One lens that is a staple in almost all camera bags of professional photographers is a fast, ultra-wide-angle zoom. Being a Canon shooter, the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 II found a place in my bag when I purchased it back in 2008, and I have been using it constantly for work ever since. However, it also was the weakest lens in my kit from a sharpness standpoint. But if I needed 16mm and f/2.8, it was what I had to grab. Until recently, there simply wasn't a sharper option available.
I know there are a few other, cheaper 16mm options out there from Canon (which I will mention briefly later on), but I need f/2.8 for what I do. I use this lens for work all the time, and mainly for two specific things. One is photographing skateboarding, where I am usually trying to get a minimum shutter speed of at least 1/1000 second. Raising my ISO is not an option, as I am always after the cleanest file possible; so it is nice to be able to let in more light via the aperture rather than having to increase my ISO to reach those high shutter speeds I am after. I also shoot quite a few events: low-light indoor parties where, again, the fastest lens is much preferred.
As soon as Canon announced a new, updated version III, I knew I would pounce on it right away. I did not even wait for reviews of the lens to come out (as I usually do before buying new gear) because I thought to myself, "When was the last time Canon released a new, modern version of a lens that was not an upgrade to it's predecessor?" Maybe it has happened before, but I was not aware of any such incidents. So I sold my version II of this lens and, when I flew back home to visit my family in New York last week (I currently live in Peru, where not only do new lenses not arrive for sale until many, many months after they do in the U.S., but they are also astronomically higher in cost when they do become available – but that is whole other story), I purchased the new lens at B&H. I then threw it on my camera and spent the next ten days around New York and New Jersey with the lens, photographing whatever I came across. After using the previous model extensively for the past eight years, I would like to share my thoughts on the new, 16-35mm f/2.8 III.This new version of the lens offers absolutely nothing on paper over the pervious model. The focal lengths did not change at all: it does not now zoom out to 15mm or in to 40mm. They did not add Image Stabilization, and its maximum aperture is still f/2.8. Specification-wise, it is exactly identical to its predecessor in every way.
What is different is its resolving power. As I mentioned above, the version II was the softest lens in my camera bag by far, but gave me a focal length and f-stop no other Canon zoom offered. This new lens was obviously sharper to me right away. You will not notice it on the LCD on the back of your camera. You will not notice any difference when your photos are resized and displayed online or on social media. But I saw it immediately on my computer monitor and, when making prints of my images taken with this lens, I saw the difference instantly.
I already made a large print of the black and white Manhattan skyline for a friend before I left town. We were both very happy with how it came out. My photos are printed often for work, so this is very important to me. The team of people I work with also definitely notice a difference in prints taken with my now-old 16-35mm f/2.8 II lens and with all the other lenses I shoot with, especially as we look farther from the center of the frame.
I am not a pixel-peeper at all, and I don't shoot charts. But just going through the normal post-processing that I do in Adobe Camera Raw, I noticed right away on my monitor that the files show so much more detail – again – especially toward the edges.
Ever since I picked up a 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens a few years ago, I found myself constantly grabbing that lens over my 16-35mm f/2.8 II because of just how much sharper it was – unless I really needed 16mm. I didn't use the wide-angle as much as before, basically treating it is a 16mm prime lens. Now that will change, and I am happy to use this new lens at 24mm or 35mm without hesitation and gladly do so without having to switch lenses.Aside from what it does optically, I also noticed the difference in physical size between version II and III. I never even bothered to check the size or weight on the spec sheet before I purchased it, but when I removed it from the box, the new version just looked a lot bigger to me, but it didn't feel heavier at all, which was weird. I thought they just must be using new, lighter materials to construct it. However, looking at the numbers now, it is both physically larger and heavier. I just do not notice any weight difference at all when in real-world use, but I definitely do feel the the size increase in my hands. Regardless, it is not a problem for me at all as I always carry whatever I need if it helps me deliver a better image to my client.
Despite the increase in physical size, the new lens features the same 82mm filter size as its predecessor. This is great for anyone such as myself because I buy all my filters – especially neutral density filters – only at 82mm. If I need to use them on my other lenses, I have step-up rings to adapt them. This is much more cost effective than buying different-size filters for all my lenses.
I also do not see any difference in auto-focus speed or accuracy, but that is a good thing, as version II was just fine in that department. It seems Canon really just upped the image quality. That's it, but they did so substantially! That was my only reason for upgrading in the first place, so I am a happy camper. The predecessor was a workhorse for me, so if I can get at least eight years out of this one too, I will be quite content.All this might not be of any concern to you though if price is an issue. The one and only downside to this lens is its price. I have nothing else bad to say about it. If you need this type of lens for work, and if sharpness and resolving power are of utmost importance to you, then this is your lens. But if sharpness is not very significant for what you do, and if photography is just a hobby and not your profession, then version II is the better deal for you, as used versions can be had online for under $1,000 right now.
Additionally, if you do not need f/2.8, Canon also offers a highly regarded 16-35mm f/4 IS lens, which is less than half the cost. While it is only f/4, it offers Image Stabilization, which is very helpful for people who shoot video or who shoot handheld with slower shutter speeds. If you are landscape shooter, you likely have your lens stopped down anyway, so I imagine the more budget-friendly f/4 lens also would be a better option for you. This new f/2.8 lens is only for people that simultaneously need the maximum f/2.8 aperture and the sharpest lens possible. I feel it offers absolutely nothing else over the f/4 IS lens otherwise. If you never plan on shooting it wide open at f/2.8, there is no reason to own one in my opinion.
To sum it up, the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 III is an outstanding piece of engineering that features image quality far surpassing the previous version. With the price tag being the issue for some, it is not for everyone. But for those who need all it has to offer, it is definitely worth the cost, as this lens was manufactured for professional use. For Canon photographers who shoot weddings, events, or sports, it is now the new definitive wide-angle zoom lens.