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Category: Photography

A New Lens

I’ve been into photography for about 10 years now. Back in 2008 I took the step from a point and shoot up to a DSLR and bought a Canon 450D (aka the Rebel XSi). It’s been a great camera over the years, but for quite some time I have been feeling like I have outgrown it. I wanted a new camera with better low-light capabilities and all the extra options like micro focus adjustments and more megapixels to work with. Last week, I found a pretty sweet deal on a Canon 5D Mark II, so I ordered one.

Part of this upgrade was bittersweet though. For the past couple of years, my favorite lens has been the EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 IS. Though it’s not an L series lens, the image quality and sharpness is incredible. It’s just an excellent standard zoom lens for Canon crop sensor cameras. Unfortunately, with the 5D being a full frame camera, the 17-55mm simply won’t work with it.

I had to decide what to do for a new walk-around lens. I thought about going the all-primes route. I love my 50mm prime, and the image quality of primes is top-notch. But primes don’t fit my style of photography as well, so I decided to stick with the zooms. I was left with a few options. If I wanted to keep an f2.8 aperture, I could grab a 24-70mm f2.8L II, or buy the older 24-70mm f2.8L on the used market. The first version of that lens is pretty heavy. The second version is lighter, and crazy sharp, but costs over twice as much. If I decided that f4 would be a good enough aperture, then I could go for the just-announced 24-70mm f4L IS, or the 24-105mm f4L IS (which is the kit lens of the 5D Mark II). Finally, Tamron has a nice 24-70mm f2.8 VC lens, which is the only full frame lens in this zoom range that offers both a wide f2.8 aperture and image stabilization.

While the Tamron was tempting, I decided to stick with the Canon options. I also threw out the 24-70mm f2.8L II pretty quickly, because it’s well outside my budget.

That left the used 24-70mm f2.8L and the f4 zooms. Each of these lenses come with a compromise. The 24-70mm f2.8L doesn’t have IS, and is a bigger and heavier lens. I wasn’t sure I wanted to carry around that extra weight all the time. The 24-70mm f4L IS is a new lens, and is rumored to be sharper than both the others, but costs about $500 more. The 24-105mm f4L IS has the extra zoom range, but isn’t as sharp as the 24-70mm f4L IS. So I could go for speed, sharpness, or range. This is a pretty tough decision for a lot of photographers.

I decided to go for the 24-105mm f4L IS. From the reviews, it sounded to be about as sharp as the 24-70mm f2.8, while being a good amount less weight to carry around and offering more of a zoom range. That extra zoom range was a big deal to me, because often I’ll pack my 70-200mm lens while traveling, and with the extra reach of the 24-105, I might be able to leave that longer lens at home from now on.

After making my decision, I wanted to do an image comparison between the new 24-105mm lens and my current 17-55mm. So I setup a quick composition, mounted my XSi on a tripod, and started setting things up. The camera settings I decided on were JPEG images (to remove any raw processing variables), mirror lock-up enabled, triggered with a 2 second timer, and IS was disabled on both lenses. I manual focused using live view on the digit on the 1 ball and the exposure ended up being 0.5 seconds with an f4 aperture at IOS 100. These JPEGs are straight out of the camera, with the exception of the white balance. I chose the white balance settings from one of the photos in Aperture and stamped all the other photos with it so that all the images would start with the same color settings.

Test Setup

I took photos at f2.8, f4.0, 17mm, 24mm, 55mm, and 105mm. Of course both lenses weren’t capable of all those combinations, but I did every shot I could. Below I’m going to focus more on the 24mm and 55mm focal lengths, because those overlap between the two lenses.

24mm: On the 24-105mm lens, 24mm is as wide as it gets, so the 17-55mm has an advantage of not being all the way at the end of its zoom range. The 17-55mm is also stopped down at f4, giving it an even greater advantage here. So how did the 24-105mm lens do? Well, while both lenses produced similar results, the 17-55mm was a bit sharper and the 24-105mm lens produced richer colors.

