Review: Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II
Replacements to Canon’s key lenses are always major events, and for many photographers Canon’s EF 35mm f/1.4L has been one the top go-to lenses for some time. It was beloved for its beautiful “drawing” (look of the images) and accurate autofocus. It did have some drawbacks, however, most noticeably in fairly pronounced chromatic aberrations along with lower resolution at wide apertures than some newer competitors. The biggest threat came from a surprising source – third party lens maker Sigma, who launched their new Global Vision and their “ART series” with a 35mm f/1.4 of their own (which Justin reviewed a few years ago for Canon Rumors here). Justin concluded that there was little in his mind to tempt him back to the Canon 35L after having used the Sigma. The Sigma was introduced at $899 while the Canon 35L was closer to $1500. Suddenly it was entirely acceptable for professionals and amateurs alike to own a Sigma, and the success of the 35A (Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART) helped launch a whole series of lenses in the ART line since. But Canon has finally struck back, and the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM manages to raise the bar once again in almost every category. I suspect Justin will soon be tempted back to the Canon fold!
I will be using the Sigma 35A as a comparison point throughout this review, as it remains the strongest natural competitor. One area where Sigma is certainly not threatened is in the matter of price; the Canon 35L II launches at a painful $1799 in the US market. That fact alone will assure that Sigma will continue to have a market for their flagship ART lens, through Tamron’s new 35mm f/1.8 VC (click for Dustin’s review) prime lens may put some pressure from below on them as well. But for the purpose of this review there is a key question that must be addressed: is the Canon 35L II worth twice as much as the Sigma 35A? Read on to find out!
If you prefer to watch your reviews, here is my video review:
Check out a video comparison of the 35L II, Sigma 35A, and Canon 35IS:
The lens is surprisingly large and heavy. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART was already a substantially sized prime, but as you can see from the photo below, the new Canon is larger in every dimension.
It grew nearly 20mm over the first generation in overall length and put on a substantial 180g. The engineered plastic outer shell feels familiar, but the sheer heft and density of the lens does not. When holding it in the hand it feels a little front heavy – a lot of the heft is forward of center. I quickly adjusted to it, but the lens had a unique feel in my hand. The rubberized focus ring is nice and wide and falls quickly to hand. The damping is nice but not exceptional. Roughly 145 degrees of rotation – not as much as recent Tamron primes, but far more than the Sigma 35A. The dense feeling is explained by Roger Cicala’s tear-down, which reveals that the lens is more heavily engineered than any prime he’s seen before.
The extra care can be seen at the rear of the lens. Moving the elements forward on many lenses often reveals exposed electrical contacts or unsealed space. The 35L II glides forward and reveals a tightly engineered inner barrel with very small tolerances. There is no “easy access” into the inner workings of the lens when the lens is focused towards minimum focus distance. Both the front and rear elements have also received fluorine coatings to repel dust and liquids. This makes a very practical difference in the ease of cleaning these surfaces as well. This is a significant advantage for the Canon EF 35mm II as neither the original EF 35L or the Sigma 35A have any kind of weather sealing. The new Tamron 35 VC does, but the Canon probably tops its overall degree of sealing. Photojournalists, sport shooters, and event photographers typically prefer gear that can handle some adverse weather, and the 35L II is certainly built with that in mind.
I’m a little surprised by the 72mm front element. This was very common for Canon’s previous generation of primes (35/50/135), but there seems to be a lot of prime lenses in recent years that are either 67mm or 77mm (Sigma ART is 67mm, as is Canon’s 35mm f/2 IS and the Tamron SP 35mm f/1.8). The 72mm is great if you invested in filters for the previous generation of Canon L primes, but there are few other modern lenses that share a 72mm filter thread.
Here’s a look at the raw numbers:
|Lens||Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART||Canon 35mm f/1.4L II||Canon 35mm f/2 IS|
|Price (at time of review)||$899||$1799||$549|
|Front Filter Thread||67mm||72mm||67mm|
|Min Focus/Max Mag||30cm/.20x||28cm/.21x||24cm/.24x|
There is only one switch on the lens, and it is an AF/MF switch. Full time manual override is available at any time, though, just grab the focus ring and twist. There is a focus distance window with very minor hyperfocal markings (f/11 and f/22). The minimum aperture is f/22 for the lens.
