Bigger Big Dog: Canon EF 35mm ƒ/1.4L II, just announced
Hard to believe, but Canon's justly famous EF 35mm ƒ/1.4L is nearly old enough to go to college. Although big and heavy in the he-man style of mainstream Japanese DSLR lenses—compare it to the 35mm ƒ/1.4's from Leica or Zeiss that you can mount with adapters on the Sony A7 series cameras for example—it was always a lovely lens that a lot of photographers swore by. My old friend Josh Hawkins would probably concur. I think his remains glued to his camera in most situations.
However, facing pressure from the popular and desired Sigma 35mm ƒ/1.4 DG HSM "Art" lens—a lens that is admired not just for its advantageous price but also for price-no-object performance—Canon has announced a successor.
An oldie from the archives, taken with the original EF 35mm ƒ/1.4L
Not much wrong with that lens
The new Canon EF 35mm ƒ/1.4L II USM lens (available for pre-order, $1,799) will probably turn out to be not just very very good but very very very good, as it costs twice what the Sigma lens does and $320 more than what you can get the old one for. On the more-is-always-better side, it's even more he-man: it has 14 elements in 11 groups as opposed to 11/9 for the old lens, it's some 3/4ths of an inch longer, and it weighs a significant amount more—760 g vs. 580 g. That's like replacing a full-sized pickup with a super-duty extended-cab pickup.
Steals and luxuries
There is certainly no shortage of 35mm lenses for Canon DSLRs. Canon's 35mm ƒ/2 lens with image stabilization, which started out at $800, has come down to a much more reasonable $549. And if you liked the old old EF 35mm ƒ/2—one of the early lenses for the EOS film system, before the turn of the millennium—there's now a Chinese knock-off of it called a Yongnuo YN which is a steal at $121.99. You might think that you get what you pay for, and in some ways you probably do, but that was always a nice little lens. And it's more than a pound (605 g) lighter (!) than the just-announced Bigger Big Dog.
There are also several more specialized luxury options, like the beautiful metal Zeiss Distagon ZE manual-focus lenses in both ƒ/2 and ƒ/1.4 maximum apertures. (For purists who don't cotton to that newfangled autofocus nonsense.)
The new Tamron Goldilocks option, also just announced
Under the radar
Not to be outdone by all this—and as we've just seen, that's difficult—Tamron has just announced two very interesting new prime (!!) lenses in its SP series. The Tamron SP 35mm ƒ/1.8 Di VC USD—memorize that for the quiz—is loaded with interesting technologies, including image stabilization (Tamron calls it VC, for vibration compensation) and weather sealing. The Tamron SP 35mm ƒ/1.8 has very good close-focusing capability and appears to be optimized for the widest apertures. It will be available in Canon and Nikon mount at first, with a Sony A mount sans VC to follow (Sony offers in-body IS, so doesn't need in-lens stabilization).
There will also be a matching 45mm ƒ/1.8. Both lenses will start at $600.
You might well like the Big Dogs from Canikon, and I can understand why; the full-sized 35mm ƒ/1.4's from both companies are superlative lenses. The Bigger Big Dog will surely appeal to serious shooters.
Personally, I've also liked what I've seen of Tamron lenses; I've had good experiences with them over the years. (Not always the case with Sigma.) To tell you the truth, if I were searching for a 35mm for a Canon DSLR, I'd probably start my investigations with the new Tamron. Although a large lens compared to a classic 35mm, it seems to have the elusive Goldilocks quality when compared to a lot of the oversized and/or overpriced options on the market, not that there's anything wrong with those. Not too fast, not too slow; not too cheap, not too dear; not too small, not too...well, not too small; and with all the modern technologies you'd naturally want included in the mix. Perfect.
Well, maybe perfect. But I'd find out, if a 35mm for Canon (or Nikon) was what I needed.
Original contents copyright 2015 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.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Eric Erickson: "I don't get it. Photographers today are getting older not younger according to everything that I have seen, so why, if you are producing a new lens, would you make a larger one than before? It doesn't make sense to me. I just purchased a 12mm Olympus lens for my Micro 4/3 setup and it is terrific, and it weighs a fraction of this lens. 'Small is beautiful' as they say. I am not sure Canon and Nikon understand the demographics of the marketplace. We photogs are getting long in the tooth, and want less weight, not more, to carry on our photo outings."
Lynn: "There's another interesting alternative—the Canon EF 40mm ƒ/2.8 STM 'pancake.' It delivers way more than the modest price of $149 would suggest.
"In fact I'd suggest that at this price there's no excuse for not having one—it turns a Canon 6D into a (relatively) small, unobtrusive camera that will fit in a largish jacket pocket. Performance is very good—sharp with pleasant out-of-focus rendering. I'm very happy I bought one."
John Camp: "Actual questions: I'm not a lensee, so I don't know about this stuff, but is it possible that Canon produced a nearly perfect highly corrected lens so it could do stuff that all the other smaller lenses are correcting in software? And is there an advantage to hardware correction?"
