See here for an extensive image gallery of samples: Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L Tilt-Shift Lens Samples
It has been about 10 years since I last owned a Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L tilt-shift lens, but I thought that amazing lens is worth a fresh review! Back in the day, I used it on my Canon EOS 7D, which was an 18 MP APS-C cropped sensor camera. On that, the 17mm was the equivalent of a 27mm lens on a full-frame camera, which is still a very useful focal length to have a tilt-shift lens for. There are a few features that make that lens truly great…
1) It is extremely sharp across the entire frame, even on a full-frame body. The quality barely diminishes as you shift. It is also extremely well corrected and has essentially no barrel distortion or chromatic aberration, even though the front element looks like it could belong to a fisheye lens!
2) Despite the bulbous front element, the lens is extremely flare resistant, even with the sun in or out of the frame and shining on the front element. Due to it’s incredibly wide FOV, it does not come with a hood, but the worst flare I saw was a little prismatic bean shaped spot, generally very easy to retouch out. There was very little loss of contrast overall.
3) The lens has a very good range of tilt and shift movements, and the build quality is fantastic with everything working very smoothly indeed. In addition, tilt and shift axis can either be parallel of perpendicular to each other, whereas some older tilt-shift lenses were fixed either one way or the other.
There are two classic reasons you might want a lens like this. Firstly, you can level your camera to avoid any sort of perspective distortion, when trees or walls lean in or out, then shift the lens up for more sky in the shot, or down to give more bias to the foreground. This way, your horizon line doesn’t have to be dead centre and you won’t have the resulting perspective distortion when tilting the lens up or down. Very useful for architectural shots of buildings, where you might want to get as much height as possible without having everything leaning inward! If you are doing interior shots for real-estate for example, you can zero the lens, level the camera on a tripod at a natural height, then shift down to emphasize an interesting floor or piece of furniture for example. Instead, you could shift up to highlight some ceiling detail or a lavish chandelier for example, all the while keeping the walls straight and parallel to the edge of your frame.
Here is a shot of some ruins in the ghost town of Rhyolite in Nevada, lens shifted up to frame the building and keep the side parallel and not slanting inwards. Next is a shot where I wanted much more ground and less sky, a wide view of all the telescopes on Kitt Peak in Arizona, and by leveling the camera and shifting down to reframe, none of the buildings are slanting outwards as they would if I just pointed a regular wide-angle lens downward.
The second reason is if you want to have a very deep depth-of-field (DOF), achieving sharp subject matter from very close to the lens to very far away. For some examples that I shot in the US Southwest, see here and press the right arrow for two more. Even with a very wide lens like the 17mm, you may not achieve as much DOF as you want when stopped down, and with modern, high-resolution cameras, you may be getting into diffraction softening past f/8 already. However if you tilt the lens, you can increase your effective DOF and get things both very close to the lens sharp, as well as a distant mountain peak, even at f/8 for example… well, how about f/9 in this shot (also seen above), with both the sand and anchor super close to the lens, as well as the North Shore Mountains in Vancouver all sharp. That said, if there is height to your scene then you may need to stop down further since when you tilt the lens, the “plane” of focus becomes a wedge shape expanding away from the camera, and the smaller the f-stop, the thicker that wedge.
Not every shot has subject matter that lends itself to that technique, but used properly, it can add a unique look to a landscape shot for example. For an interior shoot, imagine you have a wall with very interesting detail. You can get close to the wall to show small details large, then tilt the lens on its vertical axis (tilt to the left) to extend the DOF along the whole plane of the wall. You could also shift the lens up or down to alter your vertical framing without causing any perspective distortion. In that case, you would want the tilt and shift axis parallel. Here is a shot where I used tilt to extend the plane of focus from a weed on the overgrown basketball court to the distance, and a vertical shift to keep the McMath-Pierce solar telescope on Kitt Peak looking straight and upright. In that case the tilt and shift axis were perpendicular.
There is a third reason to own a tilt-shift, and that is to use a reverse tilt to reduce the apparent DOF. To many people, especially other photographers, shots taken in that way look a bit like miniature models. Longer focal length tilt-shift lenses, like Canon’s 24mm or 45mm, will show this effect a little more dramatically. For some more examples of this with EXIF data, apart from the above one, see here, then hit the right arrow for two more like it.
Even if you don’t need the tilt and shift capability very often, the 17mm is super sharp and has virtually no barrel distortion, vignetting or chromatic aberration. Even as far as just having an extremely high quality ultra-wide prime lens, the 17mm TS-E is worth having. The only things that might hold you back is that it’s a manual focus only lens, and has no capability to take thread-on filters. On an ultra-wide lens like a 17mm however, losing AF is not a huge concern, in my view at least.
Lastly, the lens has such a large image circle, that it can even be used on a Fujifilm medium format GFX system with a Fringer or TechArt adapter, albeit with very little shift capability. The extreme corners are not quite as spectacularly sharp as Fujifilm’s 23mm for example, but still impressive performance for a lens designed for a much smaller 35mm full-frame sensor. For an example of some shots with the TS-E 17mm on a GFX 50S, shot at Simon Fraser University (as above), see here and then press the right arrow for two more as well.
The Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L is a truly fantastic, high quality lens, one lens I sorely miss from my days of shooting with Canon!