Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L tilt-shift lens review

A storm approaches over the pressbox of Ivor Wynne Stadium

One of my first shots with the very impressive Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L tilt-shift lens on July 31, 2009 as a storm rolled through the area before the Tiger-Cats game against the BC Lions. Game photos here, here and here.

(Photo from the Canon USA site)

An equipment mini-review.

Please note I’ve added an updated (2010.02.17) at the bottom.

I use Canon 1D Mark III cameras (and now also the Mark IV), which aren’t full frame sensor, rather APS-H. It’s always been an issue to get wide enough coverage in certain situations vs. a full frame sensor camera, so the announcement of the TS-E 17mm f/4L tilt-shift lens was a nice surprise. On the Mark III the effective angle of view is similar to 22mm on a full frame camera. Until now, I’d been using the TS-E 24mm f/3.5L, which offered the equivalent angle of view of a 31mm lens. OK, but at times limiting. But my main issue with it was a quite high degree of chromatic aberration (CA), especially when shifted, and some barrel distortion.

My interest in the 17 is based partly in finding an all-around high quality super-wide solution to replace the 16-35 when quality is paramount, a wider shift lens, but also to use it as a replacement for the TS-E 24mm Mark I, when coupled with the 1.4x teleconverter. I’m curious to eventually see how well the 17 & 1.4x combo will stack up against the new 24 tilt-shift, but haven’t had a chance to try one of those yet. I suspect the new 24 will outperform the 17 based on initial reviews on a couple forums, but for my purposes, and the camera I use, I think the 17 with or without the 1.4x teleconverter will be good enough.

There are already a number of decent reviews and summaries of the two new Canon tilt-shift lenses; the TS-E 17mm f/4L and the TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II on photo forums and review sites but not a lot touching on how these lenses work when combined with the 1.4x teleconverter.

For the photo enthusiast out there, many probably care more about seeing results from a full frame camera, but the samples here should still give an idea of what to expect from the TS-E 17 & 1.4x TC vs. the TS-E 24 mkI. Granted, not extreme corner revelations that can only be attained on full frame…

A couple technical notes: Images were processed through Canon’s DPP with some slight curves adjustments and RAW sharpening set to 1. Crops are 100% from the original TIFF files, saved as quality 12 Jpegs in Photoshop without additional sharpening. The full frame shots have been reduced to 600 pixels height and given some USM in Photoshop.

TS-E 24mm mkI at full shift f/11:

TS-E 17mm w/1.4x TC, full shift f/11:

TS-E 24mm mkI at full shift f/11 crop. Note the CA:

TS-E 17mm w/1.4x TC, full shift f/11 crop. Note the relative lack of CA:

Center crop from unshifted TS-E 24mm mkI f/8:

Center crop from unshifted TS-E 17mm w/1.4x TC f/8:

Regarding the above two images. The center of the image is about the only area I can find where the TS-E 24mm mkI performs slightly better than the 17 with 1.4x TC. And below, an animated GIF. Note the difference in distortion between the two. While the 1.4x TC seems to introduce a touch of barrel distortion to the 17, it’s very slight. In contrast the 24 exhibits more barrel distortion, though because in this image it’s at nearly full shift, the distortion is not symmetrical across the frame (if that makes sense):

Note that while the camera does not recognize that the 1.4x teleconverter is attached when used with the TS-E lenses, it’s still possible to make exposures. The camera will report the f/stop as though the teleconverter was not attached. So just to clarify, when I stated above that the lens and teleconverter combination was at f/8, it means two stops from wide open, but with an effective aperture value (light transmission) of f/11. I hope that makes sense.

This is also one of the first lenses to employ Canon’s new SubWavelength Coating technology, which is supposed to greatly reduce or eliminate internal reflections and image degrading lens flare. Whatever it does, it seems to work very well with the TS-E 17. It’s very easy for the sun to shine directly on the large protruding front element, even if the sun is not in the image. I did a few tests and found that if the sun is in the image, there will be some flare, but it’s usually very minimal and in many cases should be relatively easy to clean up in Photoshop. Flare is more of an issue when the sun is out of the frame and at about a 90 degree angle from the front of the lens. But in these cases, it’s relatively easy to shade the front of the lens with one’s hand or a piece of cardboard, etc.

All of the following images were made without the teleconverter, and because I’m impatient, mostly without the tripod (images above were all on the tripod), so you’ll have to excuse a few images where the perspective is not perfectly corrected.

Note that the flare is not bad and here’s a detail of the image

Regarding flare: At f/4 or f/5.6, sometimes the flare will blend better into the background, but it will be larger. By stopping down to f/8 or f/11, as all these sample images were, the flare generally becomes smaller and more defined. Compared to zooms such as the 16-35 series, flare seems to be better controlled and less dramatic when it does appear.

General impressions of the lens:

On the Mark III I would say it appears sharpest in the centre at f/8. With full shifts, the corners will be better at f/11, though other areas of the image will have slight diffraction degradation compared to f/8. Distortion is seemingly nonexistent. Adding the 1.4x TC adds a touch of barrel distortion. Chromatic aberration at full shift exists, but is very minimal and much, much better than the original TS-E 24. Even with the 1.4x TC on the 17, CA is nothing to worry about.

I haven’t touched on the tilt aspect of the lens, partly because I haven’t yet found a lot of need for it. During the session shown here and working at f/8 or f/11, there was so much depth of field that using tilt to improve focus depth wasn’t required. I did experiment with it a bit and often a tilt of only 1 degree was enough to make a huge impact. It will really depend on the camera to subject distance and composition to determine if more tilt is required. I also found that for most building “portraits” it was good enough to leave the lens focused at infinity, though for closer subjects I preferred to confirm focus with live view rather than focus through the viewfinder. Tilt can help considerably with longer TS-E lenses, such as the 45mm, when depth of field is insufficient or stopping down a lot is not possible.

