02 March 2013

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM Lens Review

Let me start by saying that this is going to be a user-based experience review. I will not take pictures of a brick wall and do side-by-side comparisons with photos cropped at 100%. There are other reviewers on the internet who have done so and you are definitely welcome to check them out. Here's one who I have always referred to for in-depth Canon lens reviews. I'm a practical person and my top priority is whether a particular tool is actually usable or not and fits easily in my overall workflow in between my commercial photographic assignments.

All images in this review has been processed which I've done for all my other images published on this site. I'm a strong believer that the practise of taking a photo, post-processing and as well as publishing  are equally important in photography. The post-processing stage has always been given a bad name where we always hear things like "yeaa... he 'photoshoped' that" whereas amateur photographers would go "but I don't know how to use photoshop..." and in denial of leaning something that is crucial in the craft of photography. It is true that there are people who use the software to alter or deceive the true meaning behind an image, however the reason why people who genuinely practice photography spend numerous time on processing their images is because of the good intention of enhancing the viewing experience for their audience.

I've tried the lens on both 5D MKII and 40D but I'm sure you can tell which photo is taken by which camera. There is a huge difference in dynamic & tonal range between crop and full frame sensor.

*This is my first lens review so cut me some slack

Now with all that said, lets get started with the review.

I've been using this lens for a couple of months now and I quite like it. The size is average and not that heavy, easy to carry around. The overall performance is reasonably acceptable where I get more photos that are worth keeping. Believe me, I'm quite particular with my own photos. This lens is meant to be paired full frame camera like my 5D MKII. If you wanna use it on a crop sensor, you wouldn't be experiencing its full potential. Well yeah its acceptable and I've seem a lot of press photographers do so back when I was working with the press. They mount this lens on a fast cropped camera like a 7D and produced publishable images for the papers. However, it's like driving a sports car at 40km/hr. I'm sure you get what I'm trying saying here.

16mm @ f/5 on 40D

16mm @ f/2.8 on 40D

Statue in front of State Library of Victoria - 16mm @ f/5 on a 5D MKII

Same issue with any other ultra wide angle lens in the market, there is chroma aberration, distortion, pin-cushion effect and vignette issues at the edge of the frame. Love it or hate it, we just have to accept it. The general rule where most people would say - don't put your people at the corner of the frame or you'll see distorted body parts. Some would purposely do so to extend a limb or two. In my opinion, just place your subjects within the "rule of thirds" frame and you'll be safe :)

Royal Exhibition Building - 16mm @ f/5.6

Some of the many reasons people choose to own an ultra wide angle lens is either for landscape or architectural purposes. Frankly, I don't usually shoot these two genres of photography. Photos of landscapes or buildings aren't really enjoyable to my eyes, but that's just my personal preference. I'm just used to taking pictures at a fast pace, moving around for various angles, making different images frames after frames during events or weddings. Hence, putting my camera on a tripod and set it to long exposure is just not my thing. Nevertheless, at least I made an effort to photograph a few architectural images just to make this review look more complete.

State Library of Victoria - La Trobe Reading Room, 16mm @ f/8. 

So why did I purchase this lens if I don't shoot architecture or landscape? And even to the extend of replacing it with my "to-go" 24-70 lens which had been with me for the past two years. The answer is very simple - I want my photos to be more dramatic at the wider end. 

Tram office at Bourke Street - 16mm @ f/2.8

I like to photograph stories and wide angles allows me to convey it in a more dramatic way. The distorting effect at the edge of the frame just makes the whole image more captivating for my viewers eyes. At times the widest end of 24-70 lens does allow me to achieve that, but sometimes I just need it to be a little bit more wider...  

Christmas Season at Flinders Station - 16mm @ f/10, shutter at 1/20

Even though I have only worked in the press for a very short while, my photography approach has always been about storytelling. Personally, public speaking has never been my forte, so photojournalism is simply my way of telling people what I see, think and feel. 

Reading on the train - 16mm @ f/2.8

I'm sure you are more concerned with the lens rather than reading about me so here are some general breakdown about it in categories.


Honestly, I can't say much here because I'm shooting on either a 40D and 5D MKII whereby their autofocus system are not really that great to begin with. 40D first came into the scene in 2007 regarded as the budget sports camera because of its fast 6.5 frames per sec but its autofocus is like any other regular DSLR's. Don't get me started with 5D MKII's autofocus... you can read all about it on the internet.

So what I can say is that the lens' USM is trust-worthy enough where I can point the camera at anything and it will focus in less than a second and it does so without making a sound. It is faster compared with any normal lenses, however I'm quite sure that it will perform even faster on camera bodies that are meant for sports like a 7D or 1D series.


I've never been a fan of bokeh. It doesn't mean anything to me and its going to take a quite a fair bit of time to write my reasons. So here are some sample images and I'll let you guys judge yourself.

 35mm @ f/2.8 on 40D 
*At first glance the flower looks out of focus but the petal in the middle of the frame is sharp in focus.

