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Zeiss 21mm Distagon ZE Review

Posted in Equipment Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2010 by macdanzig

A detailed look at the Zeiss Distagon 21mm f/2.8 ZE lens

Well, it’s been a while since my review of the Zeiss 18mm ZE and since then, the good people at Zeiss Micro imaging graciously let me have a good, long-term extensive loan of the 21mm lens in EOS mount.

I will start out by cutting to the chase:  This is a brilliant piece of optical equipment.  It is capable of producing excellent images with today’s cameras under all sorts of different conditions and I do recommend it.   However, the $1700 price tag is steep, and with the versatile bargain-ish lenses out there today like Canon’s 17-40L producing pretty good results, we all want to know how this legendary 21mm lens stacks up…  People expect a lot out of Zeiss products, and they should.  Hopefully the following review can help you decide if this lens is for you.

When I reviewed the Zeiss 18mm, many people ended up pointing out the fact that the 21mm is Zeiss’ best ultra-wide lens and that if you truly wanted to give the 17mm TS-E a run for it’s money in the optics department, you’d have to use it, not the 18mm.   So, this ended up being a great opportunity for me to test the best against the best.   I personally like to be able to make extremely large prints of my landscape photos and although today’s DSLR sensors help me achieve that, the UWA lens lineup (especially for Canon) has been lacking in quality when the pixels are really pushed to the limit…   The TS-E 17mm has proved to be a real champion, but filters (even hand-held GNDs) are an impossibility, as I’ll show later in this review, and although it does a great job at reducing flare, that gigantic front bulb catches stray light from all angles.  Is there an alternative?

I know, I know, you’ve heard this from me before.  Well now is the time for all of us gear geeks to get our pixel-peeping on and decide what spend our hard-earned cash on.

Zeiss 21mm Distagon - 30 seconds @ F/8

Build Quality/ Construction/Functionality

Should I even bother to mention it?  Those of you who own a Zeiss already know.  Those who don’t should at least get your hands on one just once so you can tell the difference.  The 21mm ZE is just like the 18mm ZE, only heavier and with a longer barrel.  They are both equally the best-constructed wide angle lenses that I’ve ever used, period.  The hood that comes with it is metal and locks in place the way it’s supposed to.  The manual focus ring works with a level of precision that’s second-to-none, unlike most of the AF lenses out there who’s focus rings are loose and slide from end to end with so much as a finger-brush.   All-metal and glass, it’s built like a tank.  It’s heavy for a wide-angle at 23oz, but it’s still lighter than the TS-E, which is 29oz.  Honestly, if you’re one of those people who can’t handle a a few extra ounces on a wide-angle lens then you should probably just pick yourself up a point-and-shoot and call it a day…  (Sorry, but I have no sympathy for the weight-whiners.)

The front-filter thread is 82mm, same as the 18mm ZE.  Although the 82mm filters can be pricier and harder to find than the other sizes, this really helps with vignetting, as you’ll see…

Manual focusing only, like all Zeiss lenses.  One thing I like is the fact that infinity focus is achieved with the ring pulled all the way to the right.  If you know you are focusing at infinity, just turn it until it stops…      One thing to be aware of when dealing with a manual lens who’s optics are this incredibly sharp (just like the 17mm TS-E) is the fact that when you are dealing with anything closer than infinity focus, the in-camera focus confirmation may hit even when the lens hasn’t quite reached true focus.  Live-view, like on the 1Ds Mk III can be an essential part of getting your focus exact, rather than relying on your camera to beep or illuminate it’s focus point…

Bokeh & Close-up work

Many of the lenses in the Zeiss lineup are highly touted for their “3-D look” when used at wider apertures on nearby subjects.  The 21mm definitely brings that to the table…

@ F/2.8

100% crop of the above shot.

Of course, this isn’t a macro lens, and no photographer in their right mind should try to use it as such, but with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 and a minimum focusing distance of 0.22 meters (about 8.5 inches) you can get some great effects that other ultra wide angle lenses out there can never reproduce.



After shooting some with this lens close-up and seeing minimal distortion, I do think that some talented people could definitely utilize this lens for creative portraiture.    The bokeh is excellent for this focal range.  Close subjects can definitely be isolated when shooting wide-open.


100% crop

Colors and Contrast

After using this lens and testing it up to some others in my arsenal, I have to say that it reproduces by far the richest colors and contrast straight out of the camera.

Below are two shots of the same exact scene, shot at ISO 400, seconds apart under the same exact lighting conditions with the camera tripod mounted.  The first is with the Canon 17mm TS-E and the second below it is with the Zeiss 21mm.  They were both converted to jpegs with the same exact default raw settings (no sharpening, contrast, saturation or any other adjustments) and they both had the same white balance and tint….

Feel free to click on each photo to see the full sized jpeg as well…

17mm TS-E

Zeiss 21mm

As you can see, there is a huge difference in colors and contrast straight out of the camera.

Using filters:

I ended up being pretty impressed with the Zeiss’ ability to avoid strong vignetting with a polarizer attached.  Below are a few examples of using a polarizer outdoors:

Example 1:

Zeiss 21mm without filter

Zeiss 21mm with B+W Polarizer

Example 2:

Zeiss 21mm - no filters

Zeiss 21mm with B+W Polarizer

In comparison to the 17mm TS-E, an aspect that is appealing to me about the Zeiss is the ability to use graduated neutral density filters.   The Zeiss takes front filters very well.  When I try to use GNDs handheld with the TSE, despite my best efforts, there always ends up being a certain amount of glare on one side of the frame, due to the bulging front element of the TSE.  It ends up looking like I’m shooting from inside a car with the windows up… Not the case with the Zeiss, which has a normal front element.    Below are examples of this, and I did my very best to position the TSE’s filter in a way which wouldn’t produce glare, but still, flat glass on an extremely convex front element doesn’t give good results…

Zeiss 21mm with handheld 3-stop Singh Ray GND

17mm TS-E with handheld 3-stop Singh Ray GND

100% crop of the TSE shot w/ GND

So, you can see that until some kind of convex filter system is developed to go with the TSE (which I’m sure would end up being very expensive), it’s best to just not worry about using any front filters with it…

Sharpness tests and 100% crops

So here we are where all of the finite details get scrutinized…  I will be the first to admit, I went a little bit overboard with all the tests here, but it’s better to have too much information than not enough IMO.

The three lenses that I tested the Zeiss 21mm with in these comparisons are 1) a very good copy of the Canon 17-40 F/4 L,  2) a Canon 24mm F/1.4 L (first version), and 3) the reigning wide-angle champion, Canon’s TS-E 17mm F/4 L.     Now, some people may feel that these are unfair comparisons, since the 17-40 isn’t a prime and the other two are of different focal lengths… But in my opinion, apples and oranges they are not.   If you are trying to get the very best detail out of your expensive camera body doing wide angle work, then there is a good chance you’ll consider one of these…

Left to right: Canon 17mm TS-E, Zeiss 21mm, Canon 24mm f1.4 L I

I did my best to physically move and “foot zoom” slightly during the making of these test shots to help make the 100% crops a little bit closer in reproduced size, but in all of them you should notice a difference in the focal lengths, even if only slight…

As always, all shots are tripod mounted, using mirror lock-up, remote shutter and are unprocessed jpegs, straight out of the RAW converter.

