Thursday, July 31, 2014

COMPARISON: Canon 16-35mm f/4L IS vs 16-35mm f/2.8L II

Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM Lens

The Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens gives users a sharp lens optimized for digital and image stabilization, so that might be enough for some to upgrade. I’d certainly do that if I had a 17-40mm f/4L, but would this new 16-35mm make me want to sell my 16-35mm f/2.8?

I’ve owned the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM Lens for quite some time and I’ve always loved it. Not only was I pleased with the wide angle reach, I was always impressed with the in-camera color/contrast I got from this lens over any of my other lenses. While it wasn’t the sharpest lens I ever owned, it was plenty sharp enough and never let me down. However, all of Canon’s new L lenses that they’ve released since the 200mm f/2L was released have been razor sharp, so I had very high expectations about the quality of this lens.

Hands On Observations

Physically the biggest differences between the the newer f/4 and older 2.8 are the smaller filter size (77mm instead of 82mm for the 2.8) and a slightly less bulge at the end of the lens. Beyond that they are physically very similar.

The addition of IS on the f/4 is nice, but wide angle lenses rarely suffer from camera shake so unless you are dropping below 1/35 sec at 35mm or 1/16 sec at 16mm this isn’t going to be a super important feature. As a result, the addition of IS seems to be more motivated by marketing than necessity, but it’s nice to have there for slower handheld exposures. In my testing it worked fine both handheld and on at tripod for long exposures, so all is well. However, I can’t recall ever having a single shot with my old 2.8 that was blurry due to camera shake.

I did notice that the magical warm bias that was prevalent in the f/2.8 is gone from the f/4, so I’d describe this newer model as having a more neutral to cool color bias. RAW only shooters aren’t going to be impacted by this much, but those pros who count on getting things right in camera will have to spend a little time setting their white balance to match the warm magic of the old f/2.8.

Sharpness-wise, there’s no doubt that the new f/4 is super sharp when you pixel peep with test charts. In real world testing the sharpness at the edges of the frame when wide open on the older f/2.8 lens seems sharper at 16mm and softer at 35mm. Ironically, the inverse is the case for the f/4 which seems to be sharper in the center of the frame but softer at the edges at 16mm than the f/2.8, yet much better than the f/2.8 lens at 35mm. At f/11 both felt pretty evenly matched at the center, so my conclusion is that YES the new f/4 is sharper but not significantly enough to make it super obvious in real world usage.

Unedited Sample Snapshots

The following snapshots were taken during a casual walk with my family of 5 where I had a few seconds to snap some shots with this lens before I had to go back to being dad. What’s shown here are completely unedited in-camera JPEG’s (without in-camera peripheral illumination and distortion correction). These were all taken with a Canon 5D Mark III using the 16-35mm f/4L IS USM only.

f/5.6 @ 35 mm, 1/400, ISO 500, No Flash

f/5.6 @ 18 mm, 1/200, ISO 6400, No Flash

This was one of many cases where I shot into the sun and was pleased to see that the flare was under control. While some may prefer the flare highlights that were more common to the 16-35mm f/2.8L II, I prefer the flare to be contained as I saw here with the side of my lens getting a lot of direct sunlight.

f/22 @ 20 mm, 2s, ISO 100, No Flash

f/22 is totally usable on this lens. Yes you’ll get some diffraction issues from the camera, but people walking into your shot will more likely bother you than the results you get out of camera from this lens.

f/8 @ 35 mm, 1/200, ISO 100, No Flash

If you get up high as I did here (in a tour bus) you can avoid massive distortion by just keeping your camera parallel to the objects that you want to appear straight up and down.

f/7.1 @ 16 mm, 1/200, ISO 100, No Flash

Of course keeping parallel is often hard to do, so you’ll get some whacked out edges if you shoot at an angle. This is true of all wide angles, but full frame sensors definitely emphasize this problem.

