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Long Term Review: Canon 50mm F1.8 (Nifty Fifty)

by Chris Gampat on 06/19/2011

As the favorite lens of many growing, hobbyist and new photographers the Canon 50mm F/1.8 is the best bang for your buck lens out on the market. Capable of delivering super sharp images and small enough to forever stay coupled to your camera, the nifty 50 is a lens that receives rave after rave. This review will chronicle my long term use of the lens followed by why I finally sold mine and why I’m contemplating buying another one.

Tech Specs

Ergonomics

The Canon 50mm F/1.8 is made of plastic and seems to be very simply put together (and taken apart). The little lens that fits in the palm of your hand has one switch for manual and autofocus. The latest version of the lens has a plastic mount, though the first version has a metal mount and was arguably better constructed.

When switched into manual focus, one needs to turn the super-tiny-itby-bitsy-teenie-weeny focusing ring at the front of the lens. No really, it’s small and can be difficult to operate unless you’re careful. Focusing is also not extremely smooth: I’d actually describe it more as runny. By that, I mean that it’s as free flowing as running water.

Autofocus

The nifty fifty doesn’t have a USM motor, so the autofocus cannot be overridden manually nor can it be fine tuned. Of course, you could always try to, but then you’ll just eventually end up breaking the lens.

The autofocus on this lens is also very tough to work with at times: it can hunt and hunt and miss and sometimes it will hit. This performance is true no matter what body you couple this lens to. With the Canon 5D Mk II, 7D, and even the 1D Mk IV, this lens had loads of focusing problems in low light but nearly always hit its mark in areas that are well lit.

Using a flash like the 580 EX II to aid in focusing using the infrared beams still don’t offer up much help either. This was a complete shock because as great as the 1D Mk IV was in low light focusing, it still couldn’t tame the nifty fifty.

But as much as the focusing issues have made me often want to throw this lens out the window, the amazing image quality that it delivers at the super-low price point has forever been its saving grace.

For Weddings

I’ve used this lens for one wedding only before I completely switched focal lengths to the 35mm F/1.4 L. Because of the focusing issues, I wouldn’t recommend this lens and I indeed remember having lots of issues trying to focus with this lens during the reception party.

It’s simply not worth the risk of getting so many out of focus images and having a bride wanting to track you down, strangle you, and therefore tarnishing your business.

My primary lens for that wedding was the 24-105mm F/4 L IS, which I still love very much. You can see my review of that lens here.

For Events

If you happen to be outside photographing a family BBQ, then the 50mm F/1.8 is a solid choice when stopped down due to just how sharp it becomes. But for professionals that can’t or don’t want to risk losing the shot, look elsewhere. When you mount it to your camera and set it to AI Servo to keep track of kids running around, you may have a bit of a difficult time.

For Portraits

Matt with Mike's Flash

If you’re shooting static subjects, the Canon 50mm F/1.8 should theoretically have an easy time focusing, yes? Yes, and it does. Portrait photography is where the Canon 50mm F/1.8 can really shine due to the sharpness of the lens when stopped down and also because on an APS-C sized sensor the lens’s effective focal length becomes around 80mm: which is wonderful for portraits.

Alex and Serenity

I’ve used this lens for a little while before graduating up to the Canon 85mm F/1.8 USM. That lens is even sharper than the nifty fifty while remaining light. To boot, it also has USM and is significantly better constructed. You can read our review of that lens here.

For Street Photography

Mickey in Times Square

As stated previously, this lens can focus like a speed demon when it has sufficient light. When out doing rounds of street photography during the day, you’ll often find that the nifty fifty and you will become best friends. Not only is it quick but it can also create some wonderfully creamy bokeh.

Waiting

The other great thing about this lens is the fact that it is so small, so it won’t make your DSLR look like an intimidating weapon when you point it towards a stranger.

The Purple Sunset

On a full frame sensor, it’s a nice walkaround lens and when I still had mine, it almost totally lived on my camera during photography exercises.

For Concerts

The Crowd Loves Failotron at the Blip Festival

Readers of this blog will know that I love shooting concerts. My primary concert setup was the Canon 5D Mk II with 50mm F/1.8 until moving to the Canon 7D and 35mm F/1.4 L. The nifty fifty was very slow to focus in the dimly lit venues that I’ve shot in. The problem was that I often needed to shoot wide open, even at the higher ISOs. Consequently, this lens is extremely soft wide open and only becomes razor sharp when stopped down to F/4. On the other hand, the 35mm F/1.4 L is very sharp wide open and only becomes sharper when stopped down.

To date, it is still one of Canon’s sharpest lenses.

The Robs

With all this said, it should be noted that the Canon 50mm F/1.8 has rendered wonderful colors when attached to my 5D Mk II.

Conclusions

Let’s be honest: perhaps the nifty fifty is not the lens for everyone, but in the hands of the right person in the right situations it can be a truly wonderful lens. Photographers have rightfully fell in love with it due to the small size coupled with the affordable price point and the image quality when stopped down. But for many photographers that sometimes need to shoot wide open or need faster focusing, they’re better off just leaving it in the camera bag.

For students, hobbyists and photographers who need to grow though, the Canon 50mm F/1.8 is a lens that you must own at one point because it will force you to become a better photographer. Not only is this true because of the 50mm focal length but also because you will learn that you will not always have total control over your gear, so you’ll need to learn how to work with it to get the best images that you can. That’s what it taught me before upgrading.

Since then, I have sold it to former Premium Compact Specialist Will Greenwald, and it breathed new life into his Canon Xti. Which also reminds me that even if you have older model camera, the 50mm F/1.8 will always be a great option due to the wonderful image quality that can come from the optics.

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