The wide angle lens – a piece of equipment that is a staple for every photographer that specializes in landscape, architecture, or real estate. These lenses have a shorter focal length that allows the photographer to “take it all in” or create unique and unusual perspectives. Canon makes a variety of wide angle lenses to suit nearly every need – from the ultra wide 8-15mm Fisheye to the 35 f/1.4L, which borders the “normal” lens category. Note that a wide angle lens on a full frame camera will not seem nearly as wide on an APS-C sensor camera due to the 1.6x field of view crop factor, and as such, recommendations will be different for each sensor size. But as always, use a lens that has a comfortable focal length for you – don’t force yourself to use a shorter or longer lens if you don’t like the results.
Full Frame Wide Angle Zoom Lenses
There are two zoom lenses from Canon that both offer very good results. The 16-35mm f/2.8L II, and the 17-40mm f/4L. Each lens produces excellent images, although I give the slight advantage to the 16-35. Obviously, the 17-40 covers more ground, even going into the normal range of focal lengths, although it isn’t quite as wide as the 16-35. Remember that when talking about ultra wide focal lengths, the difference between 16mm and 17mm is much more apparent than say, 200mm vs 201mm. Both being L lenses, they are both excellent choices. The 16-35 is a fair bit more expensive, but it is also a full stop faster, and has slightly better image quality. If you’re on a stricter budget, the 17-40 makes an excellent choice. Having a wide angle zoom lens is great because it’s much more versatile than a prime lens – although it comes with the tradeoff of being not as fast (f/2.8 or f/4 vs the f/1.4 of the 24L or 35L) or not quite as sharp due to more complex optical designs of zoom lenses.
If you’re using an APS-C sensor SLR, I’m afraid your ultra wide options aren’t nearly as extensive as with a full frame. Canon makes an excellent zoom offering: the EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5. This is one of my favorite lenses on a crop body. Its field of view is comparable to that of the 16-35 on a full frame sensor – and while not as fast, it produces excellent results. They’re not quite on par with the two L zooms mentioned above, but it still produces excellent results. It’s also smaller and lighter due to less material needed to cover the smaller sensor size. Build quality is good, and images are impressive. I’ve had a hard time determining if a photo was taken with the 10-22 on a 7D or the 16-35L on a 5D Mark II. Only upon close inspection do the differences become apparent. As far as prime lenses are concerned, the only EF-S prime they have is the 60mm macro, which is a far cry from a wide angle. Any of the EF prime lenses mentioned above will mount to an APS-C SLR, but the field of view will be 1.6 times that of using the same lens on a full frame. For instance, a 24mm lens on a full frame will have the field of view of a 38mm lens when using a 1.6x crop sensor, so what may be a wide angle on a full frame will not appear to be as wide as on the smaller sensor.
Full Frame Wide Angle Prime Lenses
Canon makes many lenses that have a wide perspective for a full frame sensor. Starting with the shortest focal length (not including fisheye lenses – more on that in a bit) is the ultra wide 14mm f/2.8L II. This is an excellent quality lens that produces images that have very good contrast, color, and sharpness, even at the corners. It has a built in lens hood, and thus cannot accept screw-on filters, although it does have a gel holder on the rear of the lens. If you’re looking to purchase your first wide angle lens, I would not necessarily recommend the 14L – while its image quality is truly superb, it is very expensive, specialized, and not nearly as versatile as some of Canon’s other offerings.
