This is a review of the 16-35 f/4L IS particularly geared towards landscape photographers. Whilst this lens could be used in many other ways it is landscape that I am interested in so please read all comments in that context.
Of particular interest to me is the performance comparison with the 16-35 f/2.8L II, which the 16-35 f/4L IS will replace. This is by far my most used lens, I use it for approximately 90% of my images.
Sharpness at 16mm
A lot of people will be looking at this new lens purely in terms of the sharpness improvements it provides. I have compared the new 16-35 f/4L IS with it’s two predecessors, the 16-35 f/2.8 II and the 17-40 f/4L (which is half the price). For good measure I have thrown in the king of ultrawide angles the 17mm f/4L TSE. Here is the sample scene showing the areas of the 100% crops.
At 16mm the 16-35 f/2.8L is already as sharp as it gets at f4. In fact if we look at all 4 lenses in this sharpness test they are all excellent in the center wide open. I really cant see any difference. They are all fantastic.
at 16mm corner sharpness of the 16-35 f/4L IS is better than the 16-35 f/2.8L II. At 16mm and f4 the newer lens is sharper than the f/2.8 lens gets at any aperture. At f11 it improves ever so slightly. It’s worth noting that in this comparison the 16-35 f2.8L II actually performs very well at f11. It’s not quite as good as the new lens or TSE but it’s still very good. This surprised me.
Don’t even think about comparing these zoom lenses at f/4. Both the 16-35 f/2.8 II and 17-40 are woeful by comparison.
The 16-35 is so good that it stands shoulder to shoulder with the 17mm f/4L TSE, I don’t think there is anything to choose between them.
In other words, at 16mm the new lens is sharp at 16mm across the frame at f4 and improves almost imperceptibly when stopped down. Proper sharpening would all but nullify this small difference.
Sharpness at 24mm
I regularly move between 16mm and 24mm for my wide-angle images. Sometimes zoom lenses are designed so that they look fantastic at the extremes (in this case 16mm and 35mm) but the performance at ‘in between’ focal lengths can drop off.
I repeated this test to be sure of the results. At 24mm the 16-35 f/4L IS is decent in the corners at f4 and very good at f11 (close to perfect). The old 16-35 f/2.8L pales in comparison, at f4 in particular it’s a complete train wreck.
In the center of the image the story is a little different. It’s hard to say for sure but I think the old f2.8 lens may be ever so slightly sharper. It’s difficult to separate sharpness from the contrast difference you can see. There is no doubt that the 16-35f4L has a slightly better contrast which you can see from the deeper blacks. This looks like a small difference and it is, but it helps to give the 16-35 f4L more of a 3D look. Any sharpness differences are once again incredibly small in the center, I wouldn’t pick one lens over the other based on center sharpness alone.
At f11 the 16-35 f/4L IS is super sharp from corner to corner. The contrast is also improved. Great news!
Sharpness at 35mm
At 35mm we see that the 16-35 f/4L IS is sharper and more contrasty all over the image by varying margins. The newer lens is as sharp in the corner at f4 as the old lens is at f11. It improves at f11 to become very sharp showing considerably more detail than the older 2.8 lens. In the center its a close call by the f4 IS is possibly slightly sharper. The contrast is noticeably better.
Contrast, Flare, Sunstars
The 16-35 f/4L IS has great lens coatings. Shooting into bright sources of light it is better than the older lens – notice immediately around the sun how the leaves are less effected by veiling flare. The incredibly long sunstar spikes of the old lens appear to be gone as well. Very occasionally these would make an unwelcome appearance in my images (example here), hopefully this minor issue is now gone.
You can also see some unwanted coloured flares from both lenses, I think they are tied in this respect. I very much doubt flare will be an issue with this lens.
The 16-35 f/2.8L produced the best sunstars of any wide-angle lens available. Its 7 blade aperture produces 14 point stars that have been a major draw for landscape photographers who enjoy shooting into the sun. The 16-35 f/4L IS produces slightly better stars. Its 9 blade aperture producing stunning 18 point stars. When the lens was announced I was slightly concerned they might overlook this small detail of lens design so I was very pleased with the results.
I have to say I was a little disappointed that this lens wasn’t f/2.8. I try to keep my camera kit to a minimum for backpacking and the 16-35 f/2.8L II worked as an adequate astrophotography lens. The newer lens is one stop slower (f/4). Lets see how it does….
The above comparison shows that using the old lens at f2.8 allows you to shoot at ISO3200 as opposed to ISO6400. As a result there is less noise (both images have basic noise reduction as well). What this doesn’t make up for is the heavy vignetting at f2.8 and the terrible astigmatism. The newer lens is clearly superior in the corners. Stopping the old 2.8 lens down to f4 only helps a little. Both lenses resolve the same amount of detail in the center. It’s hard to say which lens is better, but personally I would rather have a little bit more noise, less vignetting and nice stars in the corner.
The build quality is as good or better than any lens I have used. The focus and zoom rings operate smoothly. The lens size is pretty comparable to a 24-70 and not far off the old 16-35. The filter thread is 77mm.
Optically I haven’t discussed vignetting (much), distortion or bokeh. All I can say is vignetting is not a problem and has never been a problem for me, I haven’t looked at it in detail. I haven’t tested distortion, but it certainly isn’t objectionable. Bokeh is unlikely to be an issue with such a wide-angle lens, but it looks pretty good to me, here is an example:
I haven’t done any image stabilisation tests but the IS seems totally silent, I can’t hear it whirring like I can with my 70-200 f4L IS.
All images were shot with a Canon 6D, ISO 100, RAW, on a tripod with a 2 second timer delay and mirror lockup. No filters were used. Focusing was via live view on infinity.
Exposures were adjusted in Lightroom 5.4 where necessary to try to get a consistent brightness for the image comparisons (and counteract vignetting). Adjustments were set to Lightroom default values. White balance was normalised to 5500K with a tint of 0.
The 16-35 f/4L IS USM is the best ultrawide that Canon have produced. It even stands up against Canon’s flagship ultrawide for landscape photographers, the 17mm TSE.
Canon have finally addressed the primary issue with both the 16-35 f/2.8L II and the 17-40 f/4L – corner softness. The corners of the 16-35 f/4L IS aren’t perfect, but they are very good and significantly better than the two predecessors. At 16mm even wide open at f/4 the new lens surpasses the other two stopped down to f/11. it is equally impressive at 24mm and 35mm. I’ll be careful not to overstate myself here but stopped down I can’t imagine an ultrawide being much sharper. This lens might well be better than you are, I know that the only soft images I found were due to user error. Mount this lens on a tripod and focus carefully with live view and you will create beautifully sharp images.
The latest coatings have produced a lens with excellent contrast and flare resistance (although the 2.8 II or the 17-40 are also excellent). The sunstars are perfect, even better than the 2.8 II. It also does an adequate job as an astrophotography lens, a little bit better than the 2.8L II.
This is the ultrawide zoom that Canon landscape photographers have been asking for since the beginning of time. Who want’s to buy a 16-35 f/2.8L II……