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Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L USM III - Ultra Wide Zooming in a Crowded City

Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L USM III - Ultra Wide Zooming in a Crowded City

Note to myself. Never do a lens review the day after coming back from a long haul flight. I am so jet lagged. But why is it that the UPS guy always delivers my back ordered stuff, while I'm away?

In any event, I finally got my Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L USM III. It was very exciting for me, because I never got the Mark II version of that lens, nor did I get the Mark I version either. Needless to say, I'm not going be able to do a comparison of the different versions - but that shouldn't be a problem, given that this is a Canon lens, and there ought to be oodles and oodles of photo reviewers reviewing this lens. But I'll save you a whole lot of trouble by telling you what you will discover in comparing this updated version with the previous versions. This latest version will resolve more details at higher resolution, and it is probably better with distortion. 

Anyway, back to my jet lag. There is a reason why I must mention it. In my obvious diminished capacity and my infrequent use of the Canon 5D Mark IV, I had somehow forgotten that the L aperture warning displayed on the top LCD screen meant "Locked". In other words, I couldn't shoot in manual mode, and ended up shooting mostly at ISO 100 and at a much slower shutter speed - in program mode. It was the only way to shoot at any other aperture setting than f/5.6 - albeit decided by the camera and not me. As a result, some images may have experienced some slight motion blur - which I am so so very disappointed at myself in causing - all because I had forgotten to slide that switch to unlock my camera's rear selector wheel.

Well, enough of my goof ups. Though on the bright side, most of my images will not be grainy!

ISO 100, at 28mm, f/2.8, and 1/800s. Some perspective distortion when the subject is not in the center of the frame.

ISO 100, at 35mm, f/6.3, and 1/200s.

ISO 100, at 28mm, f/7.1, and 1/250s. I cut off the feet to minimize the appearance of distortion.

ISO 100, at 35mm, f/7.1, and 1/250s.

Onto the review.

Because this is a Canon lens, I'm not going to discuss extensively about lens details and performance. That's what everyone else is going to do. I'll make some mention of it. But I'm not going to drone on and on about it. Instead, what I've decided to do is give myself a little bit of a challenge. The objective - to get as many shots of Anna without being photobombed by anyone, while still capturing enough of the background for an environmental portrait. I figure that would be more fun to do. And whatever I write about would be in support of what I did, and what I found out using this lens.

Hong Kong is a very crowded place. Getting photobombed is a fact of photographic life. You can get photobombed from behind the subject. But often times, you will be photobombed from in front of the subject. It's just something that one should expect. Thing is, the further away you are from the subject, the more likely you're going to be photobombed. People just don't care when they are in a hurry. And believe me, people are always in a hurry in Hong Kong, where the "time is money" mindset is the prevailing attitude.

Mind you, it's not as if my objective required me to use this lens specifically. I could have used an older version of this lens. Or I could have used the Canon 11-24mm f/4L USM lens. Or I could have even gone over to my Nikon and used the Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8ED lens. But since this Mark III version of the Canon 16-35mm lens is new, I think that there will be more people interested in seeing some sample photos from it.

ISO 100, at 28mm, f/3.5, and 1/60s. Very slight barrel distortion. Almost imperceptible. 

ISO 100, at 16mm, f/4, and 1/60s. Hand rail simulates the perspective lines, running towards the center - which is the vanishing point of the perspective lines. Shot at my eye level, resulting in distortion.

ISO 100, at 16mm, f/2.8, and 1/30s. Shot at Anna's eye level to minimize distortion.

ISO 400, at 16mm, f/3.5, and 1/640s.

ISO 400, at 35mm, f/3.5, and 1/320s.

The benefit of a wide zoom lens like this Canon 16-35mm is that it allows you to shoot closer. The obvious advantage is that people are less likely to walk in front of the subject, if you are shooting closer. Not so obvious, another advantage of an ultra wide lens like the Canon 16-35mm is how it compresses the image by making the foreground subject bigger while making the background content smaller. As a result, potential photobomb threats in the background are easier to hide behind the subject.

The main problem with shooting closer with an ultra wide lens is the distortion that you will encounter. The trick then is to figure out the best way to frame your composition, in order to optically minimize the appearance of the distortion on the subject - either by shooting from different angles or cropping out areas where the distortion is too extreme.

Thankfully with this Mark III version, there is only the slightest barrel distortion. In fact, if there aren't any vertical lines, it might not even be perceptible. What this means is that the perspective lines from this lens are extraordinarily straight. However, you have to be mindful of this distortion because it can still stretch the subject along those perspective lines. This is especially noticeable when the subject isn't positioned at the center of the frame. It is for this reason that the majority of my sample images has Anna in the middle of the frame, except for my first two test shots, where you can see a slight perspective stretch of her head (since she is just a tad on the left of center).

