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Long Term Review: Canon 50mm f1.4 Lens

by Chris Gampat on 10/02/2011

We’ve reviewed the Sigma version of this lens, and today we bring you a long term review of the Canon version: a lens that many say cannot touch the Sigma in terms of overall quality. I’ve been testing this lens on both the Canon 5D Mk II and 7D, and though it has had its quirks, it is still a lens worth considering in your lineup of glass. But is it really the right lens for you?

Tech Specs

Borrowed from B&H Photo’s Listing of the lens.

Performance
Focal Length 50 mm
Aperture Maximum: f/1.4
Minimum: f/22
Camera Mount Type Canon EF
Format Compatibility 35mm Film / Full-Frame Digital Sensor
Canon (APS-C)
Angle of View 46°
Minimum Focus Distance 1.5′ (45cm)
Magnification 0.15x
Maximum Reproduction Ratio 1:6.6
Groups/Elements 6/7
Diaphragm Blades 8
Features
Image Stabilization No
Autofocus Yes
Tripod Collar No
Physical
Filter Thread 58 mm
Dimensions (DxL) Approx. 2.9 x 2.0″ (7.37 x 5.08cm)
Weight 10.23 oz (290g)

Ergonomics

The Canon 50mm f1.4 USM lens is characterized mostly by the absolute simplicity that has been packed into such a small package. The left features the AF/MF focusing switch. Around this area is a textured pattern for easier gripping when shooting. The lens fits in the palm of your hand, so in most occassions your palm or other fingers may be gripping this area.

Right above this area is the focusing ring. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of it. The ring is very small when compared to my 35mm f1.4 L and 85mm f1.8. Because of this, I’ve been best off leaving the lens in Autofocus. At least it has a distance scale, unlike the 50mm f1.8.

The top of the lens features the distance scale and what is trying to be a depth of field scale. However, I feel that this is where Canon did a very poor job in the design. For those that want to use this lens to shoot hyperfocal length style (such as street photographers who don’t want to put the camera to their eyes), this may be a bit problematic. Sure, you know how far out your focusing, but you don’t know how much is in focus at a certain distance depending on your aperture.

If it was Canon’s intention to make this a mostly autofocus lens (which it seems like) they should have just removed the depth of field scale altogether.

The front of the lens is around the same size as my 85mm f1.8; and the hood screws onto the front of the lens. This is unlike the 85mm’s hood, which snaps on.

Focusing

I’ve handled many versions of this lens over time: with some having the focusing ring being sticky and other having the ring being very smooth to turn. The one I’m currently borrowing has a sticky ring and has trouble autofocusing on my friend’s Rebel. However, there are no problems on my 5D Mk II or 7D.

With this said, it’s still not all perfect. I needed to microadjust the lens to focus backward 3mm in order to finally achieve sharp focusing while wide open. And trust me, that wasn’t an easy task. However, when you nail focusing, you really nail it. This lens is really very sharp; and the LCD screen of the 5D Mk II doesn’t do it justice at all when magnifying the image at 100%. Once you import the images onto your computer screen, only then can you truly appreciate how sharp this lens is.

However, do note that just like any other RAW file, this images you get from this lens will still need sharpening and a boost in clarity; as will any other that you use.

The lens also seemed to focus faster on the Canon 7D vs the Canon 5D Mk II; but only by a hair. Perhaps this could be because of the newer AF system in the 7D. In comparison as a portrait lens though, this lens isn’t the super fast autofocus performer that my 85mm f1.8 is. Indeed, that lens is perhaps Canon’s fastest focusing lens.

When it comes to matters of street photography, pray that your subject is stagnant for the most part if you’re shooting wide open. If you’ve stopped down, then you’ll have more leeway. With the 5D Mk II, it was super hard to get moving subjects perfectly in focus; even when using AI Servo. The 7D allowed a bit more versatility with the better focus tracking, but it was still a bit tough overall.

When you get the images in focus though, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how good this lens performs. However, using this lens hit a very important fact home:

First off, note that it’s the photographer that creates the images: make no mistake about that. But even if the photographer is good, the camera may still be a bit flawed, or in some cases, the lens. During my review of the Canon Rebel T3i, I found that when the 35mm f1.4 L was attached, that the combo performed very admirably when shooting street photography. The focusing was spot on, and the speed at which all this was done was very impressive as well.

As I’m writing this, I’m actually pleasantly shocked. However, it has been common knowledge for years that the lenses are more important. But this little factoid really hit it home. Because of this, a good tactic is to let the lens autofocus and twist the focusing ring a bit to keep the subject still in focus if the tracking isn’t working correctly. With most newer model DSLRs, it will.

