Review of Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 II USM L — A hands on review of shooting a wedding with one stunning lens.

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 II USM L — Hands on review
First of all Jo and Karim were an absolutely charming couple who treated everyone, including me, with a great deal of kindness on their wedding day. I feel rather bad using their wedding as a lens review and so I shall doing a separate blog post to say a little more about their lovely wedding at Eyot Island. Congratulations Jo and Karim.

So, this is the new Canon 24–70 2.8 II. A much awaited lens! I’m not a reviewer or a technical person so I am simply going to talk about my experiences of using this lens as my only lens on a single wedding day. In fact I am not going to refer to this any further as a review as I am sure its going evolve into a collection of rambling thoughts about why I like this lens and why I think primes for me are not always the answer. I say this being someone who owns the 24 1.4 L, the 35 1.4L, the 85 1.8 and uses a single prime (35mm) for travel photography.

I shot this wedding more or less entirely on this lens — why?
Well, my style of photography needs to be quite fluid, I’m typically bobbing in and out of situations and changing lenses or cameras will often lose me the shot. I like to shoot wide establishing shots, mid range shots (images I would perhaps normally take with a 35mm) and detail shots or tighter portraits isolating one subject (these would often be taken with an 85mm) These basic three or four shot types for me are the meat and potatoes of day’s story. ‘Can I do this on one lens?’… is pretty much what I asked myself, but of course not sacrifice image quality. There would be a trade-off was my view. I would perhaps sacrifice a little blur here and there since the lens has a maximum aperture of 2.8, but I would be able to get shots I wouldnt normally have got since I can simply zoom to get the frame I want without having to fumble to change lenses or cameras. Having one body works for me — I have tried having two but I find they bang into things as Im crouching or squeezing through spaces. They also make you look like a pretty serious photographer and my nature is that I want to disappear as much as I can — not draw attention to myself.
I also shot more or less the full day on this lens because I liked it — it felt right! I made the assumption that shooting with one lens and one camera would also offer a consistency of tonality to the images which indeed it did. At one point I used my 85mm to compare a shot in the church taken at 70mm on the 24-70mm and they were really quite different. The 24-70mm had a better contrast to it than the 85mm 1.8 which is after all a pretty tidy lens. I did not consider it to be a gamble shooting all day with this lens — I liked what I saw on the back of the screen and if I didnt I would have mixed things up a bit.

My lens of choice for preparation shots would normally a 24-70mm anyway. They are often frenetic times with many people dashing this way and that in a confined space and finding clean frames can be difficult. Jo’s parents house in Windsor was no exception and had a lot of people running around being very busy. It is rare for me to get a clear room in a country house with idylic backdrops — no, more often than not I am plunged into some sort of organised chaos with smaller rooms, difficult light, make-up artists who seem to place man-traps of kit and cables on the floor and people coming and going constantly. You have to be quick on your toes and often for me primes just don’t cut it. In situations like that and at certain other times in the wedding day, for example after the ceremony, the 24-70mm can be your best friend. It’s flexible and it lets you get the frame you need quickly. We’ve all hear ‘Zoom with your feet’ — that alas is not always possible when you are already contorting yourself squeezing into improbable places to get exactly that frame you want and still desperate to go wider.

I was not a fan of the previous Canon model. It produced for me, rather ordinary looking images. It wasn’t particularly sharp or contrasty. I disliked it so much that after I tried the Nikon equivalent I moved my whole kit over to Nikon since the Nikon lens was stellar. Canon brought out the 5dmk3 and I moved back, preferring the small quiet 5d3 with its lovely colours and silent shooting. Ok the iso was not up to my d3s but it wasn’t far off. All I was missing was a decent 24-70mm.

My key concern with making a 24-70mm my main lens of choice is not to sacrifice blur. I suspect in this wedding, here and there, I have done just that a little, but not dramatically. As a documentary wedding photographer I like to have what I think of as ‘appropriate’ depth of field. By this I mean do not want a razor sharp depth of field with only one person in focus when that person is actually talking to someone else who should in my opinion also be in focus. The person in the background behind them and indeed the background itself however should ideally drop away to a pleasing haze of blur, ‘bokeh’ or whatever your preferred term is for out of focus areas. So, one has to learn to shoot carefully and perhaps quite differently. Be aware of your focal length, your distance to subject, how far is your subject from its background, the plane of your subjects and of course your aperture. Constantly being aware of all these elements is what is going to help you determine how much blur you are introducing to your image. I use often introduce random foreground elements — pleasing blur doesnt alway have to be behind the subject of course! There are lot of ways getting that lovely blur into your image — you just need to keep thinking. It’s not like shooting at F2 and getting blur with every shot. When you do that you also, as I have suggested, get lot of shots where perhaps the depth of field has knocked something out of focus that should be in focus.

