Landscape photography, like the images you find here on my website, is about depth and dimension. If you are unaware of the world of wide angle lenses and you're thinking about spending some money on a serious piece of glass to spice up your photography, then a super wide angle lens could be something to greatly consider. Many of the classic seascape and landscape compositions I photograph are taken at a 21mm focal length or even wider, and it is the versatility of these focal lengths that give us the sense of place, that really pull our feelings into the image. There is plenty of choice on the market; Canon make a selection of wide angle prime lenses and zooms that can cater for all cameras - the 17-40 f4L and the 16-35 f2.8L mark II version are all favourites with photographers across the world. Many third party manufacturers are on the band wagon too, but there is a debatable quality and variation of these undoubtedly versatile zooms that have had full frame DSLR users returning to 15 year old prime lenses, dissatisfied with mushy corners, excessive chromatic aberration and optical distortion.
1DsIII and Nikon 14-24 f2.8
The Importance of Good Glass
Sensor technology is getting extremely good; cameras like the 1DsIII and the new 5DmkII can out-resolve most of the wide angle glass that is put in front of them. It is incredible to conclude that superb cameras will never see the full potential of the sensor if photographers stay with conventional wide angle glass. Like other users, I am always keen to experiment, and after I was introduced to using Contax lenses on my 5D, I discovered that a return to lens basics yielded better quality than I had ever seen before. I was amazed. A £200 Contax 35-70 f3.3 lens on a £4500 1DsIII? An unlikely marriage if ever there was one, yet this little zoom is as sharp as any prime in the same range, edge to edge at f5.6.
So why is there no truly impeccable Canon wide angle zooms? Good question and one I can't answer. The 16-35mkII is arguably only slightly better than the 17-40 f4L; for £900 that's a somewhat disappointing upgrade. What's also disappointing is that Canon do not make any exceptional super wide prime's between 15-24mm. Then there is Canon's copy to copy inconsistency, but that's another topic altogether. So last year when I began to read reviews of the new Nikon 14-24 f2.8, heralded as the new king of wide angles, I became increasingly interested.
Enter Mark Welsh from 16-9.net, commercial photographer, avid lens tester and no subscriber to camera convention. This documenter and optical judge whose website is full of mould breaking approaches, realised he could design a Nikon G converter for EOS mount cameras at the start of 2008. Word online quickly spread that Mark was marketing his adapter to fit this incredible lens on Canons new flagship 21mp camera the 1DsIII. His original Nikon 14-24 and Canon 1DsIII test pages produced compelling results to say the least. Was this correct? Edge to edge sharpness almost wide open? Read on...
Size comparison of the 17-40 and the 14-24
Adapting the Lens.
Here is Mark's 16-9.net adapter. Those of you familiar with any adapters will see it looks similar to many others. It has one side machined to fit the standard Canon EOS bayonet fit and the other side to fit the Nikon G mount. There is an Focus Confirm chip and contacts mounted on the Canon side so that the camera can 'confirm' when the lens is in focus. Just like Canon AF lenses, even when the lens is manually focused the red viewfinder lights flash to confirm focus lock.
The main difference between this design and the standard adapters is that the lens is designed to rotate independently of the adapter and this is how the aperture is set. The whole lens is turned to select which aperture is desired. There are three markings - white, green and red.
White = f2.8
Green = f8
Red = f22
You can see the small pin on the left hand side of the inner ring. As the lens is twisted the pin traps the tab on the lens and the aperture begins to close. There are no notches to click the aperture into like a conventional stopped down manual lens, which means use of the camera's metering system is essential to set a desired aperture. For this reason Mark has been designing a 'Levered Version' of the adapter to give users the option.
Setting the Aperture Using Camera Metering
With eight aperture stops to select within this range, then lens needs to be carefully twisted. The initial concerns about the adapter's operation was whether using the focus or zoom rings would twist the lens at the same time. This is not the case. The lens grips the adapter tightly enough for this not to be a problem whilst focusing / zooming. This can also be adjusted if the action is too stiff or loose at a later stage.
Now to set the aperture, it's not difficult in the slightest. Just like any manual focus / manual aperture lenses the approach to using them correctly requires a methodical set of steps that takes time to become instinctive. This is probably the main reason many modern digital photographers never pursue adapted lenses on their systems.
