My Most Used Lens Is a Hidden Gem I Bought by Accident

My Most Used Lens Is a Hidden Gem I Bought by Accident

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.


1990 Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro


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
Image Canon 100mm Macro Lens non-USM.jpg Canon EF 100mm f2.8 Macro USM.jpg Canon EF 100 f2.8 L Macro IS USM.jpg Canon EF 100mm f2.0 lens, vertical.JPG
Key features
Full-frame compatible Yes
Image stabilizer No Yes No
Ultrasonic Motor No Yes
L-series No Yes No
Diffractive Optics No
Macro Yes No
Technical data
Aperture (max-min) f/2.8-f/32 f/2.0-f/22
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
Max. magnification 1:1 0.14×
Diagonal viewing angle 24° 23.4° 24°
Physical data
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
Case LP816 LP1219
Retail information
Release date 1990 2000 2009 1991
Currently in production? No No 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.

Have you got a hidden gem of a lens? If you have, leave a comment so I can immediately part with some money.
Robert K Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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my "hidden gem" is the 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, and its my hidden gem because i use it for almost everything...from product to portrait and i also used it fot concert photography...yes it take some time to focus on concerts but when she does you just cant get any sharper.

Not a hidden gem of a lens, but of a lighting tool. I bought a beauty dish for the usual studio purposes, but a lot of my shooting takes place outside for lifestyle -- on boats and in the wind. One windy day in which I couldn't get softboxes or umbrellas to stand even with multiple sandbags, I put up the beauty dish in desperation. It did the job -- albeit not as well as the softbox/umbrellas, but way better than a seven inch direct reflector. When the wind comes up, it's my go-to and I always bring it.

My go anywhere use it anywhere lens is my Tamron 24-70mm F/2.8 USD. Amazing image quality. Incredibly versatile. way under $1,000.

I have old 55mm and 105mm f/3.5 and f/4 Ai Micro Nikkors I used similarly. They both also have recessed front elements.

I feel like that 55mm 3.5 macro is the sharpest macro lens i've ever used. I love it.

I have the 55 non ai with original extention tube and its flawless...takes really nice photos.

my hidden gem is the Helios 58mm f2, best of the best, sharpness wide open is jaw-dropping and the swirly bokeh is just gorgeous :) my other gem is an unknown lens, the Coslinar 135mm 2.8, I found no review anywhere so I wrote one myself, it's build like a tank and the bokeh is so smooth. They are both MF though :)

Would love to read your review. Can you post a link?

I have it but its still on my Zenit 11....would love to stick it on my D7100 to try it out on dx...all converter rings look like junk though.

Why spend a fortune on a macro lens, when you get the bellows for a lot less, then use any lens you want to, for whatever need you have?

I have that same lens, and mostly love it. Something inside is jammed, so you have to give it a good twist to focus from MFD to about 18 inches, then a twist in the other direction to go from 18 inches to infinity. But it's sharp as I could ask for. I also have the 100 L, 180 L, the 50mm macro, and even the 60mm EF-S macro. Everyone should have at least one macro. When you are in a creative funk, bust out the macro.

As far as favorite accidents, I bought a small lot of gear from a local photographer, and the 28mm f/1.8 was included. Not a lens I ever considered, so I sold it to a friend, who shot most of her clothing company's ad campaign with it. I loved the look so much, I had to go out and buy the lens a second time. It was the sole lens I took on a recent tradeshow/family vacation trip. Something about having that wide background, all out of focus, with your subject razor sharp, it's a great look. I could shoot a long and fast lens, and have the background totally mush, but the 28mm, at around 2.0-2.2, gives your subject context, while offering separation from the background.