Wide Angle Lenses for Full Frame Canon DSLR Cameras

MOST RECENT UPDATE: MARCH 28, 2015 (© Ian Plant) I’ve used a lot of wide angle lenses over the years on my full frame Canon DSLR bodies. In the past, it was a frustrating journey, in large part because I wasn’t thrilled by any of Canon’s wide angle options. That’s changed recently, as Canon has considerably upped their game and recently released some excellent wide angle zooms.

In this post, I’m going to share my experiences with a number of lenses. Note that the assessments which follow are my personal subjective opinions based on how I use these lenses; other people may have had different experiences with these lenses, and certainly people who are doing other types of photography might have different opinions based on their particular needs. I’m going to focus on lenses that go wider than 24mm, and that are made for full frame cameras. Since most of my work is landscape, I need lenses that perform well stooped down for depth of field (usually between f/8 and f/16; I rarely need wider apertures) and that accept filters. Also, I prefer zooms over fixed focal length lenses, as they offer greater flexibility. Finally, I’m only talking about rectilinear lenses, so no fisheyes are discussed in this post. With these caveats in mind, here is my take on some of the options out there for use on Canon full frame DSLR cameras:

Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens: This new lens is the current ultra-ultra-wide king. Yep, that’s 11mm on a full frame camera! With a mind-boggling 126º view, you need to compose carefully (especially watch for your feet and tripod legs at the bottom of the frame). Pros: excellent resolution, low distortion, and the widest angle of view that isn’t a fisheye. Cons: heavy, expensive, and difficult (but not impossible) to use filters with (this lens does have a rear gel filter slot; as of this writing there are no front filter holder options for the lens, although I expect someone to start making some soon). Check out my ongoing field journal Tales From the Ultrawide to learn more about this lens, and how to use it.

A scene from Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, taken with the Canon 11-24mm lens at 11mm. What an amazing angle of view!

Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens: The new lens is a superb optic, and relatively compact and lightweight compared to other lenses in this class. It also easily accepts filters. I think it is much better than the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens discussed below; the f/4 features superior corner-to-corner sharpness. The f/4 maximum aperture keeps the lens lightweight and portable, perfect for landscape shooters in the field. Canon hit a real home run with this lens; I love everything about it!

The mighty Fitz Roy as rendered by the Canon 16-35mm f/4 lens. This lightweight gem is perfect for the backcountry. Taken in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina.

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED AF lens: Yep, that’s right, I said Nikon. I used this incredible lens on my Canon DSLR with an adapter for several years. The 14-24mm is a superb piece of glass, but with the new Canon 11-24mm and 16-35mm f/4, there aren’t as many reasons to use it on a Canon camera as there used to be. Pros: super quality, low distortion, and an ultra-wide angle of view at the wide end of the zoom. Cons: heavy, expensive, and difficult (but not impossible) to use filters with. Also, when using it on a Canon camera with an adapter, you lose autofocus and auto aperture (you have to set the aperture manually). You can learn more about this lens in my review from a few years back.

A scene from Joshua Tree National Park, USA, taken with the legendary Nikon 14-24mm lens: the lens that proved that ultra-wide and ultra-sharp weren’t mutually exclusive.

Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD lens: Tamron has been putting out some incredible lenses in recent years, and this is arguably their best. I used this lens on assignment for Tamron for several months, and found it to be very sharp. Third party testers have concluded the same, praising the lens for its excellent optical performance. It hangs in there against some heavyweight competitors, including the Canon 16-35mm f/4 and the Nikon 14-24mm. Its image quality is perhaps just a notch below both these lenses, but very close nonetheless, and with a price tag of just over $1000, it will be a great choice for photographers on a budget. Not unlike the Nikon 14-24mm, it has a bulbous front element design, making this lens heavy, bulky, and difficult to use with filters. The Tamron 15-30mm also features image stabilization; not so useful for landscape photography on a tripod, but great if you want to handhold the lens in low light.

