Can Canon Dethrone the Sigma Art? Fstoppers Reviews the Canon 35mm f/1.4L II USM

Can Canon Dethrone the Sigma Art? Fstoppers Reviews the Canon 35mm f/1.4L II USM

Sigma's Art Series has been a runaway hit. Until now, we haven't seen anything that could be considered a direct response from Canon. With the release of the new 35mm f/1.4L II USM, however, Canon appears to be taking direct aim at Sigma. Find out if they can reclaim the throne!

I'm a sucker for Canon glass. They have some of the most unique lenses out there, like the EF 11-24mm f/4L and the 85mm f/1.2L II, which appeal to my geeky side with their extremes of technical accomplishment. More generally, I know that with their color rendition, contrast, and autofocus performance (though the 85mm leaves me wanting there), I don't have to worry about getting good shots out of them. Thus, I was always a little reluctant to try out third-party lenses, but when the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art came out, I couldn't ignore the fact that Sigma had created a sharp lens with a lot of character for about half the price. I picked one up, and it hasn't left my bag since. However, like most Sigma users, I've come to accept that the Art line generally means sharp, contrasty images, with commercial drawing, but a less-than-stellar AF system. I'm always just a little worried about using it for wedding receptions, because it'll often claim it's focused, only to disappoint me when I sit down at the computer hours later. And after all, it's a little frustrating to have a lens that looks that good at f/1.4, but that I can't always trust to nail focus at that aperture. Nonetheless, it's sharp enough, affordable enough, and hits focus just enough to earn its place in my bag.

Then came the Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD. My EF 17-40mm f/4L was getting a bit long in the tooth, and I needed another stop for wedding work. Just as I was about to upgrade to the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, along came the Tamron with a lower price, great sharpness, and the distinction of being the only wide-angle, f/2.8 zoom with vibration compensation. And thus, another third-party lens was in my kit. 

In fairness to Canon, the original 35mm f/1.4L was released in 1998; so, I was quite curious to see what 17 years' worth of technological advancement could bring. In particular, with the second version of the lens coming in at double the price of Sigma's already great offering, could it make a compelling case for dropping twice the cash? It turns out that Canon has made a pretty good argument.

Build Quality and Ergonomics

As we've come to expect of Canon L glass, the lens is hardy, well-manufactured, and fits the hand well. It includes weather sealing (as with all such Canon lenses, a front filter is recommended to complete the sealing). Being based in Cleveland, I was caught in light rain (and snow) several times while shooting with this lens and it continued to work without a thought. While I'm hesitant to take any piece of equipment in a full downpour without additional protection, I would have no qualms about continuing to shoot with it in a variety of conditions, an especially important distinction given the do-it-all nature of this focal length.

I was pleased that this lens using engineering plastic over metal, as this reduces the weight and is just as strong. I also find that it makes for a better grip, which is why the 100mm Macro f/2.8L IS is another favorite lens of mine. The single switch (AF/MF) is flush-mount, increasing the lens' ability to mold to the hand, while the focus ring is large, well-gripped, and smoothly damped with a nice throw (about 150 degrees). The lens is actually 5.3 oz. heavier than its predecessor, coming in at a surprising 26.8 oz., but I appreciate the extra heft in a relatively short lens, as it balances quite nicely on a full-frame body like the 5D Mark III. The new lens has 14 elements in 11 groups vs. 11 elements in 9 groups in the old version, and the difference is well worth the extra weight, as you'll see. It takes standard size 72mm filters and comes with a petal lens hood that uses Canon's more modern push-button release. The only knock I have on physical quality is the soft protective bag it ships with. Given the price of admission, I really wish Canon would follow Sigma's lead and include a decent case with L-series lenses. 

Autofocus

I really don't have much to say here. Autofocus just works, and that's a great thing. In One-Shot mode, it rarely missed. 35mm is long enough to make DOF quite thin at close focus distances and wide apertures, a situation that the Canon handled quickly and accurately, even in dim light, much to my delight. In Servo mode, tracking was quick and accurate, thanks to the rear-focusing Ring USM system, meaning the lens has smaller and less elements to move to focus. I would have no qualms about taking it into a dark wedding reception and using it wide-open. Like most higher-end lenses, the front element does not rotate during focusing, so landscape photographers are free to use polarizer filters without issue. Filmmakers should take note that the lens does exhibit a bit of focus breathing; it's not significant, but it is discernible. Lastly, Full Time Manual (FTM) focus override is available.

