I love, love, love this lens and I can't see ever selling it. It's a prime lens, meaning that it has a single focal length, it doesn't zoom at all. This allows the lens to be designed with alot more simplicity than a zoom lens, which makes it smaller and lighter than zoom lenses AND allows it to have a much wider aperture, making it great for low light and getting very shallow depth of field. It's unbearably sharp, it nails razor sharp focus more often than any other lens I own, and it's relatively lightweight for an L lens, as they normally incorporate heavy duty construction and aspherical glass elements.
On my full frame cameras, 70mm is "normal" or roughly the same view as the eye sees, neither zoomed in nor wide. So that being said, the 35mm is definitely a wide lens, but not ultra wide. It's a sweet spot for me and the perspective you get from shooting a little wider can really set your work apart, especially because to frame a shot you often have to physically move closer to your subject instead of just zoom in.
As with most of the other L lenses, it has counterparts both in the lower-end range of Canon lenses and from other companies. Canon makes $320, $850 and $1,500 versions on this lens (The L of course being the most expensive) and they vary in build quality, focus accuracy, sharpness and other attributes..
Sigma also makes a 35mm f/1.4 that is rumored to be very sharp and possibly new competition for the Canon L, and it comes in $500 cheaper. I've found Sigma lenses to have the potential to be very sharp and usable in nearly any form of photography, but the build quality isn't up to the level of an L lens, and in my opinion you're more likely to get a copy of the lens that misses focus or has other problems.
This is a lens that EVERY photographer should at least aspire to have in their kit. Unless you get into shooting sports, it will probably be the most expensive lens you'll ever buy, but it is more than worth it. It has a constant maximum aperture of f/2.8, instead of an variable aperture that changes throughout the zoom range, and this is a world, nay a universe of difference from the cheap kit zooms you'll find bundled with cheap cameras at Best Buy. Most variable aperture zoom telephotos have a max aperture of f/5.6 or f/6.3 when zoomed all the way in. A max aperture of f/2.8 is 233% (or 2 1/3 stops) brighter than f/6.3. If you're shooting in a dim reception hall, having to cut your light in half more than twice is going to make your variable aperture lens virtually useless.
Especially on a full frame camera, 70-200 is a fantastic focal range, from "normal" to a very nice portrait length. It has one of the heaviest-duty builds you'll even see in a lens and it's meant to last. It's famous for being very sharp, very accurate in terms of autofocus and it has all-around great image quality statistics.
Canon makes more versions on this lens than any other focal range (f/4L, f/4L IS, f/2.8L, f/2.8L IS) but in my opinion, for a lens this crucial, you should wait until you can afford the Image Stabilization, which makes a big difference in how sharp your images stay, especially at slower shutter speeds. Nikon has their version which I've heard is also epic, and Sigma and Tamron each have their own offerings which deserve consideration since they are more affordable.
This lens is HEAVY because of all the glass and engineering technology that goes into making a lens that has a constant max aperture, is very sharp and durable, it adds up to...alot. Also, stick this big, sexy white beauty on your camera and you have INSTANT credibility :D While the 35mm is what I use most at weddings and other events, if I had to use a single lens for a portrait session it would be this one, hands down due to the flexibility of focal range, useability due to max aperture and stabilization and of course the outstanding image quality. Buy a good camera strap and get a chiropractor on speed dial. This thing is truely a millstone around the neck.
I also sometimes carry at 1.4x teleconverter which multiplies the focal length of the lens out to 98-280mm. This comes at the cost of one full f-stop of light (the lens will not function wider than f/4). It's not a dramatic advantage in focal length, and there's also a slight drop in image quality with this attachment, so it's not something I use on a regular basis. If I had a consistent need for a fast lens longer than 200mm I would probably start shopping for a Sigma 120-300 f/2.8, Canon 70-300 f/4-5.6L IS USM or Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM.
