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Are there any Canon L lenses in which one iteration was significantly better than the other? The price for older Canon L lenses are significantly cheaper than mark II lenses and I was wondering if it was worth the savings to get an older version. Specifically, I'm interested in the performance of the following lenses:

  • EF 24mm f/1.4L I vs II
  • EF 85mm f/1.2L I vs II
  • EF 24-70mm f/2.8L I vs II
  • EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS I vs II
  • And an honorary mention: EF 50mm f/1.0L vs EF 50mm f/1.2L
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2  
Technically, there is no such thing as a "mark I" or "mark II" Canon lens. For instance there is the EF 24mm f/1.4 L and the successor, the EF 24mm f/1.4 L II. Canon only uses the word "Mark" in the "II" or later versions of camera bodies. –  Michael Clark Oct 2 '13 at 7:40
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It isn't like they are "attempt at building a lens #1", "attempt at building a lens #2". The "mark" just indicates what edition or version the lens is, for clear differentiation upon purchase, etc. It is pretty safe to assume in almost all cases that the higher "mark" values are better, although I'm sure some example exists that doesn't fit this(who knows maybe you love the distortion that mk1 had, but mk2 removed). –  dpollitt Oct 2 '13 at 19:23

3 Answers 3

up vote 17 down vote accepted

There are considerable improvements in the two zoom lenses you have listed, as these are two of the best zoom lenses ever mass produced. The original versions were not slouches by any stretch, but the "II" versions are much better, especially at the wider apertures. The only time the "II" might not be worth the extra price is if you are mostly shooting at narrower apertures of f/5.6 or higher or if you are only posting lower resolution versions of your photos on the web.

Here is a side-by-side comparison of the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS I vs II
Click 'Measurements-->Sharpness-->Profiles' and then select an aperture and focal length for each to see the base data. Here's another side-by-side comparison of the same two lenses. Use the mouse to switch the view between each lens and select various focal length and apertures for each lens. This review of the "II" compares it to the original at every step along the way, not only in terms of sharpness but also in terms of vignetting, chromatic aberration, distortion, etc. The "II" is a clear improvement over the original in terms of sharpness, vignetting, CA, and contrast.

Here is a side-by-side comparison of the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L I vs II along with the Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC. Click 'Measurements-->Sharpness-->Profiles' and then select an aperture and focal length for each to see the base data. The Canon "II" again outclasses the other lenses, especially at wide apertures and longer focal lengths. While one or the other of the other lenses comes close to the "II" at some points, neither stays with it all the way from 24mm to 70mm at the wider apertures. It should be noted that the Tamron also has Vibration Control (VC), Tamron's version of IS which neither of these Canon lenses have. The Tamron is also just a little better than the original Canon for about the same price that the first Canon version sold for, while the Canon "II" costs about $1K more. The two Canons side-by-side at The-Digital-Picture. The II is clearly sharper at f/2.8 and 24mm from center to edge. By 70mm the original narrows the gap in the center, but not on the edges. Here's the review of the "II" that compares it to the lens it superseded.

The differences between the prime lenses you have listed are a little more subtle, and whether they are worth the extra price (if you can find a pristine copy of the older lens selling for much less that the replacements) depends on your planned usage.

There is not much optical difference between the EF 85mm f/1.2 L and the EF 85mm f/1.2 L II. The most significant differences are that the II auto-focuses much faster than the original and transmits distance information to the camera for use with the E-TTL flash system. The original 85mm f/1.2 L did not. This can be particularly important for something like shooting a wedding reception in a dark meeting hall or restaurant. The "II" also demonstrates less flare. Review for the EF 85mm f/1.2 L II.

Here is the side-by-side comparison for the EF 85mm f/1.2 L vs. II plus the EF 24mm f.1.4 L II. DxO Mark has not tested the EF 24mm f/1.4 L.

Compared to the EF 24mm f/1.4 L, the EF 24mm f/1.4 L II adds weather sealing and Subwavelength Structure Coating (SWC) on the back of the front element which reduces ghosting and flare. It also demonstrates substantially less chromatic aberration throughout the entire aperture range. The center is sharper in the "II" through f/2.8, but the mid-frame and edges hold this advantage up to f/8. Here's the side-by-side comparison. The "II" is about 3.5 ounces (100g) heavier and a little larger. Optically, the "II" is a substantial improvement over the very good original design.

