A first look at the Canon TS-E 17mm F/4 L (and a test vs the 17-40 L)
Canon 17mm TS-E Review part One
As a Canon user who primarily shoots landscapes (and a large portion of the time at wide focal lengths) I like many of you, have become frustrated with the EOS ultra-wide lineup. The 17-40 F/4 L and the 16-35 F/2.8 L may be fine lenses under many circumstances, but as megapixels increase with each generation of new bodies, flaws in optics become more and more apparent.
I have been a long time user of the 17-40 L and have found it extremely useful in the ultra-wide range. After trying out several copies and comparing it to the 16-35 L, I came to the conclusion that although not perfect, it serves it’s function quite well and is pretty much Canon’s best bargain in it’s focal length. But as I became more and more experienced and spent more time scrutinizing finite details of each image, both the 17-40 and the 16-35 left me feeling fairly disappointed. Besides the major chromatic aberration issue with both lenses, and the 17-40′s seemingly uncanny ability to make a straight horizon crooked, there is the issue of soft corners at 17mm (the main focal length at which most users buy the lens for) at practically any aperture.
So what do you do if you shoot wide and want to take advantage of the new sensor technology and expect to get sharp images from corner to corner? Well, until recently, you had about four options: 1) You could get the EOS 14mm 2.8 L II and still deal with the same problems as above, but have the ability to crop the soft corners out to about an 18mm equivalent… 2) Get your hands on a Zeiss 18mm Distagon and a third-party adapter… 3) Get your hands on the amazing Nikon 14-24 F2.8 and a third-party adapter… Or 4) Switch over to the Nikon System completely to take full advantage of the 14-24…
Believe me, plenty of people chose #4 and it makes you wonder if the Canon corporation really cares how much of their professional DSLR customers they lose to Nikon, since the major money makers for Canon have always been business machines and consumer grade point-and-shoots…
Well, finally we have a fifth option. (Although you may have to take out a second mortgage to get your hands on it)
Enter the EOS TS-E 17mm F/4 L.
Make and Design
As far as the lens’s physicality goes, it is made very well. And it better be for the price Canon is charging. It comes with a nice high-end lens cap that fits snugly and has an attached lanyard. Canon boasts it’s SWC (subwavelength Structure Coating). I have no idea if this jargon is really what helps the lens control flare and ghosting, but something sure does, so we’ll just take their word for it.
The Tilt, Shift and barrel rotation all function smoothly and extremely precise. (Having the ability to rotate the barrel 45 degrees from right angle to parallel for both tilt and shift is an invaluable feature and doubles the creative possibilities of a tilt-shift lens). There are also tension/lock knobs for both tilt and shift that can keep each exactly where you need them for precise function. The focus ring is easy-going and doesn’t give you the feel of the stiff manual lenses of years past, but it is not loose either and stays in place just fine. This being a manual-only lens, you are relying on your eyes and camera body to indicate focus. Live-View is certainly something that this lens will benefit from…
When you lock the lens onto your camera body, there is no play whatsoever. It fits snug and tight… As you can see by the protruding front element, there is no chance of putting a filter on the front, and unfortunately, there is no rear-filter holder either. If your the kind of person who relies heavily on GNDs for your landscape photos, the 17mm Tilt/Shift isn’t for you.
Another thing lacking is any kind of a hood (built in or removable)… This is kind of strange and I expected a built-in petal-style hood that most fisheye lenses have, but no dice. And what does Canon have to say about this? They actually mention 3 times in the lens manual to, quote: use a “piece of cardboard“… It’s just a tiny bit unsettling to spend well over 2k on a lens and have the manufacturer tell you to simply use a “piece of cardboard” to cut out harmful rays that might enter the bulbous front element… Lucky for me, I’m really a baby about my equipment and having this expensive glass just sit out there exposed doesn’t make me too nervous (at least that’s what I tell myself).
Tilt-Shift lenses have been very popular among serious photographers for decades now, but this is the first time a 17mm has been introduced to the modern DSLR market. In this part of the review however, I will not cover the Tilt/Shift functions of the lens, (that will be in part 2) but rather the optical capabilities when used as a normal wide-angle prime.
The following tests were done quickly, but also to the very best of my ability to attempt to show an unbiased look at the 17mm TS-E as compared to the 17-40L in exactly the same shooting conditions. This is obviously not exhaustive, comprehensive or technically precise enough to be a “be-all-end-all” review or comparison and that was not my intent anyway. I simply want to give my readers a good gauge as to whether or not the 17mm TS-E is worth considering adding to their arsenal.
