Ultra Wide angle lenses or UWAs as they are popularly known in the photography world are intriguing lenses. Some love them some hate them. I, for one, absolutely love them and I have UWA lenses for all the systems I own.
I own the excellent Rokinon 14 F2.8, Nikkor 18-35 3.5-5.6 for Nikon FX, Tokina 12-24 F4.0 for Nikon DX which is equivalent to 18-35 mm in 35mm Full Frame and the Lumix 7-14 F4.0 and Olympus 9-18 F4.0-5.6 for my micro 4/3 system which are equivalent 14-24 F4.0 and 18-35 F4.0-5.6 in 35mm Full frame.
So why do I own all these lenses? Isn’t a 18-55 kit lens bundled with most DX camera kits or a 24-85 or a 24-120 lenses bundled with most FX camera kits or a 14-42 lens bundled with most m43 camera kits enough? Yes, I believe they are enough for most casual and wide angle shooting scenarios. After all, they are equivalent to 24-28 mm at the wide end which till a very long time in photography, were serious ultra wide angle focal lengths. But for truly wide and exaggerated perspectives, UWAs offer a unique view. Anything wider than these were considered exotics and specialty lenses and were quite expensive and tough to design and produce for most manufacturers.
So, what kind of shooting is usually done by UWAs? I believe landscape, architecture, interiors, sweeping scapes are the usual suspects. Even wild life and portraiture is done with it. But close-ups for portraiture is not really recommended due to exaggerated perspectives that can distort features.
For rectilinear lenses, 14 mm lenses were considered as the most common, widest of wide focal length for super wide UWA lenses, till Canon just upped the game with a 11-24 F4.0 recently. Of course Nikon had that super special, super expensive 13 F5.6 AI-S but I have never seen or heard anyone actually use it. There is also the option of de-fishing fish-eye lenses that go even wider, but you do lose some millimeters when you de-fish to rectilinear images.
Let’s look at the most popular UWA lenses for Nikon and m4/3 systems. Nikon has the super special 14-24 F2.8, 16-35 F4.0 VR, 17-35 F2.8, 18-35 F3.5-5.6, 18 F2.8 and the various 20, 24 and 28 mm lenses. Optically the 14-24 F2.8 is the best UWA made by Nikon and is easily comparable to the very best UWA lens be it a zoom or a prime made by any lens manufacturer across any system.
So if the 14-24 2.8 is the very best lens for UWA usage in Nikon land, should you even bother buying other lenses in its overlapping focal lengths? The answer: Yes and No. Optically it is as good as anything out there, but for UWA shooting, there are many things that appeal to landscape photographers that are not possible to achieve by this lens.
- The most important thing is the usage of standard circular filters or a way to mount standard size square filters. This is due to the fact that the 14-24 2.8 and all other lenses in the 14-15 mm focal lengths have bulbous front elements that do have standard filter threads. So usage of standard and popular filters like Graduated filters (Grads), Neutral Density filters (ND), Circular Polarisers (CPL) etc.. is not possible in an easy way with these lenses.
- The Nikon 14-24 F2.8 is not the only one but also other popular lenses like the Panasonic 7-14 F4.0, Nikon and Canon 14 F 2.8, Canon 11-24 F 4.0m, Tokina 16-28 F2.8 etc all suffer from this problem due to their bulbous front elements.
- Another problem is distortion but this is no longer really a problem as most cameras now correct this internally or it can be corrected in most Post Processing software like DxO optics and Lightroom quite easily.
- Another potential problem with these lenses is flare. All these lenses can easily induce flare if one is not careful if the sun is in the frame.
- All these lenses are the flagship wide angle lenses by the respective manufacturers, so are all well made and quite heavy not only due to their large apertures but also due to the materials used in their manufacture.
This is the precise reason why the second string of lenses exist such as the 16-35 mm, the 17/18-35/40mm etc. These usually are smaller lenses, have regular filter threads and are usually cheaper than their flagship counterparts. But obvious optical compromises also exist. For e.g. the 14-24 F2.8 Nikon is sharper than the newer 16-35 F4.0 VR at the corners and has lesser distortion. Similarly the Panasonic 7-14 F4.0 is sharper than the Olympus 9-18 F4.0-5.6 at and away from the center.
So the next question is, whether 14mm vs 16mm or 7mm vs 9mm is really a significant difference to really pay a lot more to gain those extra 2 mm at the wide end. The answer is that it depends. 2 mm really is a significant difference in FOV especially at the wide end. So it totally depends whether you want to gain that extra 2 mm or have that lens that is lighter, cheaper and has the ability to use standard filters. I too had this dilemma for a long time and I finally settled for a Rokinon 14 F2.8 plus Nikkor 18-35 F3.5-5.6 for my Nikon D800E. Similarly I have a Panasonic Lumix 7-14 F4.0 and Olympus 9-18 F4.0-5.6 for m4/3 system.
So is it really not possible to fit filters for all the bulbous front element lenses? Ideally, we would all like to have just that one flagship lens and be done with it. The answer to this is ‘Yes’, there is a way, if you are ready to spend a good amount of money and ready to bear the hassle of an unusually large and unwieldy and a very expensive filter system.
Lee, Formatt Hitech, Fotodiox all make adapters as well as Grads, CPLs and ND filters that fit these lenses. But as mentioned earlier the entire kit plus adapters can approach the cost of the 14-24 F2.8 lens itself and are large and unwieldy. So most wide angle photographers usually use lenses in the range of 16 to 35 mm with standard filter threads for their filter use.
Some of these lenses have a slot at the rear of the lens to take gel filters. But these are usually not as good in quality as the best schott glass filters and there is no way to stack filters with these gel slot filters. Also you don’t really get extra dark NDs for those extra long exposures and it is very difficult to use Grads and CPLs.
If you don’t want to spend a bomb on these super expensive adapters and filters, there are many DIY solutions that many people have successfully implemented to fit filters to these lenses. I too am trying a home made cheap solution to fit my standard 100 mm square filters to my Panasonic 7-14 F4.0. But more on that later.
So what kind of pictures do I get with an UWA and why do I need it. My most used lens on my recent trip to Europe was the Panasonic 7-14 F4.0. This lens enabled me to capture the beautiful interiors of superlative European architecture that no lens would have allowed me to. I was able to shoot at around 1/5 with my In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) equipped Panasonic GX-7 handheld as tripods are not allowed at many locations. Most people use UWAs on tripods and it is also relatively easy to hand hold UWAs without worrying too much about camera shake as the 1/focal length can easily be achieved using UWA lenses. So IMHO VR or any kind of Image Stabilization is good to have but not a must have with UWAs.
My next most used lens was the Panasonic 14 F2.5 and Olympus 9-18 F4.0-5.6. These were mostly used in Mallorca and Munich where a lot of shooting was done with CPL, ND and Grad filters.
The following images are taken with Grad filters.
Here is a long exposure with dark ND filters
Of course, some of the accessories that one needs to have when one has good UWA lenses is a sturdy tripod, ball head and filters. So make sure you invest in those too, to really utilize these amazing lenses to their fullest. For my kind of shooting, UWAs are a must. What about you? 🙂