Living with Photography: Testing the Canon 24-70mm F/2.8 II

By Norman Chan

One week with a new $2300 lens.

Those of you following me on Twitter may know that I made a huge photography purchase this month. As a holiday gift for myself, I bought the Canon 24-70mm F/2.8 II lens for my Canon 6D. It's considered one of the "trinity" of high-end Canon zoom lenses: the 16-35mm wide-angle, 24-70mm telephoto, and 70-200mm telephoto, all with an aperture of f/2.8. Together, these three lenses cover the wide range of focal lengths that's suitable for most professional photographers, and at the widest aperture available for full-frame zooms. They're also about twice as expensive as their f/4 counterparts, but are sharp when wide open at f/2.8--my preferred aperture for a balance of low-light performance and shallow depth-of-field in most situations.

Canon's MSRP for this lens is $2300, and Amazon currently has it new for $2000, the lowest it's been priced in the year since this lens has come out (Canon is also running a $300 American Express card rebate for this lens). This is not a cheap lens--it's more expensive than most DSLR bodies, including entry-level full-frame cameras. This is absolutely not a lens I would recommend for anyone who has just bought their first DSLR. It's not even a lens you should necessarily buy if you have an APS-C sensor camera, as there are few solid alternatives that are much cheaper. Sigma's 24-70mm f/2.8 was $750 earlier this month--a third of the price of Canon's L-series lens.

Who this lens is for, then, is someone who has a full-frame DSLR body that can take advantage of it, who is willing to spend the money on this piece of expensive camera equipment, who has enough reason and opportunity to actually use this lens in the field, and enough experience to shooting with other glass that they can appreciate it. I meet all but the last requirement, but that was enough to justify splurging on the lens to at least be able to write about it.

This isn't a review of the 24-70mm f/2.8 II, though. The week and a half that I've had it isn't nearly enough time to evaluate its capabilities, worth, or value compared to alternatives. I also haven't had the opportunity to test other f/2.8 zooms for comparison. My experience follows that of someone who has been using a fast prime lens (in my case a 50mm f/1.4) and mid-range zoom (a 17-40mm f/4), both of which overlap with the capabilities of the 24-70mm f/2.8.

Let's start with some of the specs and physical attributes of the lens that affect regular use, and then look at some sample photos.

Like other Canon L-series telephoto zooms, the 24-70mm f/2.8 is a big and heavy lens. Ther's a lot of glass packed into this cylinder--18 elements, to be precise. It's much bigger than my 50mm f/1.4, and both taller and stockier than the Canon 17-40mm f/4. When mounted onto the 6D, the weight of the camera noticeably shifts to the front, changing the center of gravity to what I'm accustomed to. The lens is 1.75 pounds, which is actually heavier than my 6D's body alone. Together, at over 3.5 pounds, the camera becomes difficult to hold steady and take photos one-handed, like I could do with a 1 pound prime lens. Carrying around the camera without a strap for three hours at a craft fair this weekend was a bit exhausting; I and to change hands and grips every 15 minutes or so.

My buddy Patrick has the Nikon counterpart to this lens, also a 24-70mm f/2.8. He brought it over so I could compare its handling. The Nikon lens is actually both longer and heavier than the Canon, and the Canon lens has a larger front element (requiring 82mm diameter filters). The size and weight advantage of the Canon lens is attributed to a relatively recent redesign--the model I bought is the 2nd-generation revision announced and released last year, replacing the mark I that has been in use since 2002.

Another interesting difference is that the Nikon and Canon zoom rings rotate in opposite directions. The Canon's zoom ring is also stiffer to turn than the Nikon's, but both have loose focus rings for quick manual focusing. The Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 also has a locking mechanism to prevent zooming, but only works at the 24mm focal length.

One thing I immediately liked is the short minimum focus distance of this lens, pegged at around 1.2 ft (.38 meters). I'm a big fan of switching the camera to manual focus to be able to get as close to a subject as possible for macro photos, so this spec was welcome. On the flip side, other owners of this lens have said that images get a little soft at the minimum focus distance, and that you get best results when a subject is at least a few feet away. This is something I'll be looking out for in the coming months getting to know this lens.

