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Writing With Light: Ziv Koren on the EF35mm f/1.4L II USM

Writing With Light: Ziv Koren on the EF35mm f/1.4L II USM

© Ziv Koren/Polaris Images

November 2015

When the opportunity arose to try the new EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens top photojournalist and Canon Ambassador Ziv Koren took it with him to Thailand and Vietnam, to put it through its paces capturing street life at night. In an exclusive interview he spoke to CPN writer Steve Fairclough to discuss his first impressions of working with a lens that incorporates some of the most sophisticated optical technology ever seen in a Canon optic to date.

Ziv had recently flown to Thailand and Vietnam for the openings of his travelling black-and-white exhibition ‘Writing With Light’ – a four-year project that also features in a two-volume book, which won a PDN Photo Annual Award earlier in 2015. The two trips provided him with the ideal opportunity to try out the latest incarnation of one of his favourite lenses in conditions that were almost tailor-made – low-light, night shooting of atmospheric street scenes in the bustling cities of Bangkok and Hanoi.

© Ziv Koren/Polaris Images
© Ziv Koren/Polaris Images

Thai men pictured travelling on a local bus in downtown Bangkok, Thailand, September 2015. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/100sec at f/1.4, ISO 640.

Ziv has been a long-term user of the original EF35mmm f/1.4L USM optic: “It’s a lens I’ve had for quite some time because I do a lot of night shooting. I work with the prime lenses that offer me the f/1.4 aperture – this means I have the ability to shoot in extreme low-light situations without any artificial source of light. It’s a fact that Canon is slowly upgrading their series of lenses and I’m happy to see that they're taking the prime lenses very seriously. It’s a very specific lens for a certain kind of photographer but, on the other hand, it’s highly appreciated that they take us very seriously.”

Indeed 35mm is one of Ziv’s focal lengths of choice. “Especially working in documentary photography it’s a prime lens [of choice]. In most situations I work with a 24mm f/1.4 and a 35mm f/1.4 [lens], giving me the ability to shoot in low-light to get the best quality available.”

The original 35mm lens has been a mainstay in the kitbags of photojournalists for over a decade and the upgraded version of the lens keeps the super-fast f/1.4 maximum aperture but adds a key new technology. This is what is known as Blue Spectrum Refractive (BR) optics – these are made from an organic optical material developed by Canon that tackles colour fringing by correcting chromatic aberrations to a degree that was not previously possible. It is said to be more effective at correcting such fringing than other technologies such as Ultra-Low Dispersion (UD) or Super UD glass. The result is greater minimisation of chromatic aberration thus allowing for other elements in the lens to be optimised to give superb sharpness, contrast and resistance to flare.

Mark I versus Mark II: the key differences

For his Asian trips Ziv teamed up the EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens with his EOS 5D Mark III DSLR and he was also using the high-resolution 50.6 Megapixel EOS 5DS R camera for the first time. He reveals: “The combination between the two is a blast – the sharpness that the [5DS R] camera together with this lens can offer is extraordinary.”

When comparing the Mark II lens to the original Ziv notes: “The two differences that I experienced – and I was working with a new camera as well, so maybe it’s a combination of the two [pieces of equipment] – were better sharpness and I think it’s slightly faster. I think that the combination allows me to shoot sharper images and faster. You can see there’s a great leap in terms of sharpness and quality of the image in the new generation [lenses].”

© Ziv Koren/Polaris Images
© Ziv Koren/Polaris Images

A ‘bicycle shop’ in the old quarter in Hanoi, Vietnam, October 2015. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/40sec at f/1.4, ISO 400.

He adds: “The only down side of it is I feel that it’s heavier and bigger but I understand why. I know that transforming to a new era of high capacities in the new cameras in terms of a bigger file size needs to be adjusted to in terms of sharper lenses. That obviously is a big change and a big breakthrough for Canon with its new lenses. The down side of that is the size and the weight of the new equipment.”

Ziv admits: “I don't know of the facts of the exact difference [between the lenses] in terms of how many pieces of glass but, by all means, the new technology requires more glass in order to get to this extraordinary sharpness. It’s very hard to play with glass and lose weight when you’re trying to get so much better quality.” In fact, in cold comparison terms the newer version of the lens weighs 760 grammes, compared to the 580 grammes of the original, and measures 80.4x105.5mm as set against the 79x86mm dimensions of the Mark I lens.

The f/1.4 factor

But the f/1.4 lens speed is key for Ziv for two reasons: “First of all, for working in low-light situations sometimes even f/2.8 is too dark to photograph with. On one hand having the ability of shooting in high ISO can be a bit limiting at some point because the camera allows you to shoot in high ISO, but you have to give up something in return in terms of image quality. Having the ability to shoot on a 1.4 [lens] allows me to shoot in the quality range of the ISO [I want] in a much higher quality frame. That gives me the ability not to compromise, so I can still shoot within the ISO range that is totally acceptable and the quality is still very high.”

