4 Aug
2012

Wide Angle Lenses for Full Frame Canon DSLR Cameras

I’ve used a lot of wide angle lenses over the years on my full frame Canon DSLR bodies. It’s been a frustrating journey, in large part because I haven’t been thrilled by any of Canon’s wide angle options. In this post, I thought I’d share my experiences. 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. Since most of my work is landscape, I need a lens that performs well at f/11 and f/16 (my most commonly used apertures for near-to-far depth-of-field) and that accepts filters. Also, I prefer zooms over fixed focal length lenses, as they offer greater flexibility. With these caveats in mind, here is my take on some of the options out there for use on Canon full frame DSLR cameras:

Nikon AF-S Zoom Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED AF Lens: Yep, that’s right, I said Nikon. I use this incredible lens on my Canon DSLR using an adapter. The 14-24mm is a superb piece of glass, and it is my wide angle go-to lens for approximately 90% of my work. 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. The image below is an example of what the Nikon 14-24mm can do; notice how well it handles shooting into the sun! I took this in the Kofa Mountains of Arizona many years ago, shortly after I first started using the lens—needless to say I was instantly hooked. You can learn more about this lens in my review from a few years back.

"Sunrise Garden" by Ian Plant

Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM Lens: 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 a lens like the Nikon 14-24mm or the Zeiss Distagon 21mm (discussed below).

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM Autofocus Lens: I’ve had one copy of this lens. In my opinion, it isn’t all that much different in terms of image quality than the much cheaper 17-40mm. It is sharper in the center wide open (making it useful for street photography), but the corners remain soft until f/11 or f/16, and when stopped down to these apertures overall image quality is very similar to the 17-40mm. Also, this lens has the same distortion issue as the 17-40mm. If you are shooting primarily landscapes stopped down to f/11 or smaller, I recommend that you go with the smaller, lighter, and cheaper 17-40mm.

Either of these two Canon lenses are fine optics, and they yield perfectly acceptable results—at least, I used to think so, until I started using the Nikon 14-24mm! I’ve certainly made many images with these two lenses that I am very happy with, including one of my all time personal favorites featured below, taken in Mt. Rainier National Park.

"Light is Life"

Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 EX DG ASP HSM II Wide-Angle Zoom Lens (For Canon): 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. It has an unmatched angle of view for full frame cameras, but filter use is impossible. 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.

Zeiss Distagon T* 21mm f/2.8 ZE Lens for Canon EF Mount EOS DSLR Cameras: This has long been 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. Zeiss now makes this lens with a Canon mount. Frankly, however, I don’t see the point of owning a super expensive fixed focal length lens when the superb Nikon 14-24mm is out there, offering similar quality for the same price—and in a zoom to boot! 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. By the way, the Distagons also suffer from mustache distortion, which as you may have already guessed I am not a big fan of.

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. I actually own this lens at the moment, and I use it for wide angle work requiring a lot of filters (when I can’t use my Nikon 14-24mm). Why did I choose this lens over the Canon 17-40mm? Easy: if you’re going to end up with a lens you don’t much care for, then you might as well spend half the price. 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. I made the image below while in Scotland using the Tamron 17-35mm, and I’d have no problems blowing it up to 24″x36″ (possibly even larger) for a print.

"Road to Faerie" by Ian Plant

Canon Wide Tilt/Shift TS-E 17mm f/4L Manual Focus Lens for EOS and Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Tilt-Shift Manual Focus Lens for EOS Cameras: I haven’t used these, but I hear both are superb, and they are on my wish list. You can’t use filters on the 17mm lens, making it impractical for much of what I do. But I have to admit 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. Personally, I’m still on a quest to find a good wide-angle zoom that easily accepts filters: I’ve been thinking of taking a look at the old Contax 17-35mm which I hear is very nice. I’d love to hear your thoughts about wide angle lenses you have used on Canon full frame cameras!

Ian PlantAbout Ian Plant (395 Posts)

Ian Plant's photographs and instructional articles have appeared in a number of books, calendars, and magazines, including Outdoor Photographer and Popular Photography. Ian writes a regular blog column for Outdoor Photographer online, and he is the author of numerous instructional eBooks and videos. Ian leads several photo tours each year.


27 Comments

  • Thanks for this quick review Ian. I use the 17-40 for most of my wide-angle shooting and think its a great lens (although I’d pay an extra few hundred bucks if Canon would fit the distortion and sharpen the corners a bit). Interestingly, I find this lens to be fairly prone to flare, but when using the-digital-picture.com to compare the 17-40 and Nikon 12-24 side by side, the Nikon looked to perform worse.