f/8 @ 35 mm, 0.8s, ISO 100, No Flash

This was a shot taken with a manual focus on the building in the background. This was taken from a rooftop pool filled with kids where a longer lens was obviously needed, but I forced myself to only use the 16-35mm f/4 on this trip. I couldn’t resist taking a shot of such a cool with a crescent moon next to it.
f/9 @ 35 mm, 10s, ISO 100, No Flash

f/9 is still plenty sharp and 35mm gets rid of most of the distortion

f/9 @ 24 mm, 13s, ISO 100, No Flash

Like its predecessor, 24mm is the sweet spot in the zoom range from what I saw in my testing

f/10 @ 35 mm, 1/100, ISO 8000, No Flash

This is a sharp lens so even when the image starts to soften at higher ISO’s, there’s tons of detail left because this lens is so sharp

f/4 @ 35 mm, 1/200, ISO 1600, No Flash

You won’t get the same low depth of field shots with the f/4 like you will with the f/2.8, but I didn’t really find myself missing f/2.8 for this focal range.

f/11 @ 16 mm, 1/400, ISO 100, No Flash

The great thing about 16mm on a full frame is that you can get lot in the shot.
I was also pleased here that we didn’t get any flare.

f/11 @ 24 mm, 1/500, ISO 1000, No Flash

Wide angles are fun for portraits to get the subject and environment in the same shot. This lens really shines when photographing people. Notice the detail in the hair and shirt.

Visit for more sample photos.


When placed on a tripod with mirror lockup and a timer release some of the real world observations I’ve previously made are more apparent. You can see a full gallery of bookshelf images to compare at However, I’ve pulled a couple aside here to discuss. Click the images to see the full-size unedited in-camera JPEG. The lenses were so close in size that I didn’t have to move the camera when switching lenses.

16-35mm f/4L IS at f/5.6 @ 16 mm, 8s, ISO 100, No Flash

Click the image above to see the full size version of the f/4 shown on the left below.

f/4 (left) is no doubt sharper than the f/2.8 (right)
100% crop of the two bookshelf shots in this section
f/4 (left) is no doubt sharper than the f/2.8 (right),
but notice how the f/2.8 has a more natural warm tone in-camera

Click the image below to see the full size version of the f/2.8 shown on the right above.

16-35mm f/2.8L at f/5.6 @ 16 mm, 8s, ISO 100, No Flash

Feel free to download all of the bookshelf comparison images at for your pixel peeping pleasure, but please delete them when you are done viewing.


If I was a 17-40mm f/4L owner I’d probably upgrade to this lens because I’ve always preferred the 16-35mm range over the 17-40mm range. More importantly though, the 17-40 is a great lens, but it’s not a razor sharp lens like the new 16-35mm f/4L IS, so it’s certainly going to be a compelling option. In this article I focused more on the 16-35mm f/2.8L II vs the new f/4 because that’s the audience that will have a harder time deciding if they give up f/2.8 for a sharper f/4 version with IS. For me the answer will be no, simply because I prefer the color I get from the 2.8 and the sharpness difference isn’t enough to warrant a change. If I were buying my first wide angle zoom then I’d definitely go for the new 16-35mm f/4L IS over the more expensive yet softer 16-35mm f/2.8L.

Where to order

Click here to learn more or order the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens on the B&H web site. Click here to learn more or order the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM Lens.

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Unknown said...

Surprising results. I noticed that the F4 is *much* sharper than the F2.8. See e.g. this: said...

Yes, that's why I said "Sharpness-wise, there’s no doubt that the new f/4 is super sharp when you pixel peep with test charts".

However, the way wide angle lenses are most often used I believe that the difference won't be super obvious in real world applications. This is different from say a 50mm and up where the shots you take tend to me more tight so you can really see a sharpness difference.

I still stick to my advice - if you own the 16-35mm f/2.8L II then I don't see this as a must upgrade, but if you don't own that lens I'd advise getting the 16-35mm f/4L IS as your next wide angle lens.

Unknown said...

I respectfully disagree. Esp. with W/A lenses, there is often stuff in the corners that needs to be sharp too, and the 2.8 is really pretty mushy in the corners. For photo journalists shoving the lens into people's faces to get close to the action, that's fine, but for landscape, I'd definitely prefer the F4. said...


Fair enough, then that would indicate that the 16-35mm f/4L IS is a valuable upgrade to you.

I include the bookshelf and unedited sample shots so that people can see with their own eyes what a real shot looks like versus ISO charts and edited photos so that they draw their own conclusions. I offer my opinion, but in the end it's just that - my opinion. For me I see nothing compelling enough for me to take the financial loss on my 16-35mm f/2.8L II and pick up the f/4, but as I said in my review - if someone doesn't own a wide angle then the f/4 is a great choice to start with.