Canon EF-S 18-55/3.5-5.6 Lens Review
Summary and conclusions
The 18-55/3.5-5.6 is a very good lens for $100. It's weaknesses show up at the ends of its zoom range (18mm and 55mm), especially in the corners of the frame when used wide open where resolution and contrast can be rather poor. To get decent sharpness in the corners requires stopping to f8 at 18mm or f11 at 55mm - but you still won't get the same image quality as you would from a a prime or "L" series zoom lens. In the mid range (28mm), performance is pretty good at both center and edge. For a cheap, plastic mount, low end consumer lens, the 18-55 is certainly better than I would have expected. It's not a rival for an "L" series lens, but much of the time it can hold it's own against Canon's full frame coverage mid-range consumer lenses, especially in the center of the frame.
Considering the price ($100) and the zoom range (18-55mm), this lens doesn't really have a lot of competition. I'll rule out the 16-35/2.8L since it's over $1300. I'm sure it's better. If it's not heads will role at Canon... Yes, there's the 17-40/4L, also certainly better based on published reports, but it's around $650 and it covers less range. The 20-35/3.5-4.5 is a bit closer in price ($340) and sharper wide open at the wide end (20mm), but it's not quite so wide and the zoom range is smaller. The 28-105/3.5-4.5 isn't really an alternative if you're looking for a wide-angle, though it only costs around $200 and performs better in the 50mm region. It also zooms to almost 2x the focal length of the 18-55 - but again, it doesn't give you the wide-angle end. The 50/1.8 II is cheaper ($70) and better, but it doesn't zoom and it's not a wide-angle. Of course ALL of the alternatives can also be used on a full frame digital or film body, so that's an important factor if you're shooting with both media.
There is a low cost, small sensor coverage Sigma 18-50mm lens, but it's normally only sold as a pair with their low cost 55-200. There may be a few places selling it on it's own (gray market imports). I haven't seen any reports of image or build quality on this lens. It's possible it may be a viable alternatve to the Canon lens, but my experience with low end Sigma lenses hasn't been positive in the past.
So for $100 you can't really go wrong with the Canon EF-S 18-55/3.5-5.6. Other lenses will certainly outperform it over various parts of its range and if you ever intend to shoot film again (and some of us do), the 18-55 will be useless to you since it won't mount on any film camera and even if you modify it with a hacksaw, the mirror of a film SLR will hit the rear of the lens at 18mm - and even if it didn't there would be severe vignetting. So if you want to shoot digital AND film, the other choices will allow you to do that and the 18-55 won't.
To me it seems like buying the Digital Rebel Kit which includes the 18-55 for $999 (vs. Body only at $899) seems like a no brainer. It's a great "walking around" lens with the same angular coverage as a 28-90 lens on a film camera. It's small, it's light, it's cheap and as long as you know it's limits, its a good performer. Of course there might be times when a 20-35 or a 50 or a 28-105 would yield a technically better
UPDATE 2008: The original EF-S 18-55/3.5-5.6 lens isn't widely available new now (though you may find one used at a bargain price). Even the EF-S 18-55/3.5-5.6 USM isn't around much. The current and widely available version now has Image Stabilization (IS) and the cost is a little higher. However the IS is very useful indeed and even if you have the choice of non-IS or IS, I'd still recommend the IS version. I have tested it and found the IS to be very effective and the image quality at least as good as the non-IS version.
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