17-55mm f4.0 at 21mm

55mm: Here the 17-55mm is all the way at the long end of its zoom range, while the 24-105mm lens is pretty much in the middle. The 17-55mm still has the advantage of being stopped down though. Here, the 17-55mm lens was still sharper, but not by as much as the 24mm frame. The color of the 24-105mm lens was still better, but not by as much as the 24mm frame. This comparison was probably the closest result, and I had to look pretty hard to find any difference at all between the frames.

24-105mm f4.0 at 55mm

Zooming the 24-105mm all the way out to 105mm resulted in a softer image. Some other reviews online mention the 24-105mm lens starts to get soft at around 90mm, and my 105mm shot definitely agreed with that.

How about some uneven comparisons between the two lenses? I looked at 24mm using f2.8 on the 17-55mm lens, and f4 on the 24-105mm. Here, the sharpness is about the same. If I had to pick a winner in this situation, the 17-55mm would be it, but not by much. Again, color on the 24-105mm was nicer.

Comparing the two at 55mm with the 17-55mm lens set at f2.8 and the 24-105mm lens set at f4 was the outlying result. Here the 24-105mm lens was sharper. Not by much, but it was noticeable. The 24-105 also retained its nicer color rendering.

The results were close enough (and only visible by pixel-peeping) that I don’t think I’ll notice the difference day to day with the new 24-105mm lens. But what an impressive showing by the 17-55mm. It’s just amazingly sharp, and I’ve loved using it over the past couple of years. If you’re looking for the best image quality on a standard zoom out of a crop sensor camera, you won’t find much better than the 17-55mm f2.8 IS.

What about other factors? Well the biggest difference in these two lenses is the build-quality. I didn’t take this as much into account when I originally bought the 17-55 (back then I compared it to the 24-105mm as well and decided I wanted the wider field of view). When I unpacked the 24-105mm lens earlier today, I was floored at how much more solid it felt. The zoom rings are really smooth, and the whole thing just feels really solid. I was expecting a difference between the two, but the build quality differences were much greater than I was expecting. The 24-105mm lens is also dust and weather resistant, so you’ll be in better shape if you are out in the elements with this one.

The other difference is the maximum aperture. With f2.8, the 17-55mm lens is much more flexible. It won’t play as big of a role in this switch for me though. Full frame cameras will typically be more sensitive to light because of the bigger image sensor. So I could easily bump my ISO up one stop on the 5D to get the equivalent light of the f2.8 on my 450D (and still have shots with less noise than on the 450D).

I have posted full resolution copies of all the photos to my Flickr account so you can compare them for yourself. You really can’t go wrong with either lens. They both have great image quality, one’s a little wider angle, ones a little longer, but overall their similarities far outnumber their differences.

Canon Medium Telephoto Lens Review

Like most first-time DSLR owners, last year when I bought a Canon Rebel XSi, I started out with the kit lens (18-55mm f3.5-5.6 IS). This particular lens is pretty good as far as kit lenses are concerned. It’s reasonably sharp if you stop down the aperture a bit, and the image stabilization (IS) helps in low-light situations, but one drawback is the relatively short zoom range. 18-55mm (equivalent to around a 3x zoom on a P&S camera) will be okay for most short-range situations and landscape photography, but if you want to take photos from a distance (during nature or sports photography for example), then you really need a deeper zoom. I decided it was time to buy a medium zoom lens around 200mm (10-12x zoom). These are also called standard telephoto lenses, as opposed to the super-telephoto (300mm-800mm) lenses that are often much more expensive.