Moving up from the highly specialized and expensive 14L, Canon makes several lenses that are “around” the same focal length – a 20mm lens (20mm f/2.8 USM), three 24mm lenses (24mm f/1.4L II, 24mm f/2.8, and 24mm f/2.8 IS), and three 28mm lenses (28mm f/1.8, 28mm f/2.8, and 24mm f/2.8 IS). Out of these seven lenses, I wholeheartedly recommend the 24L – the image quality and build quality that come with an “L” series are both excellent, it’s sharp, has great color, contrast, and bokeh. It’s also one of the fastest lenses they make, with a maximum aperture of f/1.4. It is expensive, however. If it’s out of your budget range, the 28mm f/1.8 is an excellent alternative. It’s about 1/3rd the cost, and less than a full stop slower, and its images are also very good. Although it is 4mm longer, which makes more of a difference on wide lenses than on longer lenses. It’s not quite on par with the 24L in terms of image and build quality, but it still produces very good results. Less expensive options in this class would be the 24mm f.2.8 and 28mm f.2.8. The 20mm f/2.8 fits the bill if you want something a little wider, although this lens suffers from heavy vignetting that becomes reasonable only when stopped down to f/5.6 or so. None are bad lenses by any means, but at f/2.8, they’re simply not as fast as the 24L or 28 f/1.8. The two other lenses mentioned, the 24 f/2.8 IS and 28 f/2.8 IS are both brand new offerings from Canon, and not available to purchase yet. Based on their slower apertures and addition of image stabilization, however, I gather they are designed more with videographers than still photographers in mind, but I predict they will still be perfectly capable of producing quality still photos.
Two 35mm prime lenses round up the wide angle lineup from Canon. The 35 f/1.4L and the 35 f/2. The 35L is most decidedly the better option when it comes to image quality, build quality, and speed. It’s a favorite lens among many photographers I know, and happens to be one of my favorites as well. Like the 24L, it bears Canon’s L series’ red ring, and its images demonstrate it nicely. They are sharp from edge to edge, great color, contrast, bokeh, and very fast at f/1.4 – everything you would expect from a lens of this price. Canon also makes a much less expensive alternative, the 35 f/2. And while it’s not really in the same league as the 35L, its images are still good. It’s small, light, and a good value. Its AF motor is non-USM, so it’s louder and “buzzier” than other lenses. Its sharpness is very good in the center, but falls off towards the edges, unlike the 35L. It also has fewer aperture blades, so out of focus regions will look choppier than the 35L. Then again, it is far less expensive, so we shouldn’t expect the same results.
Specialty Wide Angle Lenses
The fisheye lens is great fun to play around with, although not necessarily very practical. What a fisheye lens does is forego the rectilinear perspective, and instead uses a different mapping to create distorted images with curved lines – think ultra, ultra barrel distortion. There are two types – circular, which creates a circular image within the frame that has a 180 degree field of view – and full frame, which covers the entire frame edge to edge. Canon makes two fisheye lenses, the 15mm f/2.8, and the 8-15mm f/4L. The 15mm acts as a full frame fisheye on a full frame sensor, and will look much less “fishy” on a 1.6x sensor. The 8-15L is an interesting lens. It is a zoom fisheye, which is abnormal in itself, but at 8mm, it acts as a circular fisheye on a full frame, and when zoomed to 15mm, acts as a full frame fisheye. On a crop sensor, 8mm covers the entire frame, and 15mm again, the distortion is less apparent. The fisheye lens is highly specialized, and good for few real applications. They’re definitely fun to play around with, though.
Canon also makes two wide angle tilt-shift lenses – the 17mm f/4 and the 24mm f/3.5. These lenses are very specialized, and also expensive. They imaging circle with a tilt-shift lens covers more area than that of a normal lens, allowing you shift the imaging circle relative to the camera’s sensor with a shifting movement. And a tilting movement allows you to control the plane of focus. If you aren’t already sure that you need one of these lenses, then it’s probably not for you. As I mentioned, they’re highly specialized (great for architecture), and expensive.
Whichever wide angle lens you decide to buy, be aware of when to use it and when to use something else. They’re great for landscapes, architecture, and getting everything to fit inside the frame. They’re not the best choice for portraiture due to their distorted perspectives, and obviously if you’re too far from your subject, they will appear very small. But the wide angle lens has a place in nearly every photographers’ bag – they’re a great addition regardless of what type of photography you do.