Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Review
September 29th, 2014
Out of the Blue
I participate in a few Canon communities on the internet, and the rumor mill is continually at work in these environments. People who love gear love to see new gear released. They will argue the merits and shortcomings of gear they have never used (and often don’t even exist) with both passion and profanity. But recently Canon has been surprising us all. It surprises us by the lenses that it doesn’t announce and also by the lenses that it does announce. The rumor mill ranged from the hoped for (an equivalent to Nikon’s excellent AF-S Zoom Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED AF Lens), rumored (a 17-50mm f/4L IS), or the expected (a MKIII version of the 16-35 f/2.8L). Canon released none of those. What it did release (with very little prior announcement) was this lens, the extremely capable EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens.
This announcement wasn’t as exciting as some of the hoped for options, but when the early MTF charts and sample images started to show up, people began to get a lot more excited. Canon has been on a roll of producing very well rounded lenses with strong performance as of late, and this lens is no exception. It is somewhat of a hybrid between Canon two previous L series wide angle zooms (the EF 17-40mm f/4L and the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II), adopting the aperture of the former and the focal length of the latter. It also adds an extremely effective image stabilizer into the mix, which for many helps to ease the sting of the aperture being only f/4. But the word on the street from both users and professional reviewers is pretty much unanimous: this is the best wide angle zoom that Canon has ever produced.
In what was a bit of a nice surprise, the lens actually came with a reasonable price tag. $1199 places it solidly in between the prices of the two previous zooms ($839 for the EF 17-40mm f/4L and $1699 for the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II). One must also consider that these lenses have been on the market for many years, and during that time their price has dropped somewhat, so the new lens hit a pretty nice price point for a new release – particularly since it includes an image stabilizer. The surprise was that Canon’s recent offerings (while excellent) have all come with a serious bit of sticker shock. The most egregious was last year’s EF 24-70mm f/4L IS, which has since dropped to near half it’s initial release price. Kudos to Canon for positioning this lens in the “fair” range, and I suspect that it will result in strong sales right out of the gate.
Build Quality and Design
If you have bought a higher grade Canon lens in the past five years the build quality should be no surprise to you. It is the same mix of some metal bits encased in a lightly flocked, matte finish, high quality engineered plastic body. It looks very similar to several other lenses in my kit. Like the previous wide angle zooms it is weathersealed (hugely important in a landscape lens) and is complete with a rubber gasket around the metal bayonet mount. Note that a protection filter of some kind is required to complete the sealing. It is also both an internally zooming and internally focusing lens. It’s length will not change during either focus or zooming – what you see is what you get in all situations. It’s design ethos is actually most similar to the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II , with a barrel that tapers in a similar fashion with the focus window and switches in a similar place between the zoom and focus rings.
It is actually longer than either of the two previous wide angle zooms at 4.44″ (112.8mm), although this is just a milimeter longer than the 16-35mm f/2.8 @ 111.6mm). It is a bit lighter than that lens (1.35lb/615g vs. 1.4lb/635g). The 17-40L is both smaller (3.81″/96.8mm) and lighter yet (1.05lb/475g). The new 16-35mm f/4L IS is not a small lens, but it balances nicely on a full frame body and doesn’t feel particularly heavy. Both the zoom and focus rings are nicely damped. Nothing beats an internally zooming lens for smoothness of zoom action, though the weight here is slightly heavier than, say, some of the 70-200mm variants. The focus ring is particularly nice, though: very smooth and nicely wide. It doesn’t feel like an afterthought, which isn’t always true on an AF lens.
The all-important red ring is at the end of the barrel, although if your self-esteem rides on having that red ring you may need therapy. Beyond that is a 77mm filter thread (plastic). Those that have invested in the larger 82mm filters that fit the 16-35mm f/2.8 or the 24-70mm f/2.8 might be disappointed, but 77mm is an extremely common size and the filters are a bit cheaper than 82mm. The ability to use traditional filters is a pretty huge plus here. Some wide angle lenses have a bulbous front element that precludes the use of traditional filters. The front element (and rear element, too) has a flourine coating that helps reduce ghosting and also makes the lens surface easier to clean. There are 16 elements in twelve groups here, and Roger Cicala from LensRentals has some very positive things to say about the construction of the lens after a breakdown. Check out this great article called, “Of Course We Took One Apart“.