When shopping for a lens like this, it’s easy to quickly become overwhelmed by the dizzying array of choices available. I narrowed my requirements a bit to help make the decision. I wanted the lens to grow with my photography. Lenses last a long time, so it’s usually a good idea to buy quality lenses that you will be happy with in the long term. I also wanted a lens with a relatively wide aperture so I could get quick enough frame rates for full-zoom images. (Typically, when taking photos, you want your shutter speed to be 1 divided by the focal length on your lens. So with a 200mm zoom, you will want your shutter to be at least 1/200th of a second or faster. This rule doesn’t mean you can’t get sharp photos with a slower shutter speed, it’s just a general guideline for taking sharp photos while hand-holding the camera.) My budget was flexible, but I was targeting somewhere around $500.

After narrowing my criteria, I was looking at 2 different lenses in my price range: the Canon 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS and the Canon 70-200mm f/4L. The Canon 70-300mm goes for just over $500, and some of it’s finer points include built-in IS and an extended range to 300mm. The Canon 70-200mm is just over $600, and is a member of Canon’s professional L-series. L-series lenses are generally very sharp and built with metal exteriors making them more durable. It’s worthwhile to note that Canon makes 3 more 70-200mm L lenses, all of which are far outside of my budget: the f/4L IS ($1100), the f/2.8L ($1200), and the f/2.8L IS ($1700).

I also looked at 2 lenses just above my price range (the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 and the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8). These lenses cost around $800, so they are more expensive than the f/4L, but they are also offer the wider f/2.8 aperture and cost a lot less than Canon’s f/2.8 model. I thought I would give them a chance to see if it would be worth spending an extra couple hundred dollars for the faster glass.

Image Quality

This is the most important consideration for me when purchasing a lens. If you’re going to spend a lot of money on a lens, you want it to be sharp…tack sharp. To my surprise, I stopped considering the Canon 70-300mm much quicker than I expected to. I came across a review comparing it to the Canon 70-200mm lens. About halfway down the page, they have a sample photo showing a 100% crop of the 2 lenses (as well as a less-expensive Canon 55-250mm IS lens). The 70-200mm is significantly sharper to my eyes, and right away I knew it would be worth it for me to pay the extra $100 for the 70-200mm lens. This kind of disappointed me, because the 70-300mm has IS, which can make a big difference when you aren’t using a tripod, but I decided that while I could learn to hold the camera steady, the 70-300mm lens could never learn to take sharper photos.

Between the three remaining 70-200mm lenses, image quality is a lot closer. It was a close call, but the Canon lens seemed just a little bit sharper to me when mounted on a tripod, but not so much sharper to disqualify the Tamron and the Sigma. The Tamron and Sigma lenses could both take photos at f/2.8, meaning they could take a picture at twice the shutter speed of the Canon. Faster shutter speeds = sharper photos when hand-holding the camera, so this one is a real tossup.

Weight

All of these longer zoom lenses have a fairly substantial weight, but the f/2.8 lenses are significantly heavier. The 70-300mm and the Canon 70-200mm weigh in at around 1.5 lbs, whereas both f/2.8 lenses weigh around twice as much. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it makes a difference in comfort when you are shooting without a tripod. The heavier lenses were fine for a few quick shots, but after holding them for a few minutes, it started to be a strain and the extra weight made them more difficult to hold steady. Also, it’s nice to have a lighter lens when traveling, and the f/2.8 lenses really made me question if I would want to carry them along on longer trips. The best lens is the one you’ll use, so here the lighter lenses came out ahead in my book.

Build Quality

Both the Sigma and the Canon have excellent build quality, while the Tamron lagged behind a little in this respect. It’s not that the Tamron lens is bad, just in the middle-of-the-road. The outside of the barrel is plastic, which just doesn’t feel as nice. Also, the Tamron lens doesn’t have full-time manual focusing like the others. You have to slide the focusing ring to switch to manual focus, which is easy to do, but full-time manual focusing on the other lenses is a lot nicer. The Sigma lens has a very nice smooth feel on the outside. It is something of a combination between felt and rubber. If Apple used the same exterior coating on laptops, I would be thrilled. On the flip side, it seemed like it might be the type of material that could get scuffed if you scratched it. The Canon lens has rubber grips for the focus and zoom rings, and the rest is metal. It feels very solid, but I imagine it might make the lens pretty cold when taking photos in the winter time.

