WIDE ZOOM LENSES
There's a big wide world out there and it pays to use a big wide-angle zoom lens to shoot it. We round up some land-grabbers...
When you're after a lens to steal the scene in landscape photography, you need to go large. Standard zooms can take in the big picture, at least to some extent, especially if you're using a 24-70mm or 24-105mm lens on a full-frame body. But it can still feel a bit of a blinkered approach, with imposing areas of a rolling landscape failing to make it into the frame. Things are worse with an 18-55mm lens on an APS-C format body, which only gives you an 'effective' 28.8mm focal length at the wide-angle end. You need something bigger, at least in terms of viewing angle.
Wide-angle zooms are somewhat notorious for being big, heavy lenses. But it doesn't have to be that way. The thing that really ramps up the physical size is combining a wide viewing angle with a wide available aperture, like f/2.8. This can be advantageous for maintaining fast shutter speeds even under dull lighting. It's useful for street photography and shooting indoors, but isn't a necessity for landscapes.
It's more likely that you'll be using apertures of around f/11, to maximize sharpness across the whole image frame and to keep vignetting (darkened image corners) at bay. Narrower apertures also help to maximize depth of field, so you can keep foreground and background areas in the landscape simultaneously sharp.
HOW WE TEST
We combine real-world shooting results with rigorous lab testing to arrive at our overall ratings
To test real-world performance, we use lenses in all sorts of lighting conditions, for indoor and outdoor shooting scenarios. We check for good build quality and handling, smooth and precise operation of all controls, and we test the speed and accuracy of autofocus.
We typically test full-frame compatible lenses on a range of full-frame and APS-C format bodies, whereas lenses that are designed specifically for APS-C format bodies are only tested on cameras like the 80D and 7D Mark II. In-camera corrections for chromatic aberrations and peripheral illumination (where available) are disabled throughout all testing, to better reveal the true performance of each lens.
We also run a full range of lab tests under controlled conditions, using the Imatest Master and DxO Analyser suites. Photos of test charts are taken across the available range of apertures and zoom settings, then analysed for sharpness, distortion and chromatic aberrations (colour fringing). A summary of results is shown on the following contenders.
Wide-angle zoom lenses
CANON EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM £180/$280
It's the baby of the group, but still packs a wide viewing angle and offers superb value for money
Whether strolling down country lanes or clambering up mountains, you'll appreciate the compact, lightweight build of this lens. It tips the scales at just 240g - less than a quarter of the weight of some lenses on test. It looks and feels like a wide-angle equivalent of the 18-55mm IS STM kit lens, and has many of the same traits.
The STM (Stepping Motor) autofocus system is virtually silent which, along with smooth focusing transitions, makes the lens a good choice for shooting movies as well as stills. Further similarities include Image Stabilization, along with negative points like the plastic (rather than metal) mounting plate, the lack of a focus distance scale and the fact that you have to pay extra for a lens hood.
The autofocus system isn't blindingly fast but that's no real problem in landscape photography. The STM system enables smooth and precise 'fly by wire' manual focusing which is driven electronically. Image Stabilization lives up to its 4-stop claim and is useful for handheld shooting of movies, as well as stills.
Levels of sharpness edge ahead of Canon's pricier 10-22mm lens, and colour fringing is better controlled at short to mid zoom settings. Overall performance is very good, making the lens outstanding value at the price.
CANON EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM £380/$650
Canon's first ever APS-C format wide-angle zoom still has something to offer, with high-end features
Nearly 12 years old, this was Canon's first wide zoom lens for APS-C format cameras, yet its up-market design features a ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system with a rearward focus ring and a focus distance scale beneath a viewing window. It's reasonably compact and light at 84x90mm and 385g.
The 'effective' zoom range is 16-35mm which is something of a classic for Canon wide lenses. As you'd expect, the maximum viewing angle of 107.5 degrees (measured on the diagonal) is identical to that of the Canon 10-18mm. The minimum focus distance is pretty short at just 24cm, but doesn't quite equal the 22cm of the 10-18mm lens. It's not really an issue for landscape photography, unless you're trying to get extremely close foreground objects into the frame to exaggerate perspective.
