Canon 5D wide angle night photography

Flying horse (fenced) — by Joe Reifer

Feb 2010 Update: Newer wide angle lenses to consider for the 5D Mark II:

This article is over 3 years old, but still gets a lot of visits. I upgraded in early 2009 to the Canon 5D Mark II, which pushes the resolution limits of Canon’s wide angle zooms even more. Neither the 17-40mm f/4L or 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens is acceptable in the corners on this 21 megapixel camera. The 5D II is also pushing the limits of the Olympus OM Zuiko 21mm f/3.5 lens. Don’t panic. There are some great wide angle options for Canon full frame digital SLRs:
  • Zeiss Distagon 21mm f/2.8 ZE — if 21mm is your focal length of choice, and you have the budget, then look no further. Solid metal build, sharp as a knife, with that magic Zeiss 3D pop. Would make a nice companion to the 24-70/2.8L. Downsides? No autofocus, not as fast as the 24mm f/1.4L II, moustache distortion. I’m trying to decide between the 24mm f/1.4L II and this lens, and I’m leaning towards the Zeiss.
  • Canon 24mm f/3.5L TS-E II — Very sharp at f/5.6, even when shifted. Sharp in the corners. In a different league than the poor performing version I of this lens. A great lens for architecture and landscape photography. Downsides? You may have to wait to get one, and they’re $2200. I owned this lens for a few months, and found I wasn’t using the movements very much.
  • Canon 24mm f/1.4L II — The same price as the Zeiss 21mm, and 2 stops faster with autofocus. Again much better than the version 1 predecessor. Downsides? Price, and Canon lens quality control (i.e., sample variation).

The choice boils down to focal length preference, and whether you need tilt-shift. Hard to go wrong with any of these options.

Wide angle options

The image above is 11 minutes, f/16, ISO 50 with in camera noise reduction, using an Olympus Zuiko 21mm f/3.5 lens on the 5D with a Cameraquest adapter. The center sharpness of this tiny prime lens is on par with Canon’s wide angle zooms, but the Zuiko walks all over the Canon 17-40/4L and 16-35/2.8L in the corners of the frame. The only significantly sharper lens at this focal length is the fabled Contax Zeiss 21mm Distagon, which currently runs $2500-3500 on the used market. Some people have also resorted to using the Nikon 17-35mm zoom on their EOS cameras with an adapter. Blasphemy!

If you use a 20D, 30D, 40D, 50D or other Canon dSLR with a smaller sensor, don’t throw your zoom on the junk heap quite yet. This problem is with the edges of the frame, which are not utilized by 1.6x crop cameras. But if you are a 5D, 5D II, or 1DS series owner who has looked at your wide angle images at 50% or 100% in Photoshop, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Canon wide angle zooms show a loss of sharpness and smearing of detail near the edges of the frame, even when stopped down at f/8 or f/11. I would like to thank Mark over at for his extensive lens testing and comparisons. His site is a great resource.

Olympus Zuiko 21mm

Using aftermarket lenses on Canon EOS cameras can be an expensive and time consuming rabbit hole to go down. Fortunately, the Zuiko lenses made for the Olympus OM system are quite small, light, and reasonably priced in most cases. The Olympus 21/3.5 usually sells in the $300-500 range. There is also a Zuiko 21mm f/2 lens that will give you a brighter viewfinder image, and has an additional lens element for close focusing. This lens is usually $800-1000. Extensive specs and technical information on Olympus OM lenses can be found on the MIR website. The Olympus 18/3.5 and 24mm shift lens are both stunning performers that do not fall into the “reasonably priced” range.

The Zuiko lenses are manual focus, and the aperture needs to be stopped down manually. Manual focus lenses are great for night photography — unlike modern zooms and even high end prime lenses, most manual lenses have a decent manual focusing scale. Before shooting anything critical with manual focus lenses, I recommend taking test shots at different focus settings and analyzing the results.

Focus calibration

Do not focus by only using the markings on the lens, or with an online depth of field calculator. The old trick of setting infinity on the focus scale one aperture wider than you are shooting may or may not work. You’ll get the best results by taking test shots at different focus settings to calibrate how the lens focuses on your camera.

For night photography exposure calculation, it’s easiest to pick an aperture and stick with it. I usually like to shoot at f/8, both for sharpness and exposure time.

Perhaps the night photographer’s addendum to the “f/8 and be there” axiom is “f/8 and be there for 10 minutes.”

I tested the Olympus 21/3.5 in the daytime at 5 or 6 different focus settings and made notes about where the focus ring was set. After analyzing the results in Photoshop, I determined I get the best results by shooting at f/8 with the focus set at 3 meters.