In any case I do not always want to shoot at f2.8. I will often, even in low light ramp the aperture up to F4 or higher because I want an ‘appropriate’ depth of field. An example: A side on shot of the bride and groom at the altar — I want both their faces in focus but I want a relatively tight shot, perhaps taken at 50mm. Depending on how far away I am, shooting at F2.8 may leave one of them out of focus. If you can see both their faces, and they are close together, then I would suggest that is important in this instance that they are both in focus so you need to shoot at F4. This is not a hard and fast rule but I think it is situations like this that are often shot with an inappropriate depth of field. It is also a personal creative choice of course. My personal opinion though is I don’t like to see blurred faces in the foreground, generally speaking. A back of head yes, but not a face and especially not when they are both equally important to the story.

Blur can be achieved with this lens very nicely as I hope these images show. As I spend more time with it I shall be able to achieve more blur, not least because I am happy using this lens at 70mm which on previous 24-70mm models, particularly the Canon, lacked crispiness and punch. I wasn’t particularly inspired by them at 70mm so I preferred using them mostly at 24-50mm. Now I am happy to shoot at 70mm and get something that approaches shooting 85mm on a prime lens.

So what is this lens good at? You can find the technical differences between this and the old lens in many other places online, but in short, its smaller and lighter — that’s a big plus. It also handles backlit situation very well I was blowing out backgrounds like you wouldnt believe and still managed to retain good contrast. Metering evaluatively I was +3 and still getting acceptable contrast. It is also very, very sharp and it focuses easily as well as my NIkon 24-70mm.

So for me it is at last a worthy rival for that fine Nikon lens and is really what I have been waiting for. Focusing was very fast and accurate. Its a really lovely lens and a big improvement over the previous version.
The 5d mk3 iso range is very high — that allows you to shoot cleaner images at greater apertures. Did I sacrifice blur? — You be the judge!

I am overall very pleased with the 24-70mm and from now on it will certainly be my workhorse lens. Perhaps though during speeches when things have calmed down a little I may prefer the 35mm 1.4 and 85mm 1.8 little combo a little more but only if the light is failing and my ISO needs to be ramped up beyond about 6400. I will still however be using only a 35mm f2 for my travel photography because it is small, insconspicuous and since I shoot largely at F8 or so sharpness is not an issue. What Id really like though is a 24-85mm F1.4 that weighs less and has image stabilisation — I wont hold my breath though.

I show lots of documentary wedding and travel photography on my Facebook page and it would be great to see you there.

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21 Comments

  1. Stephen Bunn - Great read Mark... As you know, I would never leave home to a wedding without my Nikon 24-70. Not only is it a life saver in church situations where movement is limited but is also acts as a back up to my 24,35, and 85 lenses. I would be able to shoot the whole day with that one lens and just sacrifice a little shallow depth of field. It certainly is a workhorse lens for the work we do and an investment every photographer should make.

    • Mark - I know you are a fan of this lens Stephen, we have talked many times about there being times in the day when this is the only lens you need. Im going to keep exploring this lens to try and get effects from it that appear that I am shooting at shallower apertures.

  2. Richard - So the lens has finally arrived.....Great thoughts Mark. Definitely agree with your views on DoF. Great shots also, really like the small detail shots you put in there throughout the day. Look forward to seeing some more weddings with it.

    • Mark - Cheers Richard,. Yes, its a lovely lens. Im looking forward to working with it more. It needs more care than a regular prime to make it sing I think.

