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

The third of our four-part series on choosing the best lenses for your Canon EOS 5D Mk III concentrates on fixed focal length telephotos and super- zooms up to 300mm. Mounted to the 22.3 Mpix EOS 5D Mk III, we’ve assessed 26 different models covering various budgets from so-called ‘kit’ lenses to high-end telephotos. Read on to see which of those perform optimally and those that, if you’re in the process of buying perhaps, are best avoided.

visuel-tele

General Overview

As we’ve already shown, the sensor in the Canon EOS 5D Mk III may not have the highest pixel count of the current crop of DSLRs, but fine detail resolution in images is a balancing act between sensor and lens. If the lens isn’t a particularly good performer then the extra you’ve paid for a camera with a higher pixel count may be squandered.

From our tests, the full-frame 24x36mm sensor in the EOS 5D Mk III is very efficient, with a greater resolving power than any previous camera from the firm. When paired with the right lens it can achieve similar levels of sharpness as the overall leader in the DxOMark rankings, the 36Mpix Nikon D800. Our data shows that this is not an uncommon scenario – there are a large number of lenses that the Canon performs optimally with.

We’ve tested the Canon EOS 5D Mk III with nine different 70-200mm models, six primes ranging from 150mm to 300mm, four super-zooms (including some “kit” options) and a further seven telephoto zooms.

We’re always adding lenses to our database. Important / benchmark lenses, such as the Canon EF 70-200mm f4 USM non IS version, and EF 135mm f/2.0L USM and new Carl Zeiss APO Sonnar T* 2/135 ZE that we’ve not yet to test, will be added over the coming months. Our new lab in Seattle will also allow us to test lenses over 300mm in focal length. 

Image quality overview

01-Tele-IQ-overview

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.

Zoom lenses are more difficult to design and correct for image degrading aberrations.  In general terms, the 70-200mm telephoto lenses perform similarly to the “high end standard” zooms (detailed in Part II), while as a group the average scores were lower than the standard and short telephoto primes, as you would expect.

02-tele-paid-for-overview

With lenses, like most things in life, you tend to get what you pay for. The more expensive they are, the better they perform.

DxOMark Selection

70-200mm

Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC USD Canon 1699 28
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM 2499 27
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM 1300 24
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM 1695 23
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM 1210 23
Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG APO OS HSM Canon 1699 23
Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG APO HSM Canon 880 22
Tamron SP AF 70-200mm F/2.8 Di LD (IF) MACRO Canon 770 22
Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG APO Macro HSM II Canon 949 21
The three top-rated telephoto zooms for the Canon EOS 5D Mk III. Surprisingly, the third-party Tamron lens comes in ahead of the recently upgraded Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

Canon’s top-pro EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM was upgraded to include fluorite  glass usually a good indicator of image quality in Canon lenses but while it achieved a DxOMark Score of 27, it was beaten by an outsider – the Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD with an overall score of 28. Canon’s highly regarded EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM also performed well (coming joint fifth) but lost out to the older (1995) non IS f/2.8 version and the new Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM.

None of these lenses are cheap but the older (2008) Tamron SP AF 70-200mm f/2.8 Di LD IF Macro is worthy of consideration if budget is tight, provided that it can still be found on dealers’ shelves.

One point to bear in mind is that we’ve yet to test the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM non-IS version. At around $710, this is small and light zoom is a very popular model and has a good reputation for high quality imaging (both this and the IS version use fluorite in the optical construction).

70-300mm

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM 1599 21
Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 APO-M DG Macro Canon 209 18
Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III USM 195 18
Sigma 120-400mm F4.5-5.6 DG APO OS HSM Canon 999 17
Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 DG OS Canon 359 17
Tamron AF 70-300 F/4-5.6 LD Macro Canon 125 16
Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM 420 14
Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM 1330 14
 

Becoming increasingly popular with enthusiasts and professionals alike, the 70-300mm offers more reach than the 70-200mm but at the expense of a variable aperture of one to two stops over the range of focal lengths compared to the f/2.8 models. Image quality is generally very good, especially with newer models though they’re not quite in the same league. Those shortcomings have to be weighed against advantages such as image stabilization, lighter weight, smaller size, where relevant, as well as a generally lower price.

No real surprises here the Canon is a new addition the firm’s L-series range, and it achieves good scores. Despite the APO designation, the Sigma only just manages to achieve a one-point lead over the Tamron.

Canon’s newish EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L USM competes head-on against several of its own models including the four 70-200mm in the range and three further 70/75-300mms. It has the best image quality of the latter group, shrugging off much cheaper options from Sigma and Tamron.

If buying on a budget, the dearer of the two Sigma lenses, the 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG OS, may be the better choice as it has image stabilization and differs only by one point in our DxOMark score. Bear in mind it lacks an ultrasonic motor for AF, but it is quite small (76.5mm X 126mm / 3.0 x 5.0 in) and light in weight at 610g/21.5oz.

Super Zoom

 
Sigma 120-400mm F4.5-5.6 DG APO OS HSM Canon 999 17
Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM 2570 17
Canon EF 55-200mm f/4.5-5.6 II USM 230 16
Tamron AF 28-300mm F/3.5-6.3 XR Di VC LD Aspherical [IF] Macro Canon 600 14

Newer lenses of equal specification nearly always outperform older lenses, and nowhere is that more noticeable than those with high zoom-ratios, or “super-zooms”. These are rightly popular due to their versatility, but there are downsides. Image quality is the lowest of those tested and their variable maximum apertures are ‘slow’; f/5.6 at the long end is typical and f/6.3 not un-common.

The Sigma 120-400mm lens has the highest DxOMark Score of those tested, but the lens that stands out here is the Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM. That lens has a zoom ratio of approximately 11x compared to just 3.3x for the Sigma. However, the overall quality including a durable pro-level construction is reflected in the price, and at nearly $2,600 it’s really only going to appeal to a small number of individuals or photo agencies.

At $630, Tamron’s diminutive AF 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 XR Di VC LD may lack the performance of an ultrasonic AF motor but it has stabilization and lens coatings optimized for digital sensors.

Prime Telephotos

 
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM 6599 32
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM 6000 27
Sigma 150mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM APO Macro Canon 1099 24
Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM 1500 22
Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM 1269 19
Tamron SP AF180mm F/3.5 Di LD (IF) MACRO 1:1 Canon 690 19

The models with ‘fast’ maximum apertures are intended for sports and action photographers. They carry a huge price premium for a one-stop advantage but, from our tests, they do stand out for their imaging performance. While this is good news for those that have invested in these models, they have limited demand. 

We’ve also yet to test any Canon super-telephoto lens longer than 300mm, though when we do we will update this review with the info.

Single focal length telephotos are capable of high quality imagery and some of the prices in this category point indicate that was at the forefront of the maker’s design criteria.

It’s not really unexpected, then, that the new $6,600 Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IIS II USM with its unusual yet promising double fluorite element design is the highest performing lens of the six models tested. It comfortably out-performs the older version with a four-point advantage in our DxOMark score. The new lens has higher levels of sharpness, better transmission and no discernible distortion. The only slight setback is a very slight increase in chromatic aberration.

Interestingly, for photographers looking for recommendations on tele-macro lenses, the Sigma APO Macro 150mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM scores 3 points more than the Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM with a DxOMark score of 24 versus 22 for the older film–era Canon lens.

Conclusion

There’s no getting away from the fact that zooms are more versatile, and for many users the telephoto zoom is a more practical choice. On the Canon EOS 5D MK III the best option are the 70-200mm models. These lenses are a corner stone of a maker’s range and there’s a wealth of experience in optical and mechanical design.

While other high-ratio zooms offer more flexibility, with fewer compromises made the 70-200mm models offer excellent all-round image quality and sharpness. The best models are even capable of surpassing dedicated macros, though they’ll not share the same capabilities at short distances. If you’ve $6600 to spare, and want the best lens for sports, the new EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM is the sharpest telephoto lens we’ve tested.

In part IV, the final section of this series, we’ll look at wide-angle zooms and primes available in Canon EF mount.