Canon 35mm F1.4L II: a photojournalist's perspective
By Jordan Stead
I prefer prime lenses to zooms because I can already see the frame before I raise the camera to my eye. After you've shot with a lens for a long time you get used to it. After looking through a 35mm lens for so long, I can visualize the field of view instinctively. And 35mm suits the way that I shoot. It's challenging, and at the same time, a very versatile focal length.
|The original Canon EF 35mm F1.4L USM, wide open at F1.4. (Photo: Jordan Stead, seattlepi.com)|
A tendency when I'm using zooms is to shoot at the widest end most of the time. I always try to put myself as close to something as I possibly can, and so I end up zooming out as much as I possibly can. By being fixed at 35mm, it's not super wide, it's not tight, but it can be both simply by stepping back or stepping forward. It forces me to think about composition, it makes me work harder, and it makes me think more about layering.
I remember buying my original Canon EF 35mm F1.4L from a strange man in a California parking lot during an internship years ago. I can safely say that shooting with it as extensively as I did enabled me to build my personal vision as a photographer. It's been a staple in many photographers' bags since the 1990's, and it's by no means a bad lens following the release of the Mark II.
The original Mark I offers good sharpness, robust build quality, and despite the fact that it isn't technically weather resistant, I can guarantee you it actually is very weather resistant in normal use. Even bodily fluid resistant. And somewhat drop resistant. The durability of that era of L-series lens is impressive.
|Using a 35mm and want a 50mm or 85mm field of view? Step in and think layering instead of zooming. Shot on the original Canon EF 35mm F1.4L USM at F4.5. (Photo: Jordan Stead, seattlepi.com)|
There are a couple of downsides to the original EF 35mm F1.4, but only if you're pixel peeping. Corner sharpness isn't outstanding: It tends to have kind of a smear to it, which I don't actually mind too much. I've always enjoyed a little natural vignetting, because it tends to draw your eye more to the center of the frame, but there are times when the chromatic aberration can be pretty bad. If you're shooting something like a lot of backlit trees, or a portrait of somebody with blond hair, backlit, your photograph will contain some wild Christmas colors.
|Shot on the original Canon EF 35mm F1.4L USM at F4. (Photo: Jordan Stead, seattlepi.com)|
After years and years of heavy use, my original 35L was repaired three or four different times, due to being abused in just about every possible way. It had been dropped many times, slammed against something while dangling off my shoulder while running, soaked through with snow, rain and probably a fair amount of beer, too. At the end of its life, it would only work when shot wide open at F1.4. I do recall the autofocus switch assembly popping completely out of the lens body at one point with a long trail of electronics dangling out after. I pushed the guts back into the body, gaffer taped it over, and kept on shooting.
Canon EF 35mm F1.4L II USM
Price: $1,799 USD
Aperture range: F1.4-F22
Nine rounded aperture blades
Two Aspherical Elements, One UD Element
Blue Spectrum Refractive Optics
Once my original 35L turned to dust, I found myself unwilling to spend $1,300 to replace it. Canon's non L-series EF 35mm F2 IS was getting outstanding reviews across the board and it was much smaller and lighter than the F1.4 version. The 35mm F2 doesn't have a big red ring on it, so it's a little subtler (and cheaper), and comes with image stabilization. I've discovered now, having shot with the 35mm F2 for over a year, that IS on short glass can be truly amazing – especially when panning or shooting in low light and keeping ISO low.
|Can you tell the difference between F1.4 and F2? If you can't - or don't care - opt for the cheaper, lighter, IS-equipped Canon EF 35mm F2 IS USM, used here at F2. (Photo: Jordan Stead, seattlepi.com)|
With IS, you can get away with a 0.5 second exposure if you are super, super still. That's something you'd be hard pressed to be able to get away with on a non-IS lens, including the old 35mm F1.4. Then there's the price. For so much less than the F1.4, you're still getting solid build quality, with stabilization, and all you're really losing in return is a stop of light. But you definitely don't get that particular, dreamy F1.4 look, unless you're close enough to a subject to throw their background significantly out of focus.
Having now shot a lot with the new EF 35mm F1.4L II, the first thing that stood out to me was the size; nearly the same as the Canon 24-70 F2.8 Mark II! Then again, compare it against the Sigma 35mm Art F1.4 and it's around the same bulk.
It's almost not worth talking about the image quality. I figured if the Sigma Art was as good as everyone says it is (and it is), then for $1,800, Canon had to have at least matched if not exceeded it. I was confident that the quality was going to be outstanding, and it is. The 35mm F1.4L II is eye-searingly sharp. Colors are amazing, bokeh is beautiful and the lack of CA is unmatched. I've never worried about CA a whole lot, but it was apparent when shooting the 35L II in a challenging environment (such as a backlit, daylight scene), it definitely holds its own better than both its predecessor and cheaper F2 sibling.
|Canon EF 35mm F1.4L II USM: if sharp is what you want, sharp is what you'll get. Taken at F1.6. (Photo: Jordan Stead, Red Box Pictures)|
What I've come to really enjoy about the Mark II is the focus accuracy and speed. The Mark I is great, I've had tons and tons of good luck with it, but the Mark II is just so fast and so accurate, especially when paired with a body like the EOS-1D X. Considering when you first get a prime and all you want to do is shoot it wide open for a month, you judge it harshly on whether the focus is landing correctly, especially when you know your technique is up to snuff. It was great to go into my edit and see I was having a much better hit rate at F1.4. And it's not just because of the relatively low 18MP resolution of the EOS-1D X, I've had similar results with the EOS 5DS R and 5D Mark III.
The fear is that I'll probably buy a Mark II version for myself now. The 35mm F2 is just so convenient, and I really do appreciate the weight, but it can't quite beat the image quality and autofocus performance of the 35L II.
|"F1.4 and be there?" Not the best advice (nor how the saying goes), but the Canon EF 35mm F1.4L II USM sure makes shooting wide open more fun - and rewarding. Taken at F1.4. (Photo: Jordan Stead, Red Box Pictures)|
Putting this new lens on my camera has made me enjoy shooting at F1.4 more and, in turn, worry less about CA. Compared to the original 35mm F1.4 there are many advantages across the board. I really have nothing bad to say about the Mark II besides its hefty size, but that's just the standard at this point for 35mm F1.4s, anyway.
With the inevitability of more high-megapixel bodies on the way, it is important to consider that you're not necessarily buying a lens like the Mark II just for right now: you're buying it for the future. With cameras like the 5DS R, older lenses - even L-series lenses - can mostly still deliver decent results, but the 35mm F1.4L II is a step up in terms of sharpness, color and CA control. If a high-megapixel body is something you're considering in the future, you're going to want to pick up this lens.