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Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L Tilt-Shift Lens: Hands On Review

Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L Tilt-Shift Lens: Hands On Review

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This ultrawide lens swings great for both old-school and new-school usages

By Jack Howard

July 14, 2009

The original intent of tilt-shift optics was to correct for perspective problems by allowing the lens elements to go off-parallel with the capture plane. New school shooters have taken swinging optics to new heights by exaggerating perspective and simulating miniature macro 'scapes. And Canon's new ultrawide 17mm TS-E f/4L should make shooters of both styles very happy.


The Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L and the Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II announced earlier this year are finally available. These two Tilt-Shift members of the Canon L lens tribe are both heavy and pricy, with the 17mm being both heavier and more costly of the two.  But for photographers who really need (or really want) both the new-school and old-school benefits of off-parallel-from-the-film/sensor-plane-focal-planes, they are pretty amazing pieces of glass.


Similar but not the same

There's a bunch of cool upgrade features on the second version of the 24mm TS-E that also feature on the debut version of the 17mm TS-E including a lock switch that keeps any of the shift/tilt/swivel mechanisms from engaging, and a second swivel mechanism between the lensmount shift plate and the mid-lens tilting optics so that Shift and Tilt can be arranged along the same plane, or locked in at either 45º or 90º offset angles for whatever your vision desires. Both new TS-E lenses use circular aperture blades for great bokeh blur and the build quality is what you'd expect from pro-level L optics.

The 24mm TS-E f/3.5L II has a straight-on (not tilted or shifted, that is) angle of coverage of 84º on a fullframe camera such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark II we used in our tests. The 17mm TS-E f/4L takes in a whopping 104º when Tilt and shift are both zeroed. The 24mm TS-E will accept front-mount 82mm filters, while the bulging front optic of the 17mm excludes filters on the wider new TS-E.

 

Both shots from the same location at f/4 with the Canon 24mm f/3.5L II and the Canon 17mm TS-E f/4L to illustrate the angle of coverage.

I have always been a big fan of the original 24mm TS-E and this updated version II, with more swinging options and improved edge-to-edge sharpness per Canon specs, makes a great lens even better. But it was the chance to test out the brand new 17mm TS-E that really got me excited.

 

Ultrawide plus Tilt and shift adds up to an impressive combination for squaring up the subject

Way back when, tilt-shift lenses were employed primarily to overcome focal plane to subject anomolies, such as keystoning and perspective issues. Take a look at this photo of Verve Restaurant in Somerville, NJ. This was shot with the 17mm TS-E zeroed out: no tilt or shift, in other words.

Standing on the edge of the sidewalk, I needed to point the camera upwards to take in all three stories from doorway to skyline. You know as well as I that the upper floors aren't actually receding to a vanishing point–this is a perspective issue with the fact that the building is now not parallel with the image capture plane. 

With the 17mm TS-E, I was able to shift the focal plane to its maximum extension which was enough to capture the whole of this building, from doorstop to rooftop while still standing on the sidewalk as the video below illustrates. And then once the whole building was in the frame, it was a simple matter of swinging the tilt optic to nail down the last few degrees of skewed perspective to size this building up. You'll notice I overshoot plumb and then return to better alignment. This was shot at f/4 on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II to give an indication of overall edge to edge sharpness even at maximum shift settings.

Be forewarned that when the tilt and shift axes are aligned for as much tweaking as possible on fullframe cameras, the edge of the image circle may creep into the frame.

Also beware the bellows effect! The more you tweak the focal plane, the more you’ll need to add exposure compensation. There’s no hardset formula to follow. Just bracket and check the histogram and keep adjusting accordingly.



This video shows the 17mm TS-E f/4L in action. Click the lower right flyout box to launch into fullscreen mode. This lens is great for architectural shooters looking for realistic angles in their imagery. But that’s only half the story!

 

Ultrawide plus Tilt and Shift adds up to an impressive combination for seriously skewing with the composition

Ultrawide lenses are great at forcing perspective. Throw tilt and shift functionality into the mix and it’s a great combination for creating the popular miniaturization effect, or otherwise forcing perspective. Personally, I think there’s a lot of potential for this lens for SLR-based videos. Again, with a lens of this type, experimentation is the key. It takes a little while to get the hang of the effect, but once you’ve got it, it just clicks.



These shots show both the meandering focal plane and perspective skew possible with the Canon 17mm TS-E f/4L. Click on the flyout button in lower right to launch fullscreen mode.

Twelve degrees of Tilt-and-Shifting

The nearest windmill is about 50 miles away, so instead I went to a nearby semi-natural waterfall to illustrate just how much “play” you can get from the Canon 17mm TS-E f/4L on a full frame camera such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark II.

 

I stood in the same spot for this series of photographs of Buttermilk Falls in Bridgewater, NJ. The first image is a control shot, with no tilt/shift engaged on the Canon . The twelve variations illustrate just how dramatically this ultrawide lens's swinging optics can shift the focal plane for classical and new-school styled effects. All full-frame images shot with the Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. Click on the lower right flyout box to view these shots in hi-rez fullscreen mode.


Here’s the deal

Tilt-shift lenses are heavy and expensive specialized optics that require a bit of practice to get the hang of. If you’ve worked with Canon’s Tilt-Shift lenses before, you will certainly appreciate the upgrades added to the 24mm lens that are also initial features on the 17mm TS-E. If you’ve shot with a Lensbaby, you can understand the appeal of selective focus and focal plane shift. A good way to see if a Tilt-Shift lens is right for you if you’ve never shot one is by renting one for a few days before plunking down a few grand.

What are your thoughts on Canon’s new Tilt-Shift lenses? Got any follow-up questions for Jack? Let us know!


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