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Gear Spotlight: Is the 24-70mm f/4 IS Canon’s Best General-Purpose Zoom?

Gear Talk

The 24-70mm zoom range is one of the most popular zoom ranges on any camera, and most manufacturers have at least one lens in that category. Canon’s 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom was getting fairly long in the tooth, and its replacement, the Mark II, has garnered widespread praise and accolades from users and reviewers alike.

Lost in all of that was Canon’s 24-70mm f/4L IS zoom, which was released a few months after the f/2.8 version. This odd lens, which is, ostensibly, the replacement for Canon’s similarly long in the tooth 24-105mm f/4L IS lens, came as something of a disappointment. Why, people wondered, did Canon kill the additional 35mm of zoom range from this lens, and why would anyone opt for this lens over the sharper and faster f/2.8 Mark II?

Well, I’ve been using this lens for the last few weeks as I work up a series of video articles for you folks, and I’m starting to think that this dark horse of a lens is a hidden gem.

Bad figures of speech aside, there’s a lot to like about the Canon 24-70mm f/4L IS lens. Let’s start with the “IS” part.

IS stands for Image Stabilization, and the 24-70mm f/4 lens, like many of Canon’s other lenses, has that. What’s unusual is that this is only the second lens in Canon’s lineup to feature the newer “Hybrid IS” system.

Most image stabilization systems have the ability to compensate for movement or vibration in an up-down and side-to-side direction. Canon’s Hybrid IS system goes one step further, adding compensation for camera shift in both vertical and horizontal planes.

Canon's Hybrid IS system

Canon’s Hybrid IS system

For photographers and filmmakers alike, this additional image stabilization comes in handy. Filmmakers, especially, will appreciate the additional stabilization when using the lens on handheld rigs, as stabilizers like Glidecams tend to shift in the vertical plane.

The IS comes together quite nicely with the next feature of the 24-70mm lens: its Macro function.

Now, the word “Macro” is often attached to many lenses that purists don’t consider “true” macro lenses. The Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, the 24-70 f/4′s predecessor, has that designation on its barrel, but has a magnification factor of 0.23, or just shy of 1/4 size reproduction. “True” macro lenses like the Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro have a full-size reproduction capability, which means that the lens is capable of a 1:1 magnification factor. Some, like the mildly insane Canon MP-E 65mm lens, can go even higher, producing a 5X magnification. Others, like the Zeiss 100mm f/2.8 Makro, can do 1/2 size reproduction, or 1:2 magnification factor.

The zoom switch on the lens barrel engages the Macro mode.

The zoom switch on the lens barrel engages the Macro mode.

The Canon 24-70mm f/4L IS lens has a special switch on its barrel that engages the macro mode, and when that’s engaged, the lens is capable of a .7x magnification, which is pretty darned impressive for a general-purpose zoom. That’s better than the Zeiss 100mm Makro lens, and in practice, it works pretty darn well.

Macro shot with the Canon 24-70mm f/4 lens

Macro shot with the Canon 24-70mm f/4 lens

The shot above was taken at 1/30th of a second at f/4. The depth of field is minuscule at that aperture, but the shot is pretty  sharp, considering that it was hand-held. The image stabilization works really well, and the optics are more than capable of doing justice to the subject. Having a slightly wider macro lens than the 100mm f/2.8L IS is pretty handy, and I found myself putting that lens aside in favor of the 24-70mm.

There are other benefits to this lens as well. It’s smaller and lighter than the 24-70 f/2.8 lenses we carry, which makes moving around the field a lot easier. It’s plenty-fast at focusing, too, as it’s equipped with the USM motor that allows for silent autofocus (very useful when shooting video). The optics aren’t as sharp as the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L Mark II, which has achieved something of a cult status due to its amazing optics, but they are better than the Mark I version of that lens, and certainly better than 24-105mm it purports to replace. Yes, you give up that extra stop of light and the additional shallow depth of field, but f/4 is still plenty wide for most uses, and the light can be compensated with ISO shifts.

In the weeks ahead, you’ll be seeing a number of videos that are part of  a series of articles on the Magic Lantern-equipped 5D Mark III. A vast majority of those were shot with this lens, and I’ve had no complaints about it at all. Watch for those articles in the days ahead.

As always, questions and feedback are welcome in the comments below.

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. You can find his portfolio on his website at sohail.me as well as on 500px and Flickr.

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Comments

  • When shooting video the optical sharpness is not as much an issue since HD video is only about 2MP, 1/10 the resolution of most mid to pro level bodies in Canon’s current DSLR lineup.

  • Tim ONeill says:

    I have the 24-105 IS and love it. Not sure if the 24-70 IS would make a big difference…until I got to the macro part. I’d certainly rent one to give it a try.

  • […] to go for zoom lenses with fairly large zoom ranges, such as 18-70mm and 70-300mm, although fast, prime […]

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