Bang for Buck: 17-40 f/4 or 16-35 f/2.8?

I’ve spoken about my Canon 17-40mm f/4 lens before (here, on wedding photography). It’s a great lens, and at just over $600, it’s an absolute steal. It’s big brother, the Canon 16-35 f/2.8 is almost $1300. That’s a huge gap, and I don’t think it’s a justifiable expense. Here are 3 reasons:

F/4 to F/2.8 is only one flippin’ stop. That’s not a huge leap, and unless you are making your career shooting in low, natural light, it’s probably not worth it. I’d rather keep more things in focus at f/4 (our DOF calculator tells us it’s still quite a bit), and make that stop up in ISO.

The effect of low depth of field is reduced on wide angle lenses. For me, one of the great benefits of low depth of field is not that I can work in low light, but that I can isolate my subjects. A long lens with narrow depth of field really knocks the subject out of their surroundings. On a wide lens, depth of field does not fall off as quickly, so the effect is reduced and can look muddy.

Don’t be intimidated by big price tags and low f-stops. Don’t get me wrong. The 16-35 is an awesome lens. But its specs and the availability of a close alternative at a much lower price, in my mind, make it more of a specialized tool (the same way a tripod is a specialized tool).


$700 is a whole ‘nother lens! Pick up the Sigma 50-150 f/2.8 (the greater length justifies the lower f stop’s cost, too!) with what you don’t spend on the 16-35. You are now armed to the teeth for nearly any photographic situation. Don’t just buy the best equipment out there. Worse, don’t just wallow around in self-pity because you can’t afford same! If you understand your own needs, you can sometimes find great lenses that do what you need for a lot less than you’d pay on the very top of the line gear. Use what you need, folks.


  1. Shaun

    Overall I agree with your premise, but…

    f4 to f2.8 is one full stop, not 2/3 of a stop. I assume your 30D allows you to adjust apertures in 1/3 stop increments. Put on your 50 f1.4, and you will see there are three clicks to get from f4 to f2.8, not 2…

  2. d’oh! you’re right, Paul. that’s what I get for not checking with my camera handy.

  3. Well I might get the 17-40 too but because it is cheaper but we cannot say that the 17-40 is of the same IQ than the 16-35.
    It is known that the 17-40 is not that good on the borders since it was “designed” for the the 10D before the EFs comes in

  4. that’s a fair point, but we’re still talking $700, and it’s still an L series lens. I’ll do some research and compare the f/4 versions and the f/2.8 versions in a later post. Thanks for the idea!

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