Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM review

It’s the ultimate Canon wide-angle prime, but luxury comes at a price

Our Verdict

Easily among the best in its class, the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM is a lens for those who demand the best, particularly reportage and documentary photographers. Optical quality is uniformly excellent, and autofocus is lightning-fast and super-accurate. This is not a carry-everywhere lens for anyone – due mostly to its physical bulk and price tag, both of which are intimidating to say the least. If neither of these factors bother you, have at it. You’ll find this superb prime does everything you need and more.

For

  • Pin-sharp with great contrast
  • Excellent autofocus

Against

  • Bulky
  • Expensive

The 35mm prime is a modern classic lens, fondly loved by reportage photographers in particular for its wide but naturalistic perspective, allowing users to capture the world almost as the human eye sees it. The Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM is the modern evolution of this lens, its second iteration in the prestigious L series of pro-spec lenses, and it's undoubtedly one of the best Canon wide-angle lenses.

This is a heavyweight lens in every way. It goes large in aperture rating at f/1.4; it boasts top-grade, weather-sealed construction with a fluorine keep-clean coating on the front element; and it features the best glass that Canon can make. Indeed, it was the first lens to feature BR (Blue spectrum Refractive) optics, based on an organic optical material that Canon engineers at molecular level for optimum performance. However, it’s also a physically big lens, at 80x106mm and 760g. Suffice to say this lens isn’t exactly stealthy for candid street shots.

Typical of 35mm f/1.4 lenses, the wide aperture enables a reasonably small depth of field when shooting close-ups, despite the fairly short focal length. Whether or not that’s an advantage in street photography is debatable. You’ll certainly need to focus much more precisely, rather than relying on zone focusing or using the hyperfocal distance. The other heavyweight aspect of this lens is its price tag. If you decide that you really need that f/1.4 aperture rating, something like the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens would be smaller, lighter and much less expensive to buy.

Performance

As you’d expect in a top-flight Canon L-series lens, the ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system is fast and whisper-quiet. Manual focusing is comfortable and precise, thanks to a smooth-action focus ring. Movement of the small rear elements helps ensure whip-fast autofocus performance at all – perfect for capturing those split-second moments. Sharpness and contrast are excellent, even when shooting at f/1.4, and distortion is well controlled. It’s a great lens, but in terms of street photography for most of us it’s on the bigger side in build and price.

Its 72mm filter thread is larger than that of many comparable lenses from other manufacturers, so that may bump up the price of filters if you plan to use the lens for landscapes. As you’d expect at this price, a lens hood is included on the box, helping control stray light and unwanted reflections. A fluorine coating on the exposed elements also helps to repel grease and moisture, and the pro-grade construction is fully weather-sealed.

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