Monday, October 8, 2012

The Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM

The Canon 50mm f/1.4 attached to my Canon 5D MKII.

50mm lenses are really popular lenses among photographers. They are usually small, fast, and cheap...well, not unless you're into the f/1.2 range anyways. But these lenses are usually a step up from your usual kit lens that comes with your body.

My first 50mm lens was the Canon 50mm f/1.8 mk2 lens. It was $99 when I bought it. It was one of the sharpest lenses I've ever used. The lens was so simple in its design that no mechanism in the lens itself got in the way of the superior sharpness that you can get from it. It was basically glass with an autofocus mechanism in it. With the $99 price tag also came with a plastic body and an almost useless manual focus grip. I didn't mind the plastic construction and the mount, it was just way too flimsy for some photographers. The 1.8 maximum aperture on it was no joke either. It gave me a very shallow depth of field for use with portraits with natural lighting. I loved the 1.8 maximum aperture so I wondered if a 1.4 aperture would even be better.

The Canon 50mm f/1.4 is so compact that I love just bringing my camera with it attached.

Enter the Canon 50mm f/1.4...a normal compact lens loaded with superior optics and a USM motor for fast precise focusing. I decided to get one and try it myself as I have heard a lot of good things about it. I managed to get one used from bh photo. It ran me around less than $300. Of course I had to buy a separate lens hood for it which I spent another $20 on. Three days later my lens came and I tested it out.

The 50mm f/1.4 with the ES-71 II lens hood that had to be bought separately.

The Canon 50mm f/1.4 is plastic on the outside. Although the construction is a bit better than the 50mm f/1.8, this version has a metal mount in it. It's also a tad heavier but still pretty light. The focus ring is wider than the f/1.8 version and is now in the barrel and not on the tip of the lens. The front element is recessed deep into the barrel like the f/1.8 version. A lot of people don't use a UV filter for this lens because of the recessed front, I still do. 

The front element is recessed like in the f/1.8 version.

I put it on my 5D MK2 body and like it's cheaper version, it's still pretty compact. It fits better than the f/1.8 version I think because of the metal mount. The cheaper version does twist a bit when mounted. This one stays in place. The focus ring is a bit loose but still better than the tiny one from the f/1.8 version. The front element moves forward while you change focus, but not that much. If the hood is attached, you won't see it moving. The hood fits in nicely and locks in place. It also mounts in reverse for stowing the lens away in a bag. The autofocus switch is on the side and it has a focus scale. That's pretty much what it is on the outside.

The Canon 50mm f/1.4 features a focus scale, USM motor with full time manual focusing.

The Canon 50mm f/1.4 does not have ring USM, instead it has micro USM. Micro USM is kind of a cheaper USM version. It somewhat in between a ring USM and a micromotor. It's quiet and fast but not as smooth as a ring USM used in more expensive Canon lenses. You can tell by listening to it while it focuses that it's not as smooth as a ring USM, although it still features FTM or full time manual focusing which means you don't have to switch to manual focus when you want to tweak your focus after it locks. The focus ring does not rotate on autofocus.

One of my first few shots on my 50mm f/1.4

Shooting the 50mm f/1.4 in the studio, it really was not that much different from the f/1.8 version, if not better. Basically with studio lights, I cannot open my aperture to it's maximum, unless I use a neutral density filter. So for this use, I pretty much am using the old 50mm that I have. The results were pretty good. A lot of sharpness with good color rendition. 

Since it is not a macro lens, the 50mm f/1.4 can only go 1.5 feet for it's minimum focus distance. Not bad for studio use.

Autofocus was really responsive in the studio with the modeling lights on. It is pretty quiet and fast. On this aspect, the 1.4 outshines the 1.8 on speed and quietness of the focus mechanism. The 1.8 version isn't a slouch when focusing though, but not a lot of photographers like the whiny sound of its micro motor.

With natural lighting only. This is where the 1.4 is awesome.

Using only natural lighting, this is where the 1.4 shines. With very low light, you can now open your aperture to the maximum setting. On very low light, the 1.4 rarely seeks with auto focus. This is a pretty good indoor lens. With the sample shots that I provided, I tried opening the aperture to 1.4 to test out the limits of this lens.  

Shot wide open. Where the focus is, the details are still pretty sharp.

Shot wide open, this lens has mixed reviews. I myself never really had a big problem shooting this lens wide open. 1.4 is really shallow and usually when you get to 1.4 and beyond most lenses gets softer. I see the softness of the lens on some shots, but it never really bothered me at all. Compared to the 1.8 version of this lens when shot both at f/1.8, the cheaper version wins. Although, not by much. Bokeh...or the out of focus areas are pretty smooth. Almost similar to a 70-200 f2.8 when shot wide open. It is one of the strongest points of this lens. When I shoot this lens wide open, when focus is where I want it to be, a little post processing brings the details to life. I never shoot test charts...I try out my lenses shooting real objects in real shooting conditions. 

Another image shot wide open. A little post processing brought the focus point to how I want it to be. 

This lens paired with a full frame camera is phenominal. I got it for use with my 5D MK2. A full frame body with a 50mm attached to it is very light, and compact. Also the 50mm focal point is not so narrow but also not so wide that basically can be used for any shots. That's why they call 50mm's normal lenses. I can still use it with my cropped Canon 50D, although it becomes an 80mm, which is not so useful as a walkaround lens. It still is a very good lens for aps-c bodies. 

So the thing is, why would you want to spend another $200 for a lens that is softer than the cheaper version of it? A lot of photographers will pay thousands of dollars for an extra stop. I paid for the 1.4 aperture because I know that it will be useful when I take portraits using only natural light. Also I know that this lens will be so much useful for indoor shots which require very little light. You'll never see the beauty of a shallow depth of field till you attempt to do it yourself. I got this lens and most of the time I tried it out, I shot mostly wide open. Of course in real world photography, I wouldn't be able to do that all the time but when I do, I know that that extra stop will make a lot of difference from using a slower lens. 
Stopped down, the sharpness of this lens is phenominal.

My advice, if you already have the 1.8 lens and if you are looking for a faster one, get this. If you are happy with your 1.8 lens, then keep that instead. I was happy with mine but I was curious about trying out the 1.4, and boy I was happy with it. For the price of this gem you really can't let this one go. 


  1. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    as a first time visitor to your blog I am very impressed.
    thank you :)