Looking for extreme ultra-wide? Look no further!
I’ve been fascinated with ultra-wide lenses and the drama they can add to images for years. The drama is there to be had, for sure, but it comes at a price. The drama will cost you serious money, and the lenses will test your patience and make you curse them when they crush your hopes. They’re like fickle prima donnas who refuse to perform at the first sign of a headache. They’re like hand-crafted musical instruments which only the most gifted artist can make come to life. They will make you search the globe for answers to fundamental questions. And they will reward you with glorious images, when they’re in the right mood and feeling generous.
Getting sharp images out of these things is hard work. I like expansive landscapes, and these are especially hard for ultra-wide lenses to put their arms around. It’s easier to get sharp images when you stick the lens into the object’s face. The first ultra-wide I bought was the old Sigma 10-20 f/4-5.6 HSM, and I returned it the day after I bought it because all the shots I took, even in perfect light, were as soft as a baby’s bottom.
The second copy was a fraction better but the images still needed a lot of work post-processing. The Sigma produced some stunning shots but on the whole it continued to disappoint, so I sold it and bought a Tokina 12-24. The reviews said it was the sharpest of all the basic DX ultra-wides, and the best built. And it’s the only Tokina lens that comes with a BIM for small Nikons like mine. What more could I ask for?
It was a bit sharper than the Sigma, once I worked out that f/6.3 and 7.1 were the optimal apertures for landscape shots, but the images still needed a lot of sharpening. The first thing that struck me though was how much less wide 12mm was compared to 10mm. I mean it. Half the drama was lost. Then I read about the new Sigma 8-16. The reviews said it was insanely wide, and super sharp! The Tokina went to a good home via eBay, and the $700 Sigma became my new challenge. (click on the images below to see a larger version)
This lens is a rectilinear ultra-wide design, and the most extreme UW lens made for APS-C sensors. Sigma’s promo makes some big claims for this lens: ‘... new FLD glass elements, which have the performance equal to fluorite glass, and compensate for colour aberration ... An inner focusing system produces high definition images throughout the entire zoom range, and the Super Multi-Layer Coating reduces flare and ghosting while superior peripheral brightness ensures high contrast images throughout the entire zoom range.’
So far, so good. The fish eye construction means you can’t use filters, which is a problem given the lens’s propensity for blowing out highlights. That’s not quite true: Sigma has devised a metal sleeve that takes a front lens cap to protect the glass. The ring is lined with a soft material on the inside, and simply pushes on over the fixed lens hood. It also has a thread which will take a 72mm filter, but this will only work at 16mm. As soon as you zoom in further, the sleeve cuts into the image.
photo courtesy of Ken Rockwell http://www.kenrockwell.com/
Without the cap and sleeve, this is a fairly compact lens at 75 x 105mm (Diameter x Length), and it weighs 555g which is not bad given its solid build. It sports 15 glass elements in 11 groups and features 7 Diaphragm Blades and a mininum aperture of f/22, and a minimum Focusing Distance of 24 cm. The numbers we’re looking for here are 75-115 degrees, the wide angle of view range offered by the lens.
This Sigma 8-16 is a solid lens, and I have no idea why it sports the lower DC designation and not the EX moniker. It looks and feels (and is priced) like an EX with that soft-to-the touch finish that looks like it’s hard to keep clean but isn’t. The metal ring is a solid affair as well but doesn’t add too much weight.
The Sigma 8-16 is a comfortable fit on a Nikon D5000, making for a well-balanced combo. It has a distance and an aperture scale, and both control rings move smoothly with just the right amount of resistance. Like most current consumer lenses, the focus ring is at the front and the zoom ring closer to the camera body. They’re virtually the same size, which is unusual. Both focusing and zooming are internal - nothing moves when you zoom in or out except for the glass element inside the lens body, and that doesn’t move a lot.
The minimum aperture of f/4.5 is hardly encouraging but the lens actually ‘feels’ faster than that. Maybe it’s the fish eye gathering more light. The AF on the other hand is fast, accurate and silent, but that isn’t a lot of use with a lens like this. Manual mode is a better option here, and manual mode on the Sigma overrides the AF/M switch, which is the way it should be. The distance scale is telling, as 80% of it covers the first meter. We’ll come back to what that is telling us in a moment.
The Sigma’s colours are pretty good but sharpness was disappointing from the start. Way behind the Tokina 12-24, using autofocus at least. I realised that this lens might need better technique to get the best from so I dived headlong into territory I know little about: COC - the Circle of Confusion or what to the human eye appears sharp, and hyperfocal distance – the point on which you focus, and the point from where everything in the image should be sharp all the way to the horizon.
Soon I found myself trying to make sense out of elaborate hyperfocal scales. I switched to manual focusing but following the scales still didn’t produce sharp results. I almost despaired until I found a simple piece of advice that said: in most landscape shots, the hyperfocal distance will be about 3 to 4 feet into the picture. That seems to work well enough.
The Sigma is sharpest between f/5.6 and 9, and colours are true and rich. Sure, there’s a lot of distortion at the wide end, especially away from the image centre, and that’s a feature of ultra-wide lenses. You take care of that with a good photo editor but often it’s better to leave some of the distortion for dramatic effect.
That’s no problem when the sun isn’t dominating the sky, or when you're shooting inside.
All ultra-wide lenses suffer from flare for obvious reasons and, the wider they are, the bigger the blowouts. Once you learn to work around those limitations, the Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM is a great lens that can add dramatic perspectives to your photography. That last 2mm of focal length makes a noticable difference but the lens needs more concentration to get the best results out of. Once you learn that, it's a very rewarding piece of gear.
It’s not the cheapest ultra-wide out but it's more affordable than Nikon's 10-24. And better built. The only weak spot is the lens glass at the front, so you need to keep that well protected. Sigma's design helps with the tough, inbuilt lenshood and the sleeve with the lens cap. It's a bold design but well thought-out.