A very unscientific review of the Canon 35mm/1.4

I rented Canon’s 35mm/1.4 for this past weekend, and while I wish I had more time with it to thoroughly test it out, the few days I had with it was enough to come to some conclusions. So, here’s my mini review, with not enough comparison shots. (Sorry!)

(Keep in mind that I’m comparing it to my Canon 35mm/2, a nifty little lens that is over $1000 cheaper.)

My first impression of the 35mm/1.4 (which I’ll refer to as the 35L, denoting its L glass status) is that it’s huge. I knew it’d be big, but it’s at least 2.5x larger than the 35mm/2. Because it’s L glass, it also has a bright red ring around it. These two factors made me feel a bit self-conscious when toting it around the streets. But it definitely was not a deal-breaker in any sense.  It was heavy but still light enough for me to lift the camera with one hand and shoot (which was very difficult with my camera + the Canon 85/1.8).

Speed & focus
The next thing that jumped out to me was its incredible focusing speed, at any aperture. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever tried. Oh, and it’s dead silent. You could use it in a quiet library without worry (shutter snap sound aside). The focus would lock on immediately, on the very first press of the focus button. For instance, when taking pics inside of flowers with the 35L, it locked focus immediately, every time. I switched to the 35mm/2, and it hunted for focus at least 5 times before finally locking on the flowers (with the same lighting conditions and position). The focus accuracy is not 100% (probably due to user error), but still very, very good. Compared to the 35mm/2 (which is pretty consistent in its good focus), it’s better. And it’s waaaay better at focus accuracy than the 50mm/1.4.

Honestly, this was the big one for me, because I just love big apertures. The focus and speed is obviously leaps and bounds above the 35mm/2, but that’s not enough for me to buy this lens alone. What would make me buy this lens is its f/1.4 aperture and maybe that “certain something,” that magical quality that some lenses have. So I wanted to see how f/1.4 on a 35mm would compare to f/2 (which is what I have already with my 35mm/2). Here’s an example (shot in RAW and unprocessed):

A close-up pic:

And further away:

And comparing the lenses:

To me, the difference between f/1.4 and f/2.0 is notable (and especially significant in certain situations). This f/1.4 + incredible focusing speed + highly accurate focus = images in low light that are near impossible with the 35mm/2. And yes, unscientifically, I’d say there is a special something with this lens. Something about it is just really special. I can’t quantify it. I can’t articulate it. But it’s there.

Interestingly, I noticed that the pics from 35L were always brighter.  Check out the above picture — the middle image and the right-hand image are both at the same apertures but the 35L’s picture is brighter.

The biggest surprise for me is that I’m not handing my wallet over to Canon this very minute to buy this lens.  Don’t get me wrong — I loved this lens, and I’d probably cry with happiness if it magically landed in my lap.  But the price tag — oh, the price tag! If I were a pro, I’d snap this up immediately; it’s a must have. But for traipsing around the neighborhood, an L glass feels a bit too much like a luxury for my thin wallet.

(It should be noted that I said the same exact thing about buying a full frame camera, and then I bought one about a month later. So check back in a week; I’m sure I’ll have bought this lens by then. Ha!)


18 thoughts on “A very unscientific review of the Canon 35mm/1.4

  1. The 35L is my dream lens, but since I only have a 50mm, I’m going to get a 24-70 for its versatility. I can’t wait to see if you end up buying it or not.

    • WAIT! Anne!!! I am you!!! WAIIIT!! I just read your comment so I really hope you read this. I only ever had a 50mm and the 35mm was my dream focal length and dream lens. But I decided it was the more “reasonable” and “professional” thing to do to get the 24-70 first because it was more versatile and I was hoping to one day break into wedding photography. And yes, it’s versatile in focal length and it’s a killer lens but it’s nothing compared to the 35mm in low light obviously (which is important to me). I don’t regret owning it, but I regret putting the 35 on hold to get the 24-70 first. It is a BEAST and therefore hardly an everyday lens. I only pull it out for really special occasions because it’s just too big and heavy. I also love the silky bokeh of the prime and a lower depth of field. Anyway, if these things at all are important to you- you may want to reconsider the order of your dream list!

