Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM

Introduction

Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM is currently the widest rectilinear prime lens manufactured by Canon. The EF-S 10-20mm f/3.5-4.5 USM offers an even wider angle of view, but is an EF-S lens that can be mounted only on APS-C cameras like Canon Digital Rebel seried, Canon 30D and Canon 40D. The lens was first announced in August 2007 and replaces the first generation 14mm prime, which was manufactured by Canon for over a decade. The lens sells for  ~US$1,900 (as of December 2008), which obviously makes it rather unaffordable for mainstream users.

The optical construction of the lens consists of 14 elements in 11 groups, including 2 Aspherical and 2 UD (Ultra low Dispersion) glass elements designed to reduce various forms of chromatic aberration and improve image quality. The lens sports a huge front elements that protrudes pretty farout of the barrel. The built-in, petal shaped lens hood does protect the glass element a little bit, however, users still should be careful here since the lens does not have front filter thread and thus there is no way to use any type of filters, including protective ones. As expected from a top of the line lens, the build quality of Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM is superb - the barrel is made of hardened plastic with rubberized focusing ring and no wobbling inside or out. The lens is larger and heavier then your typical wide angle prime, partly due to the complex optical formula requiring that many optical surfaces, partly due to the electronic focusing system built into the lens, and partly due to Canon's legacy design capabilities - Canon is not necessarily known for making extremely compact lenses. The lens weighs 645g (22.8oz) and measures 80 x 94mm (3.2 x 3.7in).

The lens incorporates a USM type AF system, although manual focusing is still possible with the dedicated focusing ring. The focusing mode is controlled with an AF/MF switch located on the side of the barrel. Like all modern Canon lenses, Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM sports a fully electronic aperture control mechanism, meaning that the lens does not have an aperture ring and all settings have to be controlled directly from the camera. The minimum focusing distance is 20cm (7.9in) and the maximum aperture range is f/22. As mentioned above, the lens does not accept screw-in type fiters since the front element of the lens protrudes so much out of the barrel. The only alternative thus is a gelatin filter that can be inserted into the slot in the back of the lens.

 

Image

The factory box includes Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM lens, front and rear caps, LP1016 soft lens case, manual and registration card. The lens was designed for traditional 35mm 'full-frame' cameras, so when used on APS-C type digital bodies with 1.6x crop factor, the field of view of the lens will resemble that of a 22mm prime on a full frame body. Still a wide angle, but not as extreme.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 14 elements in 11 groups
Angular Field 114 degrees
Minimum Focus 20cm/7.9in
Focusing Action AF/MF, USM
f-stop Scale f/2.8-f/22, camera-controlled
Filter Size Gel filters only
Lens Hood Built-in, petal-shaped
Weight 645g/22.8oz
Dimensions 80x94mm/3.2x3.7"
Lens Case LP1016 (included)

 

Field Tests

Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM is a typical EF lens, so there its handling is pretty similar to that of any other EF lens out there. The lens has an electronic aperture control, so there's no aperture ring to fiddle around with. There is a DOF scale which is theory should help you in manual focusing. In theory. The distance scale goes of the lens goes from the minimum distance of 20cm to 1m, and then jumps to the infinity mark. This should not be much of a problem in most cases, since the depth of field of the lens is so vast that it will very likely mask minor focusing errors at normal and far distances. The AF system speed is quite reasonable, but again, considering the relatively short distance the elements have to move during focusing, this should not be considered a major achievement.

The lens is mindbogglingly wide - your frames will include pretty much everything from the tips of your toes to the clouds above your head. So if you are composing your frame around a main object, try to get as close to it as possible, otherwise you will end up with asubject lost in the distance with basically not a single detail preserved. Seriously, take a look at the street shot with the Borders book store in the image gallery below - the distance to the store is about 30ft (~10m), this should give you an idea of the extreme perspective the lens delivers.

The lens showcased pretty good overall performance in the field. Images were sharp across the frame pretty much throughout the tested aperture range on both APS-C as well as full frame cameras. Well, technically speaking, the lens did actually show slightly softer results around extreme corners, which can be mostly attributed to the barrel distortion. This can be easily observed in closeup photography, where objects in the near-plane tend to get distorted more noticeably. and less so at the infinity, in the general landscape type shots (for which the lens obviously was designed in the first place). So all in all, results are quite good.

 

Vignetting @ f/2.8 - full frame vs 1.6x crop (14mm)
Vignetting @ f/2.8 - full frame vs 1.6x crop (14mm)

 

As expected from such a wide lens, Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM shows quite a noticeable vignetting at f/2.8 on a full frame body. Vignetting continues to persist through f/5.6, albeit at lower levels. Beyond that color falloff is basically non-existent. And on an APS-C camera vignetting is already quite minimal at f/2.8 and practically invisible at f/4 and beyond.

Like most wide angle primes, Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM also fell prone to some flare in certain harsh lightning conditions. The shots below demonstrate a situation when a strong direct light source positioned close to the picture frame. The sun in the samples was hitting the lens at ~45 degrees from the right hand corner. You can notice that the flare has noticeably reduced image contrast in the right hand corner, which is something to be expected with pretty much any lens. But, in addition to the lower contrast, the lens also shows pretty noticeable ghosting both wide open as well as at lower aperture settings.

