Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM Review
March 31st, 2014
A Canon Underdog?
I have a soft spot for underdogs. That probably serves me well, as I often review Tamron and Rokinon products, and these are manufacturers that are long time underdogs. So as I hold this beautifully made Canon in my hand, why does it seem like once again I am reviewing an underdog?
Sigma, that’s why! Specifically, the launch of the new Art Series and Sigma’s new “Global Vision”. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Lens immediately seduced photographers with its slick, Zeiss-like appearance and excellent sharpness. It undercuts the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM Lens in price by a significant margin, and the improved sharpness from the Sigma caused even some 35L users to make the switch. The Sigma was a press darling, and I too felt that it very possibly was the next addition to my kit. Just shortly after the Sigma, Canon also released a new lens, the Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM It was an update to a decades-old tiny prime, the EF 35mm f/2, but the new lens promised a superior optical formula, Image Stabilization, and an upgraded focusing motor. Canon had recently done a refresh to the 24mm and 28mm f/2.8 primes, and those lenses had been roundly praised for excellent optics and IS, but were considered to have been priced a little high (somewhat of a theme with Canon in the past several years). The lens was no different, with a price only $50 less than the Sigma ($849 USD). It launched to minimal fanfare, while the Sigma has been discussed ad nauseum and has almost certainly outsold it by a wide margin.
So why did I end up buying the Canon to add to my kit?
First, a word on the Sigma. As I have already said, I was pumped for the Sigma. I actually owned the EF 35mm f/2 (I am borrowing it back for comparison purposes in this review) and liked it despite its many flaws. But the Sigma is a sexy looking beast, and that sharpness was appealing (not to mention the [near] extra stop of light). I had been eying the 35L as a companion to my other fast primes (most notably the 135mm f/2L), so the potential of a better lens at price hundreds of dollars cheaper was very appealing. The S35 (Sigma 35) tests really well. It is very sharp. Much sharper in fact that the 35L. I know of many happy users of the lens. But one of the things I do besides reading reviews when I am doing research before purchasing is to look at pictures taken WITH the lens. I realize that there will always be a very wide disparity in the quality of photos because of the skill level of the photographer. But after a while you start to get a sense of how the lens performs in a variety of situations.
Lenses are more than the sum of their parts or even review scores, and I find that particularly true with fast prime lenses. The 35L, for example, produces images with a frequently beautiful “feel” to them that goes beyond technical merit. The images frequently look “pro” or “magic” (and that’s a good thing!) I kept waiting for the WOW images from the Sigma…but I rarely saw them. The Sigma just seems more clinical. It tests very well, but for one thing (and this is huge with a wide aperture prime), the bokeh (out of focus region) never impressed me. The transition to the defocused area lacks that incredible creaminess that the best lenses produce. In short, I just haven’t seen the “magic” I was looking for. The Sigma is also quite a large lens. It isn’t as large as my Tamron 24-70 VC, for example, but it isn’t significantly smaller, either. It wouldn’t be a lens that you would just throw into the bag as an extra.
My ardor for it was waning.
The final straw came when Sigma’s old nemesis began popping up – AF accuracy. Some people had focus issues early on, and others have found that their lens focused great…initially, and then it seemed as if AF accuracy began to decrease. In all fairness to Sigma, I doubt that the reports are quite as dire as they seem, and some people that I trust (like Roger Cicala at LensRentals) have reported that the Sigma seems improved in regards to focus reliability. Still, having owned a Sigma with such issues before (the 50-150mm f/2.8), I wasn’t really interested in going down that path again.
Meanwhile, I read the reviews on the net of the new Canon prime. There are still relatively few of them out there (which tells me the buzz hasn’t been all that high on the lens). The “modern science” of a Google search on the Canon vs. the Sigma shows basically a 2:1 margin for hits on the Sigma, and many of the Canon top returns are actually reviews of the OLDER 35mm f/2 lens.
Despite the relatively few reviews, they were universally very good. The lens was an improvement in every way over its predecessor and (quietly) was also sharper than the 35L. The single knock on it was price. At an early list of $849, it was high. Too high. The Sigma was only $50 more, and included both a padded case and the lens hood. The Canon (in typical miserly fashion), included neither. The killer app for the Canon was the inclusion of a very good IS system (more on that later), but many people questioned how necessary a stabilizer was on a wide aperture, wide angle prime. Videographers were excited, of course, because IS makes a huge difference when shooting handheld video. The Canon was smaller, nearly as sharp, and had better bokeh, but the Sigma featured a larger aperture (f/1.4) and seemed to be a little more professional grade. The Sigma sold well; the Canon…well…not so much. I was interested in the Canon, but thought the price too high. I did continue to see pictures from it, and in the hands of the right photographer I could see some of that magic I wanted. I couldn’t let it go entirely…but wasn’t ready to drop that amount of money on the lens.