Mike replies: The old 35mm ƒ/1.4L was highly corrected for late 1998 when it was introduced, but glass types, coatings, and aspherical element fabrication have moved on in the last 16+ years. The older lens leaves distinct room for improvement wide open and to a lesser extent when slightly stopped down. What you want shooting wide open with a fast lens on full frame is often generous blur or bokeh, in which case some corner softness might actually be advantageous for some images, but technically the older lens, which sported one hand-ground and -polished aspheric element (the new lens has two, likely machine-fabricated) was soft in the corners wide open, had a fairly high degree of vignetting, and left room for improvement in chromatic aberration.
There's also the appeal for Canon's engineers of putting the latest technology into play. The new lens is the very first to use Canon's BR Optics (blue spectrum refractive optics), about which Canon says:
Canon's proprietary Blue Spectrum Refractive Optics (BR Optics) incorporate a new organic optical material with unique anomalous dispersion characteristics for use in camera lenses. The molecular design of BR Optics refracts blue light (short wavelength spectrum) to a greater degree than other existing optical technologies including UD glass, Super UD glass and Fluorite, to control color fringing as effectively as possible. When placed between convex and concave lens elements made from conventional optical glass materials, BR Optics help to produce sharp images with outstanding contrast and color fidelity by thoroughly reducing axial chromatic aberration.
Finally, there are Canon's newest sensors to consider. The 50.6-megapixel sensor in the company's new 5DS and 5DS R cameras can likely show off the improved performance of a c. 2015 cutting-edge optical design. Put in short form: If I had a 5DS, I'd definitely want the bigger big dog rather than a legacy lens developed for film from the last millennium, no question about it.
Tech. Ed. Ctein adds: Expanding on what Mike said…
It's counterintuitive, but shorter focal length lenses need larger front elements if they want to avoid vignetting. That's because they're pulling in light rays from wider angles. Think of it like looking through a keyhole. Doesn't much matter if you only want to narrow field of view. Not so good for a larger one. In addition, digital cameras are more prone to certain kinds of falloff off-axis than film cameras. You want a higher degree of what's called "telecentrism" in a digital lens. Which means collecting even more off-axis rays and having more internal lens elements to see that they are distributed properly.
Another factor that makes the lens big (and expensive) is its unusually close focusing distance—a 1:5 magnification. I don't know if the old version could focus that close but if it did I would guess it wasn't very good there (Mike may know something about this [magnification on the old lens was .18X. —MJ]). Wide-angle lenses are primarily corrected for infinity because, so far as the lens is concerned, almost everything is very far away (three meters is nearly 100 focal lengths). At close focusing distance, your corrections start to go off the rails. Chromatic aberration, spherical aberration, and curvature of field get worse. Especially the latter two. Neither of those are correctable in software; you have to do it in the glass. If Canon wants this lens to be a good performer at such a close working distance, you're talking more elements, more weight, more expense.
There's also the "Blue Spectrum" correction they're building in. They're turning it into a kind of semi-super-apochromat. Again, because blue-violet fringing is a bigger problem with really good wide-angle lenses, because the images they produce are more likely to have lots of fine, high contrast details.
Marketing comes into play, but not in a bad way. This is an awfully specialized lens. They're not going to sell 1,000,000 of them. Some important fraction of people they will sell to will already own the older version. If you want them to trade up, you've got offer them major improvements, not modest ones. The size and the cost become less important than giving potential buyers a reason to be spending anything like that kind of money in the first place.
On your secondary question about whether there are advantages to hardware correction? Physically, no. Yes, there's a lot of opinion online about how evil software corrections are and how they're worse than doing stuff in glass. It's just plain wrong. It's an ignorant prejudice derived from simply not understanding how lens design and aberration correction works. (If someone wants to argue with me about this, I suggest you e-mail me privately. The comments column is not a place for long technical discussions.)
But, it is a prejudice that exists! If Canon corrects more of this stuff in glass (I don't know that they do), it's a selling point for certain subset of customers.
Robert Harshman: "The Sigma 35mm ƒ/1.4 Art is where you should start. It's a bargain. I have one. I've never been so impressed with a lens at the price point. The build is amazing and the IQ is almost too good to be true. Love it! The new Canon kinda looks like a Sigma art series, but not quite as refined a design."
Josh Hawkins: "I'm sure the new [Canon] lens will be more 'perfect,' but as with autotune, more perfect often makes for a less interesting/desirable/pleasing/fulfilling result. (I'm not sure how to say it, but the imperfections in a lens and a camera, like in a person, are what make them wonderful. It's just finding the right imperfections for you.)
"Back in my photojournalism days I think around 75% of my non-sports work was done with that lens. 20% was done with the 85L, and the rest with a 24L. That 35mm was always my baby, and still would be, but both my copies (funny story how you get two of those) are currently busted with the same autofocus problem. Shame preschool costs so much or I'd get it fixed in a heartbeat. I do love that lens. I'm always torn between that lens and early '80s 35mm Summicron. I need to get an A7R II so I can compare them. Really, that's why I need one."
Mike replies: Wait, "back" in your photojournalism days? What are you doing now? Don't tell me you've become a professional gambler.