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Hands on experience with the Canon 35mm f1.4L - The Photography Express

Hands on experience with the Canon 35mm f1.4L

Hands on experience with the canon 35mm

If you ever think about buying a 35mm prime lens (either Nikon, Canon or other major brands) this post is for you. If not, I hope I can at least give you some idea on what you can expect from using a prime lens. A prime lens (aka: fixed focal length lens) is not something you absolutely need in your camera bag but there are advantages you don’t want to skip in order to take amazing pictures. I’ll detail those points out below but let me first give you a bit of a background. Recently, I had the opportunity to rent a Canon 35mm f1.4 lens on my trip to Orlando USA. I solely used the 35mm f1.4 for the entirely trip to the Magic Kingdom, Disney Hollywood studios and Universal Studios. I did the whole trip without switching to my other canon 24-105mm f4L lens. This post is all about my hands on experience with the Canon 35mm f1.4 and my answers to some of the most common questions about prime lenses. Enjoy!

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Which one should I buy? The Canon 35mm f1.4L vs 50mm f1.2L

I want to put this question as a start because this is the most common question I heard over and over again from other photographers. Instead of saying it depends, below are my point of view:

For general purpose users with crop sensor cameras:

Get the 35mm f1.4L. If you get the 50mm f1.2L the focal range becomes 75mm-80mm depending on which brand of DSLR you are using. Personally I feel this range is too long for general purpose photography.

For general purpose users with full frame cameras:

Get the 35mm f1.4L. This is the combination I was using during the Orlando trip. More details below.

For portrait users with crop sensor cameras:

Go for the 50mm f1.2L. This becomes a 75-80mm lens and you are almost at the optimal point for portrait photography (The ideal focal range is around 85mm-135mm but I found 75mm-80mm is also great).

For portrait users with full frame cameras:

This is a hard choice. Personally I like to work with longer focal length for portrait shots so the 50mm f1.2L (which is 50mm for full frame cameras) is a bit too short. I’d recommend going for the 85mm prime lens route or the 70-200mm zoom lens.

Which one has better Image quality? Canon 35mm f1.4L vs Canon 50mm f1.2L

I see lot of review sites tend to write their conclusion at the end but I like to bring this straight to the point. The Canon 50mm f1.2L is little sharper than Canon 35mm f1.4L. No big conspiracy theory here, below is just my general opinion on why the 50mm is a littler sharper.

The Canon 35mm f1.4L is an old lens. It was released back in 1998! Therefore the technologies and DSLR compatibilities is a lot more difference back then. In my opinion, even though the Canon 35mm f1.4 works fine on new DSLR models, the image quality is a little softer compared to the 50mm f1.2. If you check the pictures below, you’ll see the cup is a little softer with the Canon 35mm f1.4L than the Canon 50mm f1.2L.

Shot with Canon 50mm f1.2L at f1.4

Shot with Canon 50mm f1.2L at f1.4

Shot with Canon 35mm f1.4L at f1.4

Shot with Canon 35mm f1.4L at f1.4

This could be a one off issue where I see softer images when comparison both lens. But at the end which lens to choose is totally dependent on individual needs. If 35mm is your lens, don’t let that tiny bit of sharpness alter your choice of choosing the 50mm over the 35mm (or the other way around). I had to pixel peek and zoom to 150% in order to notice a difference.

Advantages & Disadvantages

Overall, it is hard to pinpoint the disadvantages and highlight the advantages of owning the Canon 35mm 1.4 lens. It is truly an amazing lens and it delivers the exact image quality I was looking forward. On the other hand, it does have some down side that I have to be super nitpicky in order to mention them here. Anyway, let me start off this topic with the disadvantages first.

Disadvantage 1:

ISO issue – Bottom line, you will get blurry image if you don’t increase the ISO shooting at night. I was just like many other people who just ran out at night and thought I could snap a world-class night photography picture using a prime lens. In my mind, I know with the smaller aperture at f1.4 I can make the shutter speed go faster to get crispy clear image in the dark. Right?

I was wrong.

It wasn’t because of the lens. It was because the DSLR will choose the lowest ISO setting when you shoot with a small aperture. So even when I was using f1.4, my DSLR set the ISO to 400 so that my shutter speed duration increased to capture motions. My photo turned out to be blurry because of that and this is what the photo came out at the beginning…

Shot at 35mm f1.4 with shutter speed 1/40 second handheld.

Shot at 35mm f1.4 with shutter speed 1/40 second handheld.

Eww. Unacceptable for a prime lens!

So my big message to you is make sure you manually set your ISO before using this lens. You can do this with manual, aperture or shutter priority mode. Once I manually set to ISO 1000 now the quality is what I am expecting. Note that I am hand holding these shots.

Orlando-0510 FINAL

Now this is the image quality I was looking for!

Disadvantage 2:

No Image stabilization – With a lens in this price, I’d expect it to have image stabilization (IS). This is called Vibration reduction (VR) for Nikon and Vibration compensation (VC) for Tamron lenses. Without IS, I need to be very careful when hand holding shots at night.

