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Canon EF 180mm f/3.5 L USM Field Review

The Canon 180 macro is the finest macro lens in the Canon lineup. I had the Sigma 180, and some months ago I replaced it with the Canon. Does the Canon lens delivers better performance? Read the review to see how this lens performs and how it compares with the cheaper Sigma 180 Macro.

Lens Specifications

 Focal length 180 mm
 Lens construction 12 elements in 12 groups
 Number of Diaphragm Blades 8 blades
 Angle of view 13.71º (on 35mm camera); 9.55º (on APS-camera )
 Max. Magnification 1x (1:1)
 Maximum Aperture f/3.5
 Minimum Aperture f/32
 Image stabilization No
 Autofocus Inner ultrasonic motor (ring-type USM)
 Full Time Manual Focus Yes
 Closest Focusing Distance 0.48 meters
 Filter size 72 mm
 Dimensions (Diameter x Length) 82 x 186 mm
 Weight 1090 g (910 g without the tripod ring)
 Weather sealing No
 Price $ 1270 (or $ 900 for the Sigma 180)
 Announced 1996
 Accessories Canon Dust Cap E, front cap, lens hood (ET-78), lens case (LZ1324), Canon Tripod Mount Ring B (black)


The Canon 180 Macro is well built, it feels even more robust than Sigma 180 and Nikkor 200 Macro. It has a better paiting than its Sigma equivalent - the Canon lens has a nice black finish, that does not scratch as easily as the Sigma's finish. My only real complaint is the lack of weather sealing (but even the Sigma and the Nikon don't have weather sealing). I'd have been happy to have weather sealing; nevertheless, I always use this lens outdoor, even in harsh environmental conditions, and I have not had any problem.  
It is a relatively relatively large lens, as the other 180 macro lenses (it is quite bigger than the Sigma 150 Macro) and it weights about 1kg. With the lens hood in place, it is nearly 24 centimeters long, but thanks to the minimum focussing distance of 48 centimeters it still has a much better working distance than shorter lenses.  
The focus ring is very large an it is designed for a very precise focusing. You can view the reproduction ration and current focusing distance, in meters and feet, through the transparent window placed near the front end of the lens.  
On the left side of the lens there are two switches. The first is the Focus Limiter switch; you can choose between 0.48-infinity and 1.5 mt-infinity. This switch allows reduce the focus range and it gives a faster AF, when it is set on 1.5-infinity. The second switch let you select AF or MF. The AF is performed by a ultrasonic motor, that offers it has full time manual focus, so you can manually override the autofocus in every moment without changing the position of the switch and without any risk to damage the lens.  
The autofocus is slow, but it is not a surprise: all macro lenses have a slow autofocus, because the AF has to search the focus between a very wide range of distances (from 0.48m to infinity). You can get a faster AF using the Focus Limiter, that reduces the AF range, or pre-focusing manually (thanks to Full Time Manual Focus you can switch from AF to MF in every moment). Another way to get better AF is by using the center AF sensor, that is the most sensitive AF point. That said, slow AF is not a problem, since I almost always use manual focus for my macro photos.  
The lens is supplied with a sturdy, well balanced tripod collar and with a large lens case. The tripod collar is one of the things that make me love long macro lenses; when the lens is mounted on the tripod, it allows to switch from horizontal framing to vertical without moving the tripod head (you just have to loosen the knob and to rotate the camera).  
The 180mm has a closest focusing distance of 0.48m; in other words, you need to stay at 48cm from the subject to achieve the maximum reproduction ratio of 1:1. It is far more than the 30cm of the 105 macro or the 18cm of the 50 macro, and it allows to take photos of shy subjects; if you need even more focal lenght, you can add teleconverters to get a 250mm f/5.0 (with 1.4x) or a 360mm f/7.1 (with 2x). It is compatible with Canon II series TC, and it maintans a good quality even with the 2x.

Similar Lenses (for Canon EOS)

There are mainly three alternatives to the Canon 180 Macro: the Sigma and Tamron's 180, and the Sigma 150.  
The Tamron SP 180mm f/3.5 Di LD Macro has internal focus, but it doesn't have ultrasonic AF motor and it has not full time manual focus - since the image quality is on par with the other macro lenses, I prefer the Sigma, that has the USM motor and it has about the same price.  
The awesome Sigma 180mm f3.5 EX APO Macro HSM DG has been my workhorse for more than two years; I have sold it for the Canon, but honeslty I regret the switch: the image quality is the same; the built quality is similar (the canon feels a little more solid and it has a better finish, but neither Canon and Sigma are weather sealed). The only real advantage of the Canon is the possibility of using Canon TCs, while the Sigma 180 Macro can use only Sigma teleconverters. Unless you already have Canon TCs that you want to use on your macro lens, I'd recommed the Sigma - same quality at half the price.  
Sigma has also another long macro lens, the Sigma 150mm f2.8 EX APO Macro HSM DG. This lens is quite similar to the 180 f/3.5, but I prefer the 180: in my opinion, the 30mm of difference are more important than the difference between f/2.8 and f/3.5 in a macro lens (insects and other macro subjects are not easy to approach and you need as much focal length as possible, while you won't use often wide apertures as f/2.8 or f/3.5).

