly, the glass being set back from the front of the lens means I can use extension tubes and still avoid flares or washed-out images. The reason for this is that extension tubes lower the minimum focus distance and so the lens has to be closer to the subject. There comes a point – and this point is nowhere near the extreme end – where you simply cannot have a lens hood, as it will prod your subject. This is annoying and inconvenient if you're doing product photography and game over if your subject is sentient, as it's unlikely to remain where it is while it gets shoved by – for all intents and purposes – a huge black plastic building. The 1990 model therefore allows me to use multiple extension tubes for focus stacking (such as the image above this paragraph) with no worries about the distance to the subject or loss of contrast.
The third and final reason is a bit of a throwaway point, but with the glass that far hidden from the front of the unit, it's tantamount to impossible to scratch or damage the front element. Believe me, I've unintentionally tried many times over the years.
All in all, as far as mistakes go, this is one of my favorites. I have taken thousands upon thousands of images with this lens and use it for high-end product work regularly without hesitation. If you're interested in trying macro photography out, this is a cheap way in and can create some brilliant results. Of course, like its younger brother, it isn't just a macro lens like the MP-E 65mm; it's perfect for portraiture, including closeup beauty shots.
Here's a spider picking a fight with a bee to look at while you mull over the information.