Introduction

Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L is one of relatively few tilt-shift lenses available on the market. Typically each major lens/camera manufacturer offers a tilt-shift lens in its lineup. Canon offers three! The TS-E 24mm f/3.5 reviewed here,  TS-E 45mm f/2.8L and TS-E 90mm f/2.8. A tilt-shift lens is obviously not your typical prime - its main appeal remains in architecture photography where one needs to shift/tilt the lens for perspective control. At ~US1,100 (as of March 2008), TS-E 24mm f/3.5L remains affordable for professionals but is going to be an unlikely choice for mainstream users.

The optical construction of the lens consists of 11 elements in 9 groups, including an aspherical glass element in a floating optical system. Like with all other pro-grade L lenses, the build quality of Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L is superb - the barrel is all metal and the focusing ring is fully rubberized. The lens is more or less light and compact, weighing 570g (1.3lb) and measuring 78 x 86mm (3.1 x 3.4in). The lens sports a semi-inner focusing system. I say semi, because technically speaking, the inner cam extend ever slightly (about 1mm) during focusing so for all practical reasons we can probably call this inner focusing. Like all tilt-shift lenses in Canon's lineup, TS-E 24mm f/3.5L is a fully manual lens, so while the camera's AF confirmation is fully retained, you might still want to consider replacing your stock focusing screen with one that is more suitable for manual focusing. The minimum focusing distance is 30cm (1ft) and the minimum supported aperture is f/22 (aperture is electronically controlled, so there is no dedicated aperture ring and to step down the lens you need to use your camera). The lens accepts 72mm screw-in type filters.

To control the tilt/shift operation of the lens, Canon included four knobs that are located on each side of the barrel. Two knobs control adjust the tilt/shift position while the other two lock the position of the first two. There is also a tiny chrome flipper on the base of the mount that allows rotating the lens 90 degrees in either direction.

Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L

The factory box includes Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L lens, front and rear caps, EW-75BII lens hood, manual and registration card. The lens is designed for full frame 35mm cameras so when used on APS-C type cameras with 1.6x crop sensors, the field of view of the lens will resemble that of a 38mm lens on a full frame body. The lens is compatible with Canon's Gelatin Filter Holder Adapters III/IV and Extension Tubes 12 II and 25 II.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 11 elements in 9 groups
Angular Field ~84 degrees
Minimum Focus 30cm/1ft
Focusing Action MF
f-stop Scale f/3.5-f/22, electronic
Filter Size 72mm
Lens Hood EW-75BII (included)
Weight 570g/1.3lb
Dimensions 78x86.7mm/3.1x3.4"
Lens Case LP1216 (included)

 

 

Field Tests

Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L showed mixed performance in the field. Image quality in the center was quite good, but unfortunately, quality around borders suffered on both APS-C as well as FF cameras. Border quality suffers mostly at wider apertures, where the difference in quality is actually visually noticeable. Regretfully, stopping down the lens did not seem to help much and image quality around borders stayed kind of on softer side all the way until about f/5.6 for an APS-C body and f/8 for a FF camera.

 

Vignetting @ f/3.5 - full frame vs 1.6x crop (24mm)
Vignetting @ f/3.5 - full frame vs 1.6x crop (24mm)

 

In its default (non shifted) position, the lens showed relatively small amount of vignetting with wide open aperture. Considering that we are dealing with a relatively slow maximum aperture here, this does not come as a major surprise. Vignetting is further reduced with stopped down aperture and by f/5.6 is all but gone. However, vignetting is increases as you start shifting the lens, reaching very pronounced levels at the maximum shift position. The lens shows even less amount of vignetting on an APS-C body. At f/3.5 vignetting is minimal and at f/4 it is basically non-existent.

Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L showed good handling of color with images generally carrying decent amount of contrast throughout the aperture range. Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L produced minor degrees of color fringing (lateral CA) around borders pretty much throughout the aperture range but kept axial CA to the minimum. The lens also fell prone to some barrel distortion.

 

ISO 100, 1/2000, f/3.5, 24mm (100% crop)
ISO 100, 1/2000, f/3.5, 24mm (100% crop)

 

Lab Tests

Please note that MTF50 results for APS-C and Full-Frame cameras as well as cameras from different manufacturers are not cross-comparable despite the same normalized [0:1] range used to report results for all types of cameras.