Night photographers, do you see where I’m going with this line of thinking? No more fumbling with a flashlight and praying that your wide angle zoom focuses where you want it to. No more having someone stand in the photo holding a cell phone so you have something to focus on. No more taking 4 test shots at high ISO to gauge your focus accuracy before shooting. I just set the lens to the 3 meter mark, stop the aperture down to f/8, and take the shot.

This focus setting also works just fine at f/11 and f/16, which is useful if you need a longer exposure. I wanted longer star trails in the above image — due to strong tungsten street lighting, I stopped down to f/16 to get an 11 minute exposure. I realize after finishing this article that it really could be entitled “in praise of the Olympus 21mm lens.” It really is the full frame wide angle shooter’s most economical choice for sharp, wide angle shooting.

For more information on Zuiko lenses, have a look at Gary Reese’s extensive Olympus OM System Lens Tests. Adapters to use Olympus lenses on EOS cameras can be purchased from Cameraquest or Fotodiox.

28 thoughts on “Canon 5D wide angle night photography”

  1. The later (integral filter) Leica 19/2.8 is also a good (if not cheap, and requiring some filing) option.

    Yeah, scale focusing at night is so much easier, but the hopeless distance scales on AF lenses make it really hard. As much as I like the stellar image quality of my Leica 19, I think I like the wonderful distance scale better :-).

  2. Hello Joe. I strongly disagree with the following sentence:
    Canon wide angle zooms show a loss of sharpness and smearing of detail near the edges of the frame, even when stopped down at f/8 or f/11.

    While it’s nice for you to have so much confidence in your Zuiko prime, it’s not a legitimate reason to write such a statement for the entire line of Canon ultra wide angle zoomlenses.

    I’d like to send you a picture of my 17-40 + 5D combo, so you can see that the sentence you wrote is not true and so you can rectify it in this article. e-mail me so I can reply to you.

  3. Hi Roger -

    The 2nd generation Leica 19mm has an excellent reputation. As a Leica M-camera user, I am quite fond of the Leica’s superb build quality and signature look. I’ve seen some before and after photos of the surgery required to get the rear of this lens to clear the mirror — doesn’t look nearly as drastic as the images of taking a dremel tool to the 5D mirror I’ve seen on If the Leica 21-35mm zoom was a better performer at 21mm, I would consider getting one. Right now, the combination of a Zuiko 21mm and Canon 24-70/2.8L are working well for me.



  4. Hi Guillaume -

    I have owned the 16-35/2.8L, 2 different copies of the 17-40, and 2 copies of the Olympus 21mm f/3.5. The 17-40/4L and 16-35/2.8L offer more than acceptable results for most shooters. However, I stand by my words that Zuiko, Leica, or Zeiss glass outperform both of these Canon zooms in the corners. Quite a few other photographers have also come to the same conclusion after testing alternative lenses. Take a look at the Zeiss 21mm comparison, and you’ll realize why people are paying so much for this lens.



  5. Hi Joe. I have no problems at all with you comparing the CZ Distagon and the Leica 19mm to the Canon zooms. The conclusion of those lenses outperforming the Canons is one I do accept and I have no problems believing it, since I already know the reputation, the price and the performance of those primes.

    But I’d like to have a rectification of the last part of this sentence:”Canon wide angle zooms show a loss of sharpness and smearing of detail near the edges of the frame, even when stopped down at f/8 or f/11″.

    I agree on the first part, the Canons do show loss of sharpness and smearing of detail at the edges. But even at f/8 and f/11? That’s something I can not accept, since my 17-40 (my second copy as well, calibrated after a backfocus issue) shows no loss of sharpness and no smearing of detail at those apertures, especially not at 19mm and 21mm.
    And I don’t believe my 17-40 is the only sample that’s sharp from edge to edge at f/11 at those focal lengths.

  6. Joe, thanks for the research – looks like this lens can be a real assett.

    Guillaume – I have plenty of dissapointing 16-35 & 17-40 results, and I’m glad to see someone out there doing their research.

  7. Great article !
    The loss of sharpness in the corners raise an interesting issue.
    Many bloggers hope that one day all the digital cameras will be built around full-frame sensors. But if they require expensive prime lenses not to show vignetting and other issues in the corners, they’re will always be a market for small sensored DSLR for casual photographers.
    My 0.02$ ;)

  8. Guillaume maybe you aren’t being as critical as the testers, or perhaps in your photography it is not noticeable.

    I have gone through 4 Canon wide angles (some better than others but still not great) before I gave up and started asking other photographers and some digital techs. Everyone had the same experience with their 1Ds Mk2 and wide angles, of the photographers 1/2 just live with the lower quality, 1/4 switched to a Nikon lens, and 1/4 rent a medium format back when they need the quality.

