In early December, actor David Chin asked me if I’d be interested in documenting the process of a new tattoo that he would be getting in a couple of weeks. I don’t have any tattoos myself, but body art is a fascinating and unfamiliar world to me, so I thought it could make for an interesting experience. Trevor MacKay of @twotidestattoo is David’s go-to tattoo artist, and he was gracious enough to let me photograph the session. As a side note, Trevor is one of the kindest people I’ve met in a long time. He’s also hilarious, and has countless remarkable stories of people he’s worked with over the years. Getting a tattoo with him is a lot like catching up with an old friend in that he instantly puts you at ease with his bedside manner.
Up until this point I’d been shooting film exclusively for around two years, but with the birth of my son in 2017 it became apparent that I would have a lot less time for film scanning and retouching out dust on negatives. I needed to add a more efficient option, so I purchased a Canon 6D for occasions where a quick turn around is required or for less than ideal shooting conditions.
Since I wanted to build out a versatile, no compromise digital system, I decided on the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens as my first serious addition. I used to be more of a 50mm guy, but over time I’ve warmed up to the 35mm focal length for it’s ability to tell an intimate story within the frame. It’s no wonder that 35mm lenses have always been loved by photojournalists. When used close to the subject, I now prefer it to a 50mm lens, but only if the image is horizontal. This is more of a mini review than an in depth analysis of the lens, but hopefully the characteristics of the updated 35mm 1.4 L are apparent in the images here.
In short, the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II is the highest performing 35mm lens I’ve ever used. I’ve had some time to shoot it in a variety of conditions, and in every circumstance I’ve found that the lens makes it’s very easy to make beautiful and professional looking images.
The fact that this lens is weather sealed and built to the highest standard makes it a no brainer for anyone making their living with a camera. It’s exterior is made of a high grade plastic, which sounds a lot less appealing than it actually is in person. I have other lenses made of all metal, but the 35L honestly feels just as well built.
The first thing that surprised me, is the excellent color rendition that this lens provides. I can’t say that the way a lens interprets color has stood out to me before, but it’s one of my favourite traits of this Canon. Obviously, you won’t be able to see this in black and white images, so you can find some color samples here.
Focusing with this lens is fast, quiet, and accurate, no complaints here. In fact, I’ve found that I rarely miss focus at all. Though I don’t have a good reason for it, I prefer lenses that focus internally. Thankfully this one does as well so I can sleep easier at night. Chromatic aberration and flaring have been a non-issue for me so far thanks to the modern coatings Canon has implemented in their design.
Being Canon’s latest and greatest 35L, it’s tack sharp wide open. Though I’m a firm believer that sharpness isn’t everything, if you have clients that pixel peep this will be valuable to you. Vignetting seems to be pretty minimal as well (every image here was shot at f1.4 so you can judge for yourself).
So what are the cons? Well, for one it’s relatively expensive. There are other very good options out there, such as the Sigma 35 1.4 Art lens for literally half the price of the Canon. Keep in mind though that the Sigma lacks weather sealing, and since it’s a third party lens you may have to calibrate it to your camera body to ensure it focuses accurately. Personally, I’ve had less than ideal focusing experiences with a few Sigma lenses so the Canon 35L is worth the premium.
By nature, using a DSLR isn’t exactly unobtrusive. The Canon 35mm 1.4 L ii is a big lens, which while balances well on a Canon full frame camera, you won’t go unnoticed when trying to take photos. For my style of photography this isn’t an issue, but street photographers may prefer the excellent Canon 40mm 2.8 Pancake lens instead.
The way the new 35L renders is very clinical due to its modern design, and out of focus areas can seem be a bit stale at times. That said, I certainly wouldn’t describe the bokeh as ugly, it’s just not as pleasant to me as the Zeiss ZM line of rangefinder lenses that I love so much. Of course, this is a matter of personal taste, and I can pretty much guarantee your clients certainly won’t be complaining about this.
So here’s my verdict: The Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L ii just works really well in virtually any situation you can throw at it, which makes it a great choice for the working professional photographer / videographer. Aside from some of their excellent L series zooms, I’d say this is probably Canon’s most versatile and useful lens in the EF lineup. It isn’t what I’d consider an “artistic” lens because of its modern look, but there’s something to be said about gear that simply gets out of your way and allows you to create beautiful images without compromise.