TS-E 17mm L vs 17-40 mm L (quick comparisons)
The following crops were all shot in srgb as RAW files using the 1Ds MkII on Aperture Priority mode with evaluative metering at ISO 100. They were all taken mounted on tripod and mirror lock-up was enabled... Images were all converted to jpeg using Lightroom 2 and were not sharpened or adjusted during raw conversion or export.
As with any test, one must keep in mind the occurrence of copy variation. That being said, this particular copy of the 17-40 is my third owned and by far best optically. You can take that for what it’s worth.
UPPER LEFT EDGE
(click on each to see full 100% crop)
As you can see, diffraction takes it’s toll on both lenses at f/22, but the TS-E handles this much better. The shots from the 17-40 appear a millimeter or so wider, at 17mm but this may be due to the natural distortion of the 17-40, rather than actually being a slightly wider focal length. Keep in mind, no tilt or shift functions were enabled with the TS-E, so any barrel distortion you see from either lens is native. You will notice this again in the other crops…
BOTTOM LEFT CORNER
*(click on photos for larger views of the samples)
The difference in edge-sharpness becomes incredibly obvious in the corner shots above, at all apertures.
UPPER RIGHT AREA
*(click on each image for full size)
In the center the playing field becomes more even. I would say center sharpness is almost indistinguishable. The 17-40 is certainly a great lens and it’s price makes it one of Canon’s best buys, but the optical shortcomings of the zoom really stand out at the edges… Now, some people might say that this is an unfair comparison, and that may be so, but there aren’t many options at this focal length offered by Canon. And if you’re anything like me, you shoot your landscapes with the 17-40 and you are desperately looking for a worthy upgrade and one that can hold a candle to the Nikon 14-24 and the Zeiss 18mm.
CLOSEUP @ f/8
(click to view full size)
Pros & Cons of the TS-E
*Excellent optical quality and sharpness from corner to corner. (Probably Canon’s best offering at 17mm)
*Build quality is exceptional. All functions are smooth and precise. It doesn’t get much better than this from a non-telephoto made by Canon.
*CA is much more controlled than it is with the 17-40 or the 16-35 L… I actually haven’t used many lenses of any focal length that handle CA as good as this one does. If you have been having chromatic aberration issues with either of those zooms, the TS-E is a huge step in the right direction.
*Flare is also much better controlled. Although I haven’t showed any examples in this test, my experience from using it and taking quite a few test shots reveals that even with the crazy front element bulging out and catching light, the flare gets dissipated into small color spots even at f/22. The same scenes I shot with the 17-40 showed large bright un-clonable spots and the images were a complete mess of sun spots at f/22.
*Vignetting and light fall-off is very well controlled at all apertures
*Very little barrel distortion when compared to the 17-40 and 16-35.
*All of the tilt-shift options, which can give you all kinds of creative control. (I’ll cover that in part 2 of this review)
*Crippling price tag. You may have to sell a foot to pay for this. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you need your foot more than the lens.
*Inability to take front or rear filters of any kind
*Bulging front element is vulnerable to to damage of all kinds, especially without a hood available. (Canon’s suggestion of a piece of cardboard won’t help you avoid much damage either)
*Manual focus only. Yes, you can get focus confirmation with a beep, but that depends on your body and how accurate it’s AF is.
*Did I mention the price?
*It’s a prime, so you’re stuck at 17mm… this shouldn’t bother most seasoned shooters.
*I suppose it’s a little heavier than most lenses in it’s range, (29oz) but I’ve personally never been the type to complain about that sort of thing. I haul plenty of equipment over rough terrain for hikes dozens of miles at times and I never had a problem with the individual weight of my lenses or bodies…
It’s up to you whether or not it’s worth the cost, but one should remember that lenses are an excellent investment, and as long as you keep them in good condition, they will hold their resale value for a long time. This lens especially, since it just came out, and the chance of a second version coming out within the next 6 or 7 years even is unlikely. Buying a brand new body is a much less profitable investment.
At the end of the day, even with all of it’s shortcomings, the 17mm TS-E is the only ultra-wide lens Canon makes that has corner-to corner sharpness and optics solid enough to do all of the megapixels in your sensor justice. If you don’t need that foot, I say get it.
PS- This lens has been on backorder since it’s announcement and there aren’t many copies floating around on the used market. I haven’t heard when it’s going to be available on a consistent basis in retail stores.
Part 2 of this review will be up in a few weeks and I’ll have a good look at how the tilt and shift functions can be utilized.
Thanks for reading