Battle of the 17-55 f2.8’s

Both Nikon and Canon produce a DX (or APS-C) version of the 17-55 f2.8, but that doesn’t mean they are the same lens. In fact, far from it! While the focal-length and constant aperture are the same, the similarities end right there. Let’s take a look first at each of the lenses, then do a little compare and contrast.

The Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM

The Canon EF-S 17-55 f/2.8 IS USM is one of the first of Canon’s crop lens lineup. The EF-S references the crop mount – a special mount that can damage a full-frame camera if used on it. The IS is, of course, Canon’s terrific image stabilization. And the USM is the remarkably fast Canon ultra-sonic auto-focus motor. All great parts. Sometimes, the sum of the parts is actually less than the parts themselves. Priced like an “L” lens, one might expect to get “L” lens-like quality. If your expectations are only referencing image quality, you won’t be disappointed. If however, your expectations of quality for a lens costing over a grand include build or reliability, well then, you’re in for a surprise – and not a pleasant one.

I sold a much-loved 17-40 f/4.0 L to finance the purchase of my EF-S 17-55 and it was a HUGE mistake. My intention was to get a bit more focal range (which it obviously provides), the extra stop of light and image stabilization. Since I was going from a lens that, used cost around $600 to a lens that, again used, was fetching over $850, I expected a lens of high quality, both in terms of image and build.

The EF-S lens provides a terrific image – about that, I have no qualms. There are a number of lenses out there that have a ‘look’ to the images they produce. If you read enough reviews or forums, you’ll often find that fact referenced. This is one of those lenses. It’s sharp, even wide-open. That f/2.8 and sharpness are what drew me to the lens. I’d read over and over about how it provided a great image.

One thing to keep in mind is that, prior to the EF-S series, Canon primarily produced lenses that were full-frame. Their foray, initially, into crop lenses were this and the EF-S 10-22. Nikon and other makers had many APS-C lenses in their stable. Canon’s lineup, by and large, were quality gear – even the variable aperture consumer grade lenses were darn good. And in the L line, the constant aperture f/2.8 lenses were without compare or compromise. So I thought it was safe to assume that, with the images I’d seen and the history of excellent quality, this new lens was going to be a winner.

Imagine then my surprise when I pulled my $850 lens out of the box. It was made of plastic – and cheap plastic at that. It easily extended, both from its own weight and when pulling it out of a tight spot in the camera bag. At least it had a metal mount – and IS. No hood. WTH? No hood? OK, add $50 for a Canon lens hood. Along with the incredibly cheap build – akin to my $150 28-105 (which, like this lens, produced excellent image quality) – and the fact that the lens extended if you just looked at it, is the fact that it has a notoriously short-lived IS mechanism. In fact, many forum members suggest keeping the IS off if you don’t need it. At this point, it’s probably fair to say that I should have done more research. I should have.

I did keep the lens for more than a year, but I never enjoyed it.

The Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S DX

The rather spectacular Nikon 17-55 f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S DX is a wonderful lens with set of letters in the name that would make most governmental agencies blush. The first letter, following the aperture is the G, meaning the lens has no aperture ring. Older Nikon lenses had this feature but newer ones typically do not. In fact, I can’t think of any newer ones that do. The ED references the special glass used in the construction of the lens. IF means internal focus so the lens does not extend while it focuses – nice. The AF-S references the auto-focus nature of the lens and the DX references the fact this is a crop or APS-C lens. One thing of note here – and it’s important – is that the Nikon mount is not different from their full-frame of FX mount. The rear of the lens does not extend into the mirror box like the EF-S mount does, which means that it does not endanger the camera body if used on a full-frame camera. This does NOT mean it won’t vignette – any crop lens used on a full-frame camera will do that. But it won’t damage your cherished D700 or D4 when you slap on your 17-55. (In fact, most full-frame Nikon bodies offer a crop mode where these lenses can be used with no vignetting.)