One final technical attribute worth mentioning is that this lens has no optical image stabilization (denoted on Canon lenses by the IS moniker), which is present on other L lenses like the stock 24-105mm f/4 (bundled with many full-frame bodies) and even this lens's younger sibling, the 24-70mm f/4. OIS isn't strictly necessary, but becomes very useful the heavier the lens and the longer the focal length you're shooting at. In my first few days with this lens, my 50mm-70mm photos were quite shaky, and I am resorting to bumping up my ISO in daytime shots to 320 as opposed to 200 to minimize blur. This is all handheld, of course.

What you quickly realize after shooting for a few days with the 24-70mm f/2.8 is that this isn't a magic bullet. $2000 doesn't get you four times the shooting power or potential as a f/1.4 prime, nor is the lens simple twice as good as the f/4 model. What you're paying [admittedly a lot] for is the incremental shooting potential of an extra stop of light, which for a telephoto zoom is an engineering challenge. You're paying for the ability to shoot at f/2.8 at a range of focal lengths without having to swap lenses. And really, that's most useful when you're shooting live events or in a situation where time is an important factor. In a studio environment, you're better off buying three great prime lenses at the focal lengths you use the most.

The following pairs of photos shows a bit of the versatility that's afforded by this zoom lens. We'll start with the most basic ability, which is the option to shoot at either wide angle or up close:

24mm, f/2.8
70mm, f/2.8

Nothing too special about those focal length options; 24mm isn't considered ultra-wide, even by full-frame standards (on an APS-C it's closer to 36mm with the crop). And 70mm isn't a terribly powerful telephoto zoom. That's why I'll still keep my 17-40mm f/4 in my bag for trips, for taking large group photos or full-body shots in cramped space. But having a range of 24-70mm means I have more flexibility to compose and frame a shot to exactly how I want it, without maneuvering my body physically closer or further away from a subject. It's still a weird thing to get used to frankly.

This next pair of photos shows the FOV options afforded by the zoom, while keeping the subject the same size. Here, I aimed to keep the LEGO computer model the same size at the center of the frame, and moved closer to the subject when zooming out to 24mm to compensate:

70mm, f/2.8
24mm, f/2.8

What's afforded here by the zoom is purely a stylistic effect; akin to the Hitchcock's Dolly Zoom, but for photographs. It's something you can't do with a fixed-focal length prime lens, and adds another tool to your photography utility belt. I could do this with my 17-40mm too, but most of that range was flat out wide-angle. With the 24-70mm, I'm going to be able to learn the nuances between 40, 50, 60, and 70mm.

Both of the following shots were taken at 50mm, the first one with the new 24-70mm f/2.8 and the second with my Sigma 50mm prime:

Canon 24-70mm at 50mm, f/2.8
Sigma 50mm f/1.4 at f/2.8

Both the shots were taken at f/2.8 and 1/60s, at about 1.5 ft--the closest I could get with the Sigma and keep the foreground subject in focus. The quality of the shots are very similar (you can click them to enlarge), but you can clearly see some vignetting around the corners of the first photo.

Cropping to 100% in this final pair of photos (again, click to enlarge), and you can see that the Sigma gave me a much more accurate and in-focus shot than the Canon. I don't attribute this to the Canon not being sharp at f/2.8 or at 1.5 ft, but with my inexperience with its weight and focusing nuances. Having used the Sigma extensively for the past nine months, I'm just much more comfortable finding focus with it right now. There are also slight differences in color fringing--the Sigma has more of it. On the bokeh side, they are both very comparable, which makes sense since both have big front elements and 9 rounded aperture blades.

Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 100% crop (click for full)
Sigma 50mm f/1.4 at f/2.8 100% crop (click for full)

Let's finish with some samples of unprocessed photos taken with the 24-70mm f/2.8 in the past week. There's a good mix here of lighting conditions, and one thing I've already notices is how much I prefer that 50-70mm range of the zoom as opposed to the 24-40mm wide-angle range.

at 63mm, ISO 320
at 30mm, ISO 160
at 70mm, ISO 250
at 65mm, ISO 400
at 70mm, ISO 2500
at 53mm, ISO 250

That's just one week with the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, and without any controlled lab testing. I'm not sure how much value there is in that since this lens has been reviewed (and praised) to death. I'll of course continue to use it and relay any insights about the experience of using it in everyday product and on-location photography. My hope is to be able to rent two alternatives--the Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 and the Canon 24-70mm f/4--to give you a better sense of whether or not the premium price is worth it.

Also, with 2013 coming to an end, I'll be back next week with my picks for my favorite photos taken this year. It's been a doozy of a photography year!