Petteri's Pontifications
My musings about photography, mostly.
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Small Wonder: Canon EF 35 mm f/2

Small Wonder: Canon EF 35 mm f/2

As I never tire of stating, my favorite focal length by far is 50 mm. With the 1.6x crop of the 10D, this field of view would require a lens of around 31 mm. Unfortunately the wonderful Pentax FA 31/1.8LE isn't available for the Canon mount, so I had to settle for either 28 or 35. My other major concerns are portability, brightness, and optical quality -- in this order. I waffled a quite a while between the 28/1.8 USM and the 35/2, and eventually went for the latter. I don't think I'll regret it.

Note: I've applied my usual post-processing to the images, unless otherwise noted. This includes curves adjustment and unsharp masking to get optimal sharpness. It does introduce some variation into the shots. If you don't like it, shoot your own damn test shots.

Here it is on the camera. Looks pretty tiny.

General impressions

The 35/2 is a small lens. It looks almost ridiculously small on the pretty hefty 10D body -- visually, it's a better match for my wife's light and compact EOS-500. It gives an impression of decent but not exceptional build quality: it has a metal mount, the plastic lens barrel components fit together well with no creaks or squeaks, and there are no signs of sloppiness in the finish or fit. In general feel and appearance it is very similar to the 50/1.4 -- not remarkable, but not cheap-feeling either. There are DOF markings for f/11 and f/22; while better than nothing, I would have liked f/5.6 too. How much more would a few drops of paint have cost?

Hear the noise

The 35 does give its first shock when mounted on the camera and pointed around the room. The AF motor is loud. Compared to the barely audible whisper of the USM, the Tokina's whistle sounds loud, but next to these, the 35 sounds like a wasp in a matchbox -- raspy, buzzy, ill-tempered. Focusing speed seems OK, though -- I'm pretty sure it will not be a limiting factor in situationals.

After having gotten familiar with the lens, the AF noise isn't that distracting after all. After a couple of dozen frames, it only caught my attention if the AF failed to lock and hunted across the full range of the lens. With a bit more time, I'm fairly certain I won't even hear it. It is a good deal louder than the camera's shutter, though, so I wouldn't use this lens where silent operation is critical.

A point worth noting here is that there's no continuous manual focus -- the MF ring is either engaged, or not. Personally, I don't care -- the focusing screen isn't good enough to accurately manual focus anyway, especially at this short focal length, and in a situation where I have no choice, I have no issues in throwing the switch to MF. However, I can see that this could be a concern for people with one of those nice pro bodies where you can have a screen with a split-prism or microprism ring.

The perspective is very close to a 50, despite the slightly longer effective focal length. I felt immediately comfortable and familiar with it. The lens's small size and light weight also make for very good balance on the camera: from a handling point of view, the lens is very sweet.

Optical characteristics

So far so good. Decently built, with the right perspective, small, light, bright, not too expensive, and noisy. Still, the function of a lens is to project good pictures onto the sensor (or film). How about the optics?

Bokeh

One thing that worried me (very slightly) was the bokeh. The lens has the inexpensive five-bladed diaphragm also found on the 50/1.8 and most "consumer" lenses. The (way too simplistic) common knowledge has it that you can't have good bokeh without enough diaphragm blades, except wide open. So one of the first things I did was do a bokeh test. I already knew that bright points in the dark will show up as pentagonal when the lens is stopped down (and that doesn't actually bother me much; it gives night pictures character, in my opinion), so I took a daylight one instead -- something like I might really take. I got the "worst" bokeh at f/5.6, with some very slight "doubling" visible near the corners of the image in the middle distance. It's too slight to see in the screen version, which means that it's not very distracting (to put it mildly).

This is the worst bokeh I could get out of the lens (at f/5.6). In a bigger version, I can see some "doubling" in the branches at top left, but I'm not going to show it to you, because it really isn't distracting, and the people who let perfection be the enemy of the good enough would get all anal about it. So there.

Wide-open, bokeh is as nice as I've ever seen, and there's enough of it to be able to use it creatively in a fairly wide variety of pictures.

