The Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM ($1,699 direct) is a 2.2x zoom lens, compatible with both Canon APS-C and full-frame cameras. Even though its zoom range is limited, the change of field of view from 16mm to 35mm is a drastic one. The lens is sharp throughout its zoom range, though you’ll need to stop it down a bit if edge performance is a concern, and there’s some distortion that goes hand-in-hand with an ultra-wide zoom. It’s more expensive than the competing Nikon AF-S Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED, but it is a bit wider and it captures more light at every focal length.
The lens is rather squat, measuring 4.4 by 3.5 inches (HD) and weighing in at 1.4 pounds. The front element is large, there’s an 82mm filter thread, and the lens doesn’t change length when zooming. The lens hood is included, and is reversible so that the lens won’t take up a ton of room in your gear bag. The zoom ring is at the base of the lens, and a large manual focus rests behind the front element. The minimum focus distance is about 11 inches.
I used Imatest to check the sharpness and distortion characteristics of the lens when paired with the EOS-1D X. At 16mm f/2.8 it notches a center-weighted score of 2,137 lines per picture height, well in excess of the 1,800 lines that we require of a sharp image. Edges are a little soft at 1,585 lines, but improve to 1,784 lines at f/4. You’ll get the best sharpness at f/5.6, where the center-weighted score is 2,298 lines and the edges are 1,876 lines. Barrel distortion is noticeable here, about 3.2 percent, which makes curved lines appear to curve outward, and corners are a bit darker than the center of the frame. You can correct this in software; the latest version of Lightroom has a profile for this lens for one-click corrections, and you have the option of applying corrections manually if you prefer.
Zooming to 24mm changes the distortion to pincushion, where lines curve in, but it only show about 1 percent. Sharpness is impressive at f/2.8—1,939 lines—and edges are about the same at the wide-angle, 1,573 lines. Stopping down to f/4 improves edge performance to 1,864 lines, and once again the lens is best at f/5.6. At that aperture it scores 2,454 lines across the frame, with edges that top 2,100 lines.
At 35mm the lens shows its weakest performance. There’s 1.6 percent pincushion distortion here, and the center-weighted sharpness score is just 1,803 lines, with edges that are quite soft—1,159 lines. Stopping down to f/4 offers very marginal improvements, but shooting at f/5.6 brings the overall score up to 2,139 lines and edge performance up to 1,601 lines. At f/8 the lens is sharp from edge to edge—2,290 lines using the center-weighted methodology with edges that approach 2,000 lines. Overall the lens is a better performer than the lesser-priced Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM—its edge performance at 17mm is very disappointing.
The Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM is an excellent choice if you’re in the market for an ultra-wide angle zoom lens for Canon cameras. The f/2.8 aperture captures a good amount of light, ideal for photographers who need to cover events, and the 16mm perspective allows you to squeeze a lot into your frame. Its edge performance at 35mm is a little disappointing, but it’s impressive at wider angles, especially when stopped down just a little bit. If you’re on a budget, the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM is another option at roughly half the price. That lens suffers from poor edge and corner performance at its widest angle, and is only capable of capturing half the light as the 16-35mm, but if you’re not overly concerned with edge-to-edge sharpness and you can live with the narrower aperture it’s a good value option.
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