Canon 16-35mm f2.8 II v Leica 19mm f2.8 v Olympus 18mm f3.5
[published may 2007]

I had two questions in mind when preparing this test: first, can the new Mark II Canon 16-35mm f2.8 L cut the mustard where no mustard has previously been cut by Canon? And second, what is the best sub-20mm prime? Both the now-collectible Zuiko 18mm and the pedigree Elmarit 19mm have their fans: the Olympus is praised as an architecture lens par excellence – light, distortion-free and optimised for stopped down work – and of course the Leica is, well, a Leica: outstanding colour fidelity and saturation, and that distinctive high res/gentle contrast trademark look. Between them, they represent a baptism by fire for a new design, but if Canon are to woo back users of adapted lenses, (and restore their somewhat tarnished reputation in this regard) these are the lenses they need to match or outperform.

Naturally, both the Olympus and the Leica are wearing adaptors (adapters for US readers) for this test: FotoDiox’ finest. The Leica 19mm requires a little surgery before it’s ready to mount on a full frame EOS digital: the modification is described in gory detail here . . .

The Zuiko displays all the Olympus hallmarks of having been engineered from first principles from the ground up, without reference to extant designs: eleven elements in nine groups crammed into a lens less than 50mm in length, even with the essential 49-72mm combined filter ring adaptor / hood. The minimum focus is 25cm. At the time of writing there are no known problems using the lens on the Canon 5D, 1Ds series cameras or EF-S mount bodies: the small fin projecting beyond the tiny 12mm rear element is far enough inboard not to foul the mirror. The sample tested here is numbered 105953.

The Leica 19mm Elmarit tested here (sample 3796179) is the latest ROM-equipped model modified for use on Canon bodies. Weighing in at a whopping 600g (about twice the weight of the Olympus 18mm) it’s a substantial piece of work, beautifully machined and reassuringly smooth in operation. The minimum focus is 30cm. If you’re feeling finicky you might want to hack the outer corners of the unique rectangular lens hood to ease the vignetting. All the following tests were conducted without the hood.

Sometimes Canon sticks a Mark II label on something and it means nothing: think of the Canon 200mm f1.8, or the f2.8, or the 18-55mm. Then again, sometimes underneath the unassuming label is an entirely different animal: here think of the 1Ds. The Canon 16-35mm f2.8 L Mark II falls into the latter category: it’s a complete redesign of the original 16-35, the most obvious external sign of which is the enlarged front element and 82mm filter ring. There are two more elements in the new design (16 rather than 14), making it longer (114mm rather than 103mm) and heavier (635g rather than 600g) than the Mark I. The MTF charts indicate that the aim of these changes was to improve the wide end performance rather than the already pretty fine long end:

Canon 16-35mm f2.8 MTF   Canon 16-35mm f2.8 MTF at 35mm

Rollover each image to overlay the Mark II MTF chart.

Apparently the new lens will go some way towards matching the superior performance of the much cheaper 17-40mm in the 17-20mm range. But how will it compare with state of the art primes? Is Canon finally vindicated in its decision to arrest development of wide L primes in favour of the convenience of zooms? Let’s find out . . . .