 

Top: ISO 100, 1/10000, f/2.8 Bottom: ISO 100, 1/125, f/8 (Canon 5D)
Top: ISO 100, 1/10000, f/2.8 Bottom: ISO 100, 1/125, f/8 (Canon 5D)

Aside from vignetting and flare, color handling was quite decent. Colors were sufficiently saturated and the palette remained quite neutral. Images carried good amount of contrast, throughout the tested aperture range, however, the lens did show minor degree of color fringing. You can observe sagittal aberration around the door panes in the image crop below. And as mentioned above, like most wide angles, Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM exhibited noticeable barrel distortion, although the amount of distortion seemed somewhat lower then with comparable 14mm lenses from Nikon or Sigma.

 

ISO 100, 1/1000, f/2.8, 14mm (100% crop)
ISO 100, 1/1000, f/2.8, 14mm (100% crop)

 

Lab Tests

Please note that MTF50 results for APS-C and Full-Frame cameras as well as cameras from different manufacturers are not cross-comparable despite the same normalized [0:1] range used to report results for all types of cameras.

 

Canon APS-C: The lens showed very solid performance on an APS-C body. Center image resolution was outstanding straight from f/2.8, remaining on a very high level through the rest of the tested aperture range (although you can notice from the graph, that the resolving capability of the lens drops a little bit towards f/11). Border image quality is also quite good, althoug f/2.8 shows slight softness - image quality here is still decent, but resolution from f/4 through f/11 is simply outstanding. The lens shows the most balanced results in the f/5.6-f/8 range, where it is capable of delivering outstanding 19in and decent 24in prints. Conclusion? Results are quite surprising, especially for such a wide angle lens, so it would be safe to say that among 14mm primes tested so far, Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM clearly holds a top spot.

 

MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 14mm
MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 14mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 14mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 14mm

 

Chromatic aberration was somewhat mixed on an APS-C body - center CA was quite minimal, generally not exceeding ~0.3px throughout the aperture range, however, border CA was significantly higher, especially at f/2.8, where it reached ~1.2px.

 

Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) @ 14mm
Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) @ 14mm

Here are 100% crops, taken with an APS-C type Canon Digital Rebel XTi, comparing image borders at f/2.8 and f/8.

 

Image borders @ 14mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8
Image borders @ 14mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8

Canon FF: Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM demonstrated outstanding performance on a full frame lens. Center image quality remained top notch straight from f/2.8 and remain top notch throughout the rest of the tested aperture. Resolving capabilities of the lens her are quite envious. Border resolution, while not on the same level as in the center, is still quite solid. The only exception is f/2.8, where the border image quality is a tid bit softer. But, from f/4 through f/11 quality is simply excellent. Conclusion? All in all, the lens shows its most balanced performance in the f/8-f/11 range, however, among the ultra-wide angles, Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM can be easily considered a benchmark.

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 14mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 14mm

 

Distortion, which is quite common in super wide angle lenses, is surprisingly moderate in Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM. As expected, the lens showes barrel distortion, however, at ~1% it is significantly lower then in comparable super wides. Still, distortion will be noticeable in general photography, especially around corners, so take that into account during your shooting sessions.

 

Distortion (FF) @ 14mm
Distortion (FF) @ 14mm

 

Chromatic aberration was more or less under control on a full frame body. Center CA never exceeded ~0.5px in the center. Border CA was somewhat higher, reaching ~0.8px at f/2.8, slowly dropping to ~0.4px by f/11.

 

Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 14mm
Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 14mm

 

Here are 100% crops taken with a FF Canon 5D, comparing image borders at f/2.8 and f/8.

 

Image borders @ 14mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8
Image borders @ 14mm (100% crop): f/2.8 vs f/8

Alternatives

As mentioned above, Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM is currently the widest rectilinear prime lens available in Canon EF/EF-S mount. There are not that many alternatives when it comes down to such a wide angle. Sigma used to offer 14mm f/2.8 EX ASPH HSM in Canon EF mount, which was priced at a pretty significant discount compared to its Canon rival, but still offered pretty decent image characteristics. Tamron is another independent lens manufacturer who also used to offer a 14mm prime in Canon mount - SP AF 14mm f/2.8 Aspherical IF. Finally, if you are willing to try using an alternative mount lens, then consider Nikon's AF Nikkor 14mm f/2.8D ED. Speaking of Nikon - if you are looking for anything wider then 14mm, then Voigtlander's Ultra Heliar Aspherical 12mm f/5.6 SL (also discontinued) is likely going to be your only alternative, that is assuming you have a Nikon camera with mirror lock-up.

 

Recommendation

Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM is a very solid ultra wide angle prime, easily one of the best ultra wide primes in native Canon EF mount. This does not mean that the lens is without any flaws - vignetting, flare, color fringing and distortion are all present to varying degree and can cause some annoyance. On the other hand, image resolution is simply outstanding on both APS-C as well as FF cameras. Build quality is another major positive factor going for the lens (keep in mind though that the lens does not accept traditional screw-in type filters and the bulging out front element requires extra care during shooting). Unfortunately, the price can cause a sticker shock - at ~US$1,900 the lens is worth a small fortune, so users should be pretty darn sure they need this lens.