Which 24-70mm Lens Should I Get?

A 24-70mm zoom is the quintessential general purpose lens for full frame camera users. The versatility afforded by the focal length range makes it well suited to a huge number of tasks including travel, lifestyle, documentary, architecture, wedding and event photography. Countless photojournalists have built careers on the pictures created with their 24-70mm lenses.

Largely because of the focal length range's popularity, just about every major manufacturer makes a version (or two) of the 24-70mm lens to satisfy customer demand. And most of the lenses we will be comparing today feature an f/2.8 constant maximum aperture which further adds to the lenses' versatility. Using an f/2.8 aperture will allow you to freeze motion in half as much light (at the same ISO setting) as an f/4 aperture. That's why a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens has been so popular with wedding photographers; when ambient light levels are low (as in a church or reception area), the wide f/2.8 aperture can be used to help stop motion at tolerably high ISO levels.

So which lens is right for you? Well, let's find out.

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens

The EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM became the Canon general purpose when it was introduced in 2002. The lens quickly gained favor for its versatile focal length range (being 4mm wider than the 28-70L) and wide, constant f/2.8 aperture. A decade later, Canon introduced the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, a worthy successor to the ultra-popular 24-70mm lens it replaced with improvements to image sharpness, vignetting and AF speed. A disapointment to us was that Canon decided not to include image stabilization as one of the upgraded features, claiming that excellent image quality was paramount in this release.

The 24-70L II is impressively sharp in the center throughout its focal length range with very good contrast. Corner performance slightly trails the center until f/5.6 where even sharpness is obtained. With more elements than its predecessor, it doesn't fair quite as well in the flare department. The 24-70 L II exhibits typical distortion in its class, with moderate barrel distortion at the wide end that transitions to moderate pincushion at the long end.

Where the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM really shines is in AF speed and consistency. Version "II" is significantly faster than its predecessor when used on Canon DSLRs featuring advanced AF systems (non 9-point Rebel-series AF systems). Fast and consistent AF is yet another reason why so many photographers depend on this lens. When you do your job right as a photographer, it takes care of you.

Like its predecessor, the 24-70L II features weather sealing with a front filter in place. This feature alone differentiates it from most (if not all) of the 24-70mm lenses produced by third-party manufacturers.

Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM Lens

When the Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM was announced about 9 months after the 24-70L II, quite frankly, we were left a bit bewildered. Why would Canon release a lens with a shorter focal length range than the popular EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM and charge significantly more for it? At announcement time, the 24-70 f/4L IS's MSRP was $1,499.00. Since then, the lens' retail price has been lowered significantly putting its capabilities and performance into better perspective.

The 24-70 f/4L IS's image sharpness is difficult to summarize in a single sentence or two. Therefore, I'm going to pull from Bryan's review for a detailed description:

With a wide open f/4 aperture: At 24mm, the Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM Lens is very sharp in the center with good sharpness extending to the periphery of the full frame image circle. This lens gets very slightly softer at 35mm and modestly softer yet (especially in the mid and peripheral image circle) at 50mm f/4 where the lens performs its worst. Sharpness improvement by 70mm brings the 24-70 f/4L IS back up to performance similar to that at 35mm.
You can expect about 2.5 stops of vignetting in the full frame corners at 24 and 70mm, with slightly less vignetting through the middle focal length range. The lens' Super Spectra coatings have increased contrast in flare-producing situations, but I wouldn't necessarily consider this lens to have an aesthetically pleasing flare characteristic.

Benefits of this lens over its f/2.8 big brother are reduced size/weight, image stabilization and reduced cost. Another huge benefit (one the 24-70 f/4L IS holds over the rest of the lenses in this comparison) is maximum magnification (MM). The 24-70 f/4L IS features an impressive 0.70x MM (compared to 0.21x for the 24-70L II) which means it can double as a macro lens in a pinch. The fact that the 24-70 f/4L IS can negate the need to carry a second lens in your pack for macro work is a unique and worthwhile benefit. At the time of this comparison, the 24-70mm f/4L IS is less than half the cost of its f/2.8 counterpart (MSRP).

The downside, of course, compared to the rest of the 24-70 competition is significant – an f/4 maximum aperture.

Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 DI VC USD Lens

The Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 VC USD broke new ground in 2012, becoming the first stabilized 24-70mm lens. Four years later, it's still rather unique in the marketplace as only Nikon has [relatively recently] released a specification matching f/2.8 zoom with stabilization.

It took us a few tries, but we finally received a copy of the Tamron 24-70 VC which produced sharp results throughout the zoom range (look for the term "ISO 12233 resolution chart" in Bryan's full review for details on our experience with testing this lens). With a good copy in-hand, you can expect impressive center sharpness at the focal range extents and remarkable image quality throughout the zoom range (even out to the corners of the frame) at f/4.

You can expect anywhere from 2-3 stops vignetting on a full-frame camera, wide open, depending on the focal length. A little more than a stop of vignetting remains at f/11. Flare is decently controlled, but CA wil likely be visible at this lens' shortest and longest focal lengths. Distortion is both typical and average for a lens in this class.

