After three long and difficult months of suffering, I’m sad to tell you that my trusty old 35mm lens died. It lived for approximately 2 years and 9 months. We’ve been on many adventures together and almost all of my favorite photos from that period were shot on it. If I really want to continue with this obituary joke, I’ll also say that our relationship wasn’t always easy, as it was a very moody little thing...
Let’s start it like this: the YongNuo 35mm F2 is a shit lens. At the same time, it is utterly brilliant at what it does for the price, and I loved using it. So here is my review/trip down memory lane.
Getting the Cheapest 35mm Lens
So why did I get this lens in the first place? I had two lenses for my camera at the time, a 24-85mm zoom and of course the classic focal length, the 50mm. I wanted a prime lens, which was wider, but could still produce beautiful background blur. Enter the land of cheap knockoff lenses: YongNuo!
YongNuo is a Chinese brand which started out building flash units and I had a whole series of flashes from them. At that point I had 4, now I’m on my 5th one, but I sold most of the others. The flashes were extremely good quality and very reasonably priced. Soon, they announced that they were also getting into the lens business. The 35mm F2 lens was I think the first lens they announced. At the time Canon has already discontinued its own 35mm F2 and only offered a significantly more expensive IS version, meaning that it has image stabilization and other third-party manufacturers weren’t offering any sub-400 Euro options either. Well, except for Samyang, but their 35mm is manual focus only and I didn’t want that.
This lens costs a mere 75ish Euros. At the time, if I remember correctly, I paid 67.99 GBP for it and that’s including postage! That is over 300 Euros less than the next cheapest offering, so it was a no-brainer to try this. Yes, it was going to perform worse than the expensive ones, but would the average person looking at my photos see the difference? The answer as you may have guessed, turned out to be no.
The first thing I noticed when the lens arrived was just how awful the build quality was. While the mount itself was metal, pretty much everything else was cheap plastic. The whole thing felt like a toy lens. It rattled, the lens itself moved a bit within the lens barrel and the autofocus was slow and sounded like a tractor that’s about to explode. Not a good start, eh?
Undeterred, I took the lens out for a first spin. I wrapped it up very carefully in a plastic bag and duct tape along with my camera and took it to the Cambridge Holi party. I was right in the middle of all the craziness, powder flying all around, etc. When I got home, the pictures turned out awesome! Yes, it missed focus sometimes, as it’s not a sport lens, but the more wide-angle nature of it combined with the smooth bokeh really helped make my events work grow. Not only did it become my standard lens for events work, but soon after, it barely left my camera.
Why the 35mm is the Best Focal Length for Me
This little 35mm quickly became the go-to lens for almost everything, for events, just walking around, travel and portraits too! If someone told me today that I have to choose a single focal length for my camera that I’d have to use for the rest of my life, I’d without hesitation say 35mm. Obviously, I’d like a better 35mm, but now we are just talking about the focal length on a full frame camera. It is wide enough to give some context, to show the background in a portrait, but it will still produce a very satisfying background blur. As a travel lens, it’s wide enough to get a good angle of most things, but it’s long enough to also snap nice portraits.
As I’ve already mentioned before, the build quality is absolutely atrocious. The AF is inaccurate, slow and loud. The overall sharpness, especially around the edges is quite bad. I’ve often arrived home and looked at photos, becoming very frustrated that I had a shot I really liked, but the focus was off just enough that I didn’t notice on the camera’s screen, but it became painfully obvious on the computer. If you are a pixel peeper, beware of this lens…
Despite all my previous complaints, I’m very happy that I bought this lens and it really helped my work become more interesting. The main reason I like this lens is the mood and character it has. Yes, I know that I sound like an old Volkswagen enthusiast standing beside his broken down T3 Transporter, talking about it “Yeah, it’s broken down, but I like it because of its quirks!”.
It probably has an element of that, yes, but what I mean by “the mood” is the mood that it produces in the photos. It has a significant amount of flare and haze, which most photographers would consider a bad thing. However, when shooting sunrise or sunset portraits the flares just give a special feel to the pics. Just look at the photos, you’ll understand what I mean by that! Sometimes the flare and the haze does become too much, but once you learn how the lens works, it’s easy to control and it looks awesome.
I did have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the lens, being frustrated at the lack of sharpness or missing a shot because of the slow focus. At the same time, when everything lined up, the photos were amazing! Now if you look at my portfolio (which could use an update), approximately 75% of the photos were shot with it.
How it Died
At the end of summer, I noticed even more rattling in the lens, as if there was a piece rolling around inside it. Turns out, a piece holding the lens in the helicoid, the mechanism which allows the lens elements to move back and forth to focus, broke off. I ripped the lens apart and glued it back. That worked for a while, but it fell off again, so I was just using the lens for another 2 months like that. It was really, really time to replace it!
I realized that this was probably due to the lens hood I used which screwed into the filter holder. Every hit put extra pressure on the lens’ mechanism which wasn’t designed to withstand the abuse. I considered just buying another one, but in the end, I went with a Canon EF 35mm F2 IS USM. It is obviously a big upgrade and maybe I’ll write about that lens as well someday…
It’s not all that sad though, because the YongNuo 35mm will hopefully live on. Eventually, it will be in the hands of my tinkerer friend, Hispan’s Photoblog, who will build something cool out of it and it will join his collection of amazing Frankenstein lenses.
PS: Quick observation – the YongNuo 35mm actually produces less vignetting than my new Canon 35mm F2 IS USM or the Canon 50mm F1.8 STM. Otherwise, so far, the Canon 35mm wipes the floor with it…
This lens is shit and brilliant at the same time. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that this is the best deal for a cheap Canon lens at the moment. For the price, it’s awesome. If someone wants to get a full frame camera to start lifestyle-portrait photography, getting one of these with a Canon 5D classic or a Mark II is literally going to be the cheapest way to start. For me, it’s an end of a chapter - I’ve been through a lot with that lens and produced some of my favorite images with it. Having said that, I’m still glad I upgraded to a nicer lens, which focuses more accurately and quickly, and is sharper.