He continues: The other thing is that I have a better ‘playground’ for playing with depth-of-field. I have the ability to work on a very tight depth-of-field, having my sharpness in one point, and I can control that in a very good way shooting with a 1.4 lens.”

© Ziv Koren/Polaris Images
© Ziv Koren/Polaris Images

Shops in the old quarter in Hanoi, Vietnam, October 2015. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/40sec at f/2.8, ISO 400.

When quizzed on what is acceptable ISO range for shooting, Ziv states: “It really depends on the subject. If I do military photography and I go out at night on a mission with the military, or in some kind of extreme conflict situations, I can easily shoot at 25,000, 32,000, even 40,000 [ISO] without a blink [of an eye]. But when you're shooting a portrait or it’s a situation where the quality is required and you're not seeking the perfect skin tone obviously that allows you to expand more. But if I want to stay in the range which is acceptable in terms of documentary photography, and getting a better skin tone, I would stay in the range of up to 6400.”

Although Ziv admits his style of documentary photography meant he didn't test out the 0.28m close focusing ability of the new lens, he reveals: “I shoot situations – I don't do macro photography, so I don't really get close on a subject. But you definitely can see – even when you blow it up to 100%, 200% or even 400% of the image – the amazing sharpness that this lens allows.”

Ziv reveals that “in most cases I will shoot with autofocus”, and says that he didn’t see much of a difference between the two versions of the lens in terms of how quickly the AF locked on to subjects. “That was pretty much the same, but I can definitely tell you that the two things that I’ve noticed are the sharpness and the speed. You see this throughout the Canon range… every new lens that comes out is so much better than the previous one. We’ve seen that with the 24-70mm which I think is probably the sharpest zoom lens I’ve ever worked with; it was so much better than the older one.”

Assessing image quality on-screen

When asked about his thoughts on the performance of the lens, Ziv says: “The first shock is seeing it on the screen of the camera because when you blow it up more and more and more you don’t lose quality. I mean it stays there and it’s solid, the focus is just extraordinary. The second time, when you blow it up on the computer, it just looks fantastic.”

He adds: “I’m attracted to night photography – I prefer shooting in low-light rather than regular light. One of the reasons is when you’re shooting in daylight everything is pretty much lit equally but when you’re shooting at night you can start to play with the light. This is where the advantage of both the [5DS R] camera and especially this lens come into action. One f/1.4 [lens] will always be part of my kit.”

Of the EOS 5DS R he continues: “I have to say that I’m pretty amazed with the quality that it allows. I’m very happy to see the direction that Canon is going in; the fact that they’re able to break the glass ceiling every year with products in which the quality is improving in such an impressive way… I find that extraordinary. Now, introducing a camera that has probably the biggest file size in the market, in terms of 35mmm cameras, the quality is just mind-blowing.”

Ziv reveals: “I like the smaller body and the higher quality; the bigger file size and having the ability to work in a different way to the kind of ‘newsy’ work that I do when I’m in Israel. Luckily enough I have the ability to choose, so I choose my cameras and lenses depending on the kind of assignment I do. Bangkok and Vietnam are the two situations I’ve been in recently. It wasn’t a major assignment with thousands of pictures but I’ve tested it [the lens] and I’m really impressed with the quality.”

So, would Ziv recommend the new EF35mm f/1.4L II USM to other photographers? “Definitely. I think that, especially nowadays when everybody’s holding a cell phone, if you want to create your own language in photography and do something which is different and better, one thing you must not compromise on is quality. When you have a product where the quality is so much improved than the previous lens then it’s obviously something I would recommend.”


  • Super-wide f/1.4 aperture for low-light shooting and depth-of-field control.
  • New Blue Spectrum Refractive optics (BR) provide stunning sharpness and contrast.
  • USM focusing motor for super-fast and silent focusing.
  • SubWavelength structure Coating (SWC) increases resistance to ghosting and flare 
while improving image quality.
  • Weather-sealing and fluorine coating protects against dust and moisture.
  • Minimum focus distance of 0.28m and maximum of 0.21x magnification.
  • 9-blade aperture for beautiful ‘bokeh’ focus blur.
  • Legendary L-series build quality.
  • Full-time manual focus ring with full-time manual focusing possible – useful for video
and fine real-time adjustments.

Biographie: Ziv Koren

Ziv Koren

In a career spanning over 20 years Canon Ambassador Ziv Koren has been a military photographer in the Israeli army, a newspaper photo editor and he is now a freelance photographer affiliated to Polaris Images. His work has won numerous awards around the world – including Picture of the Year, World Press Photo and Photo District News awards – and has been published in leading publications in many countries. In 2000 one of his images, of the aftermath of a suicide bomber’s attack on a bus in Tel Aviv, was chosen by World Press Photo as one of the 200 best pictures from the previous 45 years. Ziv was the main subject of Solo Avital’s award-winning documentary film ‘More Than 1000 Words’.


An overhead shot of the food stands at the night market in Bangkok, Thailand, September 2015. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/60sec at f/2, ISO 640.