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Canon Lens Wars 17mm Focal Length Shootout – Episode 1

By Pye Jirsa on January 9th 2014

17mm-Canon Lens War Shootout

Welcome to the first shootout comparison in the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II and the Canon 17-40mm f/4L to see which lens is the visually better lens at the 17mm focal range.

Now of course, the 16-35 and 17-40 are not portrait lenses, especially when at 17mm. But, throughout the entire range, we needed to shoot the same image so that we can properly compare each lens and image to one another.

For those that are new to the SLR Lounge Canon Lens Wars series, be sure to check out the Canon Lens Wars Intro video to learn more about the series and our testing methodology. Additionally, you can visit the Canon Lens Wars homepage to view all the other videos on each focal length.

Watch the 17mm Canon Lens Wars Video

Equipment Used

Canon Lenses Tested

Image Quality at Wide Open Apertures

Let’s start from the top with their visible aesthetic qualities at their respective Wide Open Aperture (WOA). Once again, this is a visual test of differences, not a technical test. So, we are trying to distinguish differences in appearance while viewing images full screen on a Dell U2713HM 27″ IPS monitor.

Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II at f/2.8

Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II at f/2.8

Canon 17-40mm f4L at f/4

Canon 17-40mm f/4L at f/4

So at a Wide Open Aperture of f/2.8, I immediately notice that the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II is actually rendering a decent amount of bokeh compared to the Canon 17-40mm f/4L. The 16-35mm’s bokeh is most noticeable in the area surrounding our model.

17mm-WOA-f2.8 Canon 16-35mmf2.8-17-40mmf4

Its not a ton of bokeh, but still it is impressive given that it is at 17mm. However, the model is slightly less sharp in the 16-35mm shot when compared to the 17-40mm at their respective WOA. It’s not by much, but there is a slight difference as you can see in the image below.

17mm-WOA-f2.8-16-35mmf2.8-17-40mmf4-Face-Detail

Interestingly, while the 17-40 has slightly better center frame sharpness, the 16-35 is still visually sharper towards of the edges of the frame even when at f/2.8 which you can see in the image below.

17mm-WOA-f2.8-16-35mmf2.8-17-40mmf4-Edge-Sharpness

Color and contrast appear to be pretty equal with the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II having the slight edge.

Image Quality at Widest Common Aperture

Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II at f/4

Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II at f/4

Canon 17-40mm f4L at f/4

Canon 17-40mm f4L at f/4

Now, when we jump up to both lenses’ WCA or Widest Common Aperture at f/4, the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II steps ahead visually. Here, the 16-35 still displays far more bokeh than the 17-40 which really appears to have none. We can see the differences when looking at the area directly to the side of our model.

17mm-WCA-f4-16-35mmf2.8-17-40mmf4

Center image detail and sharpness in the 16-35mm has again stepped beyond the 17-40mm which can be verified when zoomed into the dress area on our model below.

17mm-WCA-f4-16-35mmf2.8-17-40mmf4-Dress

In addition, edge detail is clearly visibly sharper on the 16-35 as well as can be seen below.

17mm-WCA-f4-16-35mmf2.8-17-40mmf4-Edge-Sharpness

Since we have stepped beyond f/2.8, the 16-35’s lens vignetting is significantly reduced at f/4 while the 17-40 still has quite a bit. Also, color and contrast are rendering a little better on the 16-35 as well at f/4.

Vignette

Visually, the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II creates more bokeh and a different look that holds up all the way through around f/8 where they both equalize in terms of bokeh. However, throughout all apertures the 16-35 remains sharper from center-to-edge compared to the Canon 17-40mm f/4L which is extremely soft around its edges. It also retains slightly better contrast and color as well throughout all of the apertures, though it is most noticeable with both lenses around f/4.

Lens Distortion

Distortion was also quite similar between both lenses at the 17mm focal length. Both lenses had a very similar a mount of barrel distortion, and both showed roughly the same amount of perspective distortion caused by the cameras positioning being so close to the subject matter. Our model looks slightly more distorted on the 16-35, but most likely that was simply caused by the slight change in framing on the 16-35.

Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II at f/2.8

Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II at f/2.8

Low Light Consideration

When it comes to low light situations, the 16-35mm is going to give you a full extra stop of light performance, or double the light, than compared to the 17-40. In addition, at f/2.8 the overall center-to-edge sharpness of the 16-35 is far better than the 17-40mm, making its wide open setting a bit more functional.

Conclusion

So to recap, when put to a real world visual test, the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II is simply a better lens in every regard. It renders a decent amount of bokeh for an extreme wide angle lens even when at the same aperture as the 17-40. The 16-35 also has better color and contrast, better center-to-edge sharpness and an additional stop of low light and bokeh performance as well.

But, the Canon 17-40mm f/4L has a list price of around $840 while the 16-35 is priced at $1699.

So if you are a hobbyist or if you are on budget AND you are primarily shooting landscapes and nature where you are working around f/8 to f/11, you may decide that at double the price, the 16-35 doesn’t provide a large enough difference to make the additional cost worthwhile. Their focal lengths are similar enough, the overall contrast and color coming from both is also quite similar as well. In that situation, it may make sense to save the money and go with the Canon 17-40mm f/4L.

Personally, since I generally am not shooting at wide apertures on my wide angle lenses, the extra stop of low light performance isn’t a good enough reason to justify the additional cost of the 16-35. But professionally, there is a strong reason to buy the 16-35 over the 17-40 and that is simply the superior center to edge sharpness. The 16-35 does a far better job of resolving detail from the center to the edge of the frame at every aperture. While most differences in lens sharpness can only be seen when doing side by side close up comparisons, this difference is clearly visible without zooming in or even doing a side by side comparison. So much so, that for professional use I would skip over the 17-40 if possible. It simply doesn’t have the center to edge sharpness that we need in our images, particularly at the apertures that I frequently use. So, I would say to save up and spend the extra money on the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II as it produces far noticeably better image quality than the 17-40.

17mm-lenses

I hope you enjoyed this 17mm focal range installment in the SLR Lounge Canon Lens Wars series. Be sure to check out the rest of the Canon Lens Wars Series.

About

Founding Partner of Lin and Jirsa Photography and SLR Lounge.

Follow my updates on Facebook and my latest work on Instagram both under username @pyejirsa.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Oscar Chang

    i would like to see a comparison of the new 16-35 F4 IS with at least the 16-35 F2.8 II

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  2. Fotograf Nunta Brasov

    This lens is my latest addition to my other “wedding” lenses the 24-70 and 70-200 from Canon. Superb optics and super fast focus as all Canon L lenses are. Great review for this lens! I helped me a lot! Thanks a again!

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  3. John MacLean Photography

    I would’ve loved to have seen the TS-E 17mm f/4.0L thrown in for a benchmark. I’ve owned the 17-40mm, and I replaced it with the 16-35mm Mark II. But neither are as sharp as my TS-E 17mm.

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  4. philaw123

    While I understand that Sigma’s 18-35/1.8 is a lens for crop cameras, I was wondering how it would compare with Canon’s 16-35/2.8L and 17-40/4L on a Canon with a crop sensor. Anyone?

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    • LPMURPH

      I just rented the 18-35 f1.8 SIGMA and I can tell you it is punches way above its weight… I am at the point where I am having a Crisis of faith.. I really enjoyed that lens and I can get it for $700 or I could upgrade to a 6D (Currently shooting a 60D). I definitely suggest you rent the lens. My only problem with it is that it was on the slow side. I wonder if you can fix that with the Sigma dock (another product Canon needs to get on coming out with).

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  5. Kombo

    I would like to see comparisons of canon 16-35mm and tokina 16-28mm. The would be a real showdown! But you sure did an awesome job destroying the 17-40mm Pye. This makes me happy:)! I hate stupid lenses that should not have been build in the first place..

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  6. Susannah Sofaer Kramer

    I would like to see the 16-35 and the 17-40 compared at the apertures that would typically be used with these lenses, f8 and f11, then the comparison would have some real world meaning. How about it?

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    • Tagnal

      I agree, seeing these two perform at f/8, f/11, f/16 are more important to me as a landscaper.

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  7. Brett

    TS-E?