A self portrait taken with the Tamron 15-30mm lens inside an ice cave in Iceland. This lens features excellent optical quality at a reasonable price.

Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L: I’ve had and (accidentally) destroyed two copies of this lens. It is not a bad lens, but in my opinion overall image sharpness leaves something to be desired. The corners don’t really sharpen up until about f/11 or f/16, at which point diffraction sets in reducing overall image quality. Also, I can’t stand this lens’ “mustache” distortion which is very difficult to correct in post processing. Overall, I’ve always felt that the images I get when I use this lens are somewhat “mushy”—they seem to lack the sharpness and microcontrast of more recent lens designs.

Getting creative with flare with the Canon 17-40mm lens in Mt. Rainier National Park, USA.

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II: In my opinion, although this lens is a step up from the cheaper 17-40mm, at working apertures for landscape, the differences begin to erode. It is sharper in the center wide open (making it useful for street photography), but the corners remain soft until about f/11, and never look quite as sharp as with some of the lenses mentioned above. If you are shooting landscapes, I recommend that you go with the smaller, lighter, and cheaper 16-35mm f/4.

I used my Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 Mark II lens to capture this image of the rain forest of Olympic National Park, USA, at sunset. A lot of people really like the sun star produced by this lens.

Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 EX DG ASP HSM II: I used the first version of this lens for several years. It gave acceptable results when stopped down to f/11 or f/16, but I would never say the results were excellent. Not a bad lens, and it’s fun to use, but it isn’t really in the same league as most of the other lenses listed in this review. It has a bulbous front element, making filter use difficult.

A night scene from Adirondack State Park, USA, taken with the Sigma 12-24mm lens.

Zeiss Distagon T* 21mm f/2.8 ZE: This lens was once long considered the benchmark for wide angle lenses. I previously owned two copies of the old Contax version of this lens using an adapter, and both were very sharp, but I also felt that their “superior quality” was a bit overhyped. I sold them both at a profit after owning them for only a short time, which goes to show you how ridiculous the market for these lenses once got. Zeiss now makes this lens with a Canon mount. Frankly, I don’t see the point of owning a super expensive fixed focal length lens when excellent wide-angle zooms are now available—zooms that, by the way, rival or surpass the Zeiss in terms of image quality. I haven’t tried the new Zeiss 21mm lenses that are made specifically for Canon cameras, although I understand their quality is comparable to the older Distagons.

Using the Zeiss 21mm Distagon on Lake Michigan. A legendary performer, but overshadowed by the most recent wide-angle zoom lens releases.

Tamron 17-35mm lens: There’s not much to love about this out-of-production lens (you can still find it used). It is horribly soft in the corners and vignettes heavily. Both of these defects, however, tend to disappear when working in the f/11 to f/22 range, where the Tamron performs similar to the Canon 17-40mm (perhaps just a tad softer). The Tamron shows significant distortion, but it isn’t as hard to fix as the Canon’s mustache frown. Also, it tends to flare quite a bit when pointed at the sun. To be fair, I’ve made a lot of really nice images with this little lens, and if used in its “sweet spot,” you can certainly get perfectly acceptable results.

A scene from Scotland taken with the Tamron 17-35mm lens. You can make perfectly nice images even with an “inferior” quality lens, but you will likely see less quality when making super large prints.

Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L: I haven’t used this lens, but I hear it is superb, and it is on my wish list. I’d love to have a 17mm tilt-shift lens!

There are certainly other wide angle lenses out there but I don’t have any experience with them, either direct or indirect. I’d love to hear your thoughts about wide angle lenses you have used on Canon full frame cameras!

Ian Plant

Author: Ian Plant

World-renowned professional photographer, writer, and adventurer Ian Plant is a frequent contributor to and blogger for Outdoor Photographer Magazine, a Contributing Editor to Popular Photography Magazine, a monthly columnist for Landscape Photography Magazine, and a Tamron Image Master. Ian is also the author of numerous books and instructional videos. Ian leads photography workshops and tours around the world to help beginner and advanced photographers explore and expand their personal vision.

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