Let’s first be clear about something: Most zoom lenses, particularly full frame wide-angle zoom lenses, are prohibitively expensive. The term wide-angle refers to lenses somewhere in the 12mm to 35mm ballpark—with 12mm nearing the ultra-wide angle designation. You know the type—short and fat, big chunk of glass: the lenses that make everything appear a little larger than life.
For many professionals, zoom lenses are on our cameras more often than not. They are versatile, sharp and cover the most common shooting areas that we come across. Wide-angles are like the Swiss army knife of camera lenses, which will usually find their way into every photographer’s bag at some point.
Though they are not the best for traditional portraits (most wedding photographers prefer longer focal length prime lenses or long zoom lenses to get as much background blur as possible), wide angle lenses are good at capturing a perspective that reveals much of our natural field of vision. This is why they can make for stunning landscape photos, intricate close-up macro shots or architecturally perfect interior and exterior shots.
For real estate and architectural photographers, wide-angle zooms are indispensible to our craft and well worth the $1,500 plus price tag. But when starting out, or for those of us who are extremely rough on our gear, these budget alternatives can be a great way to get into that sublime focal length without breaking the bank.
Nikon Zoom-Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 D AF IF ED Lens
unavailable new, Approximately $300 Used
For a lens that was first manufactured nearly 16 years ago, this chunk of glass still has what it takes to deliver sharp wide-angle goodness from corner to corner. This is a great lens for photographers just getting into the world of FX (full frame) format cameras. The fastest lens of the three on this list, the 18-35 also offers a big focal range at a price you can’t beat.
If that wasn’t enough, this lens is also super lightweight and extremely compact. One downside is that the 18-35 uses the older mechanical-style AF (autofocus), although I’ve found it to do a fine job regardless. A versatile lens for nature, portraits and adventures, the 18-35 can also hold up well as a video lens, particularly in a well-lit situation where you can utilize f/7 or greater.
Tokina 17-35mm f/4 Pro FX Lens
Although similar in weight and size to the Nikon 18-35mm we just mentioned, the Tokina 17-35 feels more modern in hand and technically boasts very little barrel distortion. Though it’s not as fast (max f/4 aperture) as it’s Nikon counterpart, there is a noticeable improvement in image quality, which is a small compromise for its somewhat poor low-light performance.
The low distortion of the Tokina 17-35mm means that your widest shots (near the 17mm mark) will show less stretching out near corners of the frame. Thanks to optics that are slightly superior, you will also notice less chromatic distortion, which could be an issue when shooting hand held at wider focal lengths. But overall, this lens is a trusty companion and will soon be a regular fixture on your camera.
Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 EX DG IF HSM Aspherical Ultra-Wide Angle Zoom Lens
The Sigma 12-24mm DG is another classic lens that can produce absolutely stunning images. Still one of the few ultra-wide zoom lenses available for Nikon mounts, the 12-24 is a landscape or commercial photographer’s dream. The 12mm focal length is capable of shooting in extremely tight spaces and is a great asset for real estate photographers who need to capture narrow rooms.
The off-axis barrel distortion is a slight issue with the 12-24 that can be overcome with a little practice. Very unforgiving in wide spaces, you must ensure the camera’s horizontal and vertical orientation is perfect (you can check with a bubble level or in-camera grid) when shooting in rooms. But with an extra bit of care, checking your tripod level and camera grid, this lens is capable of very high-quality interior photography.
In reality, wide-angle lenses are some of the most challenging to use well. With the exception of architectural photography, to get the best results you have to get up close and personal with your subjects. If you are willing to go all in, wide angle images can grab a viewer and pull them, with remarkable detail, into your subject or scene.
Learning to properly use wide-angle lenses takes time and practice. These humble suggestions are just that. Great equipment is only one part of the equation. If you take the time to understand barrel distortion and properly framing your subjects, you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy everything these chunky lenses have to offer. Just remember: The more you shoot, the better your results, so get out there make some wide-angle magic!