One note about price. When the older versions of the Canon lenses were still being made they sold for much less than their replacements. But in many cases the few existing new copies of the older designs are now selling for almost the same price as the newer "II" versions. For example, I paid about $1,300 US for my EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L. The newer "II" sells for about $2,300 US, but the few new copies of the original design you can find now are offered at about $2,000 US!

With regard to the Honorable Mention lens on your wish list, I would steer clear of the EF 50mm f/1.0 L. The newest copies in existence were made in the year 2000. Due to the nature of film not laying perfectly flat, lenses didn't have to be as sharp in that era and the f/1.0 is not as sharp in the center as the current EF 50mm f/1.2 L. The manual focus is a focus-by-wire system than Canon no longer supplies parts for, much like the EF 200mm f/1.8 L. The minimum focus distance is 2 feet (0.6m) compared to the 1.5 feet (0.4m) of the current f/1.2 and f/1.4 variants. There's no real compelling reason to select it over the EF 50mm f/1.2 L, and plenty of reasons not to.

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Interesting bit of trivia about the older lenses now selling for more. Gotta love opportunistic bastards hoping to sell inferior goods to a sucker who thinks they are getting a good deal on something better than they are actually buying. –  AJ Henderson Oct 2 '13 at 13:53
    
Considering how horribly slow the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II is at autofocus, I would never want to try the mkI! I couldn't bring myself to ever by the MkII because it is too slow for my uses. –  dpollitt Oct 2 '13 at 19:07
    
@dpollitt Given the slow autofocus on the EF 85mm f/1.2L II, would you say that it'd be comparable to forfeit the autofocus all together and go for a manual-only lens like the Zeiss 1.4/85 ZE? –  jp89 Oct 3 '13 at 6:57
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Don't forget the EF 85mm f/1.8 which is a very popular lens. It focuses faster than the f/1.2 II and gives up very little in optical quality. Bokeh is not quite as smooth. Both lenses have 8 aperture blades but the f/1.2L's are rounded. And of course you give up one stop at maximum aperture, but you only pay 1/5 as much. dxomark.com/index.php/Lenses/Compare-Camera-Lenses/… –  Michael Clark Oct 3 '13 at 8:35
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I wouldn't call it super slow, just not near instantaneous. The focus speed also has a lot to do with the body it is mounted on. It will focus faster on a 1-series body than on a a body with a consumer grade focus system. It will also focus faster if it is already pre-focused on a point near where your subject will be, a technique us old guys had to learn for manual focus before AF existed. –  Michael Clark Oct 3 '13 at 8:53

At least the Canon 24-70mm II and the 70-200mm II are substantially superior to their predecessors. Both lenses are considered to be among the very best zooms ever made. The 600mm Mark II is substantially lighter than the Mark I (3.92 kg vs 5.36 kg), besides being substantially sharper. The differences between the two 24mms and the two 85mms don't seem to be quite as substantial, but the newer lenses are still better in the test shots. To see for yourself, use the links below. Mouse over the image to see the newer lenses.

Whether the lenses are worth the price difference is up to you to decide. In most cases, the older lenses still take excellent images, they just aren't quite up to the incredibly high bar set by the newer ones (especially the two zooms on that list). In general, if shooting for pixel-hungry applications, I'd say that the newer zooms are probably worth the price difference.

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Newer lenses make use of newer designs, newer materials and newer manufacturing processes. The exact characteristics that are better may not always be the same, but the lenses were updated specifically because the old lens designs were showing their age and could be improved on.

The exact improvement may not always be the same, but general sharpness is typically part of it for most lenses. Build quality and/or weight reduction may also improve. Weather sealing could be better. There are really any number of ways in which a lens can be improved, so do some research on any particular lens, but keep in mind that it is expensive to design a new lens, so it doesn't make sense to make a II update of a lens unless there is room for some significant improvement that the company feels will make people go out and buy the new version over the old version that they already paid to design.

In particular, the two lenses I have (the 70-200 f/2.8 IS II and 24-70 f/2.8 II), as previously mentioned, are two of the sharpest zoom lenses out there and are a huge step up from their predecessors (which were remarkable lenses in their own right for their time). I wouldn't recommend getting a I version of either unless you can pick it up very cheaply used. (From a reliable vendor and in good condition.)

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This may be correct in this case, but not all. Consider the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 I vs II - performance is nearly indistinguishable. –  Daenyth Feb 19 at 21:12
    
@Daenyth - in the case of that lens, the lens flare improved slightly, the contrast and ghosting improved slightly and the build quality improved significantly. As I said, the exact reasons differ from lens to lens. –  AJ Henderson Feb 19 at 21:18

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