For the most part, I’ll let the following exhaustive series of test shots and 100% crops speak for themselves…  After all, if you’ve read this far and you are going to spend time looking at all of these, you probably know what to look for and understand the differences and variances.

So without further ado, here they are.  The first groups of crops are taken from the following indoor scene at the train station in downtown Los Angeles.

Test shot reference

**wordpress resizes the files for the blog format, so please click on the pictures to see the full size.**

Center of frame:

Try to not mistake a difference in focal length with a lack of detail or sharpness…

Top Left of frame:

Far Right side of frame:

Right side of frame:

Chromatic Aberration crops, Left side of frame:

We can see right here that CA is much better handled by the Zeiss and the TSE than the other lenses…

Outdoor tests:

Reference test shot for crops below

Center of Frame:

I told you I had a good copy of the 17-40… at least in the center  😉

Left side of frame:

I chose this part of the left side because of the high contrast and tendency for CA.   As you can see, the 17-40 falters away from the center, which is pretty normal for a wide zoom.    The Zeiss is right in second place behind the TSE for sharpness and CA control.

The above set of crops are all at f/8.  The Zeiss and 24L seem to have the best color rendition…


These ones are just for posterity…  I happened to see this Heron in the scene in a “Where’s Waldo” sort of way and figured I’d show my bird photography prowess off…

By now it’s pretty obvious that the 24L and 17-40 aren’t in the same league, so here’s the Zeiss head to head with Canon’s TS-E:

Reference test shot

On a dreary, overcast day the optics speak for themselves much better and the lighting stays consistent…

Center of frame:

I don’t see much of a difference in sharpness, maybe the TSE wins by half of a hair…  I do see a difference in color straight out of camera, in favor of the Zeiss…

Left Center:

Middle right side of frame:

Far right edge of frame:

The Zeiss doesn’t perform at it’s best until f 5.6 and smaller.  Even when taken down one stop to f/4, the TS-E beats it in edge sharpness wide-open, which isn’t that big of a deal when you consider the fact that there’s not much else out there that has sharpness across the frame like the TS-E…


Overall, I’d say I’m still very impressed with the Zeiss.   The $2,500.00 17mm Tilt-Shift still out-performs it in the sharpness category, but not by a huge margin.  Color rendition is where the Zeiss wins big.  Microcontrast too.  Does this make my wide-angle lens decision any easier?  Nope.  Truth is, most people (myself included) can’t afford to own both the Zeiss 21 and the Canon 17 TSE.  It just doesn’t make practical sense in these times.   I would rather spend that extra money on a great photography trip.  But if I were a big-timer then yes, I’d own both of these and I’d use the Zeiss whenever a polarizer or GND was required.

Zeiss 21mm Distagon with 1Ds MkII - 30 sec - F10 - ISO 100

100% Crop - Far left edge... There's no way my 17-40 or 16-35 could ever give me the sharpness and distortion control at 21mm from corner to corner like this...

I still think it’s pretty cool that Zeiss has kept the same exact design on their lenses for so long..  Instead of trying to come up with a new superficial “modern” design, they’ve maintained the ability to produce a solid piece of optics in a rugged metal housing.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Hopefully this review has helped you decide whether or not this lens is for you.  But, if you’re anything like me, it only complicates matters.  We must realize that there will never be the ‘perfect’ piece of camera equipment.  As artists and perfectionists, some of us find it our duty to search for the flaws so that we can eliminate them.

In the end, if you’re willing to pay for it, you can get pretty damn close to ‘perfect’ in the UWA range with either the TSE or the Zeiss…  You need to decide which one fits your needs best.

Now, quit all this pixel peeping and go shoot!  😉

thanks for reading


PS:  If you’ve decided to that the Zeiss 21mm 2.8 is for you, buying it through This Link will help support the site a little…   In addition, if you feel like showing your support, anything at all no matter how big or small you purchase after clicking through the Adorama link on the right column near the top of the blog helps out.   Thanks!


Zeiss 18mm Distagon Review

Posted in Equipment Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2010 by macdanzig

A first look at the Zeiss Distagon T* 3.5/18 ZE.   Along with tests vs the TSE 17mm and the 17-40 F/4 L

*(Updated 1/11/10 – added vignetting & distortion test)*

In a quest for the best possible optical quality in an ultra-wide-angle lens to accompany the high megapixels of today’s Canon DSLRs, I immediately became interested when Zeiss announced that it was finally going to release it’s legendary lens series in EOS mount.  This announcement came well over a year ago and a lot Canon photographers (myself included) have been waiting patiently.

As I have written before, the 17-40 L is a great lens and a great value, but the softness in the corners and edges is so apparent, especially with higher-megapixel bodies, that if one wishes to make large prints (the kind these bodies were designed for) they will be disappointed in the corner-to-corner sharpness…    This is what brought me to the TS-E 17mm and although that lens has proven to be quite possibly the answer in optical quality, it has a few inherent downfalls – most notably the lack of ability to use any front or rear filters.    This brings us to the Zeiss line.

Zeiss has been making high-quality manual focus lenses for quite some time, and Nikon users have been able to benefit from this, as Ziess has manufactured Nikon-mount glass for a while now… Nikon and Pentax users may be familiar with it, but Canon users often aren’t.  People with Canon bodies have had to use a third party adapter, often with inconsistent results.  Now with a full line of legendary Zeiss lenses in EOS mount, a lot of photographers who don’t need autofocus are going to be very happy.

Build and construction

Without a doubt, this lens has the best physical quality of any wide angle lens I have ever used.  The precision of the focus ring along with the weight and balance when mounted is second to none.  Nothing Nikon, Canon or Sigma makes in this focal range is in the same league.  If you are particular about your gear and the way it handles, you won’t be disappointed here.  This is a precision instrument.

One of the first things you’ll notice upon opening the box is the Zeiss hand-signed and checked inspection list.   I don’t consider myself as much of a gear fiend as many other photographers out there, but I’ll admit, I was very impressed at this lens fresh out of the box…  As pictured above, the 18mm comes with a well made lens hood that locks firmly into place.  Also included is a center-pinch front lens cap that makes removing and installing pretty easy with the hood attached.

The front thread for filters is 82mm, which can be a little more expensive and harder to find than the norm, which is 77mm.  But the 82mm filter size serves an important purpose: it controls vignetting when front filters are used.  Notice the picture below and you’ll see how the barrel dramatically widens at the front.

Short and compact, it weighs in at 470 grams (16.5 oz), which is about the same as the 17-40 L and much less than the TS-E 17mm which weighs 820 grams (28.9 oz).

From left to right: 17-40 F/4 L, Zeiss 18mm Distagon, TS-E 17mm F/4 L


This is why we all came…  How does it perform optically against some other major players in the UWA range for Canon?

Zeiss 18mm vs 17-40 L vs 17mm TS-E

Above is the test shot where the 100% crops below came from.   All photos were taken with a 1Ds Mk III which is Canon’s highest megapixel camera body to date (tied with the 5D2) and really exposes the weaknesses of a lens’s optics, which helps for this test.  All shots were tripod mounted, with mirror lock-up enabled and cable release used.  They were all taken at ISO 100 and each shot at the same shutter speed per aperture down the line.  No sharpening or post processing was applied.    The 17mm TS-E was (obviously) shot with no tilt or shift applied.

