Occasionally, one comes across a piece of equipment that one likes. This process is often unscientific, although anyone in a technical trade will usually grow to appreciate equipment that works well, particularly if it's competitively priced as well
This is an experimental first instalment in what I intend to be a series of articles on things we like – perhaps old things, perhaps new things, but in general stuff that goes into the kitbag no matter what I'm doing. As such, this is all opinion, although I hope it's informed-enough opinion to be useful. Our first subject in this orgy of gear-lust is the lens Canon refer to as the EF-S 60mm f/2.8 USM Macro. This fist-sized lump of technology is of course of interest mainly to people who shoot with cameras such as Blackmagic's Cinema Camera, or of course any of the APS-esque sized Canon DSLRs for which it is ideally suited. It would work, one feels, quite nicely on a C300. Obviously, it isn't a full blown movie lens with a metal barrel and nice focus markings – in fact, focus handling is one of the few glitches, which we'll consider later. Even so, given the lens-challenged reality in which we currently live, where ancient Nikon prime sets covered in rust and mould are fetching eyewatering prices thanks to the explosion of low-end digital cinematography, this sort of glass is still very relevant.
This EF-S mounted lens is of course unsuitable for full-frame cameras such as the 5D Mk.3, although it's interesting to consider what it would take to achieve what this lens does on a sensor that big. If we want to consider the value proposition from the outset, probably the nearest full EF lens equivalent (for a similar field of view) on a full frame camera is the EF 100mm F2.8L, which currently rocks in at something like double the money. And yes, I did just compare the 60mm EF-S macro prime to Canon's high end range with the red stripes on them, because it probably is that good. Canon claim the L stands for “Luxury”, but my Canon-owning friend tells me it stands for “large amount of money”. Compared to the cost of comparable movie lenses, this seems a bit unfair, but either way they do not apply the L designation to EF-S lenses.
What do we want form a lens?
It's probably worth considering what we actually desire from a lens. Speed, obviously. Corner to corner sharpness at all aperture settings, of course – we can always filter out excessive resolution optically or in post. Pretty bokeh, at all stages of defocussing, especially when a lens offers macro performance. Certainly there is no visible barrel distortion. The EF-S 60mm prime excels in all these areas, reminding us that zoom lenses are intrinsically a compromise, and perhaps one best avoided – the fact that this is a prime makes it very, very much easier to achieve high performance in these areas without inflating the price. Critically for very sensitive modern cameras, it also retains decent sharpness all the way down to fairly small apertures, although as with almost anything it does suffer if used near the absolute smallest stops and a well-prepared user will make sure ND filters are available. The aperture remains reasonably circular at all stages, which is one reason soft focus looks nice.
The other thing we tend to like is decent build quality and compactness. In all honesty I can't find any part on the visible body of this lens that isn't plastic, with the obvious and necessary exceptions of the filter threads and EF-S mount, but even so it feels firmly constructed and the action of the focus ring is positive.