BEST WIDE ANGLE LENS for APS-C; or stitch panorama

On your APS-C sensor camera, would you like a view wider than the kit zoom lens, which is limited to 18mm or 16mm (27 or 24mm equivalent)? The following specialty zoom lenses shoot unusually wide angles of view, with great depth of field (such as for tight interior spaces, architecture, real estate, slot canyons, or sweeping landscapes):

For Sony Alpha A6300A6000 and NEX mirrorless cameras (APS-C size sensor):

  • Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS Alpha E-mount wide-angle zoom lens (8 oz, 2.75×2.5 inches, SEL1018, 2012) thankfully has OSS image stabilization for more hand-held photography free of a tripod. Its angle of view is that of a 15-27mm in terms of full-frame equivalent. SEL1018 is good for shooting architecture indoors and out, plus landscapes and slot canyons. (It is significantly sharper than Sony’s 18-200mm, SEL18200 lens.) SEL1018 is sharpest at f/5.6 to f/8 as you zoom, with least distortion from 14-18mm.
  • Although SEL1018 wasn’t designed for the full-frame Sony Alpha A7 Mirrorless Digital Camera (2013, 17 oz body) or Sony Alpha A7 II camera, you can easily crop away the corner vignetting for surprisingly satisfying results.

For Nikon DX and Canon EF-S DSLR cameras with APS-C sensor, the wide-angle choices unfortunately lack image stabilization:

  • Tokina 12-28mm f/4.0 AT-X Pro DX lens (19 oz, 2013) is sharper than the following older lenses:
    • Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6 EX DC HSM
    • Tamron 10-24mm F3.5-4.5 Di-II
    • Tokina 12-24mm f/4.0
  • Tokina AT-X Pro 11-16mm f/2.8 DX II wide angle lens (19 oz, 2012) has sharper, faster, professional-level, pricier optics, best leveraged on a 24 megapixel camera such as Nikon D3300 (2014, 16 oz body).
  • Caveats: The above wide-angle Tokina lenses are not image-stabilized, and thereby increase tripod use; instead, consider the stabilized Sony 10-18mm OSS lens. Image stabilization (such as Nikon Vibration Reduction/VR or Canon IS or Sony OSS or Tamron VC) is most important for telephoto lenses to counteract hand held shake at slow shutter speeds. When built into some wide angle lenses, this feature helps you shoot more sharply at slower shutter speeds (such as in dimmer light), helping to blur flowing water or moving subjects while keeping non-moving subjects sharp in the same image.

Note: These wide angle lenses don’t work well for close-focus (macro) photography − instead use specialty macro lens. 

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Stitch panoramas instead of buying a specialty wide-angle lens

Instead of buying a specialty wide-angle lens above, it’s cheaper to stitch a panorama from multiple shots:

  • To easily capture landscape images wider than your 18mm kit lens, simply stitch a panorama from a series of adjacent images shot with your existing lens.
  • Stitching multiplies megapixel count to compensate for compromised sharpness of megazoom and kit lenses. But if you want to enlarge prints bigger than 2 or 3 feet without the need for stitching, shoot with sharper lenses such as the above Tokinas on a tripod.

Prayer flags express compassion at this monument to fallen climbers, at Annapurna South Base Camp (ABC) in the Annapurna Range of Nepal.

The above panorama was stitched from three overlapping images. Prayer flags express compassion at this monument to fallen climbers, at Annapurna South Base Camp (ABC) in the Annapurna Range of Nepal. Published in “Light Travel: Photography on the Go” book by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. Published in Wilderness Travel 2010 Catalog of Adventures.

How to build a panorama:

If you don’t have Adobe Lightroom 6 or CC, or PhotoShop, to manually build your panoramas, try one of these:

  • Image Composite Editor (ICE) for Windows only, FREE from Microsoft Research Computational Photography Group. (I found that ICE was faster and sharper than using the old Photoshop version CS5.)
  • Hugin: FREE for Mac & Windows. Hugin is harder to learn & use than Microsoft’s ICE.