Check out those lashes! 1/400s, f/1.4, ISO 100 

Bokeh, Flare, Aberrations, and Distortion

With nine rounded blades, bokeh is predictably pleasant and noticeably softer than the Sigma, which tends to exhibit bokeh with harder edges. A smidgen of green chromatic aberration can be seen sneaking in; though, in fairness, I was shooting almost directly into the sun. 

1/1000s, f/1.4, ISO 100 

I do have to say I was highly impressed by the Blue Spectrum Refractive Optics, which are designed to greatly reduce chromatic aberration and color fringing. I frequently put the lens in situations with high contrast edges and never experienced any purple fringing (after years with my 85mm, I've accepted that all subjects will have a purple halo) and moderate green fringing at the worst. Flare was also impressively controlled; despite my best efforts, I couldn't create much of an effect, and the lens maintained contrast very well. Notice the green fringing and flare caused by the sun being just above the concert hall. 

That's pretty impressive resistance to flare. 1/1000s, f/2.0, ISO 100 

The lens exhibits the tiniest bit of barrel distortion at the closest focus distances, but it's really not noticeable and nothing I would ever worry about. Astrophotographers will be pleased to know that coma is well-controlled, making this a viable lens for shooting the night sky.

Vignetting, MFD

Like any wide-aperture lens, there is a fair amount of vignetting wide open, but I don't mind it at all. It can nicely frame a subject, or be easily corrected in Lightroom if so desired. Of course, APS-C users will notice this less. Vignetting is all but gone at f/5.6. The minimum focus distance of 11 inches is quite good for this focal length and lends itself to a maximum magnification of .21x, certainly nothing to write home about, but definitely a figure that allows for some interesting compositional choices. 

Image Quality

Really though, what we're all here to find out is how the new Canon compares to its predecessor and its main competition, the Sigma Art. Canon has really delivered both with the tangibles and intangibles, making the decision for the potential buyer suddenly much more complicated.

Sharpness

Images are impressively sharp at f/1.4, only getting better as one stops down. While not razor-sharp in the corners near maximum aperture, it's definitely above what I'm used to for fast glass. I would not hesitate to use it wide open for any standard application. Those of you who were hoping I would make your decision easier will be disappointed to know that it is noticeably sharper than the Sigma at f/1.4, which is in no way a knock against the excellent Art glass. However, Canon has really stepped up to the plate. 

Canon/Sigma: The Canon definitely inches out the Sigma in sharpness. 1/400s, f/1.4, ISO 100 

There's plenty of sharpness to go around. 1/500s, f/1.4, ISO 100 

Sharp, sharp, sharp. 1/250s, f/5.0, ISO 100

Color and Contrast

The Canon has deep, contrasty colors that lend themselves to rich and moody images. This sort of rendering also leaves a lot of latitude for post-processing. With minimal work, one can achieve an edgier, commercial look, or one can back off the color for an airy, more ethereal look. 

Fall. 1/800s, f/1.4, ISO 100

Even Cleveland has nice days. 1/5000s, f/1.4, ISO 100

BIGFOOT. 1/3200s, f/1.4, ISO 100

Intangibles

The Canon 85mm f/1.2L II is known for its unique 3D look, similar to a lot of Zeiss lenses. Check out the image below for an example of what I mean.

The 3D look characteristic of the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II. 1/160s, f/1.4, ISO 100

While not as pronounced, the 35mm f/1.4L II definitely exhibits a bit of the same look, and it's delightful to work with, particularly for portraiture.

The same 3D look shared by the 35mm f/1.4L II. 1/100s, f/1.4, ISO 100

I'm sure you've noticed that the majority of the shots in this review were shot at maximum aperture. Frankly, it's hard not to shoot this lens wide open. The sharpness, smooth bokeh, etc. — all of these invite the photographer to challenge the lens. I noticed that it really changed my shooting paradigm for a wide-angle lens. Nonetheless, it does get sharper as one stops down, as this image shows over the f/1.4 version above:

1/160s, f/5.6, ISO 100 

But Does It Beat the Sigma?

Simply put, the lens is a joy to shoot. I normally don't have much interest in anything between 24 and 85mm; I like to be at one extreme or the other (I don't even own a 50mm lens). My Sigma 35mm Art is really a work lens for me. However, I have to admit that the Canon 35mm reinvigorated my interest in this focal length, and I soon found myself wearing it around my neck whenever I would leave my apartment. 

