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Canon EF 16-35/2.8L II USM Lens Review

by Philip Greenspun, June 2007 (updated May 2008)


The quality-conscious photographer is typically torn between buying a set of prime lenses or a zoom to cover the range. Canon makes this decision much easier in the wide-angle portion of the optical range by having failed for decades to update their medium-speed prime wide lenses with ultrasonic motors. If you want fast quiet autofocus with the useful option of full-time manual focus, the Canon wide zooms are your only option short of spending $1000+ for each focal length.

The zoom range goes from a dramatic 16mm to a boring point-and-shoot default 35mm.

If you have a full-frame Canon digital body and a desire to do some photojournalism, buy one right now from amazon.com, (compare prices).

Note that this lens was upgraded to a "II" version in 2007. The capabilities of the versions are very similar and the sample images on this page come from both versions of the lens. A section below contains side-by-side comparisons of identical scenes photographed with the two versions of the lens.

Optics

The lens design is complex, with 16 elements of glass arranged in 12 groups. Three of those elements are aspherical, which improves image quality and reduces the number of elements required. Nonetheless, contrast will never be as high nor flare as well-controlled as with a simpler prime lens. Distortion will also be higher.

Maximum magnification is 0.22x at a distance of less than one foot. With a full-frame camera, the smallest object you can photograph is roughly half the size of an 8.5x11" (A4) piece of paper.

Image at right: The II version of the lens; from my trip to the Georgia Aquarium; after shelling out for this lens you might not have enough left over to pay the $26 per person admission fee.


Construction

Like all L lenses, the 16-35/2.8L is ruggedly constructed and resistant to water and dust. The included lens hood bayonets onto the exterior of the lens, leaving the 82mm filter and lens cap threads free. As noted above, the 16-35 incorporates a ring USM motor, which enables "full-time manual focus", even when the lens is set to autofocus. This is very useful when you want to use Custom Function 4 on an EOS body, which moves autofocus to the exposure lock button on the rear. You can focus manually if desired and, at any time, push the rear button to give yourself a shot of autofocus.

Weight is 640g, which balances reasonably well with Canon's professional bodies and is only slightly heavier than the 24/1.4L and 35/1.4L lenses. The medium-speed prime lenses are much lighter, e.g., only 185g for the 28/2.8.

Image at right: Fallingwater, March 2008, with the II version of this lens.

Alternatives

The highest quality alternative to this lens is a bag of prime lenses and an assistant to change them for you. Here is an adapted excerpt from our Canon EOS system page:

Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, (compare prices) (review) offers a lower price, a lighter weight, and a slightly different zoom range, with some loss of wide angle drama. You sacrifice one f-stop, which translates to a dimmer viewfinder.

Canon EF 20-35mm f/3.5-4.5 USM, (compare prices) is an older design, but maybe a good value if you don't need the drama of 16mm.

If you are using a small-sensor digital SLR, such as Canon Digital Rebel XTi (Black), (compare prices) (review), the equivalent lens to the 16-35 is Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM, (compare prices) (review).

None of the independent lens manufacturers, e.g., Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, make a constant-aperture high quality wide-angle zoom for full-frame bodies.

Image above right: Cat Islands, Bahamas, 2008 with the II version of the lens, 20mm at f/11.

Conclusion

For travel with a full-frame digital SLR, a standard professional kit includes this lens plus the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, (compare prices) (review) and Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM, (compare prices) (review).

Where to Buy

You can get this lens overnight from amazon.com, (compare prices).

More

Original versus II version

Here are some comparison images taken with the original 16-35/2.8L and the 16-35/2.8L II lens, which was introduced in 2007. A Canon EOS 5D body was mounted on a tripod and set to self-timer and mirror lock-up. What are we looking for? The major sins of wide angle zoom lenses include the following:

  • vignetting, i.e., corners darker than the center. All lenses do this to some extent, but our eyes don't usually notice it.
  • distortion of vertical and horizontal lines

You can also look at sharpness and resolution; how easy is it to read text? Contrast is what determines how much "punch" images have, particularly on a gray day or in flat indoor light. Lack of contrast is a serious problem with cheap zoom lenses, but not typically with the Canon L series.

