A few months back we took a look at Sigma’s excellent 50mm f/1.4 and compared it to quite possibly the best value in photography, Canon’s 50mm f/1.8 II. My thought when performing this comparison was to determine if the Sigma was truly and upgrade from the nifty fifty. While Canon’s nifty fifty put up an amazing fight, we found the Sigma to be better lens is just about every way. This was to be expected from a lens that costs nearly four times as much as the nifty fifty.
So what other “upgrade” options do photographers have besides the Sigma? Besides Canon’s 50mm f/1.4, which I do not find to be much better than the nifty fifty, and vintage glass or third party lenses with adapters, Canon users really only have one other 50mm option and that is the Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 ZE. I had the pleasure of testing the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 ZE (read review here) a few months ago and I have to admit, I was pretty impressed. My only complaints with the Zeiss Distagon 35mm were, unsurprisingly, the price and the lack of AF. Coming in at roughly half the price of it’s 35mm sibling, the Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 ZE may be a better choice for those looking to step up to a Zeiss lens without taking out a second mortgage. While the Zeiss 50mm may be the most affordable Zeiss option, it is still over $200 more expensive than Sigma’s wonderful 50mm f/1.4. So can the Zeiss keep up with our reigning 50mm camp, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM? Let’s find out.
Below is a very brief summary on each lens. For a much more detailed look at each lens, check out the following posts:
Canon 50mm f/1.8 II
The Nifty Fifty is easily the best deal in photography. Yes, it is made of plastic and it feels like a toy, but the image quality is extremely good. For under $125, you can get a lens that is sharp, contrasty (is that a real word?) and fast (aperture wise). I have one and this lens is practically glued to my 5D. I’ve been looking to step up to a “higher quality” 50mm since I purchased my 5D, but I have yet to pull the trigger on anything because I find the Canon’s 50mm f/1.8 II to hard to beat for the money.
Read our long term review of the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II here.
Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM
I had the chance to review Sigma’s 50mm f/1.4 a few months ago and I have to admit that I am now quite smitten with this lens. I am going to purchase a new 50mm lens before the year’s end and, unless the Zeiss really ends up impressing me, it looks like I’m going to be buying the Sigma.
The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 is an extremely impressive lens. It produces amazing bokeh, colors, contrast sharpness and the list goes on. I really only had two complaints with the Sigma, the slowish AF and the cheap focus ring. But, after you review the first images taken with this lens on your computer, you will quickly forget about these small faults.
Read the our full review of the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM.
Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 ZE
I’ve only had a few days with the Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 ZE and here is what I’ve learned. Like any other Zeiss lens, the build quality is outstanding. The full metal construction including the hood makes this lens feel like a precision crafted piece of equipment. All of this metal means added weight but I find the Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 to feel very balanced on my Canon 5D.
Most photographer are aware but for those of you that may be new to Zeiss and their lenses, all Zeiss lenses (except for a few lenses made for Sony) do not have auto focus capabilities. This means you are stuck with full-time manual focus. Thankfully, the ZE series of Zeiss lenses offer electronic AF confirmation. This is a lifesaver for photographers that do not use a matte or split prism focusing screen or those that may be using a DSLR that doesn’t have a nice big viewfinder (e.g. the Canon Rebel series). The lack of AF may be a deal breaker for most, but I would highly recommend shooting with one before you completely dismiss the idea of a lens without AF.
Because there is no auto focus, photographers must rely on the focus ring when shooting and, thankfully, the Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 has the smoothest focusing ring out of any 50mm lens I’ve ever used. If you shoot video, I highly recommend you look into this lens. The focus ring so smooth and the resistance is perfectly weighted. This is truly a beautifully crafted lens.
Be sure to check back for our full review of the Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4.
Okay, let’s get this out there before we review the images below. I, and the other writers here at The Phoblographer, am not a pixel peeper. While ISO charts and super complex computer tests may be helpful to some, I do not think they are truly representative of what a lens will be like in the field. Therefore, I do not put too much weight on these methods of testing. With that being said, I want to provide you with something that will allow for a basic comparison of these lenses. With these images, you can get a general idea of center sharpness and bokeh but try to absorb this information with a grain of salt. If you really want an in-depth look at each lens, check out the full reviews of the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II and the Sigma 50mm f/1.4. A full review of the Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 will be available after we have time to thoroughly test the lens.
Editor’s Note: I had my 5D mounted a rock solid tripod and I used a wireless trigger and mirror lockup so there should be no outside forces affecting the the images below. I used the AF confirmation feature of the Zeiss to lock focus and AF was used for the Canon and Sigma as well. Focus was locked onto the second “o” if you are reading from top to bottom.
Editor in Chief’s Note: I want to come in here and personally say that we hate pixel peeping but only do it because you demand it. In real life, we don’t think it makes any difference unless your focusing is off. -Chris Gampat, Editor in Chief
From my previous Sigma vs. Canon post…
“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.”
Not surprisingly, I still feel the same way but now we have to compare the Canon and the Sigma to the Zeiss. The Zeiss does produce nice a creamy bokeh, but I still prefer the bokeh from the Sigma; the out of focus areas just seem to blend together in a more pleasing manner. The Zeiss compared to the Canon? Well, that’s a no brainer. As you would expect, the 9 blade diaphram of the Zeiss produces much more pleasing bokeh when compared to the 5 blade diaphragm of the Canon. I still think the Canon is an amazing deal and some of my favorite photographs were made with this lens, but its cheap price is pretty evident when it is put head-to-head against the Zeiss and Sigma.
Below are a series of center 1:1 crops from the images above.
Like most lenses, center sharpness is good to excellent with all lenses but the Sigma is the clear winner here. Surprisingly, I think I would have to put the Zeiss at the back of the pack. I’m not sure if the AF between the lens and my 5D is off, but it looks like the Zeiss images are not as sharp as they should be. I wish I had live view in my old 5D…just another reason to upgrade. I will look into this focusing issue further as I put the Ziess through it’s paces for the full review.
If anyone has an old Canon EE-S focusing screen that they would like to borrow, it would be greatly appreciated. It is IMPOSSIBLE to find these for the old 5D.
Based on the images above, I find the Sigma to be the clear leader of the pack. The bokeh is nice and smooth (not distracting) and center sharpness is very impressive. Like I said before, I believe that the Sigma is the lens to beat at the moment. Again, this is a very quick and dirty test just to provide you with examples of images from each lens.
I will update this post with my final thoughts after I have had enough time to fully test the Ziess 50mm f/1.4 but until then, if you need a 50mm lens and the nifty fifty simply isn’t doing the trick, I would highly recommend you look at the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM…you won’t be disappointed.
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