You’ll notice, if you’ve been reading carefully, one other big difference between the two lenses. The Nikon does not have stabilization. Many shooters would say that IS or VR, Nikon’s naming referring to vibration reduction, is not needed on short focal length lenses. I don’t agree. I find it useful in all focal lengths. One thing to remember is that IS or VR or OS (Sigma’s version) or VC (Tamron’s name) does nothing to freeze the motion of the things you’re taking pictures of. Stabilization only works to reduce the motion of the person (as transferred to the camera) taking the picture. So is the difference a big deal? To me it is. Both lenses are in excess of $1000 new and only the Canon has IS – regardless of how reliable that IS might be.

The Nikon comes out of the box feeling like a $1000 lens. It was one of the first two Nikon lenses I purchased after my switch from Canon to Nikon and it certainly made a great impression. The other, the Nikon 105/2.8 Micro (macro) VR is another high-quality offering. The Nikon also came with a hood. And a nice little bag. Not much, but helps keeps scratches down while banging around in the bag.

Using the Nikon vs Canon

Really, both lenses provide spectacular results. Read the ‘numbers’ review sites and you’ll see, even wide-open, that both lenses offer very high resolution images. I can say that from shooting both lenses that image quality is not an issue with either piece of glass. And they just get better as you stop down. Both use 77mm filters. Neither front element rotates. As mentioned, the Nikon does not extend while the Canon extends its cheap plastic barrel. Shooting car shows, one of my favorite endeavors, showed no favorites in the two lenses. Of course, and I’m not beating a dead horse here, but when the light starts to fade or you’re shooting in shade or you want to use f8, that IS sure comes in handy. To be able to get 2 or 3 stops of stabilization is simply wonderful – and can make the difference between using and carrying a tripod and shooting handheld. Can you hold a D300 and a 17-55 without shaking at 1/30? Neither can I. With the Canon, simply turn on IS and youcan.

The Canon is also lighter. Not so much as to make you go, whew, that’s better. But you weight weenies out there might make note of it. I didn’t. What I do notice is how a lens feels in your hand. There’s simply a quality to the Nikon that is missing on the Canon. Itfeels better. Given that both are about the same price, does that matter? I can’t answer that for you, but it does for me.

When I left Canon, I’d left the 17-55 long before. The first lens I bought on the ‘dark’ side was the 17-55. I miss it still. It’s certainly my hope they’ll revise it soon and include VR. Once that lens is released, that will be the final nail in the coffin of this comparison.

Final Thoughts

If you’re a Canon shooter, the lack of a quality build at this price point is a huge negative. (In fact, I’ve not held or shot an EF-S lens that made me believe they were money well spent.). On the positive, the lens is sharp, even wide-open. It offers USM, so it focuses extremely fast. I’ve not heard of one needing micro-focus adjustments, either. It uses a standard 77mm filter, so you should have that already (if you have some professional or pro-sumer grade lenses). And it offers IS, which is welcome at any focal range. I love the range – I know a lot of shooters do. The sum of the parts, as I’ve said, does not equal up to a desirable piece of kit.

The Nikon 17-55 f/2.8 DX is one wonderful lens. Provided you’re a DX shooter. And don’t mind the absence of IS/VR. If you have no issues with either of those, you simply can’t go wrong with this lens. It’s solidly built, focuses fast, sharp at 2.8 and very sharp at f5. Should you ever want to part with it, the used market gobbles these up at prices that make owning it more like renting it – cheap.

Like all products (and for many reasons, lenses in particular), there are compromises to be made. Both lenses offer a very usable range, constant f/2.8, 77mm non-rotating front elements, fabulous image quality, and accurate focusing. The Canon offers everything, except build. The Nikon offers everything, except stabilization. Neither will make the bag of a full-frame shooter. Few shooters ever migrate brands based on a single lens. Neither of these are likely to change that.

In the end, the question is, would/should you buy one? If you’re aware of the cons and still feel the pros outweigh it, absolutely! Each is a great addition to a carry kit. Whether it’s weekend shooting or an event shoot, the range provided is one of those must-haves. You won’t be disappointed with either lens.


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