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  8. danz

    You could read a description of the word “BOKEH” and what it means. Bokeh is the “quality” of the image parts that are ouf of focus (both in front and after the plane of focus).

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  9. Sachin

    Thanks for the comparison! I have the 17-40 and I mostly shoot landscapes with it (on a Canon 7D) so it has worked just fine for me. But I do love me some bokeh, given that I come from a manual focus, prime lens background of portraiture. And I try to bring separation of my subject using selective focusing even in landscape. Not necessarily the most popular thing to do for landscape photographers but .. I like it. So I had been considering a 16-35 when I could scrounge up the $$ and I was wondering if I should save for longer and have both 17-40 and 16-35 or sell the 17-40 and buy the 16-35.
    From your comparison it seems to me that 16-35 covers all the aspects of 17-40 (I already knew that) but is also visually worth the $$. So I might just push my purchasing time ahead, sell the 17-40 and get the 16-35.

    Or should I get a used 5D-MKII?? ….

    Aaaargh!

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  10. KJ

    nice work, love the idea and how it turned out :) can’t wait to see other focal lenghts

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  11. Tymon

    Sharpness of a zoom lens changes along with the focal length. After the above comparison you can say that 16-35 is better at 17 but not that it is sharper lens in general. I’ve seen few tests that showed the opposite to be true. Nevertheless it’s nice to see side by side comparison. Thanks.

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    • Pye

      It was compared again at 35mm as well. You can check out that article also, I believe it was still sharper at 35 again.

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  12. chicagosouth

    Please don’t hurt my feeling when you compare the 50’s. Don’t tell me I paid for 1.2 power when the 1.4 is on the same level. (holding my breath ) I know it’s not on the same level as the 85mm 1.2, but thanks for the videos hopefully if I did make that mistake watching these videos would help me in the future. ( I just want the best for less)

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    • Pye

      We just published the 50mm primes, I think you will be pleased ;)

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  13. JenniferHope

    I appreciated this comparison. I’ve been considering the 16-35 but wondered if it was worth the price (over the less expensive “equivalent”). You are right, price is not a true indicator of lens performance.

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  14. Nick

    I don’t understand why you would compare these 2 lenses, yes they both have similar focal lengths and mainly used for LANDSCAPES but as they are in totally different price brackets why compare them!? as of course they will be different in quality! 17-40mm is around £500/£600 compared to 16-35mm £1,150/£1,280

    umm yes if you have a budget which one would you go for?? no brainer!!
    if you had the cash and into Landscapes (Not portraiture as these tests show) then which would you go for??
    again no brainer!

    so why is this test needed, 17-40mm is a damn fine lens, but for the extra cash yes the 16-35mm will be the better quality lens to go for (has been for the past several years since they were both released!)

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    • Pye

      When we get into the 24mm range and beyond, the format will make more sense. In this focal length, we only had 2 lenses to compare. But, what we are looking for in the other comparisons are whether there are lenses that perform near to same level, but at a fraction of the price (which there are a lot of cases where we show this). In this case, while the 17-40 is half the price, the image quality of the 16-35 makes the price justifiable. All I am trying to say is for those seeking professional use, or an amateur looking for the best image quality, skip over the 17-40 completely. At half the price, it is actually half the lens. Where as when we compare say the 50mm 1.2 to the 1.4 to the 1.8, you have lenses that can do 90% of the other lens, but at a fraction of the cost. Hopefully this makes sense.

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  15. Brett

    Good write up! One other point I would consider is that the 16-35mm takes a 82mm filter while the 17-40mm uses the same 77mm filters that the commonly used 24-70 f2.8L and 70-200 f2.8L IS both use.

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    • Pye

      That’s a good point. I always disliked that one 82mm filter that you only stick onto one lens. But, you forgot to mention that the new Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L Mark II is now the same 82mm filter thread as well. So two popular lenses in your kit use it! =)

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  16. Joe

    I understand why you did this, but I feel like having a portrait shot with a 17mm test is just silly!

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    • Pye

      We shot the same scene from 17mm to 300mm. It obviously isn’t designed for portraits, but the purpose of the test is to shoot the same scene. It will make more sense as we release more videos.

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