Wide Angle Lenses

Most photographers will get into ‘serious’ photography by purchasing a decent DSLR that comes with a kit lens that has a mid-range zoom.  As their experience grows they will start to specialise – most will move towards a greater zoom but what about those who want to go the other way and capture wider images.  Wide angle lenses used to be the domain of the landscape photographer but they are becoming more popular with street, architecture and even wedding photographers.

Wide or really wide!

The human eye sees the world at an equivalent of 35mm – it’s why ‘traditional’ cameras use 35mm film.  Using lenses that have a wider view (a number LESS than 35mm) crams more information into the area that an eye could possibly see.  This means that subjects will seem further away and smaller.  If you can’t step far enough back to get a whole building in, or to capture everyone in a group shot then wide angle lenses are useful.  Another feature of these lenses is that lines and curves are exaggerated – the wider the lens the more pronounced this will be.  With ultra wide, or fish eye, lenses this distortion is profound; the image will appear almost spherical.

For cameras that use a full frame sensor (Canon 5D Mk2) wide angle lenses are considered to be anything in the range 28-35mm.  Cropped sensors like those found on models like the Canon 550D would consider an 18mm lens to be wide angle.  The table below should help:

Full Frame APS-C Four Thirds
Standard 50mm 30mm 25mm
Wide Angle 28mm 18mm 14mm
Ultra Wide Angle 24mm and wider 16mm and wider 12mm and wider

Ultra wide lenses are a real niche market and their use is limited for the ‘general’ photographer.  For that reason I’ll save them for another article.  I will apologise in advance for aiming this article more towards the Canon user.  It’s the system that I use and am the most familiar with but several of the lenses mentioned later can be bought with different mounts.

Technical reviews have their places and for some, the pixel-peeping fraternity, every little detail becomes important.  For me it is the reviews and opinions of ‘normal’ users that matters.  Where available I’ve included the ratings panel from Amazon.com (more reviews than my home .co.uk ) to give you a feel for how the lens has been received.

The Lenses

Findhorn Beach - Canon 28mm
Findhorn Beach – Canon 28mm

Budget

Canon EF 35mm f/2  £210

canon35The first lens in this article is the nippy little 35mm f2.0.  This is one of the favoured lenses of street photographers and is at the narrower end of a ‘wide angle’ lens.  It can only really be considered wide angle on a full frame camera and it just about stretches as a portrait lens.  On a cropped sensor it’s almost perfect as a portrait shooter but rubbish for wide shots!.  If you are intending to use it for landscape photography you might be craving something wider.  Vignetting below f4.0 has been criticised but the bokeh in this range has a pleasing quality to it.  The drive is slow and noisy for a prime lens but the AF works well in most conditions.  The Flickr group has some really bizarre shots, hopefully doesn’t say anything about the ‘typical’ 35mm shooter!

Tamron 10-24mm Di II LD IF f/3.5/f4.5 £350 APSC/DX mount only*

tamronReviews for this Tamron lens are pretty impressed with the performance given the very low price.  The lens does suffer from soft/blurry pixels at the corners of the image or when shooting with the lens wide open.  The auto focus is a little slow and so this lens would be better suited to landscape photographers over street shooters.  The barrelling effect is manageable with this lens.  If you are planning to shoot at f8.0 or higher and tripod mount your camera then you can achieve some impressive results that rival the more expensive lenses.  This would be an ideal lens to try out wide angle shooting or just to have available in your kit bag if you are rarely going to need to shoot wide.  35mm equivalent is 16-35mm and the filter size is 77mm.  Photographers looking for a pin sharp and crisp lens should move along.  The Flickr group has over 20,000 images for you to look at.

*It is physically possible to mount this lens on a full frame camera but you will get a ‘looking through a tube‘ effect that renders much of the sensor redundant.

Canon EF 28mm f/1.8  £370

canon28The advantage of a prime lens over a zoom is always supposed to be the same: sharpness.  Unfortunately this lens really struggles with sharpness between f1.8 and f2.8.  Images shot in this range tend to have a ‘dreamy’ softness to them and many reviews rant about this.  On the plus side this lens is able to operate in very low light thanks to its aperture of f1.8 and it consistently gets good remarks about the speed of its auto focus. Focusing is done internally and so a polarising or graduated filter can be mounted to its 58mm thread with no problems.  The Flickr group for this lens has plenty of images for you to look at.  On an APSC camera this lens is the equivalent of 44mm – a great portrait lens, especially if you are after the softness mentioned earlier.

