In-depth review: Canon 24-105 f4 IS L USM

The ‘L’ in this series lens, according to Canon, stands for luxury.

After having owned it for over 4 years, I politely disagree. By all means, it is a good lens, but one cannot merely classify lenses as Canon does as either “luxury” or “not luxury”. Thanks to a process called fuzzification, which I just learned about in my advanced geographic information systems class, I’ll tell you why the above statement, in my opinion needs to be honed. Short or tall? Which one are you? Whichever your answer may be, it’s set and believed that it is really context dependent and these type of statements are in fact rooted in the image of the society for which you presumably belong to. When most camera developers switched from the 35mm film to the digital 35mm cameras, one lose was the quality of craftsmanship in the accompanying lenses. They went from being ‘built like a tank’ to really what was important at that time, being able to properly deliver through the lens information with new state of the art technology like autofocusing. For those who are physics enthusiasts you might see this as simply being the natural occurrence of Newton’s 3rd Law of Physics, every action has an equal opposite reaction. Every time we make something ‘better’, somewhere down the line something else ‘suffers’.

Front view on Canon 5D mk I
Front view on Canon 5D mk I
Top view on Canon 5D mk I
Top view on Canon 5D mk I
45˚ view on Canon 5D mk I
45˚ view on Canon 5D mk I

Now, if all we relied on for decision-making was yes and no, suitable and not-suitable, pass or fail, the world would be a much more disjointed place. In GIS, that type of decision making comes from a process called Boolean where every subsequent constraint and factor are given a value of 0 or 1 thereby mathematically standing for unsuitable and suitable respectively. Then all layers are overlayed and if one single overlapping layer or parcel contained a 0, then that area is unsuitable for whatever the intent was (build a school, expand park range limits, etc.). This to me is the equivalent of a ‘luxury’ and ‘not luxury’ lens. It cannot, I repeat it cannot simply be defined in such a way but rather consideration should be taken to assess every layer explored in decision-making and end with a final score.

We aren’t strangers to scores/grades, we got them in school, we review restaurants/hotels/business in the same manner. When you book a resort vacation down South in the Caribbean’s, a lot of us would be disappointed if all the reviews said ‘recommend’, ‘don’t recommend’. We are spending a lot of money to go on vacation, we want to be told more on a personal level. My suggestion to Canon is to adopt the same scoring we are all used to. Of course that can be out of many different numbers, let’s keep it simple and have it out of 10. If they want to set an arbitrary cut-off where they can call a lens a ‘luxury’ lens when it receives a score above say 8, that is totally fine. For marketing purposes they might not brand it that way with the scoring system. Any interested and educated consumer can then go take a look at the lens rating on Canon’s website which can only be the compiled score of many of Canon’s technicians (as to decrease bias from any one particular technician). Of course a Canon technician is more biased than any other non-Canon relative out there. We have to start a new system somewhere and that is not to say it will not need improvements.

So yes, I purchased this L series lens as the very first to my kit at the beginning of my BSc of Science in Biology at Concordia back in 2011. I purchased this lens because after having left the band to come back to school, I wasn’t very motivated being back here after so many years of freedom and rocking out as a day job. This lens was to act as a reward and motivator for deciding to go back to school.

Here is what I was looking for:

  • terrific optimal quality (who doesn’t want this)
  • built to withstand the elements
  • fixed aperture throughout the zoom range
  • walk around lens with a useable and variable focal range (one lens to rule them all kind of attitude)

Clearly if you know this lens, you know that every criteria I demanded was met with the 24-105. So what’s the issue???

The price I paid for this lens used was a little high even at the time ($950 from an individual on Kijiji; Kijiji is the sh*!). As most things, when I decide I want something I can be a little obsessive about it. Despite the price point, I felt I NEEDED to have it. I still remember my first impressions when I touched my first “L” lens, right up there with the feeling of loosing my virginity. Sacrilegious thoughts rummaged through my head as I remember being impressed by the build quality, the heftiness of the lens, and how much breadth it had compared to what I believe at the time I owned was the 18-250 f4 – 5.6 IS on a Canon 60D. I meticulously inspected it for any defects (you can never be too careful on Kijiji). Mounted the lens, even the audible ‘snap’ of lens and body felt of high quality, whatever that means. First photograph I took was of a hallway in the main administration building of Concordia University. I’ll try and see if I still have it, in which case it’ll be posted below if I do. The quality of the bokeh was so much better than any of the photographs from the kit lens with the 60D. IS was silent thanks to a well built USM. I also liked the touch of individuality the seller had added to the lens hood; covered it entirely with hockey tape as to avoid any luster off the hood, trimmed to perfection.

