Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens Review

Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens
Note: The Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens has been replaced by the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II Lens.
In-Depth Review

Canon has maintained the position that image stabilization functions best when installed in the lens. According to Canon, "The advantages of IS in the lens are, first, that each IS system can be designed and optimized for its specific application, yielding a level of performance unattainable by the in-body, shifting sensor technique. Second, one can see the image stabilization effect in the finder. The image is steady; accurate framing is possible; the AF point can be placed precisely, and the photographer can concentrate on the shot and capture the best moment. Panning is also easier and more effective than with the in-body approach." With that understanding along with the popularity of IS, it is not surprising that Canon introduced an image stabilized version of the value-priced Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 II Lens currently included in many Canon DSLR kits.

What was less apparent from the announcement was that the 18-55 IS would bring us an upgrade in optical performance as well. Before reading any farther, you need to be aware that all Canon EOS cameras can accept EF lenses but only Canon EF-S compatible bodies (1.6x FOVCF only) can accept EF-S lenses.

18-55 IS compared to the non-IS version

Overall, these two lenses (Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 II Lens left, 18-55 IS right) are similar physically. The most obvious physical difference between the lenses is the new grip pattern on the zoom ring (above right). This change gives the lens a nicer, higher quality feel. The 18-55 IS is slightly longer and has Canon's newer recessed-style switches for AF/MF and IS On/Off.

Of course, changing the zoom ring grip does not give this lens a high build quality. The lens is still Canon's low end plastic construction including the lens mount. The zoom ring makes a not-loud scratching/brushing noise inside the lens as it is rotated.

Manual focusing with the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens is difficult at best. With no dedicated focus ring, this lens uses the extending portion of the inner barrel as its manual focus ring (see the thin ribbed ring at the end of the lens?). Since the inner barrel has a lot of play in it, the viewfinder image moves noticeably during MF unless you use a light and precise touch.

The 58mm filter-thread-size front element rotates and extends during focusing - You should avoiding contact with it during autofocus. There is no focus distance window and no distance markings are provided. FTM (Full Time Manual) focusing is not available - manual focusing should only be done with the AF/MF switch in the MF position. The lens is not parfocal - changing the focal length requires re-focusing.

While the 18-55 IS does not employ Canon's best USM autofocus system, the one used is not bad. The noise is low and the speed is decent. I have found it to autofocus consistently accurate. Of course, DOF (Depth of Field) is generally deep with this slow (narrow max aperture) lens - making AF precision less critical/noticeable.

18-55 IS Mounted on a Canon EOS Rebel XSi / 450D

The 18-55 IS' aperture starts at a reasonably wide maximum of f/3.5 at 18mm, goes to f/4 at 24mm, to f/5 at 39mm and to a slow (narrow) max aperture opening of f/5.6 at 47mm. These numbers are within 1 or 2mm of the 18-55 II's max aperture values. If shooting wide open at 18mm (f/3.5), your exposure is going to change as you zoom to a higher focal length. The changing max aperture complicates Manual exposure mode if using wide open apertures.

Since the aperture remains at its max opening until the shot is taken, a small max opening (such as f/5.6) means lower performance AF and a dark viewfinder - and a grainy-appearing Live View preview image (if your DSLR has this feature). These apertures are generally not good for indoor/low light shooting, but IS will help dramatically if the subject is motionless (more coming on this).

A shallow DOF with a blurred foreground/background is more difficult to produce with a slow lens than with a faster lens of the same focal length. The upside is that the 18-55 IS uses a new circular aperture that delivers a better quality OOF (Out of Focus) blur - a bit better than the 18-55 II.

I've always been a big fan of image stabilization - the big feature upgrade this lens has over the 18-55 II. The 18-55 IS utilizes a new, smaller IS design based on the IS mechanism used in the PowerShot SD700 IS Digital ELPH. This new design features automatic panning detection (formerly mode 2) and is tripod sensing. While most IS lenses makes a humming sound of some level, this one is silent. If you put your ear against the lens, you might hear some faint clicking sounds, but you need to make an effort to hear them.

Canon is claiming 4-stops of camera shake correction. My personal experience shows a solid 3 stops of correction at 18mm and 3 stops or a little better at 55mm. I am basing my numbers on comparison testing using an identical shooting stance and situation (apples-to-apples). I am getting sharp images at or longer than 1/4 sec at 18mm and 1/6 sec at 55mm using a not-especially-stable standing position. Of course, if your subject is moving, you must be able to pan with them or your results will be blurred at these shutter speeds.

