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Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM

Review Date: Sep 12, 2011 Recommend? yes | Price paid: $350.00 | Rating: 9 

Pros: Excellent build quality, fast/accurate/silent focusing, buttery-smooth focus ring with zero play, pretty sexy design, good contrast+color, decent hyperfocal markings, relatively cheap
Soft at 1.8 and 2.0

I've seen a lot of mixed reviews on this lens (and generally better reviews for the 24mm 2.8), and I've got to say - I disagree with the notion that the 24mm might be your best relatively-inexpensive wide angle prime on full frame.

(Don't worry as you read all this about the 24/2.8, this is indeed a review of the 28/1.8 - I just think comparisons to its closest competitor are warranted.)

I picked up a new 24mm f/2.8 for $250 on Craigslist, and did some testing on a tripod from f/2.8 to f/8 on a 5D Mark II. It was very close to the 16-35mm f/2.8L Mark 1 in sharpness, and better in contrast/color/flare resistance, but had terrible CA (easily corrected in ACR / Lightroom / Photoshop, granted).

The thing that turned me off about the 24mm was the gross circa-1988 build. The focus ring was scratchy, and didn't inspire a sense of confidence that it would stay put if you set it precisely manually. It was ugly, and though the AF worked fine, it was slow and sounded like a dentist drill grinding into enamel.

Enter the 28mm f/1.8 USM, which I picked up for $350 mint on CL: on full frame, you only lose 4mm of width from the 24mm alternative (take a step back for your composition), but you gain so much.

The focus ring is BUTTERY smooth, and very solid in that it stays put where you leave it. There's no play whatsoever with the ring, if you move it 1 millimeter, the readout in the distance window (and the focus) moves with it. This is critical when focusing at night on a distant point of light for what I see as one of this lenses' primary uses: wide-field landscape astrophotography.

The barrel is very smooth and sleekly designed, and it feels nice and densely built. It has a built-in rectangular flare blocker inside the lens, I'm not sure how effective it is but it certainly can't hurt. The overall build quality is as good as it gets without going to a 24mm f/1.4L for $950 used.

Regarding wide-aperture performance: the 28mm is downright hazy/bloomy/dreamy at 1.8. I'd only use this for video, or a critical handheld shot indoors I'd rather not miss. At f/2.0, it's noticeably better, but not great. At f/2.2, suddenly it's at 90% of its peak performance - very impressive! Sufficiently sharp, fringing/blooming mostly gone - this is the aperture I'll be shooting the stars at - 25 seconds at f/2.2 and ISO 1600 or 3200 should do very nicely on a FF 5D2.

I'll go down to 25 second exposures for this 28mm (from 30sec on a 24mm) to freeze the movement of the stars on full-frame (I push the standard formula of (focal length)/(600 sec) a bit). In doing so, I'll lose 16% of my light, but I'll gain 66% more light by shooting at f/2.2 instead of f/2.8 on the 24mm - for a net gain of 1/2 stop. This is quite important when it comes to pushing your sensor to the usable limit at ISO 1600/3200 - you can shoot at 1600 and only push 1/2 stop in post, or shoot at 3200 and lower exposure by 1/2 stop in post (I'll have to do some testing and see which works better on a 5D2).

From f/2.8 onward, it's razor sharp - no complaints whatsoever. Stop down as you require for depth of field. The corners get progressively better from 2.8 onward, but that's not terribly important to me - the center- and mid-frame performance is outstanding.

On a crop sensor, I can only imagine this lens getting better as a relatively-normal 44.8mm equivalent, using only the sweet spot of the lens. If I had to step down to a 7D with only one prime, this is the one I'd take.

I guess there's some sample variation (as with most lenses) due to the mixed reviews I've seen, but let me say - this copy is damn good.. and I'm extremely picky. Get one!