Alot of photographers would have listed the lens at the top of their list in terms of how much use it gets, and if they don't it's because it's still at the top of their wish list. It is an amazing lens. Another piece of advice that I give people who wanted to start exploring photography is to go buy themselves a "nifty fifty." As usual, Canon offers an ultra affordable $125 version, a better quality and performance $400 version, and the $1500 mammerjammer "L". Personally, I used to own the $400 version and looking back I would have been just fine keeping that one instead of coughing up the extra grand for the L, but the L is of course an epic lens also.
50mm is a great focal length. On a full frame, it's slightly wider than the "normal" perspective, but still a very usable length for almost any situation. The wide max aperture (f/1.8, f/1.4 and f/1.2 respectively) allows low light use and a shallow depth of field for a creamy blurred out background or bokeh.
This L lens improves the speed and quietness of autofocusing noticeably from the lower versions and it's a very sharp lens. Some hold the opinion that the cheap f/1.8 version of the lens isn't really usable at apertures wider than f/2.2 or so, and the f/1.4 lens can be used at f/2 with acceptible results, whereas the f/1.2 can be used wider or (some think) even all the way open at f/1.2. It's a top choice for people who photograph kids as you need very fast autofocus to keep up with the random movements of children and the ability to grab a sharp shot in a split second.
On a "crop" body like a rebel or mid-grade body, the 50mil is about equivalent to 80mm, which is not a choice good for wide shots and groups of people, but is a very good range for portraits when combined with the wide aperture. Even if you can't see yourself ever paying $1,500 for the top of the line version, some version of the 50mil prime should be in your bag.
Sigma also makes a 50mm f/1.4 that owners claim is nearly as sharp as the L series and only slightly more expensive than the Canon mid-range. (Side-note, if you think I'm crazy for paying $1,500 for this in the first place, take a look at the $5,000 cinema lens Canon is now offering for videographers.
In terms of image quality and awesome portraits, this lens is a beauty. In terms of size and weight, it's a beast. It's nearly as heavy as the huge 70-200 even though it's physically smaller and is, again, a prime lens with no zoom capability. Most portrait shooters that own it will call it their favorite piece of glass and for good reason. It's a great length for flattering portraits (another link about portrait focal lengths), and on a crop sensor it equates to a 136mm f/1.2 which is even better if you don't mind the difference in image quality from the smaller image sensor. Unlike many prime lenses, the 85mil is totally usable and still beautifully sharp even all the way open at f/1.2. The ability to shoot a portrait and throw everything but a very small sliver of the subject out of focus is a powerful thing.
The reason that it ranks only 5th on my list is because for a big heavy lens like this to move around its focusing elements with enough precision to nail focus even down to within even a tiny fraction of an inch, it has be done relatively slowly. It's certainly no slouch (and for $2,200 it shouldn't be) but when shooting weddings, I find it's sometimes just slightly too slow for me to be able to grab a candid shot of a beautifull moment on the first try in the blink of an eye.
It's usually my choice for engagement and bridal sessions where I'm shooting portraits with the luxury of more time to compose and focus my shots, but during weddings it splits time with the 70-200mm depending on how fast paced the action is. Canon makes a dramatically cheaper 85mm f/1.8 USM that focuses as fast if not faster and is also very sharp for the price. Anyone but the most demanding photographer in terms of sharpness and smooth creamy bokeh would be happy with the $420 version, and of course would have $1,800 left in their pocket. That was actually the first prime lens I ever owned, and looking back I wish I never sold it.
***UPDATE 07.25.13 I recently sold my 85mm as I felt the $5,000 combined value between it and the 70-200 weren't justified by the total amount that I used them. I am planning on purchasing the Sigma 85mm 1.4 at some point though as it has very high scores on DxO mark...
