Lens review: Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM Zoom Lens

The EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens is the professional standard zoom from Canon, and so far the golden standard for sharpness, contrast and bokeh in a zoom lens. Photographers drool over it and swear by it. Its focal range on a full frame sensor makes it very appealing for event photography. It goes from a wide 24mm to an almost portrait-length 70mm to allow for close-ups. It’s also plenty fast for a zoom — f/2.8 — just about the fastest a zoom lens can get these days. (I’d like to see an f/2.0 standard zoom, but I don’t know when that’ll happen, and the cost will probably be fairly high.)

I’m going to talk exclusively about the 24-70mm lens in this review, but if you’re interested, I also wrote a comparison of this lens and the 24-105mm f/4L zoom. You may want to read that as well, in order to get a better idea of how this lens performs.

As you know if you’re a regular reader, I write about how products feel and the results they give me. My reviews aren’t spec-heavy. I give you my honest opinion about a product, and tell you what results I got with it.

With that in mind, the 24-70mm zoom is a good lens. It’s plenty sharp, has plenty of contrast, and the bokeh is great. I liked it. But it’s heavy — really heavy. When you hold it in your hand, it doesn’t feel that heavy, but when it goes on your camera, your wrist really takes a beating, and it feels as if the camera’s body is going to give. This lens is incredibly front-heavy. That means there’s no chance of holding the camera with one hand for long when you use it. On my 5D, it’s really hard to use the lens without a vertical grip, which gives me more finger room. Without the grip, you have to support the lens itself when you take the shots, and then you have to be careful that you don’t grip the focus ring and impede the auto focus from rotating when you press the shutter button. I use a keyboard and mouse all day long, so I realize I may not be the strongest guy around, but I lift weights once or twice a week. Still, I tell you, this lens really took its toll on my wrist joint and finger muscles. It was a real workout. I didn’t expect this kind of weight from a standard zoom. I did expect it from the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM zoom. If you’re so results-oriented that you’re willing to overlook the weight, great, get it, you’ll love the results.

I mentioned the useful focal range above. Let me illustrate it with a few examples below. At the wide end, you can capture beautiful landscapes… or nice wide angle shots of buildings. At medium range (30-60mm), you can get photos like these. The lens also has a very useful close-focusing range (0.38m), which allows you to get close-ups like you see below.

Let’s talk about low light. This lens has no image stabilization (like the 24-105mm zoom) and that means the maximum aperture of f/2.8 starts to show signs of strain in low light. It means we have to bump up the ISO and make sure the shutter speed stays at or above the focal length, stabilize the camera, and/or use a flash. Like I said in the opening paragraph, this isn’t a fault of the lens — f/2.8 is the fastest aperture for a zoom lens on the market, so that’s just how things are.

I enclosed a few photos taken in low light above. The first was taken inside a piano store, and although there was plenty of fluorescent lighting, I found that it wasn’t quite enough to shoot freely, like I would have done with a faster prime lens. I can’t argue with the sharpness and bokeh though. It’s beautiful.

There’s a second interior photo, where I had to use a speedlite. I used the 580EX II, also from Canon, and bounced it off the white ceiling. The lens does fine with a good speedlite, so that’s no problem.

The last two low light photos were taken in downtown Bethesda at night. For the first, I stabilized the camera with both hands on a balustrade in order to take it. The second photo of a VW Bug was taken handheld from a lower angle.

A lot of photographers use this lens for portraits, so I thought I’d show you a portrait I took with it as well. It’s on my wife’s website, Fun Piano Lessons. The tele end of the focal range is just right for portraits, and the sharpness, contrast and bokeh are great, especially with a wider aperture like the f/4 used in that photo.

All in all, this is a lens that does not disappoint. I expected professional results when I used it, and got them, without a doubt. The only two things that I minded were the weight — in particular its front-heavy distribution — and the lack of image stabilization. But if you were to get this lens and the EF 70-200 mm zoom, you’ll have covered most of the useful focal range you’ll need with just two very versatile lenses. Some food for thought there.

More information:

8 thoughts on “Lens review: Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM Zoom Lens”

  1. I just went through the whole thing with which one to purchase first, 24-70 2.8L or 70-200 2.8L II. I really wanted toe 70-200 2.8 L II… but I bought the 24-70. Why? Because it’s just more practical in more situations. I’ll get the 70-200 2.8 L II next. But what would I do with a 28-135 and a 70-200 where one lens was giving me most of my images, and the other was giving me most of my quality? Gotta start out with what’s most practical, and the 28-135 is not very practical for serious wedding photography with a maximum aperture of 3.5-5.6. IS or no…. it struggled in real world wedding photographic usage.

  2. I am ready to purchase one of these lense to shoot my first wedding:Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM or Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS
    I can only afford one right now which do you think is best for wedding photography.Thank You :)

  3. Andrew, it’s funny you should ask, because I’m about to write a comparison of those two exact lenses. :-) Stay tuned for that. I’m a little behind in my posts, because I’ve been out of the country for the past two weeks, and I’m trying to catch up.

  4. Other than losing out on IS and being able to go as high as f/2.8 instead of f/4, what tangible differences are there between this lens and the 24-105mm?

    I’m planning my future lens purchases and so far it looks like:

    Sigma 10-20mm F/4-5.6
    Canon 24-70mm F/2.8L USM or Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS USM
    Canon 70-200mm F/4L USM (the 2.8 is just too heavy/pricey)

    I’ve just been stuck on the 24-70/24-105 conundrum for a while now :/

Comments are closed.