Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens Review

Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens Review

The Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens is, without question, Canon's best-performing (optically and physically) and best-built 24mm autofocus lens. It is also Canon's widest angle lens with an aperture wider than f/2.8 - a full 2 stops wider than all wider angle Canon lenses. This lens looks great, feels great and functions superbly.

Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens mounted on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II

The Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens is shown above mounted on a Canon 5D Mark II and Canon BG-E6.

Since there was already a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L USM Lens, one would expect the new version to be an improvement over the original. So, the primary question on many of our minds was - what has changed? Let's start with Canon marketing's perspective - here are a couple of paragraphs found in Canon's 5D Mark II White Paper:

"This new wide-angle lens offers far more than a cosmetic makeover to the highly acclaimed EF 24mm f/1.4L USM lens it replaces, and it retains the distinction of being the brightest wide-angle L-series lens in its class. Added professional characteristics include dustproof and weatherproof construction, with dramatic improvements to image quality provided by a total optical re-design and the application of Canon’s exclusive Subwavelength Structure Coating (SWC) to the inside surface of the large front lens element. This special coating is designed to minimize ghosting and flare, especially from extreme off-angle light rays. It combines with traditional Super Spectra multi-coating, to give the lens unprecedented resistance to internal reflections and flare.

Ultra-low Dispersion (UD) glass lens elements were also added in order to reduce chromatic aberrations, and a high speed CPU and improved algorithms make possible a faster and quieter autofocusing system. Combined with two aspherical lens elements, the lens offers significant improvements in image quality and contrast, especially at the outer edges of the image when used on full-frame digital SLRs. A circular aperture means beautiful out-of-focus highlights in backgrounds. This new lens targets the critical professional photographer, and should be especially prized by users of high-resolution full-frame digital cameras like the new EOS 5D Mark II."

As expected, that sounds great.

I was mid-way through the 5D Mark II Review when the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens showed up. I couldn't help myself - I had to immediately try it out.

I mounted the 24 L II on a 1Ds Mark III and spent some quality time with the ISO 12233 chart. But my first impressions were not overwhelmingly exciting. A re-test yielded the same results - slightly softer (less sharp) than the original 24 L. My normal procedure was used for this test: I usually shoot some AF test shots for a data point, but the results showing on the site for this lens were shot using externally-magnified Live View LCD manual focusing. The best of approximately 18 samples (per aperture setting) were added to the site. Disappointed, I went back to completing the 5D II review and ordered another 24 L II.

With the 5D II review completed and the second 24 L II in hand, I resumed testing. What I discovered was not a lens issue with the first copy, but a bug in Canon's Digital Photo Pro software. DPP was adding "Luminance Noise Reduction = 2" to all of my 1Ds III (and other Canon DSLR) images shot with noise reduction turned off. Even those I shot long ago. Apparently this bug was introduced in a recent update as DPP has never done this in the past. Since I was using my standard camera test settings and procedures, noise reduction settings in DPP were not something I was regularly checking. Adding noise reduction (even this tiny amount), reduces image sharpness - thus my initial disappointment. Issue resolved. I humbly appologize for raising an initial concern, have submitted a bug report to Canon and have re-processed the original test images.

With that full explanation out of the way, I will move on with the review.

ModelWeightDimensions w/o HoodFilterYear 
Canon EF 20mm f/2.8 USM Lens14.3 oz(405g)3.1 x 2.8"(78 x 71mm)72mm1992
Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L USM Lens19.4 oz(550g)3.3 x 3.0"(84 x 77mm)77mm1997
Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens22.9 oz(650g)3.4 x 3.4"(87 x 87mm)77mm2008
Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 Lens9.5 oz(270g)2.7 x 1.9"(68 x 49mm)58mm1988
Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5 L Tilt-Shift Lens20.1 oz(570g)3.1 x 3.4"(78 x 87mm)72mm1991
Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM Lens10.9 oz(310g)2.9 x 2.2"(74 x 56mm)58mm1995
Canon EF 28mm f/2.8 Lens6.5 oz(185g)2.6 x 1.7"(67 x 43mm)52mm1987
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II USM Lens22.6 oz(640g)3.5 x 4.4"(88.5 x 112mm)82mm2007
Canon EF 17-40mm f/4.0 L USM Lens16.8 oz(475g)3.3 x 3.8"(84 x 97mm)77mm2003
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L USM Lens33.5 oz(950g)3.3 x 4.9"(83 x 124mm)77mm2002
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens23.7 oz(670g)3.3 x 4.2"(83.5 x 107mm)77mm2005

 
As you can see from the measurements above and from the comparison pics below, the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens is slightly larger than the original 24 L.

Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens Product Images

Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens  MFD |    w/ Hood:  MFD |    Rotated
Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L USM Lens      MFD |    w/ Hood:  MFD |    Rotated

Most of the additional lens length has been translated into focusing ring on the outside - it is .26" (6.7mm) longer (.68" --> .94" / 17.3mm --> 24.0mm). The 24 L hood sits nicely inside the larger 24 L II hood. Also notable is that the included 24 L II hood installs and de-installs very easily (original 24 L lens owners can appreciate this improvement). The barrel contours on the 24 L II are more smoothly tapered. The 24 L II has a lower-profile AF/MF switch and shows its weather seal gasket by hiding the shiny metal lens mount.

I find the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens very nicely sized and balanced for use on both large and small DSLRs. The build quality of this lens is top notch - it feels very solid (typical for the professional grade Canon L Series lenses).

Obvious by now is that the 24 L II is a weather sealed lens. Not so obvious is that this lens requires a filter for full sealing (like all other Canon non-Super Telephoto sealed lenses).

Auto focus, driven by Ring USM (Ultrasonic Motor), is fast, quiet and accurate (mostly) - even in low light conditions. I say "mostly" because I am getting an occasional front-focused shot that was not my fault (tested on a 1Ds Mark III body). Focus speed is supposed to be improved from the 24 L, but I find it hard to determine any difference. Ditto on the sound - both are quiet - any improvement is very small. There was not much room for improvement over the 24 L in these areas.

Focusing is internal and FTM (Full Time Manual) focusing is available. There is no play in the focus ring - the 24 L II is one of the nicest manually focusing lenses I've used (this is an improvement over the 24 L). There is no noticeable focus shift when stopping down. The front element does not rotate during focusing (important for CP filter use).

Optical performance? The 24 L II is a bit soft (not sharp) wide open at f/1.4 - and f/1.4 performance does not look nearly as good when compared to f/2.8 results. The 24 L II steadily increases in sharpness from f/1.4 until becoming razor sharp around f/2.8. Corner sharpness is especially good for a 24mm wide angle lens. I tested two copies of the 24 L II. During the ISO 12233 test for the second sample, one of my 4 flashes were not firing (user error and not visible behind large flags). The unbalanced flashes caused the bottom image to be slightly too bright - simply ignore the brightness of sample 2 when comparing. Just an FYI.

One of the noticeable differences produced by stopping down the aperture to f/2.8 or f/4 is the reduced vignetting. The 24mm f/1.4 L loses over 4 stops of light in full frame sensor corners at f/1.4 due to vignetting. There are several ways to look at this attribute. One is that you are only getting the equivalent of an f/5.6 or so aperture in the corners at f/1.4. Another is that this attribute is not unusual for a fast wide angle lens - and software can correct it. And yet another is to embrace the look. Mount the 24 L II on a 1.6x FOVCF body and you will still see about 1.5 stops of corner shading at f/1.4.

The images used for the Imatest vignetting test results (link near top of this page) are captured using auto exposure - if the results for one lens are darker than for those of another, it is because the camera and lens combination chose to expose it that way. You'll see the difference I'm talking about if you compare the 24 L II and the 24 L I.

A major improvement in the 24mm f/1.4 L is increased contrast in the center and mid-frame at wide apertures. I'll show some examples below. Flare is very well controlled - showing the least effect at wide apertures and the most at narrow apertures (still not much). There has been a slight improvement in this regard over the 24 L - I'll also share some flare examples below.

The 24mm f/1.4 L has a very minor of barrel distortion - it is very similar to the 24 L in this regard. CA (Chromatic Aberration) has been significantly reduced in the 24 L II, but some can still be seen in the corners. Though I am not seeing it very often, purple fringing (longitudinal or axial chromatic aberration) occasionally shows at f/1.4 along very strong contrasting (and especially slightly OOF (Out of Focus) areas) - such as chrome against black paint on a car in daylight.