I've had this lens for a long time and I still can't part with it. Coming in at "only" $629, its cheaper than most L lenses. The quality of the glass and the general engineering of the lens is inferior. It's not particular sharp at f/2.8 or wider, it has very noticeable vignetting and barrel distortion, especially when used wide open and it doesn't control lens flare well at ALL when shooting towards the sun or other bright light source. The build quality isn't as good as Canons, and it doesn't even have a ultrasonic (or what Sigma calls Hypersonic) focusing motor, so focusing is relatively slow and noisy. Despite all these shortcomings, I have a special place in my heart / bag for this lens and wouldn't discourage anyone from at least trying one out.
If the price is too steep for a lens with these weaknesses, Sigma does make 24mm and 28mm versions that are a little cheaper, but if I went that route I'd probably go for the Canon 28mm f/1.8 as it's a very good lens for the price, and more compact than the Sigmas. (Canon also has new 24 & 28mm f/2.8 USM IS versions that are strangely high in price but have been getting very good reviews). The ultimate and most comparable contender in this category would of course be the Canon 24mm f/1.4L, but at $1,750, I haven't found enough need to add a fourth expensive prime lens that would be within a 61mm range with my 35, 50 and 85.
Here are the reasons I haven't (as of yet) looked for a better performing super-wide option. There is no other 20mm lens from any manufacturer that opens up to f/1.8. Canon makes a 20mm f/2.8, but the performance at 2.8 isn't much better than the Sigma and the price is comparable, though the Canon does have USM autofocus. Next, the Sigma (like several other Sigma lenses) is designed to be able to achieve proper focus on an object even from a very short distance away. Sigma lists the minimum focusing distance at 7.9", which is very respectable, but take my word for it, it's actually more like 3-4". Using a super wide lens 4" from something provides a very unusual perspective. It's not flattering for portraits and creates noticeable distortion, but you can be very creative with these capabilities.
The other weaknesses are things that can be used in creative ways, but are not right for every shot, so I don't use the 20mm as often as I used to. Canon makes a variety of good wide options including the 24-105 f/4L, 24-70 (f/2.8L, f/4L IS, f/2.8L II) and 24mm f/1.4L, but I don't think it will ever completely replace this lens. One of the newer Canon 24-70 lenses or possibly the newest version from Tamron are definitely on my wish list, and might be a reason to finally part with my Siggy 20mm
This is a lens you can do without until you build up a kit that will handle 99% of the shoots you'll be doing. Technically, at 100mm this lens should be good for portraits, and at f/2.8 you can get some good results, but even with USM af, this lens doesn't focus very quickly. This is because the elements inside it have to travel a very long way to cover a range all the way from the very close ranges needed for macro work all the way out to infinity. It's also not a terribly bright lens and doesn't focus well in low light. However, it is a true macro, meaning that it can take shots at 1:1.
I don't use my macro very often at all. At weddings I really only use it for ring shots, and there are other methods and lenses that will work for up close detail shots like this, which is why I didn't spend $1,000+ on one of the L macros. It works very well for what it's specialty is, but not the best choice for much else.
Another specialty lens. On a full frame camera, the fisheye creates a full 180 degree angle of view with a ton of distortion for a wacky perspective. Harnessing this intentional distortion is something that takes alot of practice, especially when there are people in the shot, as you don't want to warp a person's body too much or it quickly becomes an unattractive effect. Whether used to be comical or artistic, it's not something you want to do very often or the novelty of the unusual perspective will wear off in your work and you'll look like a one trick pony. I don't even necessarily use it at all on any given shoot. There are alot of fisheye lenses available, even attachments for other lenses, although I've found that true fisheye lenses can offer great sharpness and clarity, whereas the attachment lenses tend to have very poor optical performance. You can buy a fisheye without autofocus very inexpensively, but using one takes more time and trial and error to use since it can be very hard to tell if you have the shot in focus at such a wide angle.
::about the author::
Brendon is a photographer in the Birmingham area, available worldwide for nearly any project or event. Visit his main website (linked below) to see his portfolio, resume, bio or to get in contact. Add this blog to your RSS feed and "like" his Facebook Fan page to receive fresh photos and content.