The durable old EF 35-135 4-5.6

Four lenses by Mary C Legg

Produced in 1990 and discontinued in 1997, the EF 35-135 4-5.6 was one of the original walkabout lenses with a metal casing. The lens takes a beating and still survives to bring new images to life.

Four lenses by Mary C Legg
Four lenses by Mary C Legg

Canon EF 35-135 f/ 4-5.6 Metal casing produced 1990 and discontinued in 1997. Superseded by 28-135 lenses. Built with stainless steel casing, the lens endures about everything, even a drop down Prague O2 cement bleacher stairs during a KHL hockey game between LevPraha and CSKA.

The photographers about me groaned as the lens was handed back to me over the heads of fans in the seats below me. During a lull in the game ongoing below, I gingerly replaced my 70-200 2.8 with the small lens to confront the worst. The camera clicked on, I focused and there was the reassuring wonderful whirr of the magical thing and bright scene pink hockey jerseys in front of me. Although none of the photographers about me could speak English, they all recognized the sound of a happy lens back at work. The reaction and disbelief were pretty unreal. Those were the days when lenses were meant to survive peril.

The lens was designed to be a light travel lens for early Canon EOS DSLR cameras. Technically it outperforms the subsequent EF 28-135 f/3.5-5.6 USM with minimal distortion, little problem with flare or chromaticism. Only unusual situations will create some fringing on this lens.

When my original camera, Canon 400D, arrived it came with a 100 2.8 lens and the notorious kit lens, EFS 18-55 3.5-5.6 II. The macro lens has gone through several annual maintenance controls, diaphragm replacement and front unit replacement; but the kit lens only made it out to the streets a couple of times. It’s still new in the box. The barrel distortion was nauseating and then there was fringe, chromatism and flare. If you want to be trendy or edgy, the lens was perfect for shooting grunge or zombie images that bordered on the neurotic or psychopathic hallucinations of a rock pigeon on krokodil. It created a twisted universe, not one that I would ever see in the travel section of an old-fashioned newspaper, so it hardly qualified as editorial quality.

Macro lenses are great. In fact, probably to date, 76% of all my work has been shot 100 2.8, but despite Canon rave reviews about itself, it just doesn’t cut it for landscape. The horses were ridiculous and looked like cut-outs I could have made in first-grade art class. It reduced landscape to a flat world devoid of much depth or detail. One try was sufficient to know that macro lenses shoot macro.

Now I had a camera, 400D, minimal entry level for RM stock agencies and a macro lens and nothing for a walkabout. If you know nothing about photography and never processed images before, but have an RM exclusive contract from AGE Fotostock, the learning curve is steep. I needed a walkabout lens, something suitable for shooting normal things like tourist spots, historic buildings, goings on. I used to write, so I had the far-fetched idea of writing and adding pictures to the stories, but that calls for a strong, well-built, contrasty editorial lens. Something that sees and presents things in a crisp editorial manner, where the viewer can say, “I understand. I’d like to go there,” or “That festival looks like fun.” I’d grown up in a world of great magazines: Look, National Geographic, Life, where the world came to you on a two-page double spread.

I had publishing credits in literary magazines, but my critical eye was editorial.

Choosing a lens is partly marketing hype, the rave reviews of Canon or Sony’s latest and best or it’s the search of pragmatism and practicality—finding the tool that is needed for the job.

The local photo shop has a bazaar. Photography goes in seasons. 2008 was the season of unrest and photographers suddenly dropping all their gear and packing out of the business. Chrismas brought a massive cache of gear into the basement of the shop where the secondhand gear is sold. There were a flank of large lenses, 100-400 and then chunks smaller lenses. Dutifully, I wrote down all the lenses that seemed suitable that I could buy. Cash only.

With a list in hand, I went home and began reading hour after hour, lens reviews of each lens I had written down. The best reviews are technical reviews, particularly those which try to expose problems of a lens, not the slushy juicy reviews drooling about the newest acquisition on a photography forum. Whether somebody idealizes a lens and drools about has little or nothing to do with the capabilities of a lens or whether it is suitable for the work intended. Sometimes, photography forums and char threads can reveal peculiarities of a lens or its problems such as casings coming apart in the hand, but generally, they are too subjective in tone to be of great insight.

Much more useful are technical reviews that present the lab tests of distortion, chromatism and technical problems along with images shot by lenses on identified cameras or compared across camera bodies.

It was the review on MIR, Malaysia Canon that made me choose the lens. Through a search of serial numbers, I discovered that my lens was one of the earliest produced. One of the earliest walkabouts took me over the fields of Karlstejn where somebody was flying a model airplane. Surprisingly, the lens had no problem tracking the airplane and the images were clearly focused. It met the challenge easily. It met tracking hockey easily and went with me to many hockey games in TipSport Arena where it was frequently borrowed by other photographers as I used my Sigma 70-200 2.8 or 50-500 4-6.3

After the traumatic shoulder fracture, carrying a large lens such as 70-200 2.8 or 50-500 was not possible. The shoulder could not withstand the weight. Worse, the left hand could not focus any large lens, but after many many months of persistence, I was able to hold a small lens such as EFS 60 2.8 and 35-135 F/4-5.6 again. Sometimes I took the camera bag for walks. The camera never came out of the bag, but at least it went for a walk reminding the shoulder that there was yet unfinished work to do.

We went for a walk. Optimally, it should have been the 50-500 that I love, but it hates deep cold and the shoulder can’t bear the weight; moreover, I’ve no grip in my left hand and I can’t turn the focus ring. There are restrictions on what I can do, so the 35-135 F/4-5.6 went on the camera. It’s short and fits my injured hand. It’s an old friend and reliable in duress. The 400D is long retired, replaced by the 7D to shoot ice hockey. The shoulder fracture stopped all that. I couldn’t raise my arm or close my hand. It’s been three years of very hard work and determination to recover use.

It’s three years since the fracture. I’ve recovered use of left hand to limited ability. I can type now, but it’s the never-ending battle of searching for the missing letters on the left to replace them. It’s doubtful that I shall ever be able to hold a large lens again, but still, the 35-135 F/4-5.6 remains in the bag, now along with the 100 2.8 and 60 2.8 for the times we go out. I know how to kneel on the ground and how to get up again. I can manually focus the 100 2.8 again. It’s crummy and 35% shots get deleted, but it will come back.

It’s always there—even on days where I know that 98% of my work in the field will be with a macro lens shooting Lycaenidae. The lens is reliable, sturdy, fast and editorially clean.

It survived a bad fall, but then so did I. We’re in it together—the old bag carrying the old battered green Heineken beer bag into the silence of woods and fields.