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Review – Canon TS-E 24 f/3.5L II

Review – Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II (Tilt-Shift)
By: Justin VanLeeuwen | Twitter
Discuss the Canon TS-E 24 f/3.5L II 

Choosing a tilt shift lens can be pretty tricky. Why would you need one? I have a Canon 24-70 f/2.8 L (faster and “zoomier”), a 17-40 f/4L (for posterity) and I had a 24 1.4 II L for a bit before I realized I couldn’t effectively focus the darn thing. All of these lenses, though, are cheaper to purchase than the Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5 L; so why?

You need one because it does things no other lens can do. It tilt, it shifts, and it’s sharper than any other 24mm Canon has in its lineup.

Canon TS-E 24 f/3.5L II Tilt & Shift Movements

Sharpness
First and foremost the TS-E 24mm f/3.5 L II is, corner to corner, one of the sharpest lenses you’ll ever use. If you need to photograph something, or someone, that fills a frame at 24mm than this is the lens to use. Of course the premium you pay is for much more, and it’s sometimes tricky to get around what exactly a tilt and shift lens are good for.

Canon TS-E f/3.5L II – Click for Larger

So what can we do with this lens?

Tilt
Yeah, the tilt can make all those cool “miniature” time lapse videos you see, though those are often accomplished with one of the more telephoto tilt-shifts like the 45mm or the 90mm. This selective focus is created by altering your focus plane through one, or a combination, of the Canon TS-E 24mm’s many points of articulation.

By using the tilt feature, you angle the front lens element away from the camera sensor. The resulting effect is that your plane of focus changes. On a “regular” lens, the focus plane is pretty much a straight line perpendicular to your front lens element. You adjust where this plane is with your focus ring, moving it forward or backwards. On fast lenses, like the 50mm f/1.2 you have a very shallow depth of field – that’s the focus plane – and you can make it thicker by increasing your aperture.

Selective Focus Tilt – Click for Larger

When you tilt, you’re angling that focal plane in a way that makes the sides blurry (instead of the foreground and background); effectively creating an infinite depth of field, albeit along a narrow horizontal, diagonal or vertical line. While this has it’s uses, and stopped stopped at higher apertures you can create an infinite level of sharp focus, I prefer to use this lens primarily for the shift.

Shift
Where tilting angles the lens element, shifting moves the whole lens, in relation to the sensor, to the sides. Because you can crank this lens around 360 degrees, you can also shift in almost every direction. Up, down, left right, and at the four diagonals. This is an incredibly quick and easy to way to create panoramic images like I did for the National Gallery of Canada recently:

A before and after showing the individual photos that go together to create a panoramic image. The process is nearly seamless using the shift & Photoshop CS6 – Click for Larger

Shifting has another benefit that is one of the reasons it’s much loved by real-estate, interior, and architectural photographers everywhere. If you’ve ever taken a photo of a skyscraper with a wide angle lens, or even angled your lens a little bit, you’ll now that there’s a key-stoning that occurs that angles all the vertical lines of the building up and inward. Are the walls all angled? Is the house crooked? No.

An example of corrected perspective – Click for Larger

You can go into Photoshop and correct all those lines making them perfectly straight, or just shift your fancy tilt-shift lens up, then re-compose with all the lines nice and true. The shift has provided you with a view that you otherwise needed to angle your lens to get, but the result is straighter and true lines – much more pleasing.

Say What?
Confused? That’s okay. Did I mention you can do any of the above things together? Tilt one way, shift the other – there are many creative opportunities that you may need never explore. This lens does take a bit more getting used to than most. Did I mention it’s Manual Focus only? Yeah, so get ready to use the live-view feature on the back of your camera for critical focus. There’s a bit of a checklist for me when using the 24mm tilt shift on location. Did I lock the tilt? Have I tightened the shift? is it centered? Did I manually focus, have I accidentally adjusted the focus ring while moving things around? I keep a little piece of gaffer’s tape on the hood of all my lenses to “lock” my own focus when necessary.

Accessories
It comes with a lens hood, as do all of the L series lenses, it’s a bit wide and adds to the space the lens will consume in your bags, but it’s removable and you can stow it sideways if necessary. If you’re like me, most of your glass has 77mm filter threads, and you already have an arsenal of filters, circular polarisers and adapters to work with this. Well at 82mm the Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5 L II will make you wish you had bought larger and bought an adapter. Granted, it looks like quite a few other new release lenses are moving to 82mm as well (like the Canon 24-70 f/2.8 L II) so it may be a sound investment to just buy that filter size now. Of course bigger glass filters cost more, but nobody said photography was cheap.

Exterior perspective correction – Click for Larger

Justin’s Conclusion
Unless you’re a manual-focus, zone-focusing ninja, this lens is not for snapshots or people who like to shoot first and think later. You should be methodical and intentional with it. Once you are, though, the results are absolutely worth it. I often find myself taking it out instead of my 24-70, preferring to shoot at 24 on such a sharp lens than any of the other potential focal lengths. I sold my 24 1.4 II to buy the 24 f/3.5 L II. I know someone else who did the very same, and THAT guy loves his fast glass but still ditched it in favour of the TS-E – the tilt shift is truly the best in it’s class.

Pros

  • Sharp like tack
  • Tilt
  • Shift
  • Tilt and shift at the same time!
  • Not too heavy, not too light
  • Build Quality

Cons

  • Learning curve
  • More expensive than other lenses at the same focal length
  • Not weather sealed
  • 82mm filter thread
  • No AF
  • Temptation to do cliche’d selective focus shots

CR’s Take
Honestly, it’s not a lens I use very often. I am never shooting anything that requires perspective correction, however I have used it a few times for landscape work and it can give quite extraordinary results. The ability to maximize depth of field at fast apertures really comes in handy if you can’t get your tripod in a certain position and have to hand hold. Sometimes when I shoot landscapes, I leave the tripod at home so I have freedom to get anywhere fast. It may not be the best technique, but sometimes it just feels good to shoot that way. The lens is wonderfully sharp and holds contrast really well. I find it to be well balanced and relatively easy to use once you memorize which knob does what.

The bad? It has proven to be a bit unreliable as a rental lens. The knobs on the lens are prone to come off or get into a locked state that you cannot get it out of. At one point, 3 in our rental fleet were all at Canon having the shift unit replaced. For whatever reason the broken knobs in each case could not be replaced without redoing the entire shift unit.

So what we have done to combat this? We send the lens out to customers with everything unlocked. Customers in the past would try to turn the knobs when the locking mechanisms were in place and that’s how they would break. It was an honest mistake, as most people were using a tilt-shift lens for the first time. It honestly does not take a lot of force to break them, as I did it purposely on an already broken shift unit. The cost to repair a shift unit out of warranty in Canada? about $700. The replacement of the shift unit will also change the serial number of the lens, so be mindful of that if you ever get it repaired.

So while the lens is reliable in most cases, I do advise unknocking everything when you’re finished using it, or if you lend it to a friend.

All in all, a wonderful lens for anyone looking to get into their first general purpose tilt-shift lens.

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