Chromatic aberration

My least favorite lens artifact has to be chromatic aberration. I'd be happy to give up some sharpness or contrast to get rid of it. Any lens will produce it, if tortured enough. The 35/2 did extremely well on my "torture test," branches shot against the sky and overexposed to the point of blow-out. I could barely find a few instances of it, and they were tiny. The lens also flares rather nicely wide-open, giving detail a translucent quality, although there does appear to be a color shift towards the purple there. I don't consider it CA, as the shift is perfectly in register with the image. It's not quite as nice as the 50/1.4 wide-open, but it's very close.

Wide-open, to the point of overexposure, cropped from extreme top left of the picture, at 100%. There's barely any CA. Note the "translucent" quality of the branches caused by flaring, accompanied by a color shift towards violet -- this sort of thing happens wide-open, and on this lens it happens rather gracefully. A very solid performance.

Sharpness

The 35/2 behaves a lot like the 50/1.4 in terms of sharpness, too. It varies from sharp wide open to extremely sharp stopped-down. There's remarkably little softening towards the corners, even wide-open. See for yourself.

Wide-open, bottom left corner of frame (100% crop).

Wide-open, near center of frame (100% crop).

Stopped down to f/11, bottom left corner of frame (100% crop).

Stopped down to f/11, near center of frame (100% crop).

Yes, I made test shots every aperture down to f/22, but they don't tell you anything you can't see here. Except maybe...

Stopped down to f/22, near center of frame (100% crop). This shows the disastrous impact diffraction effects have on digital pictures. Ch'yeah. It is visibly softer when looked at 100% pixels side-by-side with the optimal f/11 one... but you'll have to make one big print for it to make any difference in real life. (The grainier appearance is due to my having bumped ISO up to 800 to get a decent shutter speed for a hand-held shot.)

Light fall-off

Wide-open, the lens does exhibit visible light fall-off. I didn't actually notice this in any of my actual shots (the effect is masked by the normal variation of the scene), but for what it's worth, you can see it in the test shot of the rowing club wall (and the lightness difference between the center and the corner crop of the wide-open shot).

Yup, there it is: light fall-off. Awful, innit?

Here's the scene at f/11, for comparison. No fall-off that I can see (not that I expected any). Don't pay attention to the "distortion" -- that's a characteristic of the rowing-club wall, not the lens. Needs a repaint, or maybe tearing down and rebuilding.

How does it shoot?

It shoots very well, thanks. My biggest gripe with it is the buzzy AF motor, but I can live with that, given the other sterling qualities of the lens. A mini-review could have read like this:

Small. Inexpensive. Decently built. Loud. Bright. Sharp. No optical defects worth mentioning.

Seriously, I wouldn't have any reservations about recommending this lens as a "normal" for anyone looking for a near-50 for the 1.6x field of view crop. My only real niggle with it is the noisy AF motor: that could be a signifcant issue in discreet situational photography. With anything else, you'll get used to it. From what I've seen of examples (and MTF curves, for whatever they're worth), the 28/1.8 USM isn't quite as good optically, although if silent operation is a critical concern, it'd definitely be the better choice. Anyway, saying that one Canon prime isn't "quite as good" as another is a bit like saying that a Boxster isn't quite as good as a 911. I'm pretty sure I would've been happy with the 28/1.8 had I gone for it instead of the 35/2, too, but on the whole I think I prefer the trade-offs on this lens. Besides, it's a good deal cheaper. As for the other options, for me they're either too expensive (Canon 35/1.4L, and it's a whale, too), too heavy (Sigma EX 28/1.8), or too dark (Canon 28/2.8).

I'll finish off with a few frames from among the 100-odd that I shot for this review. Let them also serve as a showcase to any foreign readers that may wander in for the weather in the merry month of May in Helsinki.

"Boat to Abbey Road," 1/60 s, f/4.5, ISO 100.

"In Harbor," 1/100 s, f/5.6, ISO 100.

"Ingeborg," 1/30 s, f/5, ISO 100.

"Dead Raven" (it's not real, though), 1/200 s, f/5.6, ISO 100.

"Dialogue," 1/250 s, f/10, ISO 200.

"Drake Flotilla," 1/250 s, f/5.6, ISO 200.

"Ostrich 31 On Watch," 1/320 s, f/8, ISO 200.

"What are you looking at?" 1/250 s, f/10, ISO 200.

"Shy," 1/100 s, f/8, ISO 200.

"Self-Portrait With Dog, in Store Window," 1/160 s, f/2.8, ISO 100.