One of Canon's overlooked lenses. Who cares if it makes a sound when autofocusing???

I wonder if all the people who bought 30mm 1.4 Sigmas and even 35mm 1.4 Canons ever took a good look at their shooting preferences and then the 35mm f2.0 Canon lens for their cropped frame cameras....

I'll readily confess that I've always been partial to the look of a 50mm lens on a full frame camera so when I started buying cropped frame cameras, like the 60D and the 7D I started looking for the right "50mm equivalent" lens for those cameras.  I'd already owned the Nikon version of the 30mm Sigma so I borrowed the Canon 35mm 1.4 to see what the difference might be.  It never really occurred to me to look at the 35mm f2.0 until I revisited some of the work I did in the 1990's with a 35mm fourth generation Leica Summicron while comparing it to a 35mm Summilux that Leica asked me to test last Summer.

Both the Leica optics are wonderful but their just isn't that much difference between the Summicron and the Summilux when you hit f2.8, and, to be honest, the area that most photographers end up working in is usually between f2.8 and a f8.

When you grease up your credit card and take the big $5,000 burn to acquire the 1.4 version of the Leica you obviously have visions of shooting everything wide open in enchanting, low light.

At some point reality sinks in and you realize that you spend a lot of time shooting at f5.6 just to make sure you get both people in focus or you have enough depth of focus to get everything you need to be razor sharp, razor sharp.  At a certain point, usually a few days before the next mortgage payment is due, you realize that your spent about $4500 more than you needed to for your real use profile.

If you paid cash for your house and scrapped together enough for your Lotus from the loose change in your sofa cushions you just crawl in bed and forget it.  But if you're still saving for retirement and saving to put a kid thru school you probably start hitting the overdrive button on your rationalization machine or figure out a way to return the miracle lens while saving face with the sales person on the other side of the counter.

I'll leave the logistics to you but I will tell you that when it comes to 95% of my uses for a 35mm lens the best confluence of price, optical performance and usability come from the 35mm f2.

When I finished my examination of Leica files I went to my local camera store and borrowed the 35mm 1.4 L and the 35mm f2.0.
The "L" is a great lens.  At its widest aperture it's just a tiny bit less potent and intimidating than the new Leica 35mm 1.4 Aspheric.  You can see a difference between the two but I'll chalk up part of it to the sensor on the M9 and its lack of an AA filter.  But the Canon is incredibly good, wide open and nearly one quarter the price.  Case closed?

Not so fast.  I shot the 35mm f2.0 alongside the 1.4L in an afternoon test and my results told me that on a cropped camera or on a full frame camera the 1.4L was much better than the 2.0 only at 1.4 and 2.0.  When both lenses were shot at f2.8 and f4.0 the differences were negligible.  At 5.6 they were indistinguishable.

So, how often do I shoot at f1.4 with a 35mm lens.  Quick answer?  Not often enough to justify the radical difference in cost.  I find that when I hit the lower reaches of exposure that require those kinds of f-stops I'm reaching for a flash or other light sources because by that point it's subject movement that's become problematic.  If I'm shooting at medium apertures or reaching for a flash do I really need to carry around a bigger, heavier and more costly optic to do the job?  I don't think so.
 The 35mm f2.0 is a pretty cool lens.  It's small and light with a 52mm front filter ring.  It adds almost no weight to the front of my camera and it rides easily in a bag.  It's much smaller and less obtrusive than zooms or the faster optic and the cost for one, brand spanking new, is less than $300.

I took the other lens back and wrote a check for the f2.0.  And then I got busy doing something else.  But a few weeks ago a friend in Istanbul wrote and asked me what to get.  My first reaction was to just send back an e-mail and tell him to go for the same lens I bought.  But I paused for second because I really hadn't put the lens thru it's paces over time and they are much more expensive in Turkey.  I decided to take it out with a 7d and really shoot with diligence.  Then I'd send him an definite recommendation.
 It was a clear, bright day on December 26th in Austin and I took to the streets to see what the 7d and the 35mm would see.

It was everything I would want in a mildly wide lens.   Even wide open the center part of the frame, from the 25 yard line to the 25 yard line, is sharp in a good way.  Most of the time outdoors I shot the camera and lens combo in aperture priority, using the +/- override when necessary.  I kept the lens at f5.6 and I was thrilled iwth the results.  Between f4 and f8 (the $$$$ zone) I can't say a single equivocal word about its quality.  On either the 7D or the 5D it's a stellar performer.

In fact, after further testing it's become one of the basics in my Minimalist street shooter kit.  That consist of the 35mm, a 50mm and the 100mm f2.  Any one of these blows the doors off the 24-70m zoom or the new 70-200mm zooms that are the basis of most people's kits.  Add to that the fact that they are tiny by comparison and you have a very shootable system.  That's how they did it "old school" and I see why.  You don't have flexibility of a zoom but you have the expertise of a single specialist.  You can always zoom a bit with your feet.  My next shooting iteration?  One camera for each lens.  No waiting.

Buy one right now before they decide to discontinue it!  And if I still shot Nikon I bet my results would track pretty much the same way.

Any downside?  Look at the highlight on the coffee cup on the bottom right of the photo above.  The highlight has only five highly defined sides.  For a thousand dollars more you can get a more rounded highlight............


Craig said...

