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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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!