Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Lens Review
Canon’s EF-S 18-55mm kit lenses have always been small, light and cheap and the latest versions have the very useful image stabilization feature. These lenses have been and continue to be a good value when purchased as a starter lens in a DSLR kit, but they have never been a strongly desired lens otherwise. The Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Lens is Canon USA’s fifth EF-S 18-55mm lens, and some of you in other countries may have seen an additional EF-S 18-55 lens model available. While some of those lens iterations were mostly cosmetic, the «STM» version of this lens comes with some definite advantages over its predecessor, the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II Lens, which continues to be available at review time.
Here are some of the differences between the 18-55 IS II and the 18-55mm IS STM Lens:
- STM (Stepping Motor) AF (vs. Micro Motor)
- Continuous AF during video recording with compatible cameras (those with Hybrid CMOS AF)
- Vastly improved manual focus ring
- Front element does not rotate and does not extend with focusing
- Full time manual focusing supported during shutter release half-press
- Shorter minimum focus distance (9.8” vs. 11″, 250mm vs. 280mm) and maximum magnification (0.36x vs. 0.28x) specs (read about reality below)
- New optical design with 13 lenses in 11 groups (vs. 11/9)
- 7 rounded aperture blades (vs. 6 rounded)
- Larger zoom ring
- New petal-style lens hood that provides up to 0.46″ (11.7mm) better protection from light and damage.
- 50% higher price (in kit)
As one would expect from a kit lens, this lens is designed for everyone’s most-common focal length needs. The Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Lens’ focal length range falls squarely in the recommended general purpose zoom lens focal length range for ASP-C/1.6x FOVCF sensor format DSLRs. But it does not extend the recommended minimum on either end of the focal length range.
Here is an example of the 18-55mm focal length range. Click on the image to see three additional examples (page opens in new window).
18mm | 24mm | 35mm | 55mm
18mm acts like a 28.8mm angle of view on a full frame DSLR camera. This is a moderately wide angle of view that is common with EF-S zoom lenses, but you will likely wish for wider on occasion. Especially when photographing wide landscapes, interiors and architecture.
The 55mm end frames like 88mm on a full frame camera. This is a nice angle of view that encompasses portraiture – but save the headshots for a telephoto lens. Portraits taken from a close distance will start showing perspective distortion — including big noses — and are best avoided.
18-55mm IS STM Lens | 18-135mm IS STM Lens
The usefulness of this lens is limited in part by its near-slowest/narrowest-available max aperture. Though this lens is not far from the normal variable aperture crowd, few lenses have narrower max apertures than this one at comparable focal lengths. A relatively wide angle focal length range and relatively narrow aperture, along with the coinciding relatively deep DOF (Depth of Field), means that creating a strong background blur is not a strength of this lens.
Being a variable aperture lens means that wide open exposure settings are going to change as the lens is zoomed to the longer focal lengths. Here is a table comparing the aperture step down focal lengths of some other Canon alternative lenses.
A narrow max aperture lens is not useless. Letting in only a relatively small amount of light means that that the 18-55 IS STM will not be a great lens choice for stopping action in low light, but with the advances we have seen in DSLR low light performance (reduced high ISO noise), this lens has plenty of uses awaiting it. And, image stabilization comes to the rescue of your motionless-subject photography.
Image stabilization has (practically) become a standard zoom lens feature these days and it is extremely valuable to me. In-lens IS will allow a camera to be handheld at very long exposure settings and provides a stabilized viewfinder image that aids in subject framing. The Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Lens features a 4-stop-rated IS system. With each stop being a 2x change in the amount of light reaching the sensor, 4 stops of assistance means that you can shoot in 1/16th as much light as without IS (1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2). That difference is huge. Image stabilization does not stop subject motion, but it makes a remarkable difference in still subject photography.
Image stabilization has matured significantly over the years. This IS implementation is virtually silent (will not be heard in sound recorded in-camera during video capture) and does not causing image framing to jump around.
Stabilization assistance testing revealed that, at 18mm, most of my 1/4 sec images were sharp and a significant percentage of my .3 sec images were also sharp for about 3 2/3-stops of assistance for me. The rate of sharp images slowly drops until about 1 second where my sharpness rate reached 0%. At 55mm, most of my 1/8 sec images were sharp and a significant percentage of my 1/6 sec images were also sharp for just under 4 stops of assistance. The rate of sharp images trails off through about .3 sec. Don’t expect sharp images at these long exposure times under less-than-ideal conditions, but expect the amount of assistance to be similar.
The difference image stabilization makes in your real life images can be dramatic. After this test, I forgot to turn IS back on. After shooting for a relatively short period of time, I realized that IS was turned off. Every shot I had taken to that point was seriously blurred. After turning IS on, the results were much better.
Here is a with and without image stabilization example captured at .8 seconds (handheld of course).
IS On | IS Off
You are buying a DSLR camera to get great images. And great image quality is a significantly important part of great images.
