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Canon designates their expensive lenses as "L," as in "as expensive as L."
"L" has no specific technical meaning other than Canon has pulled out all the reasonable stops in optical and mechanical design. English-language brochures usually classify the L to mean Luxury, and you may interpret it as you wish. I've never seen anything luxurious about a lens; they don't serve me drinks or bring me towels at the beach.
L lenses usually are well sealed against the elements. Many of them have a gasket at the mount to keep dust from sneaking in and getting on your sensor.
L series lenses make liberal use of expensive design and production techniques, like hand-polished aspherics in the wide and fast lenses and fluorite elements in teles.
The only absolute thing that L means is that the lens will work on all film and digital Canons of all formats, especially full-frame.
If you compare two similar lenses, L against no-L (merry Christmas!), the L wins, but if you compare a bizarre L series lens to a easier-to-design and more normal regular lens, the regular lens will usually be sharper.
For instance, my $2,000 14mm f/2.8L ultra-ultra-wide lens costs $2,000 because it is so ridiculously wide. This lens sees more sideways than it does straight ahead! To make a lens this wide and this fast and to see around corners is much more difficult than designing a normal lens.
My 14mm f/2.8L is the softest lens I own. The $250 50mm f/2.5 Macro is much, much sharper because it's very easy to make an excellent normal lens at a reasonable price than it is to make a crazy ultra-ultra wide lens for any price.
Likewise, the reasonably priced 28mm f/1.8 and 85mm f/1.8 lenses are also very, very sharp (sharper than my 14mm and the 16-35mm f/2.8L at its wide end) with ultrafast focus and perfect ergonomics. Ultrawides are difficult to design and build, which is why they are expensive.
The sharpest Canon lens I've ever used so far is the 100mm f/2.8 macro, which also isn't an L lens.
It's nice to have a red band and an L designation, but never ignore a lens because it isn't an L.
For example, there is no L fisheye. I love my fisheye, and if I only bought L, I'd have none. My 15mm f/2.8 fisheye (deliberate curvy distortion) is reasonably priced, and much sharper than my 14mm f/2.8L rectilinear lens.
So when a hobbyist likes to brag that they "only use L glass," it means they may be missing out on some of the sharpest and easiest to carry lenses.
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