FOCUS ON: EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II

February 28, 2011

Are great images a product of the photographer, or their camera equipment? This series (formerly known as "Lens of the Month") explores the idea that it's BOTH: Featuring a professional photographer and a single Canon lens, the Canon Digital Learning Center focuses on the relationship that artists can have with their gear.

Canon Digital Learning Center (CDLC): What type of photography do you do, professionally? What field(s) do you prefer, for personal projects/as a hobby?

Jeffrey Lau (JL): On a professional level, the bulk of my work is currently in still-photo documentary projects for Non-Profit Organizations, NGOs as well as human-interest publications. I have a particular passion for covering family oriented stories that deal with a lack of basic necessities and / or personal loss from all walks of life. Since last year, I've begun to actively cover broader community-based social issues. I also spend a lot of time in the field of More wedding photojournalism shooting a large number of weddings per year throughout the country.

On occasion, I do shoot small-scale commercial advertising projects. I'm also currently in the beginning stages of utilizing my frequent commissioned and non-commissioned based travel for use in the world of journalistic stock photography.

In the personal realm, I tend to gravitate towards urban and natural landscape photography. Yosemite, Death Valley, Mt. Rainier, and other national parks throughout North America were my first passion and sparked my initial interest in shooting. It was in those places that I learned how to photograph large spaces and I still find myself drawn to dramatic atmospheres coupled with incredible natural scenery. In the last few years, I've been experimenting with and have had much more of a passion for short-term photo-essays about street life across urban America and consider it as personal work for now; although it may evolve into something much larger later in life.

CDLC: What are the most important features you need in the lenses you use professionally? What about for personal work (if there is a difference)?

JL:Whether I'm working on an overseas documentary or stock assignment, shooting a wedding in the states, or leisurely shooting through the windows of a coffee shop in New York, there are a number of important features and characteristics that I look for in the lenses I use. Since I typically shoot photo-journalistically, I neither have the luxury of carrying a wide range of lenses with me, nor the time to reach into my gear bag to swap lenses. If I can get away with having only two or three lenses and a couple of bodies on me, all the better. This makes choosing my daily / weekly workhorse lenses an even more important task since they really do have to perform well throughout the range of situations I might face at any given time. There are no do-overs in my industry and every shot counts.

Just about the four most important features I need in any given situation for work are lenses that possess wide and constant aperture throughout the zoom range, fast and silent auto-focus, consistent image-quality throughout the focal range of the zoom capacity, and a strong emphasis on reliability.

The lenses that I use not only have to stand up to the daily wear and tear expected from shooting hundreds of thousands of images a year, but have the added abuse of extremely unfavorable weather conditions. My equipment has faced extreme highs and lows in temperature; incredibly dry or humid weather, rain, snow, and have been through quite a few dust storms.

Marrying those weather extremes with erratic lighting conditions, fast moving candid subjects and having the wrong lens can be a nightmare. I think it's pretty clear why having these features can really help me get the job done.

Additionally, these are features that really cross over from the needs of my professional career to the personal work that I do and something that I now find hard to live without.

CDLC:What is your favorite Canon lens, and why? If the lens you used this month is one of your favorites, what is it about the lens that you love?

JL:I tend to gravitate toward zoom lenses for the flexibility and leniency they provide. Of the five zooms I currently own, the EF16-35mm f/2.8 L USM II is without a doubt my absolute favorite lens. As someone involved in the photojournalistic arts, it's important for me to get as intimately close to my subjects as possible while still giving context as to the where's and why's in any particular frame. Good story telling is essential in communicating powerful stories and ultra wide-angle zoom lenses are great tools for doing just that. As far as ultra wide-angle zoom lenses are concerned, I consider the EF16-35mm f/2.8 L USM II the one ultra-wide zoom lens that makes absolutely no compromises in accomplishing this task.

When mounted on a 5D, 1D, or 1DS series body, the excellent weather sealing and non-rotating front-element (with the help of a UV filter attached) of this lens means I can endure most weather conditions with confidence and it's wide open aperture of f/2.8 means the lens is fast enough and bright enough to both focus well and capture a great exposure in very dim light.

The 16mm spectrum of this lens is a marvel in both tight spaces and expansive real estate. Because this lens can achieve focus at just under a foot's distance, I can really get in close to people and objects and push the level of drama and action to an incredible degree. At the slightly deeper 35mm end, I can zoom in just enough and get most subjects from a short distance away without a problem. For an ultra wide-angle lens, the sharpness and color saturation more than meet my needs and I find that it renders my scenes true to life.

When it comes down to it, every lens has its advantages and disadvantages. And ultra wide-angle lenses are really only part of any photographer's equation. But if I had but one lens for the rest of my days, the EF16-35mm f/2.8 L USM II would be the one.

CDLC:What types of assignments do you think this lens will really excel at, and why?

JL:I'd really like to emphasize that I think this lens has incredible versatility through a range of fields and assignments. In my experience, this lens excels particularly well in the fields of photojournalism / documentary and wedding photojournalism. In that realm, wide open apertures means this lens allows you to be ready for the dimmest of shooting conditions. The build quality means it (short of being submerged) can take most atmospheric conditions not to mention withstanding quite a few knocks. In addition, when I'm finding that next decisive moment, it's fast, smooth and accurate auto-focus really means I can concentrate more on the composition of my frame and worry a whole lot less on nailing my subject dead on.

Another field I feel incredibly comfortable using this lens for is architectural photography. Especially in the commercial realm where you're expected to shoot large-scale buildings, being able to shoot at 16mm on a full-frame body like the 5D Mark II or 1DS Mark III means you can have an incredibly huge canvas to work with and you're not nearly as limited by how much you can step back to get the shot.

Lastly some clients in the lifestyle advertising industry really benefit from using the EF16-35mm f/2.8 L USM II lens. As the industry has constantly pushed for edgier and edgier photography, ultra wide-angle lenses such as the 16-35mm unit continue to make a huge impact in producing dynamic and action packed images.

CDLC:What, if any, challenges did you experience working with this lens?

JL:Just about the only real challenges I faced working with this lens aren't at all specific to the EF16-35mm f/2.8 L USM II, but are inherent traits / characteristics of all ultra-wide angle lenses; which is the edge distortion that is created when pairing a 35mm full-frame body (one that takes full advantage of an ultra-wide angle lens) and setting the lens at it's widest focal length (16mm).

Knowing how to compose a scene at the 16mm focal length and when it is or isn't appropriate to frame your subjects at the left or right edges of the lens is key to maximizing this lenses' capabilities. For instance, a person cycling down the street past you may benefit greatly from an enhanced sense of motion when framing said subject to the side of your image. Yet the same can't be said about framing a bride on her wedding day in the same way.

In addition, when composing foreground subjects in your frame, it's critically important to be aware of what's behind the subject as there may be undesirable elements (that may not be immediately noticeable) that may be a distraction to your overall image. Keeping those things in mind was a type of discipline that was necessary for me before it became muscle memory. When used appropriately, the EF16-35mm f/2.8 L USM II has made some of the most dramatic and inspiring images of my career thus far.

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