So, as far as "beating" the Sigma, yes, I would say it does. When I say that, I mean it in the sense of "if you pay double the price of the Sigma for this lens, will you feel justified in doing so?" In my opinion, the answer is yes. That's not to say you'll be disappointed with the Sigma; it's a great piece of gear. Nonetheless, Canon has risen to the occasion.

What I Liked

  • An ergonomic joy
  • Durable
  • Sharp, even wide-open
  • Autofocus I trust
  • Creamy bokeh
  • Generally well-controlled aberrations
  • Its images make it look like the 85mm f/1.2L II's sharper little sibling

What I Didn't Like

  • Green chromatic aberration creeped in a bit more than I expected
  • It's still fairly pricey compared to competitors 
  • I think a better case should be included for lenses of this level

I would like to say thank you to our friends at B&H for loaning me the lens to evaluate! If you'd like to purchase the lens, you can do so here

Have you been shooting with the new Canon 35mm f/1.4L II? Let us know your thoughts!

 

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36 Comments

Leigh Miller's picture

You don't sound really solid on the "if" it beats Sigma thing...sounds like the Laws of Diminishing Returns has crept in and it's not worth the extra money for a marginal (if any) improvement over the Sigma.

Chris Ingram's picture

Diminishing returns certainly, at this level of gear. But whether it's "worth it" will remain a personal choice for each photographer. I personally don't like the way the Sigma renders bokeh, and (among other things) would therefore have little hesitation to buy the Canon. I think just about every test/review/comparison I seen has said the Canon is better in just about every way...but not by much. The Lens Rentals tear-down of the Canon also demonstrated the build quality...which may speak to the longevity of the lens...perhaps.

Travis Alex's picture

Personally, from my tests with the Canon 35mm 1.4 vs. Sigma 35mm 1.4, I would be upset if I paid as much as I did for the Canon.

Nick Sparks's picture

I recently bought this lens and your review is pretty much spot on with my findings. I shoot 35mm and 85mm a lot at weddings and this lens really does look like 85mm 1.2's little brother. The Sigma has a different look and the old Canon L would immediately jump out as worse than the 85mm in culling. Sometimes it takes me a second to realize I didn't shoot the picture with the 85mm 1.2, which is an awesome thing! As a working photographer, this lens will last me many, many years and I think it is work the investment. :)

Rob Mynard's picture

Not to mention it's built to last many, many years. If you haven't seen the Lensrantal teardown video, the Canon looks like one of the best built lenses Canon has ever made...

Andrew Von Haden's picture

After I sent in my Sigma 35 for be calibrated to my camera by sigma, the thing autofocuses like a champ. I rarely miss focus with it.

Rob Mynard's picture

Yeah I haven't had a problem with focus at all, love the Sigma 35mm

The Bean boot!

Michael Kormos's picture

My first (and last) experience with the Sigma brand was 16 years ago, when I used their 300mm zoom on my Nikon film camera. Its build quality was crummy and photos were always blurry. The lens was promptly returned, and I've since decided to stick with only Nikon glass. I'm sure these "Art" lenses go above and beyond, but my Nikkor 35mm f/1.4G is doing just fine (and the same goes for the dozen or so other Nikkor lenses I use). Price difference alone isn't a selling point for met. Reliability, build quality, and overall brand perception mean much more. Unless they come-up with a product whose selling point is something other than "value", I'm keeping all my glass in the same camp.

Hey, maybe they can improve on Nikon's 24-70 VR, which just got shipped back to B&H today!

Rob Mynard's picture

I sold my nikkor 35mm after borrowing a Sigma art in order to do a comparison to show the Nikons superiority, the Sigma blew it out of the water, regardless of price. I'm not a zoom shooter but I understand the Tamron 24-70 VR is pretty nice when compared to the CaNikon.

Indeed it is as is the 70-200 VC. Those blindly discarding third party lenses based on decades old experiences are losing out on a host of good options.

Matei Horvath's picture

Hi Michael! I shoot Nikon too. Love my Nikon lenses and it wasn't until one of my assistants started shooting with a Sigma 35mm that I have even considered selling my 35mm Nikon. Now I own a sigma 35 and 50 along with a plethora of Nikon lenses. The 50mm doesn't see much use because of its weight. Its an incredibly sharp lens. However, to get back to your comment, a lot has changed in the past 16 years and Sigma -especially in the past couple of years- is slowly becoming one of the top lens makers in the world..

Spy Black's picture

So you're basing your judgement on one of the most lauded lens of recent times, which you haven't even used, on the experiences you had SIXTEEN years ago with an entirely different lens?