Focusing

The deciding factor for me between the remaining 70-200mm lenses was the focusing speed and accuracy. The USM motor in the Canon is very quick to focus, and almost silent when focusing. The Tamron motor, on the other hand, is relatively noisy and I often waited for it to snap into focus. The Sigma is a quiet HSM focusing motor, but it still doesn’t feel like it focuses quite as quickly as the Canon. Since I would like to use the lens for some sports photography, where focusing speed is king, the Canon 70-200mm wins this one hands down.

Bringing it Together

In the end, I’m the happy owner of a Canon 70-200mm f/4L. I’ve had a few weeks to get out and take some nature photos with the lens (I’ve included some here), but I’m still getting used to it. I have found that it usually takes 3-6 months to get to know a lens, and this one has not been an exception. So far though, the image quality has been great, and I’ve been practicing holding stances and relaxing when taking photos, in order to keep the camera shake to a minimum. I think this lens will be in my camera bag for a very long time.

Summer Update

It’s been almost two months since I’ve posted here, so to avoid the risk of this blog becoming a dinosaur, I thought I would post an update.

Katrina and I returned from our 6-7 week road trip in the beginning of July. We drove out to California at the end of May, and stayed with family for several weeks (also hitting WWDC, of course). On the way out there, we took the northern route, hitting Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, the Tetons, and the Salt Flats. On the way back, we started in Santa Monica and drove Route 66 all the way through St. Louis, taking the freeway the rest of the way home after running out of time. We’ll have to drive the rest of Route 66 from St. Louis to Chicago sometime soon. Overall, it was quite a trip. Watch my Flickr stream for photos of the trip.

Been working on finishing up DynDNS Updater 2.0, which will hopefully be ready soon. The app is looking pretty good. A lot of smaller details have been improved upon since beta 5, that collectively improve the application quite a bit.

Trying to spend some time working on Seasonality’s international forecast as well. I’ll post more on this at a later point in time, but I’ve created some cool imagery and animations that I’ll be using to tweak the forecast generator to make it more accurate.

C4 is coming up this weekend! I’ll be taking off for Chicago tomorrow for a weekend of Indie fun. I’ll be showing an entry for the Iron Coder Live contest…which reminds me I still need to fix a bug or two there. Should be a blast. I’ll most likely be keeping my Twitter feed up to date more than posting here about stuff.

Speaking of Twitter, I started Twittering (is that a word?) a few months ago, and I’m hooked. If you don’t know, Twitter is a place to post Tweets, which are short bits of text (no longer than 160 characters), usually telling others what you’re up to. My first thought was how much time I would be wasting by doing this, but the whole idea is that posting a Tweet is supposed to be really quick. It provides some nice breaks throughout the day, and the community building around the site is pretty amazing. Check out my Twitter page, and if you’re interested, sign up and start using Twitter yourself.

That’s all folks…

C4

I’m getting ready to head off to C4 tomorrow morning. I was pretty excited when I first heard Wolf was putting together this conference, and signed up the day after he publicly announced it. With people like Wolf, Gruber, Brent, Gus, and DB all presenting there, along with some people I haven’t met (Steve DeKorte and Brian Fitzpatrick), this should be a really good conference. Things have been pretty crazy here the past few months, so it will be good to get away from the usual work and spend some time socializing with other developers.

While I’m in the Chicago area, I’ll also get a chance to spend some time both with John and my cousin, so that will be pretty cool as well. I’m hoping to have some time left-over for photography, but we’ll have to see how it goes. The Chicago Marathon is this Sunday, so that might give me a chance to practice some action photography.

Anyway, if you see me at C4, be sure to say hello.

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