First-time Digital SLR owners often approach me, asking “What should my next lens purchase be?” They’ve quickly outgrown the use of their kit lens, and are looking to try and re-create images that they’ve seen online and in publications. In almost every situation, they want to create great portraits of family members and kids, or take killer detail shots of their cooking. In these cases, their desire to create an image with a shallow depth of field, where focus quickly fades to a blurred background, is what motivates their search. I whole-heartedly recommend that anyone with a SLR should purchase a 50mm lens. It’s a bokeh gateway drug with its ability to create pleasing out of focus backgrounds for anyone at every budget.
At the time of this writing, Canon produces a 50mm f/1.8, a 1.4 and a 1.2 (Sigma currently produces a 50mm f/1.4 as well). Each of these lenses increases the amount of available light to your camera sensor, as well as decreasing the area of sharp focus as the number lowers. With the increase of light, comes an increase in price too. The Canon 50mm f/1.4 is resting comfortably below the middle at ~$399.99 (SRP). To jump up to the 50mm 1.2, you’d be looking at a four-fold increase in price while the 50mm 1.8 is a budget lens at $125.99 and comes with some noticeable compromises in quality.
While the outer shell of the 50mm 1.4 is clearly stronger than the 50mm 1.8, it doesn’t stands up to the high quality build of the 50mm 1.2. The added weight gives me more confidence in the lens and its durability as often the correlation is more metal parts (and often larger glass). The larger shaft also allows for a focus meter, which the 50mm 1.8 lacks. The focus ring is small but useful for manual focus, and its autofocus is fast, though a bit noisy. The front element does extend when focusing on closer objects and retracts when approaching infinity. Since it’s not an L-lens, there’s no expectation of weather sealing and, indeed, it is not sealed. Lens hoods are also not included with non L-lenses, though they are available to purchase separately, and while its perfectly useable without one, it is prone to some flare, which a hood would serve to minimize or eliminate.
When buying the Canon 50mm f/1.4, the main selling factor, for me, was its comparative image quality. It is sharp at f/2.0 and I didn’t find a large enough difference with it over the 50mm 1.2 (at least, not for the price), but enough of a change of sharpness, vignetting, and chromatic aberration over the 50mm 1.8 to justify the slight added expense. Of particular interest, I find a bokeh comparison a great way to judge the quality.
I made some adjustments to boost contrast to help see how defined the pentagon shape of the bokeh produced by the 50mm f1.8 is, but hardly see any difference in the shape between the 1.4 and 1.2. These results become less obvious when wide-open, but this is reflective of how your bokeh may be formed when shooting. This is also not a commentary on the overall quality of the bokeh, which is more of a personal feel, but this type of test was my original reason for avoiding the 1.8 and going for the 1.4.
I’ve never been particularly concerned with vignetting and chromatic noise; it’s something we have to work through with any lens. The 50mm 1.4 handles these things very well, with a manageable vignette that I find compliments many portraits. When correcting for (minor) lens distortion in Lightroom, I often leave the vignette correction off, embracing its vignetting ability to help drive focus on the image I created.
As I mentioned, the Canon 50mm f/1.4 is sharp at f/2.0 onwards which is where I most often shoot it. F/1.4 is still usable but be wary of how shallow your depth of field becomes at this focal range and aperture. I find it best to shoot objects just close to infinity (between five and ten feet) to maximize the background blur while still achieving focus on my subject. Much closer and I have difficulty keeping a subject all in focus unless I stop down to increase the depth of field.
Who’s it for?
Anyone and everyone. Seriously! Where can’t you find use for a 50 mm lens? Light, fast and inexpensive, the Canon 50mm f/1.4 can infiltrate low-light situations, light weddings or photojournalist work. Not just for portraits, a fast 50mm can work as an optimal “detail” lens: versatile in capturing bouquets, dinner placing, all allowing focus to be drawn to the subject while beautifully blurring out the background.
Aspiring food photographers may find better use of a 50mm lens than a 100mm macro (believe me, I get asked this a lot) since it provides suitable distance from the plates to encompass a setting as well.
Families with children, pets, or both, with larger professional photographic aspirations, or not, should all own this lens. You will take the photos you always wanted to take* by using a 50mm relatively wide-open. It’s the only lens I took to the hospital to photograph my son’s birth, requiring no flash, and I certainly never felt like I needed something else.
It’s great for taking portraits of all kinds, including full-body on a full-frame camera (behaves a lot like an 85mm on a crop body), and reasonably close portraits. Nothing’s prohibiting you from stopping it down to more manageable apertures like 2.8 either.
*Of course a fundamental understanding of the operation of your camera, shutter speed, white balance, aperture, and composition will also be quite useful. But you get what I mean.
Given direct comparisons between Canon’s other 50mm offerings, I can only conclude that the 50mm f/1.4 offers the best value for quality, and perhaps so of any lens. While so much of my kit has been sold off and “upgraded” to those magical red L-rings, I’ve happily stuck with my 50mm f/1.4. Not even using a 50mm 1.2 for a month was able to convince me otherwise. Was the later better? Sure! Absolutely, it was a remarkable lens to use, and I look back at some of my images and those of others who own the lens and it’s helped create some truly magical moments. But so has the 1.4, and for significantly less money. While the pros and wealthy may always flock towards the top of the line “best of”, some of us can give up minute gains that we’d never much notice in favour of something more affordable and almost as good.
- Great quality
- Fast glass, zoom zoom.
- Very nice quality of bokeh
- Buy this lens over the 50 1.2 and get $900 extra in your wallet! (from not spending more)
- Not as sharp at equal apertures as the 50mm f/1.2 L
- Colour and contrast not as nice as the 50mm f/1.2 L
- Weight and build not as nice as the 50mm f/1.2 L
- It’s not the 50mm f/1.2 L
- A bit old and lacking some of the modern advancements in optics, potentially replaced in the lens lineup soon (replacement will cost more though, as does the Sigma 50mm f/1.4)