There are a few staple lenses; pieces of glass that have been around forever, produce great results and pretty much every photographer has one in their kit. In the case of primes, I can’t think of a lens more ubiquitous than the 50mm prime. As with many lenses, there are also degrees to which you can purchase them. At the time of writing this review, Canon produces a 50mm f/1.8, a 1.4 and the 1.2 L (also available but not mentioned in this review is the Sigma f/1.4). Each of these sequentially allows a half-stop of extra light into the sensor (wide open) and have corresponding build qualities; they also quickly expand in price. From the suggested retail pricing of $125.99 for the 1.8, $399.99 for the 1.4 and up to for the 1.2, there had better be a really clear difference between the optics and/or build quality to make the top-end purchase worthwhile.
First, to compare some of the more aesthetic differences: the Canon 50mm f/1.8II is an entirely plastic lens, is incredibly light, has no manual focus measurement indicators and the focus ring is positioned at the very end of the lens. The 50mm f/1.4 has a sturdier construction, with mixed plastic and metal parts, is about the same size as the 1.8 (though not as light) and has a fairly standard, if not slightly loose, focus ring for a lens of its size. The 1.2 trumps all of this with bigger glass, a more robust high end plastic resin outer construction and a firmer, smoother focusing ring. While the 50mm f/1.2 L weighs more than the other two, I don’t find it particularly heavy, and it’s well-weighted for larger pro-level camera bodies.
The Canon 50mm f/1.2 L comes with the ES-78 lens hood (another thing non-L lenses lack; hoods must be purchased separately) and takes a 72mm filter if covering up your fine glass is the sort of thing you like to do. The rear lens element is very close to the mounting ring, so it is not compatible with Canon’s extenders, however; a common use of a 50mm lens is with extension tubes to allow for close focusing and macro photography. The 1.2 shares a minimum focusing distance with its 1.4 brother at 1.5 feet.
One thing we don’t talk about with these maximum wide-open apertures is that the minimum aperture, will also drop the 50mm f/1.2L stops down to f/16, though I doubt this is why many would purchase it.
The 50mm f/1.2 isn’t exactly a sports-focusing lens; it’s not particularly slow, but it’s not lightening quick either. The lens focuses smoothly and accurately with a front lens element that moves within the frame of the lens body. I’m also pleased to see a weather sealing strip which, for some reason, some other L-series glass seem to lack.
Having owned the 50mm f/1.4 lens for a few years, I had high expectations for the red-ringed 1.2. Now, I’m not sure what I expected, since f/1.2 is notoriously shallow and my experience with any prime wide-open hasn’t lent itself to the sharpest results (caveat emptor: experiences may vary, and I’m not counting the incredible 200mm f/2 L IS in that statement). So I was a bit disappointed when my f/1.2 images were pretty soft, though they still retained a good amount of colour and contrast, important factors in a quality lens ñ and quickly sharpened when stopped down to f/1.8. The sweet spot of most lenses is a good three clicks to the right (for us Canon users) which makes sense; I use my 1.4 at f/2.0 mostly. The 8 rounded aperture blades help maintain this wonderfully blurred out background. Bokeh is something best seen, so here are some comparisons below:
I made some adjustments to these crops to boost the contrast. You can clearly see the pentagonal shape of the Bokeh produced by the 1.8, but hardly any difference in the shape between the 1.4 and 1.2 – wide open, these results become less obvious. 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.
I think it’s important to note that, just because a lens stops down to f/1.2, it doesn’t mean you have to shoot wide-open all the time. Sure, out of focus backgrounds and creamy bokeh are pleasing to the eye, and helps direct your viewers attention at the subject, but you will still achieve this at 1.4, 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0. Having 1.2 is pretty swell in the lowest of light, but it’s a remarkably shallow depth of field and makes it not easy to achieve focus on your subject since less than half an inch in either direction will throw eyes and other objects completely out of the intended field of focus.
As with most primes, chromatic aberration is very apparent at wider apertures. I particularly found the purple fringing to be a nuisance when trying to correct in Lightroom 4, as it manifested as a softer gradient of colour than a well defined coloured outline. The cyan/green fringe cleaned up fine in software. I’ve seen it far worse in a few other primes, so I didn’t find it abnormally strong or distracting, just present, as it always is. Vignetting, as expected, is remarkably strong at f/1.2 and doesn’t clear up until f/2.8. I’m normally okay with most lens vignetting, often adding some of my own in post, but this was particularly strong and I found myself using Lightroom’s correction to take care of it.