You will notice at the extreme corners, the difference in focal length.  The 17-40 has enough distortion at 17mm to make it slightly wider than the 17mm TS-E, which is in turn just slightly wider than the Zeiss 18mm.

Note that the 100% test crops below may be slightly resized for the blog page.  In this case, click the photo for the full size if you wish…


As you can see- in the center frame the playing field is very even, and although diffraction at F22 hinders all of the lenses, one could easily draw the conclusion that the 17-40 L is just as good as the other two much more expensive lenses in the center…   But the other areas are a different story as you’ll see…


The main factor that becomes apparent with the above shots is the 17mm TS-E‘s ability to not only retain better detail than the other lenses, but completely control (if not eliminate) chromatic aberrations.  The red/purple fringe is nowhere to be seen on the TSE crops, and seems worst with the Zeiss than even the 17-40, although that may simply be due to the softness of the 17-40…


Both Canon lenses slightly out-perform the Zeiss in sharpness on this side of the frame…   Trust me when I say that human error in focus is not the factor here, as I thoroughly checked the center point focus with live-view on all three lenses, even after in camera focus confirmation.    One must also remember that with lenses there is always copy variation, and when dealing with floating glass elements like in the Zeiss, a tiny fraction of difference can cause some slight softness…

Extreme left corner

(click on each photo group for full size)

This is where the Zeiss performs the best, and as you can see, it’s also where the 17-40 is at it’s worst…  Both Canon lenses clean themselves up with smaller apertures, but the Distagon still wins the corner sharpness test.  I’m not sure if it’s noticeable on these smaller crops, but I did once again notice a large amount of CA from both the Zeiss and the 17-40 on the edges of some of the mulch here.  The TS-E had no CA to speak of.

Extreme right corner

Once again the Zeiss performs the best.  Too bad it can’t keep the sharpness across the entire frame…

Another set of 100% Crops (from a different scene)

These are right side of the frame crops from the flare test shots below.   All lenses were focused to infinity.

Flare Control

The following shots are unsharpened full frames shot toward the sun at f8.  In fairness to the TS-E, I did not use the lens hoods on either the Zeiss or 17-40.

You will have to click on each thumbnail photo to see the full size image and do some zooming-in to see the flare spots (they are there) throughout each photo due to the dark scene.   The conclusion is that even with it’s bulging front element, the 17mm TS-E controls flare slightly better than the Zeiss, which is in turn, far better at flare control than the 17-40 L.

17mm TS-E

Zeiss 18mm


Vignetting / Distortion

All three photos shot tripod mounted with the same exact exposure at F/4

Shots were leveled with both a hot-shoe bubble leveler and tripod base-leveler.  I take no responsibility for the masonry.  🙂

(click on each photo to view full size)

Canon 17mm TS-E

Zeiss 18mm Distagon

Canon 17-40 L

It’s obvious the TS-E once again out-performs both of the other lenses in vignetting as well as barrel distortion, with the Zeiss in second place for distortion and third place for vignetting, depending on how you interpret the light fall-off…  I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from the images…

Below are some more 100% crops.  These are from the bottom left of the frame in the above test.


I’ll be the first to admit I’m a just slightly disappointed in the Zeiss 18mm Distagon.    Not doubt it’s a great lens and a finely crafted piece of optical equipment, but I was hoping it could possibly replace my Canon 17mm TS-E for normal prime UWA use.   It will, however most likely replace my 17-40 L as the lens I’ll use when I need something that can take a front filter mounted on it.  (I rarely use the 17-40 at anything other than 17mm)

In almost all of the tests, it scores right in the middle, between the two Canons respectively.   Coming in second to a $2,500 lens is nothing to be ashamed of.

Zeiss 18mm @ F/8 - Handheld

If you are considering buying this lens, I’d weigh the options first…   Remember that Zeiss does not make an autofocus lens, so you’re stuck with manual, which shouldn’t be that big of a deal for most people since lenses in this focal length are not usually used for subjects that require quick autofocus and when dialing in an exact focal length, one usually does this manually anyway.   The 82mm filter thread can prove frustrating at times due to the fact that many manufacturers charge much more for this size and retailers are often out of stock as well.   The Zeiss won’t blow you away in optical ability, but it is still a decent step up from both the 17-40 L and 16-35 L, in my opinion.

If you find yourself dealing with subjects that produce a lot of chromatic aberration, you won’t find the Distagon to solve your problems there.  It is a great performer in corner to corner sharpness and flare, but not in CA control.

All in all, it’s a great lens and definitely lives up to the Zeiss reputation, but one should weigh the options before deciding.  If you are posting mostly on the web and rarely print your photos past 10×15, the 17-40 is a much better value and will save you some money…   But for my uses, it’s definitely worth keeping and although it can’t replace my 17mm TS-E as my main ultra-wide-angle prime, it does cost just over half of what the TS-E costs, weighs just over half as much, handles better and can hold it’s own in the sharpness department.

Thanks for reading


Death Valley National Park – A photography guide

Posted in Travel Reports with tags , , , , , , , on November 26, 2009 by macdanzig

Location Report – Death Valley National Park

Storm approaching the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley © Mac Danzig

If you immediately think of nothing but extreme heat and barren desert when the words “Death Valley” come to mind, you most likely haven’t experienced this incredible place first-hand…  Yes, the heat is ridiculous in the summer at the valley-level areas of the park, but DVNP has way more to offer than the stereotypical idea of extreme heat and sand.

As of the time this writing, I have been to Death Valley for Photography nine times and if I have anything to say about it, there will be many more trips in the future.  Every time I have visited, I have come back with usable images no matter what conditions the weather provided and each time I have seen something completely new.  In addition, every single excursion to this beautiful place has had a profound effect on me.

Death Valley National Park is the largest National Park in the lower 48 states, covering 5,262 square miles.    On any given day, you are likely to see and experience a plethora of Natural Phenomena.  From snow-capped peaks, to rolling sand dunes, to Ghost Town remains and everything in between.  Death Valley is, in my opinion the most geologically diverse Natural area in North America and that is a notion that definitely lends itself to success in photography.

Those of you who are familiar with my work know that I am a huge fan of remote places.   I have gone out of my way to go ‘out of the way’ as much as possible.  Death Valley absolutely fulfills the need for solitude and desolation, as long as you are willing to do a little (or a lot of) driving beyond the main tourist areas.   Keep in mind that all of these great spots are very far from each other, for the most part and I recommend either an extended stay, or exact planning of your time to get the most out of your visit.   For example, the Badwater area includes Artist’s Palette, numerous salt flats and the incredible Devil’s Golf Course. They are all within 20 mins of each other, and fairly close to the two hotels in the area, but nowhere even remotely near the Racetrack, Wildrose Charcoal kilns, or any of the high-altitude overlook views.

In this article I will only cover the sections of the park I am familiar with, and of those, the ones I believe to be the best areas for good photo ops.

Here is a link to a google map I’ve made of the area. I will link again to it at the end of the article.
View Death Valley Photography spots in a larger map



The Racetrack Playa

Might as well start with my favorite spot in the entire park and probably one of the most remote areas in all of Death Valley; The Racetrack.  This basin is an ancient dry lake bed with an amazing textured floor that includes the phenomena of the infamous “sailing stones.”

