Ultrawide-angle lenses are prized for showing us more than our unaided eyes can take in. Their angles of view -- anywhere between about 90 and 120 degrees -- are suited to large groups, expansive landscapes, or, conversely, tightly cramped interiors.
Ultrawide lenses have become especially attractive to anyone shooting a DSLR that has a smaller-than-35mm sensor. Because these cameras are hobbled by a 1.3X to 2X lens factor, ultrawides are the only option for getting a truly wide angle of view.
Their short focal lengths and faster maximum apertures usually make for easy handheld shooting at slower shutter speeds than is possible with longer lenses. Moreover, their typically enormous depths of field will usually render everything sharp from the foreground out to infinity.
What to Look For
• Superior distortion control. Ultrawides often produce bowed lines around the image edges -- typically barrel distortion. Such lines undercut the normally uncompromisingly realistic look that is the hallmark of these lenses, especially if strongly linear elements form an important part of the picture. Bowed lines can also be unflattering to human subjects, especially figures near the frame edges.
To discover if a lens has unacceptable distortion, refer to our lens tests (you can find them on www.PopPhoto.com), or mount a prospective lens on your camera body and look through the finder: Holding the camera horizontally, aim it so that a straight, high-contrast line runs the length of the top or bottom image edge. Assess the extent of any curvature. If the line bows alarmingly, pass on the lens. To minimize distortion, compose ultrawide shots with any straight lines placed near the center, away from the image's edges.
• Close-focus distance. If you have a choice between two otherwise equal ultrawides, pick the one with the closer focusing distance. The ability to move in really close (12 inches or less) to an object, while keeping both it and a distant backdrop in sharp focus, can be used to visually stunning effect. It's a look that can be achieved only with ultrawide lenses.
• Lenshoods. Because the front element of these lenses often extends beyond the barrel, ultrawide lenses can be prone to flare, which can degrade sharpness and contrast. Make sure your ultrawide comes with a lens shade -- and use it religiously.
Tokina 12-24mm f/4 AT-X Pro (digital only)
• Two aspheric elements.
• Internal focusing.
• 18-36mm equivalent.
• Close-focus distance: 11.8 in.
• Weight: 1.2 lb.
• Length: 3.5 in.
• Street price: $500
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• Fixed Focal Length Ultrawides
• Ultrawide Zooms