Petteri's Pontifications
My musings about photography, mostly.
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The Slower 24: The EF 24/2.8

The Slower 24: The EF 24/2.8

This article is part of a series I'm (slowly) writing about Canon's original EF prime line-up, that I've dubbed "Ugly Ducklings."

One of the less popular lenses in the Canon "Ugly Duckling" line-up is the EF 24/2.8. This is not due to any fault of the lens as much as to the competition. Back in 1988, when the lens was introduced, 24 mm was bordering on ultra-wide, with standard zooms usually starting at 35 mm and sometimes at 28 mm. Today, most standard zooms start at 24 mm, and many of them have the same maximum aperture as the EF 24/2.8. On the other hand, Canon has introduced the very impressive 24/1.4L, which is a whopping two stops brighter. This has left the 24/2.8 stranded: it's little or no brighter than the zooms, it's not much cheaper than them, and many of the zooms aren't half bad optically, even the midrange ones like the EF 24-85/3.5-4.5 USM. Apart from a slight edge in optical quality, pretty much the only thing it obviously has going for it is size: like all the Ugly Ducklings, it packs an impressive picture-taking wallop into a very small canister. And like the other Ugly Ducklings, it's a lens whose charm takes a while to learn to appreciate -- yet if you're the right type of shooter for it, it has the potential to become one of your "indispensables" -- the lenses you'd never leave home without.

The EF lens system always had a reputation for being a bit thin in the wide-angle. Indeed, there were only two wides in the 1987 line-up: the medium-wide 28/2.8 and the 15 mm diagonal fisheye. Early adopters had to wait until the next year for the 24/2.8, and until 1991 and 1992 to get anything rectilinear and wider than that. However, if there's something actually wrong with Canon's wides, the 24/2.8 isn't it. The 24/2.8 was an improved version of the FD 24/2.8, which was already in its second generation. It uses a pretty typical 10-element reverse-telephoto design, and incorporates a floating group to keep aberrations under control at different focusing distances. Like the 135/2.8 SF, the 24/2.8 is internally focusing (that is, it doesn't change size when focused).

24/2.8

The 24/2.8. I bought mine used. It has seen better days, and a sleepy camera repair guy put on the front bezel top to bottom, but it works as well as the day it came off the assembly line. I had to have it cleaned, though, since apparently a long stint at the back of a drawer had caused lubricants to pool up and get sprayed onto an element inside; this caused all kinds of funky flare effects in extreme conditions. It hasn't happened since, and I don't think this has anything to do with the lens.

Resolution and contrast

The 24/2.8 is a solid, unsurprising performer, at least if your expectations are set by the other Ducklings. Center sharpness is very good wide-open and peaks already at f/4. Corner sharpness is good wide-open, improves to excellent by f/5.6, and peaks at f/8; I would even rate it as remarkably good for a lens this wide. It's clearly the best performer in this respect of all my non-telephoto lenses. The floating system helps keep aberrations under control at all focusing distances; the lens performs just about equally well at close and far distances. Center sharpness is slightly better at open apertures with medium to long focus distances, while corner sharpness is the opposite: a bit surprisingly, it's somewhat better close up.

24/2.8
24/2.8

Above, center crops from the 24/2.8 at close focusing distance, wide-open and at f/4.0.

24/2.8
24/2.8

Above, corner crops from the 24/2.8 at close focusing distance, wide-open and at f/8.0.

24/2.8
24/2.8

Above, center crops from the 24/2.8 at far focusing distance, wide-open and at f/4.0.

24/2.8
24/2.8

Above, corner crops from the 24/2.8 at far focusing distance, wide-open and at f/8.0.

The lens has excellent contrast, almost as good as the 135/2.8 SF, and among the best wides I've used. Low-key tones get rendered faithfully, and the images have a lot of clarity and "pop" to them. However, at open apertures contrast does drop off a bit towards the corners, in addition to the effects of light fall-off. The contrast drop takes the form of a slight radial "smearing" overlaying an otherwise sharp picture.

Check out the detail under the shaded arch above the window in the brick wall crops for a contrast example, and the corner crop with the book spines for an example of the corner smearing.

Flare, vignetting, and distortion

The 24/2.8 is about average with regards to flare handling (for what it is). I have used lenses that are wider and more flare-resistant, namely the Sigma 20/1.8 and the Tokina 17/3.5, especially the Sigma. However, most zooms will certainly flare more. The 24/2.8 is quite resistant to veiling flare, but will produce flare spots in extreme conditions. However, most of the time flare handling is not really an issue; for example, after-dark street scenes are not a problem.

You can see some flare spots radiating out from some of the street lamps, but I wouldn't call this exactly objectionable. I like the way the lens renders highlights, too.

Seafood auction in Sète, France. Here's a real-life example of a situation that typically causes veiling: a big, bright window bang in the frame, into a dimly-lit room. The lens has held contrast pretty well; the detail in the shadowed foreground is all still there.

