For a lens to be remarkable it doesn’t always have to be exceptionally gorgeous, have the highest specification, or cost as much as a small, used car. Sometimes the best lenses are modestly specced and modestly priced. These lenses quietly go about their business, never being lauded with high praise or photographed for Instagram camera-porn.
Canon’s 28mm F/2.8 FDn is just such a lens, and I’ve spent the past week putting this quiet contender through its paces. Shot on a classic film body and on today’s mirror-less machines, I’ve found this little FDn to be an excellent wide-angle offering with just a few minor drawbacks. While these issues may be deal-breakers for some, for many others this just might be the perfect wide-angle lens.
For full specs, pricing, and notes on practical use, read on. Hey, we may just give this thing a chance to pose for a center-fold!
Whether using an old Canon body such as the A-1 or AE-1, or a new mirror-less camera with suitable adapter, shooting the 28mm F/2.8 is the same as any other Canon FD or FDn lens. On film cameras with Auto Exposure modes, set the lens’ aperture ring to “A” and the camera will handle stopping the aperture down at the moment of shutter release to create a perfectly exposed shot. If you want control over depth-of-field, rotate the aperture ring to any F-stop and the automatic aperture lever will preselect your desired aperture, enabling wide-open through-the-lens metering.
These days Canon FD and FDns are easily adapted for use on the modern crop of mirror-less machines such as Fujifilm’s X series and Sony’s exceptional a7. Simply buy an adapter from Amazon or eBay, attach your lens and camera, and enjoy this fantastic legacy glass coupled with today’s modern conveniences. Buy a glass-less adapter that enables infinity focus for the purest results and you’ll be good to go. Shooting this way requires manual aperture adjustments, but that’s a small trade for the abilities gained through the use of these masterful, new machines.
The 28mm F/2.8 is aesthetically unremarkable. It looks fine, but it’s not going to impress you with fancy paintwork or shiny metal. Entirely black with a plastic aperture and focus ring, there’s nothing to shout about. The green and white lettering is visible enough in most situations and the red alignment dot is of the 3-D variety (rather than painted on), something I personally appreciate for its facilitation of rapid, eyes-free mounting.
If there’s anything noteworthy about the way this lens looks, it’s that it looks just like every other FDn. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does create one drawback that people may not immediately consider; it can be difficult to pick the lens out of a bag full of lenses. If you’re carrying a 50mm, 28mm, and a 35mm FDn in a camera bag, good luck differentiating between the three when it comes time to swap lenses. Is this a big problem? Not really. Just something that occasionally happens to those of us with less-than-stellar eyesight, or those who spend their time shooting in the dark.
Non-optically related build quality is fine, typical to the established ethos of this lens. It works without providing much in the way of superlatives or liabilities. It’s made with Canon’s relatively strong polycarbonate (plastic), a very durable material that I’ve never broken in a drop. It can happen, of course, but to be honest metal lenses tend to dent and bend in more destructive ways than do Canon’s plastic shells. If you drop this lens it’s likely that it will still function well, aside from a few scratches.
If I’m really looking for a downside to the use of plastic it’s to be found in the filter threads. While dropping this lens from a standing height will almost never result in catastrophic damage, it’s landing on the filter ring will likely leave you with a lens that’s no longer able to accept filters. Again, slim chance, but this is the weak link in the 28’s construction.
Conversely, the copious use of plastic offers benefits as well. It’s helped to create one of the FDn range’s lightest lenses. At 170g, this lens is the second lightest FDn you’ll find. It’s also exceptionally compact, being only 40mm long and 63mm in diameter.
Optical build quality is exceptional, and one half of the reason this lens is noteworthy (the other half being its price relative to this optical quality). Using seven elements in seven groups (that’s right, every element is floating alone), Canon created one of the most optically pure wide-angle lenses you’ll find. Distortion is virtually nonexistent due in large part to the arrangement of these elements. Spherical aberration is almost entirely corrected, resulting in images that are highly-detailed and perfectly resolved.
That said, distortion does present itself when shooting subjects at extremely close proximity. Common in all wide-angle lenses, get a subject within a foot of the lens and you’re likely to see exaggerated forms, warped perspectives, and long faces diminishing rapidly into the distance. Canon’s lens manual states that you can use these characteristics intentionally to “distort the subject… for a dynamic, three-dimensional effect.” This is true; just remember that wide-angle lenses draw the subject closer and push away the background. Shoot accordingly.
