Saturday, 7 July 2018

Canon 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6 USM: Today Or Rest of Year

Let's have a look at the Canon 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6 USM. It's a second-generation Canon EOS lens from the early 1990s, optically and mechanically based on the first-gen 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 but housed in a generation two body with an ultrasonic focus motor. A long time ago I owned a 28-70mm and it was pretty good, so I was curious to see what its successor was like. I also wanted to visit one of Britain's few remaining Wimpy restaurants, but the restaurant I picked was closed, so that dream was dashed.

I put the lens on a Canon EOS 50 / Elan II, which isn't period-correct but in a hundred years no-one will remember the fine details. It's the little bastard on the left, here:

On the right a Nikon 28-85mm f/3.5-4.5, which is a few years older than the Canon lens. I'll write about it later. Optically it's the better lens, but it's heavier, bigger, and the autofocus is slow and grindy and noisy.

Alas the Bermondsey / Southwark branch of Wimpy has closed, but a few branches remain.

Wimpy was an American import that came to our shores in 1954, twenty years before McDonalds. In the 1950s it was embraced by young people but pooh-poohed by bowler-hatted businessmen and Hitler-moustache-wearing Alf Garnett-types because it was a sign of encroaching Americanism which was a bad thing.

The original American Wimpy died off in the 1970s, but its international spin-offs survive to this day in the UK and South Africa. The UK version clings on by its fingertips while the South African version is apparently very popular over there. Perhaps, one day, when Africa becomes an economic powerhouse, Wimpy will spread out from that continent to rise again.

I learn from the internet that until 1971 many British restaurants, Wimpy included, refused to serve unaccompanied women after midnight on the assumption that they must be up to something. I'm guessing that on a practical level Wimpy didn't want specifically female prostitutes giving out handjobs in the toilets, although they obviously didn't have a problem with men doing the same. There were a bunch of midnight sit-ins by feminist protesters and so the policy was repealed.

Do prostitutes give out handjobs in the toilets at Wimpy nowadays? I have to say that as a virile, hetereosexual man, I've never once had a twinge of sexual arousal in a restaurant toilet. It's one of the least sexy environments imaginable. I have never associated damp toilet rolls and the smell of pee with pelvic sorcery. I just wanted to share that with you, dear reader. Toilets don't get me in the mood. Slaughterhouses, operating theatres, bicycle shops, that's another matter. But not toilets.

McDonalds didn't really become ubiquitous in Britain until the 1980s, by which time Wimpy's combination of proper cutlery and tomato-shaped plastic tomato sauce bottles was naff in comparison. A cheap British attempt to evoke American glamour. Nowadays Wimpy is remembered, if it is remembered at all, as a sad joke. Its decline was compounded by the fact that, as it retreated, the remaining restaurants were left in poor locations, furthering the perception that Wimpy was a low-rent pile of cack.

I'm old enough to have visited Wimpy during its days as a going concern, and I remember that the burgers were actually pretty good. The restaurant existed in a middle ground between McDonalds and something like Wetherspoons or Little Chef - it aspired to be a proper restaurant - and ultimately I suspect it was doomed because it was neither one thing nor the other. Not fast or cheap enough for fast food, and unlike Wetherspoons it didn't have cheap beer. I doubt that anybody under the age of thirty remembers it.

I'm going to stop talking about Wimpy now. The Canon 28-80mm is essentially a 28-70mm with gen two EOS cosmetics, plus 10mm on the long end and an ultrasonic focus motor, which was a big thing in the early 1990s. My 28-80mm is a quarter of a century old, but the autofocus motor is still quiet and fast. It focuses with a muted swushtt noise and if it misses - which it never does - it has an always-on manual focus ring.

The 28-80mm was launched at a time when Canon was winning the camera wars. The early Nikon AF lenses were buzzy and slow, driven by a motor inside the camera body, and there was nothing in Nikon's range to match the ultrafast Canon 50mm f/1.0L.

Since then Nikon's autofocus technology has caught up - they introduced their version of USM in 1996, and gradually shifted to in-lens motors through the 1990s and early 2000s - but even today there are no ultrafast Nikon autofocus lenses because the F-mount is just too small.

