Not long ago, I penned an opinion that every photo geek should own a wide-angle lens. In case you missed it, I talked about the incredible ability of wide-angle lenses to present a vision of the world that just can’t be made with a standard or telephoto lens.
Good advice, so I spent the past few weeks shooting nothing but wide angles, and today I’ve got a review of one of my favorite legacy wides. It’s Canon’s FD 24mm F/2.8 S.S.C., and whether you’re shooting a vintage film Canon or a new mirror-less camera, it’s one of the best values in wide-angle photography. It’s not a perfect lens, but this legacy glass just might provide everything we’re looking for in a wide focal length.
Before we get too hot and heavy with sample shots, tech specs, and our usual brand of entertaining and engaging wordplay, let’s cover the basics.
The FD 24/2.8 was offered in both original FD (pictured throughout this review) and FDn models. These are easily differentiated by the outward appearance of the lens, with early models featuring the breech-lock mechanism and later models featuring the bayonet style mount. Major differences between the two versions are few, and amount to the FDn having a smaller minimum aperture (F/22 as opposed to the earlier lens’ F/16), and a more complicated formula (10 elements in 9 groups in contrast to the earlier lens’ 9 elements in 8 groups).
The lenses have much more in common than they have in opposition, including number of aperture blades (6), minimum focusing distance (1 ft / 0.3 m), and field of view (Diagonal: 84° Vertical: 53° Horizontal: 74°). Most importantly, both versions offer Canon’s best optical coating technology, S.S.C., though the later models don’t advertise this on the lens itself.
The takeaway when speaking of the FD versus FDn debate is that both versions will give the average photo geek a shooting experience and image quality nearly indistinguishable from one another. While the original FD is said to have a higher build quality, I’ve found that most FDn lenses are quite robust, even if they do feature more plastic than their older brothers.
FD or FDn, in either case the 24mm F/2.8 S.S.C. is Canon’s classic ‘Goldilocks’ wide-angle lens. In both price and performance, it’s firmly planted between the rather cheap and less extreme 28mm, and the more expensive and quite extreme 20mm. As such, it strikes the perfect balance of affordability and effectiveness.
And I’m not the only one to think so. At the time of its release, the 24mm F/2.8 was among the best-selling lenses of Canon’s FD range. Specifically speaking to wide-angle shooters, the 24/2.8 S.S.C. was the Canon lens to own. But does it stand the test of time, or have other lenses outmoded the old favorite?
Aesthetically, the lens is typical of Canon’s matter-of-fact offerings from the decade of disco. The black barrel, black focusing ring, and black aperture ring keep things looking subdued and professional, while the silver breech-lock mounting mechanism adds the slightest amount of visual contrast. Values for aperture, focus scale, and distance indication are all displayed via deeply engraved numerals painted in white, orange, and green, and the front bezel happily proclaims all the lens’ pertinent info.
Yes, this camera lens looks like a camera lens alright. If there’s any visual excitement to the 24/2.8, it’s likely to be found in the glass itself. That curvaceous front element is the kind of bulbous glass that one can stare into for far too long. Ogling the reflections of light as they bend and play upon the glass’ surface is enough to send us into a mesmerized stupor. It’s really quite pretty.
Build quality is similarly typical of Canon’s FD range. As mentioned, the earlier FD version feels more robust, but the later FDn version is lighter by nearly 100 grams. That’s a lot of grams. Both versions make good use of rather sturdy plastic, with each favoring metal where it counts (mount and barrel). The aperture ring actuates in half-stop increments, and clicks nicely into its detents with appreciable mechanical precision, and the focus ring spins with a resistant fluidity that’s smoother than the seductive sounds of Slick Willy’s saxophone.
If the 24/2.8 looks good, it feels even better. Compared to modern autofocus lenses there’s little competition. This lens is just pure goodness. But how does the 24/2.8 fare optically? Does it make stunning photos? That is, after all, the only thing that really matters. Let’s get to it.
The lens’ relatively fast maximum aperture of F/2.8 is respectable, for sure, but exactly how useful the lens is in low light will depend on the camera to which it’s fitted. Thanks to the massive advances in high-ISO performance seen in the digital space, on today’s modern mirror-less cameras F/2.8 will be fast enough for nearly any kind of shooting situation. In low-light and available-light shooting situations, such as those often encountered in street photography, the lens excels. At ISO 6,400 we’re able to shoot the 24/2.8 without any loss of performance.
Fitted to a classic film camera, things are a bit more challenging. Shot wide-open we’ll still be able to achieve most of our goals when using a high-speed film, though we’ll be admittedly limited. When the sun sets, shots might look like they were taken by Edgar Allan Poe after a night of heavy drinking. Archaic similes aside, this lens is quick, but not fast. For those who need the fastest lens around, try the 24mm F/1.4, Mr. Moneybags.