  3. Kabz - Thank you so much Mark.. This review is something I needed, A review/opinion of the 24-70 opposed to several primes by a wedding documentar. I'm still in too minds, as I love my primes, the sharpness and colour contrast it produces, at the same time I need the versatility of both. I'm still yet to make my decision, best thing I might do is to rent a few lenses on my next shoot and use them as a training ground. Once again, thank you for your solid advice. Ps - I love the images you took at his wedding, and also love how you made a jump back to Canon :P

    • Mark - Welcome Kabz ;)

  4. Tina Cleary - Excellent review Mark. Really interesting read. I really like your images no matter which lens you use however I found this really interesting as you explore the consistency of using one lens. Interesting reading your views on depth of field too. I would find it hard to use just one lens all day :-) This lens will be added to my wish list!

    • Mark - Thank you Tina. I used to nearly always shoot with this lens. I think the time of day and circumstance of the various places we have to shoot dictate the lenses we use a great deal too. I think I will continue to mix up the lenses I use but if I had to grab one, it would definitely be this one;)

  5. Adam Riley - Great post Mark, along with amazing images! Could be tempted to this lens :-)

  6. Rik Pennington - I can definitely relate to being squashed in the corner of a hotel room! You raise some really interesting points that I've been giving thought to over the last few months. There's a lot to be said for as little kit as possible and not having to worry about trying to negotiate two cameras at once. It drives me nuts. If your style demands a wide range of focal lengths then the 24 - 70 will take the stress out of grabbing lenses and/or cameras in fast moving situations and help you get the shot. There's been times this year that I wished I'd had the flexibility of a zoom. But there's so much about primes I love, especially the 35 & 85 1.4. And of course the mighty 50. I was speaking to well known photographer the other day who uses the 50 for 85% of her weddings. I'm not sure I could do that, but it made me think! I guess in the end it comes down to style and decisions about when to use lenses and I completely get the desire to keep kit bag to a minimum. I'm officially starting the petition for a 24 - 70 1.4 :)

  7. Charles Coleman - Excellent depth of field shot with 2 blurred foreground people and them dancing in the background. It's nice to be able to achieve this with a wide to medium range zoom... something that's difficult with say the 24-70 F/4.

  8. Sally - I shot my first wedding this past weekend and while armed with a few of my primes, I used the new 24-70 for 90% of my shots. It truly is a fabulous lens. I enjoyed your review very much Mark, and your images are gorgeous!

  9. Gino Creglia - Excellent Review. Shot my first wedding with the 24-70mm II in December 2012 and have to say I was very impressed with its performance. Combined with the 5D Mark III, the low light capabilities of the lens allowed me to capture many "sharp" images throughout the day. Looking forward to using the lens in 2013.

  10. BJ - Thanks so much for this review. I was really looking at the 24-70L II. Did you shoot the wedding all by yourself with just one camera and one lens?

  11. sarantis - I think the power in this lens is at f11-f16. Its outstanding up there,nothing else can beat it. Really,its really worth to up iso to 1600 or higher, just to keep this f number. I just wanted to share,it takes 3 years for me to realise-lol-.

  12. Mona - I'm a great fan of this lens, the Nikon version and its been my workhorse lens for the last few years too. It's a great lens at all focal lengths and gives you much needed versatility in often, really restricted fast moving shooting situations. It handles back lit situations brilliantly with amazing sharpness. I wouldn't leave home without it - Great review Mark.

    • Mark - Thanks Mona - it is absolutely a work horse lens but with careful use can be made to 'sing' like a nightingale sometimes as well!

  13. Paul - Your framing and work is that good I think you could use a Kodak disposable and still have great results :) But your right the EF 24-70mm f/2.8 ll is a great lens. I to have one and aspire to achieve the same end results as your self.. I'm only 6months in to photography and your work has been a great inspiration :) Keep the photos/updates coming. great work Mark.

    • Mark - Thanks Paul. That is very kind of you to say. I totally agree that framing is probably the most important thing. The 24-70 allows you to frame without getting obsessed with shooting all the time at shallow apertures as is the modern disease I think...

  14. Kurtz A. - Great review Mark! Ive been contemplating in using this lens cos i had a bad experience with the Mark 1 version, but after seing all the photos, im very impress, the images were sharp like primes, i have 3 weddings to shoot next month and i might ditch my primes and pair this Mark 2 lens with the 70-200 2.8, though i dont own the 24-70mm ii, i made sure i reserve this lens on my 3 weddings at my local lens store. Thanks again!

  15. Linus Moran - Great article Mark, I had the mark I and have never been happy with it. Did like many others and moved to primes but now thinking of putting faith back in the new zoom and reaping the benefits of its versatility!

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