Perhaps the best part of the new IS design is that this entire lens costs less than the IS upgrade costs on Canon's current lenses where this feature is optional (70-200mm L lenses). This is the least expensive Canon EF or EF-S lens ever offered with image stabilization.

An upside to the 18-55 IS' low build quality is the very light weight. At only 7 oz (200g), you barely know it is there. It is also a small - measuring 2.7" x 2.7" (68mm x 70mm) (lxd). Here the 18-55 IS is compared to the non-IS 18-55 and two other popular general purpose lenses ...

Canon EF-S Zoom Lens Comparison

Pictured fully retracted above from left to right are the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 II Lens, Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens, Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens and Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM Lens. Notice the focal length setting of the two 18-55mm lenses. These lenses are fully retracted in the middle of their available focal length range.

The 18-55 IS' minimum focusing distance is 9.8" (25 cm) - slightly shorter than the 18-55 II's 11" (28 cm) spec. This distance delivers a nice MM (Maximum Magnification) of 0.34x at 55mm. Adding a Canon closeup lens is not tremendously helpful as the 250D changes the MM range to .22x-.49x and the 500D changes MM to .04x-.42x. This lens is not compatible with Canon Extenders.

For the money, the 18-55 IS performs well optically. From 18mm through 35mm or so, center sharpness is reasonable wide open and reaches its optimal sharpness at f/5.6. Corners in this focal length range are relatively sharp. Wide open center-of-the-lens performance remains similar throughout the focal length range until the long end where this lens becomes soft. At 55mm, even f/8 is not as sharp as I'd like to see.

Color is good but contrast could be a little better (this is most noticeable when comparing with the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM Lens). CA is somewhat strong toward the corners but flare is well controlled. Vignetting is not severe, but noticeable on the wide end.

Expect barrel distortion at the wide end and some pincushion distortion at the long end. You can see this distortion shift by rolling through the focal lengths in the ISO 12233 Chart tool. Watch the subject size change in the top-most image in these identically framed shots.

Canon EF-S Zoom Lens Comparison - Fully Extended With Hoods

The three lenses compared above are from left to right, the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM Lens, Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens and Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens. All lenses are shown extended to their maximum lengths with their optional lens hoods attached.

The EF-S 18-55mm IS accepts the same, rather small, round Canon EW-60C lens hood as its non-IS counterpart. Even with the hood installed, the Canon EOS 40D's onboard flash is shaded only a tiny amount at 18mm. Attaching/removing this lens hood is not especially easy since the bayonet mount requires a twisting action to seat it into place or remove it. This twisting causes the focus ring to turn - which drives the gearing inside the lens if in AF mode. You need to get a grip on the inner barrel (preferred) or turn the focus ring until it reaches the end of its travel before twisting the lens hood to its desired position.

Also not included with the 18-55 IS is a lens case or pouch. The Canon LP814 is the Canon-recommended soft pouch. The Lowepro Lens Case 1S will give you a more protective storage solution (with no lens hood attached).

One more thing not included on the 18-55 IS is a Canon date code. Not a big deal - just don't spend any time looking for one.

Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens Product Images

MFD |    MFD |    w/ Hood:  MFD |    MFD |    Rotated        Compare >

The 18-55 IS's focal length range falls into my general purpose lens category. This range works well for a wide variety of subjects from landscapes to people (though tightly cropped head shots will start showing perspective distortion - including big noses). In this range, there are many other options available - I directly comparison tested the 18-55 IS to three similar-focal-length-range Canon lenses.

The Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 II Lens, currently available only in a DSLR kit - or used - is the least expensive of these 4 lenses. It has the same focal length range and is similar physically - but lacks IS. Optically, it is not as sharp as the 18-55 IS. This difference is noticeable wide open - especially in the corners. The differences become less noticeable at and beyond f/8, but the difference is still there. The non-IS 18-55 is slightly more resistant to flare than the IS - which is still good in this regard. CA is similar in the two lenses. The non-IS has a little less vignetting at 18mm but slightly more at 24mm and 35mm. While the 18-55 non-IS is a decent value, the 18-55 IS is better optically and is a much more versatile lens - It is definitely worth the extra cost in my opinion.

The Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens is a larger, heavier and more expensive lens. It features a wider focal length range, better build quality and USM-driven AF. Through 35mm, these two lenses are more similarly sharp than they are different - each has slight wins at various focal lengths and positions within the frame. At 55mm, the 17-85 is the sharper lens. And of course, the 18-55 IS does not have 17mm or 56mm through 85mm. The 17-85 has slightly more vignetting at 17mm (in far corners), but slightly less at other comparable focal lengths. The 17-85 is more prone to flare. I like the 18-55 IS bokeh (OOF background/foreground blur quality) slightly better - but the 17-85 can create a stronger blur at 85mm. If these two lenses cost the same amount, I'd definitely recommend the 17-85. But they don't - and this makes the decision more difficult. The 18-55 IS is a better value - more lens for the money - but the 17-85 IS is a better lens - especially if the longer focal lengths are important to you.

The Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM Lens is the easy winner of this comparison. The 17-55 is sharper at f/2.8 than the 18-55 IS wide open though the 18-55 IS has a slight edge wide open at 18mm in some of my comparison shots. Matching aperture settings (as much as 2 stops at 55mm) makes the 17-55 IS look even better. The 17-55 delivers far less CA in its results - If you have strong contrasting colors in your shot, the 17-55 will produce a much better image. The 17-55 delivers better contrast. Flare is the 17-55's weakness - the 18-55 IS performs much better in this regard. If you are shooting with the sun in the frame, the 18-55 IS results will actually be more pleasing. The 17-55 has less barrel distortion at the wide end. The difference in shading between these two lenses wide open is not great, but the 17-55 is the easy winner when stopped down to the 18-55's wide open apertures.

The 17-55 has USM autofocus and a better build quality. The 17-55 is larger and heavier, but the constant wide f/2.8 aperture makes this a much better low light lens. The f/2.8 aperture allows higher precision focusing and a brighter viewfinder. Of course, the big downside to the 17-55 is the higher cost. If this is the focal length range you need/want and you can afford the price, the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM Lens is the lens to get - your results will have a significantly higher quality to them.

The default image below is a 100% crop from the 18-55 IS. Use the mouseover feature on the following list of lenses to display the 100% crop from that particular lens. Mousing over the image itself will show the 18-55mm II crop.

Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 II Lens
Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens
Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM Lens f/2.8
Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM Lens

18-55 IS 100% Crop Comparison

What you need to know about this comparison ... The Canon EOS 40D's center focus point was placed on the vehicle grill. There was a 250-pixel-wide swath removed from the image as indicated by the white line. This allows a foreground object and some background to be present in the image to confirm focus accuracy. All lenses were set to 55mm - but my guess was off slightly on the not-marked-at-55mm 17-85 which is shown at 59mm (sorry). The 17-55 IS crop is available at both f/2.8 and f/5.6 while a wide open f/5.6 aperture was used for the other three lenses.

Images were shot as RAW and processed with the Neutral Picture Style (0 Contrast) and sharpening = 1 (very low - 2 would look noticeably sharper). Images were converted in DPP to 16-bit TIFF files, cropped in Photoshop and saved as 80 quality JPG files. The lighting was harsh mid-day sunlight on a clear day. A tripod was used - the shutter speed was 1/500 at f/5.6.

What you see is the weakest focal length for the 18-55 IS. While it is better than the 18-55 II, it is clearly not as good as the more expensive lenses at this focal length.

Here is a similar comparison - This one at 18mm, f/5.6. The 17-55 IS was shot at 17mm - and somehow I set the 17-85 to 20mm this time (still useful for comparison). Mousing over the image itself will show the 17-55mm IS crop this time. The difference in CA is clear.

EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 II Lens
EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens
EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM Lens

Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens 100% Crop Comparison

This 100% crop sample is located about 25% into the frame from the top left corner. Sharpness-wise, the 18-55 II holds up especially well to the 18-55 IS in this crop - most comparisons are not as kind to the 18-55 II. It is usually the more-clear loser in terms of sharpness though usually similar in CA - which is what I'm primarily intending to show here.

18-55 IS Mounted on Canon EOS 5D - Comparison

Use the mouseover links above to compare the 18-55 IS with the Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens, Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens and Canon EF-S 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Lens mounted on a Canon EOS 50D.

Hover your mouse over the following image to compare the Canon EOS Rebel XTi / 450D with a 18-55 IS attached to the Canon EOS Rebel XTi / 400D with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm II Lens attached.

18-55 IS Top Comparison

If you need a general purpose lens, and the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens reaches the limits of your budget, it is a good choice. I think this lens is going to help sell more Canon DSLR cameras. It is certainly a great upgrade over the 18-55 II for the money. It is a nice addition to Canon's lineup.

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Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens
Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens
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