West India Dock - Canon 17-40mm at 17mm on 5D2
West India Dock – Canon 17-40mm at 17mm on 5D2

Mid Range

Sigma 10-20mm f/3.5 EX DC HSM – £520 APSC only

sigmaIn the past years Sigma has offered one of the most attractive options regarding ultra wide angle lenses for APS-C cameras. The 10-20 mm f/4.0-5.6 EX combines an attractive price with very good optical performance.  Typical for most ultra wide angle zoom lenses the Sigma shows a fairly large amount of barrel distortion. The situation eases considerably towards longer focal lengths so that at 15 mm the lens is basically free of distortion.  If you have an APSC camera this is a worthy contender and it’s 35mm equivalent is 16-32mm.  A random point to note is that this lens has an 82mm filter mount.  This means a massive increase in the price of filters ie a Hoya Pro-1 UV filter jumps from £39 to £72 pounds!  A Flickr group has plenty of sample shots to look at.

Canon EF 17-40mm f/4.0L USM  £570

x-canon-ef1740f4This is one of the most popular wide angle lenses for Canon users.  On a full frame camera this is an awesome landscape and architecture lens but for cropped sensor users this also works well as a street photography lens as it becomes a 27-64mm equivalent – it can even double as a portrait lens when zoomed in.  For most people shooting with an aperture less than f4.0 is not an issue and cannot justify paying almost twice the price for the 16-35mm f2.8.  Despite the popularity of this lens I could only find a small pool of photos on Flickr.

Canon 10-22mm EF-S USM f3.5/4.5  £600 – APSC Only

canon-10This is a good mid range performer that is reasonably sharp across the focal range but suffers from moderate vignetting.  This is pretty easy to fix later (using software like Lightroom).  On a cropped sensor camera the lens shoots at a 16-35mm equivalent and this will be useful for most shooters but shooting in low light at f4.5 will be a factor to consider.  Fortunately this lens uses 77mm filters.  A large Flickr group with thousands of images taken with this lens is a great research source.

Edinburgh - Canon 16-35mm II at 16mm on 5D2
Edinburgh – Canon 16-35mm II at 16mm on 5D2

Top of the Range

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM £780

x-canon-ef1636f28This is the ‘big boy’ version of the 17-40mm mentioned above.  There have been many articles written that compare the performance of these two lenses and it seems that it’s a case of six of one, half a dozen of the other.  Both lenses perform well at different focal lengths and aperture settings but this lens is slightly sharper, has better contrast and suffers less from ‘soft’ corners.  Is it worth double the price?  I would say only if you are getting really serious about your wide angle photography and using it for high end art/print work.  Uses a 77mm filter thread.

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM  £1100

canon-16iiAnd finally is the most expensive lens in the wide angle category and what a beauty it is.  If you are serious about your photography and need the sharpest shots across the frame then it’s a no brainer as this L series glass is phenomenal.  This lens forms part of the ‘holy trinity’ of Canon f/2.8 zoom lenses (alongside the awesome 24-70mm and 70-200mm).

The lens has only a small amount of distortion at 16mm  but it improves above 20mm.  At 16mm on a full frame camera there is some vignetting (this can be correctly auto fixed if you import the image into Lightroom).  Zoom in a little or up the aperture and these problems fade away.  Unfortunately this lens uses the 82mm filter thread but if you are paying over £1k for a lens you might want to protect it with a substantial filter.

A Flickr group with over 40,000 images has a lot of great shots for reference.  The actual quality of the images seems higher than most groups, maybe the lens is used by serious amateurs and professionals?

Summary

So what can we learn from the information given above?  Well the truth of the matter is that all of the lenses are pretty similar.  The ‘cheaper’ lenses still give a great shot and you might be able to get away with a fixed, prime lens.  Most of the mid-range lenses are similar in price and performance and if you are very picky about your style of shooting you may need to investigate further.   If you can stretch to either of the top range Canon lenses then you will not be disappointed.  I hadn’t considered buying a wide angle lens until I wrote this article and now the 16-35mm f/2.8 II is on my Christmas wishlist 🙂

One final thought to consider is whether you need a wide angle lens?  If you have a decent kit lens that goes below the equivalent of 35mm then you are already shooting in wide angle.  Specialist wide angle lenses do get rid of many of the problems that a ‘kit’ zoom has (barrelling, chromatic aberration and vignetting) but as software like Photoshop and Lightroom improve these become easier to correct.  Do you really need to add another half kilo of lens to your kitbag or can you make do?

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