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The War Wages On: Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM vs Canon Ef 24-105mm f/4L IS USM

One of the biggest discussions in selecting lenses, is usually which one to get. The choices are generally govern by your budget, your goals, need, and in some cases: want. For the most part, the choice is simple, if you shoot in low-light conditions (weddings, ceremonies, events) or need to freeze action (sports), you need fast aperture lenses for faster shutter speeds and then you need to decide on versatility (zoom lenses) or fastest possible glass (prime lenses). An over-simplification for the most part, but the point remains.

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM vs Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens

Photo © Mark Dennison

The Contenders

One of the two choices is for a mid-range L zoom is the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM, which is an excellent lens with fast auto focus and large maximum aperture for low-light photography. At 24mm (on a 1.3x or full frame body), it is wide enough for most people and at the long end of 70mm, it works very well as a portrait lens, in essence, a very versatile lens. But then Canon had to make our lives difficult by offering another very similar lens with more zoom, ~30% reduction in weight, and image stabilization (IS) at the cost of a stop (f/2.8 vs f/4) all for a little less in price than the 24-70mm. Those bastards!

After having owned a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM and now a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, I have to say that both lenses complement each other more than they compete with each other. How is that? For most people, it isn’t really practical to own both the 24-70 and 24-105, or even necessary. For those people, I’m going to explore the differences between the two lenses first to help those who are unsure which to get and later explain how the two lenses can work together.

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM vs Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM

Lenses Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM Winner
Year Introduced Novemeber 2002 September 2005 -
Maximum Aperture f/2.8 (stops down to f/22) f/4 (stops down to f/22) Canon 24-70mm
Cost $ 1,119 (at B&H Photo Video) $ 959 (at B&H Photo Video) Canon 24-105mm
Image Stabilization No Yes, 3 stops 24-105mm
Dimensions (no hood) 3.3 x 4.9 inches 3.3 x 4.2 inches Canon 24-105mm
Lens Weight 33.6 oz (950g) 23.6 oz (670g) Canon 24-105mm
Filter Size 77mm 77mm -
Minimum Focus Distance (MFD) 1.25 inches (0.38 m) [1:3.5 magnification] 1.48 inches (0.45 m) [1:4.3 magnification] Canon 24-70mm
Groups/Elements 13/16 13/18 -
Aperture Blades 8 circular 8 circular -

Looking purely at the on paper comparisons, you would be inclined to think the 24-105mm beats the 24-70mm hands down, but much of the 24-70mm’s strength can’t be explained through comparison charts alone.

Going from f/4 to f/2.8, which is one full stop, is a huge difference, you can read more of an explanation by dkoyanagi. This full stop can yield you almost double of a shutter speed in similar shooting conditions which can have a huge impact in getting a sharp or blurry image with a subject that is in motion. It is possible to increase the shutter speed by increasing the camera’s ISO, but then you are introducing more noise into the image. With the latest new dSLRs like the Canon EOS 1D Mark III, Nikon D3, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, which have excellent low noise at higher ISO, has changed what one is able to photograph in low-light situations which also means using “slower” lenses are now possible in low-light situations. But one thing to keep in mind is that while a slower lens at a higher ISO can be used, you won’t be able to produce the same bokeh (simple sample), with all situations being the same (distance of photographer to subject to background), using a f/4 lenses versus a f/2.8.

For the most part, there are two key differences of why you would probably want the 24-70mm over the 24-105mm and those are: faster aperture and less distortion. We’ve already spoken at length about the advantages of having a faster aperture. The most noticeable distortion is at 24mm with the 24-70mm showing less distortion. Here is the distortion at 24mm on the 24-70mm and distortion at 24mm on the 24-105mm, all courtesy of Photozone.de. Past 24mm, the 24-70mm continues to have an advantage in distortion over the 24-105mm, but it’s not much of an issue to correct in Photoshop.

Another thing worth mentioning, on full frame SLRs, the 24-105mm will exhibit more noticeable vignetting at 24mm in the corners than the 24-70mm at the same focal length. For portraits, this may be a desirable effect, but for landscapes, it is not. For the most part, the vignetting can be corrected in Photoshop/LightRoom. If you have a new Canon EOS 5D Mark II, then you can set the Peripheral Illumination Control to on which automatically correct a majority of the vignetting.

Choices, Choices, So Which To Select?

When I had the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM, I was using it primarily on the Canon EOS Rebel XTi and later on the Canon EOS 1D Mark II. On the XTi, it was never quite wide enough but did have good “reach” (38.4mm-112mm), but on the 1D Mark II it was perfect combination of wide and reach (31.2mm-91mm), and on full frame it’s wonderfully wide, but lacking in reach. But when you need a fast and versatile lens, then the 24-70mm is the best (about the only) choice. It is very sharp in the center wide open, and the corners start getting sharp once stopped down to f/5.6. One interesting thing worth mentioning with this lens, unlike the 24-105mm, when you are zoomed out to 24mm, the lens barrel is fully extended and at 70mm, the lens barrel is fully retracted. The reasoning behind this is because the hood is mounted to the body rather than the front element area. The 24-105mm zooms like normal in that at 24mm, the lens barrel is fully retracted and at 105mm, the lens barrel is fully extended.

The Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM is the perfect walk around lens, especially on a full frame camera. On a crop body, it suffers the same wideness issue, but does gain a nice bit of telephoto reach (38.4-168mm). The 3-stop image stabilization (IS) is immensely useful which you don’t truly appreciate until you have it. I am consistently getting tack sharp results even when shooting at 1/30th a second at 105mm whereas I had more difficulty getting sharp results with the 24-70mm at speeds slower than 1/60th a second at 70mm. As an aside, It’s important to note that IS will not stop action or motion blur from people moving, only a fast shutter speed can accomplish that. Also the additional 35mm in zoom is quite useful. There have been many times with the 24-70mm where at 70mm, I wish I had a bit more zoom. Fortunately, the 24-105mm answers the call. One of the best features of the 24-105mm is that it is sharp all over wide open and doesn’t improve in sharpness when stopped down.

So which lens to choose? If you can get both, you should. But if you are limited to one, then the answer is: it depends. Do you need the faster aperture because you are shooting in low light conditions such as wedding ceremonies or in areas that flash and strobes are not allowed? Looking for a mid-range zoom with the lowest possible distortion? Then the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM is perfect for you. If you’re looking for a single lens that is light, very versatile, and with IS, then the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM is for you. It doesn’t lock focus as fast as the f/2.8 in low light conditions, but it comes very close. That is not to say that the 24-105mm f/4 can’t be used in low-light conditions, in fact it works fine, but it’s like doing math calculations with a pen versus a pencil. It works fine for the most part, but you know you’re bound to make mistakes and it’s much easier to erase pencil than scratch out pen marks. Better to use the right tool for the job.

One thing to keep in mind, if you can get away with using a flash or an off camera flash such as a Canon 580EX II, the 24-105mm pulls ahead in usefulness because the flash will allow for faster shutter speeds. Combined with IS and the additional 35mm in focal length, this single lens can do a lot more. But if your primarily shoot with only ambient lighting, then the 24-70mm is the best bet.

Is It Worth Getting Both?

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens I think so. As I had mentioned, the 24-70mm and the 24-105mm don’t really compete with each other but rather complement each other so it would make sense to have both. The 24-70mm is heavy and doesn’t quite have the same focal length but has lower distortion and is faster so it makes sense to use it for situations where lighting might not be so great.

The 24-105mm makes a lot of sense for urban photography, portraits, general multi-purpose photography where the faster aperture won’t make much difference or cases where you would want to stop down to get better depth-of-field such as shooting artwork in a low-lit museum.

I have to say I’m currently bias towards the 24-105mm because it’s lightweight, great focal length (given it’s size), has IS, and is tack sharp. After having used the 24-70mm for more than a year and in combination with a 1D series body, 10 oz savings in weight is a noticeable difference. The extra 35mm focal length is definitely much appreciated, I don’t have to carry my brick of a 70-200mm f/2.8 IS for daily shooting. The 3-stop IS puts it in the same league as the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM’s IS, although it would have been great to have the 4-stop IS from the newer Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM, but it certainly much nicer than the Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM’s jumpy IS. As of current, it’s on my 1Ds Mark II 98% of the time.

On a final note, I’ve tried three different copies of the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens and all of them have been tack sharp and quality control on the 24-105mm seems to be quite high. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM. Apparently the quality control on the 24-70mm isn’t very good with a lot of variations from tack sharp to sharp to soft. If you plan on purchasing a 24-70mm, be sure to test the lens thoroughly to ensure it meets your sharpness requirements. The 24-70mm copy I had was sharp for the most part, not tack sharp, but not soft either. I was lucky. Also be sure that if you are purchasing a used copy of the 24-105mm that has a date stamp greater than UT1000 (how old is my lens and how to read the date stamp?). Those with the UT1000 stamps or lower indicate the lens was built in October 2005 and those lens are prone to lens flare issues (image courtesy of the-digital-picture.com). Otherwise, no other issues.

[UPDATE 2009-08-25] A few months ago I bit the bullet and purchased the 24-70mm to add to my gear. It is certainly worth having both as they do have very different uses.

Sample Images Taken With The 24-70mm and 24-105mm

There are hundreds of images on the internet taken with both the lenses:

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4 Responses to “The War Wages On: Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM vs Canon Ef 24-105mm f/4L IS USM”

  1. andrew says:

    Best article that I've read regarding these 2 lenses. Very appreciate your work.

  2. Richard Bui says:

    Hi Andrew: thanks so much! I very much appreciate it.

  3. Eugene says:

    Best comparison review I have read yet, and I've read over a 100 different pages that review 24-105 to 24-70 lenses! Great work!

  4. Larry Selman says:

    Nice review!

    Getting ready for a newborn. Shooting with a 1DX

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