Based on six, rather than seven, diaphragm blades, the aperture isn't quite as well rounded as in the Canon 10-18mm lens. The 10-22mm isn't quite as sharp either, but differences are generally marginal throughout the zoom and aperture ranges. Colour fringing can be noticeable at short to mid zoom settings but distortions are impressively low. Resistance to ghosting and flare is also good, helped by Canon's trademark Super Spectra coatings.
Barrel distortion is the major issue
Wide-angle lenses are notorious for barrel distortion, but this can switch to slight pincushion distortion as you zoom from the shortest to the longest zoom setting. In fact, distortion at a focal length of 24mm (18mm for APS-C) can be much less than when using a standard zoom at its shortest zoom setting. The Tamron 15-30mm and Sigma 12-24mm lenses exhibit the most severe barrel distortion, the latter also has the widest outright viewing angle.
CANON EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM £685/$1000
A relatively new lens, this one is aimed squarely at the professional landscape photographer
Canon also makes a 'faster' 16-35mm f/2.8L lens, but this is smaller, lighter, has a smaller 77mm filter thread, and adds image stabilization. This is a real bonus if you don't want to add a tripod to your load.
The lens is also lighter on your wallet, costing just two-thirds of the price of the f/2.8 model. Typical L-series attractions include a weather-sealed and constant-aperture design, so the widest f/4 aperture remains available throughout the entire zoom range.
Sophisticated optics include three aspherical elements, two UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) elements and Super Spectra coatings. Fluorine coatings are also applied to the front and rear elements, to repel moisture and ease cleaning.
The combination of short focal lengths and an f/4 aperture isn't ideal for minimizing depth of field but, even so, it's possible to blur the background at short focus distances down to 28cm, and the nine-blade diaphragm ensures a well-rounded aperture when stopping down.
The super-fast autofocus system isn't a necessity for landscape photography, but it's still nice to have. Sharpness and contrast are superb, while colour fringing is remarkably low and barely visible, even around high-contrast edges in the extreme corners of the frame. Overall, performance is simply fabulous.
CANON EF 17-40mm f/4L USM £500/$700
With up-market optics, this affordable old-timer can still hold its own against newer competition
Now 13 years old, the 17-40mm remains a sensible choice for use on full-frame cameras. It's good value for a weather sealed L-series lens and boasts many attractions of the Canon 16-35mm, with fast and quiet ring-type ultrasonic autofocus and an optical lineup that includes three aspherical elements. It's smaller and lighter at 84x97mm and 500g, but has the same 77mm filter thread size and comes complete with a lens hood.
Another similarity is that, while it technically doesn't have an internal zoom mechanism, the travel of the front element remains within the outer lens barrel, it therefore doesn't physically extend at any zoom setting.
The most obvious omission with this lens, compared with the 16-35mm is that it lacks image stabilization. With a shortest focal length of 17mm rather than 16mm, the maximum viewing angle is also reduced, at 104 degrees instead of 108 degrees.
Sharpness across the whole frame is very good, almost matching that of the Canon 16-35mm lens. Autofocus is similarly quick and quiet, with the usual full-time manual override that's available in ring-type ultrasonic systems. Overall, it's a very good landscape lens, but the lack of image stabilization and slightly reduced viewing angle makes it less desirable than the newer Canon 16-35mm.
SIGMA 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM £500/$700
This lens adds a real wow-factor to wide-angle viewing, showing you the bigger picture
Despite its extremely short 8mm minimum focal length, this is a rectilinear, rather than curvilinear (fisheye), zoom, and aims to keep distortions to a minimum, while delivering a jaw-dropping maximum angle of view of 121 degrees on the diagonal, making it the widest APS-C lens on test, by far.
The 8-16mm is actually the longest APS-C format lens in the group, but this is mainly due to the fact that the built-in petal-shaped lens hood is a permanent fixture and forms part of the outer barrel. It's a necessity to protect the very bulbous front element, which nears the forward edge of the hood at shorter zoom settings.
A downside of the built-in hood, also suffered by the Sigma 12-24mm and Tamron 15-30mm full-frame lenses, is that there's no attachment thread for adding filters. That said, the two-part lens cap does include a slip-over section, enabling you to use 72mm filters, but you can only do this at the long end of the zoom range, otherwise there's extreme vignetting.
Sharpness is impressive at the centre and pretty good even in the extreme corners, which is no mean feat considering the ultra-wide maximum viewing angle. A short minimum focus distance of 24cm enables really exaggerated perspective effects, and the lens maintains good control over colour fringing and distortions.
