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Why You Want One ------------------------------ If you are serious about macro photography (especially wildlife) then you need to seriously consider this lens.
The Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro is a specialist prime lens for extreme close-up photography at up to 1:1 size. That means that (for a 35mm frame) the image recorded of an object is the same size as that object.
But unlike most macro lenses, this one is a telephoto lens as well, being 180mm focal length. The normal use of a telephoto lens is to allow subjects to be photographed from far away. The normal use of a macro lens is to allow subjects to be photographed from very close-up. What this lens allows is the photographer to take very close-up photos from relatively far away.
The fact that you can be some 30cm remote to the subject and still take a 1:1 macro photo of it has all kinds of advantages. For a start, if you are recording something living (like a butterfly) it is usually impossible to get within a few centimetres of it before it flies off. Secondly, when you get your camera and lens (and yourself) very close to a subject, you affect the light falling on it. Not just the obvious problem of casting a shadow on it but by reflecting or not reflecting some light on it or by being seen in the subject as a reflection (if it's something shiny).
In these cases, it is a great help to be able to take the photo from a "safe" distance away. This is called "working distance" and allows you to put reflectors and lights and even flash guns and so on between the lens and the subject. Although the minimum focus distance is 48cm, this is from the film plane in the camera so the lens front element will be somewhat closer to the subject at about 25cm (without the hood tube).
For those occasions where you are out in the field taking wildlife photos, the 180mm macro becomes a double edged sword. On the one hand it is perfect for taking close-ups of tiny things (without having to crawl to much on the ground because of that working distance). On the other hand it is a pretty long telephoto lens and so handy for taking photos of larger quarry at a distance without being seen (deer, horses, and such subjects at about 20m range).
I considered the 60mm and the 100mm macro lenses but (for me) the dual use and the sheer quality of the 180mm lens made much more sense.
I don't actually have a photo studio at home. I mostly use the desk in my den. I'm not a tidy man... my desk usually has about an A4 page worth of empty space on it. This brings me to the other incredibly useful thing about the 180mm macro. It has a very narrow field of view. If you take the same extreme close-up of an object with a 60mm macro, the much wider angle of view it has means you will see more of the background in the same shot. So I can construct a miniature "studio" from bits of paper and CD cases or anything just laying around the room as backgrounds. They don't need to be any bigger because the lens can only see a few square centimetres of background behind the subject.
Construction ------------------ The 180mm macro is part of the L Series of Canon lenses. It is a prime lens of quite stunning build quality.
The black barrel is solid textured metal and has a big grip half way along the barrel to allow easy manual focusing (a must for macro work) without your fingers getting caught up in the tripod mount. It's a heavy beast but not so heavy that you'd not be able to hand hold it for a few telephoto shots or need an especially strong tripod head to hold the package in place at an angle.
The lens comes with a tripod mount that allows the weight of the lens to be taken on a tripod and balances the package nicely when used with a 5D body. When in the field, I hand hold the camera using the tripod grip as it is such a good balance point and also means you can put the camera down without worrying so much about the lens resting directly on the ground, tree, wall or whatever. The only problem with the tripod mount is that you can only take it off from the lens mount side so if you do decide to take it off, you have to take the lens off the body first.
The front element is very exposed with no baffle at all. You get a clip on tube hood and it's wise to use it to prevent flare and touching (banging!) the lens front element into things.
You also get a handy lens case with a shoulder strap although it's too thin a strap for the weight of the lens so it will cut into your shoulder a bit. The case has a novel double zip and velcro top fastener to allow quick access (unlike the troublesome drawstring bags you get with other Canon lenses).
The focus is all internal so that as you change the focus the lens remains the same size (length). This is important when working with macro as you are quite close to the subject and on other lenses the barrel will extend when the focus is adjusted which can mean that you have to move the camera to prevent the lens hitting something (a light, a reflector, the subject). The fact that the barrel is fixed length also makes it harder for dust to get inside by the pumping of air in and out of the seals.
Autofocus is controlled by two switches, one turns it on and off while the other selects an AF zone of either 48cm to infinity or 1.5m to infinity. The reasons for this will become clear soon...
The only feature lacking is a dust sealing o-ring on the lens mount. Lots of L-series lenses have them and as macro photography is the most vulnerable to sensor dust (because of the very small apertures used most of the time), it would have been nice to have. I guess they figured that this lens would spend most of its life in a nice clean studio and not like mine that does duty in forests taking pictures of pheasants and mushrooms.
Performance ------------------ Like all L-Series lenses, it has the hallmarks of very high levels of sharpness but perhaps more strikingly also wonderful colour. The levels of contrast and colour saturation that it can transmit to the film or sensor are what separate the good from the great.
The circular aperture gives wonderfully smooth bokeh (the defocusing of the background into a blur). This combined with the very small angle of view means you can quite easily find a bit of natural colour behind the subject and paint the background as an unobtrusive wash without having to resort to too much rearrangement of the objects to get rid of that annoying twig or extinguish that glaring reflection.
Many reviewers have complained about the speed of the AF. They are used to the snappy response of the typical zoom USM lenses and are disappointed by the comparatively sluggish response of the 180mm macro. It's true that it's slow. It can sometimes miss the target and spend ages hunting to the far end of the range before hunting all the way back and eventually giving up in utter confusion. You have to remember though that this is primarily a macro lens. As such its focus mechanism has a very low gearing. This is to allow sub-millimetre manual focussing at 48cm.
To get the best macro shots you HAVE to use manual focus. You choose the focus point on the subject and the optimal focus point may not be on the subject itself but a point in space near one of the parts of the subject so that you can control how those parts go out of focus in the few centimetres you have to work in. I only use AF if there isn't time to manual focus (like if the subject is about to flutter away) or when using the lens in its telephoto role.
When not shooting macro, if you set the AF zone to 1.5m to infinity, it cuts out a lot of the gearing that goes into covering the 48cm to 1.5m range and the camera then knows not to search the close range for the target. In these circumstances the 180mm macro does a decent enough job of finding it's marks quickly and without drama. It's still no sports lens but then it's not a sports lens.
The only area in which a long lens like this is problematic is camera shake. It's an non-stabilised lens so either you have to be using fast shutter speeds (but the brighter than usual f/3.5 helps here) or you should be using a sturdy tripod (hint, they provided you with a tripod mount for the lens...)
Conclusion ---------------- It ain't cheap at around £950 but boy do you get your monies worth!
If you are after a really great 1:1 macro lens to take close-ups of stuff and in particular nature subjects in the field then you won't be disappointed with this lens.