The search for the ultimate landscape and astrophotography wide angle lens – could the Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM be the answer?

Written by Gary on October 14th, 2017

Milky Way astroscapes have become incredibly popular, but if you want lovely star shapes, the lens has to be able to handle coma and astigmatism aberrations really well as well as providing a nice wide aperture to allow as much light in as possible, and have minimal vignetting which, although it can easily be corrected in post-processing, does introduce image noise into the edges.

Landscape photographers on the other hand need:

  • sharp edge to edge image quality with minimal barrel or pincushion distortion
  • excellent flare control
  • ability to create beautiful sunstars (preferably 11 blades, but 9 or even 7 blades can be useful – avoid even number blades)
  • ability to attach ND gradient and polarising filters – most zoom lenses wider than 16mm in full frame terms do not have filter threads but you can buy 3rd partyl expensive solutions
  • preferably weathersealed
  • and some may want tilt-shift to better achieve sharp focus from foreground to background – but that is out of scope for this post

Traditionally, both of the above genres have been addressed through full frame cameras (these have lower image noise at high ISO, and generally wider dynamic range than smaller sensors), and the Sony a7R in particular has been popular (BUT NO MORE for astro work after Sony destroyed its star imaging capabilities with its new firmware which “eats stars” – this applies to nearly all current Sony cameras in Bulb mode and some even in timed long exposure modes longer than 4 secs).

Let’s start at Micro Four Thirds options:

Olympus OM-D cameras and the pro lenses have a critical advantage of portability, weathersealing and better long exposure modes (eg. Live Times and Live Composite), ability to do automatic in-camera keystone correction or focus stacking, and faster burst rates, and they have a very usable image quality up to ISO 1600 and perhaps ISO 3200.

They also have the best image stabilisation such that the E-M1 II can be used hand held with care for 8 sec long exposures hand held for reasonable Milky Way astroscapes when used with the unique Olympus micro ZD 8mm f/1.8 fisheye lens, and of course could be used hand held for long exposure waterfall or beach shots with a wide angle lens where one cannot use a tripod or does not wish to carry it.

The cons include, more image noise at higher ISO, slightly less dynamic range, and the only options for higher resolution images than 24 mpixel is to either use panoramic stitching, or the Olympus HiRes 50mp mode but this requires a tripod and a static scene.

One of my Olympus mZD f/1.8 fisheye astroscapes:

astroscape

Lens selection options:

  • Olympus mZD 8mm f/1.8 fisheye lens
    •  great for Milky Way shots (one can de-fish with software) and great for creative work but not great for general landscape work
  • Olympus mZD 7-14mm f/2.8 lens
    • fantastic weathersealed lens, very usable for astro and landscapes, BUT the f/2.8 aperture is a bit limiting on a cropped sensor for astro work, and there is no filter thread although you can purchase large 3rd party sliding filter adapters for landscape work
  • Panasonic 12mm f/1.4 lens
    • great pro lens for both astrophotography (although there is some coma) and landscapes but the 24mm full frame equivalent field of view may be limiting and one may need to resort to panorama stitiching
  • hopefully someone makes a great 7-10mm wide aperture lens for astro work (Olympus have filed a patent for a 5-20mm f/2.8-2.8 lens in 2015 as well as a 12mm f/1.0 lens and the Laowa 7.5mm f/2 MF lens is not great for astro work)

Full frame options:

There are a multitude of options, so I am just going to have a look at the most favored options.

The newly released Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM looks to have taken over as the king of high image quality versatile wide angle zooms.

It has returned the highest DxO Mark scoring for a wide angle zoom, it is smaller with much less vignetting, coma and star distortion than the Canon EF 16-35 f/2.8L III but lack’s the Canon’s mechanical MF ring with its infinity marking, when used with a slide in filter holder, there will be vignetting at 16mm but should settle by 17mm; while sharp at f/2.8 edge to edge, optically is best at f/8-11, while sunstars are best at f/16 – perhaps one of the best lenses for sunstars, helped by the excellent flare control.

It is NOT cheap! In Australia, it is selling for $AU3549 while the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L III sells for just under $AU3000, the Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G sells for under $AU2500, while the far more affordable Olympus mZD 7-14mm f/2.8 lens is almost a third of the price at under $1300!

Above image taken with Sony 16-35mm lens demonstrating the lovely sunstars, courtesy of Colby Brown.

The big issue for astrophotographers wanting to use this lens is the firmware issue of the Sony cameras “eating stars” which is extremely disappointing.

So unfortunately, that’s dedicated Sony mount lenses out of the equation for combined astro and landscape work until they fix up this issue!

Other wide angle zoom lens options for Canon or Nikon dSLRs:

  • Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD
    • better than the Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G ED as it is a tad sharper with less coma and much more affordable at under $AU1600
    • BUT no filter thread so you will need an adapter, only 9 blades, soft edges wide open, 3.4% barrel distortion at 15mm, and it is very heavy at 1.1kg
  • Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM III
    • much better for astro work than its predecessors but not as good as the Sony, lots of vignetting (2.6EV) and 2.7% barrel distortion and only 9 blades, but you get a 82mm filter thread, it is fully weathersealed and lighter at 790g
  • Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G ED
    • no filter thread, so you will need an adapter, only 9 blades, 1kg, expensive

But some want a dedicated ultra-wide angle, wide aperture astro full frame lens, and some of the best of these are:

 

 

 

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