GOING OUT ON A LIMB
A pivoting centre column can help keep your tripod feet out of the frame
With extreme viewing angles on offer, especially from the Sigma 8-16mm (APS-C) and 12-24mm (full-frame) lenses, it can be difficult to keep your feet out of the shot. This is especially true if you need to angle the camera slightly downwards for a shot. An easy remedy in handheld shooting is to switch to Live View mode, and to hold the camera away from your body at arms' length. However, that's no cure if you're using a tripod, where it's equally easy to end up with the lower section of a tripod leg in the picture. Instead, try positioning the camera so that the lens extends from a mid-point between two feet, rather than directly over a single foot. Alternatively, some tripods feature a pivoting centre column (pictured), which can be useful for wide-angle shooting.
SIGMA 10-20mm f/3.5 EX DC HSM £330/$450
This Sigma is the only constant-aperture lens for APS-C format cameras in the entire group
Building on the success of Sigma's older 10-20mm f/4-5.6 lens, this newer model boasts a constant-aperture design. Like the Canon lens, as well as the other Sigma lenses on test, this one features a rapid and very quiet ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system. The complex optical path includes four aspherical elements, one SLD (Special Low Dispersion) element and two ELD (Extraordinary Low Dispersion) elements. The total count is 13 elements arranged in 10 groups, while the aperture is controlled by a fairly well-rounded seven blade diaphragm.
Unlike the Sigma 8-16mm and 12-24mm lenses, this one has a regular filter thread, although it's relatively large at 82mm, compared with the more normal 77mm of most other lenses in the group. It's a price you pay for the wider, constant-aperture design. The lens is also quite heavy for this class of APS-C optic, weighing in at 520g. That's more than twice as heavy as the Canon 10-18mm lens.
While centre-sharpness is no better than from the Sigma 8-16mm, corner-sharpness drops off more at the short end of the zoom range, which is disappointing, given the less extreme maximum viewing angle. In terms of colour fringing, distortions and other aspects of image quality, performance is very pleasing.
Keep an eye on the corners
Colour fringing, or lateral chromatic aberrations, can often be most noticeable towards the corners of images. An advantage of using Canon lenses is that fringing can be tuned out in-camera or with DPP. Most lenses exhibit more colour fringing at shorter focal lengths; the worst offenders are the Sigma 12-24mm (full-frame) and Tamron 10-24mm (APS-C) lenses.
SIGMA 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 II DG HSM £530/$950
Sigma takes the first prize for outlandish viewing angles once again, this time for full-frame cameras
With an astounding maximum viewing angle of 122 degrees on a full-frame body, this lens gives a practically identical ultra-wide view as the Sigma 8-16mm for APS-C cameras. It's certainly not a 'cheap' lens, but still looks great value compared with the Canon 11-24mm, which gives almost the same zoom range but costs an eye-watering £2,800/$3000. That's more than five times the UK price.
The Sigma 12-24mm has a high-quality feel and is well engineered. The zoom and focus rings are silky-smooth, and the lens feels chunky but not overly heavy at 670g. A downside for landscape photographers is that, like the Sigma 8-16mm, this lens has a built-in hood and two-stage cap that only enables the use of filters at the long end of the zoom range. This time you'll need larger 82mm filters.
Centre-sharpness at both ends of the zoom range is slightly better than from the Sigma 8-16mm lens, but corner sharpness is less impressive.
Despite the inclusion of four FLD (Fluorite Low Dispersion) elements and one SLD (Special Low Dispersion) element, colour fringing is slightly more noticeable. Barrel distortion at 12mm is pretty hefty but practically disappears at the long end of the zoom range. Image quality is remarkably good, given the extreme maximum viewing angle.
Most lenses in this test group have a 77mm filter thread. It's a smaller 67mm for the Canon 10-18mm lens, and a larger 82mm for the Sigma 10-20mm and 24-35mm lenses. Due to their built in hoods, the Sigma 8-16mm, 12-24mm and Tamron 15-30mm lenses have no filter attachment thread. However, the Lee Filters company makes an SW150 Mk II system, which enables filters to be fitted to the Sigma 12-24mm, Tamron 15-30mm and other ultra-wide lenses.
