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Long Term Review: Canon 24-105mm F4 L IS Lens

by Chris Gampat on 06/07/2011

Every photographer has a go-to lens that helps them to accomplish their daily tasks. What’s yours? Mine was (and in some ways still is) the Canon 24-105mm F/4 L IS. It has been by my side through paparazzo work, weddings, portraits, events, sports, and it has even been my casual walkaround lens. Used on the many cameras that have passed through my hands during reviews, it has been a mainstay on either my Canon 7D or 5D Mk II: always remaining ready to be used in an instant.

This long term review will cover the two years I’ve spent using this lens and will summarize the faults and strengths of this beloved piece of plastic with the heart of glass.

Tech Specs

Ergonomics

The Canon 24-105mm F/4 L IS is a medium sized lens that extends out a decent amount while zooming in and out. Thankfully, it has internal focusing, so the front element won’t extend out. The lens sports a large focusing and zooming ring that will comfortably accommodate the thumb, index finger and middle finger of most photographers. The lens features a distance meter on the top which is extremely useful for hyperfocal length focusing and ensuring that the lens is focusing correctly. Indeed, some of the earlier models were faulty and sometimes soft. I’ve sent mine back to Canon for recalibration before and it came back super sharp.

It’s a fully weather sealed lens, meaning it has gaskets behind the switches, focusing and zoom rings as well as at the lens mount. The lens mount seal is fully effective only when the lens is used on body with weather seals, which are basically the EOS 1 series bodies and the 7D (at least at the time of writing this posting).

The 24-105mm F/4 L IS sports a 77mm filter thread. To keep the front element protected at all times, I use a B&W filter because of its brass ring which adds extra protection. Canon recommends this for optimum protection when kittens and dogs start falling from the sky.

The lens features two different switches:

- One for autofocus with manual override due to the USM motor/manual focus

- The other is for turning the image stabilization on or off. Admittedly, image stabilization is one of the best reasons to purchase this lens.

Sharpness

The 24-105mm F/4 L IS isn’t the sharpest of L lenses, but it’s more than plenty sharp for most people. To be quite honest, it’s the softest and slowest aperture lens I have in my camera bag. To be fair, the other lenses are the 35mm F/1.4 L, 85mm F/1.8, and 80-200mm F/2.8  (yes that was written correctly).

This lens is:

- Not as sharp as the Canon 24-70mm F/2.8 L

- Sharper than the Nikon 24-120mm F/4 VR (I’ve tested a prototype)

- Not as sharp as the Canon 50mm F/1.8 at F/4 or other apertures (nifty 50)

- Sharper than most comparable Sigma glass

Image Stabilization

One of the reasons why you purchase a lens like this is because of the image stabilization feature. Canon claims that you’ll be able to achieve up to 3-stops of image stabilization. Throughout my tests, they’ve been spot on in their measurement.

Now, even though image stabilization works very well, do note that similar lenses with an F/2.8 aperture have the distinct advantage of being able to allow more light in and therefore stop fast motion. My workaround has been to add more light in the form of wireless flashes and strobes.

When shooting video and even when autofocusing, you can often hear the stabilization motors at work. Keep that in mind especially when you’re shooting video and you’ve got a microphone close to the lens.

Autofocus

After my 85mm F/1.8, the 24-105mm F/4 L IS is my fastest focusing lens. That’s a huge help when you’re photographing events and photo-journalistic assignments because you’ll need to nail that critical moment in a split second. For the serious photographer, you’ll be very happy with this lens’s performance. However, so will the enthusiast and hobbyist at the price point. The autofocusing speed when combined with AI Servo on a Canon DSLR will be able to help you track your kids moving faster than you can catch them with your own two legs.

The lens features ring USM, and focuses not only quickly but silently. Indeed, you’ll often find this to be very convenient during the wedding ceremony.

I’ve used it for shooting soccer before and found that when used with the 1D Mk IV, you’ll always be able to obtain acceptable shots even with fast moving subjects.

Weddings

The Ring Shot

Admittedly, I’ve only used this lens at one wedding. Otherwise, I’m a prime user and a very big lover of prime lenses for good reasons. For a wedding, this lens is best used for portraits, candid photos on the dance floor, stealthy work during the ceremony, faux macro work with the rings and food, and for photos outside.