    The Nikon was very easy to get ahold of but after looking at the 16-9 site though I’ll have to go check out the Contax/Zeiss 21mm. Anyone have personal experience with it?

  9. My experience with the 17-40 was very similar, I was confused by all of the reports of this lens being sharp.
    I even tried a buddies copy and the results were the same.

    I too heard from a Canon rep that the 16-35 was worse but I bought one to see for myself. I am happy to report that my 16-35 is one incredible lens, it is much sharper than the 17-40. The 21mm prime may well be sharper at the corners but my copy of the 16-35 is excellent for a zoom.

    It would be good for you to try a 16-35 and show your results.


  10. Guillaume,

    I would like to see your example of a full-frame shot taken at 17mm with the the 17-40 f/4 L. I am not familiar with any other rigorous tests that came to the same conclusions that you mentioned. My own experiments with my 1 copy of my 17-40mm on a crop sensor, although quite acceptable, clearly do show some degredation in the corners (and remember that’s on a 1.6X crop sensor):

    Andy Frazer

  11. Hi Joe–

    Been using the Zuiko 21 f2.0, the 24 f2.8 and the 28 f2.0 for more than a year on Canon bodies (1ds2 and 5d) and they’re stellar performers.

    One *other* thing they have over any of the Canon zooms, at any aperture, IMO, is that they’re remarkably well-corrected for wide angles. I have no problem using the 21 or 28 for contextual portraits, even, and for buildings, well, less time in Photoshop is money in the bank!

    I’m not brave enough to clip my Leica 19 into Canon submission or to shave the mirror on the 5d. Just can’t bring myself to do it :) But it’s true about the Leica R lenses–they are superb (and I use what I can on the Canons and on the DMR, too).

  12. hi i am new here- i will be buying a 5d what is you recomendation on a wide angle for architectural – to go with leica or contax- i know you are talking about mark 2 with the smaller sensors -by using leica or contax will there still be smudge edges since it is a full frame sensor om the 5d?

  13. Hi Werner -

    The Contax 21mm and latest version of the Leica 19mm both have excellent reputations, but are over $2000 on the used market. The Zuiko 21mm or 18mm are excellent, more cost effective alternatives. At this point I would probably wait until the 16-35/2.8L II is available though.

    Yes, the 1.3x crop sensor of the 1D MkIII will be more forgiving with edge sharpness on wide angle lenses — but your wide angle lenses become effectively longer. If 10 megapixels is enough resolution, it looks like a sweet camera. The 16-35mm lens effective becomes a 21-45mm, which is a nice range of focal lengths.



  14. Hi Joe,

    Incredible detail from the Zeiss lens. But I have to agree with Guillaume. The 17-40 lens is not as blurred at the edges below f8 or f11 as your review suggests. Perhaps the copy I have is above average, or one of the good batches. I do feel you’ve tarred all the canon wide angles (which admittedly aren’t that exceptional) with the same brush.

    Just to make it clear – I’m no Canon enthusiast. If anything, I’m a Mamiya 7II supporter. My images over the last six years have been made with this machine and the lenses are excellent. It’s been painful for me to try out a 5D and experience the digital-revolution in all it’s complex glory. But as much as I don’t feel my 17-40 lens is something to shout about, it’s not soft at the edges below f11.

    I love the review of the Zuiko – it makes me want to go out there and buy one and try it out. My reason for opting for the 17-40 in the first place was for ‘extended wide angle coverage’. I like my images to have a 6×7 aspect ratio, but find the Canon 24mm lenses don’t give me the same coverage that the Mamiya 50 does (equivalent to 25mm in 35mm terms). So I’m keen to get a lens that is exceptional for wide angle use.

    I only tend to use 24mm for landscape work, so stopping it down for metering isn’t an issue.

    I’d consider the Zeiss 21mm lens – it’s ‘almost’ affordable for me taking into account the uk exchange rate at the moment. And that review of it makes it look like it will make the need to upgrade to a new DSLR body for the next (long while) a non requirement. Thanks for the info and the review.

    Bruce Percy

  15. Hi Bruce,

    I recently had a chance to try out yet another copy of the 17-40/4L on the 5D. This lens was manufactured this year, and showed much better corner performance than other copies that I’ve tested — almost on par with the Olympus 21/3.5 Zuiko with both lenses at 21mm f/8. Had the first copy of the 17-40/4L I bought back in 2003 performed this well, I never would have dabbled in alternative lenses in the first place.

    It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens to optical performance when the new Canon 1DS MkIII hits the streets. The 1DS II was already pushing the limits for the Canon wide angles – we’ll see how the optics hold up at 21MP!



  16. The Canon 17-40mm is by far the poorest Canon lens I have every used, viewed at 100% the images were very soft at the edges at all apertures, in fact softer at one side than the other. Useless

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