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Getting up close: Canon EF-M 28mm macro hands-on review

Hands-on review: Canon EF-M 28mm Macro

Getting up close: Canon EF-M 28mm macro hands-on review 1

This is the Canon EF-M 28mm F3.5 Macro IS STM. It is a compact, light weight, close-focusing lens designed exclusively for Canon’s EOS M lineup. It’s image-stabilized and uses a quiet stepping motor mechanism for autofocus. It’s priced at $299.

Hands-on review: Canon EF-M 28mm Macro

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The lens comes with a removable cover for the front

$299 places it below a majority of macro primes for cost. However, the Nikon Micro‑Nikkor 40mm F2.8 does still beat it out in price by around $50, and is 2/3-stop brighter.

All the trump cards held by the Micro-Nikkor fold when other features of the EF-M 28mm Macro are brought in to consideration, though. First, even though it is a wider FOV lens, its nearest focus distance is 3.7″, nearly 3″ closer than the Micro-Nikkor. Even taking the slightly longer field of view of the Micro-Nikkor in to account, the Canon is able to achieve a 1:1.2 reproduction ratio in “Super Macro” mode over the Nikkor’s 1:1.

When working at such diminutive focus distances, there’s an inherent issue that many experienced macro photographers have learned to work around. The camera, lens, and sometimes even photographer start blocking light from the itty bitty subject. To get around this, macro photographers will use specialized lights, typically ring lights mounted to the filter thread. 

Canon has gone the extra mile (inch?) and included a pair of LED lights (hidden under their cover in this shot) mounted on the left and right hand side of the front of the lens, diffused by a clear white ring, eliminating the additional requirement of a macro light kit for those extreme close-ups.

Hands-on review: Canon EF-M 28mm Macro

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3.7″ is quite an extreme working distance, and this means a maximum reproduction ratio of 1.2x in ‘Super Macro’ mode. Image stabilization is included and is effective for shooting in a wide range of scenarios, although for the extreme close-ups it’s better left switched off and replaced with a tripod.

A subject at minimum focus distance illuminated by the two LED’s together receives about 8.9 EV illumination in normal macro and 9.1 EV in super macro mode when measured with an incident light meter. The lights have two levels of brightness, and are switched on via a button on the lens barrel. Both come on with a single press, and a press and hold switches to one light only. Sadly, there’s no ability to have just one LED on at full brightness and the other dimmed. They’re either both on at the same power level, or illuminated independently.

The lightweight construction and STM focus motor also help this lens focus reasonably quickly, especially when compared to the painfully slow-focusing macro lenses of yore. It isn’t as fast as some of the quickest we’ve seen, but does very well, especially considering how close its MFD is.

Hands-on review: Canon EF-M 28mm Macro

Getting up close: Canon EF-M 28mm macro hands-on review 4

By itself, this lens weighs 130 grams, making it so light Canon boasts about the 28mm F3.5 being the ‘world’s lightest autofocus macro lens for an ILC system.’ When mounted to the EOS M3 the total weight is a featherweight 492 grams, exemplifying the lightness and convenience benefit of mirrorless systems compared to DSLRs. By comparison, a Nikon D5500 body weighs 420 grams. Add another 235 grams for the 40mm Micro lens, then another 200+ for an LED macro light kit, and the total comes out to 855 grams, or nearly double the weight of the Canon kit.

This diminutive size means weight can also be saved when making a tripod selection, as long as it is sturdy enough for work that is incredibly sensitive to vibrations.

Less weight means less fatigue and more reasons to bring the camera on location.

It resolves well…

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This graph shows the maximum resolution (as a percent of Nyquist) attained by our copy of the lens at various apertures. It uses MTF-10 criteria, which is a measure of the finest detail that can be resolved with at least 10% contrast. If that sounds complicated, just keep in mind this figure is well correlated to total resolution, though isn’t as great a representation of perceived sharpness, which correlates more with MTF-50 measurements (more on that on the next slide).

Our results here show that center resolution peaks at 80% the linear resolution that can be theoretically attained, at F5.6 – a decent result. If this were resolved across the frame, you’d get about a 16MP image from this 24MP sensor. Of course it’s not, but corners aren’t too far behind, at 67% by F6.3. Not bad when you consider the higher resolving power demands placed on the lens by the smaller APS-C sensor… but what about perceived sharpness?

