Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Canon EF 24-85 F/3.5-4.5 USM Review

Thanks to increased work hours, lengthy home renovations, and a new PC, I was out of action for quite a while, but things have settled down now that I've put things back together (that's less figurative than you might think). I had this review nearly completed about two months ago before things ground to a sudden halt, but with most of the obstacles out of the way, these reviews should come slightly more frequently now. Anyways, enjoy!

Once included as a kit lens with various film and digital bodies between 1996 and 2003, the Canon EF 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 USM met its demise around 5 years ago when it was discontinued by Canon. Since then, the used market price for this standard zoom has dropped to under $200, making it an attractive option as a walkaround lens for full-frame bodies. It serves the same purpose well on APS-C too, but there are better options out there for just slightly more money (EF-S 17-85, Sigma 17-70). But despite all this, it remains the only non-L EF standard zoom made by Canon to start at 24mm, making it pretty unique in the lineup. So how well does it fare in the crowded land of standard zooms? Let's take a look.

From an aesthetic and mechanical perspective, this lens is a major step up from typical kits lenses. It's made a fairly nice plastic with a semi-gloss finish, but does feature a metal lens mount. In front of the zoom ring you'll find a dedicaded manual focus ring - it's a bit scratchy feeling, but it performs its function well. It also sports features not often found in this price range - namely a proper ring-USM motor. Thanks to its inclusion, autofocus is as fast as it gets and quiet, all while allowing for full-time manual focus if that floats your boat. A distance window is part of the package too, making life easier for landscape work.

The 24-85 is quite compact, only extending slightly more than 2.5 inches from the camera body when it's at 24mm. Zooming in towards 85mm will see it extend about another 2" from the camera, but even then it's pretty small, especially when compared to other EF standard zooms. Extending it will reveal the lens' dual-barrel construction, part of the reason why it's so small. Sadly, this same factor causes a noticeable wobble in the lens, one that's apparent whether the lens is retracted or extended. Likewise, the lens will extend and retracted by itself under gravity; a bit of an annoyance when working on a tripod that's pointed up or down.
WTB ironing board $1 OBO
Sporting a medium f/3.5-4.5 max aperture, the 24-85 is 2/3 of a stop faster at the tele end than virtually all of its other competitors, giving it a small low-light advantage over its f/4-5.6 cousins. But does the advantage also spread to the image quality realm? ...sort of. Optically, the 24-85 is a mixed bag. Wide open performance is pretty respectable at 85mm, where I have no qualms using it. It's not exactly close to what any of the 70-200s or 24-105 offer at the same focal length, but it nonetheless holds its own. Things improve as you stop down, naturally, and by f/11 you'd be hard-pressed to tell it from more expensive glass.

Mid-frame @85mm on 5D - not bad
Performance at the wide end is a bit of a different story. At 24mm and f/3.5, sharpness is acceptable in the centre, but it rapidly deteriorates as you approach the edge, to the point where it's almost unusable. The below example doesn't even show the extreme corners where it's even worse. Fortunately, sharpness increases significantly when stopped down, and by f/5.6 results are much improved. The soft wide-open performance remains until about the 35mm mark, where it begins to improve, and keeps getting better right through to 85mm.

If you're wondering about the prices, it's a 2007 flyer.

Vignetting is pretty heavy wide open, especially at the wide end. It will be noticeable on a full-frame body, where the vignetting extends further into the mid-frame area than any other lens I've used to date. CA is present as well, but it's not all that problematic - really only visible in the corners, and nowhere near as bad as the Tokina 12-24. Barrel distortion can be found at the wide end, but it isn't bothersome - roughly the same amount as the 24-105L.

I've used this lens for the past 2 years as my standard zoom, and it served me pretty well. I even shot the Toronto Marathon finish line with it back in October (part of why yesterday's Boston bombings kinda hit home for me) and it did the job pretty well when stopped down. The focal length range is great, and the light weight makes it easy to hand hold for long periods (6 hours, in that case). It's since fallen into disuse thanks to the 24-105, but then again I paid $650 less for this.

The Good

  • Faster than your average consumer zoom
  • Fast ring-USM focusing
  • Full-time manual
  • Compact and lightweight
  • Useful focal length range
  • Great image quality stopped-down

The Bad

  • Soft wide open (especially at 24mm)
  • Strong vignetting
  • Wobbly inner barrels
  • Zoom creep
With so many alternative options on the market for both APS-C and full-frame, it's a bit difficult to recommend this, especially when the Canon 28-135 3.4-5.6 IS USM is only around $50 more. However, none of the full-frame alternatives feature 24mm on the wide end, so if having something wider than 28mm is important to you, this and the EF 20-35 3.5-4.5 USM are certainly worth looking into.

To those wondering why all the lens images show it wearing a hood - that's because it's stuck to the lens. I used a $10 ebay hood, which works well except for that whole 'can't remove' thing. I could probably get it off if I put WD-40 or canola oil on it, but since it doesn't add much size, I haven't found the need.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)