Finally comes the included lens hood, which is a serious improvement over either of the other Canon wide angle zooms. First of all, this petal shaped hood actually extends far enough that it might provide some real shading for the lens. Secondly, it doesn’t spread so wide that storage becomes as issue. It can be reversed and easily stored. This was not the case with either of the other two zooms, and many users (like myself) ended up leaving the lens hood at home most of the time. This design is far more practical. It also locks into place and needs to be released by pressing a button on one side (a design introduced on the 24-70 f/2.8 II). This keeps the hood from being jarred and moving to a place where it would create some shading of the actual image.
The lens cap is one of Canon’s new vastly improved center-pinch caps that both looks and performs better than the older design. It feels well made, unlike some pinch caps that feel somewhat loose and cheap in their design. The lens also included one of Canon’s little drawstring pouches, which, frankly, have next to zero value for me. I’m not currently using any of them because they provide little protection – maybe your experience is different. I would greatly prefer one of Sigma’s padded cases or a LowePro lens case.
AF and Image Stabilizer
Autofocus (AF) is as you would expect from Canon’s premium line. It is extremely quick, very accurate, and quiet. It is not, however, silent, and I was somewhat surprised by the little “shick” sound the AF motor made when focusing. This could be an issue for video use, although photographers will quickly tune it out altogether (or just use that great manual focus ring!). The Image Stabilizer (IS) is also not silent, and you will hear a light humming/whirring sound when it is engaged. It is loud enough that you will always know when it starts and when it stops, and in this way it is slightly less refined than Tamron’s VC (Vibration Compensation) system. Both the AF and the IS are otherwise extremely competent, and both do their jobs very effectively. Focus is grabbed without hesitation, and focus accuracy is excellent. Both the nature of the wide angle focal length and the middling aperture make critical focus less difficult, but Canon has done a great job here nonetheless. AF Servo tracking is equally excellent. I don’t recall one rejected image because of missed focus during my review period.
Other than the slight objection to the noise level, I have no other complaints about the IS on the lens. Some might call IS unnecessary on a lens like this, and I would agree that IS is certainly more critical on a telephoto lens. But if you are like me, however, you don’t always have a tripod with you. The ability to handhold a shot like this one at .3 of a second and get a sharp result like this is a very valuable asset to me.
One could probably go even slower with good technique and get a number of keepers. This is practical value – I wanted some blurring of the water in this shot, and only low shutter speed would accomplish that.
The IS also helps compensate for the f/4 aperture, and that will help alleviate the concerns of some that may be coming from the 16-35mm f/2.8L. Finally, anyone that shoots video (at any focal length) will certainly appreciate the rock steady image that the IS helps provide.
Field Use and Optics
In the field the lens is a joy to use. Color rendition is excellent. That additional 1mm on the wide end is certainly more important than the lost 5mm on the long end (when compared to the 17-40L) in my opinion. 16mm provides a 108 degree angle of view that is nicely wide (though not as dramatic as my Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 and it’s nearly 116 degree angle of view). Don’t think of the focal range here so much as a zoom as a lens with different framing options. That “zoom” doesn’t get you a lot closer to your subject but it does allow for a variety of framing options.
The sharpness is a definite improvement here (over both the 17-40L and the 16-35 f/2.8), particularly starting mid frame and into the corners. The corners in particular show much more sharpness, less vignetting, and less chromatic aberrations. That’s what you call win win! The lens’ sharpness is already excellent wide open and only mildly improves when stopped down. There will be a bit less vignetting when stopped down, but this lens is seriously improved in that department already. Sharpness peaks around f/8, although the difference is so incremental as to only be noticed on a chart. This lens also shows good microcontrast, which also helps images appear crisp and sharp. There is really nothing to fault here. The lens is optically excellent. I have included a few full size samples for you to examine in detail in the lens gallery.
