Canon 16-35mm f2.8 L (Mark 1) v Nikon 17-35mm f2.8 AFS
[Published March 2006]

Over here, Nikonians; over there, Canonites – and ne’er the twain meet. Team Nikon loves its 17-35 and Camp Canon loves its 16-35. Each claims the superiority of its champion but rarely are they tested head to head.

Nikon-EOS adaptors enable the comparison to made easily enough, but in practice is the Nikon good enough to justify the loss of auto focus and the complication of stop down metering?

I suspected that defining ‘better’ in this instance would be slippery: even the Leica 21-35mm is not equally rectilinear at all focal lengths. Both these lenses have differing distortion characteristics throughout their range, so your verdict will likely be weighted in favour of your preferred FOV – which end of the zoom you use the most.

Further muddying the waters, it seems to be beyond the limits of mass production technology to make a lens this complicated, with such fine tolerances, and to make them all the same. More than any type of lens, wide angle zooms are bedevilled by sample variation – likely you have heard many rumours about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ specimens and stories about manufacturers calibrating them back to nominal spec.

Finally, after many months research, trial and (mostly) error, I have in my clutches what I believe to be optimal copies of both lenses.

As previous tests on the 1Ds II have shown beyond doubt, a healthy Nikon 17-35mm AFS is capable of performing at the highest level, rivalling any prime in the 19-21mm range. If yours hasn’t impressed you, give it to Nikon for a few weeks; it will when it’s recalibrated. I was lucky enough to pick a great one first time.

The Canon 16-35mm also gets a mixed press. Mike Hatam tried six copies before finding an acceptable one. At the time of writing, the rumour mill is grinding out a line about improved QC since the summer; but who knows? In the light of such uncertainty I went straight to the horse’s mouth: this sample comes direct from Canon UK on loan and proved to be as good a 16-35mm as I’ve ever seen or used.

With the playing field as level as possible, let’s consider the tale of the tape…

Canon 16-35mm f2.8 L Mark 1

These are both serious bits of kit: the Canon is 103mm long, 600g in weight and contains 14 elements in 12 groups. Filter size is 77mm and minimum focus is 28cm. Build quality is exemplary: fully weather sealed and meatily damped focus and zoom rings. Canon’s commitment to full frame has helped the resale value of these lenses no end, whereas second hand Nikon’s can be had for much less, such is the appeal of their outstanding 12-24mm.

Nikon 17-35mm f2.8 AF-S

Weighing 750g and feeling like it’s hewn from an ingot, the Nikon nonetheless has zoom and focus rings that glide rather than merely rotate. The length is similar, at 107mm, inside which 13 elements are arranged in ten groups. Minimum focus is also 28cm.

It’s worth spending a bit of time perusing the manufacturers’ MTF charts here: strictly, one should only compare lenses MTF assessed using the same equipment and methodology, but assuming these data are comparable, and refer to wide open performance, on paper at least the Canon appears to be streets ahead.

As we shall see, in practice this is both entirely true and absolutely misleading….

Tests conducted with Canon 5D at ISO50 shot RAW with mirror lock up and processed via Capture One 3.7.3 into 8-bit Adobe RGB, sharpened in PhotoShop (135/0.5/3) and converted for web with BoxTop ProJPEG. All captures manually focus bracketed.