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

Review Date: Sep 30, 2009 Recommend? yes | Price paid: $1,550.00 | Rating: 10 

Pros: Wide, fast, super sharp center, good contrast and color, corners and edges well controlled.
A bit pricey, but not out of line with its performance.

Iíve been reading some of the more critical reviews here; from my perspective half are probably due to the occasional bad copy, but the other half are likely due to the owner expecting way too much from a UWA zoom. Most complaints center on lack of corner sharpness and/or light fall off/vignetting at the wide end and wide apertures. Iíve owned and extensively tested 3 high end UWA Zooms to date now; the Canon 16-35 f2.8 L II and 17-40 f4 L and the Nikon 14-24 2.8 ED (the supposed gold standard for all UWA Zooms), and can tell you that the Nikon is the only one that can reasonably (not perfectly) hold the corners at the extreme wide ends of FL and aperture. Not surprisingly however the Nikon is yet another $400-$500 more expensive than the 16-35II (even more when you factor in the adapter to shoot on a Canon). In real world shooting at f/8 to f/16 however, I can confidently state that you are not going to see any meaningful difference between the 3 lenses without resorting to some serious pixel peeping gymnastics, and even then Iíll gladly take bets that most couldnít tell unlabeled photos apart. So confident in fact that I finally traded in my revered Nikon for an excellent copy of the 16-35II.

Yes, this lens exhibits some corner softness and light fall off at the wide end and/or at f2.8, however this starts to clear up even as low as f/4 and is gone by f/8. By comparison, if you really want an eye opener, look at the light fall off on the 17-40 wide open (f/4) Ė the outer two thirds of the image is dark with only a small central spot unaffected. Contrast this to the 16-35 wide open at f/2.8 where only the extreme edges and corners are dark. Same with corner softness, it does exist at f/2.8 but clears up nicely by f/8. In all cases, if you shoot this lens at the same settings as the 17-40, it outperforms its smaller cousin in all aspects (and the 17-40 an excellent lens in its own right). The 16-35 is more than just a 17-40 that goes to f/2.8, it is a significant improvement at all apertures and focal lengths.

I did some extensive testing with filters and found, contrary to claims in other reviews, no detectible difference in vignetting between a slim or regular UV filter at the 16mm wide end. Maybe there is a slight difference that some purists can see, but for the life of me I canít tell the difference, so I use a regular thickness filter simply for the convenience of being able to use the normal dust cap. The 82mm filter size is also often cited as a point of criticism. Yes, 82mm filters are larger and more expensive, but thatís the cost for a lens with these specifications. At least this lens will accept filters, try that with the Nikon. Finally, Iíve also heard criticism that this lens starts to go soft above 24mm, but I havenít seen any evidence of this either. Maybe those are also bad copy issues again? But mine is perfectly sharp (stunningly sharp in the center) throughout the entire range.

In short, if you absolutely must have a UWA Zoom that has razor sharp corners at f/2.8, youíre going to need to go to other extreme measures such as the Nikon 14-24 or maybe a Zeiss, but then youíve got all of the manual focus/exposure issues to deal with. In most real world applications at f/8 to f/16, this lens easily holds itís own against the Nikon and even outperforms the 17-40. In my experience, if I am shooting at f/2.8, Iím likely trying to blur the background, so why would I care if the corners are soft anyway. And if shooting in low light I donít notice some light fall off corners either. In any case, itís easily corrected in DPP.

No lens is perfect and free from little quirks that require tweaking in post. This one however does come as close to perfection as possible for a UWA zoom at its given specs and price point.