"110 Degrees" © Mac Danzig

Although the road to get to the Racetrack from both North and South is very rough, winding, and filled with large, loose natural gravel rocks that are quite sharp in spots, chances are you’ll see a few other folks (even in passenger cars) during a September or April trip when the weather is the most comfortable.     If you go during the colder months, there’s an excellent chance you’ll have the entire area to yourself.

Words can’t really describe the feeling you get at the Playa.  Especially if you are the only one there…  Bordered on the West by the Last Chance Range, and on the East by the Cottonwood mountains, a feeling of solitude is experienced naturally.   The silence itself can be immense and profound.  Every experience I’ve had at this location has left me longing to return again.

My advice is to spend at least 24 hours here if possible.  There are a few first-come-first-serve campsites just south of the Racetrack that will leave you easy access for sunrise and sunset light.  And if you’re a nocturnal shooter like me, spending at least 1 night here is a must.

Moonrise on the Playa © Mac Danzig

In addition to the lake bed itself containing the “sailing stones” is the “Grandstand”: a protrusion of black basaltic rock that sits 75 feet above the floor at the northwestern corner of the playa.   This is easily seen from the road or anywhere in the area, really.  And if you are looking for a good star-trail foreground subject or an interesting focal point beyond the normal shot, the Grandstand may be a good bet.

"First Light of the Day" © Mac Danzig (The Grandstand can be seen at the horizon below the mountains, center-left)

When walking out on the Playa, distance is not always what it seems.  You may find yourself heading towards a vague landmark while looking for rocks with trails to photograph, and end up spending triple the amount of time you expected to get to an area that seemed fairly close.  This isn’t necessarily a negative though (unless you foolishly visit in the dead of summer) because the more time spent here, the better, in my opinion.

Light is best in early morning, once the sun has broken over the Cottonwood range, but great sunsets can also be had here as well, just remember that the mountain range to the east is quite close to the playa, and actual evening light sets behind it earlier than you may anticipate.

And of course, night time shooting is excellent here.  During a new moon, you are far away enough from light pollution that the stars really stand out.  The Racetrack is perhaps one of the best places in Death Valley to photograph the night sky.

"Galaxis" - A shot of the Milky Way from the Racetrack about 1 hour before sunrise. © Mac Danzig

Getting there can be a bit of a struggle, depending on your vehicle and your patience for rough back-roads.  A high-clearance 4wd vehicle isn’t 100% necessary to get here, but having one will make your trip a lot more comfortable, safer and many times quicker.   Always carry a full-size spare, no matter what kind of car you take here.  The large, sharp natural gravel can flatten any tire, and in many areas of the road, there is no ideal place to pull-over and change a flat.

The Racetrack can be accessed from either the north or south, but the northern route is probably the best for most situations.

Coming from the north, you will pass Ubehebe Crater, (a half-mile wide volcanic crater that is estimated to be over 5000 years old) just before the road turns to dirt and becomes very rough and rocky.   Although not as immediately photogenic as you’d imagine, Ubehebe is definitely worth a stop to look at and experience.   On certain days, the wind at the top of the crater picks up so high that you can literally lean your entire body weight over the edge and be supported.

The first 30 miles or so to the track via Ubehebe is windy 1-lane gravel.  The last 4 miles before you reach the Playa turn from rocky to washboard… The kind of washboard road that will vibrate the eyes out of your head if you ride too fast on it.  This is another reason to have a vehicle with the kind of suspension that can handle these roads.

"Desert Floor" © Mac Danzig

Once you get there, my suggestion is to take a few moments to really absorb the atmosphere before you begin shooting.   There are 3 parking areas (north, middle and south) that have easy access to walk directly onto the playa.  Keep in mind that in order to find some good rock trails, you must be prepared to do some hiking out onto the lake bed.  There are no sign or trails, just a giant, wide-open playground with limitless photographic potential.




Sand Dunes

© Mac Danzig

There are three major groups of dunes in Death Valley:   Mesquite dunes (near Stovepipe Wells), Panamint dunes and Eureka Dunes.

By far the most accessible of the three is the Mesquite Dunes.  Unfortunately it’s also the most visited and therefore the most footprint-littered.   During the months of April/May and September, these dunes a lot of tourism.   Depending on recent wind and rain activity, you’ll sometimes have to hike quite a way during these peak months to find untouched sand, but it’s still an amazing location.  If you stop by here, you’ll be close to Stovepipe Wells, which contains a small convenience store, gift shop and over-priced gas, if you need it.

Regardless of the season or current wind conditions, it’s always a good idea to protect your equipment in the sand dunes.  There are only two times that I’ll put a uv filter on the front of my lens – shooting near splashing salt water, and shooting near large bodies of sand.    Hiking to find the right spot to shoot can take a long time and end up being more of a workout than you bargained for.   The soft sand is really hard to traverse and I’ve found myself and my gear submerged into the sand on more than one occasion.   Always keep what you’re not using zipped up in your bag.  Take great care when changing lenses – any stray grains of sand blown into the camera body can cause a post-processing nightmare.

The thermometer on my compass reads 111.4 F. This was during May right before sunset.

Hiking the dunes at night is an awesome experience.  Because of how disorienting an area like this can be, (especially at night) I always carry a GPS with me, even if there’s a full moon.  All these rolling hills can blend together and finding your way out can be real pain.

If you want a less-traveled location, check out either the Panamint Dunes or the Eureka Dunes on the North end of the Park.   If you are coming from Big Pine, CA, Eureka Dunes can be visited on the way to the Racetrack.  They are much larger and more interesting than the Mesquite Dunes, in my opinion.

"Moonlit Hourglass" © Mac Danzig




Furnace Creek and Vicinity

Furnace Creek, is pretty much the only “town” in Death Valley.   It includes a visitor’s center,  two campgrounds, the only two hotels in the entire National Park and the only real restaurant.   If you station yourself here, you’ll have relatively close access to the Badwater Salt Flats, the Devil’s Golf Course, Artist’s Pallette and Zabriskie Point.

© Mac Danzig

Zabriskie Point is an overlook area that also includes a primitive hikable trail system.   From the overlook you an see the salt flats as well as Wildrose Peak across the Badwater Valley.  It’s mostly a sunrise/early morning spot, but great shots can be had here at sunset and nighttime as well.   Don’t expect to have this place to yourself unless you go sometime during the off-season.

To see a panorama I made of Zabriskie Point hosted on Gigapan and gain a better idea of the view point, click here.

sunrise over Zabriskie Point © Mac Danzig


The Badwater Salt flats are one of the main attractions for people staying at Furnace Creek.  Badwater is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere.  Most people visiting here will stop off at the parking lot with a little boardwalk.  I suggest driving a little further down and pulling off of the road to find some un-trampled areas of the flats.

"NaCl Earth" - Badwater Salt Flats © Mac Danzig


The Devil’s Golf Course is a rather unfortunately-named section of Badwater that is my personal recommendation as a must-see if you’re in the Furnace Creek area.    It’s a salt pan with huge, random, jagged formations of salt that formed when the body of water there evaporated.  (Much of Death Valley NP was underwater at one time and discoveries of fish fossils are still being unearthed at higher elevations in the park).     Seriously, be careful when you walk on this.  The floor here is sharp and not as brittle as you might think.  It would suck pretty bad to get cut open by a lump of serrated salt.

