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24mm vs. 24mm vs. 24mm vs. 24mm

Battle of the Canon 24mm "L" Lenses

I woke up one morning in late January 2003 and realized that I owned four 24mm Canon L lenses. I really didn't set out to do this intentionally. It just sort of happened. Naturally (you knew this was coming — right) I decided that I had to test them against each other. Not just because it might make a good article, but mainly because even though each of these lenses has a very different purpose, I wanted to know how they compared in terms of performance.


In Bloom. Costa Rica — February, 2003
Canon EOS 1Ds with 16-35mm f/2.8L lens @ 24mm. ISO 200

The Line Up

Before looking at the comparisons, here is a brief look at the four lenses and where they fit into my shooting needs.

Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L Zoom

The 16-35mm is the latest ultra-wide zoom from Canon. I had owned the earlier 17-35mm and used it for several years. The new lens is a significant improvement and is my preferred wide angle lens for most uses. Fred Miranda reviewed it for this site in 2002 and his review can be found here.

Canon 24mm f/1.4L

This is among the fastest 24mm lenses available. I use this lens for documentary and street photography. Compared to the zooms it is relatively small and unobtrusive. The 2 stop speed advantage over the overlapping f/2.8 zooms is considerable, and when used an a DSLR at ISO 800 can produce images in the lowest possible light situations.

Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L

This lens replaces the earlier Canon 28-70mm and is a significant improvement. My comparison review of these two lenses is found here. For many photographers this is their everyday "normal" focal length lens. Me too.

Canon 24mm f/3.5 T/S

This is Canon's widest of three tilt / shift lens. I find it indispensable for my landscape work. It is slow, has manual focus only, but it does things that no other lens in my kit can do.

The Test

As I've written before, I do not run a testing lab. What I do are simple test that help me understand how photographic devices compare to each other in the real world. In this particular test I'm looking to compare three things: edge resolution and contrast, center resolution and contrast and vignetting. This is NOT a test of each individual lens but rather a quick look at how they compare in certain areas.

My test subject is one that I often use, a view of downtown Toronto. It's boring, but it always remains the same, and this allows me to perform repeatable tests over a long period of time.

I took 3 frames with each lens using the Canon EOS 1Ds. At the lens' widest aperture, at f/4 and at f/8. For simplicity sake I am only showing results at the lens' widest aperture and f/8. Please note that I have used an identical amount of USM on each image. Without correcting the accutance of the reproductions an accurate evaluation isn't possible. I have also not tried to correct each image for matching brightness, contrast and colour balance.

Since these reproduced frames are quite small you may not be able to tell too much from them. My suggestion is to read my conclusions, described under each lens' section, and then my final comparison at the end of the article.

Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L Zoom
(shown above full frame, wide open @ f/2.8)

Center @ f/2.8
Edge @ f/2.8
Center @ f/8
Edge @ f/8

This lens performs very well wide open and at optimum aperture. There is almost no vignetting visible at 24mm. There's little to find wanting with this lens at 24mm at any aperture.

Canon 24mm f/1.4L
(shown above full frame, wide open @ f/1.4)

Center @ f/1.4
Edge @ f/1.4
Center @ f/8
Edge @ f/8

Slight vignetting is visible wide open but disappears when stopped down a couple of stops. It's actually quite a bit lower than I would have expected when used at f/1.4. The center displays very good resolution when wide open — better than I'd expected — but the edges are very soft. At f/8 the center and edges of the frame are excellent.

Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L Zoom
(shown above full frame, wide open @ f/2.8)

Center @ f/2.8
Edge @ f/2.8
Center @ f/8
Edge @ f/8

There is noticeable but not severe vignetting wide open, but it disappears almost completely by f/4. Corner performance wide open is decent and becomes very good by f/8.

Canon 24mm f/3.5L T/S
(shown above full frame, wide open @ f/3.5)

Center @ f/3.5
Edge @ f/3.5
Center @ f/8
Edge @ f/8

As one might expect, there is no vignetting visible at all since only the center of this lens' large image circle is being used. Though this lens has a reputation among some for not being crisp, this is not my finding here or in my regular work with it. Center resolution both wide open and at f/8 is very good and the edges are also very good at both apertures.

Conclusion

I'm afraid that this isn't going to be very exciting. After going nearly blind comparing the center and edges of dozens of frames done at these and other apertures I am left to conclude that all four lenses are capable of doing an admirable job. The only real clunker in terms of performance is the 24mm f/1.4L — and then only in the corners and when used wide open at f/1.4. No big surprise here. This is an available light lens and is unlikely to be used (at least by me) on subjects that require high edge definition at wide apertures.

I could nit pick one lens over the other for ultimate resolution, but frankly I will simply choose which lens to use based on factors other than resolution, since they are all decent performers. The 16-35mm will be used when I need really wide angle coverage, the 24-70mm when I'm working in the mid-range of focal lengths, the 24mm f/1.4 when I'm shooting documentary style available light, and the 24mm T/S when I'm doing landscape work that requires perspective control. Horses for courses, as the British say.

A Word About The 24 T/S And The 1Ds

I have been asked several times about the use of the 24mm Tilt / Shift lens and the Canon 1Ds. People want to know if there is any problem using these two together. The answer is no, there isn't. Why should there be? The 24mm T/S/ vignettes when used at the extreme of its shift capability, even at f/11. But, it does the same thing on film. There is also some chromatic aberration at the edges when the lens is used at full shift, but again this is visible on film as well as a full-frame digital SLR.

A Brief Explanation of MTF Charts
Lens Photographs and MTF Charts Courtesy Canon Corporation


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Concepts: Photography, Photographic lens, Focal length, Full-frame digital SLR, Wide-angle lens, F-number, Aperture, Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III

Entities: Canon, Costa Rica, Fred Miranda, Toronto, ISO

Tags: wide, apertures, vignetting, image, Canon EOS, focal lengths, focal length lens, wide angle lens, widest aperture, significant improvement, landscape work, center resolution, available light lens, new lens, Shift lens, Canon EOS 1Ds, fastest 24mm lenses, individual lens, latest ultra-wide zoom, stop speed advantage, lowest possible light, wide angle coverage, full-frame digital slr, high edge definition, Canon 1Ds, large image circle, earlier canon, Slight vignetting, severe vignetting, performance, Costa Rica, optimum aperture, different purpose, January 2003, wide apertures, admirable job, shift capability, street photography, manual focus, repeatable tests