Here is the lens still with the hockey tape on the hood. You can see the delineation from two pieces overlapping.
Here is the lens still with the hockey tape on the hood. You can see the delineation from two pieces overlapping.
Here is the lens hood with tape removed.
Here is the lens hood with tape removed.

After that moment, I just walked around town like a boss. Light rain, no problem! Peering eyes at the beautiful red ring around the barrel, no problem I’ll fight you off. For an ‘L’ lens, it does exactly what you expect it to and is definitely a step-up from I guess non-L lenses. It was my favorite go-to-lens for the outdoors. On a 1.6x crop sensor, I did always crave it to be wider. There’s UWA for that type of situation such as the 16-35 f2.8 L USM or it’s cheaper almost just a good little brother the 17-40 f4 L USM. I also considered getting the Tokina 11-17 f2.8 back then, which is a crop sensor specific lens. Now what makes the 24-105 weather sealed, is obviously as stated in the name, the numerous seals around the lens making it less porous to dust and water. Mainly what differentiates it from the other non ‘L’ lenses in this regard is the rubber skirt as I like to call it that sits at the base of the lens, the part attaching to your camera body.

One surprising bonus to this lens which I nor initially desired nor initially knew what I was looking for, is the filter thread size. At 77 mm, it is a common enough filter size that most of the Canon ‘L’ lenses you’ll ever want will work with a 77 mm filter. That means spending less money on an expensive polarizing filter for this lens then having to buy another for an 82 mm lens. This is also true for many other high-end lenses for any other company out there. The problems arise when looking into purchasing UWA lenses or ultra-telephoto. Over time, I’ve switched from a Canon 60D to 1D mk III, 5D mk I, and finally the 1D mk IV. That means I’ve tested this lens on every possible type of DSLR sensor (FF – 1.6x). Currently, it almost permanently resides on the 5D while I have my Canon 70-200 f2.8 IS II L USM on the 1D mk IV. This is then a great primer to launch us into the next section: my dissatisfactions.

While this lens is absolutely wonderful, to me, it has never quite lived up to the build quality and optics of other lenses I’ve had the opportunity of using or owning. The three that come to mind are the 16-35 f2.8 L USM (version 1), 24-70 f2.8 L USM (version 1), and the 70-200 f2.8 IS II L USM. What do these lenses all have in common that makes my heart beat really fast. They are L lenses, there’s no argument that L lenses in general are great performers. I currently own the last mentioned lens and quite personally, when I view my RAW files in Lightroom, I don’t even feel like sharpening the image. It is so tack sharp (I don’t care about pixel peeping) from corner to corner that the overall photograph always blows me out of the water. Now of course an inspiring photograph needs great composition, lighting and exposure, not just optical quality. I’m sure we can agree it helps or else why spend the extra $$$. The 24-105 though I love the range and purpose, I’ve always found lack luster in that department. Mind you, when I first got it, it was the bees knees. This new perspective comes as a result of having had the opportunity to experiment with many other ‘L’ series lenses. To make matters worse, recently in the last year, the aperture cable broke on the 24-105 and required a $300 fix at my local camera store. I didn’t even know what the aperture cable did, even less so that it could break and was a well documented issue with this lens. Took a photograph one day at my godchild’s birthday party, aperture never reopened and an error message was displayed on the top screen of my 5D mk I. This is not impressive. Ah yes almost forgot, a short few months after that, as if to insult me, the red plastic ring around the barrel broke. HOW DOES THAT EVEN HAPPEN? I mean it’s a plastic ring glued into a groove which I can barely pick at with my nail, it was pretty funny though. Funnier yet is that it embarrassed me so much to loose what is supposed to designate a Canon lens as luxury, that I stuck it back with crazy glue.

