Conclusion - Pros

  • Decent build quality - much better than any of Canon's 18-55mm kit lenses
  • Very useful focal length range, almost ideal for a walkaround lens
  • Highly effective image stabilization
  • Excellent autofocus and manual override
  • Consistently high image quality across almost all of the range

Conclusion - Cons

  • Poor performance at wideangle, with marked barrel distortion, high levels of light falloff, and intense green/magenta chromatic aberration
  • Slow maximum aperture
  • Very average close-up performance

Overall conclusion

The EF-S 17-85mm is a major step up from Canon’s EF-S 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 II kit lens, adding an extended focal length range, image stabilization, fast and silent autofocus with a decent manual focus option, and substantially improved build quality. This makes it, at first sight at least, an ideal all-in-one ‘walkaround’ lens for Canon’s APS-C SLRs, which will cover the majority of photographic opportunities when traveling light.

And to a great extent it delivers on this potential, with good imaging performance over much of its range, especially in that extended telephoto region, plus effective image stabilization which works as promised. But there’s no getting away from this lens’s Achilles’ Heel, which is comparatively poor optical performance at the wideangle end. Most intrusive is the green/magenta chromatic aberration at 17mm, which is highly visible in a wide variety of shooting situations. Now if you’re only planning on viewing files on screen or making small prints, this may not be a huge problem, but if you are making large prints or viewing at 100% it’s a clear issue. However it can be effectively overcome if you are prepared to shoot in RAW and eliminate the CA in post-processing, using either Canon's Digital Photo Pro (v3.4 or later) or third party software such as Photoshop.

The lens also exhibits significant barrel distortion at 17mm, making it far from ideal for photographing architecture, except perhaps Gaudi in Barcelona, or City Hall and the ‘Gherkin’ in London. And with its relatively slow maximum aperture, this is also not an ideal lens for low light/indoor photography of people or other moving subjects. It’s important to appreciate that while image stabilization will allow hand-holding at slower shutter speeds than usual without suffering image degradation due to camera shake, those shutter speeds are still slow, and moving subjects will therefore still be blurred. Likewise the slow maximum aperture will limit flash range, so for this kind of photography, a faster zoom or prime lens will be a better option.

So overall the judgment to be made is whether the attractive feature set of this lens offsets the negatives, and most importantly the problems with distortion and chromatic aberration at wide angle. If you shoot primarily towards the telephoto end, this lens will reward you with excellent results, but if your interests tend more towards the wideangle end of the spectrum and you don't want to shoot RAW, then it may well be a good idea to look away now. However overall it must be said this lens is really rather enjoyable to use; the zoom range is very flexible, the autofocus fast and silent, and the image stabilizer highly effective. So in balance its advantages probably outweigh its disadvantages, and despite its faults this lens is ultimately still one of our favorites for Canon's APS-C dSLRs. Therefore, as long as its limitations are appreciated, it just about earns our recommendation.

Detail Rating (out of 10)
Build quality 7.5
Ergonomics & handling 8.0
Features 8.5
Image quality 7.5
Value 7.0

Recommended (with reservations)


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Samples Gallery

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Canon EF 17-85mm F4-5.6 IS USM Review Samples

15 images • Posted on Jan 28, 2008 • View album
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