To be fair, the Canon 5D Mk II was designed to be a studio, wedding and photojournalism camera. With my 35mm f1.4, it performs very well; as it does with my 85mm. The 50mm f1.4 though leaves me wanting more from it.

Build Quality

The build quality of this lens is, well, plasticky. It feels good in the hand when you’re gripping it, but there is nothing extremely solid feeling about this lens at all. For the price that you’re paying, Nikon’s 50mm f1.4 has a better build quality to it and at the time of writing this article, is a bit more affordable.

It is unlike the Sigma 50mm f1.4’s build, which feels a lot like a Canon L lens. Kai Wong from Digital Rev says it absolutely the best in the video above. But also be sure to check out Mike’s review of the lens.

Image Quality

When testing this lens on the 5D Mk II, I shot with it mostly wide open. Why? Well, why purchase a wide aperture lens in the first place?! With this said, the 50mm f1.4 is satisfyingly sharp wide open when microadjusted correctly to your camera. The bokeh is a bit distracting and not as creamy as some of Canon’s other options, but overall it’s quite nice.

The color rendering from this lens is very accurate. When you choose a certain color profile on your camera, your results will be very predictable. By that, I mean this: Canon DSLRs have different profiles; portrait, landscape, standard, custom, etc. I mostly use my three custom profiles. However, sometimes, the results aren’t always what I predict will come from the camera. With this lens attached, all results are predictable. In practice, that means that you’ll know just how vivid the colors will be before hand. That later translates into knowing exactly how to edit your photos later on vs having to experiment.

Skin tone rendering with this lens is also quite accurate. So if it is attached to a Canon 7D or other APS-C sensor camera, you’ll be pleasantly surprised—especially if your subject has great skin.

Most users will be satisfied with the image quality you get from this lens. It is on Canon’s list of Canon Professional Services lenses; and rightfully so. It is used by many professional photographers whether you shoot weddings, photojournalism, portraits, etc.

It also resolves an insane amount of detail. So much detail is resolved that I’m not afraid of shooting at ISO 6400 and having to tweak the noise reduction in Lightroom 3. To explain further, this can sometimes cause a loss of detail. But raising the sharpness levels and boosting the clarity a bit can help to recover them. And when you’re capturing so much detail to begin with, how can you go wrong?

The lens also has very little distortion, though it can vignette. All of this is easily taken care of in post-production with the click of a button.

One of my favorite things about this lens is the lack of color fringing. Though this is an easily corrected flaw in post-production; try showing a client an image that you just shot and them seeing purple in the high contrast areas. That’s a +1 that this lens has on the 85mm f1.8.

Of course, keep this in mind only if you have clients to begin with.

When it comes to shooting pets, I have to say that even though the image quality is top notch, I’m a bit disappointed by how slowly this lens can focus at times. When photographing pets, the moment is there, and then it is gone. If you’re into pet photography, make sure you stop this lens down a bit; or go for a faster focusing lens.

Sharpness Test

For this test, I set the camera up on a tripod, put the camera in Live View to prevent mirror shake, and also set it to delay shooting. Everything was shot at ISO 200, and set to Aperture priority. In this setting, the camera compensated the shutter speed itself.

I’ll let you be the judge of this lens’s performance.

F1.4

F2.0

F2.8

F4.0

F5.6

F8

F11

F16

F22

Conclusions

Is the Canon 50mm f1.4 USM for everyone? To be honest, I actually believe that I’d recommend it to everyone purely because of the great image quality combined with affordable price and relatively decent build quality. It’s on my list of best budget lenses. My biggest problem with the lens is the slow focusing and the lack of a proper depth of field scale. Believe it or not, the slow focusing made me almost want to switch over totally to manual focusing lens and also switch out my focusing screen to have a split prism.

Let me explain: lenses should just work; and they should work properly. Any DSLR lens will not though. You’ll need to microadjust them in order to achieve the absolute best focusing. All of my lenses are microadjusted to my Canon 7D and 5D Mk II in order to achieve the absolute best sharpness that I can. It’s not an easy process, but once it’s done; you’ll be very happy with what you get.

Is it worth the upgrade over the nifty fifty f1.8? Yes, yes and yes. That lens is very sharp, but not wide open. It can also be a pain in the butt to focus. The f1.4 version does have focusing issues, but you can work with them at least.

Will I be getting one? I’m not sure. The Sigma 50mm f1.4 is very tempting too.

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