SIGMA 24-35mm f/2 DG HSM A £700/$1000
A 'three in one' zoom that goes all out for speed and quality, with a stunningly wide aperture
The idea behind this 'Art' series lens is that it emulates the quality and 'speed' of top-grade 24mm, 28mm and 35mm prime lenses, all wrapped up in the convenience and versatility of a single zoom lens package. As such, it has a fast, constant f/2 aperture that remains available throughout the entire zoom range.
The design incorporates a large-diameter aspherical lens at the front, an FLD (Fluorite Low Dispersion) element, and no less than seven SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements, of which two are also aspherical. All of this comes at a price, in terms of size and weight as well as cost, and the Sigma is relatively large and heavy at 88x123mm and 940g.
Further finery includes compatibility with Sigma's optional USB docking station for applying customization and firmware upgrades. Build quality is a cut above the other Sigma lenses in the group, with superb levels of craftsmanship and a fully internal zoom mechanism.
Image quality really does rival prime lenses. Sharpness is excellent, across the whole image frame, and throughout the zoom and aperture ranges. Colour fringing and distortions are well restrained and, while there's evident vignetting at f/2, it mostly dies away by the time you hit f/2.8. It's a top performer.
How about adding a prime to your collection of zoom lenses?
How about a wide-angle prime, instead of a zoom, for landscape photography? There aren't really any wide primes designed specifically for APS-C format Canon cameras, although the full-frame compatible Samyang 14mm maintains a fairly wide viewing angle. It's relatively inexpensive too, but is a manual affair without autofocus or camera-controlled aperture settings.
For full-frame cameras, a 20mm lens makes a good extension to the viewing angle of a 24-70mm or 24-105mm standard zoom. Choices include Canon's own EF 20mm f/2.8 USM at around £385/$540, and the excellent Sigma 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM A at £630/$900. If you really want to push the boat out, there's the even wider Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM at £1,530/$2,100.
TAMRON SP AF 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 Di II £350/$500
Big on zoom range, but this Tamron isn't the sharpest tool in the box and autofocus is distinctly low-tech
The 2.4x zoom range of this lens stretches a bit further than the other APS-C lenses on test, giving an effective 16-38.4mm in full-frame terms. Despite this, it's a smaller and lighter than the Sigma 10-20mm lens, at 83x87mm and 406g, and has a smaller and more common 77mm filter thread.
It's the only lens in the group that uses a basic electric motor. All others have ring type ultrasonic systems, apart from the Canon 10-18mm that has a silent stepping motor.
The Tamron's autofocus system is relatively noisy but reasonably rapid. Handling is impaired by the way the manual focus ring rotates during autofocus, so you have to be careful to keep your fingers clear. Full-time manual focus override is unavailable. Instead, you need to use the switch on the lens barrel to swap between autofocus and manual focusing.
Mechanically, the lens feels fairly well built but it's not weather-sealed and the focus distance scale is printed on the focus ring rather than being positioned beneath a protective viewing window.
Sharpness is a little lacklustre, especially towards the edges and corners of the frame. On the plus side, colour fringing and distortions are fairly low, and Tamron's proprietary BBAR (Broad Band Anti Reflex) coatings do a good job of reducing ghosting and flare.
Maximize depth of field and keep everything sharp
One of the great things about wide-angle landscape shooting is that the combination of short focal lengths and narrow apertures can give you an enormous depth of field, enabling you to keep close foreground objects sharp, while also retaining sharpness in the background, all the way to distant horizons. Try using an aperture of around f/11 to f/16, but be wary of extremely narrow apertures, as you can lose outright sharpness due to diffraction. Keep an eye out for slow shutter speeds and increase your ISO setting or use a tripod. A handy trick is to use a single AF point and autofocus on a point about a third of the way into the scene. This is because the depth of field tends to extend twice as far behind the focus point as it does in front of it.
TAMRON SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD £800/$1200
It's something of a whopper, with a seriously strong set of features and a price tag to match
Tamron's 15-30mm combines a wide-angle zoom range with a fairly fast f/2.8 constant aperture, VC (Vibration Compensation) stabilization and a USD (UltraSonic Drive) ring-type autofocus system.