I continue to think of Sigma’s ART series lenses as being some of the most handsome on the market, and in a side by side comparison I do prefer the look of the Sigma over the Canon. The Canon perhaps suffers from familiarity; it is new and improved inside, but externally looks like a few dozen other Canon L lenses. One other positive for the Sigma over the Canon is in the inclusion of the nice, padded case for the Sigma. The Canon EF 35mm gets the familiar “padded sock”, of which I’ve got quite a few in drawer. My question is this: is anyone actually using these? Surely a nearly $2000 lens deserves a better nod at protection. Lowepro makes some great lens cases that will provide much better protection value.
My first act when receiving any new autofocus lens is to spend some extended time calibrating the lens to the body/bodies I intend to use it on. For this purpose I use the FoCal 2 program from Reikan. My typical process is to run the automatic calibration at least three times (I’m looking for a repeatable result) and I then follow up with a semi-automatic calibration where I take a closer look at the figure or figures that the automatic calibration produced. I will check results to either side of these figures to see if there is a better one. This allows me to both eyeball the actual focus results and ensure that I have the most consistent focus setting.
Throughout the period of my review I used the lenses in a variety of settings, from general purpose shooting to events (church, school, and family) along with some portraits. While impossible to encompass every type of shooting situation in a 4-5 week period, I feel that I used the lenses in enough of a variety of settings to be confident in my findings.
One of those events was at my children’s school. It was a “Duct Tape Fashion Show”. The 7th and 8th grade classes had fashioned various costumes and clothing items out of duct tape and paraded them up and down the “runway” in the gym. I used both lenses back and forth on the same camera body (the body they were calibrated to). I primarily shot in AF Servo mode, as the kids were always moving and rarely stopped long even when they were posing. As the official photographer for the event I was set up right at the end of the “runway” and kids came in from the far end of the gym, up the center aisle to me, then split to either side, quickly posed, and then retreated back the way they came. I shot 57 frames on the Sigma and 113 on the new Canon – all wide open at f/1.4. I used the lenses identically when shooting with the intent that I would compare frames at the end of the shoot and determine which lens had the higher hit rate.
I went through and counted 9 improperly focused shots from the Canon (out of 113), for a hit rate of around 92%. Most of these misses were with the subjects right on top of me and weren’t in situations where I would have expected to get good results. There were about 2-3 obvious misses where I would have expected accurate focus to be possible. This raises the keeper rate to better than 98% – very good under the circumstances I was shooting in.
The Sigma was another story altogether. I counted at least 15 missed focus shots, including almost all of those beyond 20 feet. My hit rate was highest when the subjects were in the range of 5-10 feet (the lens was calibrated at a six-foot distance). The keeper rate with the Sigma dropped to under 64%. If you intend to shoot events, sports, or photojournalism, the Canon proved the much more reliable option in this scenario…and that might be worth the premium price in and of itself. If you need to shoot this style and can’t afford the 35L II, I might recommend considering the 35mm f/2 IS instead. It has a slower aperture, yes, but it has an image stabilizer and similar full ring USM focus that is extremely fast and accurate. I’ve used it for a couple of years and it has proven one of my most accurately focusing lenses.
Purchasing Sigma’s USB dock might help somewhat with this, as it allows you to calibrate the lens at difference focus distances, but the various reports that I have received over the years suggests that even this doesn’t always solve the problem.
Thus far I have not found any third party lens that focuses quite as fast as the best Canon USM lenses. Large aperture primes have to move a lot of glass, and I find that Canon not only does the best job of producing speed but also the best job of masking how much effort is involved in quickly moving those elements. Sometimes with Tamron and Sigma lenses I find that major focus shifts involve a sound and sense of “sliding” as the elements move into place. There is no such feeling with the Canon 35L II. It just moves into focus virtually instantly unless coming from complete defocus. There is no hunting and no hesitation; just aim and lock focus. It works extremely in AF Servo mode as well. The Sigma is fast, for the most part, but there is a little pause while inertia builds when going from minimum distance focus back out to infinity.
