Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens Review

Dec 10, 2008
Bryan Carnathan


The Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens features an awesome focal length range (one that completely covers the needs of many photographers) and an excellently-performing IS system in a nicely-sized body.

I have to admit, when I saw the initial Canon press release for the 18-200 IS, I was highly skeptical that this lens could produce even reasonable optical quality throughout the focal length (FL) range. Any FL range over 5x (max FL/min FL) raises a warning flag in my mind - you just know that there will be at least some optical deficiencies. And an 11x zoom lens is just begging for optical problems. The lack of a USM AF system raised a second warning flag. Certainly Canon would put their best AF system in a lens they expect to get decent image quality from - even mid-line lenses such as the Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens have Ring USM AF. "You get what you pay for" raised my expectations as this lens is not in the junk-priced category. I always keep an open mind when evaluating gear - and in this case, the Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens, while not perfect, performs better than I expected.

A compact one-lens-does-it-all solution is ideal for many travel needs. The Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens' arrival was timed well with some of my own travel plans - The 18-200 and the also new-at-the-same-time Canon EOS 50D accompanied me to Acadia National Park (Maine, USA) and to New York City. These trips gave me a very good opportunity to put the combination to use in the field along with typical use around home and testing in the studio.

As you might expect, the focal length range is the big attraction for this lens.

 18mm  |  24mm  |  50mm  |  80mm  |  135mm  |  170mm  |  200mm

The focal length labels above correspond to those marked on the lens (the 135mm-labeled shot was actually 140mm according to the EXIF data).

As the focal lengths make large increases relative to the prior setting (2x from 24 to 50mm), the angle of view rapidly narrows - bringing the subject in closer. The relative increase declines at the longer focal lengths - and the rate of change slows. The lens does not physically extend as fast above 135mm and the net change in angle of view from 170 to 200mm is very small.

Too small of a change? Well, my Canon EF 200mm f/2.8 L II USM Lens frames a 47.25" x 31.5" (1200 x 800mm) test target at 424.88" (10792mm) while the Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens frames the same target at 369.88" (9395mm) at the 200mm setting (both lenses mounted on a 50D). The 18-200 is 87 percent as far away when framing this subject size - making its 200mm seem more like 174mm at its longest setting at this moderate distance. Regardless, the EF-S 18-200's focal length range is really nice.

When using short focal length range zoom lenses, the widest and longest focal lengths are often utilized the most. Because of its extreme range, the 18-200 stays away from the ends a much higher percentage of the time (in my use at least). It is really nice to not be focal-length-constrained. Also nice is the Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens' size and weight. It is not as light as the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens, but similar to many other mid-range zooms.

The outside of the Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens is mostly zoom ring. There is a small area to grasp the back of the lens for mounting/dismounting, but 2.2" (55.9mm) of the lens barrel is zoom ring. This design works well in my opinion - it is very easy to find the part of the lens you will use most frequently. The zoom ring turns smoothly and has very little play in it.

Like most zoom lenses and as I mentioned before, the Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens extends with focal length increase. The extending portion of the lens has only a slight amount of play at 18mm, but in the low to mid focal lengths, a moderate amount of play can be felt. By 200mm, the lens is quite solid. Total extension length is 2.4" (61mm).

Canon provides a small zoom-lock switch on the bottom of the lens by the mount. This position is about where your left thumb rests when shooting in landscape orientation. Gravity zooming is an issue with this lens - primarily below 135mm. Plan on needing to hold the zoom ring in place if shooting downward or upward. If you shoot and then chimp (review the shot on the rear LCD) with the lens downward, you will need to either hold the zoom ring in place or readjust before you take the next shot.

The Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens is shown mounted on a Canon EOS 50D above.

Canon's Ring USM AF is really nice - so I was disappointed when I learned that this lens did not have it. However, for a MM (Micro Motor) AF lens, this one is not bad. Speed is reasonable and while audible, this lens is not going to attract much attention when focusing.

FTM (Full Time Manual) focusing is not enabled on the Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens and the focus ring turns during auto focusing. Because the zoom ring is so large and the focus ring is rather small, it is unlikely that this turning will bother you. The manual focus ring is relatively small and reasonably smooth, but has some play in it - especially around 50mm. It is far better than the 18-55 kit lenses with the tiny ring on the extending (wobbly) part of the lens. This lens is not parfocal - you will need to re-focus if the focal length is changed (this complicates the gravity-zoom attribute).

Most importantly, focus accuracy has been very good. Of course, accurate focusing is not especially challenging for a slow (narrow aperture) lens on a 1.6x body.