It also exhibits less chromatic aberrations and less coma (distortion of tiny bright points like stars) than its predecessors. It isn’t quite as good as the Rokinon 14mm in the coma department (or even the little Rokinon 12mm f/2.0 lens for the EOS M system that I have also just reviewed), but this is definitely a lens that can produce some killer night sky shots (though the ability to only open up to f/4 adds some challenge). I struggled to get good, clear night skies during my review period, but I got a few shots that show that the lens can produce nice looking starscapes, although it does lack the intense pinpoint detail that only lenses with super low coma can achieve. Knowing the lens’ excellent sharpness potential makes me suspect that infinity focus may come a bit before the hard stop on the lens, as I relied on the hard stop on the focus ring to achieve focus at night. If you are able to better achieve critical focus you may be able to produce better results that my examples (a darker sky with more contrast with the stars would help, too).
The lens can focus down to 11″/280mm, but the loss of the 5mm of focal length means that its maximum magnification is slightly less (.23x) than the 17-40L’s .25x. This is a great figure nonetheless, and means that you can nicely emphasize a subject while throwing the rest of the scene out of focus. This effect is obviously less extreme with an f/4 aperture than it would be with a larger aperture. In these rare cases when you are creating bokeh highlights the highlights stay nicely rounded due to the 9 rounded aperture blades.
I also find the lens produces very attractive sunstars when stopped down. This image shows a little extra ghosting because my CP-L filter is somewhat scratched, but it also really shows off the quality sunstar. This lens will produce a bit of ghosting in some situations, but it certainly isn’t extreme.
Distortion and Minor Quibbles
Any wide angle lens will have some distortion, and one quickly learns that the angle one shoots from will either exaggerate or diminish that distortion. This 16-35 f/4 IS does have some barrel distortion on the wide end, but as the brick wall test shows it also corrects nicely with a standard profile in either Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW. There is a small amount of pincushion distortion on the long end, but this would be near impossible to detect in field conditions.
Wide angle lenses take some practice, but that distortion can also be used in a creative fashion to emphasize things like the foreground.
The single greatest Achille’s heal for this lens is one shared with its f/4 predecessor: it is a little bit boring. It is extremely competent (and a serious upgrade from the 17-40L), but neither is it particularly exciting. My feeling about the 17-40L was that I liked it but did not love it. That is less the case here, but still somewhat true. The f/4 aperture limits creative options, and the angle of view isn’t wide enough for extremely dramatic shots. It is a top of the line Toyota: utterly competent, brilliantly engineered, completely practical, but perhaps lacking a little soul.
But I’m reaching here.
This lens is good…really, really good. It is so competent that you have to stretch to find criticisms. What is even more true is that this lens is going to serve hundreds of thousands of photographers around the world very, very well. I added a number of fantastic images to my portfolio during the review period, and I would have no hesitation to add this lens to my own kit as the primary wide angle option. If you are in the market for a new landscape lens, look no further. If you feel you need the f/2.8 aperture for event work or some other purpose, the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II may still be the better lens for you (I’ll also soon be testing Tamron’s newly announced SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD – should be interesting!). Many photographers have already embraced Canon’s newest wide angle zoom and have discovered that the EF 16-35mm f/4L IS is the lens they have been looking for from Canon for a long time!
• Excellent Canon L Series build quality (Roger over at LensRentals has good things to say about its internal construction as well.)
• Fast and highly accurate AF
• Well mannered and effective Image Stabilizer
• Sharp, sharp, sharp…even into the corners (which wasn’t true of previous WA zooms from Canon).
• Chromatic aberrations well controlled.
• Flourine coatings help with keeping the exterior elements clean.
• Well designed lens hood that is far more practical and functional than previous WA zoom lenses.
• Does a lot of things very well at a reasonable price
• Some will be limited by the maximum f/4 aperture.
• AF and IS are audible in operation – could affect video work.
• Not incredibly exciting????
Check out the Lens Gallery for many more photos and some full size samples.
Note: I reviewed a retail copy of the lens provided courtesy of B&H Photo. As always, I strive to be as objective and balanced as possible when doing these reviews. All of the photos in the review have been taken by me using this copy of the lens. Most all shown in the review themselves have received only minimal processing.
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