One of my favorite things to do is go outside and take pictures of nature and wildlife. Sometimes, though, I don’t feel like staking out a spot to try and get pictures of birds. There’s a whole little world around us that we rarely even notice. Usually when I attach my macro lens (Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS USM) it’s to take product photos. I admit that the lens provides so much more ability than I often use it for – so, every now and then I throw it on and go looking at the small details.
The other day, however, I didn’t even get out of the front door before seeing the “details” hanging from the screen door. It was completely coincidental that I had my 7D and macro lens with me when I saw a praying mantis relaxing attached to the door. I went outside and grabbed some photos. While taking the photos (which is really creepy because the head of a praying mantis can swivel, so it turns its head to look at you and that’s just a little weird…) the thing jumped from the screen door, flew over my head, and landed in the grass. While it was there I planted my rear in the wet ground (I didn’t realize at the time that I was about to sit in wet grass and dirt) and spent a little while taking photos of this fella’.
After looking more information up on praying mantis’ I learned that the rumor of them being endangered and carrying a fine should you kill them is just that – a rumor. Officially, the bug is not endangered and there is no fine or penalty in the event that you smash a praying mantis (other than you looking like a jerk). This one was pretty brown though most of the ones I have seen have been quite green – not sure why that is… do they camoflauge or change color during the seasons? We may never know (actually we could do some research and find out but I am too tired).
24mm? To ordinary people that measurement means nothing. To Canon gear nerds photographers, that measurement brings one thing to mind – twice. 24mm lenses are not extremely popular. If polled, most photographers would likely say that they use their 50mm, 85mm, ulta-wide angle (UWA), and 70-200mm – any of these lenses – more than anything in the 24mm range. If someone were to ask for a suggestion for a professional lens wider than the 50mm ƒ/1.2L but not as wide as say the 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L (or perhaps they want a faster lens…) then they might be referred to the Canon 35mm ƒ/1.4L or even the Sigma 30mm ƒ/1.4. It’s true – the 24mm lenses are usually “forgotten” in Canon’s offering line-up.
Canon offers two very unique 24mm lenses (actually Canon offers 6 lenses in the 20 – 28mm range when talking about primes). One lens is the 24mm ƒ/1.4L II and the other is the TS-E 24mm ƒ/3.5L II (and of course there are first generations of both lenses though they are discontinued at the time of this writing). The first lens mentioned, which I will just call the 24L II, is fast. It auto-focuses fast and the huge ƒ/1.4 aperture makes taking photos in the lowest of light possible. Because of the generally accepted 1/<focal length> rule for shake-free, hand-held photography, you could take a photo down to 1/20 – 1/30 sec shutter without worrying much about shake. Combine that with an aperture of ƒ/1.4 you can imagine how much light this thing will gather. Combine that further with modern camera ISO performance and the 24L II makes almost any photograph possible in almost any amount of light. We’re talking real, real low light here!
So what of this other weird lens? The TS-E 24mm ƒ/3.5L II is surely a weird looking lens even if you are not very familiar with photography. The first thing you notice is the TS-E in front of the name. This stands for Tilt and Shift. A what? Well, the mechanism in this lens allows you to tilt the front element away from the camera’s sensor plane – this lets you turn the “plane” of focus – or, rather, if you think of things being in focus as a “toward or away” then what the tilt allows for is a focus “toward or away while at an angle”. It allows for wider aperture to maintain larger depth of field – it can also allow for “selective focus” – you can creatively isolate objects in the frame by tilting. The “shift” part is a little more confusing and I will be honest I don’t know why it works – but, what it does is shift the entire lens up or down, left or right parallel to the sensor plane. This allows for “perspective correction” – when using wide-angle lenses you will notice that buildings and other vertical objects can look distorted and lean back in an image. Shifting the lens allows these lines to stay parallel.
