Canon's TS-E 17mm lens offers a 104º angle of view on full frame.
Fox Talbot’s original Lattice Window shot, taken on his first mousetrap camera, used a lens angle of view similar to a 24mm on 35mm full-frame. Until handheld photography arrived and fast lenses were needed, 19th century photographers had few problems getting a wide angle of view. The simple Rapid Rectilinear lens was as good as a Super Angulon as long as you shot at f/22.
Handheld rollfilm and miniature camera systems saw such useful wide-angles disappear before WWII and remain the province of professionals using large plates or sheet film. After the war, ultrawides appeared for all formats from 35mm to 6×9, notably the Carl Zeiss Biogon and Schneider Super Angulon.
Since then, every major shift in camera technology has seen extreme wide-angles drop out of the catalogue for a few years. When single-lens reflexes replaced rangefinder cameras in the 1960s, it took 10 years for good retrofocus wide-angles under 28mm to arrive.
The arrival of AF systems after 1985 saw sub-20mm lenses disappear, though 17mms were by then common and Pentax had offered a top-quality rectilinear 15mm since 1976. Again, it took 10 years for wider angles to arrive and by then demand for zooms drove development. When 105° angles of view returned, it was in 17-35mm or similar options.
Prime ultrawide progress led to fast 14mm f/2.8 designs, and zoom development produced the Sigma 15-30mm and ultimately its unique 12-24mm, which remains the widest angle full-frame zoom made. Canon gave users a choice of 16-35mm f/2.8 or 17-40mm f/4.
Things changed with the shift (from 2000 on) to digital domination of the SLR market and the affordable APS-C or DX (1.6× to 1.5× factor) small sensor format. Though choice was limited, makers were now aware of the demand and moved to create ultrawide designs.
The launch of the Four Thirds format in 2005 by Olympus and fellow system consortium members saw a 7-14mm professional grade wide zoom planned from the start (equal to a 14-28mm full frame). It turned out to be as good as expected, with a price to match, and cheaper alternatives such as a 9-18mm followed.
In 2008, Tokina launched an 11-16mm f/2.8, restricted in focal length range but with a maximum aperture able to use the more accurate f/2.8-type AF sensors in advanced DSLRs. Since then, Tamron and Sigma have revised their designs to 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 and 10-20mm f/3.5 respectively, and Sigma has just announced an 8-16mm f/4-5.6 that’s the APS-C version of the full frame 12-24mm.
The same year, full-frame DSLRs moved out of the exclusively professional bracket (the Canon EOS 5D had started this trend earlier). Nikon ended its “DX-format only” approach with the FX-format D3 and D700, and simultaneously launched the 14-24mm f/2.8, a similarly fast and tight range zoom for full frame with an even wider angle. Sony, with the Alpha 900, brought a Carl Zeiss 16-35mm f/2.8 to the market equally quickly. Canon revised and upgraded its similar lens for the high resolution EOS 5D Mk II.
The Micro Four Thirds rollout, from 2008 onwards, has not so far seen the development of what many users want – a pancake prime wide, between 7mm and 10mm, ideally f/4 to f/2.8 in maximum aperture. Panasonic has a 7-14mm f/4 zoom but it loses the pocketability of these slim camera bodies.
There has been a clear shift in attitude from the camera makers, who in 1960 and 1985 were willing to let their new technology adopters wait a decade for the arrival of mainstream ultrawides. In 2000 it took half that time for APS-C ultrawides to arrive, coinciding with the arrival of consumer priced DSLRs.
Today, the premium quality ultrawide zoom – exemplified by the Nikon 14-24mm full frame and Olympus 7-14mm Four Thirds – is a must-have lens to accompany any change in format. It is no longer the part of the system that gets left behind for years.
New technology has created some oddities, like the Hasselblad 28mm for 645 digital format, which depends on software in-camera to yield straight-line geometry, or the Nikon 10.5mm, which is a fisheye design that can be turned into a straight-line wide using Nikon Capture NX in-computer. The same “lens mapping” allows DxO Optics Pro, and plug-ins like Panotools or Kekus Lens Fix CL, to fine tune the residual distortions of many wides and zooms for a near perfect rendering.
The current emphasis on improved quality and choice in wides may also be a reaction to retro trends. Cosina’s development of Zeiss and Voigtländer rangefinder lenses, including 12mm and 15mm Leica fit classics, was followed by the Zeiss manual focus SLR range for Nikon and now for Canon. Many users are happy to put up with manual focus and in some cases aperture setting just to get Zeiss Distagon 18mm or 21mm quality, and Robert White has done very well as importer to the UK of these niche market optics.
One thing is for sure, owning an ultrawide can no longer define your photographic style the way, for example, the Hasselblad SWC did for Bill Brandt in the 1950s, or the 21mm Leica lens for British design and architectural photojournalist Phil Sayer in the 1970s. Instead, the ultrawide is an essential part of your kit.
Top 7 ultrawides
Canon TS-E 17mm f/4 L
Offering a 104° angle of view on full frame, the Canon TS-E actually has a much wider image circle and permits ±12mm shift. Relative to the 24×36mm format, this is unprecedented; wide-angle shift lenses for rollfilm often do no more. Such wide lenses are often used in very tight situations, and the shift will allow a full third of the image height or half its width in rise or cross.
They are also used for extreme foreground-to-distance composition, and here a 6.5° tilt can put a tiny flower in focus with a mountain range in the distance. At more than £2000 it needs to be the ultimate ultrawide, and probably is.
Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 G ED AF-S Nikkor
This Nikon lens which, in 2008, set a new standard for sharp full-frame coverage corner to corner with acceptable wide open performance and clean geometry.
By opting for a restricted zoom range of only 1.71×, and accepting that the lens would be large and heavy, Nikon was able to design a zoom that matches the working quality of the best fixed focal length lenses within its range.
The short end at 14mm may only be 2mm less than a typical 16-35mm f/2.8 as offered by Canon, Sony and (for 2010) Tokina, but this equals an angle of view of 114° compared to 108°. It counts.
Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 EX DG Aspherical HSM
Now a relatively old design, though revised with new coatings and focusing, the Sigma remains the only wide angle (zoom or otherwise) to cover a 122° field on a 24×36mm format SLR.
Sigma was the first lens maker to design a wide-angle zoom, with its first 21-35mm in 1979, and the 12-24mm came 25 years later. It has surprisingly good geometry, illumination and corner sharpness at 12-16mm, but tends to lose overall sharpness at the longer end. Professional users treat the 12-24mm as a 12mm with bonus range, not a substitute for a regular 24mm.
Tamron SP AF 14mm f/2.8 Aspherical IF
Not yet updated from its 1999 launch design, the Tamron model 69E predated Nikon’s similar lens and has outlived the rival Sigma 14mm f/2.8, now discontinued. It has fairly strong distortion (moustache pattern) but good sharpness and illumination. The 114° view becomes usable corner to corner around f/8, while the fast maximum aperture makes this relatively compact 661g lens good for photojournalism.
Like the three lenses listed here so far, it has a convex front element and is not friendly to front fitting filters like grads or polarisers. Now only made in Nikon and Canon fit, it’s in demand on the used market in other fittings.
Sony Carl Zeiss 16-35mm f/2.8 ZA T*
Claimed to be the closest focusing fast wide-angle zoom, the Sony CZ design is substantial, but the 77mm front rim does accept filters (as do both the Mk I and Mk II Canon designs of the same specification). Very slim filters are required to avoid vignetted corners at 16mm.
Though extremely sharp centrally and giving good straight line coverage on APS-C, the full frame image shows the usual moustache distortion and a marked softening to the extreme corners, which is not completely eliminated on stopping down. In compensation, the image has a luminous 3D quality with high micro contrast, a hallmark of Zeiss design and coatings.
Tokina AT-X 116 Pro DX AF 11-16mm f/2.8
By following the same principles as Nikon (restrict the zoom range, don’t try to keep the lens small), Tokina has created what may be the best wide-angle for the APS-C/DX formats. A mere 1.45× zoom ratio and a conservative 30cm close focus let it cover between 82° and 104° with acceptable wide open sharpness, and near perfect coverage into the corners at f/8.
Distortion is closer to plain barrel than the normal moustache form, and is easily corrected. The 77mm filter thread is convenient for polarisers and grads, and the weight at only 560g is ideal for travel. A Pentax branded variant is made, and in 2010 Tokina will introduce a Sony Alpha version.
Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm f/4
The Zuiko 7-14mm, introduced in 2006, is in the “Top Pro” range for the Olympus Four Thirds system, which means it has even better water and dust proofing than Nikon’s 14-24mm. It has slightly more zoom range at 2×, but is half the maximum aperture at f/4 and this helps keep the size down to suit the highly portable format. Once again,
it’s a lens that does not welcome front mounted filters. Equivalent to 14-28mm or 75° to 114° coverage, it has distortion correction to professional level and sharp detail rendering into the corners. The squarer image shape of the format makes better use of the angle of view for many subjects.
I have selected the seven lenses from a range of systems and makers that are all mainstream. And perhaps Nikon’s newly announced 16-35mm f/4 VR, available later in the year, will match these – offering an image-stabilised, lower-cost alternative to the 14-35mm f/2.8, while matching the cost of competitor’s zooms.
Going beyond this, there is now a Samyang 14mm f/2.8 manual focus full-frame design that resembles the Tamron or Nikon superficially, at a fraction of the price; this will probably appear under Vivitar, Optek, Rokunon and other brand names in Canon, Nikon and Alpha mount.
Sigma’s older 10-20mm f/4-5.6 non-HSM design and new 10-20mm f/3.5 constant aperture HSM, together with Tamron’s original 11-18mm f/4.5-5.6 and new 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5, all offer APS-C/DX users low cost options that benefit from correcting software like DxO Optics Pro. The same applies to Canon’s 10-22mm and Nikon’s 12-24mm small format wide zooms.
Sigma ups the game in this field with the newly announced 8-16mm DC f/4-5.6, and we may well see something like an 8mm or 10mm f/2.8 prime for APS-C at the Photokina trade show in September. Nikon can be expected to respond to the Canon 17mm TS-E, and Canon to the Nikon 14-24mm.
There is, in the meantime, a pent-up demand for a neat and technically impeccable 17mm or 18mm AF full frame without distortion. The MF Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZE (Canon), ZF (Nikon) or ZK (K-mount) comes close in manual form, but it’s optimised for sharpness not perfect geometric drawing, and shows the usual hint of wavy horizon.
And there is one system you could be buying into, even today, where the ultra wide-angle option looks like lagging behind as it did in the past – the Leica S2. The launch set of lenses starts at no shorter than 35mm, which is equal to a mere 28mm on 24×36mm, with its 75° angle on 30×45mm.
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