The Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM lens came out in 2004, so it’s been around for a while. Most photographers like to have at least one zoom lens in their kit, and the EF-S 17-85mm covers a good range of view from wide-angle to telephoto.
It also boasts Canon’s second-generation optical image stabilizer (IS). This feature lets you hand-hold the camera at slower shutter speeds than you are used to, as it reduces the dreaded camera shake by up to three stops.
The EF-S 17-85mm will only fit Canon’s APS-C DSLRs (crop sensor). This gives you an equivalent range on a full-frame camera of 27mm to 136mm. It’s not a fast lens by any means, having a f/4-f-5.6 maximum aperture, but that’s reflected in the price.
This zoom lens has the potential to be useful in a wide range of photographic situations, so let’s see how it performs.
The Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM lens is a step-up in build quality from the plasticky Canon 18-55mm kit lens. It doesn’t have the same robust standard of build as the professional Canon ‘L’ series lenses or even the Canon mid-range lenses, but you can’t expect that for the price.
While the lens mount is metal, the barrel is plastic and can deform a little under pressure. This makes the EF-S 17-85mm not quite so solid as other Canon mid-range zoom lenses (the Canon 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens, for instance).
For those who prefer manual focusing to AF, you’ll be pleased to note that the 17-85mm does have a decent manual focusing ring and distance scale. This lens is also lightweight enough at 475g to carry around all day.
The design of this lens is pretty well thought-out, with the zoom ring positioned perfectly for thumb and forefinger, and the manual focus ring in the right place for your middle finger.
This lens takes a filter thread of 67mm, and doesn’t rotate when you autofocus (something that should please circular filter users!). It also takes the EW-73B lens hood, but you have to buy that separately.
For the glass geeks out there, the Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM zoom lens comes with 17 lens elements (one aspherical) and 12 groups, with six diaphragm blades.
Maximum aperture is f/4-f/5.6, with the minimum being f/22-f/32. Minimum focusing distance is 35cm, which will give you a nice close-up but is certainly not macro.
The Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM in Use
We’ll start off with the image quality and some of the issues that arose while using the 17-85mm in the studio.
At the 17mm end of the lens range, chromatic aberration was a big problem, with both green and purple fringing appearing. As you go up through 35mm and upwards, however, the fringing is much less of an issue.
The Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM is nice and sharp in the 35-85mm range, but things go from good to bad when you head towards the 17mm wide-angle range. At this focal length, the softness in the corners of an image was very obvious.
Again, the 17-85mm comes in as a fail with serious distortion at the wide end of the range. You’re probably thinking: “I can fix that in post-processing“, but the distortion is the ‘wave’ type which is much harder to fix in software than ordinary barrel distortion. Even at 24mm, the distortion is pretty hard to miss, especially if your images contain straight lines.
Lens falloff is also not great at 17mm, with over 1.7 stops less light in the corners than in the center. However, at 24mm wide open there is just a tiny hint of falloff, and the rest of the focal range is pretty decent too.
How does Canon’s optical Image Stabilization fare with the 17-85mm?
This lens comes with second generation optical image stabilization, which is said to allow for hand-holding the camera at up to three stops lower than you could without it. This is great for those of us who don’t have hands and wrists of iron, and is a real bonus for shooting in low light conditions when you don’t have a tripod handy.
Canon’s IS does a great job at the wider angle of the lens, with usable shots at 17mm at just 1/6th of a second. Performance is even better when used at the telephoto end of the range. This makes it a useful lens for wedding and portrait photography, as well as landscape.
How Does It Compare?
If you want to spend more money, you could buy the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM lens. Yes, it’s more expensive but you get the advantage of a fast, fixed aperture of f/2.8, great image quality, and the same Image Stabilization feature.
You have less focal range with the 17-55mm, but the f/2.8 aperture does make up for a lot, and it’s as fast as any Canon zoom lens currently around. This makes the 17-55mm a great choice for sports and wedding photography when you combine the fast aperture with the Image Stabilization.
The 17-55mm lens is sharp from edge to edge, and there is much less barrel distortion at the wide end than with the 17-85mm. Chromatic aberration is also well-controlled.
The main drawback is the price of the 17-55mm, which is around $729 compared to the Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM which is the much cheaper lens. However, the resale value of this 17-55mm Canon lens remains strong.
It’s also worth noting that the 17-85mm lens has the advantage of Canon’s second generation IS system, while the 17-55mm has the older version.
|Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM||Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM|
|Optics||17 elements (1 aspherical)/12 groups||19 elements/12 groups|
|Diaphragm||6 blades||7 blades|
|Image Stabilization||Yes – Second generation IS||Yes – First generation IS|
The Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM does have image quality issues down at the wider-angle end of the lens. This means that the middle and upwards focal distances of the lens are the best spots to use. It’s also not a fast lens, although that is reflected in the price.
It’s a decent lens for those looking to step up from Canon’s 18-55mm kit lens, but who don’t want to spend too much money. It’s a good general-purpose zoom lens if you stay away from extremely wide angles, and the light weight makes it comfortable to walk around with it on a full-day photography trip.