This is Part One of the rolling review of the 100mm macro lenses for Canon EF mount.
I am not much of a macro shooter, yet I have managed to 'accumulate' 4 dedicated macro lenses for Canon mount. This happened over time - I purchased a Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro long long time ago and kept it since it was a really good performer. Then I stumbled on Voigtlander APO Lanthar 125mm f/2.5 Macro in Canon mount. Back then Cosina already discontinued its SL lenses, but they were widely available, including Macro Lanthars. Price? A whopping $800 - back then I thought I was doing a mistake buying this lens for such a price, after all, Canon EF 100/2.8 cost only $450. Three years later, Macro Lanthar sells for $2,500, while Canon still costs ~$450. In hindsight, I should have bought the whole pallet of Macro Lanthars back then - this would have had a better return than my 401K over the same period. After Lanthar I purchased Leica APO Macro Elmarit 100mm f/2.8 along with the Leica R7, just to remember the old good days of the R system. R7 was gone in a week, but I kept Macro Elmarit. Finally, when Carl Zeiss released the Makro Planar 100mm f/2, I absolutely had to have it. And so lo and behold, I now have 4 macro lenses. I never really planned to keep all four, but always wanted to do a shootout. The first 100mm macro comparison went online about two years ago, but I always felt it was incomplete and so kept all lenses for that day when I get enough time to compare them more extensively side by side. This day is now...
PS. Some of you may say 'Wheeeel... Four lenses is great, but you're missing a few nice ones' That's true. Among the lenses I would have loved to have for this test are Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM, Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 and Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM. Ohh well, maybe another day.
Here is what we gonna do in this comparison. We are going to start with basic overview of the lenses - build, capabilities, pricing etc. Really basic stuff. Then we will do a standard MTF test with Imatest at one focusing distance (10m) - this would give us all the usual MTF50, lateral CA and vignetting information. Then we are going to take it to streets so to speak and check out how the lenses perform at infinity - subjective resolution-wise that is. The fun start after this step - we will do a whole bunch of additional testing in this step, specifically macro test, bokeh rendering, color reproduction and some more color fringing tests. Phew, that's a lot of testing... The whole review will be split into several parts
Legend: * - no longer manufactured, prices for used gear on eBay; ** - not including caps
If we were to judge 'the content by the cover' as they say, among the four macros in this review, Canon's is the only one that leaves a ho-hum initial impression. This is unfortunate, since this is the only AF lens in the group and the only lens that has a fixed barrel that does not extend during focusing. On top of that, Canon also offers true 1:1 macro, which is matched only by Voigtlander. Both Zeiss and Leica are 1:2 macros, but Leica offers an optional 1:1 ELPRO adapter, while Zeiss currently does not make one. Canon also bests the other lenses in a couple of other categories - being the lightest (although not by much, I guess the weight savings from plastic construction are lost to the built-in AF motor) and cheapest lens.
While Canon has the cheapest feel to it because of the plastic body, the build quality of the lens is quite good - it can withstand the usual bumps and dings without any problems. It's just that Canon's plastic finish feels cheep and cheesy in comparison to the all metal barrels that the other three macro lenses sport.
The price difference is quite drastic - while prices for Voigtlander and Leica lenses have been steadily climbing over the years, Canon's price did not rise that much. I bought mine in 2003 for $450 and it retails now for $499. Compare that to the price of Voigtander, which went from $800 to ~$2,200 or Leica, which went from ~$900 to ~$1,500. Even Zeiss, which was initially priced at ~$1,600 went through a price increase. This is mind-boggling - does Voigtlander or Zeiss really deliver 4x performance of Canon? Even the newest Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM costs only ~$900, and it's a pretty darn good lens...
On the other hand, if you're into manual focusing, then you would probably hate Canon. The lens, while better than most other AF Canon lenses, does not offer that much precision for manual focusing, giving you only 150 degrees of focusing ring rotation. The champion here is Leica, with a whopping 720 degrees, followed closely by Voigtlander with 680 degrees. Carl Zeiss offers a respectable 360 degrees of focusing ring rotation. All four lenses offer slightly larger spacing towards the MFD to improve the precision of focusing.
Leica here is the only non-native mount lens - while it is possible to replace Leica's mount, I chose to use an AF confirm adapter. Not that it will see much use in this test since all runs will be performed with focus-bracketing. On the last note, it is worth to mention that both Voigtlander and Zeiss come with metal lens hoods, while Leica has a popup one. Canon requires you to purchase a separate one, which would set you back ~$50, making Canon, ohh wait, still the cheapest lens...