The first EF ‘L’ lens – The EF 100-300mm f/5.6L

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Introduction – 1987, the launch of Canon EOS

1987 was not just the year that this song reached the top of the charts, it was also the year that the Canon EOS camera system was launched with the EOS 650 35mm film camera.

CanonEos650

The first four lenses launched with the camera in March 1987 included the EF 35-70mm f/3.5-4.5 standard zoom, which I will talk more about in a future article, the original EF 50mm f/1.8 which used to be a very sought-after lens on the second-hand market until the EF 50mm f/1.8 STM came out recently (the original 50mm f/1.8 had a better build quality than the replacement EF 50mm f/1.8 II.) The other two lenses were the EF 35-105mm f/3.5-4.5 and the EF 100-300mm f/5.6 zooms.

The Canon EF 100-300mm f/5.6L

But today I’ll talk about another important lens that Canon released that year, their very first L series EF lens – the EF 100-300mm f/5.6L, released in June 1987. Professional photographers were already used to L series lenses from the Canon FD series of cameras, but this was the very first L lens that supported the autofocus EF system.

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Externally, this lens looked almost identical to the earlier and much cheaper consumer zoom the EF 100-300 f/5.6 with a plasticky feel and a pump-action zoom rather than the more familiar twist-to-zoom. There’s no retention (at least on my copy) so that you have to hold the lens in the zoom position you want or it may slide back to the 100mm position.

There is a switch to define the focus range – Macro to infinity, 2m to infinity or manual. The ‘macro’ setting actually has a minimum focus distance of 1.5m which gives a maximum magnification ratio of 1:4.

Focus speed is not its strong point. This is a pre-USM lens, so it focuses in its own good time as long as you’re patient. And because it uses an older-style focusing motor and was designed decades before modern high-resolution CMOS sensors don’t expect the focusing accuracy to be on a par with modern lenses.

The lens has fifteen elements in ten groups, with one synthetic fluorite element and one UD element. The outside may be flimsy and cheap but the glass is L quality through and through. Of course, there’ not that much of it – the filter is 58mm – the same as cheaper consumer x-300mm zoom lenses which gives the L lens it’s uninspiring constant f/5.6 maximum aperture. Put it simply, this is a lens for good lighting only – don’t expect stellar results on a dark day or indoors without flash.

But, on the positive side, when you can find these available they are currently the cheapest second-hand L series lens currently available – I got mine for under £200 on eBay, and that’s less than the new price of a low quality consumer 75-300 zoom.

Photos taken with the Canon EF 100-300mm f/5.6L

So – how does it perform? For the sake of Science I attached it to my 5DSR and walked around near my flat for a full fifteen minutes just before sunset to try it out. Here are some results:

f/5.6 at 1/320 – note strong vignetting at f/5.6. 300mm zoom

1:1 crop from above

 

 

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f/5.6 1/500s, 300mm zoom

1:1 crop from above

Once you shoot wider than 300mm the vignetting at f/5.6 falls off quickly.

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f/5.6 at 1/200 sec – 123mm on zoom recorded in EXIF.

Out of focus areas are rendered very nicely – it’s a true L lens inside the cheap plastic and the results – if you’re patient with it – can be beautiful.

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f/5.6 at 1/320 sec – 300mm

1:1 crop from above

But when opened up beyond f/5.6 the lens really shines. Here is a photo taken at f/9.

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f/9 at 1/250 sec – 300mm

1:1 crop from above

 

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f/5.6 at 1/250 sec – 142mm zoom

1:1 crop from above

So, even though this isn’t really meant to be a suitable lens for the 5DSR the results were very pleasing. As good as modern L series lenses? No. But better than any of the consumer xx-300 zooms that I’ve tried.  And at current prices it’s an absolute bargain.

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3 Responses

  1. Interesting piece of information as to it being the very first L lens under the EF/EOS banner. Even as a proud owner of an mint sample, I honestly didn’t know (or recall) that.

    And to be perfectly honest, before finding it, I’d almost given it all up for good, after long 7 or 8 years of searching, so hard it is to find a good sample of this legendary glass.
    So, one thing I know for sure now is, I won’t probably ever sell it! Just like I’ll never sell my pair of now-classic Sennheiser HD580 headphones. Nossir! As that would certainly land me in a dead-sure repentant state-of-mind, the minute I sold it.

    Finally, I second your opinion both in regards to it being clunky and a tad cumbersome but, as I don’t do professional photography anymore (got my life back ever since and am not in the least hurry to take a shot), but also its undeniable “L goodness”, translated in all the creamy-bookeh and sharp, purple fringe-free images it churns. I’d rather taking said great-quality photos and developing a technique (better light, tripod whenever possible, etc.) than actually spending more money (or caring more weight) than I’m actually willing to.

    Just thinking that the next decent Canon EF glass, with such long a focal range, would have to be either a 300mm f4 L or the newer 75-300 (but selling, of course, for about 4 to 6 times the price tag of one of these) really makes me want to shout to the hilltops I’ve finally found one.

    If you decide to look for one – as long as you’re willing to wait patiently for the right one to show up, of course – it will certainly make you a happy bunny, if you’re willing to forgo its aged and lower-tech build – don’t let appearances fool you!

  2. R says:

    I picked up the non-L version of this lens for $40 CDN this past summer just for kicks. I hope to get my hands on an L version of the same sometime and do a side by side comparison.

    I find that the non-L, when stopped down to f8 is not bad and has a nice enough bokeh on the long end, but the contrast and clarity compared to my 70-200mm L is a stark comparison. Still, its fun to try and that screaming micro-motor sound makes you feel like you’re working hard… 😉

  3. Sun S says:

    This is a marvelous lens still going good for me after nearly 30 years! I bought my first Canon EOS 650 in 1987 and this EF 100-300mm/5.6 L lens in 1988. I used it extensively on my APS-C Canon 40D and now on EOS 70D. Some of the pictures I shot with this lens have been posted in “National Geographic My Shot” ( link : http://yourshot.nationalgeographic.com/profile/255976/ ) . The contrast and color rendering of this lens is still amazing.

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