Curious about the meaning behind David Chin’s tattoo? In his own words:
“This tattoo is a reminder to be like water. 2018 was a tough year. Me and mine faced a lot of obstacles. There was a lot of loss, pain, injuries, accidents and a broken heart as well. Turning obstacles into opportunities is an art and a meditation. Being flexible, but strong. Finding the path of least resistance. Being able to change your state of mind and physical state. Taking the shape of your environment. Making your mark over time. These are all qualities of water. Bruce Lee has a great philosophy about water and that is kind of where this idea for me flows from. Be like water.”
You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup,
it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.
— Bruce Lee
I’ve been in love with the 50mm focal length for what seems like forever. In reality, it’s been since I got my first real camera (Canon EOS Elan 7n) back in 2005. For me, it’s the ideal lens to photograph people, as well as their surroundings with a natural perspective.
I’d been using a Canon 50mm 1.4 for several years, but I was never totally satisfied with the rendering. About a year and a half ago, I started searching for what I’d call my “perfect” 50mm lens. I decided that the lens was far more important than the camera body, so I kept an open mind about switching camera systems if needed. I must have poured over thousands of sample images online from every major lens manufacturer, geeking out over how each lens uniquely renders the world. I’m not an active Flickr user anymore, but I have to say that it’s still an invaluable resource when searching for real world examples.
I soon realized that many of the modern 50mm lenses of today were too perfect and clinical for my liking. Yes, the sharpness of lenses like the Sigma 50 1.4 Art is mind blowing, but to me the images it produces feel somewhat stale when shot wide open. One of the biggest draws for me when looking at a photograph, is to feel something, the emotion in the image. I like when images feel as if they could’ve been shot 50 years ago, even if they were only taken yesterday.
Since I was still a Canon user, I seriously considered the 50mm 1.2 L series lens, as it definitely has a hint of the unique character that I’d been searching for. Something was holding me back though. While endlessly browsing through Flickr, I eventually noticed that I was fond of images taken with the Zeiss C Sonnar T* 50mm f/1.5 ZM lens for the Leica M rangefinder system. Having never used a rangefinder before, this was new territory. Leica digital cameras are prohibitively expensive for me, so a film body was the only (and my preferred) choice. The legendary Leica M6 was at the top of my list, but after doing some research I stumbled upon on the Zeiss Ikon ZM camera body. It’s a beautiful camera with an aperture priority mode, much like the Leica M7.
After a lot of overthinking and debating in my own mind, I took the plunge and bought both the Zeiss camera and Zeiss 50mm Sonnar 1.5 lens. When the lens arrived, I took it out of the box and was taken aback by just how compact and well built it is. The aperture ring inspires confidence, and the focus ring is just so smooth. Not to mention the lens itself is quite handsome.
All of this happened right before my son was born, which was perfect because I used it to photograph his birth (and pretty much everything after that). After getting the film developed, it was immediately apparent that I’d made the right decision with acquiring this lens. The images just looked so real, timeless, and the way the focus falls off is so good that it’s hard to describe. In short, it looks completely different from almost all modern lenses that are available today.
My favourite characteristic of the lens is found in it’s optical “imperfections”, as it’s based on a 1930s design. Even though it’s a lens for 35mm film and full frame digital cameras, at times the Zeiss 50mm Sonnar 1.5 tends to exhibit a lovely medium format-esque look in terms of the transition from in focus elements to the out of focus areas of a picture. The following four images seem to demonstrate this behaviour:
- This lens is extremely compact and unobtrusive. Ideal for putting people at ease when taking their portrait.
- Gorgeous bokeh with an image rendering that can’t be found elsewhere.
- Reasonable price considering the cost of Leica lenses (just look up the Leica 50mm 1.4 Summilux)
- This lens is tack sharp when correct focus is achieved.
- I love that it comes in silver or black colors.
- Excellent build quality that feels like it could last a lifetime if well taken care of. When I hold it in my hand, it feels more like a precious jewel than a camera lens.