So, what’s the difference? Well obviously one is a ƒ/1.4 max aperture and the other is a ƒ/3.5 max aperture – but that’s just the obvious differences. More subtle is the fact that the TS-E 24mm is a manual focus lens while the 24L II is a very fast very accurate auto-focusing lens. The TS-E is geared more toward architecture, landscapes, and product photos while the 24L II is a wide angle “take the picture easily” lens. The truth is that both lenses serve two specific and different purposes – but, that’s only if you listen to articles and forum posts. The reality is that both lenses are amazingly good lenses and offer a photographer two different 24mm experiences. On one hand the 24L II can gather inordinate amounts of light through its huge aperture and auto-focus the scene. On the other hand the TS-E 24mm, though with a slower aperture and manual focus, can offer one of the sharpest, most distortion-free images out of any wide angle lens.
The neat thing about the 24mm range is that on a full frame 35mm camera a 24mm is a “wide angle”. On a crop body it’s a “wide” maybe “wide-normal” lens. The field of view crop is narrower proving an approximate field of view of that of a 38mm lens on a full frame 35mm body. 38mm is still considered a “wide angle” on the 35mm film/sensor standard – so it offers an approximately-equal view as the 35mm ƒ/1.4L but offers modern coatings and better glass design offering lower distortion, a sharper image, and less ghosting and chromatic aberration when compared to the much-older-in-design 35mm ƒ/1.4L.
So, what does the field of view look like when comparing a full 35mm frame and a crop body (1.6x) frame? I took these four images to demonstrate each lens on each body (5D Mark II and 7D). The images are too small to really notice the sharpness differences and all of the shots were at ƒ/3.5 so the depth of field advantage (or disadvantage, depending on your taste) of the ƒ/1.4 aperture on the 24L II is not made apparent, but you get the idea. The images below are in order – 5DII w/ TS-E 24L II, 5DII w/ 24L II, 7D w/ TS-E 24L II, and 7D w/ 24L II, respectively:
Hopefully some will find this useful! I know it’s not a test of sharpness, vignetting, ghosting, aberration, or any of those other technical aspects of lenses, but there is plenty of that out there. For instance, I recommend the reviews over on www.The-Digital-Photo.com if you care to see ISO 12233 crops or critical review.
The Canon 50mm ƒ/1.8 II – considered the “best value” lens by many reviewers all over the internet. It is probably the most-owned lens amongst Canon’s offerings because it’s well… cheap. Real cheap. I picked this little guy up to replace the one I had. Back in college a friend picked my camera bag up off of the backseat of my car with the back unzipped and a lot of my stuff fell out. Fortunately my 70-200 ƒ/4.0L rolled out onto the backseat and my flash did the same. However, my 50mm ƒ/1.8 II fell to the street and plop – the front element popped out of the body of the lens. I put it back together later in my room and it seemed ok, but I realized the next time I went out with it that the autofocus would jam after a little turning. That, and the element would pop out if you rotated the lens. Oh boy.
So, years later I have another one. I already have the 50mm ƒ/1.4 USM so many people are probably wondering why I’ve got the ƒ/1.8 II as well after picking up the ƒ/1.4! It’s simple really – I had a gift card for Amazon (only like $10) and the lens is $100 free shipping with my Prime account. So, I picked it up as an alternative to higher dollar lenses should I want to go out some place where I might want to bring less expensive-looking optics. That, and it’s kind of a reminiscent piece given mine broke (not due to my own doing and all) a long while back. Another convenience about having it is that my 35mm film body (Canon Elan 7NE) had the 50mm ƒ/1.4 USM on it when I set i t up in my Pelican Case. But, without the lens on, the camera fits loosely in the compartment and flops around. So, I can leave the ƒ/1.8 on and all is secure.
