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.
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.
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.
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!