In all, it has arguably the best overall feature set in this entire group of lenses. Further pro-grade credentials include weather-seals, to guard against the ingress of dust and moisture. A particularly well-rounded, nine-blade diaphragm is matched only by the Canon 16-35mm and Sigma 24-35mm lenses on test. A specially developed XGM (eXpanded Glass Molded Aspherical) element joins forces with several LD (Low Dispersion) elements, aiming to increase sharpness and reduce aberrations, while eBAND (extended Bandwidth & Angular-Dependency) and BBAR coatings are on hand to reduce ghosting and flare. A muck-resistant fluorine coating is also applied to the front element.
Sharpness and contrast are simply excellent, from corner to corner and throughout the zoom range. Colour fringing is well restrained and barrel distortion is only really noticeable at or near the shortest zoom setting.
The only upset for landscape photographers is that, like the Sigma 8-16mm and 12-24mm lenses, the permanently fixed petal shaped hood precludes the easy fitment of filters.
SLOW IT DOWN
High density neutral filters are ideal for creating motion blur
ND grad (graduated neutral density) filters are popular for balancing exposures between bright skies and relatively dark land, but you can replicate their effect by using the HDR (High Dynamic Range) shooting mode that's available in many of Canon's current and recent D-SLRs. This isn't true of high-density neutral filters.
These are available in circular (screw-in) or square options and enable long exposures, even on a bright, sunny day. They're great for applying motion blur to smooth the water in waterfalls and any watery surface.
|CANON EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM||CANON EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM||CANON EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM||CANON EF 17-40mm f/4L USM||SIGMA 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM||SIGMA 10-20mm f/3.5 EX DC HSM||SIGMA 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 II DG HSM||SIGMA 24-35mm f/2 DG HSM A||TAMRON SP AF 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 Di II||TAMRON SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD|
|EFFECTIVE FOCAL LENGTH (APS-C)||16-28.8mm||16-35.2mm||25.6-56mm||27.2-64mm||12.8-25.6mm||16-32mm||19.2-38.4mm||38.4-56mm||16-38.4mm||24-48mm|
|MAX ANGLE OF VIEW (DIAGONAL)||107.5 degrees (APS-C)||107.5 degrees (APS-C)||108 degrees (FF)||104 degrees (FF)||121 degrees (APS-C)||109 degrees (APS-C)||122 degrees (FF)||84 degrees (FF)||108 degrees (APS-C)||110.5 degreesc(FF)|
|DIAPHRAGM BLADES||7 blades||6 blades||9 blades||7 blades||7 blades||7 blades||6 blades||9 blades||7 blades||9 blades|
|MAX MAGNIFICATION FACTOR||0.15x||0.17x||0.23x||0.24x||0.13x||0.15x||0.16x||0.23x||0.20x||0.20x|
|AUTOFOCUS ACTUATOR||Stepping motor||Ultrasonic (ring)||Ultrasonic (ring)||Ultrasonic (ring)||Ultrasonic (ring)||Ultrasonic (ring)||Ultrasonic (ring)||Ultrasonic (ring)||Electric||Ultrasonic (ring)|
|AF MANUAL OVERRIDE||Full-time||Full-time||Full-time||Full-time||Full-time||No||Full-time||Full-time||No||Full-time|
|FOCUS DISTANCE SCALE||No||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|HOOD||EW-73C (option)||EW-83E (option)||Included||Included||Built-in||Included||Built-in||Included||Included||Built-in|
|DIMENSIONS (DIA X LENGTH)||75x72mm||84x90mm||83x113mm||84x97mm||75x106mm||87x88mm||87x120mm||88x123mm||83x87mm||98x145mm|
|BUILD & HANDLING||★★★☆||★★★★||★★★★★||★★★★☆||★★★★||★★★★||★★★★||★★★★★||★★★☆||★★★★★|
THE WINNER IS...
CANON EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM
Canon's new stabilized 16-35mm is a cracking wide-angle zoom for landscape photography
Back in issue 104, the Tamron 15-30mm won out in our group test of wide-angle zooms, but it's not perfect as a landscape lens. Its flaw is that to use all-important filters like ND grads and polarizers you need a special filter holder. By contrast, the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L is relatively compact and lightweight, is fully compatible with screw-in and square filter systems, and matches the Tamron's image stabilization for sharp handheld images without the need for a tripod.
On the APS-C front, the Sigma 8-16mm is highly desirable with its ultra-wide viewing angle but, again, it's difficult or impossible to use with filters. We'd go for the Canon EF-S 10-18mm, which offers very good image quality and is outstanding value for money.