The 24mm f/1.4 L gained an extra aperture blade (now 8) and gained a rounded shape to all of them. This design creates a more-pleasing bokeh (background blur quality). A 24mm lens is not able to create a diffusely blurred background like an 85mm lens, but it can still create blur at the widest aperture settings with close subjects. I haven't produced a comparison image that yet shows a significant improvement in bokeh over the 24 L, but the 24 L II is slightly better - creating slightly more blur.

Is the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens worth the upgrade from the original Canon EF 24mm L USM Lens? I've been pointing out some differences between these two lenses throughout the review, but ... If you are shooting at the widest apertures, the answer is definitely yes. Let's look at a comparison below. These images were captured on a 1Ds Mark III on a clear day using ideal techniques (tripod, mirror lockup, Live View MF, self-timer release) and converted from RAW in Canon's DPP using the "Standard" Picture Style with sharpening set to 1 (low) and AWB selected. And no noise reduction. The "f/1.4*" samples were given a healthy amount of additional sharpening in Adobe Photoshop to show a what-is-possible scenario.

Click on the image below (opens a new window) to compare several wide angle lenses to the 24 L II.

Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens Center Crop Comparison

Switching the image display between the 24mm f/1.4 L and the Canon EF 24mm L USM Lens at f/1.4 shows a dramatic difference in clarity. This is the biggest improvement in the 24 L II in my opinion. I was never happy with wide open 24 L shots, and this reduced the usefulness of this lens to me. As the "f/1.4*" sharpened example shows, the 24 L II responds well sharpening. Images at f/1.4 are not real sharp, but they can be made quite usable with sharpening.

Once the two 24 L lenses are stopped down to f/2.8, there is not a lot of difference in center-of-the-frame image quality. Both are great.

The Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 Lens is a bargain-priced lens. It is not up to the 24 L II (contrast, color, sharpness) in this comparison, but considering its price and size, it compares well.

Comparing lenses with different focal lengths is not as easy, but the Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM Lens compares very well in the center of the frame. It is sharp from f/2.8 and narrower. Unfortunately, this lens fares poorly in elsewhere in the frame - as you will see below.

Let's take another look. Click on the image below to see another set of comparison crops extracted from the same set of images. Again, this comparison in a new window. Use Alt-Tab to toggle back and forth between the review and the comparison.

Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens Center Crop Comparison

At this point in the frame, the difference between the 24 L II and the original EF 24 L Lens is less dramatic. But, the 24 L II is still sharper at the wider apertures. Note the lateral CA that is especially visible at the downspout, the left-most tree trunk and around the white edges on the right side of the crop in the original 24 L. The 24 L II shows better results throughout the aperture range.

Once again, for the cost, the 24mm f/2.8 makes a good showing for itself. In contrast, the 28 f/1.8 is falling apart at this mid-frame position - it is soft and shows strong CA.

Differences between the two 24 L lenses are not as big in the corners and the 24 f/2.8 still competes strongly at this point in the frame (after being stopped down enough to reduce the vignetting differences). The 28 f/1.8 does not further degrade in the corners from the mid-frame position. Still a bit soft until stopped down with lots of CA.

With the new lens optics design and coatings, flare was one of the factors I was especially interested in testing the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens for. Use the site's flare comparison tool to compare this lens with the rest.

Comparing the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens and the Canon EF 24mm L USM Lens for flare shows only a slight differences in amount - but the location of the flare is different. The 24 L II's shows flare closer to the corner of the frame - which is my preference as it generally keeps the effect farther from the primary subject(s).

The Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 Lens is not the lens you want to use if shooting into bright lights, but stopping down to f/8 or f/11 helps a lot. The Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM Lens also shows a healthy amount of flaring - especially stopped down.

The extra lens elements in a zoom lens often negatively influence their resistance to flare. There are many, many zoom lenses that incorporate 24mm into their focal length range, but I selected two of the better ones for this comparison. The Canon EF 24-70mm L USM Lens shows some flare effect, but performs very well for a zoom lens. The Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens is a great lens, though shooting into the sun is not one of its strengths.

All of the lenses in the above comparison have more barrel distortion than either of the 24 L lenses.