DGC can be an excellent evening location once the sun lowers behind the mountains, especially if there are good groups of clouds present to catch the light.  Sunrise of course lends itself to this location very well too.

"Salt and Storm" - Devil's Golf Course © Mac Danzig





Beside all of the ground-level geographic features, there are plenty of high-altitude overlooks spread throughout the park.  Many of the overlooks are truly amazing depending on what kind of light you have, but they are all very far from each other (Dante’s View, Augereberry Point, Telescope Peak, Father Crowley Point, etc)- Depending on how much time you have to spend, most likely you will only be able to get one or two of these in. Also, many times in DV, the light is hazy, even in early morning and late afternoon, so the lookout style points of interest may not end up being photogenic.

This is a telephoto view from Father Crowley Point, located on the eastern side of the park. From this vantage point, you are looking towards the West at Panamint Valley. Seen here is the snow-covered Panamint Range, 4000 feet above the arid Panamint Dunes below.

Dante’s View is a great early morning/sunrise location that looks northwest above the Badwater basin.  If you enter the park from the southwest, via 190 fwy, it’s easy to get to…  If you want to hike beyond the parking area here, you can go 4 miles one way to the Mt. Perry Summit, which is absolutely worth it, in my opinion.

Traveling through the Panamint mountain range gives some more opportunities for overlooks.  Telescope Peak is the highest point in the park and is accessed by a 14-mile round-trip hike starting at Mahogany Flat Campground.    In order to get up here, you’ll need a high clearance 4wd.  This entire area is really photogenic and includes the Wildrose charcoal kilns on the way up the mountain.  These are the best-preserved kilns in the west.   The road turns from paved to dirt a few miles before the kilns and once past the kilns, turns very steep and rocky.  Keep in mind that there is snow up here well into spring and the road isn’t really maintained.  This is a good opportunity to get a some shots of the charcoal kilns with snow covering them and chances are, you won’t see many other people.  These are best photographed in the early part of the day, because the sun washes out the sky from mid-day until evening when looking west here.

A quick snapshot of the Wildrose Charcoal kilns up in the Panamints.

Another overlook to check out if you’re in the Panamint range, near wildrose, is Aguereberry Point.   I’ve only ever been there in winter, where the unmaintained dirt access road was covered in snow, but even then, it wasn’t too treacherous.  From Aguereberry Point, you can see all the way across the west half Death Valley National Park.  The silence up here is beautiful and only occasionally broken by whistling wind.

On the way to Aguereberry Point (named after miner Pete Aguereberry) is the Eureka mine and remnants of Pete Aguereberry’s home.  Unfortunately, the Park service has deemed the mine unsafe recently and denied access to it, but hopefully some restoration will change that.  You can still have a look at the old house where Pete used to live as well as some other decaying remnants.

Eureka Mine © Mac Danzig




If you find yourself in the Panamint Valley or near Panamint Springs, Darwin Falls is a decent little spot to visit with a short hike through a wash to get there.  It is another prime example of the geological diversity in the area.  You’ll want a high clearance vehicle to get to the trailhead.  Keep in mind that during the summer months, the falls may be dry. (or so I’ve been told)

Darwin Falls © Mac Danzig

One example of the sporadic Death Valley weather was seen by me first hand one day in the winter.  It was warm in the Panamint Valley during the morning hours.   By mid-day, a strong storm came by and flooded the valley floor.  Extremely strong winds arrived afterward and created waves on the large pools of water that had been formed by the rain.

© Mac Danzig

By this time, the temperature had dropped almost 20 degrees even though the sun was still bright.

Unpredictable weather is a staple of Death Valley in the winter months.




Ghost Towns and mining remnants in the area

In addition to the Eureka Mine previously mentioned, are plenty of ghost towns (and pieces of ghost towns) scattered throughout the park here and there.  The ones worth visiting in my opinion are Ballarat and Panamint City (on the southeast side of the park) and Rhyolite- which lies in Nevada and is actually just outside the park boundaries on the Northwest side.    Rhyolite is a perfect location to stop by if you are coming from the 95 fwy and using Beatty junction to enter the park.  This old gold rush town is not hard to get to, and contains some of the most well preserved structures of any ghost town I’ve visited.   The now-deceased Cook Bank, who’s frame and foundation are made of cement, is still standing.  It’s roofless now and pieces keep coming down over the years, but the front wall should be there for a while unless there is some real seismic activity.

"Sundial" - the remnants of Cook Bank in Rhyolite, Nevada - © Mac Danzig

Rhyolite was a pretty happening place in it’s heyday.  If you’re familiar with ghosts towns, you’ll know that there isn’t much left of them in most cases, so this old place is a welcomed change.  There is also a cemetery near by which has quite a few old grave sites.

If you happen to be heading from Rhyolite towards the Racetrack, or even Stovepipe Wells and you have a good high clearance vehicle (and extra time), try taking Titus Canyon- just west of Rhyolite.  It’s a beautiful drive and will lead you through the grapevine mountains just after passing the ghost town of Leadfield.  This will take quite some time, so plan accordingly.





Animals are often hard to come by in DVNP, but a little time spent in the park should reveal a few of the park’s more visible creatures.  There are plenty of native animals that have eluded me, but one has to remember that Death Valley and the desert in general does not harbor many creatures who make their living grazing out in the open.

© Mac Danzig

Still, you are sure to come across wildlife in many different parts of  the Park if you’re willing to spend some time searching.  I personally wouldn’t plan a photography trip to Death Valley for wildlife alone, but it’s a great idea to bring the telephoto and keep it handy.

Burro family seen near Surprise Canyon © Mac Danzig

Wild Burros can be seen throughout the eastern side of the park and if you hike into the mountains, you just might come across some Bighorn Sheep.

Bighorn Ewe in Happy Canyon near the trailhead to the ghost town of Panamint City © Mac Danzig



If you haven’t been yet, hopefully you’ve now gained a better idea of what you can do here.  If you’ve already visited, maybe this will spark your interest to return.

I personally cannot imagine my photography portfolio without this place and I owe much of the experience I’ve gained to it.

As far as I’m concerned, there is no place like it on earth.


Below is a map of the area I’ve made with placemarks that correspond with this article’s featured spots.
View Death Valley Photography spots in a larger map.


I plan on hosting a few photography workshops in the near future at Death Valley, with an emphasis on night time long exposures.  Please check back on the blog in early 2010 for updates and schedule.



Thanks for reading.




TS-E 17mm Lens Review – Part 2

Posted in Equipment Reviews with tags , , , , , on November 18, 2009 by macdanzig

17mm TS-E on the 1Ds MkII

In Part One of this review, we looked at the Canon TS-E 17mm f/4 L’s optical capabilities when used as a simple prime wide-angle lens.    This second part is a closer look at the tilt and shift functions of the lens and what they can do to add to your photography.

Again, this is not a comprehensive ‘be-all, end-all’ review of the 17mm TS-E, but rather a quick look at some of the things that can be done with it and hopefully lead you to make a better educated decision on whether or not it fits into your arsenal.  These examples of shots are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what you can do with this lens.