Here is a video that compares the static autofocus accuracy of the Canon 35L II, Sigma 35A, Canon 35IS, and Tamron 45 VC:
I discovered during this test (and review period) that my new copy of the Tamron 45mm VC wasn’t working up to spec, so I had it replaced. Here is how it did in the second test:
If you would like to read more of my autofocus observations, take a look at my full review here.
In conclusion, if you are a professional and need the best, most accurately focusing 35mm lens, the Canon 35L II is the new top choice; the Sigma isn’t even close.
Step over, Sigma, because there is a new King on the throne. The Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II is the new resolution class leader! The landscape above was shot at f/1.4.
My first real outing with the 35L II was somewhat revelatory. Perhaps it was the fact that I was shooting in similar conditions to when I was testing the Zeiss Otus 1.4/85mm last year, but I came home and began looking at images that felt quite “Otus-like”. While I recognize that lenses like this are going to be used at a variety of apertures by end users, I tend to test lenses like this primarily at apertures wider than f/2.8. The reason being that it is in this zone where prime lenses really need to show their worth. The reality is that a number of modern zoom lenses are already excellent at their wide open f/2.8 aperture, so a modern prime really needs to shine at even wider apertures to justify its existence. The 35L II is virtually the same size as Canon’s 24-70mm f/2.8L II (7mm short and 45g lighter), and it costs only $100 less. That lens is largely acclaimed as being optically awesome, so the 35L II needs to justify its existence between f/1.4 and f/2.8.
There is no real reason to step the lens down to improve image quality – only to increase depth of field. Even landscape type images look excellent at f/1.4, and that, in my experience, is reserved for just a few elite type lenses. There is just no evidence of that hazy, indistinct look of some wide aperture primes wide open. Resolution is crisp, contrast is strong, and image quality is generally excellent. Check out this landscape shot at f/1.4 and the crop below:
I took the shot above from a high promontory so that I could get a fairly flat plane of focus wide open. The detail on the distant pines is impressive. That amazing detail shows up in close focus shots as well:
That wonderful combination of excellent sharpness along the plane of focus and then soft fall off to defocus is fairly unique. It oozes quality. It seems that everything I shoot with the lens just looks a little extra special.
The new Canon 35L II is expensive and fairly large, but when you consider it as an autofocusing, weather sealed small Otus, it seems much cheaper!
The following day I went on an extended nearly 10 kilometer hike through a misty forest with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART. The conditions for photography were unquestionably better than my day out with the Canon, and, while I came home with some fantastic images, they lacked the wow factor of the Canon. Yes, this is a “perception thing” that is hard to demonstrate on charts, but I write as an experienced photographer who has used a very large variety of lenses. The utter reliability of the Canon’s autofocus helps cement that perception.
With either lens I was reminded of how much I enjoy the 35mm focal length as a walkabout lens. It seems to be “just right” for a number of things, and whether in the woods or on the city street the 35mm focal length seems wide enough for most everything without adding distortion. It is the “Goldilocks” focal length: not too close; not too far. For that matter, I also prefer the versatility of a wide aperture to that of a moderate zoom range. The ability to shoot most anything at f/1.4 (if you want that narrow a depth of field) gives you a lot of flexibility as to how you choose to frame a scene. In some instances, a shot of a scene with a narrow depth of field is interesting where it might just be busy with more depth of field.
I wasn’t just impressed with the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II when out in the woods, but wherever I used it the results were just excellent. I used it at church, in portraits, to chronicle our holiday celebrations, and for a few creative projects. It just delivered…period. And to honor the exalted internet tradition of taking pictures of cats with new lenses, here you go…
Canon has done a great job of seriously upping the resolution of the lens without destroying the beautiful drawing and character that the first generation of the lens had, and that is no small accomplishment. You can view many more samples in the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II Image Gallery. Read on to see some of the “voodoo” they used to accomplish it…
Blue Spectrum Refractive Optics
The Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM’s biggest marketing buzz centered around a completely new kind of element in the optical formula which Canon calls “Blue Spectrum Refractive Optics” or BR Optics for short. This special organic material gives a greater control over reducing axial chromatic aberrations than any substance before, and is at least partially responsible for the amazing image quality. There are almost no chromatic aberrations, period, which is a noticeable improvement over the first generation of the lens. The lack of chromatic aberrations are at least partly responsible for the excellent resolution (CA reduces apparent sharpness) and part of the reason why the lens reminds of a Zeiss Otus in so many ways.