Then one day Canon woke up and realized they were asking too much.
The price began to drop…quickly. A promotion going into the 2013 Christmas season saw the price hit $549, and that’s when my antennae went up again. Three hundred dollars off and the lens became a whole different value proposition. I started looking seriously at the lens again and made the choice in December of 2013 to take the plunge. Man, am I ever glad I did!
The Vital Statistics
The Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM is the kind of lens that photographers like to stick on their cameras. It is not a large lens, but has that thick and stubby “prime” design that looks so stinkin’ great on a camera. If you are familiar with the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM Lens lens, then you have a pretty good idea of the construction of the 35mm f/2 IS (from henceforth known as 35IS). It is made of engineered plastics, but in no way feels “plasticky”. It feels dense and solid, and has an identical texture to the 100L. There is really only two differences: the 100L has both a rubber gasket for weather sealing and a red ring. Everything else feels the same. The switches feel the same, the focus ring has a similar texture, and the overall feel of the lens in your hand is very similar. The lens feels great. It is internally focusing (the length always stays the same), has a metal bayonet mount, and the front element does not rotate at all (good for using polarizing filters). Because it is an internally focusing fixed length lens there should be few opportunities for moisture or dust to penetrate the lens despite it not being officially weather sealed. There is really nothing to complain about, other than the decision to not include the rubber gasket to improve sealing (Canon has not included this feature on any non-L lens). The three recent non-L primes (24mm, 28mm, 35mm) are so well made that many were surprised that they weren’t added to the L series.
One nice upgrade is that the lens features Canon’s new center-pinch cap – a vast improvement over the older design.
The lens is reasonably compact, but is definitely not nearly as small as the lens it replaces. It grows 4.4 ounces/125 grams (from 7.4/210 to 11.8/335) and is 3.1”x 2.5” (77.9 x 62.6mm) in length compared to 2.6” x 1.7” (67 x 43mm) for the older 35mm f/2. The filter size also grew from 52mm to 67mm. For comparison sake, the Sigma weighs 23.5/665 (twice as much) and is 3.7” x 3” (94 x 77 mm) – approximately a third longer. That means the Sigma weighs only about 5 oz. less than my Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 DI VC USD Lens and is less than an inch shorter. That was my problem – the Sigma is closer in size to my standard (f/2.8) zoom than it is to my smaller primes! The Canon, however, strikes a much better balance. It isn’t small enough to throw into a pocket like its predecessor, but it is small enough to put in a small space in a camera bag and take it along.
To give you some size perspective, here is the “line-up”. You can see that the new 35mm is substantially larger than it’s predecessor (and the other two “pancake” lenses that represent the most compact lenses available for a Canon system), but is still dwarfed by a standard zoom. The Sigma is much closer in size to the Tamron zoom than it is to the EF 35IS.
The lens has two switches on the side of the barrel. One is the AF/MF switch (though this lens does have true full time manual override and can be manually focused at any point.) The second is for the Image Stabilizer, and is an on/off switch. There is no panning switch as this is a newer generation hybrid IS system that automatically detects panning motion and turns off one axis of stabilization.
The lens also has a focus distance window. The final feature is the focus ring, which is about a half inch wide and has a nice rubber feel. The manual focusing ring is a bit more heavily damped than what I would like, but the action is smooth. I wouldn’t mind the ring being a little wider, but, in all fairness, there isn’t much room left on the lens for the focus ring to be wider, and it is a notable improvement in every way over its predecessor.
Another great positive for this little lens is a very significant maximum magnification figure (.24x), which is better than basically all the primes it is competing with. It can focus down to 9.4”, and that magnification comes in very, very handy. You will be able to take pictures with this lens that people will think were taken with a macro lens. Add an extension tube and you will quickly enter true macro territory. This is not something to be overlooked for those of you looking for a one lens solution. I find that maximum magnification is sometimes overlooked, but just know that this really adds to the versatility of the lens. At that distance you can throw just about any background completely out of focus and produce some very unique shots. Furthermore, I know there will be times that I won’t have a macro lens along, and this lens will do a credible job in those situations.
The lens seems tough and well made…but time will tell the tale. First impressions were good, and after several months of use in a lot of challenging weather, my impressions are still good. My copy says “Made in Japan” on it, and that still means something to me.
Why This Lens?
The old lens held an odd soft spot in my heart. It is a tiny little prime with a build only marginally better than the EF 50mm f/1.8II (which isn’t saying much). It does not feature a USM motor with full time manual focus but rather has a buzzy micromotor. It focuses reasonably quickly but not blazingly fast, and certainly not quietly. It has fairly massive amounts of chromatic aberrations and was not particularly sharp in the corners at wide apertures.