The 28-80mm's mechanical design is similar to the 28-70mm, in that the inner tube pulls back into the body as you zoom past 50mm:

At 28mm and 80mm it's flush with the front of the lens, moreso at 28mm. This means that using a polarising filter or even putting the lens cap back on is awkward, and you can rule out using a filter mount. The inner tube also rotates when it focuses. The back of the lens has a glass element over the end that hopefully keeps out dust:

It would have been ace if Canon had put a glass element on the front of the lens as well, perhaps with a filter thread, but we can't fix the past. We can't even fix the present. It's all broken. The best we can hope for is to survive, and even that is mostly out of our hands.

The lens was launched in 1991, alongside the EOS 100/Elan. It was sold as part of a kit with the camera. Popular Photography's July 1992 issue has a review, which reveals that it sold separately for $425:

If you scroll up a few pages there's a review of the EOS 100 / Elan as well. Note how they completely dismantle the camera and subject it to a battery of tests. For a few years traditional print magazines believed that quality would help them survive against an onslaught of poor-quality websites, but in practice the mass market isn't willing to pay a premium for quality - some people are willing, but most aren't - and furthermore magazines went downmarket until they didn't even have quality on their side. Pop Photo itself folded in March 2017, but thanks to Google Books some of its issues live on, which is handy if you want to learn about the 1990s, because the decade is too recent to have been mythologised but is old enough that the modern internet has very little about it.

Back to the 28-80mm. Nowadays it's obscure and doesn't turn up very often on the used market. In 1992 Canon launched the 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5, which generally overshadowed the 28-80mm, and a year after that the company launched the value-engineered 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6 USM II, which had a plastic lens mount and was apparently not as good optically.

The 28-80mm USM II was followed by a bewildering range of plastic-bodied 28-80mm, 35-70mm, 28-90mm, and 28-105mm lenses that were bundled with Canon film SLRs until Canon stopped making film SLRs in the early-mid 2000s. One day these lenses will be rare, because no-one ever cared about them. Over in Nikon-land a very similar process took place, culminating in the ultra-cheap but surprisingly good 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6 G which I will have to write about some day.

What's the 28-80mm like optically? Lots of barrel distortion at 28mm:

Lots of vignetting as well, here mounted on a Canon 5D MkII:

Incidentally the film shots were taken with Agfa Vista 200, for a long time the standard pound shop film although sadly discontinued. The colours are vivid and slightly unreal, viz the cover of Pink Floyd's Animals. In comparison the above shot taken with a 5D looks flat and dull and purple, which is good in one way - it's always better to start with flat and dull, because you can jazz it up with Photoshop, whereas it's hard to un-jazz vivid and unreal - but disappointing if you want vivid and unreal straight from the camera.

At 28mm in the middle the lens is just fine wide open and improves slightly at f/8 and f/11, bearing in mind that these are 100% crops from a 21mp image with no sharpening or CA correction, and that we're looking through a couple of hundred feet of warm air:

The extreme corner is gnarly wide open in a way that would be hard to salvage with Photoshop, still pretty poor but salvageable at f/8, slightly better at f/11:

At 80mm it's more consistent across the frame. In the centre it is, again, decent wide open - more decent than at 28mm - but stopping down to f/8 makes it pretty good. At f/11 the image is slightly softer - diffraction, bad air, wonky tripod, slightly off focusing? Who knows:

In the extreme corner it's good wide open, pretty sharp at f/8, slightly softer at f/11:

For the curious among you the Nikon 28-85mm is basically the opposite, better at 28mm than 80mm.

Does the 28-80mm make any sense nowadays? In its favour central sharpness is good at all focal lengths, and stopped down to f/8 or f/11 it's consistently decent across the frame; it's also small, very light (330g, essentially the same as a can of Coke but with a bit chopped off the top) and the ultrasonic focus motor is just as good as it was in 1991. If you already have a bag of prime lenses but have a hankering for an ordinary standard zoom it takes up very little space in a camera bag. If you're a retro enthusiast it pairs well with an EOS 100 / Elan albeit that no-one nowadays is very enthusiastic about 1990s film SLRs. On an APS-C camera it's a slow 45-130mm, so no to that.

On the other hand if you already have something like a Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8, as I do, it's basically a curiosity. The Tamron lens is faster and sharper, perhaps not as well-built, more expensive but still cheap in objective terms. The 28-80mm is still overshadowed by the 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5, which isn't much more expensive on the used market. You also have to ask yourself if you'd be better off with a 40mm f/2.8 and walking back and forth a bit.

Also, walking back and forth a bit would make you fitter. Not that I'm suggesting you're fat, but let's face it, you could do with some exercise.