Wide angle lenses tend to be an essential, if not fairly niche, part of a photographer’s kit. The distortion caused at the extreme edges of the frame can have both a positive and negative effect on the results of an image, and thus should be used sparingly and selectively. Part of the Canon “holy trinity” (complemented by the 24-70 f/2.8 L II, and the 70-200 f/2.8 L IS II) of zooms, the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II USM represents the pinnacle of Canon’s wide-angle zooms. For the longest time, I’ve been using a close Canon alternative, the 17-40 f/4 L. At half the price and quite a bit lighter it was actually my very first lens, ever. Obviously I was curious to see if the wider aperture, the slightly wider focal length, the added weight and cost were worth an upgrade from a lens that has worked very well for me up to now.
While this won’t be a straight compare-and-contrast of the 16-35mm vs. the 17-40mm, I think it’s important to note some of the more stand-out differences. Of course, the first thing I noticed was the weight. At 640 grams, it’s slightly heavier than the 17-40’s 470g. It’s not a huge difference, but remember, I’m incredibly used to the 17-40 so it was noticeable. The added heft does give it a good balance on my 5dMKIII with grip, and it was pleasant to use all day during some events I covered. I’ve mentioned in other reviews that 82mm is the new 77mm and with the 16-35 was the first to introduce that filter size in the lineup. I’m not afraid of using circular polarizers on lenses this wide, though you will have to be careful with what type you choose, as any filter that is too thick will definitely cause vignetting at the corners on a full-frame body at 16mm.
The rubber focus and zoom rings were smooth and well-proportioned to the size of the body. Mine was a rental unit but didn’t show any signs of being loose. A rubber gasket at the mount makes this lens weather sealed (though a front filter is required to *fully* weather seal the lens). The 16-35 is built to last and work in the most trying of environments.
The Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II is Canon’s flagship full-frame wide-angle zoom. Only the 14mm f/2.8 L is wider and as fast (the Canon 8-15mm fisheye is wider, but the fisheye adds a different level of distortion and it is f/4). As such, we’d expect it to have the best optics Canon has to offer. I found images to be relatively sharp wide-open at the centre (something I cannot say is true for the 17-40 f/4 L) and definitely sharpened when stopped down a stop to f/4. A tricky thing to accomplish with wide-angle lenses is an effectively blurred background as the maximum focus distance is so close (hyperfocal distance can be achieved within 4 feet at about f/6.3). You really need a wide-open aperture and a close subject to be able to create a decent amount of bokeh.
Potential issues with all wide-angle lenses are flaring, softness of image and chromatic aberration (especially at the edges). While I did find some chromatic noise, I found it very well controlled considering the aperture and wide-angle. The lens also didn’t “flare out” like some cheaper glass I’ve used in the past; you can shoot into the light without having to worry too much about loss of contrast. Does it soften at the edges? Yup, but it also distorts heavily, elongating anything along the outer stretches of the lens. Great if that’s an effect you’re going for with sky, or landscape, or even architecture, but less than flattering for faces or features you’d rather see in proportion.
For the first time in a long time I didn’t find lens vignetting to be an issue. It is present, especially at the wider focal length of 16mm and wide-open, but it wasn’t as drastic as many primes and it improved as the lens was stopped down. There was some lens distortion when photographing straight objects but it was not a surprise and it was easily fixed in Adobe Lightroom 4.
Because this is a full-frame compatible lens (as are all “L” series), these factors vary depending on the crop factor of the body of your choice. How wide a wide-angle lens is changes if you’re shooting with an APS-C size sensor at 1.6 crop; where most of the lens faults and flaws are cut-off by your sensor, and your apparent focal length shifts to about 25-56mm. While I no longer use a crop-sensor camera, I did find those focal lengths useful when I did, especially for landscape and interior work. On a full-frame camera the sheer field of view can complicate your compositions, since there is so much to consider in your image.
Who’s it for
This lens is a staple for photojournalists and wedding photographers. The fast aperture, great optics, and versatility of a zoom help them create compelling images in the tightest of environments. In a completely arbitrary collection of data, someone took a look at the EXIF information of all the cameras and all the lenses used by Reuters photographers in their “Best photos of the year 2012” the Canon 16-35mm was, by far, the most used lens in these images. You can draw your own conclusions from this though: http://petapixel.com/2012/12/02/the-most-popular-cameras-and-settings-for-reuters-best-photos-of-the-year-2012/
When carefully wielded, the 16-35 makes a versatile group and environmental portrait lens. Just watch out for those edges of the frame, where distortion and stretching occurs. Keeping your subjects centred will help keep them looking reasonably normal. This is a great way to accentuate foreground objects, while allowing background objects to fade out into the distance.
I prefer to shoot interior photography at 24mm with my 24mm f/3.5 L Tilt-shift lens. I find 16 or 17mm too wide on a full-frame camera to accurately capture a space. The distortion at the edges makes rooms and objects seem much larger than they are, misrepresenting what I’m trying to accomplish. Of course, this can be used to your advantage in creative architectural photography, taking curves and lines and accentuating them.
Some landscape shooters may find the 16-35mm a versatile lens for outdoors, as Canon has not yet made a 14-24mm equivalent like Nikon has. It’s likely their best bet for ultra-wide angle shots. Like I noted with architecture above, it’s a matter of taste if you like the distortion that comes with 16mm. I should also mention that the 17-40 f/4L will perform just as well when stopped down to equivalent narrow apertures often used in landscape photography. If you’re shooting at f/11 I’d say the 17-40 is the smarter choice.
The 16-35mm f/2.8 L II beats my 17-40 f/4L in all aspects hands-down, except for cost. While I won’t find myself making the upgrade anytime soon, I did find the superior optics and faster aperture a boon in many situations I was in while working with the 16-35. The weight difference became less significant, and I actually mistook one lens for the other while packing my kit one day. I don’t always use a wide-angle lens and it’s use to capture more elements in a scene can be subjective. If you’re shooting on a crop sensor body and plan on making the switch to full-frame someday, you’ll definitely get a lot of value out of this lens moving into the future. Full-frame users who may be used to their “kit” 24-105 or 24-70 may want to rent or try the 16-35mm before they purchase it, since this level of ultra-wide-angle can be a shock for some first-timers. If cost is a factor I do suggest having a look at the 17-40 f/4L, while it distorts a bit more, is soft-wide open, and doesn’t have as shallow an aperture, it’s served me well from the very first shot I took with my digital Rebel XT.
- Wide-open fast aperture to capture more light & blur out backgrounds
- Wide angle to exaggerate foreground elements
- Great Optics across the focal range
- Excellent wide-angle for both crop-sensor and full-frame bodies
- Twice as expensive as Canon’s 17-40 f/4L (but with twice the “value” I suppose)
- No Image Stabilization. Is that an issue for such a wide-lens? Nikon users have it, so heavy-coffee drinkers like me want it too!