Ultra wide angle: no silver bullet for full-frame cameras but a hell of a choice

Over the last years, beside the usual lenses proposed by the main cameras’ manufacturers,quite a few independent lens makers have developed a very interesting and complementary offer when it comes to ultra-wide lens (21 mm, or less, for full-frame sensors). So, if you are looking for such a lens, you have quite a few options whatever your camera may be.

I am not considering in this article any fish eye, but only rectilinear ultra-wide angle, and only for Full-frame sensors, not APS-C even if the rationale looks the same for them.

That said, Nikon and Canon DSLR mounts are going to be a kind of obsolete with the raise of their mirrorless products line, long awaited, and so will be most of their lenses. But for now, we still need to live with the “old” DSLR mounts for Canon and Nikon as most of their lenses are not yet available for the mirrorless bodies. Sony users certainly have an advantage from that perspective.

The goal ofthis article is certainly not to be another one reviewing lenses or being exhaustive but more to highlight a new world we are living in, with a lot of choices. To choose is to sacrifice and I wanted to focus on a few important questions and what it means for the lens’ choice.

As expected, I can’t say there is a silver bullet, depending on the purpose of your lens. What really matters to you? When it comes to define what is really needed, the list is becoming a little bit long due to the possibilities offer by the different manufacturers:

  • Why do you need an ultra-wide lens?
  • Do you really need a zoom, or a prime lens will do the job?
  • How important is the maximization of the field angle? (I mean is 20 mm enough or the widest is still not wide enough)
  • Do you need a front filter?
  • How much important the weight will be?
  • How much important the size will be?
  • Are you on a budget or is it a detail?
  • If you need a zoom, do you really need to go up to 35 mm? (beyond wide angle)
  • Do you need image stabilization?
  • How important a fast lens will be?
  • Do you need weather sealed lens?
  • Mechanics must be built like a tank or plastic is fine?
  • Are you really caring of lenses sharpness? (most of the time too much considered for the usage we do)

Depending on your answers, the choice will narrow done dramatically.

You can find a lot of tests and advice on the topics, below some good links:

Techradar: the best wide-angle lenses for Canon and Nikon DSLRs in 2018

Lenstip: quite extensive in the list, but not in the tests’ depth and details

Ken Rockwell: ultra-ultra wide lenses (Nikon only), and Nikon Ultrawide FX Zooms (actually not only the zooms, but Nikon Only)

DXO Mark (chose first zoom1-35mm, then primebelow or equal to 21 mm)

Optical Limits (formerly known as Photozone): very extensive as usual for both the zooms and the primes.

But let me share with you my opinion on most of them to complement the usual tests:

First and foremost, we can’t get all at the same time, again we can’t have a silver bullet (at least there is none so far, or please let me know):

  • I fyou need a zoom, I would say it should be up to 35mm, it will be heavy, and not so fast. Why 35mm? Because your zoom will be able to both shoot as an ultra-wide angle and as a standard lens. E.g., zoom which goes up to “only” 24mm are useful but not that much from my experience and by design. 24 mm is still wide angle and most of the time, when you need wide angle, you need very wide angle… So, you will occasionally if not rarely shoot at 24 mm with such a zoom. 35 mm is different because you can start to use your zoom not as a wide angle one. Above 35mm, it is very rare to find such a zoom being at the same time able to provide a very wide-angle focus.
  • If you need a light lens, or a compact lens, it is very likely to be a prime. This is obvious.
  • If you need a front filter, you may have to forget the shortest focal lens (typically 16 mm or under). This question can become emotional for many, but again, be clear on your needs.
  • If you don’t really need AF, and that’s likely with such lenses, it will broaden the choices with very interesting options.
  • If you need a lens not so sharp or not so fast, what is the point to have a DSLR?  With the raise of computational photography and the progresses done by smartphones, you should really be demanding on your full frame lenses.

They may not be my favorite choices for shooting ultra-wide but below a few exotic lenses that I liked for stepping out of the crowd:

Irix 11 mm: really an ultra-wide-angle lens, non-AF (not really a problem most of the time for this focal), solid, heavy, aiming at providing sharp images.

Tokina 17-35mm f/4 PRO FX: if you are on a budget but do need an ultra-wide zoom. No image stabilization, AF motor not silent but certainly a decent lens for a bargain price compare with the main brands.

Sigma20mm f/1.4 DG ASM “ART”: great lens, expensive, bulky, heavy, no weather sealing but excellent quality and super-fast. So this lens is a match you need 2/3 EV faster at 20 mm (not sure it worth it for most cases but if you need a f/1.4 ultra-wide angle, you have a winner I am not sure you have even another one to compare which can be as open as f/1.4)

No more reason left for buying an APS-C DSLR?

A few years ago, the main reason to buy and use DSLR where mainly the following:

Better images quality

Optical view finder
Great control of the depth of field (thanks to bigger sensor and faster lenses)
Better controls and ergonomics
Faster AF and many images per second
Access to a full photographic system of lenses, flashes and other accessories

Nowadays, thanks to enhanced sensors, mirrorless cameras, miniaturization, specialized cameras for every kind of photographers, most of these reasons have become less and less true. Of course it still makes sense for some professional photographers, of course I and many amateurs still prefer shooting with a DSLR but as a matter of fact, I like to say the main reason to still go for such a camera is: “I don’t want to compromise”. “I accept to pay a lot, to carry a heavy bunch of gear, to have several bodies and many lenses and accessories, because I will also accept to spend hours on post processes of my images. All I want is the best gear available to let me have the pictures like I want to”.

comparison full frame APS CThis means an  APS-C sized sensor (DX for Nikon) DSLR does not make sense any longer but for those who never tried beforeap one (like a Nikon D3200 which costs less, by far, than a mirrorless whereas able to make really excellent images). Frankly – I own a Nikon D7000, I don’t see the point having nowadays a DX DSLR when you are an “experienced” photographer. Full frame (FX for Nikon) cameras are becoming really affordable and are somewhere, the only consistent option for a DSLR given the present competition of great mirrorless cameras and excellent compact cameras. Back to before 2000, at this time, only such cameras existed!

It does not mean the manufacturers will stop developing lenses for DX, nor will stop releasing new cameras (Nikon refreshed its D7000 recently by the D7100), I just don’t recommend investing into a DX DSLR system. If you have one – like me – you can still use it a secondary system, or because it still works very well but the DX time, basically, sounds to be over to me. Buy FX DSLR cameras if you want no compromise, and middle format should you be able to afford it. Again, if you are on budget, a DX DSLR could be your first DSLR, but it will just be “temporary”. And don’t forget mirrorless, compacts and smartphone as complementary but “mandatory” cameras.

Nowadays, it does not really make sense to own just one camera. And certainly not a DX DSLR!

Further reading:
Why DX has no future
Full frame war
Full frame goes mainstream