Here my 1DsIII is set to manual mode and the method I use to set the correct aperture. Here I show how to set the aperture to f11 -
With the lens now set at this aperture you can continue to shoot. Twisting the zoom and focus rings will not effect the setting at all unless the lens is twisted abruptly to jerk the aperture setting out, but as you can see its easy to reset. Using the camera in the same way with the EOS 5D is literally identical.
Focusing The Lens
You may have wondered by now what the white stickers are on my lens. They're charts and scales for hyperfocal distance. I have tested this lens inside out to get the optimum settings at a variety of apertures. One of the bonuses of having a camera with Live View is that the lens can be focused very precisely without using the camera viewfinder. This is very useful for all manner of straightforward subjects, but in the landscape the need to focus hyperfocally is far more important.
As with all modern AF lenses bar a few, the Nikon has a very useless distance scale. Not only is it recessed deeper than any of the Canon equivalents, but this depth can cause all manner of problems when trying to accurately use the focus scale. The plastic marker on the lens window used to align the infinity symbol is so much higher than the deeply recessed infinity mark that it is very easy to misjudge the position. Whether I was using a Nikon camera or not, I would still think this is a rather flawed design, so I took my own initiative to get around the problem. Just like all my alternative lenses, I created my own incremental stick-on hyperfocal distance focus scale. Then I spent some considerable time assessing the results and constructed a table. I can now set the lens to a tested increment and relax into composition, knowing that the depth of field is all taken care of hyperfocally.
Some Versatile Results in the Landscape
I am not endeavouring to show tests or comparisons of other lenses as 16-9.net has shown numerous comparisons of this lens against other leading lenses within the same focal lengths. What I do want to show is the artistic use of the lens and how it can be used for some conventional and 'outside the box' thinking.
Have a look at these examples -
This shot was taken at around 11.30pm on a wonderfully moonlit night in November 08. It's a project gone a little haywire, but this proved to me that this is the lens of choice for moonlight work.
I have been after a wide angle lens that is sharp at wider apertures to complement my Contax 28mm f2 and give me much more versatility in these conditions.. This project is dependent on higher ISOs, so the wider open the aperture, the lower the ISO can be.
My Canon 17-40, despite being more than satisfactory at f11-f16 is absolutley atrocious at f4, whereas the Nikon is sharp right across the frame.
1DsIII, 14-24 f2.8 @ 24mm f4 ISO 800 for 30secs.
Left Corner Crop of the 14-24 at f4
Where It All Began
Taken on a moody evening at the coast, this shot proved to me the versatility of this remarkable lens. I unfortunately lost a small amount of detail in the extreme foreground as the image just began to lose focus hyperfocally, so I have not shown the extreme right corner as I feel this is unfair to judge the lens on my own photographic error.
I feel the lens is on the limits of sharpness due to diffraction. I would much rather use the lens at f11 as the quality increases noticeably and again at f8, but this is not as important as getting the shot in my opinion as performance at f16 is still extremely good and better than my 17-40 without a doubt.
This image is a blend of two exposures.
1DsIII, 14-24 f2.8 @ 24mm f16 ISO 100 for 1/2secs and 1/8thsec
This image had me utterly astounded when I returned home and processed it. Not only was it beautifully sharp right across the frame, but the horizon was completely rectilinear. I tested it using the measure tool in CS3 and yes it was completely straight, no PTLens or any other correction necessary.
With Zeiss about to release the 21mm ZE, I wonder what benefits this would have on my photography. Moustache shaped distortion, fixed focal length and for what gain? I can see the benefits right now...
This image is a blend of two exposures.
1DsIII, 14-24 f2.8 @ 21mm f11 ISO 100 for 1/2secs and 1/8thsec
100% crops - remember these are compressed 20-30k jpegs, in the moonlight shot it was also rather windy so there is some movement in the grass as this was a hilltop location. It is truly a remarkable lens.
My Conclusions about the Nikon 14-24 with relation to my Canon 17-40 f4L and use in the field....
Well it's been a relief, a pain and a rather steep learning curve all in one. I can thoroughly see why some photographers who were spellbound by the idea of using this lens on Canon FF cameras have sold it on. This is not a lens for those who see manual focus as a step back in time, it's a trade off, but it is the best wide angle zoom lens I have used on a Canon FF body without question. How often am I going to shoot it at f5.6 (for example) is yet to be discovered. I favour a strong composition with dominating foregrounds in much of the work I produce, so stopping the lens down to f11-f16 is how I produce most of my landscape images... it's work in progress. Will it replace my 17-40 f4L? No it won't, which is a shame. The Nikon is far more capable than the Canon in many respects, but then the Canon is far more practical in others.
