Canon 11–24mm f/4L lens review - Lin Yangchen

by Lin Yangchen
September 2016
all images at 11mm

Buried deep in a city block, the cramped, windowless room seemed no stranger to clandestine transactions in weapons of mass destruction. Its cold fluorescent-lit walls were lined with shelf upon shelf of assorted black metal cylinders that reminded me of heavy ammunition. I approached the people inside and asked for the item.

Eyebrows were raised. The manager was consulted. They said they didn't have it on hand but asked whether I could wait 45 minutes. They were calling someone to bring one over in a taxi.

The innards of Anderson Bridge.
Canon 11–24mm f/4 L · EOS-1D X
©Lin Yangchen

Occultation of the moon by a 330,000-volt pylon straddling interstellar space.
©Lin Yangchen

It was the second day of July 2016. Not only was I about to get my hands on the new Holy Grail of SLR lenses, with the widest undistorted view in the world, but also on the verge of a historic transition from Nikon to Canon. All for the Holy Grail.

The title of Holy Grail was previously bestowed by Ken Rockwell on Nikon's 1976 made-to-order 13mm f/5.6 that produced near-perfect rectilinearity at astronomical expense. Rockwell said it "lets us make photographs we can make no other way". In 2013, the magazines ran Felix Kunze's exclusive 13mm photo shoot of British Olympic rower Pete Reed. Alas, 32,000 dollars separate that lens from most of those who yearn to make pictures with it.

Chinatown wet market.
©Lin Yangchen

Chinese barber shop in Little India.
©Lin Yangchen

The tide turned in 2015. Canon invented a lens wider, faster, sharper and ten times cheaper. They threw in four aspherical elements and lavish layers of futuristic coatings to suppress the distortion and optical aberrations that plague other ultra-wide lenses. Aspherical elements were traditionally very difficult and expensive to make as they had to be ground by hand. Canon, however, has been figuring out easier ways to do it.

I christened it the Mahler lens, after the great Austrian symphonist who in his sound world strove to embrace everything in the universe.

Time travel via a relativistic wormhole.
©Lin Yangchen

The 1906 street opera theatre at Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong on Balestier Road.
©Lin Yangchen

Ultra-wide rectilinear optics are a class apart from fisheyes because straight lines remain straight, a property that preserves a kind of fundamental realism in a two-dimensional image. If you undistort a fisheye in Photoshop, the widest 2:3 rectangular crop corresponds to a focal length of about 16mm, a far cry from 11mm. Besides, image quality suffers when the mathematical algorithms stretch and compress the pixels like plasticine.

High-rise public housing at Punggol Waterway Terrace.
©Lin Yangchen

People's Park Complex, a monument to Brutalism.
©Lin Yangchen

Trigonometric entanglement on a scaffold of amalgamated bilateral and rotational symmetries.
©Lin Yangchen

The 11–24 has an Achilles heel nevertheless. Straight lines begin to warp at very close range. It is an obscure idiosyncrasy that shows up when you take the lens to the front line and bite the bullets. And it is impossible to correct in software because objects at different distances from the camera are distorted to different extents.

Prevailing sentiment has it that this heavy glass is a specialized asset to be deployed only under exceptional circumstances in landscape or real estate, but I simply let it rip at 11mm. Everything is a target: street, portrait, landscape, action, architecture, and any combination of the above, on land or in the water.

the 11–24 on assignment for The Straits Times
the 11–24 on my train journey from Saigon to Scotland

Tri-Factor Triathlon 2016, East Coast Park.
Nauticam NA-1DX · 9-inch dome port
©Lin Yangchen

Some will love it, some will hate it. The first performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in Paris nearly ended in a riot. Galileo was put under house arrest for insisting that the earth was not at the centre of the universe. Yet amidst this tension the creative spirit thrives.
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