The first wide angle I ever owned was the Sigma 10-20mm. It was a revolution in my photography and I can still remember the excitement of waiting for the delivery, unwrapping it and walking around the house with my eye glued to the viewfinder. A Wide lens is a compulsory item for landscape photography, as you usually need a wide field of view to capture all the elements in a scene. It was only a short while before the enjoyment turned to discontent with the image quality of the lens.
Choosing the best wide-angle is one of landscape photography’s biggest headaches. Wide-angle lenses are a nightmare to design because of the optical challenges of capturing such a wide view. It would be great to have a single wide-angle lens that performs well in all aspects, but such a lens doesn’t exist. If lens manufacturers design a lens to excel in some aspects, then the other ones suffer. Those aspects are the following
- Max Width
- Max Aperture
- Corner Sharpness
- Lens Flare
- Filter Thread
- Chromatic Aberration (CA)
- Price (not a technical aspect, but one of the biggest ones to consider when buying)
That is quite a list of factors to consider, but when spending the money on a proper wide-angle lens, it is well worth your while to do the necessary research before making your decision. Over the years I have owned and/or used the following lenses.
- Sigma 10-20mm – R5595,00
- Canon 10-22mm – R7695.00
- Canon 17-40mm – R9195.00
- Canon 24mm f/1.4 mk II – R19195.00
- Canon 16-35mm mk II – R16195.00
- Canon 14mm mk II – R26695.00
- Nikon 14-24mm – R21395.00
- Nikon 16-35mm – R17995.00
- Zeiss 18mm – R16595.00
(Prices listed from ORMS in September 2013. Photography gear’s prices are very dependent on the ZAR/USD FX rate)
Crop Sensor Wide-Angle Lenses
I won’t go into too much detail on the crop-sensor lenses because I have only used two of them and when it comes to image and lens quality, full frame equipment wins by a mile! All I can say is that the Sigma 10-20mm (f/4-5.6) is good value for money, but the Canon 10-22mm is worth the price difference. If you have had plenty of experience with specific models, please comment and I’ll add it to the post with a credit if I feel you make a fair point.
Full Frame Lenses
Here is a short description of each criteria to consider and why it is important.
Price - Generally, the more you pay for a lens the better the image quality, but there are one or two exceptions to this like Canon’s 14mm f/2.8 mk II. Looking at the image and build quality that you’re getting for your money is crucial.
Max Width – The ideal focal length is a range of about 14-24mm. It’s nice to have something slightly longer, but if you spend 20k on a wide angle then you’ve probably got a 24-70mm in your bag as well so it’s better to have a wider range than a longer one. If you want to go longer, just put a longer lens on.
Max Aperture – Before shooting stars became so popular this was pretty irrelevant because landscapes always need good depth of field. Nowadays if you shoot stars, then f/4 simply doesn’t cut it.
Corner Sharpness – This is one of the biggest criteria for a wide-angle lens and it is the Achilles heel to some lenses, like Canon’s 17-40mm. A lens’s sharpness degrades from the center of the frame going into the corners and it’s an effect that’s very bad with some models. You can often lose critical detail in the corners if your lens is subject to this problem. See how the detail fades in the lower left corner of the frame?
Lens Flare – Shooting into the sun makes for very dramatic photos, but if a lens has bad flare then it can make it impossible. This is more an issue of zooms vs. primes than any brand or model against each other. The only way of mitigating flare is using the finger-blending method.
Filter Thread – The wider the lens, the more bulbous the front element needs to be. When you go wider than 16mm, it becomes so bulbous that it sticks past the front of the lens casing and thus you cant attach a filter or graduated filter holder system. Many people with a knack for Photoshop argue that luminosity blending and HDR have made Graduated filters redundant, but I strongly disagree. This is the Achilles heel of a lens like the Nikon 14-24mm and Zeiss 15mm. If it can’t take filters, then it renders it useless in many situations. The Lee SW150 system is flawed and impractical in my opinion. It’s gigantic and a pain to carry around. It certainly doesn’t fit comfortably into a hiking backpack. The gap between the filter and the lens is much too large and thus causes ghosting by light that leaks in. I don’t consider it a solution and I advise people against buying it.
