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19-21mm hall of fame

Despite being a highly desirable focal length for landscape,interiors and architectural photographers, at the time of writing no uncompromised retrofocus SLR lens exists that can resolve to the limit of the latest 13MP and 16MP 35mm sensors across the frame.

This may come as a shock to anyone previously indoctrinated as to the excellence of Canon's L lenses, for example. An expanding community of professional photographers therefore despairs at the woefully inadequate performance available with currently available wide angles, none of which were designed for their current application, many of which are based on decades-old optical technology.

I echo the despairing cry of many: Canon - if you can - bring to market a 17-21mm f2.8 or f4 prime able to keep pace with your own FF sensors.

Rather than grading these lenses with a single number representing overall average performance, they have been subjectively ranked for specific attributes. A perfect score for sharpness, for instance, would be the performance of the Canon 85mm f1.2 at f5.6...


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9.6 - Contax/Zeiss 21mm
9.3 - Leica 19mm
9.2 - Nikon 17-35mm AF-S
9.1 - Olympus 21mm f2
9.0 - Olympus 21mm f3.5
8.8 - Leica 21-35mm
8.7 - Sigma 20mm
8.2 - Sigma 15-30mm
8.1 - Canon 16-35mm
7.9 - Canon 17-40mm
7.9 - Tamron SP17-35mm
7.2 - Canon 20mm
6.9 - Rolleinar 21mm

The resolving power of the Zeiss 21mm Distagon is extraordinary. If it were rated by photodo, I believe it would achieve a mark close to 4.0.

Another lens worthy of consideration is the Zeiss Jena Flektogon 20mm f4.0 available in M42 screw fitting. Good samples are capable of scoring 8.5, poor ones closer to 7.0. Your best chance of locating a good one is to track down a late model variant with a 4-digit serial number - and budget for a service.


9.5 - Leica 19mm
9.5 - Olympus 21mm f3.5
9.5 - Zeiss Jena Flektogon 20mm
9.5 - Nikon 17-35mm AF-S
9.4 - Olympus 21mm f2
9.4 - Leica 21-35mm
9.2 - Canon 16-35mm
9.0 - Canon 17-40mm
8.9 - Rolleinar 21mm
8.2 - Sigma 15-30mm
7.8 - Contax/Zeiss 21mm
7.7 - Sigma 20mm
6.9 - Tamron SP17-35mm

Waveform (AKA 'gullwing' and 'moustache') distortion is here penalised more heavily because of its greater resistance to digital correction. Both the Contax 21 and Sigma 20 are particularly prone to this phenomenon, whereas the Leica and Olympus have relatively mild barrel geometry, with a twist.


9.5 - Contax/Zeiss 21mm
9.3 - Leica 19mm
9.3 - Leica 21-35mm
9.3 - Nikon 17-35mm AF-S
9.1 - Olympus 21mm f2
9.1 - Olympus 21mm f3.5
9.0 - Sigma 20mm
8.9 - Canon 16-35mm
8.9 - Canon 17-40mm
8.5 - Sigma 15-30mm
7.5 - Tamron SP17-35mm


Among the wide angles, Leica and Zeiss rule the roost; whether your favour the Leica's nicer colour rendering and lower distortion, or the Zeiss' superior contrast, resolution and 3D quality depends on your subject matter and personal preference. However, both Olympus 21mm lenses genuinely deserve their place at the top table: the floating close range correction element in the f2 endows it with fractionally better near-field performance, but either design is a very credible - and much cheaper - alternative to the pricey German lenses, while offering clear benefits over the manufacturer's modern zooms - which in turn general outperform their Mesozoic f2.8 primes.

However, Nikon's 17-35mm AF-S is not only beautifully made, unlike the Canon wide angles, it truly merits its price tag, and at the time of writing must be considered one of the most cost-effective and undervalued wide angle solutions available.


Contax, M42, Olympus, Nikon and Leica lenses
on Canon and EOS digital SLRs:

Compatible lenses and EF adaptor suppliers

Adapters list updated 8/11/05

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