Anyone who spends any time in photography forums discussing Canon lenses has seen this topic come up regularly: the comparisons between the 24-70 and 24-105mm L zoom options. If you follow this subject you are familiar with posts asking which of these lenses is “best” or claiming that one or another is great and the others are poor, and with the ensuing debates. Rather than re-writing what I have to say about this every time the subject comes up, I thought I would post once here and then link back to this article.
(Update 1/4/13: Things have changed in significant ways since I first posted this review back in 2011 – primarily with the introduction of two newer Canon 24-70mm L zooms. I have made a few updates to this post to reflect those changes. I have now had the opportunity to use the updated Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II lens. It is also a very fine lens and a great performer. In addition, there is now a Canon EF 24-70mm f/4.0L IS USM lens as well, and the Canon 24-105mm f/4L F/4.0L IS lens is still available. Canon shooters have an over-abundance of good lenses that cover the 24mm to whatever-mm focal length range at this point. All three of these current lenses are excellent options and the functional differences among them now are the primary basis for selecting one over the others. If you need f/2.8 and are OK with a smaller focal length range and not having IS, the 24-70mm f/2.8 could well be your choice. If you can get along without f/2.8, are OK with the smaller focal length range, would like IS, can make use of semi-macro capabilities and want a smaller lens, then the 24-70mm f/4 IS lens can be a great option. If you don’t need f/2.8, but do value image stabilization and a significantly larger focal length range, the 24-105 is a wonderful choice. )
(Update 1/8/15: And now there is yet another lens in this general category from Canon, the EF 24-105mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Lens. I have incorporated some information about this option below.)
(A disclaimer: I own and use the 24-70mm f/2.8L II and the 24-105mm f/4L IS, but do not own the older 24-70 f/2.8 nor the new 24-70 f/4 IS and therefore only know the latter lenses by reputation, specifications, test results, reviews, and reports from fellow photographers.)
To begin with, a few general thoughts about comparing lenses and other gear:
- “Best” and “better” are relative rather than absolute concepts – what is “best” must be considered relative to each photographer’s particular needs. Rather than asking “Which is the best lens?” it makes more sense to ask, “Which is the best lens for me?“
- Too many people overstate the differences, suggesting not only that one option is God’s Own Perfect Lens, but that some alternative is Optical Awfulness Embodied. In reality, both options lie much closer together along the spectrum of quality.
- In many cases both (or all) of the compared lenses are excellent. When your personal comparison results in a decision that one thing is better than the other for you, it does not necessarily follow that “the other thing” is no good or even deficient in a general way or for other photographers.
- When comparing lenses, sharpness is not only a more complex topic than it might seem… but it is also not the only or even necessarily the most important factor. Flexibility, size and weight, cost, functional features, suitability to intended use, and much more can be more significant than small differences in image quality.
- It is risky to take online forum reports too seriously. For one thing, people are far more likely to post about a perceived problem than about something that works fine, and when they do post about a problem they can become quite emotional about it. For another, depending upon the particular people who get involved in the discussion, a single incident – sometimes misinterpreted or of questionable context – can become inflated into scores or hundreds of posts and become a negative online meme. One the other hand, confirmation bias can often color the viewpoints of those who own particular pieces of equipment, causing them to speak/write it ways that reinforce the wisdom of their own choices. (Forums are useful and interesting — just maintain healthy skepticism regarding what you read in them.)
- Considering a lens on its own is useful, but photographers also need to consider how a lens fits into the overall set of lenses they use on their camera body or bodies. If you identity a weakness in the performance of one lens, this weakness may be less important if you have another lens that is strong in that area.
- No lens is perfect. Each has strengths and weaknesses, comprising what I like to call its personality. While lens A might have a weakness in some aspect of its performance, lens B probably has a weakness in some other area. The strengths of the two lenses may also be somewhat different.
I start with the premise that all of these lenses are quite good and that excellent photographs can be produced with any of them. In many cases, other reviewers hold essentially the same point of view. While you can certainly find reviewers who will state that one or the other is “better” in a specific or general way (or, in photographic hyperbole-speak, “It blows the other lens away!”), the overall trend is to recognize all of them as being basically very fine lenses.
In late 2012 Canon released an updated version of their 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, adding the “II” to its name to differentiate it from the previous version described briefly below. This new lens produces excellent image quality throughout its focal length range and at all apertures including f/2.8. The f/2.8 maximum aperture slightly extends its ability to shoot in low light, especially when subject motion may be the limiting factor, and provides a bit more control of depth of field than the f/4 alternatives. Canon changed the design of the newer lens to one that extends the front element at longer focal lengths. (The older version extended at shorter focal lengths.) This is not a small or light lens – in fact it is relatively heavy for the focal length range it covers, from decently wide at 24 mm to only slightly telephoto at 70mm. (Note that the effect on a cropped sensor camera would be to barely cover wide angles at all, but to extend further into what is generally thought of as the “portrait” telephoto range.) One other change in the newer lens is the use of a larger 82mm filter thread. This is bigger than the somewhat standard 77mm diameter used in a number previous L zooms, though it shares this diameter with the 16-35mm f/2.8L II. This is the most expensive of the lenses in this category.
EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L (no longer current but available used)
(This lens has been replaced by the newer version II described above. I have left the description here for those who might be considering a used lens.) This lens has a strong reputation as a solid “normal” zoom on full frame Canon cameras. It can reportedly produce fine image quality throughout its focal length range, and the f/2.8 aperture slightly extends its ability to shoot in low light, to deal with moving subjects, and to minimize depth of field (DOF). Resolution is very good for a zoom, though it should be no surprise that the image softens some, especially in the corners, wide open — this is normal. Some report that it is a bit softer than the 24-105, but consider this in the context of both lenses being good performers. It has an interesting “backwards” design in which the lens extends as it goes wider, which has an effect on lens hood function that many regard as positive. The lens is not small nor is it light. The 24mm wide focal length gets to the start of the ultra wide range on a full frame camera, though it isn’t particularly wide on a cropped sensor body. The 70mm focal length begins to get into the short end of the portrait focal length range on full frame, and certainly does “go there” on crop.
This new lens design was released near the very end of 2012. It reportedly provides excellent image quality in roughly the same general category as the other current 24-70 and the 24-105. It shares the smaller f/4 maximum aperture and image-stabilization with the 24-105mm lens, and the smaller focal length range with the f/2.8 24-70mm lenses. It has a relatively compact form factor and it adds a semi-macro capability that may be very useful to some photographers – it is not a true macro lens but it does allow very close focusing. It reportedly is less subject to barrel distortion at 24mm than the 24-105. Pricing is roughly midway between the f/2.8 24-70mm lens and the f/4 24-105mm lens, though expect some variability after this lens has been out for a while – in other words, expect its price to decrease. (Update: Since the introduction it has been possible to purchase this lens at prices significantly lower than the introductory pricing.)
This lens also has a strong reputation as a solid “standard” zoom on full frame Canon bodies. It also produces generally excellent image quality across its range. The addition of image-stabilization (IS) extends the use of the lens by several stops in low light shooting as long as the limiting factor would otherwise be camera stability rather than subject motion. (When it comes to dealing with camera stability in low light, while f/2.8 gets you a one-stop improvement over f/4, IS gets you perhaps three stops or so.) Resolution is quite good for a zoom, being best in the middle of the range and perhaps being a bit less sharp at 105mm, where it is still quite good. As with all of these lenses, the 24mm wide focal length borders on ultra wide with a full frame camera, though it is not really very wide at all on cropped sensor bodies. The 105mm focal length at the long end provides more “reach” and goes will into the “portrait” focal length range on full frame, and well beyond on cropped sensor bodies. For its focal length range the lens has a reasonable weight and bulk. Given its larger focal length range, it isn’t surprising that it exhibits more barrel distortion at 24mm and light fall-off (“vignetting”) at f/4 – in some cases you’ll want to correct for this in post.
(Added 1/8/15) This lens was released by Canon 2014. I have not used it, so the following description comes from reading specs, reviews, and discussions about the lens, and not from first-hand experience. The lens initially might seem like a less expensive version of the 24-105mm f/4L IS lens mentioned above, but it isn’t quite that simple — in some ways it might seem like a less-capable lens, but it also offers some attractions for certain photographers. It is less expensive (by almost half, if we check list prices) that the other Canon 24-105, mostly because it seems to be intended as a sort of “kit lens.” It does have full frame coverage (unlike the EFS lenses) and image stabilization, and the image quality is reportedly quite good. It is lighter and said to have a less solid-feeling construction. It has a variable aperture system with the full f/3.5 available at 24mm but a maximum aperture of f/5.6 at 105mm. It uses a different sort of focusing motor — a design that is less capable in some ways (not as fast and it uses a “fly by wire” manual focus system) and more capable in others (the STM motor is more suitable for AF while shooting video.) Given the list price cost differential this lens seems quite appealing for many users. However, the 24-105mm f/4L IS is often available at prices much below its list price. That lens is ubiquitous because it has been offered as part of a “kit” on some full frame cameras. This lowers the cost in several ways, including when some buyers purchase the kit and then immediately sell the lens. And, for this reason and others, the cost of good quality used f/4 L lenses of this type is frequently about the same as that of the STM lens.
Choosing a Lens
So, how to decide? Rather than thinking first about the lenses themselves think first about your photography. After all, you aren’t looking for The World’s Best Lens – you are looking for the lens that works best for your photography. How do you shoot? What subjects do you shoot? In what conditions do you shoot? What do you do with your photographs? How would any of these lenses fit into your current collection of equipment or the setup you are gradually acquiring? Here are some sample hypothetical cases – though they represent real photographic situations:
This photographer often works indoors in low light and may or may not be able to use flash, often shooting at larger apertures and working handheld. The need here might be to expand the functionality around the “normal” 50mm focal length with a more flexible zoom that still has as large an aperture as possible. The larger aperture permits photography of moving subjects in slightly lower light without a flash, the 24mm wide end lets the photographer work in tight interior situations (among other things), and 70mm is enough to get a bit more reach. This photographer might also use one of the 70-200mm L zooms, and might even have two bodies, one with each lens, making overlapping focal lengths somewhat redundant. While IS might be “nice” on such a lens, expanding its usefulness a bit in some low light situations, this photographer might simply add a flash. It may also be the case that this photographer isn’t too concerned about the weight and bulk of the equipment. The 24-70 f/2.8 sounds like it might be a great choice here.
