Canon EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM

Kit Lens Deluxe

Peter Kun Frary



Most photographers want an all purpose zoom encompassing wide, normal and short telephoto ranges, i.e., a normal zoom. Mount such an optic on your DSLR and you're good for landscapes, group shots, candids and portraits.

Seaside, OR | EOS 7D, EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM: 85mm, F8, 1/125, ISO 100

Introduced Fall 2009 with the EOS 7D, the 15-85 falls into Canon's normal zoom niche. It features three aspherical and one UD element, Image Stabilizer (IS), ring-type USM, 5.6x zoom range, 72mm filter size, and compact size for the zoom range. The size reduction over similar zoom ratio full frame lenses is due to the smaller image circle of APS-C format. The main compromise is aperture size: F5.6 at the long end. Everything else is top notch for consumerville.

Canon EF-S 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM (photo courtesy Canon)

Fit & Finish
Although predominantly plastic, the 15-85 has a metal mount and stands 87.5mm at the 15mm setting (retracted). At 574g, it's on the heavy side for a normal APS-s zoom. In contrast, the the EF-S 17-85 4.0-5.6 IS USM is 465g and the EF-S 18-135 3.5-5.6 IS USM, 515g. However, that extra two or three millimeter at the wide end make a big difference in coverage for landscapes and building interiors.

Build quality is excellent but not at L series standards: no weather seals and cosmetics aren't as attractive as the EF 24-105 4L IS USM. However it feels better made than the EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM and EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM.

Styling is understated and post industrial Gothic: lightly textured flat black paint; tightly ribbed rubber zoom and focus rings; and white sans serif lettering. With lens cap installed, it resembles a plastic travel mug. Gone is the flashy gold USM stripe of earlier premium EF-S designs such as the EF-S 17-55 2.8 IS USM. The 15-85, like other recent EF-S designs, sports a silver ring near the front.

Lincoln City OR | EOS 7D, EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM: 40mm, F5.6, 1/60, ISO 400

Focus and Zoom
A ring-type USM (Ultrasonic Motor) achieves focus by driving an internal lens group. AF is extremely fast and sure-footed on my EOS 7D, 70D and 80D. The front element doesn't rotate and the barrel doesn't expand or contract during focusing. Being an USM lens, it is silent during AF.

It has FTM, allowing manual focus without switching out of AF mode. The focus ring is narrow, coarse in pitch and ribbed. Nevertheless it's smooth turning, improving on the EF-S 17-55 2.8 IS USM.

Selfie | EOS 70D & EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM

If you prefocus manually, the distance window in meters and feet is useful. Although not a macro lens, it focuses close enough for head shots and moderately small details (35cm/.21x).

The twist zoom action is smooth, damped and does not creep, again a tad better than the EF-S 17-55 2.8 IS USM. Zooming is accomplished by expanding and contracting two nested barrels. The barrel extends considerably--nearly doubling in length--when zoomed to 85 mm. The zoom ring is large and covered with a ribbed rubber surface.

Wired Sky Las Vegas | EOS 70D & EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM

The EF-S 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM has a variable maximum aperture. Thus, as you zoom, the maximum aperture changes. From 15-17mm, maximum aperture is F3.5. At 18-26mm it slips down to F 4.0. By 27-37mm it's touching F4.5. From 38-60mm only F5.0. Finally, the remaining 61-85 range is a pokey F5.6.

Unfortunately a lens hood is not included and will cost you extra--a lot extra. Like the lens, the hood sports textured flat black paint, and is more scratch resistant than the smooth satin black finishes of older Canon hoods.

Optical Quality
This is among the best normal range zooms I've used. I have no second thoughts about shooting wide open as it's sharp and contrasty edge to edge at all focal lengths from macro focus to infinity. At the same focal length and F-stop, it's the equal of the EF-S 17-55 2.8 IS USM, often slightly better around the edges, and a notch better than the EF-S 17-85 4.0-5.6 IS USM. It's so good wide open, there is little improvement stopped down!

Racked out to 85mm and shot wide open it's a good portrait lens. Of course, not comparable to the creamy bokeh of the EF 85 1.8 USM wide open, but a pleasant look. Plus, the circular 7-blade diaphragm produces attractive blurred highlights when stopped down.

Bokeh Sample | EOS 7D, EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM: 63mm, F5.6

The contrast and snap of this lens is apparent through the viewfinder. After all, there's plenty of exotic glass in that petite barrel: 17 elements with three aspherical lens (AL) and an ultra-low dispersion (UD) element. Despite all those elements, this is a fairly flare resistant free zoom, thanks to excellent lens coatings and barrel flocking. It certainly bests the EF-S 17-55 2.8 IS USM and EF 28-135 3.5-5.6 IS USM in flare control. Hawaiian sunsets, stage spot lights and night scenes with street lamps are no problem!

The short end, like all wide zooms, suffers from barrel distortion. In this case, the barrel distortion is stronger than average, e.g., worse than my EF-S 17-55 2.8 IS USM. You'll see it in images with long horizontal lines. Such distortion is easily corrected in DPP or Photoshop.

