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The new EF35mm f/1.4L II USM: “It’s an instant classic...”

The new EF35mm f/1.4L II USM: “It’s an instant classic...”

© Gary Knight/VII

September 2015

Canon Master Gary Knight was one of the first to use the new EF35mm f/1.4L II USM wide-angle lens. He reveals to CPN Editor David Corfield his thoughts on its performance and how it shapes up in low-light conditions...

The 35mm prime is a favourite lens among photojournalists – and with good reason. It is small, unobtrusive and fast; critical advantages when working in the field. Its angle-of-view is very close to that of the human eye, too, which means that distortion is kept to a minimum and the viewer can accurately feel what a photographer sees.

© Gary Knight/VII

Close up of boots, demonstrating lens sharpness. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a pre-production EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/20sec at f/1.4, ISO 800.

The lens’ focal length also gives it a high degree of versatility. It can be used in a wide variety of situations – from street photography to landscapes – and, as Canon Master Gary Knight observes, when mounted on the EOS 5D Mark III it is the perfect travelling companion.

“It’s my new best friend. I love this lens!” he enthuses. “To be honest I didn’t know why Canon decided they needed to make a new version because my existing 35mm prime – which was instantly adopted by photojournalists and became something of a classic when it was first launched – was still more than up to the job and capable of fantastic results. But now that I have seen and used this new lens, I have to admit it’s like the best just got better. It’s another instant classic...”

“A couple of things that stood out for me which I found instantly useful were that it is even more robust and has even better sealing against moisture and dust,” he observes. “Also, its ability to close focus is significantly improved and while not a macro lens, you really notice this extra focusing advantage with portraiture so it just makes the lens a little more versatile. And – wow – the sharpness is really spectacular.”

New technology for a new generation

The new EF35mm f/1.4L II USM features several advances in optical performance, not least of which is a Blue Spectrum Refractive (BR) layer, a pioneering Canon-developed lens technology featuring optical material integrated into a compound element to help significantly reduce chromatic aberration and produce sharper images. For Gary, this means a sharper performer and for his test, on safari in Kenya, Africa, after a recent Canon workshop, he was more than impressed – especially when used in fading light.

© Gary Knight/VII

Waiting for a train at Kenya Railways. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a pre-production EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/90sec at f/2.5, ISO 1600.

“I shot some images where there could be a lot of flare potential such as candles, lamps and fire and I didn't get any glare at all,” he observes. “The results were really clear.”

Gary continues: “Looking at the results on screen, I could clearly see the difference, especially that critical edge-to-edge sharpness that every photographer looks for. This new lens was incredibly consistent right across the frame and even when working at f/1.4 it delivered impressive levels of sharpness.”

“I am told that the glass is manufactured differently for these new lenses and I have to admit there is very nice bokeh when shooting wide open. The image has a very nice quality to it. It has a very nice feel and the image doesn't fall apart at the edges. Even everything that is not in focus has a nice integrity to it, which is very, very nice. It’s hard to explain; it’s like a very nice material, with a lovely tactile quality.”

He continues: “Of course, the other impressive characteristic of this lens was – like I said – its construction. The 35mm lens was always a favourite among photojournalists because it was lightweight and small. There isn’t much to go wrong on a lens like this and Canon has done an excellent job of using its expertise to make sure that it is superb optically, but also designed and built well too.”

The new EF35mm f/1.4L II USM boasts advanced weather-sealing and fluorine coatings to help protect it against adverse weather conditions and the robust body ensures durability. Gary observes: “It’s certainly got that feeling of quality about it, but that’s no great surprise. Canon’s L-series lenses have an outstanding reputation for durability and I speak from experience, having used my old 35mm L-series lens in all manner of challenging situations; from the war in Bosnia, jungle humidity in Asia to sandy deserts where the wind can blow dust and dirt all over the place. In 20 years I only damaged one. These days the lenses are pretty bullet proof. It will open up more possibilities and photographers will be able to use it in more extreme conditions. You can take it further.”

Using it in the field

Gary used the new lens on his EOS 5D Mark III and put his photojournalist eye to good effect, using the classic 35mm field-of-view to pack plenty of detail into his images, in all manner of situations, from night-time portraits shot in marginal light to beachscapes and even a micro-light trip. “It’s hard not to look at the world as anything other than a photojournalist when you have this lens on your camera,” he laughs. “I enjoyed pushing the lens to its limits and used the light from a campfire to capture some night portraits, where I thought that focusing might become an issue. But not a bit of it. Because it’s an f/1.4 lens it is super bright and even in those conditions focusing was no problem when using my EOS 5D Mark III and its high ISO capability.”

© Gary Knight/VII

Curious portrait. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a pre-production EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/4000sec at f/1.4, ISO 200.

He continues: “In bright light, too, such as on the beach where I enjoyed using careful framing to tell stories and shooting from the air, I was impressed that there was no internal light leakage which is always a problem when shooting on sand or from above water, where highly reflective conditions can often give you exposure as well as focusing problems.”

“The lens is quite simply superb – I cannot keep saying this enough. Its sharpness is extraordinary and it’s like everything you shoot is in high definition. When shooting wide open at f/1.4, especially with these cameras on a higher ISO, the results are really gorgeous. And when you shoot with minimal depth-of-field you can really see that sharpness shine through.”

“In my own photography I still use a lot of film and I seek to represent reality. You don't want to duplicate it. This lens definitely helps me to do that. It’s another instant classic, no doubt about that. It’s a very beautiful lens that everyone’s going to want. Plus it’s a real workhorse and truly versatile. The focusing is fast and accurate and it just works. You can’t pay a higher compliment than that.”

A classic combination

Gary only had the lens – a pre-production version – for a week but when mated to the EOS 5D Mark III was quick to observe how it was a perfect combination for the photojournalist. “It’s nice and light and with the 5D Mark III it’s pretty much the perfect combination for a documentary photographer or a photojournalist. I’d be more than happy to leave the lens on a body all day and know that it would be capable of shooting pretty much anything I required of it. It’s a beautiful lens and I was loathe to give it back!”


  • A wide-angle view with a natural perspective.
  • Superb low-light performance and depth-of-field control.
  • Sets new standards in image quality.
  • Focuses quickly and discreetly.
  • Keep shooting, even in tough conditions.

Biography: Gary Knight

Gary Knight

British photographer Gary Knight was one of the co-founders and the principle architect of the VII Photo agency. He is the founder and Director of the Program for Narrative & Documentary Practice at Tufts University in the USA, a Trustee of the Frontline Club in London, co-founder and Board member of the GroundTruth Foundation in the USA, two-time Chair and twice jury member of the World Press Photo Contest and co-founder of the Angkor Photography Festival in Cambodia. He is an award-winning photographer and formerly a contract photographer for Newsweek Magazine. His work has been published and exhibited in major international media since 1988 (the year he bought his first Canon camera) and is held in private and institutional collections worldwide.


A herd of wildebeest, Kenya, Africa. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a pre-production EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/125sec at f/5.6, ISO 100.