Nowadays for most people, a smartphone camera is the easiest way to make sweeping panoramas with decent quality. Just select the Panorama option, hold the phone vertically, press (or speak the command for) the shutter release, and sweep steadily left to right, followed by a second press of shutter release to finish recording. Fairly quickly, you’ll see the resulting panorama. Pinch zoom to check sharp details in the recorded image. Smartphones made after 2015 can capture good shadow detail in fairly sharp panoramas by default (using AUTO HDR).

Most digital cameras have an automatic Panorama mode on their mode dial, but I find that automatic panorama modes often blur detail as you sweep the camera, or they can fail with an error message unless you carefully practice the steady sweeping motion. Your results may vary. (Some compact cameras don’t allow holding vertically during the sweep, so just horizontal shots are stitched, thereby making a less-useful proportion: an overly squat and wide image.)

For the best quality, I prefer to shoot a panorama manually on a good camera (with large sensor) as a series of steady shots as follows:

  1. Hold the camera very still for each shot, swiveling as if the center of the lens were mounted on a fixed post. Shoot quickly (but steadily) if subjects are moving.
  2. Overlap each image by a third, one after another in a row, column, or array.
  3. The distance at which important subjects are focused can optionally vary shot to shot, near or far.
  4. If brightness varies drastically across the intended panorama, try to expose for a true midtone within each separate frame, but ensuring that exposure transitions aren’t extreme, shot to shot. If panorama has a consistent brightness, try shooting with a fixed Manual exposure. Shooting raw instead of JPEG gives you more leeway to simply use autoexposure.

A tripod is not needed if light is sufficiently bright for sharp hand-held photography. Look for a camera with a built-in level indicator such as in Panasonic ZS100 or Sony RX10 III or Sony Alpha A6300.

Adobe Lightroom notes:

Adobe Lightroom Version 6 (released April 2015) and later includes Photo Merge to Panorama (and to HDR): Photo > Photo Merge > Panorama

But as of 2017, the quickest and best Photo Merge is in Lightroom CC (Creative Cloud version), which adds the wonderful Boundary Warp with Auto Crop, which retains about 20% more image around the edges (without needing frequent time-consuming touch ups around the edges in Photoshop). Lightroom CC stitches raw files into a top quality Digital Negative panorama .DNG file which can be edited with large tonal leeway AFTER stitching, just like raw. This is a big time-saver compared to earlier versions of Lightroom or other programs, where you had to edit each image first, THEN stitch. Always edit from the original raw file format (or from the largest, highest quality JPEG directly from the camera; because each time you re-save a JPEG, it loses quality).

For travel, zoom flexibility beats interchanging specialty lenses

For travel portability and convenience, I prefer an all-in-one camera such as Sony RX 10 III (read my review) which sharply captures 24-600mm equivalent, with up to 4.5 stops of stabilization benefit (slower shutter speed handheld). RX10 III is sharper across the frame at more zoom settings than the following 11x to 19x travel zooms shot on 24mp APS-C:

  • Nikon VR, Canon IS, or Sony OSS 18-200mm 11x zoom travel lenses (at Amazon).
  • 19x zoom Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD MACRO lens (Amazon).
  • These lenses equal the kit lens sharpness, without the need for constant swapping of two or more lenses in the field. Their image stabilization feature (VR, IS, OSS, or VC) supports 2 to 4 stops slower hand held shutter speed, which is critical for on-the-go photographers who want to minimize tripod usage.
  • When compared to faster Pro lenses, the handy Nikon VR or Canon IS 18-200mm travel lenses gain in image stabilization and compositional zoom versatility what they lose in absolute optical sharpness. Stitch sets of 18mm images into wide or tall panoramas. Better yet, zoom to 22mm and set aperture to f/8 to optimize sharpness on the Nikon 18-200mm VR lens. Check lens reviews or test it yourself to find the sharpest zoom and aperture settings for your specific lens. If in doubt, remember f/8 is great! (typically when using a camera with an APS-C or 35mm size sensor)

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4 thoughts on “BEST WIDE ANGLE LENS for APS-C; or stitch panorama

  1. Hi Tom,
    I’m looking for camera less than 450$ for architecture
    1. wide angle for exterior façade shoots so the pics wouldn’t look 3dimentional
    2. able to capture good pics in low light interiors as most situations are no flash allowed
    I’ve come up with 2 cameras but I’m not sure if they suit my needs: Sony HX400V, Sony HX90V – thanks

    • Architecture photography suggests 24mm equivalent or wider in terms of angle of view, with high quality lens optics; and low light performance suggests a large sensor, at least 1 inch type, but preferably APS-C size.