Here's a set of criteria to consider based upon its use in the field and testing I have done, especially if you are considering a purchase of this lens and the 16-9.net adapter...
Wide open performance
Yes, it's like nothing I have seen wide open, but I still wouldn't shoot it there unless I was compromising quality for the shot. At f2.8 it dips in contrast considerably and suffers from corner softness at all focal lengths, but nothing like the hideous results from most wide angle zooms and prime lenses. In this context it is a revelation. At f4 the Canon is very unsatisfactory except its excellent centre area, not a match for the Nikon in the slightest.
Sharpness and Diffraction
As with Zeiss lenses this lens will delivering staggering edge to edge sharpness at f5.6 but I would use it all the way from f3.5 - f16 with confidence on my 1DsIII. The quality takes a depressing nose dive past f16, f22 exhibits a marked loss of sharpness due to diffraction at all focal lengths. The 17-40 is almost a one trick horse. Choose f11 or f16 and I am a happy man at most focal lengths; good corners and decent enough contrast, but I wouldn't want to shoot at any other apertures or the image would be compromised.
Colour and Contrast
A beautiful neutral looking rendition, gone are the warm Canon tones, very Zeiss like. The lens has excellent contrast and vivid colours. It produces such pleasing looking images and it matches the images I make from the other alternative lenses I own.
The 16-9.net Adapter
It's one quality product. Mark has done really well to make this happen considering the problems he has had to overcome. The unusual way of selecting the aperture is not difficult in the slightest. As I tend to shoot as more or less constant apertures when taking landscapes, I find myself setting the lens at the start of the shoot and spending all my time changing the focal length and hyperfocal distance settings. I only adjust the aperture when the available light levels begin to dip. It's very straight forwards to use in conjunction with the camera's onboard metering.
Ease of Use
As with all quirky alternative lenses it's important to fully explore the working method and see whether the trade off is worth it for you. Operating any manually adapted lenses takes time to work with fluency. One of the beauties of an f2.8 lens is a wonderful bright viewfinder, but I have found that (just like all manual aperture lenses) working with the lens stopped down to f11 or even f16 is no trouble at all. The biggest issue has to be focusing the lens hyperfocally, but once this is conquered its no longer an issue.
You can't use them. I have tried holding filters in front of it and light reflects of them like you are shooting through a window. I gather someone will sort this out, but I can honestly say I don't miss the use of a polariser at such wide focal lengths. I exposure blend literally all my landscapes, so I never use graduated filters anyway, but what I do miss is not being able to use screw on ND filters. At the coast this can be a terrible shame.This limited control of shutter speeds can certainly pull the creative handbrake.
Probably the one aspect the most that worries me the most about this lens is it getting belted with seawater or spray at the coast. I am unsure how environmentally sealed this lens is with its huge moving front element, but it does worry me. My 17-40 would win hands down here. With a UV filter attached, this lens has seen all manner of close shaves. A quick wipe and it's totally clean.
Well I look at it like this; I would love to have a 21mm 2.8 Zeiss, but I can't afford one. I would also like a Canon 14mm L, an 18mm Olympus and a Canon 24mm 1.4L mkII but I can't afford those either. What if one lens did them all for the price of the 14mm? That's why I bought it. All those lenses would make a excellent set up, but look at the amount they would cost. Goodbye £4000, hello backache. This lens isn't a Zeiss 21mm from the tests I have seen but almost, worth it in versatility and the fabulous range of lenses that it compares to.
Size and Weight
It's bulky, heavy and menacing all in one! Like an all seeing eye, this lens is a beast for sure. It weighs 2.2kg when attached to the 1DsIII, but although it feels well balanced in the hand, it makes you think hard as you pack for a few hours hiking across the moors.
In comparison, the bag of primes I would have to lug around would be far heavier, so maybe it's suddenly not so heavy after all.
Further Reading -
There is lots of reading you can do on this particular lens, just not much to do with adapting it onto Canon bodies which is why I wrote this page. Many thanks to Mark at 16-9.net for support and help and information. After approving this page with him he mentioned excitedly in an email that
"the client list for these is pretty impressive: we've so far shipped about 70, with another 50 to go out this week, and another 50 in a month or so. Among those shooting with it even as we speak are the BBC Nature Unit, Rob Galbraith, Red Digital, Michael Reichmann and a galaxy of international photo stars."
I hope we see more examples of this incredible lens on 21mp bodies in the future. In the mean time, I will be using it without question.