  OldNew
  Brick wall at 16mm, f/2.8; look for vignetting (darkening in corners)
  Brick wall at 16mm, f/8; look for distortion
  Flowers at 16mm, f/2.8; click to enlarge and look at detail, especially in the sign at lower right. This is a difficult scene due to the backlighting.
  Same scene at 16mm and f/8.
  Same scene at 35mm and f/2.8
  Same scene at 35mm and f/8
  Cactus Garden, 16mm and f/2.8
  Cactus Garden, 16mm and f/8

Personal Conclusion: Canon's optical engineers say that the II version of the lens has improved corner sharpness. I'll have to take their word for it. Most viewers concentrate on whatever is in the center of an image. Readers who primarily photograph people will probably never notice any difference. Photojournalists tend to work at f/2.8 much of the time, which is where vignetting is the most severe. Both the I and II version of this lens have significantly darkened corners on the brick wall test at f/2.8. Need higher optical quality than what you get from the original version of this lens? Grab a tripod and stop down to f/8. Substitute a prime lens. Don't rush to the store and trade up to the II version expecting a dramatic improvement in image quality.

Examples

16mm, f/5.6, 1/400th. Helicopters fly pretty low and Victoria Falls is pretty big. The 16mm wide end of this lens enables the structure of the Falls and associated road, rail, and hotel network to be appreciated.

16mm, f/4.5, ISO 320. Generally speaking, the wider the better for architectural interiors.

16mm. Would have been better with a touch of fill flash. For photographing people inside a vehicle as well as the view out the window, a wide angle is essential.

21mm, f/2.8, 1/500th. My beach cottage near Los Angeles.

16mm, f/2.8, 1/30th, ISO 800. It takes a genius to make a good photograph of randomly attired people sitting around a table of used plates and napkins. If you want folks to think you're a great photographer, don't agree to take pictures at weddings. On the bright side, the 16mm wide end enables you to capture everyone at the table plus the room in the back. If the room is dimly lit, as it will generally be, use a high ISO and a reasonably long shutter speed to get a natural blend of flash and ambient light.

35mm, f/2.8, 1/30th, ISO 800. Wedding photos improve dramatically when the subjects aren't eating...

16mm at f/2.8. Brutal high-contrast lighting conditions.

16mm at f/2.8. The light was dim enough that even at ISO 400 this required a shutter speed of 1/25th. Note the apparent distortion of the people at the edges of the frame, a distortion that will go away if you put your nose close enough to the screen.

17mm. "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough," say the photojournalists. Zooming out to 17mm brings in the entire church, but also way too much uninteresting foreground grass. The solution would have been to jump over the fence and get close to the flowers and shrubs. Obnoxious behavior for a visitor? "A revolution is not a dinner party," said Chairman Mao.

21mm. The cathedral and the person in this scene are not equal in real-world size. If you are too far back from both, the person will appear as a tiny dot next to the cathedral. Only by getting very close to the smaller subject, and therefore using a rather wide angle to capture the larger subject in the background, can you render the two subjects comparable in size in the final image.


Text and pictures copyright 2005-2008 Philip Greenspun. Unless otherwise noted, all images on this page were taken with a full-frame Canon EOS 5D, (compare prices) (review).

Article revised May 2008.

Readers' Comments


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Ellis Vener , June 07, 2007; 08:22 P.M.

I went wit hthe 17-40mm f/4l over the 16-35mm f/2.8L II.

Why: image quality at the wide end. I do a fair amount of archoitectural wor kand at f/9 --which seems to be the sweet spot for full frame Canon's the 17-40mm out resolved the 16-35,mm. Of course thereis sample to sample variation and maybe this was true only of the two lenses I tested, but there you have it.

Stephan Brauchli , June 08, 2007; 09:57 A.M.