    When I shot Nikon, I used the 17-35 f/2.8 (older, film version, as opposed to the new digital version) as my wide angle and think it was an amazing lens, but my chief complaint was that the rounded aperture blades made it impossible to get sunbursts. I’m assuming the 12-24 doesn’t have the same issue? Otherwise, I agree that Nikon tends to produce better WA lenses than Canon, but I have never tried the 12-24 before. I’d love to have that wide angle of view though! I’ve been shooting 15mm fisheyes lately and the perspective is pretty awesome.

    • Ian Plant

      Hi Kari, perhaps there is some confusion here: you mention the Nikon 12-24mm, which is Nikon’s wide angle for crop sensor cameras. The Nikon 14-24mm is Nikon’s full frame ultra-wide. Two very different lenses. I’ve never used the 12-24mm.

      I agree the 17-40mm is somewhat prone to flare, and I’ve never been a huge fan of the sun star pattern it forms. The 14-24mm has a nice sun star pattern, although this is obviously a matter of personal choice. The 14-24mm handles flare much better than most wide-angle zooms I’ve used.

      • Ahh, yes something didn’t match up. I did the comparison again with the Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 against the 17-40 and found the same thing with the flare – the Nikon ended up having more – although in terms of sharpness and all other image quality aspects the Nikon won out. I wonder if the guys over at the-digital-picture had a particularly flare resistent copy of the 17-40.

        Anyway thanks for the great lens wrap up. I do hope others will chime in with their experiences with the lenses you haven’t tried and reviewed here.

        • Ian Plant

          Not sure about their methodology over there but one thing stands out from their test: although the Cann 17-40mm seems to produce less flare “blobs”, take a close look at the way the flare looks near the light source itself -the Nikon 14-24mm looks a lot better. The blobs are easy to clean up in post processing, but the unpleasant “bloom” around the light source is impossible to fix. I think this underscores the reason why I think the Nikon handles shooting into the sun better than the Canon. You might end up having to clean up some flare in both, but the sun ends up looking sooooo much better with the Nikon. Thanks Kari for bringing this to our attention!

  • You missed Canon 14mm L prime. That is currently the best canon wide-angle lens.

    • Ian Plant

      Thanks Stevo, I didn’t miss it, I just didn’t mention it because I have no personal experience with the lens, nor do I know anyone who has used it. From other reviews I’ve read of the Canon 14mm it appears to be very good, but not quite as good as the Nikon 14-24mm @ 14mm. The Nikon lens is very special. If you have direct experience with the Canon 14mm, I’d love for you to share it here.

      There are of course other Canon wide angle primes out there such as 20mm and 24mm, as well as Canon fisheye lenses. But I don’t have any experience with these lenses so I didn’t mention them.

  • Ian, I came close to getting the Nikon 14-24 but went with the Canon TS-E 17 and I love it. The tilt motion is nice and the shift motion is great for controlling keystoning and the “wide-angle” look. You can see how I mount filters on it using a Lee SW150 holder at http://www.jameshagerphoto.com/blog/?date=2011-08-18

    • Ian Plant

      Thanks James for sharing this excellent post. I recently stopped using the Lee SW150 system for my Nikon 14-24mm, and have switched to Fotodiox’s excellent filter system built just for the Nikon. But I still have my old Lee SW150 holder, perhaps I will put it to good use and buy the Canon 17mm tilt-shift!

      • Hey Ian

        From your comment above I discovered Fotodiox.

        I’m using the SW150 rig on a Nikon 14-24 and often get nasty curved glare from the gap between the filter and frame. The Fotodiox looks like a far better fit.

        Questions:
        1. Their 145mm CP isnt expensive – is the quality ok?
        2. Can you fit your Lee 150 grads? (having spent a fortune on them).
        3. My understanding is you can stack 2 filters, either 2 flats or a round and a flat? If that’s the case then then its a winner allowing for say a round ND and flat grad
        4. Overall build quality?