This lens' biggest advantage over the rest of the lenses listed here, of course, is its vibration control system which is capable of up to 4-stops of camera shake compensation. The ability of this lens to capture sharp imagery of static subjects in low light is extremely beneficial. That the Tamron is significantly less expensive than the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II is another important advantage.

Unfortunately, this lens' biggest crutch is AF consistency. The copy we tested did not focus very consistently on One Shot AF and performed even worse in AI Servo. For some lens usage, AF consistency may not need to be consistently spot on. But for a lens that would otherwise be ideal for shooting once in a lifetime moments (like weddings), less than ideal AF consistency can be problematic. If interested in acquiring this lens, be sure to purchase from an authorized retailer with a no-hassle exchange policy just in case the lens does not meet your minimum requirements for AF consistency. Otherwise, utilizing Live View focusing can aid in increasing your hit rate of static subjects.

Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM Lens

Announced at Photokina 2008, the Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM is by far the oldest (and least expensive) lens in this comparison with a maximum aperture of f/2.8. As Bryan mentions in his full review, it's extremely difficult to summarize this lens' performance in a couple of sentences. Unfortunately, it's a bit complicated.

To fully understand the image quality you should expect from this lens, read the Image Quality section in Bryan's full review. The good news is that results at f/5.6 are very good throughout the entire focal range. The bad news is that image quality at f/2.8 various from "very sharp" at 24mm to you-should-avoid-this-focal-length at 70mm, unless you prefer to specialize in artistic blur. And if you're buying a general purpose lens with an f/2.8 aperture, odds are you intended on using it wide open at least occasionally.

Flare is very well controlled (though with less contrast) at 70mm, but flare is certainly noticeable at the lens' wider focal lengths. The distortion this lens exhibits is very similar to the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM.

Like the Tamron, the Sigma's AF performance will likely be a significant differentiating factor for many. The copy we tested front focused at 24mm and focused inconsistently at 70mm. AI Servo performance was, "to be kind – poor." Again, Live View focusing may help increase your hit rate with this lens; however, thorough personal testing is needed to determine whether or not this lens meets your AF performance needs.

Tokina 24-70mm f/2.8 AT-X Pro FX Lens

Introduced last year, the Tokina 24-70mm f/2.8 AT-X Pro FX receives the honor of being the newest lens in this comparison. Unfortunately, we don't have enough first-hand experience with the lens to adequately describe its AF performance. However, we did run the lens through our standard lab tests which illuminated a few things.

The Tokina 24-70 f/2.8 is quite sharp in the center at 24mm and 70mm wide open, although we did notice a slight drop in center performance at 50mm. The lens transitions to relatively soft with less contrast in the corners at f/2.8. Sharpness in the corners improves through f/5.6 where the difference between the center and corners becomes negligible.

I would consider the Tokina's flare performance to be very typical for lenses in this class. The same could be said about the Tokina's distortion performance as well.

Tokina lenses typically feature a very solid construction. This lens follows that trend. It's not the largest lens among those in this comparison, but it is certainly the heaviest (see below).

We didn't field test the lens to assess the Tokina's AF performance, but... it's unlikely to match the performance and consistency of Canon's USM lenses. Be sure to thoroughly test the lens within the retailer's return/exchange period to ensure the lens meets your needs.

Size, Weight, Maximum Magnification and Filter Size

It's especially important to consider the size and weight of your general purpose lens which is, by merit, likely to stay on your camera for long periods of time. Small differences in size and weight can be noticeable when packing space is limited and the hours of handling your camera begin to add up.

Filter size may also be a differentiating factor for a good number of photographers. All but one of the lenses in this comparison feature an 82mm front filter thread. These filters tend to be less common (though their popularity is rising among newly released lenses) and more costly compared to more common 77mm filters.

LensMeasured SizeMeasured WeightMMFilter
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM3.45 x 4.72” (87.7 x 119.8mm)28.4oz (805g)0.21x82mm
Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM3.30 x 3.97” (83.7 x 100.8mm)21.2oz (600g)0.70x77mm
Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD3.47 x 4.72” (88.1 x 120.0mm)28.9oz (820g)0.20x82mm
Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM3.48 x 4.03” (88.4 x 102.3mm)27.7oz (785g)0.19x82mm
Tokina 24-70mm f/2.8 AT-X Pro FX3.51 x 4.63” (89.2 x 117.6mm)36.0oz (1020g)0.21x82mm


So which lens is right for you? If you need an f/2.8 maximum aperture, the best-available AF performance and your budget allows for it, the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens is probably the right choice. If you can get by with an f/4 maximum aperture, the Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM Lens offers great image quality, fast and accurate AF, image stabilization and a very handy 0.70x maximum magnification at a budget price. From there, the decision gets a bit murkier. I think each of the remaining lenses will appeal to different people based on their priorities with center/corner sharpness, image stabilization and price being the biggest differentiating factors.

Posted: 10/11/2016 8:05:07 AM ET   Posted By: Sean
Posted to: Canon News    Categories: Camera Gear Comparisons, Lens Comparisons
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