With the framing methodology sorted out and explained, the next thing to do is discuss a little about the lens itself.

ISO 100, at 35mm, f/5.6, and 1/80s. Christmas comes earlier without Thanksgiving, here in Hong Kong.

ISO 100, at 35mm, f/5.6, and 1/80s. The camera is angled down in order to reduce the amount of image capture above Anna's head. But as a result, the amount of distortion becomes exaggerated. 

ISO 100, at 35mm, f/5.6, and 1/40s.

Immediately coming to mind is the sharpness of this lens. It's really quite amazing at the 35mm end of the zoom range. However, sharpness from my assessment appear to taper off slightly, at the corners, the wider you go on the zoom range. The same can be said of vignetting. At 35mm, this lens seem to handle it well - even wide open. But it becomes more noticeable at the wider end, even when stopped down a stop or two.

As for the bokeh, it does look good at 35mm, when the subject is photographed up close. But at 16mm, and the subject shot further away, bokeh is non existent. In fact, it almost looks as if everything is in focus. So at the 16mm range, I can't even say that the bokeh looks bad, because there isn't any bokeh at all.

I didn't do any manual focusing, since Canon manual focusing will never feel good in the hands of a Leica photographer like myself. But the zoom ring felt nice and smooth.

ISO 100, at 16mm, f/3.2, and 1/50s. I was justifiably able to shoot straighter on at eye level, because the details above Anna looked interesting enough to document. Even so, I tilted the camera slightly, because I like the way the distortion tapers Anna legs near the bottom of the frame. The same is true for the next couple of images. 

ISO 100, at 16mm, f/3.5, and 1/60s.

ISO 100, at 24mm, f/4.5, and 1/80s.

ISO 400, at 16mm, f/4, and 1/500s.

Overall, I do like this lens. To Canon shooters, I cannot provide a recommendation on whether to get this lens or the previous version at a discount - whether still new or used. However, I suspect that this version is probably better, since I assume it can resolve details better at higher resolution. But compared to the Canon 11-24mm lens, this 16-35mm is far more useful. Unlike the 11-24mm lens, this 16-35mm takes filters, so you don't have to be as careful in handling. The 11-24mm is a bit of a prima donna, with it's bulging dome-shaped front element always at risk of being smudged without a filter protecting it.

In addition, the 16-35mm lens is not as enormous as the 11-24mm lens. Plus, the zoom range of the 16-35mm lens is much more useful than that of the 11-24mm lens. And last, you gain a stop of speed with the 16-35mm lens over the 11-24mm lens.

The Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L USM III is a great lens. Honestly, I find it to be extremely useful and versatile. It is basically a great 35mm lens that gives you that extra coverage of width when you need it. And because I was able to shoot pretty close, at 16mm, my objective to photograph Anna without any photobomb was successful. By the looks of my sample images, you'd think that Hong Kong isn't crowded at all!

ISO 100, at 16mm, f/2.8, and 1/100s.

ISO 100, at 20mm, f/2.8, and 1/100s.

ISO 100, at 35mm, f/2.8, and 1/60s.

ISO 400, at 16mm, f/2.8, and 1/400s.

ISO 400, at 35mm, f/2.8, and 1/160s. Bokeh is rendered reasonably well by the lens,

All images in this writeup have been optimize in Lightroom. And none of the images have been cropped. Why would I need cropping? I'm using a zoom lens and framing through the lens. It's not like I'm using a rangefinder!

Special thanks to my besty Anna, who was most tolerant towards my jet lag.

By the way, below are two bonus sample images comparing the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L USM III on the Canon 5D Mark IV with the Leica SL. The lighting situation was horrible in the restaurant, so both were shot at higher ISO and wide open at f/2.8.

Spoiler alert - I am of the opinion that this lens renders nicer with the Leica SL. There's more pink than orange - which is my preference for light skin tone.

Shot on the Canon 5D Mark IV

Shot on the Leica SL + Novoflex adapter. I think the color looks nicer on the Leica.

To be fair, I haven't had the opportunity to fully put this lens through its paces with the Leica. But from what I can see, it seems to work reasonably well under normal circumstances. However, I can't say I know how it would perform when the autofocus requirement becomes more demanding. Though to put things into perspective, it's not as if Leica has a 16-35mm f/2.8 lens.

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