I had to write up some instructions for a photography station at work and as part of that process I had to provide pictures of the setup. I used the 50mm ƒ/1.8 II to provide wider angle shots of the station which was fun because it reminded me of my first DSLR and my former 50mm ƒ/1.8 II and how simple my setup was back then. I set the lens to ƒ/1.8 and fired off a shot showing the station in focus but the background out of focus:
This lens is so easy to make things “look good” with the wide aperture and relatively sharp output (for what it is!). When you view images from this lens its hard to believe that the lens costs so little. I have never used the 50mm ƒ/1.8 original version but I understand that it performs about the same as the II but has better construction. Compared to the 50mm ƒ/1.4 USM, the ƒ/1.8 is cheaply made, light, small, and relatively “toyish” – heck, the lens mount itself is plastic! If that doesn’t convey cheap, then you won’t find a single issue with this lens. The 50mm ƒ/1.8 I, which performs almost identically to the ƒ/1.8 II but the first version is metal with a metal lens mount. Of course the 50mm ƒ/1.4 USM offers great build quality including a metal lens mount and beefier focusing ring. The ƒ/1.8 II doesn’t really feel like a real lens, comparatively. But, if you put all of that aside then the thing performs amazingly:
So, like almost all review sites, I figured I’d show what the biggest difference is between the ƒ/1.8 vs ƒ/1.4 aside from a slightly larger aperture. The biggest optical flaw of the ƒ/1.8 is that it produces some of the harshest bokeh of all. The 50mm ƒ/1.8 II has curved aperture blades however it only has 5 of them. So, when taking a picture with a subject in the foreground, the highlights behind the scene will exhibit very hard, 5-sided polygonal bokeh balls. This is not an issue with the lens wide-open at ƒ/1.8 because the aperture blades are cleanly tucked away, but as you stop the lens down to gain more sharpness (given this lens isn’t that sharp at ƒ/1.8) and depth of field, you will notice the harsh bokeh. Here are the 50mm ƒ/1.8 II aperture blades at ƒ/8.0:
The 50mm ƒ/1.4 USM also has curved aperture blades but has 3 more for a total of 8 blades. The result is that any highlight bokeh balls in the background of an image produced with the 50mm ƒ/1.4 USM will demonstrate a much smoother bokeh. The smoothness of bokeh can be attributed to both the ƒ/1.4 maximum aperture as well as the additional blades. In geometry class you learned that if you drew tangential lines around the circumference of a circle, you could in theory draw a perfect circle (with infinite lines). But, since we cannot have infinite aperture blades, we deal with what we’re given – the 8 blades do not form a perfect circle stopped down to ƒ/8.0 as can be seen above, but at slightly wider apertures (ƒ/1.8 – 4.0 for instance) the aperture still provides relatively round, smooth bokeh highlights:
If you desire the look of smooth, completely round bokeh highlights throughout all apertures and want a 50mm lens then your only option from Canon is the 50mm ƒ/1.2L USM. However, that lens is now retailing at around $1,550 USD – a huge leap above the ƒ/1.8 at $100, and the ƒ/1.4 at $379. Of course, the 50mm ƒ/1.2L performs great, even if it isn’t very sharp, but we all know that and expect that from a professional L-series lens with a huge price tag. The 50mm ƒ/1.4 and 50mm ƒ/1.8 trump it in value, weight, and being inconspicuous. That said, I want to follow this brief review/article up with some example photos at various apertures to show bokeh highlights.
The photo set below are from the 50mm ƒ/1.8 and 50mm ƒ/1.4. I will shoot each lens as wide as they go, then offer the following image from the opposite lens. Since the 50mm ƒ/1.8 cannot shoot at ƒ/1.4, I will start with the 50mm ƒ/1.4 at it’s widest aperture:
It is fairly easy to see the differences here even if you aren’t a photography expert. As the aperture number (f-number) goes up, the aperture opening size goes down, the blades close, the roundness is lost, and the background detail becomes more in focus and as a result more harsh in appearance. I feel that people would agree unanimously that shooting these lenses with an aperture of ƒ/8 or smaller will result in a rather distracting background highlights. But, I suppose that one would expect that to happen with almost any lens. Wide angle lenses, though, tend to simple render the background as a sharp, detailed scene compared to longer normal and telephoto lenses which render them still out of focus but busy.
This isn’t mean to encourage or discourage the purchase of one lens over the other but rather to show the potential in a $100 lens (even if it is cheap-feeling and completely plastic), while also showing that the mid-range 50mm lens offers better build quality but also better optical quality especially in the bokeh department. Other things like sharpness at varying apertures, flare control, vignetting, contrast, etc., are all improved when using the 50mm ƒ/1.4 USM over the ƒ/1.8 II, but all in all, the ƒ/1.8 II is a very good performing lens especially given how little it costs.