This shot is a hotbed for potential purple fringing, but I can’t find any!
The only real fly in the ointment optically is the very heavy vignette. It isn’t exceptionally bad (the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART and Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS are roughly the same, although the new Tamron SP 35mm f/1.8 VC blows them all away in this area). My objection is more because there is a mild regression compared to the first generation of the lens and I have to wonder that if they had migrated to a 77mm front element they could have eliminated some of the vignette. I find that the vignette is very visible in a lot of standard general purpose shots (particularly if I’m shooting JPEGs and not applying a standard profile in Lightroom). If you purchase the lens I would certainly recommend taking the time to load the correction profile from Canon’s Digital Photography Professional onto your camera (it will not be there by default).
This is what this scene (shot at f/1.4) looks like before correction:
A one click profile correction in Lightroom makes for a very different look:
I was also less than amazed at the flare resistance. I had a chance to shoot in highly directional sun while visiting the Mer Bleue conservation area in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. This is one of the most studied bogs in the world, and provided some very unique shooting opportunities. The setting sun was both intense and very directional; a perfect storm for testing flare resistance. Neither the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART nor the Canon 35LII really impressed me; I’ve seen much better performance from both the Canon 35mm f/2 IS along with the Tamron SP 35mm f/1.8 VC. Neither lens has as wide an aperture, true, but both are genuine competitors that performed better in this regard. The 35L II retained somewhat better contrast (the Sigma veiled a bit more), but both showed a bit more ghosting artifacts than what I would like – and those can be very difficult to remove in post. I don’t mind a bit of veiling (it often creates a stylish effect), but ghosting artifacts can ruin an image. Check out the brief video below for an interactive comparison of the lenses flare resistance.
The Sigma had slightly better defined sunbursts than the Canon if that is big deal to you, though both are pretty decent.
One final note is that the 35L II turns in a quite good coma performance, so it is a very viable option for shooting the night sky.
One of the single best qualities of the Canon’s performance is in the bokeh transition performance. The lens really transitions from focus to defocus beautifully, and produces a very creamy bokeh region when shooting at close distances that produces stunning subject isolation. The nature of the focal length means that this will much less pronounced when the subject is further away, but the tradeoff is that at medium distances the lens produced a nice 3D effect that again reminds me of Zeiss optics. I got a lot of very “high end” photos that look, well, expensive, which is appropriate in this case.
I did a controlled test to compare the quality of the bokeh highlights. The subject (an old 35mm f/3.5 Super Takumar lens) was 17” from the sensor. The bokeh highlights (Christmas tree lights) were about seven feet beyond. I lit the foreground with a Metz 64 AF-1 flash through a Lite Genius Super-Scoop II and bounced off a wall behind the camera. I used mirror lockup, 2 second timer delay, Live View 10x focus, and Rear Curtain sync to produce the smoothest light falloff result. I determined that I best liked the look of the image with a ¾ stop underexposure by the camera’s meter.
When comparing the Sigma 35A and Canon 35L II side by side at a wide open f/1.4 aperture it is actually surprising how similar the bokeh highlights looked. The shape of the highlights is roughly the same, and while there is just a hint of additional busyness in the Sigma’s highlights, that is only detectable at 1:1 pixel level. The Canon shows a slight bit more concentric rings while the Sigma shows more of a pattern. As you move away from the center of the frame both lenses show a tendency towards lemon shapes instead of circles – a pretty common phenomenon. At identical exposure the Canon’s image is noticeable brighter, but probably no more than a quarter stop.
Stopping down to f/2 helps correct the lemon or cat-eye shape, but also further accentuates the signature of both lenses. The Sigma is bit more “patterned”, and the concentric circles are slightly more defined on the Canon. The Sigma does a slightly better job of retaining circular shape, with the Canon showing the first hints of the shape of the aperture blades.
Little changes at f/2.8, although now both lenses show the slight shape of their aperture blades at a 1:1 level to a similar degree.
