Review – Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS
Last year Canon released the 24-70 f/2.8 L II to much fanfare and praise, but there were a few who were lamenting the lack of what seems to be a staple in all new lenses: image stabilization. There were rumours of an IS version being tested in the wild, but what some were surprised to see when it was finally announced was that it was to be a 24-70 f/4 IS. Fast primes and wide-open zooms get most of the glory in photography. Dreamy, creamy shallow depth of field is nice, but sometimes an image calls for more depth and sharpness. Sometimes a photographer doesn’t need the financial and weight trade-off a faster lens gets you. Sometimes they need something that simply does the job. In my commercial work, I often find myself shooting at apertures of f/5.6 to f/11. Is a 2.8 lens really necessary on those jobs or does the f/4 serve the purpose?
When I first received the Canon 24-70mm f/4 L IS, I had just finished a few weeks of working with the Canon 24mm f/1.4 L II. I was shocked at how they were almost the same size and how the zoom weighed far less. Alone it may not be so obvious, but compared to the Canon 24-70 f/2.8 L (which I own) or the Canon 24-70 f/2.8 L II (which I reviewed), the Canon 24-70 f/4 L IS is drastically smaller and lighter. The body is of a mixed plastic and metal design, but don’t let that “plastic” turn you off, it feels incredibly robust and sturdy.
The lens’ body has the standard “AF/MF” switch, as well as the stabilizer’s “On/Off” switch (no explanation needed). However, opposite to these, there is a clever little “Macro/Lock” switch. The lock is pretty straightforward: by pulling the switch back towards the camera, you prevent the lens from accidentally extending. A nice touch to the lock is that the lens will break free with a soft “click” when you turn the zoom ring. No chance of ruining the lens by force if you’ve locked it and forgotten; not that it was loose when it wasn’t locked, but zooms do loosen with use and age. When you’re zoomed in at 70mm and want to get in closer to your subject, pressing that same switch forward will allow you to zoom into the “macro” range. I will note that, while handy in a pinch, the physical working distance to objects is incredibly close, so close as to block off light and bump the lens hood against anything you’re trying to photograph. Unlike locking at 24mm, you have to push the switch forward again to disengage from macro mode and resume shooting in your normal 0.38m-5m focus range. (an interesting note, exif data reads out Macro at “80mm”>
The focus and zoom rings are a good size, the rubber grip is relatively small at just over 1 cm wide compared to much larger lenses, but not so diminutive as to be unusable or even frustrating. I don’t know how this applies to video rigs that rely on focus shifts, but for stills they’re well placed and easy to use.
AF is fast and accurate. At no point did I have any issues with the AF, the noise, the speed or anything; it just works, and works well.
The front lens element has a familiar 77mm thread, so many of my filters already fit and work with it. Canon has also included their own version of the popular centre-pinch-lens cap. While this is a nice design, I didn’t exactly dislike the older lens caps except, perhaps, on telephoto lenses with their hoods attached which benefit from the centre-pinch style. In most cases I felt the caps were secure and held well. Maybe I just have to get used to it, but I sometimes found myself misplacing the cap on the front of the lens, and it popped off in my bag a few times.
Overall this is a true “L” series lens, from weather-sealing at the base to the high-quality front element, you can be sure this lens will withstand more than a few bumps and bruises.
Let’s be honest, f/2.8 gets all the love. Why? The obvious arguments are for separation of your subject from the background with a shallow-depth of field, and low-light situations. I can shoot at 70mm f/4 and get a respectable amount of background blur, not to mention my subject is mostly in focus now. I can’t say the same for faster lenses. With every new generation of camera body, comes a significant advancement of low-light gathering abilities. The high ISO’s in todays camera allow you to easily stop your camera down for added clarity and depth in the scene. Like most (all?) lenses, the Canon 24-70 f/4 L IS vignettes wide-open at f/4 across the focal range, worse at the wider end, and it improves slightly as you stop down. Another issue is that at 24mm, the image is very distorted. This is also correctable in software, but combined with heavy vignetting even up to f/8, you’re looking at some significant compromise.
