Reviewing this lens has not been a simple task. As is the case with, say, a new Apple product, many can argue that the original 24-70mm f/2.8 L lens is so good that any improvement would or should simply be a minor enhancement or fix. A new version should just address what little quibbles we all have had over the past several years. Little things. And with little changes should come minor price adjustments, if at all. This did not happen with the Canon 24-70 f/2.8 L II, and thus I am hit with the daunting task of wrangling in this new piece of hardware.
I’m going to start by saying this is not going to be what my friends affectionately call a “measurebate.” I’m not going to stack this lens side by side with the original. I’m not going to post high-resolution test images of the lens’ sharpness next to the original's. If you want to see sharpness tests, see our post here. I’m going to do my best to stay away from comments such as “compared to” or “varies from” when talking about the highs and lows of this lens.
Because comparing this lens to the original isn’t going to get us anywhere. If it’s better or worse, the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t matter. We all know it's going to be a great lens already, and it’s not like you can really select one over the other anyway. The original is no longer available for purchase as new stock from Canon. It’s been retired. Sure, you might be able to find one or two still hanging around in your local camera shop or on some obscure site online, but that’s semantics. The original lens is never coming back, so let’s get over it. If you want a Canon 24-70, you are going to have to get this new one. For those of you who already own the original and have decided to hold off due to cost, I agree with that decision about 70%. Let’s discuss that disagreeing 30% that really digs this new lens.
When I first held this lens, I instantly loved it. It’s light, small, and just feels right attached to a 5D MKIII. It’s a fact that I can’t easily express in words, like a perfect bite of your favorite meal or the way your dream girl’s hand feels wrapped in yours. It simply is right, and that’s all there is to it. A bit of an exaggeration? Maybe. But I won’t back off on what I’ve said. This lens just feels good. After shooting with the II, going back to the original (which I did on several occasions just because I needed a second camera and lens) felt odd, bulky, slow and bloated. I’m not saying the original lens is odd, bulky, slow or bloated. What I am saying is that the feeling of the tools in my hand and the way that I worked felt that way. There isn’t really any better way to explain it, and I urge you to try it for yourself. You can rent the new 24-70 II here, and I really recommend it. Once you try it, you will smile and nod at this rather verbose description of the experience.
Canon reversed the focus ring so that it is most compact at 24mm and stretches outward at 70mm. To me, this is a more logical setup than the original. If I want to get closer, I should physically get closer. If I want to back up, should I not physically back up? It doesn’t affect the performance of the lens at all, but it does just feel more natural. The lens now has a lock on it, so if you like to use those holsters or straps that result in your camera facing lens down, you don’t have to worry about the telephoto popping out and getting caught on things. Small addition that can be argued as being unnecessary, but I dig it.
While still on the note of the telephoto, I do have to admit I would really prefer that Canon have made the telephoto fully housed within the body of the lens. Something about the zoom changing the length of the lens seems cheaper and amateur. Is this just me being nitpicky? Probably, but I’ll bet that there are many of you pro shooters reading this that agree. What Sigma and Nikon have done with their new lenses is simply more appealing, quality of image aside.
No, there is no IS. Do I wish it was included? Hell yes I do. For what I am paying for this lens, I want it to have absolutely everything possible. I’m certain that many of you will agree that the exclusion of IS from this lens will make you balk, and I don’t blame you. A good IS would have made this lens unbeatable. For now, it will have to remain simply extraordinary (but still pricey).
As expected, this lens performs beautifully in regards to sharpness- really quite consistent across all focal lengths and apertures. But honestly, did you expect any less?
Minor vignette issues between f/2.8 and f/5.6 will likely upset some of you, but it doesn’t really bother me that much. Like Lee Morris has said in the past, he often adds a vignette later because his clients dig it. However, the fact that they exist at all is another reason to hesitate on the purchase.
What I liked:
Size and feel
Ridiculously snappy and accurate auto focus in all light conditions
Tack sharp across all apertures and focal lengths
No serious chromatic aberration issues
What I didn’t like:
Lack of IS
Minor vignette issues
So let’s get down to brass tacks: should you buy this lens? Do you shoot on Canon professionally as your primary source of income? If your answer is no, then you don’t need this lens. There are other options that are pretty darn awesome and will suit you just fine. If you answered yes, then you should consider it. This focal length has always been the “workhorse” lens. It does a lot, and you can expect a lot from it. However, unless you plan to shoot with it considerably over the next two to five years, then I find it hard to rationalize the expense. The original was pricey, but manageable. This new price point really makes you think, and I wonder if Canon specifically priced it out of the amateur market.
If you currently love your 24-70mm f/2.8 L lens, you probably won’t be considering the upgrade. That’s fine, no hard feelings. But don’t shut yourself off completely. Flirt with this lens a little. Rent it and give it a shot. I promise, one or two sessions with the new one on your camera body and you’ll be hard pressed to not want the upgrade. It’s not really about what the lens does differently, as we all know the original works great. It’s more about how this lens feels, and its ability to instill a confidence in you that will make a difference in the quality of your work. The question is, are you willing to shell out $2300 for confidence and a slightly more efficient workflow? That’s up to you to decide.