What is expected, and well performing, is how this lens handles flare. It’s important for me to be able to shoot into the sun and other light sources, using it as a compositional element, or being unable to shoot in another direction. I need a lens to be of sufficient quality to retain a level of image fidelity, contrast, and colour so I can still get the shot. The 50mm f/1.2 delivers where the other two in the lineup don’t ñ it handles itself up to the L lens standard, gleefully reproducing images without falling apart optically. I should note that actual visualized lens-flare is also very pretty; it can be used for artistic effect. In my opinion this is exactly where this lens’ strength is. It’s the “look” and feel of the image beyond any technical qualification.
Who’s it for?
50mm primes are often called a normal lens; they approximate the human eye’s field of view, they are compact, they produce a coveted shallow depth of field and out-of-focus blurry background, and are telephoto enough to take great portraits but wide enough that you can shoot in a relatively tight space. A 50mm lens is the first, if not second, lens I recommend any new photographer; they’ll take great photos of their kids, people and pets which, I think, covers 90% of the amateur market. You can get some decent product and lifestyle photos, help focus attention when working on interiors through their shallow d.o.f.. Wedding photographers everywhere can add a 50mm prime to their kit and likely cover half the day with just this lens. The low light collecting ability of f/1.2 also helped greatly before our cameras made drastic high-ISO improvements, but you’ll have to take a few extra shots to make sure you locked focus. A great use of the lens is for wedding ring photos. Where many photographers may believe something like the 100mm f/2.8 L IS Macro is good for rings, I find a macro enlarges the rings TOO much. 50 mm helps focus on the rings, but gives room for the shot to have some context. Photojournalists can carry the relatively compact lens in their kit without compromise knowing they’ll have a perfect portrait lens should the need arise, and the build quality will stand up to drops and bumps that could leave the others in less than working condition.
Babies, children and women all look fabulous when photographed with a 50mm lens, and even guys too, but when don’t we look good? You can blur out the background, and with f/1.2 get a soft-focus (or even no-focus) look that will blur out all but the most prominent of features. Sometimes sharpness is over-rated, and some portraits don’t require exacting detail that can lead to hours of skin re-touching in post.
I personally don’t use a 50mm much for my interior work, though that may just be a result of my client list. A good friend of mine working in Montreal is exceptional at capturing details of her interiors with a 50mm lens ñ perhaps if the job calls for it ñ some detail work with an out of focus background will certainly add a professional look to any of your images, and help you stand apart from the competition.
I knew why I purchased the Canon 50mm f/1.4 over the 50mm f/1.8; the more rounded (not pentagonal) bokeh, and the slightly better build. That’s a few hundred bucks. The Canon 50mm f/1.2 L is more than four times the price of the 1.4. This is a cost/value factor we often weigh, and I have personally never once been let down by the better glass I’ve purchased, where I have with less-than-the-best. The aperture may be a bit misleading, I don’t consider f/1.2 useful for me, I have a hard time focusing that shallow of depth of field, and while a good camera body like the 1DX or 5DMKIII certainly help, there’s a little left to your own skill to pull off proper focus. Some people just have it while others, like me, work for it. The optics are certainly worth the investment. Though, for the professional shooter who may bang their camera around and find themselves without a lot of choice as to where they’re positioned for the shot by way of contrast and control of flare; the 50mm f/1.2 delivers.
For the average consumer, however, I’m not sure if they’ll see the difference. Since most people are just looking to achieve a shallower depth of field that the included kit-lens can’t provide, the 50mm f/1.8 will do the trick. More discerning buyers can upgrade to the 1.4 and folks with money to burn can grab the 1.2. It’s the best, but not by the same margin as the price. It’s a pro lens, and with that comes the need for a pro’s experience to handle it.
- Build and optics are pro-level.
- Great colour and contrast rendition.
- f/1.2 gives you lovely blurred out backgrounds.
- Relatively small and light compared to most zoom lenses.
- 4 x pricier than Canon’s 50mm f/1.4.
- f/1.2 is so out of focus that your focus can be out of focus.
- Very strong vignetting (inherent in all 50’s though).