I don’t run any sharpness test, and neither do my clients when I submit work; you can find those all over the internet from people interested in that level of accuracy. I can see the lens is perfectly sharp for my needs, even wide-open. I think that at f/4 it’s better than my Canon 24-70 f/2.8 L, but can’t say that it’s the case for the 2.8 version II. That lens was ridiculously good, and it would be hard to improve on it, especially stopped down to its sweet-spot.
I was impressed with how well this lens handled chromatic aberration. I shot a on an overcast day with snow on the ground – perfect light to dark conditions that make it stand out – and there was some chroma, mostly at the lens edges, but it was hardly noticeable.
People make a big deal about IS, and I absolutely love it on telephoto lenses. Stabilization helps reduce the lowest usable shutter speed at a given focal length. So on a 200mm lens and a full-frame camera body, you would want a shutter speed of at least 1/200th of a second to get relatively sharp results and 1/80th at 70mm. That said, IS doesn’t stop action, or your subjects from moving – it helps lock up your own camera shake. It’s handy in tight situations, and if you need to shoot at 1/40th or 1/60th of a second it will certainly help. I’ve never been overly concerned about my ability to hand-hold 24mm at 1/25th of a second or less, but having it certainly won’t hurt. Clearly it’s even better suited for subjects that already don’t move in dark situations where the IS will effectively counter camera-shake.
Who’s it for?
Lightweight, wide-angle to telephoto with macro capabilities (albeit not particularly useful) and image stabilization make this an ideal landscape photographer’s lens. 24 mm is very common for use in the field, and the versatility of a zoom just buys the photographer more options. As I mentioned, it’s as small as the 24mm prime, and weight is everything if you’re out trekking for a few days.
Commercial photographers working indoors but requiring totally in-focus and sharp portraits will welcome its slightly lower cost than the f/2.8 II’s, and will benefit from the versatility IS buys them at slower shutter speeds. Of course, if you’re working with a flash, you may want to choose something with a bit more output, as the smaller aperture requires more light.
While I never bring my 24-70 f/2.8 L to architectural shoots because of its weight, I might be more inclined to bring the 24-70 f/4 L IS along. It may not replace my 24mm f/3.5 L tilt-shift, but the other focal lengths could certainly come in handy, and it might be a good lens for someone looking to get into interior work. Vignetting at f/4 might be an issue, but much of that kind of work is shot well above that aperture.
Travel photographers or hobbyists who just like good images will welcome the light weight and popular zoom focal range. Travelling light and inconspicuously is an advantage and the lens is short enough to not draw too much attention to itself.
While 70mm still isn’t a particularly strong telephoto zoom, it will work well in a kit paired with some primes, or more obviously the Canon 70-200 f/4 L IS; these two lenses were made for each other. As of now, Canon has created a secondary f/4 “Trinity” of lenses if you include the 17-40 f/4L.
If you’re a bokeh-loving wide-open lens kind of person, you’ve probably already dismissed this lens. F/4 isn’t in your vocabulary. Some of us appreciate a depth to our images that can reveal layers of detail and interest. Yes, the faster lenses, when stopped down, will likely be sharper at f/4. In the case of the 24-70 f/2.8 L II, it will also cost you significantly more. As far as cost is concerned, I do find the current SRP on the 24-70 f/4 L IS a bit high, higher than when I purchased my 24-70 f/2.8, but still lower than the version two release. These prices drop and settle over time, but like most things, there’s a price to owning the latest and greatest gear.
Zooms can replace a number of primes, allowing photographers to work faster without having to swap lenses to reach a different focal length, or achieve a certain level of telephoto compression. You can quickly switch from a 24mm environmental portrait to a 70mm headshot. The compact nature of the zoom saves even more space in your kit, giving you room in your bag, or the ability to travel smaller and lighter.
I’ve never found the 24-70 focal range particularly exciting. It’s not wide enough to create an interesting level of distortion, nor so telephoto as to create a special compressed and isolated “look” to your subjects. I never LOVED my 24-70 f/2.8 L, I just used it every day. Like that lens, the 24-70 f/4L IS is a tool; one that is more than capable of getting the job done.
- Compact and light-weight
- Image-stabilization for lower light/slower shutter speeds
- Reliable and quick autofocus
- Vignetting at f/4 where many faster lenses will have dispersed this
- Distortion across the focal range, specifically at 24mm
- Awkward macro mode
- f/4 aperture may just not appeal to some