Two of the major functions of the Shift feature are to:  A)- Decrease or alter perspective distortion,  and B)- help with creating panoramic images.

As far as fixing perspective goes, I have always been a fan of the distortion ultra-wide angle lenses give.  I often like the “looking up from below” style of composition which most wide lenses amplify.  But there are times when this is not ideal, and even if you are like me and you enjoy  that look, it comes with a price which is unrealistic warping that trickles down to the details.  Although the examples of the 17mm TS-E in part one show less distortion in the edges than the 17-40 L, the physics of wide angle lenses will always cause this look when pointed upward from below at a large object such as a building, trees, etc…

Here is an example of the TS-E’s ability to correct perspective distortion:

This image of trees in lining the street was shot with the 17mm TSE in 'normal' mode. Notice the warped perspective. Sometimes, this is a desired effect, although not completely realistic.

This is the composition of the camera during the first exposure, seen above. (Low to the ground and the entire body is tilted upwards)

In this second exposure, I used a full upward shift to correct distortion.

This is the composition during the second exposure with the lens shifted upward for distortion control. Notice the actual angle of the body is in a much closer line to the horizon.

You may notice in the second exposure, that when shifted, not all that was available to see in the first exposure reached the sensor.  This is the price paid for using shift…        One thing I find excellent about the ability to correct distortion is the small, detailed areas when fixed.  This can be a great tool to have if you are shooting landscapes that will be turned into large prints.     Below are crops from each shot to give you an idea of what you can achieve.

A crop of the first exposure shot normally.

A crop from the second, shifted exposure.

One of the greatest features of this lens – and it’s partner, the Canon 24mm TS-E L II, is their barrel’s ability to be rotated within seconds while still mounted on the camera.   This means you can use vertical and/or horizontal shift (and tilt) whether you are shooting in landscape or portrait mode.    This is not only great for perspective control in many situations, but also for full creative control when making exposures for stitched panoramas.




The TS-E makes creating a series of images to be later stitched together as a panorama very simple.   Here is a quick example:

The following three exposures were all made with the same exact camera composition, mounted on a tripod.  The only thing that was changed was the amount of shift applied.

Shifted upward 12mm

No Shift (shot as normal)

Shifted downward 12mm

The Final Panorama.

(Unrelated-   😀   Unfortunately for me, the fountains at this plaza are powered sporadically and at random intervals, so there is a space missing in the fountain’s flow… Although, I kind of like the effect.)





Using tilt effectively, is in my opinion more difficult.  It involves small incremental adjustments in composition and focus.  Live-View is a feature that will greatly benefit you if you are using Tilt a lot.  Especially if used for an increase in depth of field.

If you are new to this idea, I recommend checking out this tutorial on utilizing the Tilt function by the Keith Cooper at Northlight Images.

Besides using tilt to achieve a broad depth of field while maintaining a large aperture, tilt can also be used to decrease depth of field dramatically.   Some people use this to get the “miniature” look which can make a large landscape appear like a small model.  The effect is much more pronounced on lenses with a longer focal length, but the same can be had with the 17m TS-E, giving some pretty unique results.  This is actually quite simple and below are some examples of how what you can do…

Normal shot @ F/4

Same shot as above @ f/4, only fully tilted 6.5 degrees upward

Crop of the above tilted shot. You can see the "miniature" perspective.

F/4 - Tilted 6.5 degrees downward

Crop of the above shot




One thing you must get used to with the TS-E if you’re going to use tilt and/or shift, is using manual mode.   Your camera’s TTL (through the lens) metering system is going to get confused and either over, or under-compensate the exposure.  If you are shooting in a semi automatic mode like aperture priority, you’re going to end up with shots that are either too dark or too light.   The best way to meter TTL is to meter with the lens in normal neutral position, then keep that exposure locked in and work around it in baby steps, depending on your results after you’ve taken the tilted and/or shifted shot…





All in all, it’s a pretty sweet lens with a ton of abilities, limited only by your creativity and technical prowess.   If you haven’t used a tilt-shift before, in order to take full advantage, you must spend quite a large amount of time experimenting in the field.

Although the price is hefty, I believe this is worth it to anyone who at the very least, values image quality across the frame.


If you are at all interested in the 17mm TS-E, please support the site by buying through this hyperlink.



Thanks for reading.





Heavy Neutral Density filtering for daytime long exposures

Posted in Photography Techniques with tags , , , , , , , on November 10, 2009 by macdanzig

A brief tutorial on using strong neutral density filters…

Toxic Falls

As a true long-exposure enthusiast, I often found myself waiting until the sun went down so that I could take advantage of the lack of light and capture motion in a single frame – whether it be clouds moving across the sky, headlights and tail-lights of moving vehicles in a cityscape, or my favorite: extremely long exposures of star trails while the earth rotates on it’s axis.

But there are too many opportunities to pass up in daytime photography where the scene can benefit from a long exposure.  When the winds are high and the clouds are low, a 30-second exposure at 5pm can be rather dramatic.  The same is true with a landscape scene that includes a fixed subject such as a barn surrounded by a field of tall grass blowing rapidly in the wind.     This is why I obtained a 10-stop Neutral Density filter a while back.  It has since become one of my most used accessories and my old 4-stop ND filter usually never even makes it into my bag when I pack for a photo trip.   Solid Neutral Density filters (not to be confused with graduated neutral density filters or GNDs) simply allow less light to enter your camera’s sensor in a uniform way and are designed to affect color and contrast as little as possible.   (This is the theory, anyway.  But as I’ll touch on briefly, colour casts can be a side-effect to using strong ND filters)…  My enthusiasm towards using this filter for creative photography really adds to my disappointment that the Canon TS-E 17mm does not take front or rear filters of any kind. (Not at the time of this writing, at least).    If it weren’t for that, the 17mm TSE would be a near-perfect lens for my style of shooting.

Anytime I see fast-moving clouds, water, animals, vehicles or vegetation in the wind, I consider using an ND.  The possibilities of creativity are wide open.

Cima's Ghosts

30 second exposure - f/16 - ISO 100 - 17-40 L @ 17mm

My solid ND filter of choice for these type of shots is the B+W brand 110 Neutral Density filter, which reduces the light entering the lens by 10 stops.   This will take an exposure originally metered for 1/125 sec (@f/16, iso 100) and turn it into a 30-second long exposure.  It goes without saying that you’ll need a sturdy tripod for shots like these.  B+W is made by Schneider Optics and makes some of the highest quality filters out there.  Some other excellent glass makers are Singh-Ray, Lee and Heliopan.   Though these are expensive, I don’t recommend using the cheap brands, simply because when you are dealing with exposures this long during the day, the chances of glare and flare are high enough, even with high-end glass, so you don’t want to put sub-par optics in front of your lens because you’ll be increasing the chances of flare, even if you’re not shooting directly into the sun’s rays.

