Canon 35mm f/1.4 L Lens Review: The Definitive All Around-er

This is the definitive "wedding" lens – but it's also the "travel" lens – but it's also the "landscape" lens – but it's also the "art" lens – but... get the picture? This Canon triumph is an ultra-fast, ultra-sharp lens that specializes in sheer versatility. 

Canon's sensor technology may have lagged behind in recent years, but even their legacy glass remains top tier: the 35mm f/1.4 cleanly demonstrates why Canon is still top dog in the photography industry.

Tech specs

  • EF Mount
  • Focal length – 35mm
  • Aperture – f/1.4
  • Minimum focusing distance – .28m
  • Ultrasonic Autofocus with full-time manual
  • Filter size – 72mm diameter
  • Lens construction – 14 elements in 11 groups
  • Size and weight – 3.2 x 4.2 in, approx 26.8 oz

A few interesting call outs here: The build quality on this lens is superb – no surprise for an L series lens. The massive focus ring is perfect for fine-tuning focusing, even in autofocus mode (this sounds small, but it makes a huge difference in precise photos).

It’s not all good, though – the lack of weather sealing is a bummer, and it’s not a particularly discreet lens. If you intend to shoot heavily in wet conditions or need a solution for subtle street photography, this may not be the lens for you. Otherwise, read on!

Shooting with the Canon 35mm f/1.4 L Lens

As a reviewer, let me make this disclaimer: I've moved almost full-time to Fuji bodies. The ergonomics and shooting experience are preferable for me, and I have no qualms with the image quality coming out of the pocket-sized body and lens combos whatsoever. In fact, I take my Fuji X100F with me every where I go.

But I have to admit it: lugging around a full-frame DSLR is well worth the inconvenience when the glass is this good. 

This lens produces has that razor sharp where you want it, blurred to oblivion where you don’t look similar to the Canon 50mm f/1.2 – not surprising, given that they’re both L series lenses from about the same time period.

And while it’s true that this lens isn’t exactly fresh (in fact, Canon has even released an updated version of this lens, offering incrementally sharper image resolution and resolving power), it certainly holds its own a a top tier piece of gear even in 2018. The images from this lens simply ‘pop’ – and that’s all the more impressive given the wider focal length, which have a tendency to offer either uniform sharpness or no real subject isolation.

The Canon 35mm f/1.4's field of view on the Canon 6D's full frame sensor is comfortably wide, but not quite 'iPhone wide'.

 A park in Washington Heights. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

A park in Washington Heights. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

In practice, this lens' defining characteristic is its versatility. In other words, given the focal length, shallow DOF, and focus to bokeh transition, it's one of the best lenses to capture the image you see with your own eyes.

That seems like a vague point, but it's vital, and exactly why I've recommended this lens to photographers who are building their Canon lens collection.

The versatility of this lens is what makes it such a joy to shoot. Couple it with an 85mm, 100mm, or 70-200 lens and you'll have a capable professonal kit with only two lenses.

 Plants in the sun. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

Plants in the sun. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

Color Rendition, Contrast, and Sharpness on the Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

The Canon 35mm f/1.4 L wins the award as the most contrasty lens in my arsenal. Compared to something like the Helios 44, the difference is mindblowing. 

 A park in Washington Heights. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

A park in Washington Heights. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

And to be clear, when I write about ‘lens contrast’, I don’t mean to say that you can get darker darks or brighter brights in post. Of course, your RAW image captures the same dynamic range no matter what lens you use.

But what a lens does seem to determine is the exact gradiations between light and dark, the sensitivity of luminosity detail in shadows and highlights, and how your image file looks without fiddling with sliders. In other words, the Canon 35mm f/1.4’s contrast is stellar out of the box.

Edge to edge sharpness is good wide open at f/1.4, and flawless at f/4 and above. 

 George Washington Bridge. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

George Washington Bridge. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

Bokeh on the Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

Finally! Here's what I really love so much about this lens: the transition of sharp to blur, and the quality of the blur.