Distortion – This is something that is a natural trait of wide-angle lenses because they try to capture such a wide field of view, but some lenses are better at mitigating it than others. This can also cause very unsightly effects in photos.
Chromatic Aberration – Also known as fringing, this problem has been solved to a great extent by editing software. Most new camera models can even correct it in camera on JPEG files. It is still something to consider when choosing the right lens.
I would love to give a more comprehensive review, but I can only cover the lenses that I’ve used. Luckily I have used all the most popular ones, except for the Zeiss 21mm. I will list them in order of price, give each lens a rating out of 10 and list it’s pros and cons.
Canon 17-40mm f/4
This was the first full frame lens I owned, it is excellent value for money and puts Nikon to shame as their most affordable FF wide-angle is almost double the price. The build quality is good, it can take filters and it is sharp in the center of the frame. Distortion, corner sharpness and chromatic aberration are horrible. It’s an f/4 and 17mm isn’t always wide enough.
Rating – 6.5/10
Pros – Price, Build Quality, Filter Thread
Cons – Corner Sharpness, CA, Distortion, Max Aperture, Max Width, Flare
Zeiss 18mm f/3.5
This was my only wide-angle lens for just over two years and it was a bit of a love-hate relationship. It’s build, corner sharpness, distortion, CA and flare are better than the Nikon 16-35mm and the Canon 17-40mm and 16-35mm. When I bought it in 2010 it was also very competitively priced at R14000, but that is no longer the case. It is manual focus, but it has focus confirmation, which helps. I was very often in situations where 2mm wider would have made a big difference. Its biggest downside will be revealed if you try to shoot stars with it. At f/3.5 it’s only half a stop slower than an f/2.8 lens, but I’ve seen how two different copies of it perform next to two different copies of a Canon 16-35mm mk II on 5D mk II bodies and it’s as if 2-3 stops of light just go missing in the lens. It’s for this reason that I didn’t shoot any milkyway photos for almost two years. I was happy to let it go after two years.
Rating – 7/10
Pros – Corner Sharpness, Filter Thread, Build Quality, CA, Distortion
Cons – Aperture, Max Width, Mystical Light Dissapearance…
Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 mk II
This was the third FF wide-angle I owned and it still remains a favorite of mine despite its weaknesses. I would like to say that this lens has no cons, but the 14-24mm outshines it in 7/8 criteria. If I gave the 14-24mm 10/10 then I would have to give this lens 9/10. Due to the fact that 14-24mm can’t take filters and costs R5000 more I have to give it a 9/10 and thus this lens a 8.5/10. This lens has a good focal length of 16-35mm, but I would happily sacrifice that longer 11mm for 2mm more at the wide end. Its max aperture is f/2.8, it can take filters, it handles distortion and CA well and its flare is what can be expected of a zoom lens. The corner sharpness of the copy that I had wasn’t that good, but I have seen the results of other copies that were almost on par with the 14-24mm. It costs R5195 less than the 14-24mm, which is a big difference. One other thing to consider is that it has a starburst/sunburst, which simply outshines all other lenses. This lens a very good all-rounder, but simply not as good as Nikon’s 14-24mm. It is worth every cent of difference between the 17-40mm. The image below shows the lens’s beautiful starburst.
Rating – 8.5/10
Pros – Price, Build Quality, Filter Thread, Max Aperture, CA, Corner Sharpness, Distortion, Price
Cons – Max Width, Flare
Nikon 16-35mm f/4
I currently own this lens and comparing this lens to the Canon 16-35mm falls in favour of the Canon due to price and the max aperture. I would say that they perform equally in distortion, flare and CA. They have the same focal length range and they both have a filter thread. The Nikon is slightly better in the corners, but it is an f/4 where the Canon is an f/2.8. The Canon costs R2000 less, but the Nikon has VR which goes a long way when shooting handheld. Conclusively I would rate this lens’s build and image quality equal to the Canon 16-35mm, but the Aperture and Price difference robs it of a point.