So yes, though my needs were initially met, with time I’ve come to want more in terms of optical quality as one should when their craft improves. I thereby would consider it less of an ‘L’ lens but more than a non ‘L’ lens. Since this designation does not exist, hereby was my suggestion about applying a type of fuzzification. To me, the 70-200 f2.8 IS II L USM gets as close to a 10/10 as possible. Kit lenses that are non ‘L’ I would grade 6 and below. I just wish there was at least some middle ground between 6-8 where a lens isn’t an ‘L’ or a non-‘L’, that’s where the 24-105 f4 IS L USM would be placed. Clearly people have noticed because the resale value some 5 years later is now ~$600 while the 24-70 f2.8 L USM (version 1) can still be found hovering around the same price as 5 years ago ~$1200 and as low as $900 used.

Most review I’ve read don’t tend to take a stand, so for the sake of everyone I will here. If you had the choice between the 24-105 or the 24-70, choose the 24-70. Yes it doesn’t have IS, but really for the most part who cares. It’s faster, wider and IS isn’t worth the extra stop of light you loose at f4. New cameras are built to be very efficient at higher ISO with very little visible noise. The “WOW” factor from the 24-70 version 1 and I imagine more so the version 2, will keep you more passionate about the lens thereby being translated into happiness and this in turn affects your compositions. Anyone want to send me a 24-70 f2.8 II L USM for review?

Final remarks: In all sincerity, if you are looking for your first ‘L’ lens to replace your Canon Rebel or Canon 7D series kit lens, this 24-105 f4 IS L USM will make you the happiest photographer one could. The sheer amount improvements compared to a non series ‘L’ lens really does make this a genuine upgrade. You’ll appreciate the weather sealed properties, the improved optics, the heft and build quality which is like night and day compared to a non ‘L’ lens and more importantly, at the current price they are being sold new or even used on sites like Kijiji, it’s a steal. My favorite quality of this lens has always been it’s focal range. Yes one can change from the 24-70 to the 70-200 in the field. Despite this, not all field settings are safe to switch lenses halfway into a shoot (think desert, Arctic, dry Boreal forest, even busy streets downtown). All put you at risk of having dust deposit onto your already sensitive dust magnetizing digital sensor. I am selling my 24-105 if anyone is interested; it has a new aperture cable so that shouldn’t be an issue 🙂 . Happy shooting!

Logo Franco Alo - Photography

Here are a few photographs from 2010-2011 showing different f-stops with this lens so that you can determine the overall quality throughout its range. I’ve also tried to include a diversity of subjects. 

Canon 24-105 f4 IS L USM ISO 100, f7.1, 13s, 65 mm, tripod-mounted, illuminated with flashlight
Canon 24-105 f4 IS L USM
ISO 100 | f7.1 | 13s | 65 mm | tripod-mounted | illuminated with flashlight
Canon 24-105 f4 IS L USM ISO 100, f11, 1s, 28 mm, tripod-mounted
Canon 24-105 f4 IS L USM
ISO 100 | f11 | 1s | 28 mm | tripod-mounted
Canon 24-105 f4 IS L USM ISO 100, f5.6, 15s, 55 mm, tripod-mounted
Canon 24-105 f4 IS L USM
ISO 100 | f5.6 | 15s | 55 mm | tripod-mounted
Canon 24-105 f4 IS L USM ISO 200, f6.3, 1s, 92 mm, tripod-mounted
Canon 24-105 f4 IS L USM
ISO 200 | f6.3 | 1s | 92 mm | tripod-mounted
Canon 24-105 f4 IS L USM ISO 640, f4, 1/250s, 50 mm
Canon 24-105 f4 IS L USM
ISO 640 | f4 | 1/250s | 50 mm
Canon 24-105 f4 IS L USM ISO 1250, f4, 1/13s, 105 mm, IS ON
Canon 24-105 f4 IS L USM
ISO 1250 | f4 | 1/13s | 105 mm | IS ON

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