Judging foreground and background blur quality is not easy - especially with a lens that has the range of focal lengths that this one has. My impression of the 18-200 is that the 6 rounded-blade aperture delivers OK but not great blur quality. I am seeing a slight donut effect in OOF (Out of Focus) specular highlights - these circles are rendered darker in the center and brighter on the border instead of being more evenly toned throughout. Here is a 200mm f/11 example.

Wide open results were better. Stopping down an already slow lens on a 1.6x body makes getting an out of focus background somewhat challenging in the first place. Continuing on the ever-important image quality topic ... At 18mm, CA (Chromatic Aberration) is strong mid-frame and in the corners. CA improves as the focal length is increased until basically gone at 50mm. By 135mm, CA once again begins to show mid-frame and in the corners and continues to be present through 200mm.

Watch the strong barrel distortion in the middle portion of the frame at 18mm. You will want to keep straight lines away from the borders at this focal length; otherwise, you will see a large bump out of the center with lines straightening again near the corners. To see this, look at the green trim on the corner of the building in the example at left.

Flare is well-controlled overall, but shows up stronger at the longer end of the focal length range (where the lens hood is less effective). Color and contrast seem fine. Vignetting is visible in the corners at wide open apertures. It is moderately strong at the long end of the focal length range and at 18mm. Being an "EF-S" lens, the 18-200 IS does not have the larger image circle size that a full-frame compatible "EF" lens has and therefore shows more vignetting on the EF-S compatible bodies it mounts on (all have a 1.6x FOVCF).

The Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens is relatively sharp in the center even wide open. Stopping down to f/5.6 brings nice sharpness to the center of the image through 50mm. Use f/8 from 80mm through 200mm for best center sharpness. Corners are soft wide open and need f/8 for good sharpness over most of the focal length range. Corners are decent at f/5.6 at 18mm and prefer f/11 at 135mm. Sharpness out of this lens definitely exceeded my expectations.

As noted earlier in the review, I used a Canon EOS 50D for testing this lens. Testing a lens with a new camera requires getting to know both at the same time. One of the things I am noticing with the very high density APS-C 50D sensor is that diffraction starts eroding image sharpness by f/8. The Rebel XSi/450D is not far behind with diffraction showing just past f/8. So, what I'm saying, is that stopping down to f/11 delivers less-sharpness with the latest 1.6x cameras (on all lenses). This leaves a narrow range of aperture settings to achieve the best image quality from this lens.

With a narrow range of optimum apertures to use, image stabilization becomes even more valuable because IS allows the lens to be handheld over a much wider range of shutter speeds. And the IS system in the Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens is proving very effective. At 18mm, I am getting a very good percentage of sharp images at .6 sec. and still getting sharp shots with exposures as long as 1 second. At 200mm, I am getting solid results at 1/20 sec. with some even longer exposures resulting in sharp images. Auto-panning is featured (no switch required) - IS operation is barely audible. I'm impressed.

A relatively close 1.48' (450mm) MFD (Minimum Focus Distance) delivers a nice .24x MM (Maximum Magnification) for the 18-200. This is a not a macro lens (in my mind at least), but will accommodate many close-up needs including flower and other similar-sized-item photography.

EF-S 18-200mm IS

If I spend the money, time and effort to go on a photo trip, get up well before the sun rises and hike/drive to the perfect location, I'm going to take higher grade, more-specialized lenses with me. Probably a backpack full of them - and a high quality tripod and head. But not everyone aspires to get these same images - and not all scenarios require this gear.

Some people want to capture all of their memories and experiences (and still have very good quality images) without the burden of carrying a backpack full of lenses (and a tripod). And there are times when carrying a backpack and tripod is not practical or even possible. For these people and these situations, the Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens is a great choice - a great travel lens. Such was the situation with my previously mentioned trip to New York City - business was the primary purpose of the trip. The 50D and 18-200 in a Think Tank Photo Digital Holster 20 went with me everywhere and were not a burden. I came back with some nice images from the trip.

The Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens offers a great focal length range and excellent image stabilization in a compact package. There are going to be a lot of people traveling with this lens. And at the same time, the Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens as a kit or general purpose lens makes a lot of sense. The convenience value of this lens is very high.

Bryan Carnathan's passion for photography began at the age of 15, when he was working any job he could find to save for his first SLR. His passion for technology resulted in his pursuit of a degree in computer science, and his subsequent work in the business world related to information services consulting and directing. Carnathan launched in November 2003, with an initial purpose to sell stock photos online. Yet his audience was interested in the equipment he used for his images so, after spending time answering gear-related questions on some online forums, he changed the direction of his site to concentrate on equipment selection intermixed with teaching. His present site is a blend of his love for helping people, his love of technology and the Internet, and the passion for photography he has had since childhood.

To read Carnathan's complete review of the Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens, including how it stacks up against other Canon zoom lenses, click here.

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