This photographer most often works in good light, or with static subjects in lower light, and tends toward using smaller apertures – perhaps this person is an outdoor photographer. The photographer may shoot handheld on occasion, but may also frequently work from a tripod. This photographer’s issue in low light is perhaps more the ability to hand hold the camera than it is to stop action. Or perhaps this photographer pairs large aperture primes with the smaller aperture zoom. The 24mm wide end is useful for some shots here, too, but the 105mm focal length reduces the need to switch lenses as often when a longer focal length is needed – and some photographers might get along with just this lens in some situations. This photographer may pair the lens with one of the 70-200mm zooms, too, but perhaps likes overlapping focal lengths, which also can reduce the need to make lens changes or use lenses at the extremes of their focal length range. Or our shooter might entirely bypass the 70-200 zooms, and instead work with a 100-400. If our photographer is an outdoor shooter, the smaller/lighter lens with larger focal length coverage may appeal in terms of lightening the load of equipment. The subjects that this photographer shoots rarely reveal the increased vignetting/barrel distortion at 24mm, and when this is an issue a post-processing fix can work. The 24-105 f/4 IS sounds like it might be a great choice here.
This photographer has similar preferences and shooting approaches to those described in “scenario 2,” but perhaps with a few differences. Perhaps this photographer also uses one of the 70-200mm zooms, values light weight and smaller size, shoots handheld enough to benefit from IS but also shoots from the tripod and can benefit from excellent image quality, and wants to do some near-macro photography. Possibly this shooter also owns a 50mm f/1.4 prime – or other comparable primes – which could stand in for this lens when a larger aperture is necessary. This photographer might well find that the 24-70mm f/4L IS provides the best balance of features.
These aren’t the only possible scenarios and these aren’t the only issues to consider. But do notice that once you let go of the sometimes-distracting question concerning which of several excellent lenses is slightly better in optical terms (e.g. “the sharpest”), you can see more clearly the other important functional differences between the lenses and consider how they are or are not important to your shooting.
In the end, one talented and skillful photographer might choose the f/2.8 24-70 as the better lens for his/her work, another might find that the f/4 24-70 makes the most sense, and a third equally talented and skillful photographer might choose the 24-105.
Note for cropped sensor camera photographers
I often see photographers who shoot Canon cropped sensor cameras (and other photographers, too) falling victim to what might be termed “L lust” or “L-caholism.” They assume that a lens must have a red ring and an embossed letter “L” in order to be good, and they frequently simply dismiss all non-L lenses from consideration. And photographers who are shopping for lenses are often overwhelmed by the “advice” from some “L-caholics” who can’t say anything good about non-L lenses. (Be a bit cautious about folks who are unalterably wedded to any particular lens choice—the “primes only” crowd, the landscape-requires tilt/shift crowd, the expensive-third-party-lenses-are-always-better gang, the f/2.8-L-zooms-only platoon, and so forth.)
L lenses generally are quite fine lenses, both in optical terms and in terms of their robust construction or “build quality.” But this doesn’t mean that L lenses are the only good lenses, nor that the L lens is always preferable to a non-L alternative. One place where this is very true is with several of the Canon EFS lenses that are designed specifically to work on Canon 1.6x cropped sensor cameras. Among these lenses is the EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 IS lens. I mention this because this could well be a better choice than the L lenses discussed above if you are a cropped sensor shooter looking for a very high quality lens that covers the range around the normal focal length range on a cropped sensor body. It has the IS of the 24-105 and the 24-70 f/4 lenses and the f/2.8 aperture of the 24-70 len in one package, and its focal length range is ideal for many cropped sensor shooters, extending from what might be termed “normal wide” to “portrait length” short telephoto.
The lenses in this article are available from site sponsor B&H Photo:
- Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II Lens
- Canon EF 24-70mm f/4.0L IS Lens
- Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS Lens
- EF 24-105mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Lens
- Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS Lens (for cropped sensor bodies only)
A postscript: This is superficially just an article about photography gear, but here at the end it may become clearer to some of you that I have a hidden agenda. Photography is about seeing. Photography is not about equipment. Indeed, we must use equipment to make photographs, but when we look at the photographs we really don’t think about the equipment used to make it much at all. No one wins a prize for having the highest resolution or the least distortion.
It is easy these days to become obsessed with choosing and acquiring The Best Thing, and people acquiring good equipment for the first time are even more susceptible than (most) experienced photographers. Your photography is not your lens. The lens is a tool that is only valuable to the extent that it supports your ability to make the photographs that you will actually produce.
Resist the call of The Very Best Thing, the lure of “Rated Number One!,” “Lens Scores Highest in Our Test!,” and “Lens Blows Everything Else Out of the Water!” The real questions are about what you will do in your photography, and not about the distractions of acquiring a more expensive thing than the other guy or gal. Get a lens that works for you, head out and make some photographs!
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