Metering and exposing

There are many ways to achieve accurate metering for heavily-filtered shots like this.  Usually using in-camera TTL with the filter on is fairly inaccurate for ND filters this dense.  With my Canon 1Ds MkII and MkIII, I can accurately meter TTL if I shut the viewfinder curtain…   Mostly,  I prefer to compose the shot and meter at whatever aperture I decide to shoot at (usually something small from f/11 or 22, depending on how long I want my exposure to be in the end) before I put the filter on.  Then (working in manual mode) I will simply re-adjust the shutter speed ten stops overexposed.  I have my exposure dial set to 1/3 of a stop per click, so for me using a ten-stop ND filter, it’s 30 clicks.  Depending on your camera’s exposure settings, you might be set at 1/2 or a full stop per click, so adjust accordingly.

I usually always shoot at a lower ISO like 100 or even occasionally 50.  This is because in most cases you’ll want to open for as long as possible. But even if you don’t, it’s best to stay at ISO 100 and work the exposure around your aperture setting instead of your ISO.  Keep in mind that ISO 50 in most camera bodies isn’t a real ISO setting and will actually cause you to lose a little bit of dynamic range because the camera essentially ends up taking an ISO 100 shot and turning the exposure down afterward.

If the amount of stops reduced by your filter causes you to go beyond 30 seconds for your exposure, you will have to shoot in ‘bulb’ mode.  In this case, every stop is a double of your exposure setting.  For example: if you are using a 10-stop ND filter and you hit your 30-second-limit in manual mode after opening only 8 stops of shutter speed, then you still need to open up two stops longer by going into bulb mode. – One stop more is 60 seconds and another stop on top of that will leave you with an exposure of 120 seconds, etc…   If you want to keep it simple and stay at 30 seconds or less, then adjust your aperture accordingly.

thirty seconds in the valley

30 seconds @ f/9 - ISO 100 - 17-40L @ 17mm

Here, I opened up to 30 seconds @ f/18 and being only 8 stops above my normal metered test, I still had two stops to go.  Instead of going all the way to 120 seconds, I decided to open the aperture to f/9 and leave the exposure at 30 seconds.  This let me capture some movement in the clouds without completely blurring them into a smeared look, which is what a 2-minute exposure would have done.

You’ll want to use a cable release or remote, in addition to your tripod to help avoid soft images.  Enabling mirror-lockup will be to your benefit as well.

Not completely neutral?

Even though these filters are designed to not alter your colors in any way, once you get beyond the 6-stop range, you may have strange colour casts, usually in the purple or magenta range.  This is because of the higher red transmission (up to and sometimes above 700nm).  Some people may like this warmer look, but overall, it becomes unrealistic.  You have two options to try here…  1) You can adjust the tint of the RAW file (please shoot in RAW) to take away the magenta colour cast.  This usually involves pulling the slider in your raw-converter to the left (green side) quite a bit until normal white balance is obtained.   or 2) Simply convert to black and white.   I find the second option is often the best, as surreal images like ones created by a ND filters can frequently benefit from a black and white or split-tone conversion.

owens valley

the magenta cast here caused by the filter has a slightly unnatural look, even when the white balance is adjusted properly.

Vignetting is also a problem with these filters, especially the screw-on variety.  And if you’re using a very wide angle lens, this issue is compounded.   I find myself using my raw converter to reduce the vignetting to a more normal look.  Lightroom 2 is my raw converter of choice.

gold afternoon fix

The vignetting pretty much ruined this shot and it was too strong to repair in photoshop. The only alternative would be to crop it to exclude the top and bottom edges.

reflecting on eighty seconds

The tint in this shot of Schwabacher Landing in Grand Teton National Park had to be heavily adjusted to bring the blue sky back to it's normal tone... 80-second exposure - f/11 - ISO 100 - 17-40L @ 19mm - Canon 5D


This particular shot is an example of a scene that benefited from the warmer tones the ND filter produced and did not need to be adjusted. It was shot just after the sun set.


There’s a lot of things you can do with the option of opening up the shutter for long periods, you just have to be willing to experiment and use your imagination.  Moving water and streaking clouds are not the only possibilities.

downtown normal

downtown ND

The first of the above two images is the normal exposure.  The second is the same shot taken with a 10-stop ND filter, letting the shutter open for 20 seconds.  This rendered even the slower moving cars almost invisible.

breezing by red rock

The above image is a blend of two shots…
Both were taken with a tripod within a few moments of each other. … The first was a normal shot @ F16, 1/200th of a second… The second was a long exposure of the same scene for ten seconds. I used a 10-stop ND filter to slow the shutter speed down…
I blended the two together in Photmatix and then processed the stacked shot in Lightroom.

The clouds were moving very fast this day. I really like how the long exposure blended with the normal shot… I wouldn’t have been able to keep the blue sky with just the long exposure, and I wouldn’t have the stretched clouds with the normal shot…


30 sec - ISO 50 -Color-corrected color version


30 sec - ISO 50 -Black and White conversion

Thanks for reading



A first look at the Canon TS-E 17mm F/4 L (and a test vs the 17-40 L)

Posted in Equipment Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on November 7, 2009 by macdanzig

Canon 17mm TS-E Review part One

Canon 17mm Tilt Shift lens

Canon 17mm TS-E mounted on the 1Ds Mk II


As a Canon user who primarily shoots landscapes (and a large portion of the time at wide focal lengths) I like many of you, have become frustrated with the EOS ultra-wide lineup.  The 17-40 F/4 L and the 16-35 F/2.8 L may be fine lenses under many circumstances, but as megapixels increase with each generation of new bodies, flaws in optics become more and more apparent.

I have been a long time user of the 17-40 L and have found it extremely useful in the ultra-wide range.  After trying out several copies and comparing it to the 16-35 L, I came to the conclusion that although not perfect, it serves it’s function quite well and is pretty much Canon’s best bargain in it’s focal length.   But as I became more and more experienced and spent more time scrutinizing finite details of each image, both the 17-40 and the 16-35 left me feeling fairly disappointed.   Besides the major chromatic aberration issue with both lenses, and the 17-40’s seemingly uncanny ability to make a straight horizon crooked, there is the issue of soft corners at 17mm (the main focal length at which most users buy the lens for) at practically any aperture.

So what do you do if you shoot wide and want to take advantage of the new sensor technology and expect to get sharp images from corner to corner?   Well, until recently, you had about four options:  1) You could get the EOS 14mm 2.8 L II and still deal with the same problems as above, but have the ability to crop the soft corners out to about an 18mm equivalent…   2) Get your hands on a Zeiss 18mm Distagon and a third-party adapter…  3) Get your hands on the amazing Nikon 14-24 F2.8 and a third-party adapter…  Or 4) Switch over to the Nikon System completely to take full advantage of the 14-24…

Believe me, plenty of people chose #4 and it makes you wonder if the Canon corporation really cares how much of their professional DSLR customers they lose to Nikon, since the major money makers for Canon have always been business machines and consumer grade point-and-shoots…

Well, finally we have a fifth option. (Although you may have to take out a second mortgage to get your hands on it)

Enter the EOS TS-E 17mm F/4 L.

17mm TS-E Front Elelment

Front Element

Make and Design

As far as the lens’s physicality goes, it is made very well.  And it better be for the price Canon is charging.  It comes with a nice high-end lens cap that fits snugly and has an attached lanyard.   Canon boasts it’s SWC (subwavelength Structure Coating). I have no idea if this jargon is really what helps the lens control flare and ghosting, but something sure does, so we’ll just take their word for it.