Many people will say that these lenses are great for landscapes. That’s right, but it’s important to include a subject in the foreground of your landscape. If you shoot a 28mm lens at a line of trees 300 yards away, expect to make a boring photo. Without a bit of foreground filler, every shot from a wide-angle lens will look like a barren wasteland. Used indoors or for street photography the 28mm shines, making small spaces look large and dynamic, and giving your street photography an “up-close-and-personal” feeling.
The lens uses Canon’s Super Spectra Coating (S.S.C.) from the previous generation of higher spec FD lenses. This isn’t as magical as it sounds, but rather is Canon’s term for lenses featuring multi-coating as opposed to the single-coated Spectra Coating (S.C.) of their previous lower end lenses. It should also be noted for clarity that all FDn lenses (aside from the 50mm F/1.8) benefit from implementation of the higher-end S.S.C.
What’s all this nonsense mean? Essentially that you won’t find a better FD lens for controlling optical aberrations like color-fringing, ghosts, and flares. That said, this lens doesn’t do a very good job of controlling ghosts and flares.
Shooting into sunlight will almost always result in unwanted anomalies. In some cases this is a seriously pronounced issue, even with the lens stopped down substantially. It’s been reported that using a lens hood will help mitigate this issue, but in my testing I’ve found shielding the sun from direct contact with the front element does little to reduce ghosting. Unfortunately, I’ve stumbled upon this lens’ biggest weakness. It will be up to each individual user to decide if it’s a deal breaker. But aside from this, the S.S.C. does an excellent job of mitigating chromatic aberration, a galling anomaly that can instantly ruin many photos.
Canon’s multi-coating does help to create really strong contrast and color. The images made with this lens, even shot wide open, are among the sharper shots you’ll see from a lens at this price-point. The sharpness at F/2.8 is pretty amazing, certainly better than other comparable lenses even when those lenses are stopped down a bit. To further sharpen things, stop this lens down to F/4 or F/8 and detail becomes truly among the best in the business. Sharpness extends from the center of the frame right to the edges at almost every F-stop, and even at its widest things are very crisp with only minimal softness at the very edges of the frame.
Wide open there’s a bit of light-falloff (vignetting) that resolves itself fairly quickly around F/4, but this is common in wide-angle lenses, is easily solved in post-processing, and can be used for artistic impact if desired. For these reasons, I don’t see it being much of a problem in the grand scheme of things.
It’s true that the bokeh-obsessed photo geek won’t be blown away by this lens; it’s a wide-angle lens after all. But to be fair it does make “okay bokeh”. While naturally not as well-blended as bokeh from faster lenses of a longer focal length, it is decent compared to what I’ve seen in a 28mm at this price-point. The very close minimum focusing distance of 0.3 meters (1.0 feet) helps coax some nice blur, drawing attention to the sharp foreground subject while casting the background in as fuzzy an aspect as possible. Bokeh highlights present as slightly polygonal, due to the relatively few number of aperture blades (five). So while this lens can make decent blur, you’ll only see completely circular bokeh-balls when shooting wide open.
Videographers will be happy with this lens’ giant field-of-view, incredible sharpness, its close focusing distance, and its rapid focus throw. Rotation on the focus ring can dial things in quickly and fluidly. Depth-of-field is excellent, yet subject isolation is still possible when shooting detailed close-ups. Just watch out for those flares and ghosts on sunny days.
When looking to buy, keep in mind the general principal of information asymmetry. Buyers who don’t or won’t disclose the status of a lens aren’t worth your time. If the listing is sparsely informed, ask questions of the buyer. Watch for lens fungus, oily aperture blades, excessive dust or damage, and move on if any of these issues are present. The 28mm FDn was one of Canon’s best-sellers. As such, there’s a surfeit of inventory such that you can easily source one elsewhere. As always, our own F Stop Cameras is a great place to start your search.
There’s also an earlier version of the 28mm F/2.8 FDn, easily distinguishable via its breach-lock mounting device. If the lens has a silver ring around the base, you’re looking at an earlier FD. There’s nothing wrong with these lenses, construction and build quality are indistinguishable from the FDn, but they will only offer Spectra Coating which I’ve already touched upon. Given that market prices for both the FD and FDn are virtually identical, it makes sense to go for the FDn and its higher grade coatings, unless you’ve some kind of special preference for the original.
In either case, those looking for a well-rounded wide-angle lens need look no further than the 28mm F/2.8 FD/FDn. It’s affordable, capable, quietly confident; what more do you need? Sure, it’s not the fastest lens, but it doesn’t claim to be either. Use this lens within its limitations and if your photos aren’t very good you’ll have no one to blame but yourself. If you want an amazing, no-nonsense, wide-angle lens for less money than many people spend on a week’s worth of coffee, here it is.
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