Is it worth buying a 15-mm or 16-mm lens for a full-frame DSLR?

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June 25, 2015 at 10:30 am  •  Posted in Q&A, Tips & Techniques by  •  3 Comments

Now that I finally own a full-frame DSLR, I wonder if I should buy a lens with a 15-mm or 16-mm focal length. My current zoom can go as wide as 24 mm, which seems like an ultra wide-angle effect to my eye, but is it wide enough?
—Paul C.

A 16-mm focal length provides a super wide angle of view can that can provide dramatic effects not possible with a 24-mm lens. When you tilt the camera upward, however, the “wide-angle distortion” is particularly obvious at an extremely short focal length, but this can provide a dramatic effect. (Nikon D800). © 2015 Peter K. Burian

Well, Paul, a lens needs to have a focal length shorter than 24 mm to be classified as an ultra wide on a full-frame DSLR. While your 24-mm lens does produce a very wide angle of view, shooting at 15 mm or 16 mm can enable you to make super wide-angle images. While travelling in Europe recently, I often used a lens of this type and really appreciated the ability to include much of the interior of a large church or castle in a single frame. Occasionally, I also found the short focal length useful for other types of urban photography and for landscapes.

Granted, the shorter focal lengths do tend to increase the risk of “distorted” perspective as discussed in the previous Q&A “I bought an ultra wide-angle lens and the distortion in my photo is terrible.” However, tilt the lens quite steeply to make your creative intentions obvious to the viewer, and the results can be quite dynamic. For indoor architectural scenes, strive for great symmetry for the most satisfying effect with a super wide lens. In other words, make sure that you position the camera perfectly centred to the scene and that it’s not tilted to the left or right. If necessary, do some slight cropping in software to ensure that the image is perfectly centred.

The difference in the angle of view covered at 16 mm vs. 24 mm is significant, as these sample photos confirm. Note the use of symmetry in both, to minimize the most troublesome aspects of "wide angle distortion." (Nikon D800) © 2015 Peter K. Burian

The difference in the angle of view covered at 16 mm vs. 24 mm is significant, as these sample photos confirm. Note the use of symmetry in both, to minimize the most troublesome aspects of “wide angle distortion.” (Nikon D800) © 2015 Peter K. Burian

Not every owner of a full-frame DSLR will appreciate super wide angle effects. If you’re not sure as to whether this would be a wise investment, consider renting a suitable lens for a few days and use it often. You should have no problem finding a Zeiss 15-mm f/2.8, a Canon 16-35 mm f/2.8 or a Nikon 16-35 mm f/4 model for a DSLR or a Sony 16-35 mm f/4 for a full-frame mirrorless Alpha camera. As a starting place, check out the firms discussed in the previous Q&A “Can you recommend lens-rental companies in Canada?

3 Comments

  1. Steve / June 26, 2015 at 11:12 am / Reply

    I agree with renting/borrowing equipment first, to see if it suits your style. But I use the Sigma 24-105mm Art lens as my primary workhorse, yet when I change to Nikon’s 17-35, those extra 7mm make a world of difference. Granted, that’s usually when I actually want some distortion, but it can be a lot of fun.

  2. Jeff Cruz / July 3, 2015 at 12:27 pm / Reply

    I have in my lens kit:
    24-70 f2.8 (used 90% of the time)
    70-200 f2.8 (used 5% of the time)
    50mm f1.4 (used 3% of the time)
    60mm macro (used 2% of the time
    16-35mm f4.0 (used 1% of the time)

    I do a lot of landscapes and even then I don’t use the 16-35mm all that often. I suppose if you shoot a lot of indoor architecture and urban environments you’ll need it more. I think a specialty prime lens might be something to think about for your next purchase (assuming you don’t have something like that already).

  3. Peter K Burian / July 3, 2015 at 4:09 pm / Reply

    Wow, fabulous lenses, Jeff. And yes, not everyone is a candidate for an ultra wide lens like your 16-35mm. My neighbour for example, primarily photographs birds with a 150-600mm lens and his family with a 24-120mm lens.

    And I also find an ultra wide to be most useful in cities, although many photographers do love it for certain types of landscapes: usually with elements in the foreground, the mid ground, and the background.

    Cheers! Peter Burian

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