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
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.
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.
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.
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, (buy from Amazon) (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
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.
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.
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
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.