What it did have was excellent center sharpness (a big deal for my typical style with wide aperture primes), focus accuracy, a very close minimum focus/large maximum magnification, and beautiful color rendering. All of this in a very small and compact package that was very easy to bring along. When stopped down it became a very sharp landscape lens. I eventually replaced it once I got the EF 40mm f/2.8 STM prime.
But what I missed was the unique magic that comes from a wide aperture prime.
I’m very happy to report that the new 35IS has filled that void very well. It improves upon its predecessor in just about every way. If you are in the market for a versatile prime lens in the 35mm focal length, then this new little Canon may just fit the bill for you. Furthermore, this lens will also double as a truly excellent “normal” lens if you are shooting a crop sensor body like Canon’s new 70D.
The 35IS improves on the already excellent center sharpness of the older prime while expanding that optical goodness out towards the edges of the frame. It is sharper at equivalent apertures than the excellent 35L. In an absolute sense the Sigma 35 is sharper, but the level of sharpness throughout the frame on both lenses is so high that sharpness is not really a legitimate concern with either. If you are interested in chart testing, take a look at Photozone’s results here. If you want a real world example, take a look at the degree of detail from this crop of my son reading a birthday card. That is wide open, using only available light. Pretty amazing!
While both the older and newer versions of this lens are marketed as f/2 primes, the new lens is considerably brighter, and has a t/stop (actual light transmission) of 2 that matches its marketed f/stop. According to DXO (which is a little obsessed with this kind of thing), that also helps close the gap a bit with the Sigma, as its light transmission is actually f/1.5. I should add that this isn’t a mark against the Sigma, as its tested T-stop performance is actually better than all of its f/1.4 rivals. The Samyang 35mm f/1.4 Wide-Angle US UMC Aspherical Lens, by comparison, has a T-stop of 1.8, which makes it barely brighter than this Canon f/2 that we are testing here. I only bring this up to comment on the fact that the older Canon f/2 prime has a T-stop of 2.3, which means that the newer lens lets in considerably more light. That adds to the overall picture of optical improvement here.
Vignetting will be visible wide open (around 2 stops in the corners), but honestly, these days vignetting can be corrected either in camera for JPEGS or in any RAW software so easily that this is hardly an issue. The newer lens has less vignetting than the older Canon lens and less wide open than the Sigma, although when the Sigma is stopped down to f/2 it exhibits better performance in this area than the 35IS. The performance in this area can only be described as “as expected”.
More important is the fact that the chromatic aberrations (green or purple fringing around areas of high contrast) are MUCH better controlled on this new lens than the old timer it replaces. That was my least favorite aspect of the older lens. I have not noticed CA in field use at all, even in high contrast scenes. The new optical formula and coatings have done the trick! The image below was shot directly into a winter sun so bright that I could scarcely compose the shot. This image has been toned in post, but no extra CA work removal has been done. The primary subject was ice-covered branches.
What really matters to me is that this lens is extremely useful wide open, which makes it great for portraiture (nice sharpness and delineation from backgrounds) and also for my event work, where it has a “look” that is a nice match for other excellent lenses like my EF 135mm f/2L or EF 100mm f/2.8L IS. This also opens up a lot of creative options when closer to objects to throw backgrounds out of focus while having great sharpness on the subject.
I have been consistently pleased with image quality I am getting from this lens. It has that special quality I was looking for.
This was the chief reason that ultimately bumped me in the direction of the Canon over the Sigma. I was not overly impressed with photos that I saw from the Sigma when it came to bokeh, particularly in the “transition zone”. The Sigma is incredibly sharp, but to my eye it seems like there is an imbalance between sharpness and “creaminess” in the defocused region. The scales are tipped a little too much in the favor of sharpness. As a result there are few images (to this point) that I have seen that really WOW me, and often those that are impressive to me tend to be stopped down, sharp landscape shots that have little to do with narrow DOF.
But I had the opposite reaction to the Canon. It seems more balanced to me. It, too, is very sharp, but the transition to defocus is very, very nice, particularly for a wide angle focal length. The transition is nicely smooth, and the out of focus bokeh highlights are far less “busy” than the old prime. This shot shows the nice bokeh as a “normal” lens on a crop sensor body:
The 35IS has 8 rounded aperture blades that allow circular highlights to retain their shape even when stopped down. Unlike other lenses in the class the highlights are essentially completely free of artifacts or concentric circles (onion bokeh). Bokeh highlights near the edge of the frame will show a slight bit of the “cat’s eye” shape, but unfortunately that is pretty common.
Here are few samples of “bokeh” shots, both with highlights and also showing the very nice transition from focus to defocus.
