Canon FD 24-35mm f/3.5L – Earning the Red Ring

Canon FD 24-35mm f/3.5L – Earning the Red Ring

2200 1237 Chris Cushing

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.

Shooting

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.

Shots in the samples gallery above were made on Kodak Portra and Fuji 400H film.

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.

Shots in the samples gallery below were made with Ilford Pan F Plus 50, Ilford HP5 Plus, and Ferrania P30 Alpha films.

Takeaways

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.

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing
14 comments
  • Nice article. Nice photos. How are they scanned?

    • Thanks Merlin. My local lab did these scans. I honestly cannot remember what scanner they use. The lab is McGreevy Pro Lab in Albany, NY.

  • Really nice shots to show what this lens can do. Am I the only one here that geeks out and checks out all the pics in their largest size?

  • Thanks for reminding me of the days when Canon made good stuff. I saw your F-1 and that was a wonderful camera as well.

  • Nice piece! After 40+ years of photography, I am only now beginning to discover these fine Canon FD lenses. Would love to see a comparison article on the FD primes.

  • I started taking pictures with a Canon AE-1 which was a nice student camera
    but also with the feel of plasic – nothing compared to a Canon A or Canon F1.
    The same feeling I had comparing the Canon FD lenses to the older FL series.

    • I never noticed the difference in quality between the silver lock ring FD lenses and the later ones(I have several of each), but the difference between the plastic and metal bodies is pretty large. I love my A-1, and most of the shots in this gallery were shot on it, but it doesn’t feel nearly as solid as the F-1.

      • Alfredo M. Claussen December 16, 2018 at 1:38 pm

        I have both the New F1 and the A1 bodies, and while the F1 is a massive piece of art, the A1 has proven to be much faster in action use (faster to get ready and shoot, that is, considering that the exposure meter and the flexibility of the A1 between Aperture priority vs Shutter speed priority end up working faster for me. The only time when the added solidity and ultimate precision of the F1 really counts, is when I use a heavy short tele that lacks its own mount… (the body of the A1 actually flexes slightly when taking the weight of my 135mm F2.0 lens, that lacks a tripod thread and has to be supported by the camera body!). Otherwise, the lighter, more versatile A1 has given me many more good photos that the F1.

  • I have owned both and the older FD lenses with the breech lock ring are much better made than the “new FD” lenses that I think came out in the early to mid 1980s. The AE-1P and A-1 were nice cameras (I used to own both) but they were not as solid as the F-1 or the earlier FT and Ftb. The A-1 is a little more solid than the AE-1 P and has better finish but mine had a shutter wheeze problem that was annoying.

  • What are your view on the quality of this vs the 35mm f2 prime?

    I have the f2 but feel that it’s just not getting usage next to my 55mm F1.2.

    Maybe having the 24mm capability would see it get more use.

  • Are there any visual differences between the L and the ssc lenses?

  • That F1 takes the word overbuilt to a new level. Canon decided to show the world that Nikon´s toughness was a myth and the Nikon F was a sissy camera. The F1 is a sherman tank although i have looked through the finder and it´s a thing of beauty. Metering is also sophisticated w/ spot, center wieughted and other options .. way before digital cmaeras made it look easy. If i remember correctly.. otherwise i am sorry for any misinformation.

  • I bought one of these lenses from eBay not too long ago – for not much more money than that 35mm F2 which I’d been wanting was going for. I thought I’d give the Red Ring Club a go. It’s the single most expensive piece of photography equipment I own – doubling the value of my collection.

    It’d been sold as working and the previous owners was sure it could focus. It arrived with the rear element floating in its runners to the point where it was impossible to focus at all, with focus shifting on zoom wildly. It dropped around and rattled in its tracks as the lens was moved – often out of position by 2mm or more, The plastic parts of the lens bushings had worn down to the metal , effectively making it useless.

    This kind of highlights a problem common to all older zoom lenses. Most are worn, and even spare parts designed to be replaced are long gone. And when worn, they go really bad – it’s not like a sloppy focus bad – it’s complete unuseable bad. You can end up with some really expensive pieces of pretty glass if you’re not careful.

    Unlike most. This lens seems to be fairly easy to work on – it doesn’t need to be stripped right down to repair. It seems like the bushes were designed to be sacraficial items and to replaced easily without affecting the lens adjustment. And it does seem to have a higher standard of fit and finish than the standard nFDs. There’re about a hundred tiny ball bearings in the mount for example that don’t really need to be there since it’s not even a ‘touch’ part but make the mechanisms run that bit smoother. (Or were, one went through my F-1 shutter curtain thank to a newbie mistake by me. They are a pain to put back in, and one lost inside the lens body will eventually come out.)

    I managed to repair it by fabricating my own bushes from random plastic washer stock I had and it *works*. It’s parfocal again and hits infinity, but there’s signs of it being a little out of adjustment in the corners with the image warping away. The skills to correct it are long gone – or so rare and expensive it’s not worth the hassle. And you could never honestly sell it on eBay like this so it’s with me until it rots.

    In a strange way – I regretted buying it, but at the same time I’m glad I have it. I’ve grown to like it. It’s the first lens I’ve ever ‘repaired’ and it is still dead sharp away from the corners and extremes. A van 200 meters away – and which occupied something like 130x60px on a 8.0mp scan still had legible signwriting on it. The limit was the scanner and the grain – the lens has resolved it and the detail’s in the image.

    I’m looking forward to using it for holidays and the like.

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing