By any objective standard, the Canon 35mm f/1.4L is an excellent lens. But is it worth $1,800?
That's a tough question to answer without knowing your specific needs and current bank balance, but our lab tests show that it's a top-flight performer in the right conditions. It's very sharp and has only the smallest issues with chromatic aberration, but what really sets this lens apart is its almost total lack of distortion—incredible for a prime lens wider than 50mm.
Deciding whether to invest in a pro-grade lens—especially when you're not a professional photographer—is a tough choice. It takes a special kind of crazy to think about dropping nearly $1,500 on a piece of glass, but if you're crazy about photography it's tempting nonetheless.
If you’re feeling the temptation and own a Canon DSLR (particularly a full-frame model), there are few options better than the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM (MSRP $1,479).
One of Canon’s best-performing all-around lenses, the 35mm f/1.4L USM is razor sharp in the center, produces minimal geometric distortion, and has one of the most flexible fixed focal lengths around, regardless of whether you've got an entry-level Rebel or a 5D Mark III.
While the 35mm f/1.4 is a significant investment, it’s one that will start paying dividends almost immediately. In our lab and in real world shooting situations, we found it to be one of the best lenses we’d used to date for capturing landscapes and architecture, though a few minor flaws mean this one is just short of perfection.
A lens's sharpness is its ability to render the finest details in photographs. In testing a lens, we consider sharpness across the entire frame, from the center of your images out to the extreme corners, using an average that gives extra weight to center performance. We quantify sharpness using line widths per picture height (LW/PH) at a contrast of MTF50.
Despite its ambitious f/1.4 maximum aperture, the Canon 35mm f/1.4L USM resolves detail well right from the get-go. Wide open, it achieves 1,550 lines in the center, and that number improves quickly as you stop down. It's over 2,200 lines at f/2, and peaks around 2,400 lines from f/2.8 to f/4. Sharpness holds on well from there, staying between 2,350 and 2,000 lines from f/5.6 through f/11.
Away from the image center, performance is a little less stellar at first. At f/1.4 the lens resolves a respectable 1,390 lines in the midway areas, but a paltry 900 lines in the corners. Predictably, results get better as you stop down. At f/2.8, the partway/corner split is 1,775/1,325 lines. By f/4 that jumps to 1,850/1,450 lines. Corners eventually peak at f/8, hitting 1,775 lines—nearly as sharp as the center.
The Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM is best suited to photographers who need a high-performance, razor-sharp lens with a normal focal length and fast maximum aperture. It’s lightweight, compact, and superbly well-built, with weather-sealing throughout. Though the exterior is mostly plastic, there's no doubt that this is tough as nails on the inside.
While the 35mm focal length (on full-frame cameras, or about 56mm effective on Canon's APS-C DSLRs) isn’t ideal for specialist applications like headshot portraits and most sports photography, it can tackle a wide range of other tasks. Architecture, landscapes, people shots, street photography, and event coverage are all possible, making the 35mm f/1.4L a stellar choice for a first prime lens.
The f/1.4 maximum aperture is also a huge draw, letting you get sharp, noise-free results in much dimmer conditions than you could with a kit lens or even a pro zoom like Canon's EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II. Aside from low-light capability, the wide aperture also creates beautiful bokeh, or out-of-focus areas, with creamy smoothness that really makes your subject pop.
We penalize lenses for distortion when they bend or warp images, causing normally straight lines to curve.
There are two primary types of distortion: When the center of the frame seems to bulge outward toward you, that’s barrel distortion. It's typically a result of the challenges inherent in designing wide-angle lenses. When the center of the image looks like it's being sucked in, that’s pincushion distortion. Pincushion is more common in telephoto lenses. A third, less common variety (mustache distortion) produces wavy lines.
If the Canon 35mm f/1.4L was impressive in our resolution testing, it blew us away in terms of distortion control.
Simply put, this lens produces almost no detectable distortion, besting out many 50mm "normal" prime lenses. In our test shots, we detected just 0.28% pincushion distortion. That's far better than the Nikon 35mm f/1.4, which displayed 1.2% distortion in our testing. It's a remarkable result, and one that shows Canon's ambition to produce an ideal normal-wide lens.
If you’ve ever used any of Canon's L-series lenses, you know exactly what to expect here: solid build quality, smooth and confident operation, short focus throw, and tough weather sealing. As a prime lens without image stabilization (not a big loss on a relatively wide, very fast prime), there aren’t many physical controls. Still, the few that are present are very well-designed.
The “USM” designation in the model name indicates the presence of an internal ultrasonic focusing motor, which was fast, quiet, and reliably accurate on the 5D Mark III we tested the lens with. There's a handy switch on the side of the lens that lets you activate or disable the AF motor, though sadly there's no "M/A"-style manual focus override.
These quibbles aside, there's not a lot to complain about here. Canon had a simple mission and, as it usually does with its L-series lenses, it executed. Everything about this lens is as tight and polished as you'd expect, given the high price point.
Chromatic aberration refers to the various types of “fringing” that can appear around high contrast subjects in photos—like leaves set against a bright sky. The fringing is usually either green, blue, or magenta and while it’s relatively easy to remove the offensive color with software, it can also degrade image sharpness.
This lens's biggest failing is its ample chromatic aberration, which shows up as colored fringing around high-contrast edges in some shots. It's particularly noticeable when shooting at f/1.4, though it's visible at all aperture settings. Luckily, the fringing is still well within acceptable, correctable tolerances, so you should be able to easily cancel it out in Photoshop, Lightroom, or the editing suite of your choice.
The Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L is, by nearly every objective standard, an excellent lens. In our lab tests it recorded some truly stunning results, with tack-sharp images at most apertures and astonishingly low distortion. It does have some moderate issues with chromatic aberration, but the bokeh is also quite nice for this type of lens—though like many wide-normal primes it does get a bit "busy" looking with particularly messy backgrounds.
We were consistently impressed with how well the 35mm f/1.4L resolved on the Canon 5D Mark III. It produced some of the sharpest images we've seen from that camera, excelling across the frame from f/2.8 to 8 and in the center at the widest apertures. The corners are quite soft at f/1.4, as you'd expect, but the center is extremely usable.
The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 proved slightly sharper in our tests, but it's quite close between the two. The Canon is more expensive, but I prefer the way it handles and the character of the images that it creates. It's also fully weather-sealed, so you can get beautiful landscapes even in inclement weather.
Most impressively for a relatively wide lens, the 35mm f/1.4L produces almost no distortion. It does have some field curvature issues with regard to focus, however. It's not a big deal if you're photographing subjects at a distance—like landscapes and architecture—but up close it's hard to get the centers and corners in focus at the same time.
Below you can see sample photos taken with the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM mounted on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. Click the link below each photo to download the full-resolution image.
At $1,479, the Canon 35mm f/1.4L USM is a lens that only well-heeled hobbyists and professional photographers will be able to afford. If it’s within your means, it’s an ideal choice for an all-purpose prime. It's sharp, usable even in very dim lighting, and provides some of the best bokeh you’ll get from a standard lens.
This lens can also pull double duty as a "fast fifty" if you’ve got something like an EOS 7D Mark II as your backup camera. It’s even sharper in these situations, since the corners and edges of the frame are cropped away, eliminating this lens's one major weak spot.
But despite how good this lens is, it’s really only worth the price if you absolutely must have weather sealing, or if you simply won't settle for anything less than L-series lenses. Third-party options like the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 cost significantly less, and while they may not be quite as durable, they often provide equivalent or even superior performance.
If you don't need f/1.4, consider Canon's EF 35mm f/2, which was recently updated with image stabilization. At just $549, it gets you most of the way to f/1.4 and also provides very good image quality in a much smaller package.
Bokeh refers to the quality of the out of focus areas in a photo. It's important for a lens to render your subject with sharp details, but it's just as important that the background not distract from the focus of your shot.
While some lenses have bokeh that's prized for its unique characteristics, most simply aim to produce extremely smooth backgrounds. In particular, photographers prize lenses that can produce bokeh with circular highlights that are free of aspherical distortion (or “coma”).
The Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM produces fantastic bokeh under the right conditions, rendering out-of-focus backgrounds as buttery smooth blurs of color. Since it's a wider lens, you'll need to get fairly close to your subject to create the kind of foreground-background separation necessary for good bokeh, but when everything comes together this is lens takes some very pleasing shots.
There is a slight tendency for high-frequency backgrounds to look overly busy (as seen in the sample above), but most lenses would face similar struggles in these situations. Here it's a minor nuisance, at worst.
Meet the tester
TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.
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