Here is a look at a Minimum Focus Distance and Maximum Magnification chart that includes the 24 L II and some similar lenses.

ModelMFDMM
Canon EF 20mm f/2.8 USM Lens9.8"(250).14x
Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L USM Lens9.8"(250).16x
Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens9.8"(250).16x
Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 Lens9.8"(250).16x
Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5 L Tilt-Shift Lens11.8"(300).14x
Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM Lens9.8"(250).18x
Canon EF 28mm f/2.8 Lens11.8"(300).13x
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II USM Lens11.0"(280).22x
Canon EF 17-40mm f/4.0 L USM Lens11.0"(280).25x
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L USM Lens15.0"(380).29x
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens17.7"(450).23x

 
The 24 L II's MFD and MM numbers are not impressive, but not unusual for a wide angle prime lens. Since the zoom lenses draw upon their maximum focal length, they produce healthier Maximum Magnification numbers on the chart - but the zooms do not focus as close and therefore produce lower MM than the 24 L II at their 24mm settings. If you want to shoot as close as possible at 24mm, the primes will do the job best. Add a 12mm Extension Tube and the 24 L primes will focus to .82' (.25m) for a MM of .66x. A 24mm perspective at this magnification will be unique.

The 24 L II accepts the common 77mm-sized filters. Note to Canon: it's time to give us center-and-side-pinch lens caps. I can get the included cap off with the hood attached, but it would be much easier to perform this task with the center-pinch option. A soft, leather-like Canon Lens Case LP1214 is included in the box. Though it has a padded bottom, I consider it more of a pouch.

Prior to the 24 L II's introduction, I rarely used a 24mm prime lens. I did not feel the image quality wide open was acceptable from the 24 L and stopping down reduced some of the benefit of a fast prime. I instead (usually) selected the 24-70 L or 24-105 L IS for the versatility of the focal length range. I will now be making this decision a little more carefully. The L zooms will remain my most-used lenses, but the 24 L II will definitely be incorporated into my regular shooting.

The wider a lens is, the harder it is to create an excellent composition. But, done perfectly, wide compositions can be especially stunning. The 24mm focal length is wide enough to show a wide angle perspective - emphasizing the foreground subject, de-emphasizing but retaining the background (making background details appear smaller but sharper) and creating a sense of presence. But, 24mm is not so wide that subjects/uses for the focal length are hard to find. Even on a full frame body.

What subjects is the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens a good choice for? The simple answer is - anything the 24mm focal length works well for. No other Canon 24mm lens can touch it physically or optically at identical aperture settings.

Landscape photography commonly makes use of a 24mm lens. Corner sharpness is one of the 24 L II's strong features for this use. Landscape photography, due to its typical deep DOF requirements, seldom makes use of another strong feature of this lens - the wide f/1.4 aperture. F/1.4 shouts low light and hand held - especially at this focal length. Those not needing the wide aperture and autofocus capabilities of the 24 L II should consider the Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5 L II Tilt Shift Lens for their landscape photography needs.

Though 24mm is not a wildly popular sports focal length, this lens is once again the best choice when 24mm is needed. Shooting basketball from under the net in a typically-poorly lit gym is a good example. It may not be considered a sport, but capturing the kids running around the house is challenging enough to be considered one. The Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens is a good choice for this capture. If you have appropriate access, the 24 L II is a great stage performance lens.

Group photos are often taken at 24mm, but unless all members of the group are aligned on the plane of sharp focus, don't use f/1.4 to shoot them. 24mm f/1.4 shots have a unique look to them - a shallow DOF combined with strong vignetting. Full body portraits and environmental portraits, with vignetting adjusted to taste if shot at a wide aperture, are a good use for this lens. Low light and groups? Wedding photographers will definitely appreciate this lens.

Those shooting the night sky - especially the Northern Lights, appreciate fast, sharp, wide angle lenses. With its f/1.4 aperture, any wider lens will need exposures that are four times as long (creating star trails) or ISO settings that are four times as high (increasing long exposure noise). Expect some coma in the far corners and some purple fringing around super-bright (blown highlights) stars when shooting the night sky.

My conclusion was the first line in this review. The Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM Lens is, without question, Canon's best-performing (optically and physically) and best-built autofocus 24mm lens. If you want the best Canon 24mm AF lens, look no longer. This is it.

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