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Review – Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM

Important: This is the original Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM (released 2001) and has been replaced by a Mark II version last 2007. The MKII is just a lot better than the old one especially with edge details and contrast, but take this review as a solo review of the MKI and not a comparison with the new one.

 

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.org
Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.org

From Wikipedia:

Type: Zoom
Focal length: 16-35mm
Frame coverage: Full frame
Aperture (max/min):     f/2.8 – f/22
Construction:     10 groups / 14 elements
# Diaphragm blades:     7
Close focus distance:     280mm
Max. magnification: 0.22

Physical
Max. diameter: 83.5mm
Max. length: 103 mm
Weight: 600 g
Filter diameter: 77mm

Accessories

Lens hood: EW-83E
Angle of view
Horizontal:     98° – 54°
Vertical:     74°10′ – 38°
Diagonal:     108°10′ – 63°

The Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM replaced the (even) older EF 17-35mm f/2.8L USM and it was a big upgrade from every standpoint. The 1mm may not sound much but on a full frame camera, wide angle differences are larger than telephoto lenses in field of view.

16mm is currently Canon’s widest angle zoom lens. Sporting a fast f/2.8 maximum aperture, it is the preferred lens of a lot of photojournalists and landscape artists as well. The distortion makes this a little difficult to use for architectural photography but it is still widely used as the amount of area covered with a full frame camera is very useful.

However, I don’t have a full-frame camera right now (well, my Elan’s not working), so the review would be based on a 1.6x crop sensor.

Physically, the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM roughly has the same size and weight as the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, so those who already own that lens would have an idea how it’ll feel.

The lens is easy to use and not too heavy to carry around all day. It would work great as a travel lens for most people as it’s light enough but sturdy enough for anyone. The lens is weather-sealed but you’ll need a filter to complete the seal as the inner element moves a couple of centimeters in and out while zooming (shouldn’t that be considered not weather sealed, Canon? Unless you do supply a filter out of the box)

Speaking of zooming, offering roughly 2x zoom may force you to carry an extra lens for portraits or picking out details from a distance, so consider this when you’re thinking of using this lens as a sole-travel lens.

@16mm

@35mm

Optically, the lens is sharp at center even wide open, but does improve a little when stopped down, but f/2.8 is highly usable. The corners are decent even at wide open but that’s based on a crop-sensor.

@16mm f/2.8 and f/4 Comparison

@35mm f/2.8 and f/4 Comparison

The lens is sharp, as mentioned, regardless of aperture opening. If you pre-set your camera’s aperture and focus to shoot at waist-level when you’re trying to be a little discreet when shooting out on the streets.

Lens flare is visible at 16mm and forms a sweeping arch, but is more obvious in landscape orientation than portrait orientation, for some strange reason. The lens hood effectively reduces flare, but not eliminate it especially if any of the actual light source is in the frame. Ghosting is non-existent even when shooting directly at a bright light source, possibly due to the coatings on the rear of the lens element.

Upper Right Corner

Depending on distance to the subject, distortion exhibits mild-to-moderate barrel distortion and mild pin-cushioning at 16mm and 35mm, respectively. Shooting a brick wall using a crop sensor doesn’t exaggerate this effect but you can clearly see the distortion when shooting horizons from afar.

16mm

35mm

@16mm

As always, when taking portraits up close, you have to be aware of the distortion caused by the wide-angle lens. Even with 35mm wide end, it’ll still induce some facial distortions if you’re not careful.

Enlarged Facial Features

Elongated Head

You can use this to your advantage when shooting environmental portraits, however.

Distortion isn’t always a bad thing, though. If you’re considering this lens, you should already know that the converging lines and leaning subjects would be part of your photographic arsenal, and you’ll really get some different and dynamic compositions if you’re shooting in narrow alleys, places with repeating patterns, etc.

Bokeh (out-of-focus elements’ quality) is decent for a wide angle lens. Naturally, we can’t compare out-of-focus elements and depth of field between a wide angle lens like this one versus a telephoto lens, the physics of it already limits how shallow the depth-of-field can be for a certain lens optics. In any case, the relative close-focusing (28cm) allows about .22 magnification, which is decent, but you certainly can’t fool anyone for a macro shot due to the obvious distortion at close distances.

@16mm f/2.8

@35mm f/2.8

Chromatic abberration is mild and easily corrected in Lightroom (or whatever software you prefer), just a mild adjustment to take out the red/cyan fringe. I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

@16mm

Cropped (Note Red Fringe, Upper Left Line and Lower Left Circle Edges)

After Lightroom Adjustment

Using the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM indoors is a joy. You can cover so much scene in a cramped place, it’s difficult to isolate subject, though. That’s a given, but for architectural shots, you’ll get a lot of image in your frame, just allow some cropping allowance if you plan to correct perspective during post-processing.

The large f/2.8 opening sure helps a lot when shooting indoors. With a short/wide focal length, depth of field will almost always be adequate even a f/2.8, so it’s not difficult to get sharp images in low-light, close quarter scenes.

I did notice that the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM has a tendency to over-expose by a little bit in high-contrast scenes. For example, i metered the white sign at +1.75 carefully in manual mode before taking this shot, but the histogram showed the sign as pure white, almost half a stop more than metered. It did the same thing with my son’s photos above (the one with the columns).

I enjoyed using the lens a lot, it’s really a great tool especially when you need to capture a lot of elements in a scene. It’s well-designed and easy to use which is a big plus. If you’re into detail shots or portraits, this won’t be a very useful lens for you, but if you like sweeping vistas and photos filled with leading lines, the focal range is wonderful and sharp.

Question is, if you have the Canon EF 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens (IS version or not), is this a logical lens to consider for an upgrade?

Personally, I think the jump from the kit lens to the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM is quite a large step. Focal length coverage doesn’t tell the whole story, neither does the fast aperture comparison. The EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM is a professional lens, the construction, the optics, the usability, and the price are all factored in, and if you’re a photojournalist or landscape artist using a full-frame camera, you don’t really have a lot of choices to consider for high-quality, fast, and wide-angle zoom.

The kit lens is designed to be an all-around lens, jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none, offering great value and portability. The EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM, however, is a master of what it’s designed for, landscape and close-up photojournalistic work. Colors, contrast, and sharpness are all at par with most Canon professional L lenses, not much to complain here.

Naturally, this lens is designed for film cameras in mind, so there are quite a bit of ‘designed-for-digital’ lenses out there that will out-perform this lens, especially on a crop sensor. If you can nab this lens at a bargain in the used market, then it’s a great deal, but don’t over-pay for it.

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