Trying to choose the right ultra wide angle lens for you? This post compares and contrasts the most popular options for Canon and Nikon DSLRs, and weighs the pros and cons of each, including price, sharpness, size, field of view, distortion, and several other factors that will–or should–impact your decision when choosing an ultra wide angle lens.
For this post, we’re going to look primarily at lenses for entry level or crop sensor DSLRs (DX format on Nikon). Don’t know what that means? For Nikon, it includes the D500 and below; for Canon, the 7D and below. (If you own the popular Nikon D3300 or Canon T5, you own a crop sensor camera.)
I decided I should put this post together because I’ve been indoctrinated so heavily into the Ultra Wide Angle Cult (join us on strange trips with Donald Duck to Mathmagic Land as we go out hunting the right angles!) and have owned or tested nearly a dozen wide angle lenses over the years. Despite this, I’ve only reviewed the Tokina 11-16mm lens, which is (spoiler alert) my favorite option for crop sensor wide angle lenses.
Before we dig into the comparisons, I should probably provide some caveats regarding my personal preferences. For me, field of view at the widest end of the lens is incredibly important. Value for money is also really important, as is sharpness. Things like vignetting, chromatic abberation, and distortion all matter very little to me. This is because each of these issues can be quickly resolved with a single click in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. They may be inherent “problems” with the lenses, but in practical terms, they make almost no difference, so who cares? (That’s my thinking, at least.)
Value and sharpness speak for themselves, but I think field of view probably deserves a little more explanation. With wide lenses, 1-2mm makes a huge difference. The field of view of an 18-55mm kit lens at 18mm is 66°. Field of view at 12mm is 88.5°, for a difference of over 20°, despite only a 6mm difference. By contrast, the difference between a 35mm lens (37°) and a 50mm lens (26.3°) is half that, despite a 15mm difference. In other words, every 1mm at the wide end means a lot in terms of field of view.
With that in mind, my ratings give almost zero value to zoom range. For me, an ultra wide angle lens’ field of view is almost entirely defined by its widest focal length. Over 95% of the time, I’m using a wide angle lens at its widest focal length. I could not care less about its “reach” on the longer end, because I have other lenses for that. Your mileage may vary on this.
For the purposes of this post, we’re only going to discuss lenses that are wider than 18mm. While 18mm technically qualifies as wide angle, we’re focused here on ultra wides.
I cannot in good conscience recommend any of these options for entry level DSLRs, or any crop sensor cameras, really. In fairness, I can only speak to Nikon on this, since these are the lenses I’ve owned, but I think the same holds true with Canon.
The “problem” for Nikon and Canon is that the third party lens manufacturers, particularly Sigma and Tokina, have found ways to produce such exceptional ultra wide angle lenses. My very first ultra-wide was the Nikon 12-24mm f/4, and it was without question a capable lens, but I only purchased it because, at the time, I was using a Nikon D40, and that was the best option at that time. As soon as I upgraded to the Nikon D90, I purchased a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 (at the time, the Tokina would not autofocus with Nikon’s entry level cameras–a problem that has long since been fixed with an updated version of the lens).
Not only was the Tokina 11-16mm just as sharp as the Nikon lens, but it was also wider, faster, and cheaper. I subsequently tried out the Nikon 10-24mm, and while advantageous for the extra 1mm over the Tokina, I couldn’t get past its price and aperture.
Over the years, I’ve found that you’re generally paying a significant premium for first-party lenses because of the name stamped on them. In some cases, the quality is there to justify this premium (such as with the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 or Canon 85mm f/1.2) and in other cases the first-party lenses can be viewed as a good “investment” that will hold (or appreciate) in value. Similarly, working professionals might want to stick with first-party lenses because it’s easier for having them cleaned, serviced, etc.
However, for photography enthusiasts choosing their first wide angle lens, particularly those on a budget, it’s difficult to recommend a first-party option. The lenses Sigma and Tokina are making are just as good or better, and at lower prices. Given that, I think it’s kind of silly to opt for one of the Nikon or Canon options…
The Sigma 8-16mm is my second-favorite option for ultra-wide angle photography on crop sensor DSLRs. The main reason why this lens is #2 is because of that 8mm wide end. With a 112° field of view, this lens offers ~19° of perspective more than its 11mm Tokina rivals. It’s even wider than the wide angle gold standard Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 (the Sigma 8-16mm is the equivalent of 12-24mm on full frame).
Without question, this is the most compelling reason for choosing the Sigma 8-16mm. When it comes to sharpness, I would say the Tokina lenses are ever-so-slightly sharper in the center and noticeably better in the corners (no surprise since the Tokina isn’t as wide), but the Sigma is certainly no slouch. In every other regard, the Tokina lenses also beat it. As f/2.8 lenses they are faster, can accept filters, have a slightly better build quality, and are cheaper.
When I purchased the Sigma 8-16mm lens, the biggest issue I had to overcome was lens flare. Coming from the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, which controlled flare very well for an ultra wide, I was not expecting this. Now, I’m a sucker for sunbursts and controlled, J.J. Abrams’ style flare for dramatic effect, but this something far worse. Whenever a bright light source was in or just outside the edge of the frame, I had to deal with haze, ghosting, artifacts, and uncontrolled flare. Over time, I learned to deal with this by adjusting my angle, but there was a learning curve…and a lot of time spent in Photoshop cleaning up spots in my photos.