First, just a quick note – If we're honest with ourselves, we can admit that all camera lenses produced in the past 20 years are capable of capturing good images. And while some are faster, some are sharper, some have better color or contrast, the difference in lenses really comes down to more ineffable qualities – in other words, the "look and feel".

These are subtleties you might see camera geeks write at length about, and to the less obsessed, it may seem unimportant. But it's these slight qualities that make the difference between lenses.

The Canon 35mm f/1.4 bokeh is, to my eye, wonderful.

 Outstretched hand. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

Outstretched hand. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

Given the impressive close-focus distance, you can capture small details with clarity and blow out the background in to a dreamy blur. It's a wonderful visual effect.

 Flower close up. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

Flower close up. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

Distortion, Chromatic Aberration, and Lens Flare on the Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

When diving in to the technical analysis of this lens, you'll be glad to know that it holds up very well to scrutiny... for the most part.

Barrel distortion on this lens is minimal, and what little bowing does appear can be rectified with one click in Lightroom. Note the clean lines in the below photo:

 A building in Washington Heights Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

A building in Washington Heights Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

That said, a 35mm field of view on a full-frame sensor will bow out at closest distances, so this lens isn't ideal for head-shots or tight portraits where you need to film the frame with your subjects face.

Wedding sessions, lifestyle portraits, or fashion and editorial are all fair game, but don't expect to take clean head shots with this lens.

Chromatic aberration is a weak spot for this lens. It's not uncommon to see blue and purple fringing along areas of high contrast. The below photo is an example of a 'chromatic aberration torture test', and you can note the dramatic fringing around the tree branches against the bright sky.

 A building in Washington Heights. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

A building in Washington Heights. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

When it comes to flaring, the Canon 35mm f/1.4 L lens performs very well on a technical level. While some glass, especially those with large front elements, can be prone to a type of flaring that hazes out the entire image (aka drops contrast throughout the frame), the effected areas seem fairly minimal. This is thanks to Canon’s proprietary “Subwavelength Coating” (SWC) treatment on the front element.

You'll also notice minimal ghosting – you know those translucent green and purple shapes or orbs that pop up when you point your camera at the sun? – which is yet another demonstration of the sheer quality of Canon's glass.

 A street in Washington Heights. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

A street in Washington Heights. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

 The entrance to a parking garage at Columbia hospital. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

The entrance to a parking garage at Columbia hospital. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

 A bird and building in Washigton Heights. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

A bird and building in Washigton Heights. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

Canon 35mm f/1.4 L vs Canon 35mm f/1.4 L II Comparison: Do you need the updated version of this lens?

Canon’s update to this lens has been well received. The 35mm f/1.4 L II resolves fine details a bit sharper, which can make a significant difference in close up, detail-oriented shots. Otherwise, the lenses seem to be perform the same, and I can’t personally justify the additional $400 (or more!) price tag associated with the update. 

 Peter in DUMBO with his Brompton. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

Peter in DUMBO with his Brompton. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

If you’re looking for an ultra-fast 35mm for your full frame camera, this is it. But if you want the absolute best of the best, the Canon 35mm f/1.4 L II is that lens. For me, the incremental upgrade doesn’t quite cut it, but hey – I’m cheap! 

Should you buy the Canon 35m f/1.4 L?

Throughout this review, I was surprised to find just how well this lens performed (chromatic aberration issue not withstanding, but hey – that's fixable with a single click in Lightroom). The resolution, clarity, contrast, color rendition, autofocus reliability, bokeh... it all adds up for me in a similar way to the Canon 50mm f/1.2 – a lens I refer to as "magic glass".

This lens is so versatile, multi-use, and high performing that I’d almost say no Canon kit is complete without it. The focal length and aperture are a winning combo, and the absolute quality of the image resolving makes this a must-buy for almost every type of photographer.

 Peter and Montana. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

Peter and Montana. Canon 6D, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM

Now, the price tag for a lens with this build isn’t cheap. If the Canon 35mm f/1.4 breaks your bank, consider the Sigma ART 35mm f/1.4 is as a capable substitute. 

Digital strategist, writer, and image maker based in Manhattan working with clients in the tech and entertainment industry.