My preference for shooting vintage Canons can make reducing the weight of my camera bag a real struggle. My preferred camera, the F-1, tips the scales at 820g bare. The A-1, though substantially lighter, is still a hefty 620g. I also have a strong preference for power winders, which doesn’t help in the least. Add in a few lenses and suddenly we’re getting into hire-a-burro territory.
In an effort to follow Lotus Cars founder Colin Chapman’s mantra of adding lightness, I decided to replace a few of my wide prime lenses with a single wide-angle zoom. In theory, this would allow me to take the camera and just one lens with me in situations where I had previously had to bring a bag full. This seemed like a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately I discovered that Canon’s wide-angle zooms are actually heavier than the combined weight of virtually any two of their wide-angle primes. If you look only at the slowest of Canon’s wide-angle primes, it can take three lenses to equal the mass of one wide-angle zooms. To put that into perspective, at 470g, the 24-35mm L weighs as much as an entire Olympus 35RD. So much for adding lightness.
Undeterred, I marched on. At the very least a wide-angle zoom would make my life simpler, and double as a free weight. Canon made just two lenses in this range during the span from 1978 through to the death of the FD system; the 24-35mm f/3.5 L and the later 20-35mm f/3.5 L. Both are well regarded for optical performance. Both use aspherical elements, two element focus/zoom, and both have the same maximum aperture.
Being a bit of a nerd for the first version of anything, I ultimately put the money on the table and snapped up the earlier 24-35mm. While I wanted the S.S.C variant, as I like the look of the silver lock ring, I simply couldn’t find one. I wound up with an L instead. Despite the reputation associated with the red ring at the end of the lens, I was a little wary that this lens wouldn’t stack up to my fixed-focal length wide-angle lenses. Vintage zooms don’t have the best reputation for optical performance.
Though slightly slow, this lens is a great performer. The 24-35mm was Canon’s first wide-angle lens with an aspherical element, one of the first to carry a red stripe on the lens barrel, and remains a special lens today.
Origins of L
Tracking the origins of the L family of glass is extremely confusing, as over the years Canon has defined its “Luxury” series of lenses in a variety of ways. While they all are meant to provide superior optical performance, there is no one trait in their construction which ties them together.
The progenitor of the L family was the FL-mount FL-F 300mm f/5.6. In 1969, Canon had developed a method for growing synthetic fluorite for use in lenses, as naturally-occurring fluorite contained too many impurities for optical use. Canon’s goal with the first FL-F lens was to reduce chromatic aberration and shorten the overall length of the lens. And while this lens was never called an L-lens at the time, Canon considers this lens to be the first step in developing what would become the L-series. The first true L lenses would debut with the updated Canon FD mount.
When the first version of the 24-35mm debuted in 1978 as an S.S.C, it was a pretty remarkable piece of glass. It was the first wide-angle zoom in the world to use an aspherical element, which reduced astigmatism, coma, and a whole bevy of negative traits my optometrist reminds me of every time I’m due for new glasses.
Optically the S.S.C and L version of this lens are identical, and are differentiated solely by the design of the barrel and lens mount. Both use 12 elements in 9 groups, including an aspherical front element. Both lenses also feature Canon’s two-group design, where the forward lens groups handle zoom, and the rear elements handle focus. The lens does elongate slightly during focus, but zoom is handled internally.
The lens is ergonomically quite nice, and each of the three rings has a different texture. The focusing ring has small pyramidal bumps, the zoom ring has split ridges, and the slim aperture ring has slim single ridges. Build quality is reasonably solid, though it doesn’t have the same feeling of density exhibited in Canon’s primes. As build is concerned, the top offerings from Nikon or Pentax will leave it for dead.
The modest spec sheet masks a very handy lens in actual use. The narrow zoom range is very useful, and covers a versatile range in most shooting situations. Because the zoom ring has a fairly short throw, it’s easy to bump from extreme-to-extreme with just a flick of the fingers rather than a turn of the wrist.
While walking in San Francisco with fellow CP contributor Dustin, I was regularly shooting this lens and my A-1 from the hip. The wide focal length and slow maximum apertures made eyeballing focus a breeze, and even without my eye to the viewfinder I managed to pull off decent shots.
The aspherical construction helps to keep the field curvature in check, and the lens is extremely sharp from corner to corner, even wide open. I found myself shooting at the wide end of the range most of the time, and it never let me down in terms of sharpness. At open aperture, this lens is much sharper corner to corner than my Canon FD 28mm f/3.5 S.S.C, and about on par with the excellent Pentax Super Takumar 28mm f/3.5.
Being relatively slow and fairly wide, you need to take advantage of the short 15.7 inch minimum focusing distance to coax any appreciable blur from the out of focus areas of a shot. Bokeh isn’t everything however, and the cavernous depth of field can make street scenes feel enveloping.
Color rendition is very good, and has a slightly cooler tonality than my older S.S.C series lenses. Unlike the Schneider-Kreuznach lens I wrote about two weeks ago, blues are rendered in a very natural way. Paired with Kodak Portra this lens creates a very organic look, and with black and white films images are punchy and contrasty.
As much as I like the 24-35mm, it’s hard to overlook its nearest in-house competitor; the FD 20-35mm f/3.5 L. The 20-35mm replaced this lens in 1983. This later lens is slightly different, and its construction features 11 lenses in 11 groups rather than 12 lenses in 9 groups on the earlier lens. Both feature an aspherical front element, and both tip the scales at the same 470g.
Despite the apparent deficit in focal length, in practice I found the 24-35mm range worked beautifully. I liked the shorter throw of the zoom ring, and never found myself missing the 20mm focal length available with Canon’s other lens. Optically, this zoom lens can more than hang with Canon’s own price lens offerings in the same focal length range, all while simplifying your camera bag.
I also bought a whole lot of Ferrania P30 with the $100 savings from buying the older lens rather than its younger brother, so there’s that, which is nice.
Want your own Canon L lens?
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