Canon 17-35mm L – Review

If camera gear is truly addictive, then I’m an addict.  I find that it’s hard to be satisfied with a lens – it seems that there’s always a better, faster model, with just one more feature.  So when I do finally find one that I’m completely happy with, it’s exciting.

A while back, you may recall seeing that I wrote about my disappointment with the Tokina 15-60mm, which I returned just a couple of days after receiving it.  It was meant to be the replacement to my 17-40L, which at f/4 was just a little too slow for my indoor work.

Well, the new replacement has been here for a while now, and it’s here to stay.  On the advice of a friend I found a mint used Canon 17-35mm L f/2.8, which has earned a permanent place in my bag.

Photo Credit: DPChallenge.com

The 17-35L is two generations old, since replaced by Canon’s 16-35L Mk II.  What this means is that there’s some of these phenominal lenses popping up for sale used, at half the price of a new 16-35L.  Which is excellent news for those of us with budget constraints.

While it may be older, it’s hardly antiquated.  The 17-35L is an amazing lens, or at least my copy is.  It focused nearly perfect out of the box, and a few points of micro-adjustment has it tuned perfectly now.  The images display excellent color and contrast, and wide open it has a pleasant bokeh.

Most importantly, it’s sharp.  Very sharp.  Even wide open, which is somewhat rare, even among the L-series lenses.  How sharp?  Let me put it this way – anytime I share a photo, be it a print-sized file going to a client/friend, or the web-sized images I post on here, one of the final steps in my workflow before saving is a low-level pass with Unsharp Mask.  With images shot with the 17-35L, I skip that step altogether – any application of USM ends up over-sharpening the photo!

I can safely say that using this lens is the most fun I’ve had with any glass in a long time.  It’s just fun to work with!  (My first evening out with it, I was literally charging around the park, chasing the light, and grinning like an idiot – it’s no wonder I was getting strange looks…)  I find  the focal range to be very useful, both for landscapes and, to a more limited extent, portraiture.

Physically it’s got the build you’d expect from an L-series lens, and while it has a bit of a reputation as a dust-sucker, I’ve yet to see any evidence of that myself.  It’s nearly the same size as the 17-40L it replaced in my bag, which happens to be a size that fits well in my hand and balances well on the camera.

I find that I really can’t say enough good things about this one – it really is that amazing.  It’s also the first step on my path to acquiring a full set of professional lenses, instead of working with the mid-level consumer alternatives.  And now that it’s in my hands, I really am glad that I opted for it instead of the EF-S 17-55 IS; while the IS would have been handy, it’s better to have the L build and durability of the 17-35.

(The only downside to this purchase is Canon’s refusal to service this lens anymore.  Goodness forbid something ever happen to mine, I’ll have to find an independent shop to fix it, or I’ll be stuck buying a replacement.  Is this likely to be an issue?  I certainly hope not!  But it is something that you should be aware of if you’re buying a discontinued lens.)

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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9 Comments

  1. I’d be interested in reading about your microadjustment process. I think my 50mm 1.4 needs a little adjustment but I haven’t gotten around to trying it out yet. It sucks that Canon won’t service that lens any longer :(.

    • Brent Pennington

      No problem, you can read about my microadjustment process here: AF Microadjustment Post. The process is a little time-consuming at first, but once you get the hang of it, it goes much faster. The hardest part is figuring out which direction of adjustment goes with which direction of movement on the focus ring (I still trial & error this sometimes).

      The other thing I’ve done to test lenses for proper adjustment is lay a ruler own on a table and shoot it at a 45 degree angle, tripod mounted. AF on a particular measurement mark and shoot, then zoom close on the image to see where the focus lies (lens wide open). I don’t try to adjust my lenses this way, but it’s sometimes a quick way of seeing if they need adjusting (although I’ve heard of other people making adjustments via this method).

  2. Now, instead of getting a sigma 24-70 2.8, find a Canon 28-70 L 2.8. Youll have to be a bit patient to find a really clean one – the lens was last made about 8 years ago. Some say its even sharper than the 24-70L, which is notorious for having good and bad copies. I actually took my own advice on this one and grabbed one a few weeks ago for $725. When I met the seller, I was expecting to see a beat up lens. The date code indicated it was built in 1995. When I saw it, I was amazed. Not a scratch on it or piece of dust under the glass.. It focused perfectly and no zoom creep. I guess I was lucky. No box and no hood. I found the hood the following week on ebay for $10. And as a bonus, if Canon introduces the 24-70 L 2.8 IS (mark II) as everyone seems to expect, I doubt my resale will take much of hit where the 24-70 wil likely decline by hundreds.
    So start watching the boards, they are out there and be patient for a good one.

    BTW, independent shops usually repair lenses for less than Canon charges anyway.

    • Brent Pennington

      I already picked up a Sigma for a really good price used, and from the dance I shot with it the other night, it’s quite good. At the very least it will hold me over until I can pony up for the Canon. I’ve given thought to the 28-70L, as like you said, it’s reputation is even slightly better than it’s replacement. If I come across one at a good price at the right time, I’ll likely snap it up.

      Not so sure about the 24-70 IS – it’s certainly lusted after, but the rumors have been around for years. And even if it does appear on the scene, popular opinion has it that the price of the 24-70’s price won’t fall too much. Although even if it hit the $1k mark, that’d be an improvement!

  3. hi, i’m also bought one from ebay last month.

    but i believed mine gonna be 11 years old.

    i dont know, i just found my 7D still not sharp even using any lens.. probably the AF or the Microadjustment matters.

    the way i fix the focus is post processing with unsharpen mask..

  4. Thank you so much for this review! I’ve been reading a lot on the web and trying to justify if I made the right decision on buying an old lens such as the Canon 17-35. I used to have the Tamron 17-50, then shifted to the Canon 10-22 which i dearly loved. However, a good deal came through and I believe i’ve found a perfect walkaround lens from wide to portraiture (since I use a crop body) and I hope this lens lasts for a lifetime! My Canon 10-22 is now up for sale!

    • Brent Pennington

      I’m thrilled to hear that the review was useful to you! Now that I’ve had my 17-35L for some time, I know that I’ll never part with it. It’s a wonderful lens, in spite of its age. I suspect you’ll soon develop a very strong attachment to yours! 🙂

  5. I would love to read about micro-adjustment . It seems the page is no longerthere. I just ordered a very old copy of this lens on Ebay. I hope it is a good one! But if there is an issue I would love to know about how to fix it up

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