35mm @ f/2.8 on 5D MKII


If you've read a lot of zoom lens reviews or experimented quite a number of lenses, I'm sure you can expect what I'm going to write here. Like any other lenses, the sharpness on Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens is quite sharp when you stop down your aperture to f/4 or f/5.6 or even lower. At wide open f/2.8, the center sharpness is fairly acceptable and corner sharpness is not that great either. Unfortunately, this characteristic is similar to any other zoom lenses in the market. Personally, I'm quite happy with its overall sharpness. If sharpness is your priority, you might as well look for other wide prime lenses.

My Workflow

So with 24-70mm gone, what I have in my bag is 70-200mm f/4L IS, 16-35mm f/2.8L and 50mm f/1.8 as a backup lens if any one of the other two lenses breaks down, 5D MKII as the camera body and a flashgun. Some of you might be wondering about the gap in between 35mm and 70mm. It doesn't concern me, really. When I had the 24-70mm, I rarely find myself shooting in that range. It was always on the wider end. If I ever need to go longer, I'll immediately switch to 70-200. Moreover, I always find  myself shooting at a focal length longer than 100mm rather than 70mm unless the subject is really close to me. The compression on the longer end looks much better, visually speaking. Moreover, I rarely find myself using a 50mm range even though a lot of people 'worship' that length and it is the length where most lenses on film camera has. Personally 50mm focal length is just not my taste. I prefer 35mm where the focal length is very close to the human eye. Thus 16-35mm suits my needs perfectly. Turn the zoom barrel to its widest end for dramatic effect and turn to the other side for a decent looking medium wide angle, changing my focal angle instantly. If I need a tight compression, its the 70-200mm. Its either wide or tight. Two lenses. As simple as that. If I carry more lenses, I'll have the temptation of changing lenses to experiment different angles instead of focusing what's actually going on around me. The plastic 50mm f/1.8 stays in the bag all the time. Besides, my bag lighter, smaller, easier to move around. Its more practical for me. Of course, you are entirely welcome to disagree and have it your way.

Events & Weddings

Free pizzas during orientation - 16mm @ f/4

I had the opportunity to photograph a wedding few weeks ago. Here's the blog post about it if you are interested to see the rest of the photos. Here are just some sample images taken by 16-35mm.

16mm @ f/2.8 on 40D

16mm @ f/2.8 on 40D

16mm @ f/2.8 on 5D MKII

 16mm @ f/2.8, 1/20 seconds on 5D MKII

*Yes, I just realised all the wedding photos are coincidentally taken at the same settings and on the same focal length. 


A lot of people I know dislike taking portraits with a wide angle. However, it really depends on what kind of photo you are trying to achieve. I think that wide angle portraits are pretty cool if you know what you're doing.

16mm @ f/5.6

Typically speaking wide angle portraits are meant for "environmental portrait" where the background or surrounding is part of the photo, thus it gives the subject more depth in its story, compared to the popular tight crop angle where it concentrates on the subject itself. Both serve a different purpose and neither one is superior than the other.

16mm @ f/5

28mm @ f/2.8


16-35mm is a pretty nice lens for street photography as well but it is not discreet or small in size as compared to other popular street lens choices. I just like the fact that I can change my focal angle instantly just by simply twisting the zoom barrel. Besides, I rarely shoot at large aperture settings so those popular prime lenses choices aren't my thing. Short lens forces me to photograph my subjects at a close distance, get out of my comfort zone. As the famous quote says - “If your pictures aren't good enough, you’re not close enough.”  - Robert Capa

 35mm @ f/4

 16mm @ f/4 on 40D

17mm @ f/11, 1/25 secs on 40D

27mm @ f/4 on 40D

What I like:
- Image quality is top notch, as expected from a zoom L lens.
- Very responsive auto focus
- Weather sealed, an expected feature for a L lens. Something good to have.

What I dislike:
- Ugly lens hood design... I don't think I've put it on more than 10 times...
- Distortion and pin-cushion effect(Can be corrected in post-processing)
- Huge 82mm lens diameter = expensive filters.

I believe this lens is going to be with me whenever I go out with my camera. Personally, I'm very happy with its image quality and autofocus performance. However, I will not say that this lens will produce the sharpest wide angle images. If image quality is your top priority, like I've mentioned previously, you are better off looking at prime lenses. I need only a lens that gives me ultra wide angle and as well as good medium wide images at above average quality. The Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM serves that purpose very well. At the time of writing this review, there is a rumour about a Canon 12-24 going around on the internet. Even if its official and performs way better than 16-35, I would still choose 16-35 anytime. 35mm is just more practical compared to 24mm on a longest length for a lens on many occasions. I did mentioned about distortion, pin-cushion effect and vignette issues but these can be easily corrected in post-processing where its just one click of a button like in Lightroom for an example.

All in all, if you shoot events and weddings, this lens would be a perfect choice to own. I do know many landscape and architecture photographers swear by this lens as well. So you couldn't go wrong with this lens.

If you have read this far, I would like to say thank you for taking the time to do so. This is my first review and I'm not sure what or when am I going to do another review. What I have written here is all based on my personal experience and you are welcomed to disagree if you have a different opinion. Until then, take care.

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