Michael Kormos's picture

Yes

Spy Black's picture

Brilliant! So you haven't changed, or learned anything in life, in the past 16 years?

Michael Kormos's picture

You know, I've gotta be honest with you. It all boils down to the name. I just don't like the way "Sigma" rolls off the tongue.

Daniel Lee's picture

Excellent review! I don't shoot professionaly so I'm more than happy with my 35mm f2 IS, although if I did I Wouldn't hesitate to get this lens!

Spy Black's picture

I don't think anyone but Canon lovers will consider the difference between these optics worth the price differential. There's just really not that significant a difference.

Really? It is sharper has smoother bokeh, likely more reliable autofocus and its weather sealed. It also appears (Lensrentals teardown) to be far better built. Some people (me) care a great deal about build quality. If anything, I'm much more of a Leica than a Canon lover and Leica's equivalent to this lens is well over $5,000 instead of just under $2,000.

Everyone attaches a different value to a given quality, or a given amount of money. I'm not a professional photographer and use Canon's cheapest full-frame body, but after saving my pennies I pulled the trigger for this lens on Sunday and should have it by Thursday or Friday. Combined with the 100/2.8 L Macro andn24/1.4 L II those three lenses will make the perfect travel kit for me for many years to come.

Spy Black's picture

Did I mention the part about that I don't think anyone but Canon lovers will consider the difference between these optics worth the price differential?

You're that Canon lover...

I'm definitely a Leica lover, Canon is just commodity. That said, build quality and weather sealing are considerably better on the Canon lens (arrived yesterday) than the Sigma.

Andy Lara's picture

Man thats a tough call. It's almost too hard to compare apples to apples considering Sigma is 1/2 the price. I've thrown that lens on 5D, 60D, T3i, and sony a7s for video and am still totally obsessed. The ONE thing for sure I agree with on is the AF issue. Gets me in the gut every time it's slightly soft on that f/1.4. However, with video and manual assist its no issue. These recent ART series lenses are crushing it no doubt. I own the 35, the 50, and 24-105. Frothing over that 20mm too. Maybe soon. Great review though. For the price though...tough to deny.

barry cash's picture

Alex I used the canon 100 F 2.8 for thousands of shots then grabbed a Hasse 120 mm macro it opened my eyes to how a real macro lens produces an image....but the canon was great until I saw the first Hasse imaged it was like the difference between tap water and Evian not only clear but brighter colors and unbeatable focus. I hear the sigma 35 i1.8 art I s top drawer and that the Nikon 35 F 1.8 also kicks it but not sure how either compares to the Leica S 30mm though? I've also used the Lecia 35 mm F 1.4 asph summilux for a long time it's a really hard lens to beat and nothing beats it for size and weight.

Fino Balanza's picture

sigma's definitely sharper and you definitely get a better value

Did you say Creamy bokeh?
Softer than the Sigma?
NO WAY!
The 35 LII brings the ugliest bokeh I ever seen... you must to post an side by side portrait comparison with the Sigma and this new Canon(same condition, composition and exposure)... the Sigma simply blows away the Canon bokeh.

Chris Ingram's picture

Side-by-side's would be helpful. But recently every time I've seen images with really "crunchy" bokeh lately, they've been Sigma Art primes. It got to the point where I didn't even read EXIF info and could just tell what was shot on an Art lens. Not saying that I could do it consistently, but I find the Sigma Art primes to have a distinct look to their bokeh, that isn't pleasing to my eye.

Have to agree with you Chris, the Sigma 35 Art, while a sharp optic, had the kind of bokeh I just did not care for and could easily spot out. It was a tough decision to pick the Nikon over the Sigma, but in the end, as much as the sharpness wowed me, the bokeh put me off. Now this Canon seems to have straddled that very fine line as being incredibly sharp whilst also having pleasing bokeh (especially for a 35mm lens). If Nikon had produced a 35mm as good as this Canon, the decision would have been dead simple even at twice the price. If I was shooting mostly stopped down, I'd have picked the Sigma.

I've already seen this comparison that I mentioned and I can tell you, yes the Sigma art lenses have crappy bokeh but this Canon is even worst... the Sigma 35 turns to a pleasant bokeh lens in comparison to this LII.http://blogdozack.com.br/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/COMPARISON_CANON_SIG...

http://blogdozack.com.br/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/COMPARISON_CANON_SIG...

Chris Ingram's picture

I'm not sure that the sample you linked really 'proves' much. Not a very good demonstration of the pros or flaws of either lens IMO.