- The 1 meter minimum focusing distance can be a pain at times. You won’t be doing any close up portraits with this lens. I’ve found food photography to be a bit tricky as well since you can’t simply fill the frame with the food. You’ll need to include some environmental elements in your images.
- The well documented focus shift behaviour of this lens at f1.5 can occasionally be an issue when using a rangefinder camera (but not mirrorless). To compensate for this, I usually shoot at f2 and save shooting wide open for times when I really need it like at night.
- Only available in Leica M mount (though can be easily adapted to mirrorless cameras).
So who is this lens well suited for? If you’re a product photographer that needs optical perfection at all apertures and a close focusing distance to fill the frame, you’ll probably despise the Zeiss 50mm 1.5 Sonnar. Don’t get me wrong, the lens is sharp even at f1.5, but it can be tricky to achieve focus to the uninitiated. If however, you photograph people or places, and want to achieve a look reminiscent of images captured from another generation ago, you may get along just fine with this lens. I certainly know that I do.
In closing, here’s three more random photos completely unrelated to my Bali trip that I think showcase the special character of the lens:
Back in March 2018, my wife, son, and I had the pleasure of visiting Bali for the first time. I’d always heard great things about Indonesia, so the idea of documenting our trip on film became exciting to me. My go-to color film has always been Kodak Portra 160 for it’s perfect skin tones and muted palette. For this trip however, I wanted to capture vibrant colors and do the beautiful surroundings justice. Slide film first came to mind, but the thought of working with such a narrow dynamic range wasn’t appealing to me.
That’s when I decided on Kodak Ektar, an ISO 100 color negative film that has super saturated colors, very little grain, and a wide dynamic range (perfect to keep detail in the skies). I ended up buying ten rolls to use with my Zeiss Ikon ZM rangefinder, along with the Zeiss 50mm Sonnar 1.5 lens. The 50mm focal length is somewhat of an odd choice for landscapes, but I love the challenge of trying to make a scene look interesting with a field of view similar to how the human eye sees the world. I’m so glad that I chose Ektar on this trip, because using Portra would never have done justice to the amazing colors that Bali offers.
While I’m absolutely in love with how Ektar renders the colors of landscapes, nature, and food, it’s a lot less ideal for skin tones. Since I scan everything myself, I ended up having to do a fair amount of color correction on my portraits shot on Ektar as the skin tones ended up being very red. It’s not too bad if a person is a small part of the overall image, but if the main focus is a portrait, there are many better choices for beautiful skin tones out there.
My favourite thing about film in general, is that it already has a specific look built in, and it doesn’t take a lot of effort to get an image exactly where I want it to be. With the exception of people pictures, I barely had to make any adjustments to my scans as the colors were captured beautifully. I scan all of my 35mm work on a Plustek 8200i SE, and an Epson V800 for medium format. I also use Silverfast for the scanning software, which is a bit of a pain at first to learn, but once familiar with the program, the results are sublime.
Exposure-wise, I metered at box speed which is ISO 100. I normally overexpose my film by at least one stop (except for Portra 160 which I expose at 100), but after reading reviews online from other photographers advising that overexposing Ektar results in washed out colors, I decided to shoot it as is. I don’t regret it either. I only ended up screwing up around 3 shots due to underexposure, and the rest turned out beautifully.
If you’ve never been to Bali before, I absolutely recommend it! It’s gorgeous, affordable, and in general the food is healthy and nourishing. Definitely bring some probiotics though (a good travel tip anywhere), as I did have a mild food poisoning episode that left me feeling pretty awful for a couple of days. The locals are very kind, and many of the resorts we visited were so picturesque that they almost didn’t seem real.
Shooting film while traveling is an interesting experience. Since you don’t get to see what you’ve shot for quite a while, it becomes even more rewarding when you finally do get to see the results. In fact, I’d forgotten about a few of the shots that I’d taken, and seeing them instantly brought me back to that time. I think that’s one of the things that film does best.
Stay tuned for my next post, which is my review of the Zeiss C Sonnar T* 50mm f/1.5 ZM lens. This lens absolutely shines when it comes to portraits, and I’ll be sharing my best people pictures from this trip with you as well.