(© Ian Plant) Welcome to Part 2 of Tales From the Ultrawide, my field journal documenting use of the new Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens. Note that although the focus of these posts is on the performance of the Canon 11-24mm lens, any user of an ultra-wide lens (be it a Nikon, Sigma, Tamron, or something else) will likely find my observations useful, as many of them pertain generally to wide angle use. So even if you are not a Canon user, please read on and feel free to contribute to the discussion!
In Part 1, I talked about one of the most daunting challenges of shooting with an ultra-wide lens, namely that even large subjects can end up rendered tiny by a wide angle of view. If you don’t want huge mountains (such as those found in Patagonia) to end up looking very small, you need to either zoom in or get really close. The same applies to foreground features, but it is often much easier to get closer to your foreground (which may require you to move a few feet) than it is to get closer to your background (which may require you to move a few miles).
For the image below, I hiked several miles to find a viewpoint of the famous Horns of Paine that was fairly close to the peaks. Even then, at 11mm the mountains become a relatively small part of the overall image, although they look much bigger than they did in the photo I shared previously. I was a little concerned about this at first, so I zoomed in to 14mm. But when a high cloud with a great zigzag shape drifted into view, I zoomed back out to 11mm in order to include it in my composition. The overall composition was more important to me, and I decided I was okay with slightly smaller mountains.
“The Everdark”—Torres del Paine, Chile. Canon 5DIII, 11mm, ISO 100, f/14, 1/6 second.
One of the many challenges of working with wide angle lenses is especially magnified with ultra-wides: being careful to exclude elements that don’t contribute to the composition. I’ve always said that wide angle work is the art of inclusion, as you must find a way to successfully incorporate more visual elements than if you are working with a longer focal length (which makes exclusion easier). When working at 11mm, you’re walking a narrow tightrope between order and chaos. You have to choose your framing carefully, and think critically about the balance and placement of visual elements that you can’t exclude.
Getting sharp focus from near to far is often really easy with ultra-wides, as they have a lot of inherent depth of field. That means you can usually shoot at the “sweet spot” of your lens—the aperture where it is sharpest from corner to corner—usually f/8 or f/11 for most wide angle lenses. Of course, as I am often getting really close to my foregrounds to accentuate their importance in the image frame, I’ll often stop down a little bit more to get maximum near to far sharpness. For this image, I was just a foot or two away from the foreground rocks, so I carefully focused on the hyperfocal point, and stopped down to f/14 to make sure everything in the photo was sharp.
As I previously discussed, filter use is often difficult with ultra-wides, as they almost always have a bulbous front element in order to ensure high image quality at extreme angles of view. Some companies now offer ridiculously oversized filter holders to allow filter use on a number of ultra-wides, but these kits are big and bulky, making them somewhat impractical for travel and field use. For now, I’m not aware of anyone making a filter holder for the new Canon 11-24mm lens, but I’m sure someone will do so soon. The real question is whether anyone can make a holder that will fully cover the lens at the widest end of its zoom range without vignetting.
Canon clearly anticipated the filter problem, adding a rear gel filter slot to the lens. Gels are thin acrylic or gelatin sheets used for color correction or neutral density filtration. I haven’t used the rear slot yet, but it is certainly an option for certain filter needs. You probably can’t use anything other than neutral density or color filters with the rear slot, and you have to put the filter in the slot before you mount the lens on the camera. I don’t really have any experience with using gel filters in rear lens slots, so I’m afraid I can’t say much more about it, but my guess is that graduated neutral density filtration is out of the question, and polarizer filtration is likely to prove somewhat impractical as well.
The rear gel filter slot on the Canon 11-24mm. You can just barely see it, right? Gel filters are very thin, easy to scratch, and easy to get fingerprints on. Since you have to cut each filter to fit the slot from a larger sheet, you might as well cut a bunch and bring spares, as they weigh practically nothing.
For some time I used an oversized filter kit on my Nikon 14-24mm lens, but I eventually concluded that it wasn’t worth the effort. Personally, I don’t plan to use filters on the front of the 11-24mm. That means exposure blending instead of using graduated neutral density filters. For the image in this post, I wish I had a neutral density filter to lengthen my exposure in order to blur the rippled water a bit more. I may look into carrying a few neutral density gel filters with me, using the rear filter slot on the lens. I’m also going to look into polarizing gels, but that option may be very limiting, as you can only rotate the filter in the slot in 90° increments (and you have to put the filter in the slot before you mount the lens). With such a wide angle of view on this lens, the times when I would want to use a polarizer are probably very limited, as uneven polarization will be a problem for most shots; I’d still want to use a polarizer for waterfall and stream shots, but not for anything with lots of blue sky, where uneven polarization would be most evident. I’ll let you know if I learn anything useful.
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!