        Your feedback will be appreciated.
        Cheers
        David

        • Ian Plant

          Hi David, the Fotodiox CP seems to be just fine in terms of image quality, in my opinion. Since the Fotodiox system is a screw-on filter system rather than a filter holder, you can’t use the Lee 150 grads with them – unless you choose to hold the grads in front of the lens. You can stack the Fotodiox 3-stop grad with the polarizer, but you get vignetting up to about 17-18mm. Overall build quality is nice, but some users report getting filters or the screw-on lens cap stuck. I didn’t have any real problems in this regard until recently – now I can’t get my lens cap off of the polarizer filter! Reportedly Fotodiox is trying to fix the problem with future filters. As for me, if I can’t get it unstuck I will have to send it back to Fotodiox to fix or replace.

  • Used most that you mention. Would love to try the Nikon. The 24 TSE II gave by far the best image quality of the bunch, & that’s when you use it as a regular w.a. lens. Adding the tilt/shift functionality made it pretty special. (It got stolen & I haven’t been able to replace it yet.) I used the 16-35 for about a month, and the 17-40 for about a year, so maybe it’s not a fair comparison. But the 16-35 was definitely the better lens in terms of distortion and overall image quality. It’s just not worth the extra bucks for a landscape person who doesn’t need the extra stop. I have a couple primes, but like you I think I prefer a zoom at the wide end. Since I love my Zeiss 50mm, I was thinking about the 21. But you might have swayed me toward the Nikon (if/when I can afford it).

    A lens you didn’t mention is the 16-28 f/2.8 Tokina, which I’ve had for about a year. I love the overall image quality at all apertures. Certainly some distortion at the wide end, and it’s rather heavy, but its biggest weakness is that filter use is essentially impossible. But the price is right, and it sure is a heck of a lot better than the Tamron and Sigma w.a. zooms. You’re right though, there’s more choice for high quality w.a. optics on a Canon in the prime arena than in the zoom. The 24 & 35 are both excellent, and then there’s the TSEs.

    It would be a tough choice for me whether to get the Nikon zoom or replace the 24 TSE (& add the 17?). The take-home message I think is that Canon really needs to up their game when they update the 16-35. If they can keep the weight close & filter size the same, yet match the image quality of the Nikon, they would really be accomplishing something. Oh & maybe take it a mm or two wider. Am I asking for too much?

    • Ian Plant

      I’m glad you mentioned the Tokina, which I seriously looked into but rejected because of the filter issue. I have no direct experience with it so I didn’t mention it. But from third party reviews it looks like a really excellent wide zoom, perhaps not as stellar as the Nikon 14-24 but certainly better than almost all other lenses in this class.

      What I’d love to see from Canon is a corner to corner super sharp f/4 lens that easily accepts filters (i.e. no bulbous front end like on the Nikon 14-24, Sigma 12-24, Canon 17 tilt-shift, or Tokina 16-28). I’ll keep dreaming!

  • Here’s a lens that’s not covered in this article but should be on any landscape photographer’s radar – the Samyang 14mm. You can read a review here: http://www.photozone.de/canon_eos_ff/532-samyang14f28eosff Most people might not consider it because of the bulbous size and lack of brand name exposure. However a great copy of this lens produces excellent results and it can be had for only $400-$450.

    That’s a great price point and I’d pit it against the Canikon equivalents easily. Check out the Photozone review linked above.

    Ian thanks for providing these reviews, it’s a great springboard for discussion.

    • Ian Plant

      Hi Art, I’m glad you mentioned the Samyang. Once again, I have no direct experience with this lens and don’t know anyone who has used it but reviews of the lens suggest that it is of very high optical quality. I considered checking it out but decided against it because you can’t use filters on it, and it is a fixed focal length versus the Nikon 14-24mm zoom. So far, of all of the “bulbous front end” wide angle lenses our there, the Nikon is the only one that has filter adapters made for it – a strong point in its favor. But the Samyang is a great inexpensive option for folks who want a high quality super-wide and don’t expect to use filters on it. Thanks Art!

  • Hi Ian, thanks for usefull infos. What adapter do you use on Canon DSLR?
    There are some another fine lenses: Tokina 17-35 f/4 Pro FX, Tokina 16-28 f/2.8 Pro FX (filter problem), Zeiss 15 f/2.8 (prime).
    Have you or anybody else got any experiences with these lenses?

    • Ian Plant

      Hi Martin, I don’t have any experience with these lenses, though there’s some discussion about the Tokina 16-28mm above. It would be great to hear from someone with direct experience with some of these other lenses.

  • Ian

    Having used the canon 17-40 and the 24 TSE I would say that the tilt-shift lens is hard to beat. It definitely requires a methodical way of working and optimizing tilt for setting the focal plane plus adjusting aperture to get DOF for vertical parts of the image takes some practice ( at least for slow learners like me ). However despite the caveats that go with the single focal length,manual focus , large,heavy and expensive TSE lens the image quality is hard to beat.
    Appreciate the great information that you share on your site.