With a wide open aperture, vignetting (peripheral shading) ranges from about 1.5 stops in 18mm frame corners down to a barely-noticeable about-.8 stops in 55mm frame corners. You will get less vignetting from full-frame-compatible EF lenses on an APS-C format camera, but these results are not bad. Stopping down (selecting a narrower aperture), as usual, reduces vignetting.
The 18-55 STM shows a considerable amount of CA (Chromatic Aberration) until the long end of the focal length range. A good way to visualize this is to view the 18-55mm STM Lens image quality results for 18mm. The test chart is only black and white. The colors you see are the different wavelengths of light being refracted by different amounts. Because software can (often) nicely clear up CA, it is my favorite lens defect (if I have to pick one).
With a wide open aperture, the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Lens is reasonably sharp from 18mm through the mid focal lengths. Stopping down (narrower aperture) a stop or two makes little difference in image sharpness in this range. At 55mm, where the CA resolves, you will better appreciate the mediocre image sharpness at f/8 than what a wide open f/5.6 aperture will provide. Stopping down beyond f/8 will result in softer images from most recent DSLR models due to diffraction.
The IS II lens is slightly sharper at 55mm, but the IS STM has some minor advantages in wider focal length comparisons. Neither is going to be renowned for sharpness.
Expect to see some flare from this lens. While the flare pattern is different from the IS II, which lens is better in this regard is mostly a matter of opinion.
The 18-55 STM has relatively strong barrel distortion at 18mm. This distortion is going to be noticeable in images with straight lines near the borders – such as in the photo shown below.
The big issue with barrel distortion (or pincushion distortion) is that straight lines are rendered as curves. Relative subject sizes are also distorted with center-of-the-frame subjects becoming larger.
Distortion also makes the original capture more difficult as it is hard to level a curved subject in the frame. The results of distortion are usually correctable with software, but this is a destructive process to pixel-level details.
The 18-55 STM holds its barrel distortion to a longer focal length than the IS II. The crossover/neutral distortion focal length is around 35mm. By 55mm, a mild amount of pincushion distortion is visible.
The 18-55mm IS STM lens gets a nice upgrade in the bokeh (background blur quality) department. With an extra curved aperture blade (now 7), OOF (Out of Focus) points of light remain circular-shaped and relatively smooth even with a stopped down aperture (where the number of blades and blade shape affect the results the most). The 18-55mm IS II’s aperture blades are curved, but I could clearly see 6 blade edges in OOF highlights in some stopped-down-aperture images. Because this lens does not create a strongly blurred background unless shooting at minimum focus distance at 55mm, few will significantly care about this improvement.
18-55mm IS STM Lens | 18-135mm IS STM Lens
The Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Lens’ improved focus system is worth every penny of the increased street price (over the IS II). To begin with, this lens focuses quickly and very quietly. So quietly that you will need to put your ear next to the lens in a quiet room to hear the click sounds autofocusing makes. The IS II model made autofocusing very audibly-apparent.
Also, this lens is now internally focusing. No longer does this kit lens model extend and rotate the front element during focusing as all of the previous EF-S 18-55mm lenses have done. The lack of extension is very nice and the fixed front filter threads are a huge improvement – especially for circular polarizer filter use. These filters are rotated to dial in just the right amount of effect – an effect that can greatly enhance some photos. When focusing turns the front filter threads, that effect is adjusted to something less than optimal.
The lens hood can now be installed without the lens barrel extension turning the focus motor gears to one extent or the other – to gain enough resistance for the hood to turn into (or out of) place.
With a generally deep DOF (Depth of Field), this lens’ AF system is not overly challenged to focus accurately enough. And it does that.
The STM AF system is designed to allow continuous autofocusing during video recording when mounted to certain compatible DSLRs (Rebel T4i, Rebel T5i, Rebel SL1 and EOS M at review time). This feature works, but don’t expect to track your kid running the bases at a close distance and don’t expect production grade focus pulls. Slow subject motion is indeed tracked with reasonable performance – and the autofocusing prior to video recording is helpful. Nice is that subjects do not change size significantly during focusing with this lens.
The 18-55 STM has FTM (Full Time Manual) focusing, but it took me some time to figure out this feature as it is not the same as with many of Canon’s other FTM focus-supporting lenses. The key is that the shutter release must be pressed half way to enable manual focusing after autofocus lock. You can’t just pick up the camera and manually focus this lens unless the lens is set to manual focus-only mode (a switch).
This lens is far from being parfocal – the subject does not remain in focus as the focal length is changed. And, if camera is powered off or in sleep mode, adjusting focal length typically results in a very out of focus subject. But, if the camera is powered on and awake, the lens automatically adjusts the focus to remain on the subject. Essentially, technology is used to overcome the optical design limitation. Nice.
Instead of a slim, raised, knurled area molded onto the end of the wobbly extending lens barrel as found on the IS II, the 18-55 STM gets a real manual focus ring. It remains small, but is incredibly more useful. No longer does the image framing change greatly while manually focusing the lens and focus adjustments can now be very precisely made.