Now, let’s take a look at the Tokina options…
Tokina 11-16 or 20mm f/2.8
I still remember when I got the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. It was like a revelation. I gush over it in my Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 Lens Review, and all of that praise holds true today, even now that I own the wonderful Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. It is exceptionally sharp (even wide open), well-built, controls flare well, and has that f/2.8 aperture. (For Disney dark rides, in particular, that f/2.8 aperture is a huge advantage.) Pound for pound, this is the best value in ultra wide angle photography. Or, it was.
I say was because last year Tokina released the Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8. My experience with the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 is far more extensive than it is with the newer Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8. I owned the former for several years, whereas I only tested the latter for about an hour. Not exactly an apples to apples comparison, but it felt like the Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8 was simply an “update” to the Tokina 11-16mm.
That seems odd, but what I gleaned from my limited use was that the Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8 is more or less the same lens (I’m not sure about optics, and the filter size is different). It looks similar, is similarly-sized, and usage feels quite similar. The only notable difference to me was the 4mm on the long end. Obviously, this was far too cursory of use for a proper evaluation, but my initial impression is that the new lens is more or less an update to the winning formula of its predecessor.
Personally, the extra 4mm on the long end does almost nothing for me. I’d rather have 1mm on the wide end, but I realize this is easier said than done while retaining that f/2.8 aperture and filter threading. Your mileage may vary on that extra 4mm, but irrespective of that, I’d choose the new Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8 lens for one simple reason: long term value.
The Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8 lens is a hot new item (it’s still backordered from time to time, much like the 11-16mm used to be), and will hold its value better over time. On the other hand, the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 is now almost $100 cheaper, so I guess it really comes down if you want to save money now or have long term value (and whether that 4mm matters to you–I wouldn’t put too much stock into it, but that’s just me).
For me, every other crop sensor ultra wide angle lens not previously mentioned is a “compromise” option. The most noteworthy of these is the Sigma 10-20mm f/3.5. For many people, this has a lot of people because thanks to its 10mm wide end and ability to accept filters. It’s also pretty sharp and well-built. For me, giving up the f/2.8 aperture of the Tokinas is not worth the gain on the wide end. (Conversely, if being as wide as possible matters more to you, just get the Sigma 8-16mm.) If you’re somewhere in between, this is a good compromise option. “Compromise” is often a pejorative term, but in this case, it very well might be a good thing for you. Personally, it just wasn’t for me.
Likewise, there’s the Tamron 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5. I’m even less keen on this option. Unless you can really score a great deal here, I don’t see the point of going this direction. All of the Sigma and Tokina lenses discussed above are sharper and faster. Okay, it has 24mm of reach, but who cares? You will almost certainly have another lens in your bag that covers the 24mm end of the spectrum, so that is superfluous.
There are other, older third and first party lenses, but I don’t think any of them even merit mention. You may be tempted to look at something like the Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 because of low prices on it and a 4.5* Amazon rating on it, but keep in mind that this is an older lens not designed for today’s higher resolution DSLR sensors (and most of those reviews are 10+ years old and are based on older technology). Just because something is cheaper does not mean it offers good value for money…
I mentioned above that I’m a card-carrying member of the Ultra Wide Angle Cult, chasing the right angles with Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land and jousting with our main rivals, the Pythagoreans (they’re so smug because they can grow more epic beards). There was even a point when I carried both the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 and Sigma 8-16mm lenses in my camera bag at the same time, plus the Rokinon 8mm fisheye. (By the way, if you’re in the market for a fisheye, I now recommend the Opteka 6.5mm fisheye. It’s optically the same as the Rokinon 8mm, but cheaper for some reason.)
In retrospect, carrying 2 ultra wides and a fisheye was definitely overkill, but this underscores just how much I love wide lenses. While I now shoot full frame, I still carry an ultra-wide and a fisheye. If I were to go back to full frame, I would skip the Sigma 8-16mm this time, and opt for the Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8 (or 11-16mm) and the Opteka 6.5mm fisheye (which isn’t actually 6.5mm–it’s 8mm just like the Rokinon).
If you’re looking for the tl;dr version of this: buy the Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8 (or 11-16mm if you’re on a tighter budget) plus the Opteka fisheye and call it a day. In my opinion, this is the best compromise because the Opteka fisheye can cover the wide territory of the Sigma 8-16mm, and could potentially be de-fisheyed for something distortion-free, while the Tokina UWAs are versatile options for most wide angle needs, can accept neutral density & polarizing filters, and would also be a great for low-light situations thanks to the f/2.8 aperture.
Want to learn more about photography to take great photos in the Disney theme parks and beyond? The best place to start is Tom’s Ultimate Disney Parks Photography Guide, which covers a variety of topics from links to tutorials, tips, and tricks to recommendations for point & shoots, DSLRs, lenses, and more!
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Do you own one of the ultra wide angle lenses discussed here? What are your thoughts on it? Any other ultra wide opinions? Are you debating between any of these lenses? Any questions? Share your thoughts in the comments!