      • These are very good points! My vote is also to go with your dream lens. …Uh, this is advice I should probably take, since the 35mm/1.4 is my dream lens. And it performs like a dream.

  2. oh how you sound like me (and probably most of us)…thank you so much for this comparison! i’m currently grappling between a medium/large format film camera and the 135mm f2 but this one is somewhere on my list and so now i have the review of a photographer who likes to shoot similar subjects/situations as I. thanks again!

  3. Oh fabulous “unscientific” review! Can you believe I actually thought the 35 was going to be heavier than it was? I was worried since it was L and technically wide angle that it would be heavy- and when I held it in my hands I went- OKAY, I’ll take it.

    The price tag is a lot, but I guess I look at it like this- I won’t ever upgrade this thing. My kids (if I have kids) will be able to use it if they want. It will last longer than my bodies will so I might as well splurge a little now and get the best I can. I am I guess considered to be “breaking the pro” barrier right now. I’m shooting weddings and selling freelance, but just barely. I only say this because even if I wasn’t trying, I think I would still do this.

    I loved reading this because I definitely noticed the “special factor” myself I just couldn’t find a way to put it into words. (The bokeh is so sillkkyyy!)

    I hope this wasn’t all over the place!

    • You know, that is actually a brilliant point. Seriously. If I will eventually buy it anyway, I might as well buy it now to get the most use of it. And I wouldn’t ever be upgrading from it. Huh. Sara, you know, you might’ve just convinced me that I need this lens.

      Also, YES! The bokeh is so silky! That is something I thought too. Just smooooth. Not busy or nervous or anything.

      And best of luck breaking the pro barrier. Your photos are really amazing. I have no doubt you’ll have great success.

  4. Great review! Like many of the best lenses, the 35L clearly offers something very special that’s hard to quantify. But it’s also surprising to see just how well the 35/2 holds up against it. Nice work.

  5. “Unscientific” gear reviews are the best kind. I love seeing lenses or bodies tested in practice and not in a lab…real pictures, not test charts and brick walls. From this review of yours, it would seem that yes, the 35L exceeds the 35 f/2 in many ways…but is it $1000 dollars better? That’s a tough one =)

    So I’m proud of you for resisting the impulse purchase…for now anyway! Because hey, you can always rent right?

  6. Ver interesting test.
    I wish we could rent lenses here where I live in France ! but we can’t so I went for a 50mm 1.4 without trying it before. As for the lens I chose for Sigma because of 1- the price a little cheaper and 2- the lens is less about plastic & looks more nicely built. And I am perfectly satisfied, even after trying a friend’s Nikon.
    Now I dream of a 35mm 1.4 or I heard about a 1.2 ?!! Maybe on my next list for Santa…
    But my point is that lenses opening at 1.4 or 1.2 are always worth the money, I can’t remove mine from my camera since !

  7. Excellent review! You already take some amazing photos with your current setup. While the 35mm may not be a necessity at this point, there’s no doubt it will bring more versatility, performance and ultimately, happiness :) , when you do add it to your bag. You deserve it!

  8. thanks for this review! this is in fact magical glass! I rented this lens for a week and I’m torn between the 35L and 24L ..I just can’t decide and like you I’m not a professional.. so it’s kinda of a big deal to me to spend this much money.

    But the photos it takes is a whole ‘nother level..something that can’t be reproduced. I’ve only had one glass that was ever like that and it was an Olympus Zuiko Digital 35mm. I still regret to this day selling that lens and camera body, because I haven’t found a Canon yet to replace it, until I shot with the 35L and 24L.

  9. Hah! This is too good. Echoing the love for “unscientific” gear reviews from fellow bloggers.

    My experience was a bit different, though I didn’t go nearly to these lengths to test the Nikon differences… Maybe I haven’t spent enough time with the 1.4 class of lenses, but I borrowed the 50/1.4 from a friend in college once and could not for the life of me tell the difference between it and my 1.8.

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