The 35IS got a major upgrade with the addition of the USM (Ultrasonic Motor) drive. This enables full time manual override (just grab the ring and focus) and also increases the speed while reducing the sound. The lens does focus quickly and others have reported it as being extremely quiet, but I find that I can hear the sound the elements shuffling as they move. I don’t know if this is specific to my copy, but I may explore the issue with Canon. It isn’t loud, but it isn’t my quietest lens, either.
Most importantly, the lens focuses very accurately. I am consistently pleased with the sharpness and consistently of focus. This is a lens that I shoot wide open a lot, so nailing focus when the depth of field is so shallow is extremely important. I was able to get highly repeatable results when doing AFMA on my bodies that have been equally consistent in the field.
This lens stands unique as the widest aperture lens currently available on the Canon system to include Image Stabilization (IS). It is, technically, the most “handholdable” lens you can get for the system, making it a truly excellent option for those interested in shooting video. Shooting at very low shutter speeds is possible (you could achieve a decent keeper rate at even close to 1 second with good technique). To be fair, however, there aren’t a tremendous amount of viable reasons to need that kind of shutter speed, but it does open both some creative options (when you want to contrast some minor movement with a static object, for example) but, more importantly, means that you almost never to worry about more useful shutter speeds (1/25th or 1/15th second) being affected by camera shake. Just remember that IS does nothing to your subject – a moving subject is still going to create motion blur at low shutter speeds. I was able to shoot this image handheld (at 1/10th of a second) very easily, which gave me the creative option of using the light from a parking lot spotlight to illuminate the falling snow and creating a very cool in-camera effect (I’ve only changed the color temperature to this image).
This application of Canon’s IS system automatically detects whether you are shooting normally or are using a panning technique and will adjust accordingly.It is an effective system, and in many ways helps make up for the nearly 1 stop advantage of its f/1.4 competitors in a far more compact package.
Is This Lens for You?
This is really where the “rubber meets the road”. In the Canon ecosystem there are several options for a 35mm prime:
- This lens – Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM Lens
- The more expensive big brother – the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM Lens
- The new Sigma – 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Lens
- Samyang/Rokinon 35mm f/1.4 Wide-Angle US UMC Aspherical Lens
- Several Zeiss options: 35mm F/1.4 Distagon T Lens or Distagon 35mm T* f/2 ZE Lens (manual focus only and very expensive – particularly the former).
By my count that is at least six options, not including the older Canon 35mm f/2 (now discontinued, but readily available used). The 35mm focal range is a very popular one. The least expensive option is the Samyang 35mm f/1.4 at just a little over $400. It is a manual only lens, which means that there are some applications that it will probably not work for. The same applies to the Zeiss options, although there are probably few people that are cross-shopping these lenses. The Zeiss optics are impressive, but they are both expensive and manual focus only.
Most shoppers will be considering the three options with AF, in this case the two Canons and the Sigma. The older design of the L lens is under serious attack from the newer Sigma, and if absolute sharpness is your goal, the Sigma is definitely your choice. The L lens has a beautiful rendering, however, that, in my mind, is more artistic and less clinical than the Sigma. It is the most expensive option of the three, but if you must have the red ring and that “L” look, the 35L is your choice. The Sigma is the middle option in terms of price and is a very nice lens – it is currently the popular choice in the segment. It is the new “little” Canon, however, that gets my vote, as I feel that it is a very nice balance between the two other options. It is very sharp, and yet the bokeh is nicely soft. It is (by far) the most compact of the choices in both absolute size and weight. If you want to do video work, the 35IS is definitely your choice. The fact that it is now the least expensive option of the three is an added bonus.
My research lead me to the Canon, and I haven’t been disappointed. To sum up:
- Modern design and optics
- Very sharp
- Smooth bokeh – perhaps the best of the 35mm options
- Effective IS system
- Reasonably compact yet sturdy build
- Reasonable price (now)
- Great color rendering
- Chromatic aberrations well controlled
- Fast, accurate AF
- Close focus distance and high maximum magnification
- Moderately high vignetting
- No inclusion of hood or case
- Maximum aperture of f/2 rather than f/1.4
- Not weather sealed
As you can see, there aren’t a whole of lot of real cons to the lens. The single biggest one was that it was initially overpriced, but a 35% price drop has nicely solved that problem. Every early reviewer was forced to conclude that this was a really nice lens whose single great caveat was its high price tag. It is really a shame that Canon overpriced the lens to begin with, as it seems like it never garnered much “buzz” and seems likely to be resigned to “hidden gem” status. Those who own it, however, seem to really love it. Count me amongst that group. This is a great lens that strikes a great optical balance. I look forward to using it in the more colorful seasons to come!
The Big Gallery: Click here to go to the Image Gallery for the Lens
You can watch the video review here:
Snap Art 4 Tutorial (featuring the 35mm IS)
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