Wide-angle lenses vignette, especially wide-open. The longer the lens barrel relative to the diameter of the front element, the worse the vignetting. Zooms vignette more than primes. The 24/2.8 is pretty typical when it comes to vignetting -- there is noticeable fall-off wide-open, it is much reduced at f/4.0, and no longer an issue at f/5.6 and below. In my opinion, it is a much over-hyped lens characteristic: when people with no experience with 35 mm film transitioned to the EOS-5D, they were surprised to see it: the darker corners had gotten cropped out by the APS-C sensors they used.

It would certainly be possible to get rid of open-aperture vignetting. All it would take is a much wider lens barrel with bigger (therefore more expensive) front group elements. Worth the trade-off in price and weight? Not in my opinion, at least not for the 35 mm format. I'm under the impression, though, that lensmakers take advantage of the bigger lens mount to make designed-for-APS-C lenses vignette somewhat less than their 35 mm counterparts; of course, this means that much of the cost and bulk advantage of APS-C is lost, and we end up with a 17-55/2.8 IS USM that's almost as big and almost as expensive as its full-frame L counterpart (645 grams versus 880 on the 28-80/2.8L of which at least some is accounted by the heavier L build).

Vignetting torture test: shots of my wall lit by bounce flash. Clockwise from top left: f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8.

The 24/2.8 has extremely low distortion: it's clear that Canon has paid special attention to this characteristic. Focus distance has very little effect on it, too; straight lines stay straight no matter what you throw at it.

Street scene in Sète. Hardly any barrel distortion to be seen.

In fact, the 24/2.8 is a boring lens to review, at least optically. Its only faults are a very slight touch of lateral chromatic aberration towards the corners (easily corrected in post-processing). You can basically depend on it to get the picture into the box at any aperture, focus distance, and lighting conditions.

Build and handling

The 24/2.8 has the "nice prime" Ugly Duckling build. It is internally focusing, has a six-blade iris, a floating group to control aberrations at different focus distances, and an overall heavy, solid, one-of-a-piece feel. It has its own twist-and-lock hood bayonet and dedicated petal hood, unfortunately not bundled in by Canon. Focusing is fast, positive, and relatively silent (for AFD). The solid AF performance makes it highly suitable for situational shooting; it will not leave you in a lurch even wide-open, with a moving target and poor lighting.

Young dancers. Shot with slow-sync flash in really bad light. This one was at f/5, though.

The compact size, decently solid build, and good AF performance would make this a rather a nice "wide normal" for APS-C shooters: other than the f/2.8 maximum aperture, a close equivalent of the 35/2.0 on full-frame, only with nicer build. I'm sure it would do well for street photography: paired with, say, a 400D, it would make a very compact and discreet camera with excellent performance both optically and mechanically. It's too bad I didn't buy the used one I came across in Astoria, Oregon, when I was shooting with a 10D: I'm sure I would have liked it a lot with that camera. As it is, I've only used it on the 5D.

So, what's it good for?

The EF 24/2.8 does just about exactly what you'd expect of it. It focuses fast and precisely in situational shooting, delivers very good center sharpness wide-open that degrades gracefully towards the corners, has excellent sharpness across the frame stopped down to f/8...f/11 or so, is highly flare resistant, and produces very pretty images. In other words, you can use it for anything you want to use this type of lens: it's a discreet street shooter for APS-C, does landscapes or close-quarters situationals on full-frame, and does all of it in a very small package.

I don't do landscapes much, but I'm rather proud of this one. It's actually a panorama, stitched together from three frames from the 24/2.8. It's called "Storm approaching Beirut," and I took it not too long before the one of summer, 2006, actually hit.

It doesn't really have any glaring flaws that I can think of; its only problem is that like many of the Ducklings it has been upstaged by newcomers, especially the wide variety of excellent ultra-wide and standard zooms. I mean, if you already have a 17-40 and a 24-85, what, exactly, would the 24/2.8 add to your bag?

  • Compared to the Canon 24/1.4L, the 24/2.8 is two stops slower, a lot smaller, one third the price, lacks USM and FTM, and about as sharp.
  • Compared to the Sigma EX 24/1.8, the 24/2.8 is a bit over a stop slower, much smaller, handles much better, distorts less, and costs about the same.
  • Compared to the Canon 24-85/3.5-4.5 USM, the 24/2.8 is a bit brighter, a bit sharper in the corners, a bit smaller, vignettes less, flares less, and costs about the same, but it lacks USM and FTM, and of course doesn't zoom. (It compares rather similarly to just about any standard zoom you might want to look at; of course the better ones are much more expensive and bigger and the cheaper ones are not as good optically and lack certain build features.)
  • Compared to the Sigma EX 12-24/4.5-5.6, the 24/2.8 is much, much better in the corners, has a good deal better contrast, and is much smaller and somewhat cheaper. Less extreme wide zooms would certainly compare better against it; from what I've seen, the 17-40/4.0L is roughly equal to it at the same focal length.

On the other hand, if you're a prime-o-phile, really hate flare, or consider portability and optical bang for the buck as very high priorities, you won't be disappointed with the "little 24." It's as solid, dependable, and well-balanced a lens as any I've used. Like all of the Ducklings, its greatest strength isn't in any single characteristic, but rather the very well-balanced mix of characteristics it brings to the table. Personally, there isn't a 24 out there that I'd rather have.

Power line to the stormy sea, Lebanon, 2005.