Best standard zoom lens upgrades for Canon

The ‘kit’ lenses supplied by Canon with its DSLRs have certainly improved over the years, but if you want to take your Canon photography to the next level, you’ll need a standard zoom with longer reach, faster apertures and snappier focusing. So we’re testing the most appealing lenses from Canon, Sigma and Tamron, while covering Canon’s other ‘standard’ options – all of which should offer an improvement in image quality.

We've split these lenses into two categories: one for Canon's smaller APS-C format DSLRs and one for its full frame models. Sometimes you can use a full frame lens on an APS-C Canon to good effect, for example, with telephotos, but here the 1.6x crop factor of the smaller sensor gives full frame 'standard' zooms too long an effective focal length for them to be useful here.

Kit lens options for full-frame cameras tend to be a little more limited than for their APS-C format counterparts, and there’s more choice when it comes to Canon own-brand upgrades. As in the APS-C format camp, one major reason for upgrading is so you can grab a lens with a wider aperture, typically of f/2.8, that remains available throughout the zoom range. This enables faster shutter speeds under dull or indoor lighting conditions, without the need to bump up your ISO setting too much. 

A wider aperture also enables a tighter depth of field, so you can make the main subject really stand out against a blurred background. Alternatively, you can compromise on a ‘slower’ f/4 aperture and enjoy a lens upgrade with a more compact, lightweight build, or a bigger zoom range that stretches further into telephoto territory.

Spoiler alert

Canon’s EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 is the top APS-C lens, while the EF 24-70mm f/2.8 wins for full-frame bodies. Both give class-leading performance and image quality, and especially in the APS-C arena, where the Canon has a much more pro-grade feel than its competitors.

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APS-C lenses

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

A veteran APS-C format lens, with high-quality build

Effective zoom range: 27-88mm | Lens construction: 19 elements in 12 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 blades | Minimum focus distance: 0.35m | Filter size: 77mm | Dimensions: 84x111mm | Weight: 645g

Sturdy build
Fast and quiet autofocus
No weather-seals
Hood not included

This is the closest thing to a pro-grade, L-series ‘EF-S’ lens for APS-C cameras that Canon has ever built. Unlike Canon’s f/2.8 standard zooms for full-frame cameras, this one features an image stabilizer. Yet it’s an old version of the technology and only gives three, rather than four, stops of advantage in fending off camera-shake. Compared with the autofocus systems of other APS-C lenses on test, it’s faster and quieter, if not near silent as in Canon’s STM or Micro USM lenses. Lab scores for sharpness proved underwhelming for this particular test sample, but we’ve always been impressed by the lens’s clarity in our wide-ranging real-world tests and how other samples have performed in the past.

2. Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4 DC Macro OS HSM C for Canon

A new and improved edition of Sigma’s 17-70mm lens

Effective zoom range: 27-112mm | Lens construction: 16 elements in 14 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 blades | Minimum focus distance: 0.22m | Filter size: 72mm | Dimensions: 79x82mm | Weight: 465g

Big zoom range
Compact and lightweight
Average centre-sharpness
No padded case

Sigma’s Contemporary line of lenses aim to be compact, and the 17-70mm is no exception. At 79x82mm and 465g, it’s smaller and lighter than any other lens on test. Centre-sharpness isn’t quite as good as from Sigma’s 17-50mm lens but sharpness towards the edges and corners of the frame is more impressive at wide aperture settings, especially at the short end of the zoom range. Autofocus speed is a little quicker, while the optical stabilizer is similarly effective. This lens comes with a petal-shaped lens hood but, unlike the other Sigma lenses on test, it’s not supplied with a padded soft case. Overall, this newer Contemporary lens is the more appealing of the two.

3. Tamron SP AF 17-50mm f/2.8 XR Di II VC for Canon

Tamron’s updated 17-50mm lens adds stabilization

Effective zoom range: 27-80mm | Lens construction: 19 elements in 14 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 blades | Minimum focus distance: 0.29m | Filter size: 72mm | Dimensions: 80x95mm | Weight: 570g

Effective stabilizer system
Good overall performance
Focus ring spins during AF
Poor edge sharpness

This updated version of Tamron’s constant-aperture f/2.8 lens for APS-C format cameras adds the company’s proprietary tri-axial optical stabilizer or ‘VC’ (Vibration Compensation) system. It’s effective to about four stops, beating the stabilizer in the competing Canon 17-55mm lens. Handling is adversely affected by the focus ring spinning during autofocus, so you have to be careful where you put your fingers. Performance is good overall but, towards both ends of the zoom range, levels of sharpness are disappointing around the edges and corners of the image frame. At wide-angle settings, image corners remain soft at all available apertures. Even so, it’s a good buy at the price.

4. Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM for Canon

A bargain – but things aren’t quite what they seem

Effective zoom range: 27-80mm | Lens construction: 17 elements in 13 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 blades | Minimum focus distance: 0.28m | Filter size: 77mm | Dimensions: 84x92mm | Weight: 565g

Compact construction
Bargain price
No full-time AF override
Autofocus noise

This Sigma lens appears to offer most of the same advantages as its Canon counterpart, but at less than half the price. Whereas both of the Canon and Sigma lenses have ultrasonic autofocus systems, the Canon’s is ring-type, whereas the Sigma’s relies on a small motor. On the plus side, this helps to enable a more compact construction, but the autofocus system isn’t as near-silent and lacks full-time manual override. Image quality is sharp across most of the image frame but quite soft in the corners, especially at short to mid zoom settings when using apertures wider than f/5.6. Living up to its claims, stabilization is slightly more effective than in the competing Canon 17-55mm lens, but autofocus speed is a little slower.