Otherwise, I’m sticking to my guns and say go with all primes. To be fair, it’s always good to have two zooms on you just in case and I recommend this one over the 24-70mm F/2.8 for the reason that you’re bound to have a flash on you for extra illumination and because of the image stabilization.

While you’re at a wedding, chances are that you’ll experience sudden adrenaline rushes and run from spot to spot. With your heart rate going up and affecting your breathing patterns, sometimes you’ll need all the image stabilization you can get. This lens will help you get it.

Events

I’ve used this lens on the Canon 1D Mk IV coupled with a flash for a night of shooting. The 1D’s focusing turned this lens into a speed demon.

To be honest, of all the camera’s I’ve tested, I believe the this lens performed the best on the 1D Mk IV for the reason that the 1D has the best focusing of any Canon DSLR I’ve used. The 7D is a close second.

As stated previously, a disadvantage of this lens is the fact that it is F/4, so you can’t stop fast motion as easily as you can with an F/2.8 lens. With the 1D you can because the ISOs can be cranked up into the nuclear levels, which will accordingly allow you to shoot at a faster shutter speed to capture faster motion. It’s quite wonderful actually, and those that shoot events will love the lens when used with the 1D.

Don’t count the 7D out just yet though. I’ve used the lens coupled to the APS-C flagship in one of the worst lit bars I’ve been to with fairly decent results.

Be sure to also not count out the Canon 5D Mk II. I’ve used it with a flash at the same bar and the 24-105mm F/4 L IS. Once again, it impressed me: so event photographers should fully embrace this lens when coupled with a flash.

In fact, I’ve even used it with the Canon T3i to shoot an event. My only concern was that I wasn’t getting enough shallow depth of field to single out my subjects while at the wider end of the lens.

The solution: use a prime lens. However, at the more telephoto end of the lens, you can get some even better results.

Indeed, I feel that the telephoto end of this lens is where it really shines not only for events but also for portraits.

Portraits

There’s a very good reason why Rick Sammon loves this lens, and that’s because of the image stabilization combined with versatility and sharpness that it offers when shooting portraits. When testing this lens out with the DIY Ring Flash, I fell in love with it again after not using it for a long time.

Let me be frank: I’m a strobe and off-camera flash lover and if that’s true then I probably am in bed with ring flashes when I sleep. The latter is not true, but I do keep one in my room and the others at the office :)

I’ve used this lens with the Ray Flash, and that’s the item that I believe really makes this lens shine. The Ray Flash’s ingenious design takes the existing light from your flash and wraps it around in a ring shape. Combined with the versatility of the 24-105mm F/4 L IS, you’ve got a win-win situation for portraits. With flashes, the colors this lens can render will really pop when exposed correctly.

What’s even better is that there is little to no vignetting with this lens.

When I used this lens at the mermaid parade, the only thing that I didn’t like was (once again) the lack of sufficient bokeh when shooting at a wide angle. I want much more, but I understand that in order to get that I need a prime lens. However, this lens makes up for that in rendering some very wonderful colors.

Take a look at those reds, blues, yellows and greens!

Paparazzo

Sarah Jessica Parker on the set of "Sex and the City II"

Most readers of this site will know that I’m a former paparazzo: which combines skills of sports photographers, portrait photographers, photojournalists, and vultures. Though I had only a brief stint, the 24-105mm F/4 L IS was my main lens for a while.

Gerard Butler on the set of "The Bounty"

However, my agency always said the same thing: the lens isn’t sharp enough and I need to blow the background out more with an F/2.8 lens. With this bit of knowledge I not only walked away from the gig after some time but I also questioned whether or not it would be able to do professional quality work.

I proved them wrong with other clients and in different fields of professional photography.

Problems With This Lens

While I do indeed <3 this lens, one can’t deny the problems it has:

- Distortion on the wider end which is very easily corrected in post-production. In fact, most people may not even notice it except when focusing up close and personal.

- Focusing softness. This can be corrected if you send the lens to Canon letting them know about the issue.

Long Term Value

This lens is one of the most affordable L lenses in Canon’s lineup and can often be found used for an even better price. The fast autofocusing speed, silent motors, image stabilization, sharpness, color rendering, and zoom range make this lens a no brainer for most photographers. Rightfully so, it has earned a special place on our list of recommended lenses for Canon owners and for DSLR videographers.

With all this said and done, we’re going to let you draw your own conclusions and share them with us in the comments below.

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