Which lenses should you choose for your Canon EOS 5D Mark III?

By Kevin Carter - Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Lens Recommendations
Introduction | Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs. Nikon D800: Competition is closer than expected! | Standard lenses | Telephotos | Wide Angles

This is the second part of the Canon EOS 5D Mk III and lens feature, where we’ll be looking at how the camera performs with standard, fixed focal length lenses and zooms. We’ve measured 35 different models in combination with the 22.3 Mpix EOS 5D Mk III, to see which of those lenses are the most suited to the sensor in terms of image quality using our DxOMark Score.

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General Overview

Having a similar field of view to the human visual system ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ lenses, with a focal length of around 50mm, were immensely popular and at one time were supplied more or less with every camera. That’s not the case now as most DSLRs are supplied with a ‘starter or kit’ zoom.

However, even that category doesn’t quite fit that well with today’s full-frame cameras. It is perhaps the realization that prime lenses offer far greater IQ and faster (brighter) maximum apertures with greater control over depth of field that we are seeing something of a renaissance with fixed focal length lenses.

Normal lenses, such as the 50mm, and short telephoto lenses (from 70 to 135mm) are the easiest to design and correct for aberrations, zooms less so because of their complexity.

Of the 35 individual models assessed in the DxOMark labs for this feature with the Canon EOS 5D Mk III, 8 of the fixed focal length lenses cover 40mm to 50mm range. Of the primes with a focal length of 70 to 135mm, we’ve tested 16 different models to cover a range of budgets.

Finally, we’ll look at standard zooms. These offer versatility but they usually have a ‘slower’ maximum aperture and more aberrated. To help make it easy to select the most appropriate according to budget and optical performance, we have data from 11 models. 

Image quality overview

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Fixed focal length lenses of 85mm and 105mm achieve the highest scores, followed by the ‘normal’ 40mm and 50mm lenses with zooms bringing up the rear.

Conventional wisdom says normal and short-telephoto lenses the best performers in terms of image quality, as they have the fewer compromises to their optical design, and that’s borne out by our comprehensive test data. Of those, it was the 85mm lenses that performed best in IQ, with the 50mm lenses coming in slightly behind the 85mm and 100/105mm models.

Zoom lenses can’t quite match those in outright image quality but of those that stand out as top-performers are the phenomenal Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM II and Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD models.

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If price is a concern, two lenses stand out. The Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM and Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD are excellent performers and affordably priced by comparison.

Typical uses for normal lenses, 40/50mm and short telephotos include reportage and portraits, but they’re so versatile they‘re used in a number of genres. High speed, high-grade models are expensive. The Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L is around $1,600 and the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM is dearer still at $2,300 but there are cheaper, arguably better value alternatives.

The new EF 40mm f/2.8 STM from Canon can’t compare in ‘speed’ to the f/1.2 maximum aperture of 50mm L series lens, but it’s an excellent performer optically, yet costs $249. Also noteworthy is the new Tamron SP24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD. Not only is it a great performer, coming close to the Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8L II USM in, it’s stabilized, has an ultrasonic type AF motor and retails for $1299.

DxOMark Selection

40/50mm Normal or Standard lenses

Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T 50mm f/2 ZE Canon 1280 30
Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM 1574 29
Sigma 50mm F1.4 EX DG HSM Canon 499 29
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM 249 29
Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II 99 28
Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM 385 27
Carl Zeiss Planar T 50mm f/1.4 ZE Canon 725 25
 

Macro lenses are usually designed with different set of objectives in mind, such as a flat field and optimized IQ for short distances. They’re also usually designed to a higher price. At $1280, the Zeiss Makro Planar T* 50mm f2 ZE isn’t cheap but with an Overall DxOMark Score of 30 points it is the best performing normal lens on the Canon EOS 5D Mk III. This lens won’t suit everybody, though. For a start it doesn’t have autofocus (it is manual focus only), and it’s relatively heavy in weight. Be that as it may, the f/2 maximum aperture is ‘fast’ (ultra-fast for a macro lens) and so it makes for a very versatile choice.

As the dearest of those tested, however, one might expect the high-speed Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM to perform well. It’s not without some shortcomings, but when stopped down a little, the imaging performance is excellent across the frame, contributing to the overall DxOMark score of 29. The super-compact Canon ‘pancake’ also achieves the same overall 29-points, resulting from good scores for Sharpness, Transmission and Distortion. However, sharpness across the frame can’t match the more pricey 50mm.

