By James Leynse
My advice: never get a new camera. I have been happy with the Canon 5D MKII and a collection of shift lenses, zooms, and the Voigtländer 40mm pancake lens. The camera has served me well through almost four years of daily use. For the architectural photography I do for work, the set-up using the shift lenses is just about perfect. With the 40mm lens mounted, the camera is light enough to double as my everyday, "walk about" companion. The only real problem with the MKII is that there is now a MKIII.
This is when the rationalizing begins. My MKII is starting to show its age. It has its fair share of scratches but is still in good working order. I can sell it, while it still retains some trade-in value, and get the new MKIII. When the price of the MKIII dropped a bit with rebates, I took the plunge.
Here I am: brand new MKIII, just like my old MKII but newer and with no scratches. Jokes aside, it is really a great camera: bigger LCD, better implementation of auto bracketing, better autofocusing and (and this was a big plus for me) no increase in megapixels. I appreciate not having to buy a new computer to go with the larger files of a new camera. One major purchase at a time. At least, that was my plan.
As I found out, there is one little inconvenience that comes with all the goodness of the new MKIII. By adding an electronic level and an on-demand grid screen inside the camera's viewfinder (both useful tools when shooting architecture), Canon opted to not allow the focusing screen inside the MKIII to be changed. (Note that you can do so on the newly released Canon 6D.) On my MKII, I had been relying on the replacement Canon Eg-S Super Precision Matte Focusing Screen to manually focus my 40mm Voigtländer. With the new MKIII, that isn't an option. For optical reasons that I can't explain, viewfinder focusing screens can either be bright and easy to see or dark, contrasty (a.k.a. "snappy") and easy to manually focus with. In this day of slow zooms and fast autofocus, most DSLR manufacturers opt for the bright screen option.
Technically, it is still possible to correctly focus the 40mm lens while using the new camera. There is live view or the blinking green dot in the finder which will tell you when the lens is correctly focused. I find both techniques less than ideal when hand-holding a camera. After several weeks of using the MKIII with the 40mm, I had to admit that my hit rate of in-focus shots had dropped significantly. What to do?
This is where we get to the reason not to buy a new camera and to my review of the new Canon EF 35mm ƒ/2 IS USM lens. (Yes, it is a mouthful.) One new purchase begets another new purchase. What do all all those abbreviations mean? This is an autofocusing (EF) 35mm lens that will fit both full-frame and cropped sensor Canon cameras. It uses Canon's very quiet ultrasonic focusing motor (USM) and has image stabilization (IS) built into the lens. They tweaked the autofocusing so that it works better when being used for video too. It also has a relatively fast maximum aperture of ƒ/2. It sounds like the perfect new companion for my perfect new camera.
My first impression on receiving the lens is that it is a lot larger than the 40mm Voigtländer. The Canon lens takes a 67mm filter vs. the Voigtländer's 52mm. The lens has a much larger profile when mounted on the camera. It is also much larger than Canon's first generation EF 35mm ƒ/2, which this new version will eventually replace. That's the bad news. The good news is that in terms of weight, the difference between it and the Voigtländer is not so great. Thanks to the generous use of plastic, the 35mm weighs a little over four ounces more than the diminutive 40mm. To my hands (and neck) each lens seems to weigh about the same when mounted on a camera.
There are those who will criticize Canon's use of plastic. I can't really find any fault with this design. There is metal where you need it, on the lens mount, and the plastic used on the barrel seems to be of high quality. There is very little of that plasticky feel here. In fact, the lens seems to be very tightly put together. Unlike the Canon EF 50mm ƒ/1.4 I once owned, nothing shakes when you pick up this lens. The focusing ring is very well damped, almost as smooth as a good manual focus lens. It lacks the weather sealing found on Canon's top-tiered L lenses, but it seems to me that otherwise the new 35mm is up to L lens standards. I would have no problem taking this lens out in the rain.
In fact, I have no problem taking any lens out in the rain. In my twenty years as a photographer, I can remember only one instance (an early Nikon AF zoom) where I had a lens stop working because of the rain. It had gotten a prolonged soaking but it still came back to life after a little drying.
The other "bad" news when it comes to Canon's new 35mm is the price. The old 35mm ƒ/2, which was introduced in 1990 and doesn't offer the quiet USM focusing, now retails for $289 [you have to add it to the cart to see that price —Ed.]. The new 35mm IS USM goes for $849. That's a pretty big jump. If that seems like too much to pay for a 35mm lens, wait six months. The EF 24mm and 28mm ƒ/2.8 IS USM lenses were released last year at the same price as the new 35mm. Both now retail for under $630. It's likely that this new lens will follow the same pattern and the price will come down. It's still a lot to pay for a 35mm ƒ/2 lens; but then, you are getting more for your money.
Autofocus on the 35mm works like it should: fast and nearly silent. The focusing takes place inside the lens. Nothing moves on the outside. This makes it a lot easier to use filters and other attachments. I haven't done any extensive image quality comparisons with this lens, but I can say that it produces sharp pictures at all apertures. Nothing to complain about in this department. There is some visible vignetting when shooting wide open, and some barrel distortion. Both faults are easily removed in Lightroom or some other types of image-editing software. In fact, this 35mm is almost boring in its demeanor. There is no big, showy front element that screams expensive. The lens just works.
The biggest surprise for me is how effective the image stabilization is on this lens. It's so quiet that I can't tell it's working unless I press my ear against it. Combined with the new high-ISO abilities of the 5D MKIII, I can take pictures in light almost too dim to see by. In fact, it was actually hard to find suitably dark scenes to illustrate the lens's IS ability. For the moment, this might be the best low-light lens around.
I have long appreciated image stabilization on telephoto lenses. I have Canon's EF 70–300mm ƒ/4–5.6L IS USM lens, and the image stabilization on that lens is a game changer. After a few months of using it, I entirely abandoned my 70–200mm ƒ/2.8. However, I wan't convinced of the need for IS on a wide angle lens. I wan't against it. I just thought that it wasn't necessary. After using this new Canon lens, I have changed my mind.
Canon claims that the IS on this lens gives an extra four stops of usability. That figure might be a bit of a stretch. The effectiveness of IS is hard to quantify and probably varies depending on who is doing the holding and how much coffee or alcohol they have had to drink. Regardless, IS definitely makes a difference here. The old rule-of-thumb (pre-IS) is that a lens can be safely hand-held down to a shutter speed closest to the lens's focal length. Therefore, a 35mm lens could be safely hand-held down to 1/30th of a second. I used to feel that I could reliably shoot a 35mm lens at 1/15th of a second. Using this lens, I am now getting sharp photos at 1/5th of a second. Maybe I could even do 1/2 second if I brace myself. That's not four stops better, but it's a good two stops and maybe more. That two stops improvement in low-light shooting puts this lens ahead of Canon's very good and expensive EF 35mm ƒ/1.4L USM lens and probably on par with the also very expensive EF 24 ƒ/1.4 L USM. Both of those lenses are bigger and heavier than the 35mm IS. Its also easier to get an in-focus shot at ƒ/2 than with the narrow depth-of-field of a lens wide open at ƒ/1.4. Using that logic, I think we have a new winner for "available dark" photography.
That is, until Canon comes out with its all-new EF 50mm IS Super USM ƒ/1 CNTheDRK lens. Even if they do, that lens won’t be for me. I won't be tempted because I am not going to buy a new camera!
James Leynse is an Architectural and Corporate photographer based in New Jersey. His photos can be found at his website, leynse.com.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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