I've had the Canon 35mm f/2 for a couple of years now. I think it's a fine lens. The noise it makes when autofocusing isn't that loud. Considering the huge price difference between it and the f/1.4L, and its smaller size relative to that lens, I think it's a great bargain. The five-sided bokeh are unfortunate, but in my use of the lens they don't crop up that often.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree. The people who spring for the faster lens are mostly buying bragging rights from fellow rubes.

obakesan said...


quite agree ... although there is still something more likable for me in the look I get from a 50 f1.8 or 1.4 full frame than the 35mm f2 ... its a bit more like the 50mm @ f4 (more or less)

one looses that "shallow look"

Here's a woodstack shot with my 180mm on 4x5 wide open with a little tilt ... nice background blurr

here's 24mm on 4/3

doesn't have that look does it :-)

GWC said...

The 35 mm f/2 was my first lens ever, paired with a Rebel XTi and I loved it. Now that I upgraded to full frame it is even better! It only looks unimpressive because it's tiny, but everything you said above is true! I also find that the colors that come out of this lens are great! More so than my 50 1.4 or 85 1.8!

Brent said...

Hi, great article. Your earlier review of this lens led me to buy it, and it has been on my 7D ever since. Fantastic little street lens.

Dave Elfering Photography said...

I love this focal length and "borrow" my son's little $200 35mm f/1.8 Nikkor every chance I get! Here's to inexpensive little primes that give killer results! On my Micro four thirds I like the little Panasonic 20mm too and its the only lens I have for that platform. I'm seriously considering the wonderful little Voigtlander 58mm f/1.4 on my Nikon as a portrait lens. Actually I tend to like to use this focal length wide open even during daylight by putting an filter on it (a circular polarizer but an ND would be even better).

John F. Opie said...

Hi -

Dedicated tools rule.

A 17 f2.8 lives on my EP-1. It's the perfect take-me-with-you-at-all-times camera and I've yet to run into anything it can't handle, small and discrete and still amazing results.

The 12-60 lives on my E30. That and a 50 f2.

I do large-scale panoramas (gigapan-type) and have my first DSLR dedicated to that, usually a Leica 180 f3.4 APO Telyt-R (eBay for $250, go figure...) or the 40-150 kit lens @ 150. I've just tried a mirror lens on the camera, and it seriously sucked. The 70-300 works fine, but I am still looking for that perfect solution (and tried a 400 f6.8 Telyt-R on for size: ye gods!) for maximum resolution of cityscapes (shameless plug: gigapan.org, user JohnF).

The right tools for the right job make everything go better. Costs a tad more, but if you are careful, find your deals, get the right equipment, perfect.

Life is too short to be constantly fiddling and wondering. :-)

Dan said...

What do you do for a wide-angle prime on your 7D? I'd also like a "minimalist kit" that would keep me from having to carry my 10-22 around, but there's no game in town for APS-C!

kirk tuck said...

Dan, I'm really happy with the 15-85. The wide end is sharp, sharp, sharp.

Gordon said...

I too own a Canon 35mm f/2. I bought it almost 15 years ago and could probably sell it today for more than I paid for it--not that I'd never be so foolish. I've used it on film cameras and digital, full-frame and APS-C, in good weather and bad, and it has never let me down. When I was deluded enough to buy a Sigma 30mm f/1.4, thinking it would best the humble 35mm f/2, the Canon kicked its a** without breaking a sweat. The 30mm Sigma was dead quiet but couldn't focus reliably from one shot to the next. It's long gone and the 35mm f/2 remains. Canon could add USM and a larger focusing ring, charge double the price, and get it. Until they wise-up, you'd be well-advised to take advantage of them while you can.

Hugh said...

If Canon added USM I'd sell my 35/1.4L and go back to the 35/2.0

Dan Fogel said...

This is timely, I have often thought about getting the Sigma 30/1.4 and/or wished that Canon would mimic Nikon 35/1.8. I often should my Olympus OM 35/2 on my Canon 500D with good results. Autofocus would certainly help though.


Anonymous said...

Love the way you kick over rocks and find treasure under them. I never looked at the 35mm f2 and now I own one. It's pretty darn good.

Anonymous said...

I bought a 35 f/2 many, many years ago and it's still going strong. It's a great walk around lens, though my images pale in comparison to yours.

dbledsoe said...

Another under utilized/somewhat forgotten jewel in the Canon line is the little EF 24mm f/2.8. Excellent image quality, lightweight, and makes a very nice 38mm equivalent on a crop camera. Mine has spent most of its time on my D30 that I still use to this day (and yes that is D30, not 30D). After lugging my 5D around with the mammoth 24-105L lens, that I find I use most at the 24 end, I pulled the little 24/2.8 off of the D30 and put it on the 5D. What a delightful lens it is to carry on the 5D. Cost is currently about $330. and well worth it. Another one to get too before they are discontinued.

jseliger said...

Like you, I was debating between the Canon 35mm f / 2 and the Sigma 30mm f / 1.4, but I eventually bought the Sigma 30. A couple of Lensrental.com blog posts are on point here: this one, on end-of-year repair data, and This Lens is Soft (And Other Myths which describes the variability in cameras and lens more generally. The latter points out that focus problems are generally more obvious in fast lenses because their depths-of-field are so shallow, and micro-focus adjust (MFA) exists to correct these kinds of problems.

But a lot of consumer-level cameras (including my t2i) don't have MFA. So if the focus is subtly off, as is often the case with very fast lenses, the lens may appear soft or mis-focused on a given camera.

In my case, I had a slight front-focus on the 30mm, and I sent it to Sigma's Arizona service provider, C.R.I.S., to have the lens adjusted. It came back with lovely, spot-on focus.

Anyway, the 35mm f / 2 is also attractive; I primarily bought the Sigma because its design is much newer design, and, secondarily, because of the aperture advantage.