Monday, June 4, 2012

Canon EF Lenses Chat: Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM Review

Chandelier at an old place called Rihana

Now that I've taken close to a thousand shots with my Canon 50mm f/1.4, it is a good time to do my review, it is probably going to be quite long, with lots of smaples (see? I do what I want other reviews to do, but unfortunately they don't), so if you want the short version, here it is, it kicks ass. Click through for more details.

P.S. You can click on any picture to see a 1200px version.


The 50mm focal length is not new to me, you might remember my pursuit of a 50mm equivalent lens on my crop sensor DSLR, I ended up with the under-estimated Canon 35mm f/2, it was my do-it-all lens, but since I switched to full frame, I wanted that focal length back, below were my choices (auto-focus filtered):

  • Canon EF 50mm f/1.8
  • Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM
  • Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM
  • Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro
  • Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX
And here is my reasoning for ending up with the 1.4 Canon, I have previously owned the Canon 50mm f/1.8, and in short, apart from great sharpness at f/2.8 and smaller apertures, it was not that good, slow noisy and inaccurate focusing, lots of nervous bokeh, and not very sharp until f/2.5, so I skipped it. The 50 f/2.5 Macro was ok, but I wanted a faster aperture and a better focusing mechanism. The Canon 50 f/1.2 was out of my price and size range, so that's a pass too.

Choice was down between the two 50 f/1.4 lenses, the Sigma and the Canon, having tried the Sigma myself in Malaysia (albeit on a crop sensor), I was awed by it's excellent bokeh, and Mic confirmed the same in his excellent review with some bokehlicious samples (if you haven't ever watched DigitalRevTV, you have to, search it on youtube), but alas, for some reason, the Canon versions of most 3rd party lenses have lots focusing issues ranging from inconsistency, to hunting in low light, to just plain back and front-focussing, and that's a real shame, because it put me off from both the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 and the Sigma 50mm f/1.4, the solution is to go through several copies until you find one that works with your body, and I wasn't going to do that.

So, by exclusion, I had no choice but to get the Canon 50 f/1.4, so how did it go?

This shot was taken almost one hour after sunset in the Fayoum desert, bounce flash to the left


I was worried about getting the Canon over the Sigma for a couple of reasons, although the Canon is designated as USM, it doesn't have true ring USM focusing (which is very quick and completely silent), but rather a micro motor which is famously prone to breaking sometime during its lifetime. The other reason is that reviews claim that it is very soft wide open and not really that sharp until stopped down to f/2.8.

Well, I am here to report that I am very satisfied with the Canon's focusing, it is reasonably quiet, very consistent at all apertures, and features full time manual focussing override, as for focusing system failure, we'll see this over time, some people say because the front element extends slightly during focusing, it is more likely to get bumped, however I am using it with a lens hood all the time. I like the build quality, it is solid with a metal mount, but the focusing ring is not very smooth (because of the focusing mechanism), it feels like grinding when used manually. Size is perfect and discrete, and having f/1.4 is great, but they say it is totally unusable at that aperture, oh, is it? Let's find out.

Full frame is real fun when you want to control DoF, even stopped down


This lens drove me crazy for the first couple of weeks I owned it, focusing was very inconsistent, sometimes back-focusing, sometimes the other way around, so I started playing with MFA on my 5D Mark II and ended up with +2 MFA, and I was happy with wide-open performance, but shortly after that I found more inconsistency, close shots were ok, but farther shots were out of focus, until one day I was shooting my sleeping daughter and found the focus was way off, but consistently off, so I started fiddling with MFA for the zillionth time, and this time ended up with +13 MFA, it was the magical number, suddenly all my furstration with the lens went away, the lens was singing and I went berserk running everywhere inside the house and the garden shooting everything wide-open, with amazing results, totally unexpected, it was a user error all the time, and fortunately, I've learned how to do MFA properly.

Now my lens is quite sharp wide open with a nice bite, and with nice soft out of focus bckgrounds, stopped down to f/2 makes it real sharp and at f/2.8 it is as sharp as I remember my 50mm f/1.8 is, which is very sharp. How I got focused shots at +2 MFA (and other settings I tried and worked ok for some shots) is beyond me. What's more interesting, non of my ring-USM lenses ever needed MFA (and I tried it to make sure lenses were as sharp as they would get), this included the 85 f/1.8, 100 f/2.8 L, 200 f/2.8 L, and 24-105 f/4 L. My other non ring-USM lens I tried on the 5D is the 35mm f/2 and it needed a +5 MFA, glad it was perfect on the 60D.

All the examples you're seeing next are shot wide-open.

PetroSport club at sunset, those chairs in the background were very close
Bowling Center
PetroSport club, I like the balloon caolors
A pink rose
Rihana, old gramaphone, my friends thought of this shot
Rihana, old artifacts everywhere


Excellent, good color, good contrast, quite sharp wide-open and down to f/2 (after that it gets real sharp) with a nice bite to the images that makes some of them look three dimensional like the examples below.

PetroSport club
Rihana, another old chandelier

Bokeh is much better than the 50 f/1.8 and my Zuiko 50 f/1.8 (still have it, will post about it again), and it gets dreamy wide-open especially when you're shooting close. I never faced any chromatic aberrations with this lens. My only complaint might be the slightly octagonal-shaped highlights when not shooting wide-open.

Capturing on the Galaxy Note, Bowling Center
Chocolate Fondant, Crave Maadi

I like this lens a lot, it is my default lens when I go anywhere because of three very important reasons, size, fast aperture and focal length, something about the 50mm perspective seems attractive, I use it for semi-wide shots, wide/close portraits, close-up details and literaly all kinds of shots. After getting the correct MFA, focusing is always sopt-on (by the way, I am using single point focusig 100% of the time, with AI Servo continuous focusig, and back button focusing).

Sharpness is really good wide-open and easily exceeded my expectations (reviews bashed it really bad), of course it can use more sharpness, but I am satisfied with what I am getting. The size is also perfect, wth my current lens lineup (50 f/1.4, 50 f/1.8 Zuiko, 100 f/2.8 Macro, 200 f/2.8 and 24-105 f/4), the 50 is the smallest lens I have and the only one that fits wth the camera inside my Lowepro Zoom Toploader 45 AW.

So do I recommend this lens? Yes, anytime and everytime, the price is very good, the size is perfect and the optical performance is satisfying wide-open, and stellar stopped down, below are a few more samples. What do you think?

Old timer, Kafr Al-Sheikh
Sometimes clouds do very strange shapes
Hey, where are you going? Bowling Center
Watching an interesting shot, Bowling Center
Girls ganged up on this poor guy to extract the ball from his clutches, Rihana
Having absolute fun, Rihana
That's a BMW E39 in the background, love its shape
Countryside, Kafr Al-Sheikh