The Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 is considered by many to be, arguably, the best budget zoom lens in Canon’s catalog for their APS-C cameras. Many experts have even stated that the image quality is close to Canon’s fabled L series lenses.
There have been three iterations of this lens: the original version released in April 2008, the IS II version announced in June 2011, and the most recent STM version announced in 2013. The first and second versions are very similar while the STM’s main difference is adding a stepping motor to increase autofocus speed and reduce focus motor noise (especially important in video use where focus racking can be picked up on internal audio).
I recently picked up a used version of the IS II mostly to see if it lived up to its reputation and to see if it had a place in my workflow.
So let’s take a look at the specs.
- 55-250mm variable aperture zoom lens (aperture range f/4-5.6 – f/22-32)
- 12 elements in 10 groups
- 7 blade circular aperture
- close focusing distance of 1.1m (3.61 ft)
- maximum magnification of 0.31x
- 58mm filter thread
- weight 390 g (13.75 oz)
- original MSRP $299.00 US.
When I started as a photographer, the long lens was the benchmark standard. If you wanted to be taken seriously, you needed a long lens. The most popular and basic option at the time was some version of the ubiquitous 70-210mm f/4-5.6 – this is the lens you absolutely had to have, and I had a couple of them over the years in both native versions and third party examples.
Recently I sold a Canon 70-200mm f/4 L IS II because, surprisingly, the focal lengths didn’t work for me anymore. On a crop sensor camera, the short end was often too long, and, more often than not, the long end was never long enough. I kept it for awhile, mostly because of the cachet of owning a white canon lens with a red ring, but it was rarely used.
I still have the idea, for some reason, that I need a long lens of some sort so, I already own a Canon 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III. This lens has never been very well regarded (at least according to most of the various online reviews). Really the only faults that I have found with it are that it’s not very contrasty and in some situations it exhibits significant amounts of chromatic aberration (CA). That last point is one of the major faults mentioned in most of the reviews. On the plus side it is an EF lens, so it’s a full frame compatible lens, not an EF-S lens which is specifically designed for the APS-C sensor like the 55-250 is. On APS-C sensors, also, full frame lenses can show some edge softness, reducing image quality in some cases. Having muddled through all of that though it seemed to fit my limited needs for a long zoom lens.
To keep things as fair as possible all of the following pictures were taken with a Canon EOS Rebel T3i set to neutral picture style and are straight out of camera “fine” JPEGs at 18 MP.
The images below were shot minutes apart with the 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6 III at 300mm. Note the CA – in the form of purple fringing on the tree branch to the right side of the Cardinal – and the absence of significant or notable chromatic aberration in the squirrel shot. Typically, as in this case CA occurs at its worst in backlit, light background situations.
Both of these images are completely acceptable and the CA can be completely removed (even from a JPEG) in Photoshop.
So, then, why buy the 55-250mm ? Well, because most of the reviews tout it as being a much better option than the 75-300mm III, especially regarding image quality and, based on that, the price was really right for a used copy at $60.00 USD out the door and, probably, a little FOMO.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that if you combine it with the EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 and the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens (in any of its iterations), you have the APS-C version of the “Holy Trinity” of zooms with continuous focal length coverage from 10mm to 250mm (16-400mm full frame equivalent).
The following images are examples made with the 55-250mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II. The same camera and the same picture style (for consistency’s sake as mentioned earlier). Again photos a few minutes apart, but at varying focal lengths.
I found it reasonably sharp and contrasty with no obvious fringing, but image quality was nothing really that special, at least not really approaching L glass standards. Granted the subject matter was not exceptional and it was mid-day with really flat light, but the results were still a bit underwhelming compared to this lens’ reputation, in my opinion.
So, what do I think, overall, regarding the 55-250mm?
Well, for one the build quality does seem on the cheap side, and its not just the plastic lens mount either. I own the EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-4.6 STM with a plastic mount that seems more substantial and better built, if not by much. The 55-250mm IS II seems kind of flimsy. Whereas the 75-300 III seems a little more substantial in the hand.
On both lenses, the front element rotates during focusing, which is not ideal, and can be problematic when using certain filters like circular polarizers. I believe this issue has been resolved on the STM version of the 55-250mm, but I’m not certain.
The 55-250mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II seems to have a significant amount of focus breathing. This is especially apparent at the short end of the focal range when attempting focus at minimum distances; the image becomes large enough in the viewfinder that you have to recompose for close shots. I have not noticed this on the 75-300mm III, to this extent at least.
The 55-250mm IS II is somewhat shorter and lighter overall, making it a slightly more compact package than the 75-300mm III.
Lastly, I have a first generation Commlite adapter for my Sony A6000 and both of these lenses work with it, even if focusing is very slow – so there’s that.
I am kind of conflicted. I definitely do not need both of these lenses and one has to go. The 75-300mm III gives me a little more reach on the long end, but the 55-250mm IS II focal lengths fit well in the general order of things.
I just wasn’t really “wowed” by either lens.
Truth be told, I may just sell both. One of my favorite APS-C lenses is the Canon 18-135mm f3.5-5.6 IS STM. It has great image quality, good build quality, feels substantial in the hand, comes with a metal lens mount, and with the crop factor gives a 28.8-216mm full frame equivalency.
Is the 55-250mm f4.5-5.6 IS II lens relevant in 2019?
It does seem to have decent image quality, focuses reasonably quickly, and is relatively compact while giving you a good range of focal lengths at a reasonable price. So if these are your parameters, then yes.
On the other hand, if I hadn’t acquired it, I don’t think that I would have missed all that much.
Thanks for reading
“There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer”
– Ansel Adams