I had the opportunity to tryout the Canon 180 3.5L Macro courtesy of Brent Rents Lenses.
I've been shooting the Canon 100 2.8 Macro for almost 10 years and have been wanting to upgrade to this 180.
I am far from being a gearhead. Equipment is just a tool for me to do what I love, art. I only love the tool as much as I appreciate it helps me do what I do. But I am not interested in the technical specs of the tools beyond knowing enough to choose the right one for the right job. So my review of this lens will be fairly simple and to the point from the perspective of is it a lens that I would add to my kit to do the work I need to do?
I will be testing it on a Canon 5D Mark III. The first thing that stood out to me was the the tripod ring. This is the second Canon tripod ring that has fallen short. There isn't adequate clearance between the lens and the tripod mount for two important needs. With the battery grip there isn't enough clearance to attach the lens to the tripod so I had to settle with mounting the camera itself to the tripod. Considering it isn't that long of a lens it was only a minor inconvenience.
This shows the problem. When trying to seat the quick release plate into the tripod the lever won't close and lock the plate in place. The battery grip makes contact with the lever blocking it before the plate can seat all the way down.
The next issue I have with Canon tripod mount rings is that the lack of clearance and size makes holding them awkward. I am only able to get two fingers and my thumb on it and not attain a strong grip. A bigger ring makes for a great handle to carry the lens and camera while connected or help when handling the lens while detached. These tiny, low clearance rings make it easy to drop the equipment. Aftermarket rings are available that may be more ergonomic.
I went into my backyard looking for a few test subjects. It was a windy day and that makes macro of anything that isn't rigid very difficult. Unless otherwise stated all of the test images have minimal processing for exposure with no sharpening, no clarity, and no lens profile or cropping.
The most attractive aspect of this lens for macro photography is the working distance. Above is the distance to the dandelion head in the prior shot when focused to true 1:1 macro. There are many benefits to this extra distance including not obstructing your light source and when working with critters that might be easily scared it gives them a little breathing room to relax and not flee.
Above is my Canon 100mm 2.8 focused to true 1:1 macro. It is so close that with the lens hood on it can cast shadows onto the subject as well as be too close for comfort to the critters I like to photograph.
My preference for most photography is to work off the tripod. There are drawbacks involving compensating for hand shake but the benefits of spontaneity and adaption to dynamic subjects mostly outweigh the drawbacks. I will use a flash with an off camera shoe to help if there isn't enough light for a fast shutter speed. My outdoor test shots did not require this as it was a bright day.
Another feature I liked is that with the increased focusing distance I didn't have to get on my hands and knees as often to get close. This image I was able to get just by squatting and sitting on my heels. This greatly reduces fatigue when I am out hiking all day and stopping numerous times to get down on the ground and back up again.
I brought a flower and leaf into the house to try some artificial light. The focusing distance allowed me to shoot this with a shoe-mounted flash.
Another example of the fine hair detail this lens can produce.
One disappointment was that my favorite Raynox diopter will not fit the lens. This is a very sharp diopter that takes the lens from a 1:1 to roughly, as I understand it, a 2.5:1 or 2.5x magnification.
The last test I ran was for what it might be like using this for product photography. The original reason I bought my 100mm macro was for a catalog photography job that had many very small items. I was hoping my bigger Bogen 3051 tripod might fit the tripod ring mount better. It did, but barely. It still made contact with the battery grip and if I were to use this regularly would not keep the battery grip on for fear of damaging it.
The contact point with the grip.
Thinking back to my catalog project I used a small screw as a test subject. This is nearly 1:1 and at F32, the lenses maximum aperture, I could not attain edge to edge sharpness. This is to be expected of any lens but is more pronounced due to the stronger telephoto of the 180.
A way to compensate is to create multiple images as you pass through all the focal points needed for it to be sharp front to back. Then combine the images and mask them leaving the in focus sections only. Adobe Photoshop has an automated image stacking tool to do this for you.
The 17 images needed to make the one sharp image.
I took the lens out for a hike to see how it would be as part of my kit. Above is a scenic I shot with the 180 of the Drumheller Channels.
One of the notable aspects of this lens is its weight. It is considerably heavier than the 100 which is to be expected of a longer lens with more glass in it. But adding it to an already heavy backpack made it a less appealing lens for this use. I also found it slightly awkward to fumble with the small tripod ring. I would probably just remove the ring if I owned it.
Again, the longer focus distance really helped with back and leg fatigue with not having to get on hands and knees to get the shot.
The sharpness of the lens combined with it's bokeh really help the subjects pop.
These beetles are normally not too skittish but it was still nice to stay far enough away it could go about business as usual eating moss rather than acting defensively to a lens that is too close to it.
The pros of this lens are its quality build, very sharp images, and the increased focus distance.
The cons include being heavy, somewhat slow inaccurate focus at macro (I prefer manual anyway), and the silly awkward tripod ring mount. None of which would stop me from owning this awesome lens.
If you would like to use this lens it can be rented at: