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Should You Upgrade?: Canon 50mm f/1.8 II to Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM

by Mike Pouliot on 09/11/2011

Canon 5D with Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM shot at f/5.6

Regardless of what you shoot or what brand of equipment you use, almost everyone owns or has owned a 50mm prime lens. The 50mm focal length is very close to what our eyes actually see so it feels natural to use this lens. But I think the number one reason most people own a 50mm is they are an amazing value. Both Nikon and Canon make wonderful 50mm f/1.8 lenses for less than $125. It’s crazy not to have a 50mm at that price! My 50mm basically lives on my 5D, I hardly ever take it off. If you’re like me and you’re constantly using your 50mm lens, you’ve probably thought about upgrading your cheap 50mm to something faster, more solidly built and something that can produce nicer bokeh. Enter the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM.

Canon 50mm f/1.8 II, A.K.A. The Nifty Fifty

Canon 5D with Canon 50mm f/1.8 II shot at f/2

It’s hard to think of another lens that can even come close to matching the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II in terms of performance per dollar. With that being said, it’s not a perfect lens. Below are my major complaints with the nifty fifty:

  1. It’s not that fast. While f/1.8 is fast, there are faster lenses out there. I’d prefer to have f/1.4 as I usually shoot with natural light only.
  2. It’s not very well made. Who am I kidding, it’s built like a cheap toy. I’m technically on my second nifty fifty, the first one sacrificed its life to save my 5D. My 5D took a tumble off of a cheap tripod & head combo that I was testing. Luckily (I guess), my 50mm absorbed the brunt of the fall, it was really quite the scene. I could see the camera and lens falling in slow-motion as I reached down to try to save my precious 5D. Alas, I do not have Tim Thomas (Boston Bruins goalie) type reflexes and my 5D smashed lens first into the ground. The 50mm EXPLODED into a million pieces but the 5D only ended up with a few minor scratches. As much as it saddened me to lose my 50mm, I’m glad that it is cheap to replace and the plastic actually makes a decent cushion if your camera takes a tumble.
  3. The bokeh is not that great. Along with its cheap build, the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II only has 5 diaphragm blades which means a few things in regards to bokeh. Firstly, it’s not that smooth. I like my bokeh to melt together and have an overall creamy feel. Secondly, bokeh balls are more like bokeh pentagon. This may not bother some, but now that I own a few L lenses, the pentagons are starting to drive me nuts.

Narrowing Down Your Choices

If you take a significant amount of images with your 50mm or you simply need a faster lens, finding a “higher quality” 50mm prime will be a solid investment. As a Canon shooter, we have a few choices when it comes stepping up from the nifty fifty and for most (due to budgetary constraints) it does not include the Canon 50mm f/1.2L. Instead, most will consider one of the following: Canon’s 50mm f/1.4, Sigma’s 50mm f/1.4 or Zeiss’ 50mm f/1.4. I’ve used the Canon 50mm f/1.4 in the past and while it is slightly faster (both aperture and focusing), I didn’t think the image quality was any better than my nifty fifty, especially for more than three times the price. I, like many others, really like Zeiss glass, but I’m not sure if most people can live with a lens that does have AF. Yes, you could use the nifty fifty if AF was needed, but now your carrying two lenses of the exact same focal length.  For Canon shooters, I think your efforts would be best spent looking at the Sigma 50mm f/1.4.

Specs

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM

Build Quality

The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 destroys the nifty fifty in terms of build quality. While it weighs drastically more than the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II, it also feels solid and well made. The Sigma is really built like a tank, I would put it close to an “L” lens if it wasn’t for the focus ring. The focus ring on the Sigma feels like someone stuffed a handful of sand in the gears of the focus ring before they sealed up the lens. Yes, it’s that bad.

AF Speed

I’ve always felt Canon’s 50mm f/1.8 II’s AF to be on the slower side, but it’s also a lens that will cost you just over $100. Unfortunately, the the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 seems just a tick slower than Canon’s ultra budget 50mm f/1.8. Now, focus speed is really a personal preference. Some photographers can use manual focus for all of their work and while others need lightning fast AF. Below is a quick video showing the difference between the two.

As you can see, the difference is not major, but there is a difference. The Sigma takes a little extra step to fine tune the focus which is why I think it looses this race. One other thing to note is the Canon locks faster and more consistently than the Sigma but it is close. I’ve said it before, the AF with the 5D just plain sucks no matter what lens you are using. However, when I switch from the Canon to the Sigma, I do notice a slight difference. Is it significant? No, not for me. The speed of the Sigma is completely acceptable for what I shoot. Sue, I’d like it to be faster, maybe similar to Canon’s 50mm f/1.4, but I prefer the IQ from the Sigma much more than Canon’s 50mm f/1.4.

Bokeh Test

Most 50mm lenses are optically very good so there needs to be something that sets one apart from the others. Canon’s 50mm f/1.2 obviously has it’s speed, bokeh and more importantly it’s price that sets it apart while at the other end of the scale you have the nifty fifty that is much slower but also costs next to nothing. From what I’ve read and heard from friends and other Sigma 50mm owners in the past, you basically buy the Sigma for it’s IQ and bokeh. And based upon my test results, I would have to agree with them.

OK, let me get this out of the way right off the bat. The following images are not the most exciting images and this is not the most scientific test, but it was the best I could do as this test was schedule for the weekend that Hurricane Irene decided to attack Boston. So, these images were shot in my office using what I had at my disposal. Yes, I could have used a lower ISO (I apologize), but you have little time to think while trying to batten down the hatches around your home while performing a bokeh test. Anyway, you should be able to get an general idea of IQ and bokeh from the images below.

Canon 5D with Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM shot at f/1.4 (wide open)

Canon 5D with Canon 50mm f/1.8 II shot at f/1.8 (wide open)

Canon 5D with Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM shot at f/1.8

Canon 5D with Canon 50mm f/1.8 II shot at f/2.5

Canon 5D with Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM shot at f/2.5

Canon 5D with Canon 50mm f/1.8 II shot at f/3.5

Canon 5D with Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM shot at f/3.5

Canon 5D with Canon 50mm f/1.8 II shot at f/5

Canon 5D with Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM shot at f/5

Bokeh is a very subjective thing. Some may like one lens while others may think it’s awful. For me, the Sigma produces much nicer bokeh at all aperture settings. While the Nifty fifty does do a solid job, it’s bokeh is hash when compared to the Sigma. What I mean by harsh is out of focus elements do not seem to blend together in a smooth manner. Also, due to it’s five blade diaphragm, the bokeh balls produced by the Canon are not round which I find to be distracting.

Crops

Below are a series of center 1:1 crops from the images above.

Canon 5D with Sigma 50mm EX DG HSM shot at f/1.4

Canon 5D with Canon 50mm f/1.8 II shot at f/1.8

Canon 5D with Sigma 50mm EX DG HSM shot at f/1.8

Canon 5D with Canon 50mm f/1.8 II shot at f/2.5

Canon 5D with Sigma 50mm EX DG HSM shot at f/2.5

Canon 5D with Canon 50mm f/1.8 II shot at f/3.5

Canon 5D with Sigma 50mm EX DG HSM shot at f/3.5

Canon 5D with Canon 50mm f/1.8 II shot at f/5

Canon 5D with Sigma 50mm EX DG HSM shot at f/5

Not surprisingly, neither lens is a slouch when it comes to sharpness at the center of the frame. Both lenses exhibit some noticeable chromatic aberration (CA) up to f/2.5 with the Sigma having slightly better results at f/2.5. At f/1.8, both lenses look pretty similar and the Canon actually does a better job with CA. But as you stop down, the Sigma starts to edge ahead. At f/2.5, the two look close but I would say the Sigma looks just a bit sharper. At f/3.5 the Sigma is starting to pull ahead. Look at the left edge of the battery and the black text, there is a noticeable difference. By f/5 the Sigma is making the Canon look bad which is a hard thing to do as it is a very sharp lens when stopped down. So, is there a major difference in center sharpness between the two? Yes and no. At wider apertures (i.e. wider than f/2.5), both lenses have similar performance. The Canon does a better job managing CA while the Sigma proves to be a bit sharper. As you would expect, the more you stop down, the sharper each lens becomes with the Sigma proving to edge out the Canon at each aperture setting.

Honestly, I was surprised that the results where this close. You really have to be impressed with the nifty fifty’s bang for your buck. In the end, you have to decide if the difference is worth the extra money. Because I use my 50mm more than any other lens, I find the Sigma to be a solid investment.

Buy/Upgrade if…

  • you want better build quality and manual focus is not something you rely on or use frequently.
  • you want better overall image quality including (saturation, sharpness, bokeh, etc.).
  • quality bokeh is important to you.
  • you take a lot of portrait shots. The bokeh combined with the overall IQ makes this a killer lens for all types of portrait shots.
  • you need a better low light lens. While the Sigma is not super sharp and it does suffer from some color fringing when used wide open, it does give you the ability to shoot in low light situations without relying on bumping the ISO.

Don’t Buy/Upgrade if…

  • AF speed is of the utmost importance to you. The AF speed of the Sigma isn’t unusable, but there are other faster options out there like the Canon 50mm f/1.4.
  • weight is a concern for you. The Sigma is noticeably heavier than the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II and if traveling as light as possible is important to you, go for something other than the Sigma.
  • you own a 50mm and you haven’t completed purchasing other lenses to fill your needs. If you only own a kit zoom lens and a nifty fifty, there is no reason to dump extra money on a new 50mm if you still need to cover other focal lengths. If you really only need a 50mm, then by all means check out the Sigma as it will a solid upgrade.
  • you own a crop body camera and you want a 50mm equivalent field of view. This lens will be great on crop body cameras just keep in mind that you are really shooting at an equivalent length of nearly 85mm, so it may be a bit longer than what you expected. Luckily, Sigma does offer a 30mm f/1.4 which would put crop body Canon shooters right near the 50mm focal length.

Conclusion

As I’ve already stated in the full Sigma review, provided you don’t need Lightning fast AF and you don’t plan on using the focus ring frequently, I personally think this is THE 50mm lens to own. It produces amazing results and the bokeh is hard to beat at any price range. Also, remember that Sigma makes this lens in a mount that covers most photographers so don’t think this lens is only for Canon shooters. So is it worth the upgrade? Yes, if you use your 50mm frequently and you’re looking to upgrade, you should put the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 at the top of your list.

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