1330 – How Much Can You Take?

Here’s part two of my ongoing review of the new Sigma 8-16mm F4.5-5.6 DC HSM Ultra-Wide Zoom Lens for Nikon.

In the last post I said you’d see me struggle, and indeed this is not an easy lens. The problem is, 8 mm are incredibly wide. Of course nothing forces my to go that wide, but that’s the whole point of this lens, isn’t it? I already have a Sigma 10-20 (that may need a firmware update, as it never worked too well on the D300) and a remarkably good Tokina 11-16/2.8, so the only reason why I was interested in the new Sigma 8-16, was that it is incredibly wide. Now I’d better use that or I’ll have to ask myself what I’ve paid 900€ for 🙂

So, how wide are 8 mm anyway? Well, on a Nikon DX camera (and this lens will only work on DX), this lens is equivalent to a 12-24 on full-frame, and there is exactly one FX lens in that range, another Sigma, the Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 EX DG, a lens that renowned wedding photographer David Ziser successfully uses on his Canon 5D (MkII), as a landscape lens, but also for epic wedding portraits in dramatic landscapes, of course with the subjects centered, to avoid unpleasant distortions.

12 mm, that’s two millimeters wider than Nikon’s widest zoom, the famous 14-24. 12 mm, that’s three millimeters wider than the effective focal length of a Sigma or Nikon 10-2x zoom, and even 10 mm on DX is extremely wide, in fact so wide, that many photographers happily settle with a 12-24 or an 11-16 DX zoom (18 mm and 16.5 mm equivalent).

Working with an 8 mm lens very much reminds me of my fisheye, the Nikon 10.5/2.8, and you have pretty much the same kind of problems: It’s extremely hard to keep anthing out of the frame. Well, it’s not just as hard as with the fish, where I regularly find my feet somewhere protruding into the image, but especially on low shots, you have to be careful to keep the feet of your tripod out of the image.

And it’s not only that. When you have so much in your image, chances are, that you have extreme contrast as well. With a normal or moderately wide lens, you can often avoid the brightest parts of the scene. Got an overcast sky? Great, leave it out. You will have subtle contrasts in the rest of the scene, and that’s something that’s easy to work with. Good luck keeping the sky out at 8 mm 🙂

Wide angles distort. That’s the whole point. I don’t mean barrel or pin cushion distortions (we’ll look at them in the next post), no, I mean that things get stretched out the nearer you get to the edges and especially the corners. There’s nothing wrong with that, but of course the shorter the focal length, the more pronounced these distortions will be, and going near to a subject will only magnify the effect. Thus you should try not to place things or even people into corners. In general, try to avoid distortions of shapes that we see as characteristic. We are very sensitive to distortions of a person’s head, but even a ball put into a corner would make the whole image look wrong. Don’t do that.

This is further aggravated by the fact, that in vertical images, much of the immediate foreground will be extremely near, and even more so, when you specifically work with the foreground, and therefore shoot low. Due to diffraction, sharpness of this lens already maxes out at f5.6, but I can tell you that even at f11 you won’t have any visible sharpness falloff, that couldn’t be corrected by sharpening.

“F11 at 8 mm”, you say, “is that not an absolute DOF overkill”? Yes and no. If you include foreground (as you should), shoot vertical or go low, you’ll see that the image includes an enormous distance range from extremely near all the way to infinity. In the Image of the Day I used f11, and although the foreground is extremely sharp into the corners, the far background is already borderline. Here it does not matter, everthing important is in the sharp range, and with experimenting, I could have set the lens at hyperfocal distance, which it most likely was not at. In general you have plenty of DOF at 8 mm, but you also need it. Keep that in mind.

Obviously using this lens needs some planning and a lot of experience. For casual snapshots it is definitely the wrong tool. Using it you will battle information overload, extreme contrast, still too shallow DOF and extreme wide-angle distortions. Everything you have read about other ultra-wide lenses still applies, only doubly so.

An ideal scenario for this lens is the desert. Lots of texture, no familiar shapes, an essentially empty landscape where you can easily arrange the few subjects. A rocky sea shore is the other obvious landscape where such lenses excel, but that’s what everybody knows, so try not to fall for clichés 🙂

The Song of the Day is “how much can you take?” by Botany Bay. I recently discovered this German group, and their music is outright excellent. Just follow the link, you can hear it in full length on their site. It’s published under a Creative Commons license, but they happily accept donations (scroll down for PayPal link) 🙂

4 thoughts on “1330 – How Much Can You Take?”

  1. All the images on the blog should have EXIF data. Firefox and Chrome have plugins available for displaying EXIF data, Opera has it built-in. Install a plugin if necessary and use the context menu of the image. It will show you aperture, focal length, shutter speed an ISO. All images on this page were taken at 8 mm.

  2. I got the lens two day ago. A very challenging lens to use. Tried out a few shots. Most photos comes out with very nice blue sky but shade area are underexpose. I have been shooting with evaluative metering.
    What metering mode do you normally use?

    1. I always use the most automatic metering, i.e. matrix metering on the D300 and the equivalent, whatever it is called, on the LX5. This is not film. You can always look at the display and repeat with some exposure correction dialed in.

      But yes, exposure is difficult with such a wide lens, because the bigger the scene, the wider the tonal range. In many cases I use HDR.

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