Canon 17-40mm f4 v Nikon 17-35mm f2.8 v Zeiss 21mm f2.8 Distagon
[published march 2007]

The first time I tested a lens purposefully was in 2001. I’d bought a Canon 17-40mm f4 L for the 1Ds Mark I and couldn’t believe the results I was getting – in a bad way. The incredulous dealer said the fault was mine: ‘you don’t get problems with L lenses.’ They’re the experts, right? I exited like a smacked dog, fearfully contemplating the gradient of the learning curve with this new-fangled digital gear, and I tested and re-tested that hateful little zoom until I’d convinced myself (if not the dealer) that all was not well.

Back in those days, mind, you could get a Zeiss 21mm, W1 hood, 82mm polariser, signed inspection certificates and a nice box to take it all home in – stop for a pizza and a show at the picture house and still have change from $1500, by gum. Eee, it were grand . . . anyway, it appeared that Canon could do no better. What I really needed was my cherished Biogon 21mm but only the inferior Distagon was available. Eventually I came across Bob Shell who, along with Stephen Gandy, was the earliest of the early adapter adopters.

Putting a ZEISS lens on a CANON camera was just too exciting – and the results were astonishing. Flushed with the joy of discovery, I hastily cobbled together the results of a few test shots and created a web page purely to elicit a refund from the dealer. That page has taken more than a million hits in the last six years. And the evangelical urge hasn’t quite dissipated yet . . . .

The preamble is necessary to explain why I’ve not tested a 17-40mm since. Mindful of the fact that the oft-viewed samples shown may not be representative of the average sample, I’ve decided to reprise the test for 2007 with several different copies, and include in the mix my favourite wide zoom: the Nikon 17-35mm f2.8 which, controversially, I favoured with my wallet above even the converted Contax N 17-35mm.

Extended acquaintance with the Canon 16-35mm Mark I also opened my eyes to the extent to which zooms are tuned to perform in specific ranges. The 16-35mm, for instance, is a relatively shabby performer in the 16-24mm range, but pretty tasty from 28mm up. I guess that’s why they redesigned it. The 17-40mm, however, is optimised conversely and seemed likely to outperform its more expensive sibling at the lower end – providing a healthy sample could be obtained. Several were tried.

As if the past six years hadn’t happened, only last week the adolescent in charge of my local dealership regurgitated that old, familiar lie when I returned with images to demonstrate a defect: ‘But that’s not possible, sir: it’s an L.’ WAKE UP AND SMELL THE REALITIES OF MASS PRODUCTION!

Anyhow, several copies later, we have one that works well enough to spend some time with. Here’s the rematch . . .