Somewhat surprisingly on account of its rather wide focal length, vignetting is very well-handled. To achieve this, Canon implemented a rather exceptional bit of optical engineering. The two front-most elements of the 24/2.8 are distinctly massive. These large diameter bits of glass serve to let light pour into the lens, diminishing the loss of light that’s so common in the extreme edges of shots made with wide-angle lenses. Shot wide-open there’s a slight amount of light fall-off, but compared to other lenses of its focal length the 24/2.8 is one of the top performers in this aspect. Stopping the lens down just one stop effectively mitigates what little fall-off we see. Good job, Canon.
These massive front elements also go a long way toward eliminating optical aberrations. Coma and astigmatism are non-evident, and distortion is mitigated to the point of non-existence. Even when focusing to the lens’ impressively close minimum focus distance (1 ft) there’s no barrel distortion, a problem commonly associated with wide-angle lenses. This is thanks to the implementation of a (then new) floating element design. Found in many of Canon’s most expensive lenses, this technological innovation was happily implemented in the 24/2.8.
The effectiveness of the lens at close focusing distances makes it useful in shooting situations not normally associated with wide-angle lenses. I’ve used the 24/2.8 in product photography for our camera shop, and for shots of reviewed gear as recently as in our review of Polaroid’s new instant camera. Rather to my surprise, the 24/2.8 has proven to be quite versatile.
Sharpness is quite good, and essentially perfect in the center of the frame at every aperture. Shot wide open there’s some softness in the corners of the frame, which one would expect from such a wide focal length. Do I think the corner softness is egregious? Not really. But for some photographers, corner sharpness is the most important thing in the world.
Stopping the lens down to F/4 pushes the softness away for the most part, and by the time we get to F/8 we’ve eliminated all softness across the entire frame. Between F/5.6 and F/11 things are about as sharp as we’re ever going to get in a Japanese legacy lens at this price, and that’s sharp enough for most any shooter’s needs. This lens’ ability to resolve detail is just phenomenal.
Bokeh is a subjective trait, so I’ll let the images tell the tale. For my money, bokeh made by this lens is quite pretty when shooting near the lens’ minimum focus distance. Highlight bokeh is pleasing, and stopped down the lens produces a gradual transition from in-focus to out-of-focus elements that’s more important than simple blur. It’s not amazing, but it’s not bad for a near ultra-wide.
Though the lens features Canon’s touted Super Spectra Coating, I’m not entirely impressed by the lens’ ability to mitigate certain optical aberrations. While chromatic aberration and longitudinal color fringing are well-handled, the lens can display a susceptibility to problems induced by sunshine. Shooting without a lens hood results in a dramatic loss of contrast whenever the front element is projecting into the sun. There’s undeniable ghosting, and only by shading the front element can I make it stop. While these conditions will cause almost every lens to stumble, I’m disappointed by the sheer intensity of the problem here.
That said, the S.S.C. in real-world conditions offers tangible benefits. Shot comparatively against non-S.S.C. lenses we’re seeing vastly improved contrast, punchier images, and a warmer color profile that’s incredibly pleasing to the eye. While some FD lenses can be a bit cool, this one is not, and I love it.
It’s clear that I think the FD 24mm F/2.8 S.S.C. is a strong performer, optically. And it’s obvious that I appreciate the value of its better-than-average build quality paired with its low price. But what I’ve not yet touched upon, and what is arguably the most important aspect of the 24/2.8, is the joy it brings to the process of shooting.
There’s just something about this focal length that makes shooting intoxicating. I attached the FD 24mm F/2.8 S.S.C. to my Sony A7 weeks ago, expecting to shoot it for the weekend and pen this review. And while I long ago had enough sample shots and notes to write my report, I just kept on shooting.
In the city, in the mountains, on the beach, and at home, this lens just feels perfect wherever my adventures take me. Whether I’m shooting in the cramped alleys of Boston or in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I always seem to find an interesting way of viewing the world through this lens. It allows me to emphasize massive vistas and to engage closely with my subjects. It allows me to see the world in a way that’s not often seen, and it has an ability to capture the typically mundane world and transform it into something unique and interesting.
It may not be perfect (no lens or camera is), but it’s a seriously exceptional lens. Its flaws are easy to overlook, and its strengths put it high above much of its competition. With good low-light performance, impeccable sharpness, and amazing distortion correction, it’s a lens that gives a lot, and asks a little. If you’re looking for a legacy lens that will help you see the world differently and capture it beautifully, the FD 24mm F/2.8 S.S.C. could be the lens you’re seeking.