      Your interest in Sony HX400V at 23 oz and HX90V at 9 oz shows a flexibly wide range of body sizes that you may be considering, but their sensor size of 1/2.3 inch type is too small to avoid noise and focus problems in low light.

      For $450, you can get a good Nikon D3200 with kit lens which zooms as wide as 18mm, which is 27mm equivalent on its APS-C sensor, for good quality and value. Or upgrade to D3300 or 5500 if budget allows. If you can afford it, mount an excellent used Tokina 12-24mm f4 lens for Nikon (18-36mm equiv), super sharp with low distortion, great for architecture (for about $350 on my links to Amazon here on my web site PhotoSeek.com).

      Or for around $500 on Amazon, look for a used Sony RX100 version 3 which has 24mm equiv at widest angle in its sharp 3x zoom lens, in a pocket sized 10.5 ounce camera with 1 inch type sensor.

      • Hi Tom,
        thanks for replying. your comment was most helpful, I didn’t want to spend more than 500$ on a camera that I probably would keep for 2 years tops but considering what you mentioned I guess I’ll buy A6000 + 16-50 (APS-C, good ISO, 179 f points) which I can keep for at least4 years and can shift the lens 55-210
        I have a question that I’d appreciate if you could clarify for me: there are a number of things that help capturing a good still, sensor size, Aperture, ISO, shutter speed, focus points and hybrid detection; although A6000 has APS-c sensor, very good ISO, would it make much difference in images without it having phase detection or somewhat not fast lens(small F number 3.5-5.6)?
        I apologize if I’m not clear cause I’ve just come into the world of photography
        Thanks again

      • A6000 has 179 phase-detect AF points and 25 contrast-detect points for very fast overall autofocus, a technology breakthrough beating all mirrorless competitors in this price range. In 2014, Sony claimed that A6000 autofocus (as fast as 0.06 seconds) is the world’s fastest on a mirrorless camera with an APS-C image sensor. You probably wouldn’t notice any autofocus speed difference compared to a DSLR camera in this price range, such as Nikon D3300 or D5500.

        Note that the Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS E-mount wide-angle zoom lens (8 oz, SEL1018, 2012) is significantly sharper than the Sony 16-50mm 3.5-5.6, especially in the corners of images. The SEL1018 is sharpest at f/5.6 to f/8 as you zoom, with least distortion from 14-18mm, good for shooting architecture indoors and out, plus landscapes such as slot canyons. However, the very compact Sony 16-50mm covers a more flexible range of angles of view.

        You hardly need a fast lens on the A6000 due to its several good OSS lenses (for up to 3 stops slower, stabilized handheld shutter speeds) and such low noise at high ISO.

        Portrait photographers often like fast lenses, such as Sony 50mm f/1.8 OSS E-mount prime lens, for pleasing bokeh at f/1.8 to f/2.8 — to throw the background more out-of-focus to emphasize the narrow area focused upon the subject. (But its 75mm-equivalent angle-of-view is too narrow to be an all-purpose “standard” lens.) Note that Sony 50mm resolves sharpest detail from about f/4 to f/8.

        If sharpness and architecture is your main goal, a Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS is the best lens on the A6000. You can swap to a Sony 16-50mm 3.5-5.6 for general shooting to flexibly cover more common situations. Or if you don’t mind the bulk and weight, consider the Sony E-mount 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS silver lens (18.5 oz, SEL-18200, 27-300mm equivalent angle of view) as a do-everything lens which is significantly sharper than the compact 16-50mm. By the way, I solely use the 18-200mm in my general travel photography for the shots on PhotoSeek.com; plus a pocketable Sony RX100 version III for macro, 24mm equiv wide angle, and carry-everywhere backup.

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