A quick introduction for those unfamiliar with this technology, IS essentially reduce pan and tilt movement when taking pictures. In English, that means you can shoot with slower shutter speed because the lens compensate movements that you made. Generally, with IS you can use shutter speed to 2-4.5 stops slower so if you are shooting at 1/125 second with the 35mm lens, now you can shoot with 1/15 to even 1/8 second to get same result.

This is such an important function that I believe Canon didn’t want to include in this lens because it would killed all other lens in the market that time. But now with other competitions going on and major changes in the industry with mirrorless cameras, I suspect Canon will release version 2 of this lens with IS pretty soon.

Sorry I got a bit sidetrack here, below is a sample that I took when I was not being careful with my handholding techniques.

One word: Blurry!

One word: Blurry!

If you ask me what techniques I used to best avoid blurry photos while hand holding the camera. Focus your camera to the subject, take a deep breath then hold your breath while pressing the shutter button. This sounds like being a sniper but it works all the time.

Disadvantages 3:

Shallow depth of field (DoP) – This is another very nitpicky issue that is not caused by the lens itself but rather a skill a photographer needs to get used to.

The thing is with the f1.4, you are operating with a very shallow depth of field (DoP). If you are shooting close to a person and you focused on the person eyes, the nose or other parts of the face may be blurred.

This is why I mentioned above this is a hard lens to use for portrait photography with full frame camera. If you are trying to shoot a full body portrait, you need to get close to your subject with the 35mm but you have DoP issues. On the other hand, if you are trying to distance yourself with your subject you are not close enough to get a good picture.

Therefore, I recommend only doing half body portrait if you must use the 35mm f1.4. I did get some great shots of my wife but it took lots of trial and error to get the proper DoP.

Orlando-0924 FINAL

Ok that’s about all I can think of for the disadvantages. I’m sure you can find tons of review online about the advantages so I’ll try not to repeat too much below:

Advantage 1 – The most versatile prime lens

If I can only take one prime lens out to shoot general photography, then it has to be a 35mm lens. I’d much rather have this lens on than the 50mm because it is just wide enough to do simple landscape photography and you can walk forward a few steps to get a close shot of someone. The wide aperture let you shoot indoor with minimum issue and if you want to get creative you can add external flash to add more impact to your images. This is something that a 85mm or a 50mm prime lens cannot do.

Here is a picture I took while at Magic kingdom.

Canon 5DMKII with Canon 35mm f1.4L at 1/125 second, f8, iso100

Canon 5DMKII with Canon 35mm f1.4L at 1/125 second, f8, iso100

Advantage 2 – Its sharp with little weight!

I’m sure this is mentioned in almost all reviews. Yes, hands down this is the sharpest 35mm lens in the Canon market. Although there is a slight learning curve to unleash its greatest potential, this lens is sharp all the way down from wide open aperture.

However, I found the most noticeable advantage of this lens is the weight. I can easily carry this lens whole day without any issue. I travelled with the Canon 24-105L during the same trip a few years back and I’d say the 35mm is much easier to carry around. You don’t have to worry about the moving portion of the lens dropping down as I walked and I basically carried this lens from 10am-1am the next morning with no muscle pain!

Advantage 3 – Great Bokeh and vignetting

This is probably a well known advantage. Yes this lens has AMAZING brokeh. I can get creamy background of any subject if I am standing close enough to blur out the background. I don’t think I need to explain this much further so I’ll just show you a picture for example.

Lovely bokeh!

Lovely bokeh!

Now, I know you must be thinking I am crazy putting vignetting as an advantage but I just love it! For those who is wondering what this meant, vignetting is the dark corners (or shadows) you see on the photographs. Usually it happens when you shoot with widen open aperture (f1.4 in this case) with a full frame body sensor.

I love vignetting for 2 reasons, first it cover up image distortion for my images. I apologize for throwing so many technical terms in this blog post. Image distortion is the alteration of shapes (usually near the corners) when using a wide angle lens. This is caused by the front glass element of the lens because it is round. Therefore say if you shoot a bridge really close you will see the lines aren’t’ straight near the corners of your photograph.

Secondly, vignetting makes it look more professional in my opinion. It is not something you can get with an iphone shot (I am not saying iphone is bad, it’s an excellent pocket camera).

I hope you get a lot out of this post. If you ever have questions related to photography or even with the Canon 35mm f1.4L after reading this post, feel free to contact me. If you have experience with this lens, what is your experience look like? Share it in the comment section below!

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About Gary

A passionate photographer with goals to fulfill your photography passion and motivate you to take pictures even when life is busy!

6 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience Gary. I do not have any of these lens, but I will try before making the purchasing decision. Renting is definitely the way to go. I have the canon 50mm f1.4. It was my go to lens before I got the 24-70 and 70-200. I was a prime girl, but now I think I am a zoom girl.

    • Hi Lai thank you for your feedback. Yes I totally agree renting is the way to go and the Canon 50mm f1.4 is a very nice lens. Have you tried the 50mm f1.2? I haven been thinking about renting it lately. Zoom let us do a lot more variety shots so if I use the 70-200 I’ll take a picture at 85mm, 100mm and 135mm. Do you do that with yours? I’m curious to know how everyone use their zoom lens haha!

  2. Great read, thanks for sharing

  3. Good Info, thanks for sharing!