I have owned the 17-40mm L f4 for a while now and love it. I thought that when I bought it there was also a 17-40mm L f2.8, which cost twice as much. However, I cannot find it on the canon website. Did such a lens ever exist or am I mistaken?

Alan Myers , June 08, 2007; 01:23 P.M.

"I thought that when I bought it there was also a 17-40mm L f2.8... Did such a lens ever exist or am I mistaken?"

You are not mistaken Stephan. Or perhaps I should say you are pretty close.

Canon offered a 17-35mm f2.8L that was replaced in the line-up by the 16-35/2.8L (1st version). The 17-35/2.8L was introduced in 1996 and replaced in 2001. The 17-40/4L was added to the line-up in 2003.

Going back a little further in history, prior to the 17-35/2.8L there was a 20-35/2.8L. That lens was offered from 1989 to 1996.

The info is still on line if you know where to look. Check out Canon's virtual museum at http://www.canon.com/camera-museum/ All previous models of lenses and cameras are listed there.

Asher . , June 16, 2007; 12:54 P.M.

"The zoom range goes from a dramatic 16mm to a boring point-and-shoot default 35mm."

There are no "boring" focal lengths, only boring photographers.

Marco Venturini Autieri , July 12, 2007; 10:09 A.M.

There are no boring photographers, only boring photos ;)

Frank Dzambic , July 31, 2007; 07:44 A.M.

You said "The included lens hood bayonets onto the exterior of the lens, leaving the 82mm filter and lens cap threads free."

Since the title of the review seems to be for the original version of this lens, I just wanted to clarify that the original version takes 77mm filters, and the new Mark II version takes 82mm filters.

Landrum Kelly , August 11, 2007; 02:35 P.M.

I just noticed in addition that the link to Amazon is also for the first version of this lens, not the Mark II version with its 82mm filter. B&H by contrast offers at present only the Mark II version of this lens at almost $100 more. I also see that the original version is all over eBay right now, and it is being advertised as new, not used. No mention is made, of course, that it is the first version (with the 77mm filter size) which is being sold new. Does anyone know what the difference in quality is? Ellis Vener in the first comment compares the 17-40L f/4 to the Mark II version, at least stopped down a ways.

--Lannie

Mark HOLLOWAY , September 01, 2007; 02:29 A.M.

I have just taken the II version of this on vacation with me & LOVED it. It is crisp & (relatively) small & I can't detect any vignetting. Only small niggle is the HUGE 82mm filter thread, making filters v expensive.

Image Attachment: 16-35-L-II-cathedral-2.jpg

Dermot Conlan , May 21, 2008; 02:08 P.M.

My results are not the same as EV, I used the 17-40L on a 5D body for two years as my main wide lens, the lens was fine except at the corners which did not sharpen up until after F5.6. Also flare was a huge problem with the 17-40L especially at dusk with extraneous light creeping into the frame at longer exposures. The 16-35L 11 has improved on all these ails. Is it perfect no, but if you need it for paying jobs by all means, if not get the 17-40L. Constant complaining about filter size seems strange if you can afford this lens I think you can afford an 82mm filter.

Robert Walter , May 21, 2008; 05:53 P.M.

Well, while you would expect a lens to last several (many?) years ラ even through rough and ready professional use ラ you wouldn't expect a filter to last more than a year under those conditions. And +$200 is a lot for a "disposable" filter. (And that's what the 82mm B&Ws will cost you).

Becks Panno , March 03, 2009; 10:40 A.M.

"The zoom range goes from a dramatic 16mm to a boring point-and-shoot default 35mm."

I purchased this lens about 4 weeks ago for a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. I couldn't be more pleased. To say that this lens goes from 16mm to a boring 35mm is unfounded. There is no such thing as a boring lens imo. I use this on a crop 1.6 body. As far as the price of filters go....well..you wanna play you gotta pay.

Jeff Bozeman , April 12, 2011; 06:31 P.M.

a full-frame ultrawide on a 1.6 crop body basically turns it in to the bottom-half of a standard zoom, but still $1600... I guess even if you pay to play, you still need to learn imaging basics, and that money doesn't change them...


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