… and is fairly sharp

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The MTF-50 result – better correlated with perceived sharpness – tells a slightly different story, indicating only around 875 line pairs per picture height resolved, which translates to ~4.6MP, or 19% of the total sensor resolution. It’s not a terrible result, but does indicate that while the lens resolves a lot of detail, it doesn’t quite maintain as much contrast as a higher performing lens might. This is no surprise, given the lens’ size, weight, and price.

While performance isn’t state of the art in terms of macro lenses (the Sony FE 90mm F2.8 deserves a shout out here), it does a good job throughout the aperture range, with good field uniformity, and fair ability to resolve fine detail, particularly when you factor in the disadvantages of the smaller APS-C sensor (which places high demands on lens’ resolving power). It doesn’t have L-series levels of contrast and perceived sharpness – but we wouldn’t expect it to.

See our gallery for a set of infinity shots to see how this tiny macro resolves real-world detail on a flat plane.

How well does it work with EOS M3?

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The EOS M3’s articulating touch screen is great for close-up work when using this lens. It takes a lot of strain out of working low when one doesn’t need to peer through a viewfinder or crouch low to see the screen. Magnifying the image for focus checking also works brilliantly on the M3. There’s no pixel binning or frame rate drops in 100% magnification mode, which helps the touch-enabled panning function to operate quickly and smoothly, helping ensure the narrow focus plane is placed exactly where you want it.

It’s creative

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Even club soda can make an interesting photo when shooting this close

Or rather, it can be used creatively. 1.2x magnification means that objects are 1.2 times their actual size on the sensor plane. This means objects, details or textures can completely fill the frame, creating wonderful abstract shots that aren’t usually possible without a fair bit of kit. Combine this ability with a set up that is easily carried around and opportunities for interesting shots begin to pop up everywhere, as it offers a whole new view on the seemingly mundane.

It isn’t perfect…

Getting up close: Canon EF-M 28mm macro hands-on review 9
This image was taken with just the built-in LED lights for illumination, and was cropped and brightened in post.

Well, for $300, expecting absolute perfection is unrealistic, especially in the photo world. 

First, it isn’t the sharpest lens out there. It’s pretty good, but in the macro world there are better options. That said, none of them have those lovely lights and will probably cost more.

The lights and image stabilization aren’t powerful enough to make this a hand-holdable macro, so don’t make the mistake of expecting that. The handheld spider shot above illustrates the pitfalls of lighting exclusively with the on board LEDs.  

First, the light cast by the LEDs isn’t particularly intense. It’s bright enough to light subjects at minimum focus distance outdoors, but only when its overcast. Any direct sunlight will overpower the light and will make the lens’ shadow very obvious. By itself, the light needs to be combined with a tripod, and should be thought of as a way to avoid the complications of a ring light system (batteries, cables, etc) instead of an all-purpose fill light.

Second, because the field of view is on the wider side, you’ll have to get really close, which means depth of field will be incredibly shallow. The LED lights aren’t bright enough to allow for stopping down for deep depth of field while shooting handheld in dim ambient light. 

…but is still very usable

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Using a narrow aperture can achieve deep depth of field when close focusing, but diffraction will decrease sharpness, as can be seen in this shot at F18.

It is important to remember that shallow depth of field is a challenge with all macro lenses. One way to get around that issue is by focus stacking. There are many software solutions to focus stacking, and Olympus has even gone as far as to include it as an automatic function in some of its cameras. One can only hope Canon does eventually as well.

The only other gripe is with the lights and their configuration. It would be nice to be able to rotate the lights 90 degrees for a sort of “clamshell” lighting instead of being stuck with the “copystand” lighting constantly, or to be able to have them configured either way regardless of wether the camera is being used in portrait or landscape orientation. 

As a standard lens, it performs fine in normal working distances, but vignetting is strong wide-open, making the EF-M 22 F2 a better general use prime lens if you don’t need the macro performance. 

Hands-on review: Canon EF-M 28mm Macro

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This image used a combination of the built-in lights and a back lit semi-transparent surface

For beginners looking to shoot macro, the EF-M 28mm F3.5 Macro is a great place to start. Its close focus abilities mean it has a wide range of macro use cases, and the built-in LEDs mean one doesn’t have to budget for a set of lights when just getting started. It’s a great starting point for learning the challenges and pitfalls of macro photography, and will produce great results when applying those lessons.

Click here to see our Canon EF-M 28mm F3.5 Macro Sample Gallery


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