Image Quality

Remember that you can easily adjust color, distortion, chromatic aberration and vignetting with Photoshop; even though I list every aspect of image quality I don't consider these aspects very important as the other three that can not be corrected with Photoshop (sharpness, contrast and flare). You can enhance a little sharpness and contrast with PS, but the results are not as good as a photo taken with a lens that is sharp and contrasted.  
The image samples has been taken in RAW format and converted with Photoshop CS3; I processed each photo to optimize the image quality (contrast, color, sharpness), and I saved them as high-quality JPEG for web display. You can download both the processed JPEG and the original, untouched RAW files. Click on the image to download the full size JPEG sample, or use the RAW link to download the untouched RAW (large file!). Please respect the copyright! This image can be printed only to evaluate the quality of the camera, for personal purposes. All other usages are prohibited.

Fish Fossil - 180 Macro, ISO 50, 0.8" f/7.1 JPEG / RAW - a very detailed photo of a small subject, the RR was close to 1:1. Note that the processed photo has been created merging two RAW files, to get the entire subject in sharp focus - I have used f/7.1 to get the best image quality, but at this aperture the depth of field is very shallow.

 Sharpness the sharpness is pretty good from corner to corner, even though honestly I expeted a little more - it is not better than the Sigma 180. It is fully usable from f/3.5 to f/16.
 Contrast the contrast is very good.
 Color nothing to nit; the colors are perfect, without any lens-introduced color cast.
 Flare so far I have never had problems of flare with this lens (neither with other macro lenses - usually I take my macro photos in soft light so flare is not a problem).
 Distortion as you can expect from a prime, tele lens, there is not any visible distortion.
 Chromatic aberration overall it is well controlled, but at the hightest magnification you can see some CA.
 Vignetting there is just a slight vignetting at f/3.5, and it disappears from f/5.6. Vignetting is not a problem with this lens.

Overall, I think that the image quality is very good, but I would have liked to see a little more sharpness - don't misunderstand my words, this is a pretty sharp lens, what I say is that I expected even better, considering the price.

In-depth look: sharpness and aperture

Since the sharpness is the first thing that I look for in a macro lens, I have done in-depth sharpness tests. The image quality between f/3.5 and f/11 is about the same (it reaches the truly best at f/7.1), while f/22 is clearly softer. There is almost no difference in terms of sharpness between the center and the corners. The sharpness is still quite good up to f/16, while I'd try to avoid f/22 or smaller apertures unless I really need them, because diffraction really reduces the detail and contrast after f/16. The following 100% crops show the image quality at various apertures.

 f/3.5 f/10

 f/16 f/22


In-depth look: Canon 180mm f/3.5 Macro L vs Sigma 180mm f/3.5 Macro EX DG

The Sigma 180 Macro is much less expensive than the Canon 180: the higher price of the Canon is justified by a better image quality?  
I have tested the two lenses side by side on my 1DsIII, 21 megapixel fullframe (a big thanks to my friend Daniela Pipitone - www.fotografainerba.com - that loaned me the Sigma 180 DG). I tested the lenses at various aperture; the following images are 100% crops from the raw file, without any post processing other than the conversion to JPEG. The full test target is shown on below - the red square is the area that you see in the 100% crops!

Even at this extreme magnification, the difference is...inexistent! The image quality is absolutely indistinguishable at every aperture. Sharpness, contrast, absence of chromatic aberration - they are exactly the same!

  Canon 180 Macro Sigma 180 Macro


Other Reviews

- Canon EF 180 Macro L USM review by The-Digital-Picture (Bryan Carnathan) 
- Canon EF 180 Macro L USM user reviews on Fred Miranda Forum 
- Canon EF 180 Macro L USM review by Photozone (Klaus Schroiff)


The Canon 180 macro offers excellent sharpness, good built quality (but no weather sealing), and enough focal length to get a good working distance and a pleasing background blur. It has slow autofocus and no image stabilization, but these are not big problems in a macro. The only real problem of this lens is that is it not any better than the much cheaper Sigma 180; I've made the switch because I was convinced by canon fanboys that the Canon 180 is even shaper, but I regret the switch - they are the same, as you can see from my side-by-side comparison! If you still have doubts, rent both lenses for a couple of days and make your comparison, in studio or in the field. In conclusion, I not recommend the Canon 180; it is a fine lens, but you can get the same from the Sigma 180.

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