El Cortez | EOS 70D & EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM

The middle range is virtually distortion free. The long end has a tiny amount of pincushion distortion. I can't see even a hint of pincushion distortion in the macro image below, taken at 65mm. For most types of images, distortion isn't readily apparent.

Berceuse (Albéniz) | Leeward Coast Guitars | An EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM is used on an 80D while a 70D and EF-s 10-18 4.5-5.6 IS STM cover the wide view.

Like all wide zooms, the 15-85 exhibits some light fall-off wide open, but less pronounced than that of the EF 24-105 4L IS USM (with FF). In night scenes and portraits, light fall-off is unnoticeable since edges are naturally dark or de-emphasized. Stop down a little and light fall-off is gone. Only those shooting blue skies or white walls wide open will notice the slight darkening of corners. Light fall-off is easily removed in DPP or LR or with the Lens Peripheral Illumination Correction function in recent EOS DSLRs.

Finally, my 15-18 is well calibrated and AFMA (Autofocus Microadjustment) was not needed on my 7D and 70D cameras. My 80D required +2 at the wide end whereas the tele end was tack sharp at default (0).

Image Stabilization
Papa Canon claims this Image Stabilization (IS) has a 4-stop hand held advantage over non-IS lenses. Unlike earlier designs, it's able to compensate for movement in all directions and, thus, is effective for both static subjects and panning moving objects. I spend lots of time shooting at twilight and in dark casinos and bars, and my experience agrees with Canon's claims. This is the best IS yet and one stop better than the EF-S 17-55 2.8 IS USM. It's a good thing too: F5.6 at the long end is slow!

Red Goose Shoes | EOS 7D, EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6: 85mm, F5.6, 1/15, ISO 400

Of course, Image Stabilization does nothing for subject movement and will not replace a large aperture prime for action shooters. However, IS is a Godsend for general hand held photography.

Sunflowers at Bellagio | EOS 70D & EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM

One caution: turn IS off when using a tripod. A rock steady tripod often befuddles IS, resulting in blurry images or sudden jerks in video! Although I've forgotten to disable IS on other lenses I suffered only a handful of blurry images. For some reason, the 15-85 is less forgiving in this regard. In a product shoot with 7D/15-85 and tripod, only 2 among 63 images were critically sharp. I reshot with IS off and all images were sharp.

Popup Flash Blocked?
The popup flash of the 7D is 100% usable with this lens. From 1 meter out there is no lens shadow from the lens at any focal length. It vignettes a little with the 70D and 60D due to the lower placement of the popup flash.

As expected, with the EW-78E hood installed, there is a lens shadow from the 7D popup flash from 15-24. It's not a big deal for fill flash but is distracting when the flash is the main light. From 28-85 there is no lens shadow whatsoever with EW-78E installed. I've not tried XXD series cameras, but I assume performance is similar.

Grace | EOS 70D & EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM

The 15-85 performs reasonably well with Movie Servo on the 70D and SL1: smooth, albeit a little too fast, and accurate focus. It's even smoother on the 80D. My other USM lenses focus fast and but jerky and emit high pitched chattering. I initially planned to buy a STM lens for Movie Servo but have been happy with with this lens on the 70D and 80D. In fact, most of the videos on this website and my YouTube Channel were shot with this zoom. I only use outboard audio for music videos so the small about of focus noise is not a problem. The 15-85 clips below were shot using Movie Servo on a 70D or 80D.

Frary Guitar Duo | Duo in G Major Op. 34, Largo (Carulli)

Frary Guitar Duo | Echo (Pilkington)

Peter Kun Frary | Rosita (Tarréga)

Honybal Sosa | Better Days

I love the range, AF speed, sharpness, IS and small size of this lens. The Goth styling warrants no kudos for beauty but it's well made, sharp, contrasty and surprisingly flare resistant.

Optical quality and mechanical precision approach L zooms such as the EF 24-105 4L IS USM. It falls down a bit due to barrel distortion at the wide end. Moreover, it lacks the cosmetic detail and weather sealing of its L siblings. After squeezing seven or eight benjamins out of you, Canon should toss in a lens hood.

The high optical quality and petite statue of the EF-S 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM make it a kickin' travel and hiking lens. Due to the slow aperture, it's not the best lens for dark bars or European churches. However, 4-stop IS almost makes up for the slow aperture. Luckily, optical quality wide open is top drawer.

Highly recommended for serious amateurs and world trekkers.

Finally, please help support this website by purchasing this lens at Amazon.

EF-S 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM images (click to enlarge)


Source Materials

Canon EFS Lens EF-S15-85mm F/3.5-5.6 IS USM Instruction. Tokyo: Canon, 2009. (CT1-7591-000).

Frary Guitar Duo | Father I Adore You | Tascam DR-60D MKII | Neumann KM184 (2X) | Shure A27M | EOS 70D/EF-S 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM

Canon EOS Equipment Resources

Canon Camera Museum

Nuuanu Pali | EOS 80D & EF-s 15-85 3.5-5.6 IS USM

01/01/2010 | Revised 01/02/2017

©Copyright 2010-17 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved


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