Rating – 7.5/10
Pros – Price, Build Quality, Filter Thread, CA, Corner Sharpness, Distortion, VR
Cons – Max Aperture, Price, Flare
Canon 24mm f/1.4 mk II
I was so impressed with this lens that I couldn’t omit it from my list. I haven’t used Nikon’s but according to the reviews that I have read it performs as well, if not slightly better. The main advantage and disadvantage of this lens is very obvious; at f/1.4 it’s a full two stops faster than an f/2.8 lens. That means a lot when shooting stars because you can open your aperture further instead of boosting the ISO, but 24mm is seldom wide enough. Panorama stitching easily fixes that problem because you can take multiple shots and merge them together to capture a wider field of view. I tried it at all apertures, but at f/1.4 the vignetting is quite bad and the corners too soft. The corner sharpness increases substantially when stopped down to f/1.8. I got the image below by merging three images exposed at ISO3200 and f/1.8 for 20 seconds each. While it certainly opens a lot of doors, it is a lot of money to pay for a very niche use.
Rating – 8/10
Pros – Max Aperture, Corner Sharpness, CA, Filter Thread, Distortion, Build Quality
Cons – Max Width, Price
Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 I have said almost everything that needs to be said about this great piece of glass. Apart from the fact that it can’t take filters and it’s the most expensive wide-angle zoom, it outperforms all the other zooms in all areas. The corner sharpness is amazing and so is the build quality. It handles CA great and distortion is standard for such a wide lens. Its max width is class leading because it is the only zoom that goes as wide as 14mm. This lens is the most expensive of all the wide-angle zooms, but it is worth every penny.
Rating – 9/10
Pros – Max Aperture, Corners Sharpness, CA, Distortion, Build Quality, Max Width
Cons – Price, Filter Thread, Flare
Canon 14mm f/2.8 mk II
I used this lens extensively for two months and while it is a magnificent piece of glass, nothing on this earth justifies the monstrous price tag. The Nikon 14-24mm outperforms it in every single aspect except flare while offering the versatility of zoom and costing almost R6000 less. I think that this lens really puts Canon users in a bad position because they have to fork out that much money to have access to a 14mm field of view.
Rating – 7/10
Pros – Build Quality, Max Width, Flare, Corner Sharpness, CA, Max Aperture
Cons – Price, Filter Thread
Now that you know all these things, what should you buy?
If you’re a Canon shooter then the 16-35mm mk II ticks almost all boxes. It’s just not on par with the 14-24mm on max width and corner sharpness. Is there a solution? Sort of…if money is no object you can get the 14mm prime for that extra 2mm and look at a Zeiss for better corner sharpness and flare. Perhaps even look at the R35000 Zeiss 15mm? I think that the Canon 16-35mm is a better all-rounder than the Nikon 16-35mm or 14-24mm, but it’s still not an all-in-one wide-angle. While I was a Canon man I had 5 different wide-angles over the years because I was simply never satisfied with a single one.
If you’re a Nikon shooter then you face very much the same problem. The 14-24mm offers amazing image quality, but not the use of filters. The 16-35mm offers the use of filters, but it’s an f/4 and it doesn’t have that super wide 2mm extra. The solution is to have both, which I do. The conclusion is that if you’re serious about your landscape photography, you have to deal with the fact that you’ll have to buy two wide angles! I hope that somewhere in the future Nikon or Canon (preferably Nikon) unveils something like a 15mm with the IQ of the 14-24mm that can take filters. We can just wait and see!
There are some great sites that chart the performance of lenses using laboratory-controlled comparative testing. They very precisely show the performance of a lens using graphs and grids that vary in understandability. These tests’ results are subject to bad copies (some lenses of the same model are better than others due to factors like assembly/calibration/handling that might ‘damage’ it) and I’ve found that these tests are overly analytic. What you see in those charts doesn’t always translate as a fair review of the user experience and overall image quality. That is just my opinion and I openly encourage anyone to have a look at the more precise reviews on those sites. See the two links below