Manual focusing is only available when the lens is mounted and the camera is powered on (and awake). The STM system is a focus-by-wire design that needs power from the camera to function.
This is a bare-bones lens — it has no focus distance markings whatsoever.
The 18-55mm IS II lens had a very nice MM (Maximum Magnification) spec of 0.34x, and the 18-55mm IS STM take a tiny step forward with a 0.36x spec. The IS STM MFD tests accurately to its 9.8″ (250mm) minimum focus distance spec. This MM spec is bested by few other zoom and non-macro lenses.
Magnification from wide angle through standard/normal focal length lenses is generally significantly increased with the use of extension tubes. With the EF-S 18-55 IS STM lens, magnification with the Canon EF 12mm Extension Tube II increases to 0.65x and to 1.00x with the Canon EF 25mm Extension Tube II.
And sometimes, the native max magnification is quite adequate:
OK, not everyone appreciates snakes. How about a flower?
Those are 55mm near-MFD examples. The flower photo was captured handheld at 1/6 second.
No current-at-review-time Canon EF-S Lenses are compatible with Canon extenders. These extenders are physically unable to mount behind the EF-S lenses.
One of the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Lens’ best features is its low price. However, low price often comes with sacrifices. And in this lens’ case, build quality is a significant sacrifice. While this lens is built modestly better than the IS II (the extending barrel has less wobble), it is not much different in this regard.
My IS II lens died on the table while working on this review. I had the IS STM lens and a barely-used IS II lens in front of me on the desk. I was mounting one and then the other to make comparisons. Upon installing the IS II, the camera could no longer set the aperture and then gave an 01 communications error. The IS II lens never worked again. The dead lens is not the same model as the IS STM, but … my confidence level is quite low for the STM lens also.
If I was photographing something important, this may be the last lens I would choose for doing so. At least without having a backup lens with me.
Select View: MFD | ∞ MFD | ∞ w/ Hood: MFD | ∞ MFD | ∞ Rotated Compare >
The lens mount is plastic as are most of the other parts. The zoom ring is nicely-sized and it is smooth. This lens is most compact around 30mm and increases in size modestly at both focal length extremes.
It is hard to find complaint in the size and weight of this lens. Few lenses are smaller or lighter. You can carry this lens indefinitely without fatigue.
For many more comparisons, review the complete Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Lens Specifications using the site’s Lens Spec tool.
It always helps to see a lens beside some of its contemporary peers. Shown below in retracted and then extended-with-hood states are the following lenses:
Let’s look next at the last three EF-S 18-55mm Lenses. They are from, left to right:
In the first 18-55mm group picture, the STM lens shows that it is modestly longer with a trimmer waist line. In the second image with each lens fully extended for both focal length and focus distance, the lenses appear to be equal without taking their hoods into account. The difference in height is made up by the non-STM lenses extending with focusing.
The new petal hood design adds to the STM’s height (and has a higher coolness factor). But, this is a positive change because the new hood provides better protection from bright lights and from impact. Of course, there are probably not too many 18-55mm STM lens owners who will pay the relatively heavy price for the hood. And in that case, this is a moot point. A third party lens hood might be a better option for this lens.
Note that the hood will sometimes create a shadow in some images taken using a camera’s built-in flash. Without the hood, this little lens will stay out of the flash’s light path.
58mm filters are relatively small and inexpensive. There are not many situations where I would recommend a quality UV protection filter for such a lens (I rarely recommend low quality filters) because these filter cost too much relative to the cost of this lens. Circular polarizer filters, however, are worth adding to any lens unless your photography never makes use of such.
The recently introduced Canon center-and-side-pinch lens caps come with the 18-55 STM. These caps are much nicer than the old side-pinch-only models.
I purchased the reviewed Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Lens in a kit with the Rebel SL1 DSLR. The savings of buying this lens in the kit vs. standalone are quite good – consider upgrading your DSLR if buying this lens. There is typically a good used inventory of kit lenses available at much-reduced prices (but in unknown physical condition) – because it is not unusual for DSLR owners to decide to step up to a better lens after starting with a kit lens.
Better, of course, is to start with a higher quality lens. The lens plays a significant role in determining final image quality. Put poor quality between your subject and a good camera and you typically get poor quality. Check out my recommended general purpose zoom lenses for guidance with this decision.
Need a lens for your kids? The 18-55 IS STM is a great option for them. You do not need to worry about them damaging your valuable lens. The small size makes this lens ideal for kid-sized hands and the light weight keeps photography fun for kids — for long periods of time.
If you only need the wider angles, this lens might be an OK choice (from an optical standpoint). If your wallet is light or you need to keep your DSLR light, this lens might be a good choice. But only if you understand that you are getting a low end starter lens. If it gains you entrance into the incredible world of Canon EOS DSLR cameras and the incredible image quality they deliver, this lens is worth starting with. You can upgrade to a better lens later.