Working handheld: Most of my work is not done on a tripod. Therefore I find working with one to be somewhat restrictive (though of course a tripod can offer tremendous benefits). With the 17 it’s certainly possible to use it shifted and handheld, but it takes concentration and some of luck. I noticed it was very easy to over correct perspective corrections (top of a building appears wider than the base). Even if just slightly off, it became quite apparent once viewed on the computer. In the future I plan to bracket my shift compositions by changing the camera angle very slightly to give me some choices later when editing. The obvious solution: use a tripod whenever possible and live view with the grid enabled. I find live view much easier to work with when trying to line up the camera and lens for proper perspective correction than the relatively small DSLR viewfinder image.

Update: Wayne Seltzer has posted a couple 100% crops comparing the TS-E 17mm with the 1.4x teleconverter against the new TS-E 24mm f/3.5L MarkII here.

As one can see, there is a difference. I’m still sticking by my decision to stay with the 17 and 1.4x teleconverter. It will be sufficient quality (already better than the original TS-E 24) for my needs on a medium resolution camera like the 1D Mark III.

If you’ve found the information on this page helpful and are considering purchasing this lens, or any other photographic equipment, clicking through with the following links to purchase at B&H Photo Video would be greatly appreciated!

Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L at B&H
Canon EF 1.4x teleconverter at B&H

Or search B&H directly from this link:

B&H Photo - Video - Pro Audio

Update 2010.02.17:

I've since acquired a 1D Mark IV and have used it along with the 17 for both general purpose as well as more specialized (architecture) work. Without a doubt, the 17 performs very nicely on the IV, which is able to resolve even more detail with this lens than the Mark III.

On a recent outing to photograph a new building in the area, I used the IV along with the TS-E 17 & 45mm lenses. My observations here will primarily focus on the 17.

It was one of the first times I've used the lens to capture multiple shifted images to later stitch for a wider angle of view than would have been possible in a single capture. Generally the 17 works well for this application with one caveat: If it's used in conjunction with the 1.4x teleconverter, edges of overlapping images will not line up perfectly. The teleconverter introduces additional distortion.

My previous conclusion was to purchase only the 17 and use it with the teleconverter when needed as a replacement for the TS-E 24 MkI, therefore skipping purchase of the TS-E 24 MkII. I'm reevaluating this conclusion. If I did more critical work where a 24mm shift lens would be preferred, then yes, I would get the new TS-E as it is without a doubt an even more impressive lens (in terms of resolution) than the 17.

The higher resolution LCD display and fine grid pattern for live view were very useful for these photos, which were all composed in live view mode. I doubt I would have been able to square the images properly if I had to use only the viewfinder.

Here are some photos:

The above image was made with the TS-E 45. Two images were stitched because the framing of the building was very tight. It also allowed me to capture a variety of foreground versions with traffic, which I then added as a 50% layer in Photoshop.

The above image is three separate captures at zero shift, then shifted up and down. The camera, as with all of the stitched images here was kept in horizontal 'landscape' orientation. One characteristic of super wide shift lenses is seen here. Even if the verticals are perfectly aligned and not converging or diverging, it still looks as though the lines are diverging near the top. I'm still learning this lens and perhaps could have tilted the camera up very slightly to introduce some convergence. If I look at it long enough it does kind of give me a headache.

At least two stitched images here. Because I'm using and APS-H camera the 17 wasn't wide enough from this perspective, requiring stitched images. Yes, I know, the landscaping sucks, but it's winter and a new building. Hopefully by summer it will look better and I'll redo the images.

The above image is also a good example of just how finicky the 17 can be to line up correctly. Vertical lines are fine, but the horizontal lines are converging a bit on the left side. It's very slight and very difficult to see in the camera, but now, even at 600 pixels on this page it is somewhat apparent.

Three stitched images. Plus several layers in Photoshop of progressively underexposed images to preserve as much information in the reflection of the sun and sky off the glass as possible. Another option would have been HDR, but for me it was easier to do the work in layers.

Single image with some shift.

At least two images stitched. The top image was shifted up to the maximum. Had it been a full frame camera I would have gotten sky all the way across the top.

Time lapse photo from the central median of the very busy road. Here 17 felt too wide, so this is with the 1.4x teleconverter and three horizontal images stitched. I guess I could have tried a vertical capture with the straight 17, but for some reason I didn't. The image has been cropped somewhat along the sides to remove some distracting elements.

And finally, from a perspective similar to the first image shown above, again with the TS-E 45 and two stitched captures. Well, actually it's at least four. An extra image is layered in the bottom half to add more car headlights and another image underexposed by a couple stops is layered over the bright areas inside the building to bring back interior detail.

In terms of image samples made with this lens in an everyday situation, rather than a technical application such as the architecture above, see my Tiger-Cats football tailgating photos. Almost all are with the 17.

If you've found the information on this page helpful and are considering purchasing this lens, or any other photographic equipment, clicking through with the following links to purchase at B&H Photo Video or Amazon would be greatly appreciated!

Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L at B&H
Canon EF 1.4x teleconverter at B&H

Search B&H directly from this link:

B&H Photo - Video - Pro Audio


Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L UD Aspherical Ultra Wide Tilt-Shift Lens for Canon Digital SLR Cameras

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