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H2H Review: Canon Ultra-Wide Zoom Lenses

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  April 2, 2010 08:11 AM

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Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM vs. Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM

By Head2Head Reviews

We pitted two Canon ultra-wide zoom lenses against each other to see which produced the clearest, least distorted images.

The Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM goes for $1,699, while its dimmer cousin, the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, retails for $839. The focal lengths are very nearly the same, but one lens is twice the price of the other. The aperture on the pricey lens opens wider to let more light hit the image sensor. We wanted to know if the larger aperture translated to $1,699 of better performance, so we analyzed the two lenses head-to-head.

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The Body

The Canon 16-35mm lens is larger and heavier with measurements of 3.5 x 4.4 inches and a weight of 22.5 ounces. Some photographers have expressed the opinion that this is too bulky for a wide-angle lens, especially with the lens hood attached. It may take up a lot of real estate in the camera bag, but it handles well.

For some photographers, the 82mm filter diameter is a drawback. Most other Canon L-series lenses have a 77mm filter, including the 17-40mm lens that measures smaller at 3.3 x 3.8 inches and weighs less at 17.6 oz. The 77mm filters are less expensive and easier to find, while the 82mm filter size is shared by a small handful of Canon and Sigma lenses.

The Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens is the favorite when it comes to the well-sealed construction and substantial feel in the hands, but the 17-40mm f/4 makes a strong case for being so light and compact.

Performance

We used a Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera body and switched out the two ultra-wide-angle lenses to ensure unbiased and accurate results. We ran four tests: resolution, chromatic aberration, vignetting, and subjective quality factor.

For each test, we used shots taken with the aperture wide open and some with the aperture stopped down. We did this to bring out any vulnerability such as corner falloff or color fringing that most often appears with the aperture fully opened.

We also wanted to catch the lens at its best; many consider the setting two stops down from full-open to be the “sweet spot” in the center of the glass that doesn’t suffer from diffraction problems, as when the lens is stopped down further.

Resolution: We know that megapixels are mainly an issue with a camera, but we wanted to know how efficiently the lens transmitted the details and contrast of a scene. With the Canon 17-40mm lens opened to its widest f/4, it showed more definition of edges and better contrast than its pricier counterpart. However, when the 16-35mm was set to f/4.5 and the 17-40mm set to f/6.3, the pricier 16-35mm lens produced sharper images.

Chromatic aberration: The effects of chromatic aberration can be seen on the edges of sharp borders, usually as a bleeding stripe of blue or purple. This is caused by the different wavelengths focusing on different spots on the image sensor. In our testing, the two lenses performed similarly when the aperture was opened fully. Both had the most problems with the blue wavelength. With the lenses stopped down, the 17-40mm held its colors together the best. The 16-35mm lens showed improvement at f/4.5 compared to its performance at f/2.8, but it still couldn’t beat the 17-40mm at f/6.3.

Vignetting: The two lenses transmit light in very different ways, producing very different results in this category. The 16-35mm lens has more even overall coverage, but more noticeable vignetting in the corners of the images. The 17-40mm lens, however, has a more gradual fade that begins more centrally and still leaves noticeable darkening in the corners.

Subjective Quality Factor: This is a “test” that combines results from the other tests we performed and takes into account human vision and perception. With the lenses wide-open as well as stopped down, the 17-40mm lens scored better.

Conclusion

The two Canon lenses have similar wide-zoom specs with 16-35mm and 17-40mm focal lengths. The 16-35mm lens has a fast f/2.8 aperture and a more favorable lineup of glass: 16 elements in 12 groups. The 17-40mm has a slower f/4 maximum aperture and 12 elements in 9 groups.

The 16-35mm has the more impressive specifications, but those don’t translate to superior performance. The only area where the 16-35mm lens dominated in our head-to-head review was in resolution testing, and only when the lens was stopped down to f/6.3. The 17-40mm performed extremely well in almost every test, and costs about half as much as the 16-35mm.

The pricier lens justifies its cost with its larger f/2.8 aperture, but if you don’t need the extra light, the Canon 17-40mm lens is the better buy with its solid output and performance.

For more details about the lenses and testing, read the full review on Head2Head Reviews.


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