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Choosing a Wide Angle Lens

Wide angle lenses are great. They give a view of the world that just seems to be more interesting than how we see it. They are great for a lot of different subjects, but especially as a landscape photographer, my wide angle lens puts in a ton of hours.

16mm View on a Full-FrameThis is 16mm on a full-frame camera (equiv. to 10mm on a small-frame)

In this post, I will lay out my recommendations for a super wide angle zoom. But before we get into it, let me explain that term "super wide angle zoom." First of all, the term "zoom" does not mean "zoomed in" or "magnified." A zoom lens is simply a lens that isn't stuck at a single magnification. By rotating the zoom ring, you can change how magnified your subject is.

I personally prefer zoom lenses over prime lenses (lenses that don't zoom). They are much more convenient and there is no major difference in image quality these days.

Secondly, "super wide angle" is a pretty loose term. There isn't a set cut off as to what makes something "super wide angle." But I'm going to go ahead and say anything wider than 24mm on a full-frame camera or 16mm on a small-frame camera could be considered "super wide angle." Plain old "wide angle" would be about 24-35mm on a full-frame and 16-24mm on a small-frame.

So that being said, let's look at the lenses I recommend.

Canon 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5

For A Canon Small-Frame Camera
Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 (buy)

This lens is the widest-angle lens Canon makes for their small-frame line of cameras (excluding fisheye). At 10mm, you'll get an angle of view around 107 degrees. That's plenty wide for those sweeping vistas. It also has a USM (Ultra Sonic Motor) Auto Focus drive. That means ultra fast and ultra quiet focusing. At about $750-$800, it's not super cheap, but it gives you a lot of bang for your buck. Every serious landscape photographer using one of the Rebel series cameras, the 60D, 50D, 40D or 7D should seriously consider adding this lens to their collection.

Canon 17-40mm f/4LFor a Canon Full-Frame Camera
Canon 17-40mm f/4L (buy)

Canon offers 2 super wide angle zooms for full-frame cameras: the 17-40mm f/4L and the 16-35mm f/2.8L. Both are professional-grade lenses, delivering the finest quality optics Canon has to offer. I personally use the 16-35mm, but I'm going to recommend the 17-40mm. First of all, the 17-40mm runs about $700-$800, whereas the 16-35mm runs about $1500. That's a big difference in price. The 16-35mm obviously has a slightly wider view, but really, that loss of 1mm with the 17-40mm is no issue at all. Plus, with the 17-40, you get an additional 5mm in the long end. Yes, the max aperture is a bit smaller at f/4 vs f/2.8, but that's no big deal either because you won't often be using the widest aperture - especially not for landscapes. And lastly, the 17-40mm has a 77mm filter thread. The 16-35mm has an 82mm filter thread. 77mm filters are a little easier to come by and the Cokin P filter system (of which I'm a strong supporter) tops out at 77mm.

Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5For a Nikon Small-Frame Camera
Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G (buy)

For you Nikon small-frame shooters, I'd say go with the Nikon 10-24mm lens. 10mm on a Nikon small-frame will give you an obscenely wide angle of view (equivalent to 15mm on a full-frame camera). The Silent Wave Motor means fast, quiet focusing, and a filter thread diameter of 77mm means this lens is compatible with the Cokin P filter system. Runs about $875. Another option is the Nikon 12-24mm f/4G. The optics are a little better than the 10-24, but it's pricier at $1200 and you lose 2mm on the wide end of the lens. 2mm doesn't sound like much, but a 2mm increase on a 10mm lens is a 20% loss of focal length. I'd say stick with the 10-24mm.

Nikon 16-35mm f/4GFor a Nikon Full-Frame Camera
Nikon 16-35mm f/4G (buy)

A lot of people in the Nikon world make a big deal out of the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G. They rave about its image quality and the fact that it can zoom out ultra wide to 14mm, which gives the widest angle of view I'm aware of from a non-fisheye lens. I'm sure the image quality is great and, yes, the super wide view of 14mm is pretty cool, but this lens has one colossal flaw that few people ever address: it doesn't have front filter threads. That means you can't use any of those vital-for-landscape-photography filters like a polarizer or neutral density. Split NDs are definitely out of the question with this lens. So as far as I'm concerned, this lens is practically useless for landscape photography. Oh, and it costs $2000. Instead, I'd recommend the Nikon 16-35mm f/4G. 16mm is as wide as you'll ever need, it has excellent optics and, best of all, it has a front filter thread for 77mm filters. Plus, you'll save almost $900 over the 14-24mm.

Lunar Eclipse – December 2011

December 2011 Lunar Eclipse from Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, CAClick image for a larger view

Many of you are probably already aware that we had a full lunar eclipse early this morning. The eclipse started at 4:45 am (Pacific Time) with the earth set to cast its full shadow over the face of the moon starting at 6:05 am on the morning of December 10, 2011. The eclipse would coincide nicely with the moonset, which meant it would be in the perfect position to catch it over the Pacific Ocean.

Having previously visited Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve for sunset photos, I knew of a perfect Torrey Pine tree that I could place in the foreground for a great accent to the eclipse. With the park over an hour's drive from my home, plus another 45 minutes to hike in, I had no choice but to wake up at 2:30 in the morning and make the long haul with tired eyes.

To be completely honest, the eclipse wasn't as spectacular as the news stories predicted - the moon didn't turn a blood red color and it didn't look abnormally large - and my pictures aren't quite as dramatic as I had envisioned, but regardless, it was well worth the effort. And since the next full lunar eclipse isn't for another 3 years, I figured I better at least go see it. Besides, the breathtaking walk along an empty beach in moonlight as I made my way to the park was reward enough.

December 2011 Lunar Eclipse from Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, CAClick image for a larger view

Update:
I also wanted to share a photo from one of my photographer friends, Corey Sandler, based here in Southern California. He set up on the beach in Laguna to photograph the eclipse and wrote about his experience over at his blog. Check it out here. And be sure to browse through his site. He's a superb event and portrait photographer offering his services throughout Orange County, San Diego and Los Angeles.

Lunar Eclipse by Corey Sandler