Tales From the Ultrawide: the Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens in the field

(© Ian Plant) Hi, my name is Ian, and I'm a wide angle junkie. I've had it bad for a really long time. I didn't care what lens I used—Canon, Nikon, Tamron, Sigma, Zeiss—just as long as it was wide. Lately, I've been making some progress battling my addiction, but then Canon released the new 11-24mm f/4L USM lens. Now I'm off the wagon, and I just can't get enough of that sweet, sweet, ultra-wide.

Canon-11-24mm-lens

For years, wide angle zooms were the weakest part of the lineup of the lens world. Most weren't all that sharp even in the center, and by the time you got to the edges and corners, everything turned to mush. As digital sensor resolution increased, the flaws of these sometimes decades-old designs became increasingly apparent.

Then along came the magnificent Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens. This remarkable piece of glass proved once and for all that ultra-wide and ultra-sharp aren't mutually exclusive. The Nikon 14-24mm featured corner-to-corner sharpness that surpassed even the best wide angle prime lenses. Of course, in order to bring together excellent image quality, an ultra-wide angle of view, and a fast 2.8 maximum aperture, certain compromises had to be made. The result was an expensive, bulky, heavy lens with a bulbous "popeye" design that made filter use seemingly impossible. But despite all of these drawbacks, wide angle junkies immediately got hooked—even Canon shooters like myself who began using adapters to mount the 14-24mm on our EOS bodies.

I used the Nikon 14-24mm for several years on my Canon camera, abandoning autofocus, auto aperture, and at very first, filter use. Early on, I managed to jury-rig a filter holder for the lens, and then eventually filter makers got on board, producing ridiculously oversized filter holders for the Nikon 14-24mm, making filter use possible, if not terribly practical. Soon my wide angle kit got too bulky for easy carrying and travel, so when Canon upgraded its 16-35mm f/2.8L lens, I found myself using my Nikon 14-24mm less and less. Sure, the Canon lens wasn't as sharp as the Nikon, but it was small, lightweight, and filter use was easy. Besides, the difference between 16mm and 14mm wasn't really all that much. When Canon recently came out with its exceptional 16-35mm f/4L lens, with image quality on par with the Nikon 14-24mm, it was the final nail in the coffin, and I thought I would never use a bulky popeye lens again.

But then rumors began to circulate about an upcoming Canon 11-24mm full frame rectilinear lens, and my ultra-wide itch started to burn (popeye design notwithstanding). You see, there is a big difference between 16mm and 11mm. For that matter, there is a big difference between 14mm and 11mm. In fact, 11mm is the widest lens that has ever been produced for a full frame digital camera that hasn't been a fisheye lens, so we're talking about an unprecedented angle of view. Sure, there are zooms out there that go as wide as 8mm or 10mm, but they are made for cropped sensor cameras, so their angle of view isn't nearly as wide (depending on the crop factor, a 10mm lens on a smaller format sensor is equivalent to a 15mm or 16mm lens on a full frame camera). And of course, there is the Sigma 12-24mm, which I once owned. I loved the ultra-wide angle of view of that lens, but image quality was somewhat lacking. So the real question was: would the new Canon lens be able to up the ante, providing a seamless marriage of ultra-ultra-wide perspective and ultra-sharp resolution?

The answer to that question is: hell yes. Plenty of third party resolution tests have confirmed that this lens is extremely sharp, even at 11mm (and my personal experience with the lens so far is consistent). Distortion is also well controlled, which is no small feat for such an extreme angle of view. And what does the world look like through an 11mm lens? When I first peered through this glass monster, the only words that I could muster after picking up my jaw up from the ground were "holy crap!" The angle of view is, simply put, utterly ridiculous.

Heavy? Yes. Expensive? Yes. Extremely sharp? Yes. The new ultra-wide king for full frame cameras? It is difficult to conclude otherwise. But is there any practical need or use for a lens this wide?

That's why I've decided, rather than writing yet another comprehensive review of the lens (there are plenty out there already), I would instead keep a running "field journal" of my use of the 11-24mm. That way, I can provide real world examples of the lens in action, showing when using this specialized lens makes sense. My goal is to illustrate the unique creative opportunities that this lens permits, and to talk about practical considerations for using such a big lens in the field.

I always viewed the Nikon 14-24mm as my "big sky" lens, and this applies even more to the Canon 11-24mm. So when huge storm clouds rose at sunset high above the Paine massif in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, I reached for my new 11-24mm for the first time, after lugging it around for a week without using it once. I'm really glad I did. I was able to include the incredible cloud formations that were towering almost directly above me—and still have plenty of room for a generous amount of foreground. That's what a 126° angle of view will do for you!

Storm over Pehoe

"Storm over Pehoe"—Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Canon 5DIII, 11mm, ISO 100, f/6.3, 0.8 seconds.

A few things become immediately evident when using this lens. One of the first things you'll notice, especially when at 11mm, is that even huge subjects—including the massive mountains of Patagonia—start looking really small. Getting close (to both foreground elements and big background features) is a good strategy when working with an ultra-wide angle of view. Personally, I think that the mountains stand out enough in this composition, but just barely. With an 11mm perspective, the image becomes more about the interaction of shapes and colors in the foreground and sky, while the mountains are reduced to a supporting role, providing the icing on the compositional cake.

When shooting at 11mm, one also has to be really careful to exclude unwanted elements, such as feet, tripod legs, your shadow—or other nearby photographers (even if they aren't in your shot, they might get peeved at your efforts to keep them from accidentally wandering into your ridiculously wide field of view). Be extra vigilant, and be prepared to do some creative cloning in case you miss something (or can't keep it out).

Speaking of other photographers, the final thing you will notice with the Canon 11-24mm is the immediate and obvious lens envy it inspires. At least, that is, once they peek through your viewfinder. Get ready to hear the phrase "I'm buying this lens" over and over again, followed by the inevitable "um, so how much does it cost?" With a hefty $3000 price tag, the the last word you'll hear is "ouch."

I'll be sharing more images taken with the Canon 11-24mm lens over the coming weeks. So stay tuned for more Tales from the Ultrawide!

7 Comments

    Wow, that is an amazing picture. I don’t know much about photography, but I like browsing photo websites and checking out the awesome pictures. I love the mountains and this picture is just flat out awe inspiring. Great job!

    Seeing this makes me want to learn how to take pictures like this too. I’m going to check out your book on composition.

    Ian, I know what you mean. If I’m shooting wide, it’s the Nikkor 20mm F2.8 All other wide angles just seems too confined. So I guess I’m a junkie too.

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