The Tilt, Shift and barrel rotation all function smoothly and extremely precise.  (Having the ability to rotate the barrel 45 degrees from right angle to parallel for both tilt and shift is an invaluable feature and doubles the creative possibilities of a tilt-shift lens).  There are also tension/lock knobs for both tilt and shift that can keep each exactly where you need them for precise function.     The focus ring is easy-going and doesn’t give you the feel of the stiff manual lenses of years past, but it is not loose either and stays in place just fine.  This being a manual-only lens, you are relying on your eyes and camera body to indicate focus.  Live-View is certainly something that this lens will benefit from…

When you lock the lens onto your camera body, there is no play whatsoever.  It fits snug and tight…   As you can see by the protruding front element, there is no chance of putting a filter on the front, and unfortunately, there is no rear-filter holder either.   If your the kind of person who relies heavily on GNDs for your landscape photos, the 17mm Tilt/Shift isn’t for you.

Another thing lacking is any kind of a hood (built in or removable)…  This is kind of strange and I expected a built-in petal-style hood that most fisheye lenses have, but no dice.  And what does Canon have to say about this?  They actually mention 3 times in the lens manual to, quote: use a “piece of cardboard“…  It’s just a tiny bit unsettling to spend well over 2k on a lens and have the manufacturer tell you to simply use a “piece of cardboard” to cut out harmful rays that might enter the bulbous front element…  Lucky for me, I’m really a baby about my equipment and having this expensive glass just sit out there exposed doesn’t make me too nervous (at least that’s what I tell myself).

Tilt-Shift lenses have been very popular among serious photographers for decades now, but this is the first time a 17mm has been introduced to the modern DSLR market. In this part of the review however, I will not cover the Tilt/Shift functions of the lens, (that will be in part 2) but rather the optical capabilities when used as a normal wide-angle prime.





The following tests were done quickly, but also to the very best of my ability to attempt to show an unbiased look at the 17mm TS-E as compared to the 17-40L in exactly the same shooting conditions.   This is obviously not exhaustive, comprehensive or technically precise enough to be a “be-all-end-all” review or comparison and that was not my intent anyway.  I simply want to give my readers a good gauge as to whether or not the 17mm TS-E is worth considering adding to their arsenal.


TS-E 17mm L vs 17-40 mm L (quick comparisons)

TSE test shot

Reference test shot

The following crops were all shot in srgb as RAW files using the 1Ds MkII on Aperture Priority mode with evaluative metering at ISO 100.  They were all taken mounted on tripod and mirror lock-up was enabled... Images were all converted to jpeg using Lightroom 2 and were not sharpened or adjusted during raw conversion or export.

As with any test, one must keep in mind the occurrence of copy variation.  That being said, this particular copy of the 17-40 is my third owned and by far best optically.  You can take that for what it’s worth.





(click on each to see full 100% crop)


17-40 @ F/4


TS-E @ F/4


17-40 @ F/8


TS-E @ F/8


17-40 @ F/22


TS-E @ F/22

As you can see, diffraction takes it’s toll on both lenses at f/22, but the TS-E handles this much better.   The shots from the 17-40 appear a millimeter or so wider, at 17mm but this may be due to the natural distortion of the 17-40, rather than actually being a slightly wider focal length.  Keep in mind, no tilt or shift functions were enabled with the TS-E, so any barrel distortion you see from either lens is native.   You will notice this again in the other crops…





*(click on photos for larger views of the samples)


17-40 @ F/4


TS-E @ F/4


17-40 @ F/8


TS-E @ F/8


17-40 @ F/22


TS-E @ F/22

The difference in edge-sharpness becomes incredibly obvious in the corner shots above, at all apertures.






17-40 @ f/8


TS-E @ f/8





*(click on each image for full size)


17-40 @ f/8


TS-E @ f/8

In the center the playing field becomes more even.  I would say center sharpness is almost indistinguishable.   The 17-40 is certainly a great lens and it’s price makes it one of Canon’s best buys, but the optical shortcomings of the zoom really stand out at the edges…   Now, some people might say that this is an unfair comparison, and that may be so, but there aren’t many options at this focal length offered by Canon.  And if you’re anything like me, you shoot your landscapes with the 17-40 and you are desperately looking for a worthy upgrade and one that can hold a candle to the Nikon 14-24 and the Zeiss 18mm.





(click to view full size)


Reference shot


17-40 @ F/8


TS-E @ F/8




Pros & Cons of the TS-E




*Excellent optical quality and sharpness from corner to corner.  (Probably Canon’s best offering at 17mm)

*Build quality is exceptional.  All functions are smooth and precise.  It doesn’t get much better than this from a non-telephoto made by Canon.

*CA is much more controlled than it is with the 17-40 or the 16-35 L… I actually haven’t used many lenses of any focal length that handle CA as good as this one does.  If you have been having chromatic aberration issues with either of those zooms, the TS-E is a huge step in the right direction.

*Flare is also much better controlled.   Although I haven’t showed any examples in this test, my experience from using it and taking quite a few test shots reveals that even with the crazy front element bulging out and catching light, the flare gets dissipated into small color spots even at f/22.  The same scenes I shot with the 17-40 showed large bright un-clonable spots and the images were a complete mess of sun spots at f/22.

*Vignetting and light fall-off is very well controlled at all apertures

*Very little barrel distortion when compared to the 17-40 and 16-35.

*All of the tilt-shift options, which can give you all kinds of creative control. (I’ll cover that in part 2 of this review)



*Crippling price tag.  You may have to sell a foot to pay for this.  It’s up to you to decide whether or not you need your foot more than the lens.

*Inability to take front or rear filters of any kind

*Bulging front element is vulnerable to to damage of all kinds, especially without a hood available. (Canon’s suggestion of a piece of cardboard won’t help you avoid much damage either)

*Manual focus only.  Yes, you can get focus confirmation with a beep, but that depends on your body and how accurate it’s AF is.

*Did I mention the price?

*It’s a prime, so you’re stuck at 17mm… this shouldn’t bother most seasoned shooters.

*I suppose it’s a little heavier than most lenses in it’s range, (29oz) but I’ve personally never been the type to complain about that sort of thing.  I haul plenty of equipment over rough terrain for hikes dozens of miles at times and I never had a problem with the individual weight of my lenses or bodies…


It’s up to you whether or not it’s worth the cost, but one should remember that lenses are an excellent investment, and as long as you keep them in good condition, they will hold their resale value for a long time.  This lens especially, since it just came out, and the chance of a second version coming out within the next 6 or 7 years even is unlikely.  Buying a brand new body is a much less profitable investment.

At the end of the day, even with all of it’s shortcomings, the 17mm TS-E is the only ultra-wide lens Canon makes that has corner-to corner sharpness and optics solid enough to do all of the megapixels in your sensor justice.   If you don’t need that foot, I say get it.

PS- This lens has been on backorder since it’s announcement and there aren’t many copies floating around on the used market.  I haven’t heard when it’s going to be available on a consistent basis in retail stores.

Part 2 of this review will be up in a few weeks and I’ll have a good look at how the tilt and shift functions can be utilized.

Update:  This lens is finally available and in stock at most reputable photography stores.



Thanks for reading