 

Canon APS-C: Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L somewhat mixed performance in the lab. Center image quality remained very solid throughout the aperture range, with peak performance around f/5.6-f/8. However, border image quality did suffer, which is quite noticeable at f/3.5. Here image quality is plain mediocre and does not really match the high expectations typically associated with Canon's L grade lens. What was even more disappointing, is that border performance did not really improve much until f/5.6. In general, the lens shows its best performance in the f/5.6-f/8 range, where it is capable of producing outstanding 16in and decent 19in prints. Conclusion? Not very impressive. The lens shows performance that could be considered OK for an average mainstream lens, but not a supposedly 'pro-grade' wide angle.

 

MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 24mm
MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 24mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 24mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 24mm

The lens showed good handling of chromatic aberration in the center, where CA averaged ~0.5px throughout the aperture range. Unfortunately, CA around borders was noticeably higher, and exceeded ~1.2px at f/3.5, gradually dropping to ~1px by f/5.6 and staying at that level throughout the rest of the tested aperture settings.

 

Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) @ 24mm
Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) @ 24mm

Here are 100% crops taken with an APS-C type Canon Digital Rebel XTi comparing images at f/3.5 and f/8.

 

Image borders @ 24mm (100% crop): f/3.5 vs f/8
Image borders @ 24mm (100% crop): f/3.5 vs f/8

Canon FF: The lens continued to under-deliver on a full-frame camera as well. Center performance remained pretty solid throughout the tested aperture range, but like with an APS-C body, border image quality lags by a significant margin. Border performance reaches good levels only around f/5.6 - anything wider and you will end up with softer edges. This is the biggest disappointment so far, since while it is expected that wide angle lenses will be softer at their maximum apertures, Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L has a relatively slow maximum aperture to begin with and then still manages to deliver unimpressive results. Conclusion? What do you expect me to say here? Results are not balanced at all and performance-wise the lens would fall somewhere in the middle, along with all those consumer grade lenses that cost 5-6x less then this sample,

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 24mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 24mm

Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5 showed a moderate degree of barrel distortion. At 0.917% distortion will be visible in general shots, but should not be a major nuisance.

 

Distortion (FF) @ 24mm
Distortion (FF) @ 24mm

Chromatic aberration on a full frame body was again under control in the center, where CA never exceeded ~0.5px, but was much higher around borders, averaging ~1px across the aperture range.

 

Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 24mm
Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 24mm

Here are 100% crops taken with an APS-C type Canon Digital Rebel XTi comparing images at f/3.5 and f/8.

 

Image borders @ 24mm (100% crop): f/3.5 vs f/8
Image borders @ 24mm (100% crop): f/3.5 vs f/8

Alternatives

If you're looking for a tild/shift lens and you're using a Canon camera, then you're in luck! Canon alone makes three dedicated tilt/shift lenses and in addition to the TS-E 24mm f/3.5L reviewed here offers TS-E 45mm f/2.8L and TS-E 90mm f/2.8L primes. However, if you're serious about finding the best tilt-shift lens, you should probably expand your horizon to alternative mounts. Don't be scared - all native mount tilt/shift lenses only support manual focusing, so grab an adapter and take a look at Nikon Nikkor PC-E 24mm f/3.5D ED and PC Micro 85mm f/2.8D, Olympus Zuiko Shift 35mm f/2.8 or even Carl Zeiss PC Distagon T* 35mm f/2.8. If you feel adventurous enough, you should also look into adapting a medium format lens to your dSLR. Using a tilt/shift adapter you can mount high-quality Hasselblad, Pentax 645 and Mamiya 645 medium format lenses (combination of a medium format lens and a tilt/shift adapter can potentially be even a money saver when compared to a native tilt/shift lens from your original camera manufacturer, but that of course will depend on the lens you are going to try to adapt).

 

Recommendation

It is hard to render a positive recommendation on Canon's TS-E 24mm f/3.5L strictly based on its image resolving capabilities. Image performance of this lens is more suitable for a middle of the ground, no frills, mainstream wide angle then a so claimed 'pro-grade' lens. Of course there are other factors that need to be considered here. The fact that TS-E 24mm f/3.5L offers tilt/shift capabilities puts it into its own class and makes it harder to find an alternative for those of you actually looking for a lens with tilt/shift capabilities, not just the best performing wide angle prime (in which case you should also keep in mind that the review does not cover performance of the lens in tilt/shift mode, so you're pretty much on your own here).