By f/4 both lenses are producing highlights looking more “nonagonal”. The shape of the aperture blades is now clear, though the result is far less objectionable than the odd shape of the old 50mm f/1.8 and its five blades. There is also far more light bleed around the edges of the shapes, but roughly at an equal level from both lenses. Ditto at f/5.6, just a step further. Here is a series from the Canon from f/1.4 to f/5.6:
Take a look at the full review on my website for the photos of the bokeh series:
I would encourage you to judge the quality of the bokeh from any of these lenses based more on real life usage rather than any isolated test. Bokeh quality is always a subjective thing, and most all of these lenses produce very good real world results. I will say that I highly favor the “look” of the images coming out of the 35L II – they are definitely special. I find the transition from [very sharp] focus to defocus very smooth. The overall “drawing” of the lens is very, very good. This is one of those lenses that just makes everything you shoot with it look just a little bit better.
This video compares the overall look of images in a direct comparison with the Sigma 35A, Canon 35mm f/2 IS, and Tamron 45mm f/1.8 VC (pinch hitting for the 35 VC).
Here’s an interactive look at the bokeh quality from a variety of competitors:
Here’s a quick video look at how the lens performs when mounted on a crop (APS-C) body.
Canon has continued its recent trend of delivering premium lenses at premium prices with its new “L” lenses. The high point of entry for the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM will be discouraging to many prospective buyers who will content themselves with the almost as good Sigma 35 ART, Canon 35 IS, or the Tamron 35 VC. The 35L II is a cut above, however, and sets the new standard for excellence in the 35mm focal length. It is razor sharp, has exceptional autofocus performance in both speed and accuracy (something the Sigma can’t claim), and delivers beautiful, professional looking results. It also raises the bar for a Canon prime lens in its construction and degree of weather sealing. It is a genuinely professional grade lens that is designed for demanding use and will quickly become the new 35mm lens of choice for photo journalists, sport shooters, and wedding/portrait photographers. It is designed to be take advantage of high resolution sensors like those on the 5Ds/5DsR. Its shortcomings are confined to heavy vignetting and somewhat unimpressive flare resistance. It also effectively pioneers an impressive new Canon technology (BR Optics) that is sure to make its way into many of Canon’s new higher end lenses.
The 35L II is expensive, yes, but in an age where the Zeiss Otus lenses are commanding prices north of $4000, the 35L II represents a more attainable kind of excellence. For some it will unquestionably be worth the price tag double that of the Sigma, while others will decide that the Sigma’s almost as good optical performance makes the Canon’s price of entry too high. Decisions, decisions.
- Sets the new standard for optical performance at the 35mm focal
- Sets the new standard for build quality in a standard prime
- Has advanced weather sealing
- Blue Spectrum refractive optics live up to their billing
- Has unique blend of sharpness and beautiful drawing
- Fast, accurate AF that leaves the Sigma in the dust
- Manual focus ring has a good amount of focus travel
- Takes fantastic pictures
- Fairly heavy vignette
- Flare resistance could be better
- Bigger, heavier, and more expensive than previous generation
- Expensive (deserves a second mention)
If you can’t afford the new King, here are a few still royal alternatives.
The original Canon 35mm f/1.4L USM remains an excellent lens and the release of this new lens has helped drive down the price on it to a more reasonable $1099. It lacks the weather sealing of the new lens, has more chromatic aberration, and has older focusing algorithms but is still a solid choice if your budget doesn’t extend all the way to the new lens.
I reviewed the new Tamron SP 35mm f/1.8 VC a few months and was very impressed by it. It has a somewhat smaller aperture value (f/1.8) but offers up a professional grade, weather sealed build quality, great optics, and adds an image stabilizer to the mix. It also retails for a third of the price of the 35L II. It is not as great as the Canon, but is a solid alternative if you budget can’t handle the more expensive Canon.
The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART referenced in this review continues to be a solid budget alternative to the 35L II with nearly as good optical performance. It is held back somewhat by focus issues, but there are many delighted users of the lens. It retails for half the price of the 35L II and is hard to ignore.
The Canon 35mm f/2 IS has a slower aperture but has great focus, a wonderfully compact size, and a very effective image stabilizer. It is a bargain at $549.