I, like many others, put in a huge amount of research hours trying to cover wide angles with my Canon APS-C EOS camera (a 550D, this also applies to the 7D and 60D). I recount my findings here, in the hope that I might save someone else some trouble!
I primarily shoot video with my Canon EOS 550D, and I like to shoot with primes. I don’t own a single zoom lens. Perhaps if I were shooting events and the like I‘d own one, but to be honest I’d probably get a camcorder like the XF300 and use the 550D for nice signature shots. For the money I’ve spent on primes I could’ve bought a few Canon L zoom lenses, but I’ve worked with zoom before and it makes me very lazy, stops me really thinking in a cinematic sense. Plus the work I make is very much planned in advance, so I don’t need to improvise with framing as much as a run-and-gun shooter. I also love shooting in available and low light, and try not to go above ISO400 unless i really have to (it gets too noisy and messy, though I have hsuccessfully used ISO3200 shots in some videos), so I need all the f-stops I can get. Perhaps my attitude will change, but right now it’s primes for me.
As it is I need to cover the useful range of focal-lengths using prime lenses. At the moment I have as follows: Zeiss Contax 28mm f2 “Hollywood”, Zeiss Contax 35mm f2.8, Zeiss Contax 85mm Planar f1.4, Revuenon 55mm f1.2, and a couple of cheaper and unspectacular primes from Cosina and the like, otherwise known as odds, sods and spares! Of course, the 550D has a smaller than 35mm sensor, a 1.6 crop to be exact, making everything appear 1.6-times more ‘zoomed in’ compared to 5D MKii or an old film camera. This becomes a problem when you’re looking to get a fast, wide-angle prime lens. Before crop sensors there was no need for a 12mm f2 rectilinear (meaning “not a distorted fisheye”) prime, for example, so the available options are modern (primarily zoom) glass.
I wanted to cover the range from 10-20mm with a lens or lenses. There are quite a few options here, but all have their own compromises. I work with Thom Haig (his blog is here) and it’s just so happened that he’s ended up purchasing the wide-angle focal lengths, lens wise. When researching lenses we found that all of the 10-20-ish zooms for EF mount are either too slow (Canon 10-22mm f3.5-4.5, Sigma 10-20mm f4-5.6) or, in the case of the Sigma 10-20 f3.5, compromised in terms of performance in order to attain a not-even-that-high speed. Samyang, who produce low priced but relatively high-quality modern, manual lenses, make a 14mm f2.8 prime. Annoyingly, the front element of this beast protrudes, preventing you from attaching filters. Also, the cost makes it well worth paying a little extra for the focal range of the Tokina 11-16mm f2.8. After looking at all the the ultra-wide options, we decided on the Tokina 11-16 f2.8. Despite its limited zoom range it’s pretty fast and very sharp, and is also built wonderfully. It’s a great lens, there’s a reason it sells out so often!
As you can see, this leaves a big gap between 16mm and 28mm. That’s a lot of mm at the wide angle end of the scale, where small focal-length changes make a big difference to field-of-view and image character. But a jump between 16mm and 20/21mm wouldn’t be too bad, so we set about hunting down an option in this range too.
Oh dear. After countless hours of research we noticed that the options were rather limited. Canon’s own 20mm f2.8 is known for being a poor performer, comparatively. Not something we wanted when 20mm is the equivalent of about 32mm (nearly 35mm) in full-frame terms. A very useful focal length! The second-hand market presents the now overpriced Zuiko 21mm f2 and its slower f3.5 brother, or the Contax Zeiss 21mm f2.8, which costs about £1000, with modern Zeiss 21mm f2.8 costing £1300. Leica’s wonderful 21mm f1.4 Summilux-M would be perfect… if it weren’t £4000.
The last three options are more than we have to spend at the moment, while the Zuikos are hard to find. Canon’s 16-35L II is an expensive option, only f2.8, and covers a lot of ground that’s covered already in my own lens collection at an arguably higher quality. After epic amounts of searching we settled on the Sigma 20mm f1.8. Not only fast but readily available too, and you can get it for £250 or so second hand.
Our first full-scale short film shoot has just been and gone, we crammed about 35-hours or so of work into a weekend. You could describe it as ‘full on’. Such tight schedules not only test and expand your own ability, but test the limits of your equipment too. They also allow you to evaluate costing decisions in a real-life context. You can work out where savings should be made, and where you should not eat for a month (don’t take that literally, it’s bad for you) to save yourself a little hassle on set!
Out of all the glass we were using, only the Sigma failed to hold its own, unfortunately. Now let’s be clear, I’m no ‘pixel peeper’. I love glitches and flaws and little characterful errors, flares and ghosts, a bit of ‘breathing’ don’t bother me, no sir. But such lovable flaws were not those displayed by the Sigma. When used at wider aperture settings than f2.8 it was nigh-on impossible to focus, even when zooming in 10x using live view. There was so much aberration that there was no sharp plane-of-focus to be found at all! Bearing in mind that 1080p is about 2MP, it doesn’t bode well for its performance with high-resolution stills. This issue was compounded by the fact that the manual focus ring had a a few frustrating millimetres of play to it before actually ‘biting’ and letting your movements made a difference. This made fine focus adjustment at wide apertures very frustrating.
Reviewing the footage, the Sigma shots at f1.8 (or even f2.4) were all quite soft in comparison to the 28mm Zeiss shots taken at f2. Soft can work sometimes, but most of these were soft in a bad way, not soft in a nice, dreamy way. They were just fuzzy. I other words, I had to close the lens down to f2.8 for it to be usable, somewhat negating it’s purpose as a prime: to be fast and to produce images of high, characteristic quality. To be fair, it is second hand, and there’s a chance that it’s not a perfect copy. Then again, my Hollywood has been through a fair bit of use before it got to me. Zeiss still don’t make autofocus lenses for DSLRs, as they believe it compromises manual control. Drawing on my experience so far, I’m inclined to agree!
So what options are left? I started thinking sideways a little, and found an old Olympus OM Sigma 18mm f2.8 on eBay. OK, it still leaves a 10mm hole in focal lengths, but that should be a workable gap. It’s an odd beast of a lens, nigh on impossible to Google these days. At half a kilo and all-metal construction it’s heavy enough to inspire confidence, so once my OM to EF adapter-ring arrives, I’ll test the lens and post my findings. It was also cheap, so let’s hope it turns out to be a bargain, rather than some wasted saving-cash!
Fast, high-quality glass for a decent price is a hard thing to find in the 10-22mm focal-length range. To be honest, I lust after the Zeiss 21mm f2.8. I’d like a little more speed than f2.8, but I know the lens would be exceptional well built, render images beautifully, and focus with pinpoint accuracy. Perhaps, when it comes to buying wide-angle lenses, eating freeze-dried ramen for a month or two really is worth it?