    All the Best
    Mike Babiak

    • Ian Plant

      Thanks Mike. I used to own the old version of the 24mm tilt-shift which wasn’t great in terms of optical quality, but I have heard nothing but excellent reviews from friends who own the Mark II version of the lens. By all accounts it is a sweet piece of glass.

  • The Canon TS-E 17L can admit filters with a specially cobbled filter holder. See –

    http://www.parrikar.com/blog/2012/06/04/filter-adapter-for-ts-e-17mm-lens/

    One issue with this marvelous lens is flare.

    • Ian Plant

      Thanks Rajan for this very helpful link! This actually looks like a really good solution – too often cobbled modifications are problematic, but this one looks great. No vignetting with this setup?

      • Ian, it does vignette when shifted. I forget the exact limit, but Fred Miranda has mentioned it in his post. In my shooting thus far that has not been a limitation.

        • Ian Plant

          Great, thanks for the info Rajan!

  • Ian,

    Great article and discussion here.

    I use the 17-40L and 24-105L among other Canon lenses and I get satisfactory results from both depending on how they’re used. I find the 17-40 to be a good performer in the 24-35mm range at f/8-f/11, and I especially like it as a primary lens on my 60D which has the smaller image sensor. It has the bonus of being a light weight when carrying it around all day.

    The 24-105 is a sharp enough lens from f/4-f/16. Although this lens has noticeable distortion at the 24mm end, it is still a great lens to carry on my 5D II when I want to go with minimal equipment. This lens can double as a good portrait lens at 105mm because of its sharpness at f/4.

    For people who use thread on style filters, both lenses use 77mm filters.

    I can’t speak for people who might make super large prints, but so far I have been happy with both lenses for prints in the 16×20 to 20×30 range.

    Thanks for the inspiration,
    Dirk

    • Ian Plant

      Hi Dirk, thanks for chiming in! I didn’t include the Canon 24-105mm in this review, as I was tending toward the “ultra-wide” end of things, but I am going to be posting a head-to-head review of the Canon 24-105 vs. the new Tamron 24-70mm in a few weeks, which actually appears to be a really sweet piece of glass. I’m glad you mentioned the distortion @24mm for the Canon 24-105 – this is a major pet peeve of mine, but the only blemish on this otherwise excellent lens. Initial tests of the Tamron show barely any distortion at this focal length . . . but more on that to come!

  • I’ve been struggling with this myself. Currently I use the 17-40/4 and I just added the 24/3.5 TS lens. I’m looking to change things up by either adding to or upgrading from the 17-40/4, but it seems everything is a compromise. The areas I’d like my kit to fill are…

    – Weather sealed zoom for minimal lens changes on the coast during seascape season
    – Produces a nice sunburst
    – Light weight so that I can take it with me backpacking
    – Accepts GND filters. I’m not thrilled about the idea of those giant filters Lee makes for the 14-24/2.8, but at least it’s a problem with a solution.
    – Star photography. I’d like to try some Milkyway shots which include the landscape. Something wide that performs at f/2.8 or better would do the trick.

    16-35/2.8 is on my radar as it does everything on the list. I’m just not sure it does it at a level I’ll be happy with. All the other wide angle lenses have one compromise or another. I don’t see any real solution other than buying multiple lenses in the UWA area.

    Also, I’ll throw the Zeiss 18/3.5 in the mix. It’s flawed like all the rest, but but no one mentioned it and I think it’s worth looking at.

    BTW, we’re heading to the Fitz Roy area for about a week in November. You’re shots of that location are stunning!

  • Hi I was hoping you could give me some more information on the Nikon to Canon lens adapter you use. What price range is it , and will the lens be fully automatic or manual focus

    • Ian Plant

      Hi Robert, I talk about my adapter in my review of the Nikon 14-24: http://www.ianplant.com/blog/2011/01/25/nikon-14-24mm-f2-8g-ed-af-s-lens-review/

      Note that my adapter is not made anymore, but now there are plenty of companies making adapters for this lens. With all adapters, you lose all auto features.

      Companies that make adapters for Nikon G lenses to EOS cameras include Novoflex and Cameraquest – I’m sure there are more but those are the one’s I know of off the top of my head. Price is usually somewhere in the $200 range.