Three of the top-rated ‘normal’ or standard lenses for the Canon EOS 5D Mk III. Each one is designed with a different purpose (and budget) in mind.

If those three are all too extreme in one way or another, with a DxOMark score of 29, the $499 Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM has a good balance of features (fast maximum aperture, AF and quality build) or if brand loyalty is strong, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 and f/1.4 autofocus lenses also make sensible choices.

70mm to 105mm Prime: The best for your portrait shot

Sigma 85mm F1.4 EX DG HSM Canon 969 35
Canon EF 100mm f/2 USM 440 33
Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T 100mm f/2 ZE Canon 1840 32
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM 1869 31
Samyang 85mm f/1.4 Aspherique IF Canon 285 30
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM 379 28
Carl Zeiss Planar T 85mm f/1.4 ZE Canon 1280 28
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM 969 28
Sigma 70mm F2.8 EX DG Macro Canon 499 28
Sigma 105mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM Canon 969 27
Tamron SP AF 90mm F/2.8 Di MACRO Canon 460 27
Sigma 105mm F2.8 EX DG Macro Canon 640 27

The choice for short telephoto lenses is wider as it encompasses both 85mm and the 100/105mm focal lengths, the latter providing a little more comfortable working distance for the subjects when taking portraits. This focal length is also popular for macro lenses, where a greater working distance allows more flexibility with lighting set-ups.

Sigma took the third place for normal lenses but in this category, the ultra-fast 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM portrait lens sits at the number one position with an Overall DxOMark Score of 35. With a clear lead in points over the popular and highly regarded Canon EF 100mm f/2 USM and renowned Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T 100mm f/2 ZE and Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM models this is a surprising result, especially given the price difference (and reputation) of the latter lens. Even so, the Sigma is a newer design utilizing low-dispersion glass and the latest coatings.

More affordable options include the $299 Samyang (branded as Rokinon, Pro-Optic or Bower in the USA) 85mm f/1.4 Aspherical IF. This Korea made lens ranks fifth in this comparison with a very respectable DxOMark Score of 30. Although the image quality is high, just beating the Sigma 70mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro and prestigious Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4, bear in mind that like the latter lens the Samyang is manual focus only.

Mounted on the Canon EOS 5D Mk III, the Sigma 85mm f1.4 EX DG HSM achieves a higher DxOMark score than the legendary Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM and the venerable 100mm f/2 USM

If the budget can stretch, the high-speed, manual focus Carl Zeiss Makro Planar T* 100mm f/2 ZE is the choice for macro shooters, achieving the same DxOMark score of 32 as the Canon 85mm f/1.2. If price is a concern, at $379, the Canon 85mm f/1.8 achieves a high DxOMark Score of 28.

Zoom: Canon and Tamron achieve similar scores to primes

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM 2299 28
Tamron SP 24-70mm F2.8 Di VC USD Canon 1299 27
Canon EF 28-70mm f/2.8L USM 1269 24
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM 1221 22
Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 IF EX DG HSM Canon 899 22
Tamron SP AF 28-75mm F/2.8 XR Di LD Aspherical [IF] Canon 499 21
Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM 1500 21
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM 1250 20
Canon EF 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 USM 249 19
Canon EF 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 USM 0 17
Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM 413 16
 

Zoom lenses may have a lot of benefits and are hugely popular but rarely can they match the definition and quality of prime lenses. Canon has been at the forefront of zoom design for three decades but only recently has the company challenged the perception that zooms have to be second best when it comes to image quality.

The new EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM has raised the bar in optical quality and so it comes as little surprise to learn that, when mounted to the Canon EOS 5D Mk III, it’s the highest performing standard zoom with a DxOMark score of 28 points. Despite the accolades for the Canon, Tamron has also introduced a noteworthy example in the shape of the new SP 24-70mm f2.8 Di VC USD. It may not have the same pro-quality build but at $1000 less than the Canon its optical quality is excellent, plus the lens is stabilized, a feature that’s now seen as lacking from the Canon.

Conclusion

Normal and short telephoto primes with their fast apertures allow appealing perspectives with additional creative possibilities over the slower zooms, but they too have their advantages in terms of versatility and are often a cost effective option. While the lenses in the three categories have a slightly different purpose it’s quite clear which of those models perform optimally on the Canon EOS 5D Mk III. The combination of a very efficient sensor means the Canon EOS 5D Mk III can compare favorably with sharpness and detail rendition to the Nikon D800 in spite of the advantage it has in pixel count when matched with high-quality lenses.