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on March 15, 2005
With the 50mm f1.8 lens available for less than a hundred dollars, why spend so much more to get the f1.4? The answer is, you may not need to. It all depends on your seriousness, budget, and how long you need your lens to last.

If you want a "starter lens" for shooting at 50mm (or with prime lenses in general), the f1.8 would be a great buy. 50mm is a very useful and intuitive focal length to spend some time with, because it will portray the world through the viewfinder at about the same distance as your naked eye on all of Canon's consumer-priced dSLRs with the 1.6x crop factor*. (*Updated after extensive discussion in the comments.) So you could buy the f1.8 cheaply, regard it as a "play with it" lens, and get a nice introduction to "prime lens quality." The f1.8 will seem like a substantial step up from kit lenses and most consumer-priced zooms, and amazing bang for few bucks.

So if the f1.8 is such a great bargain, why would the f1.4 be among Canon's most all-time popular lenses? It's that the f1.8 can take the great shot within certain conditions, but the f1.4 delivers within a much wider range of conditions. In other words, "You get what you pay for," and we'll save the best for last.

Affordable-but-Solid Contruction: The f1.4 will likely have a much longer life than the cheaper plastic build of the f1.8, and retain more resale value. It's an investment, rather than a commodity. And it'll be more certain on your camera and in your hand. (My first one finally needed some calibration, after 80,000 shots and extreme wear-and-tear from frequent swapping with my other primes.) Users sometimes report the front glass falling out of their f1.8s. For the f1.4, the main issues revolve around the Micro USM focus motor, which is not as sturdy as true USM.

Focus Versatility: The f1.4 lets your camera autofocus, and then lets you tweak further by hand without flipping a switch - that's called "Full-Time Manual Focus." The f1.8 requires switching back and forth between auto and manual focus. The f1.8 is famously noisy/buzzy during autofocus, has a bare-minimum focus ring, and no distance scale. The f1.4 will autofocus more reliably, especially in dim light, though it will fail occasionally when starved.

Resistance to Abberation: Chromatic abberation (fringe colors) and barrel distortion are evident-but-low for both lenses at wide apertures - that's "prime lens quality." But in comparison tests, the f1.8 is more susceptible to vignetting (shadows around the corners), halation (glowing around the highlights), and lens flare. For instance, lens flare within the f1.4 tends to be more tightly controlled - "in focus" - whereas a bright light source is more like to blow out the whole shot in the f1.8. All these factors improve when stopped down, but lag about a stop behind the f1.4.

Color: However, if the f1.8 catches up at f/8 to the f1.4 by many standards, it rarely catches up to the f1.4's saturation. The f1.4 has "proper-to-strong" color richness at all but the widest apertures, while the f1.8's shots are much more likely to require postwork. (I do, however, get better saturation from my 24mm f2.8 and 100mm Macro f2.8. The 50 f1.4's saturation seems good-not-great by comparison.)

"Headroom": The engineering of both lenses lets you choose the tradeoff between "most possible light" or "most possible clarity." It's by design that you can choose "more light for less crisp," or stop down for sharpness. *Samples vary*, but the average 50mm f1.4 should consistently "get down to sharp" more quickly, "sharp enough" by f/2.0, "very very sharp" by f/2.8 (often exceeding the professional 24-70mm f2.8 L when wide open), and delivering "unreal sharp" by f/4. (I saw insane "specks of mascara sharpness" at f/3.5 from my first f1.4.) Again, the f1.8 will probably lag about a stop behind that curve.

My second 50mm f1.4 performed even better than my first, right out of the box, "marginally sharp" at f/1.4 and increasingly beyond reproach by f/1.8-2. (At f/1.4-1.6, it suffers only from halation and some light fall-off in darker areas.) So if extreme sharpness is necessary for you, shop with a strategy that will let you return your lens or get it calibrated if not up to your needs. My guess is that my first one was more typical out of the box, but it approached the performance of the second after calibration.

(It's also worth noting that the premium-priced 50mm f1.2L is drastically more sharp (and better performing generally) at wide apertures, but *less* sharp at f/2.8 through f/8. The f1.4 is a better "walkaround" performer than the f1.2L lens that costs four times as much.)

Regarding light return specifically, my own experience in lens-swapping baffled me, until I read other reports that the f1.4 exposes a third of a stop brighter than most other Canon lenses. It's brighter in the viewfinder generally, and really IS a whole stop "faster" than the f1.8 at maximum apertures (i.e., the same net exposure at half the shutter speed). If you're willing to sacrifice some clarity, that extra stop can make a huge difference when you're challenged by moving targets in low light.

(For instance, shooting "wide open" for performers in dim venues. Faster shutter for less motion blur. More light for better color. And the edges may be soft at 100% magnification, but *relatively* clear compared to the out-of-focus background. That "illusion of clarity" isn't as likely to print very well, but resizes very snappily for the web.)

So the f1.8 can certainly produce some stunning images, particularly in general daylight photography OR tightly-controlled conditions OR stopped down, but is less adaptable to challenging circumstances that the f1.4.

"The Best for Last...":

Now, with both these lenses, you get the advantage of marvelously wide aperture, which can be used for a tight focal plane that lets the background (or foreground distractions) fall quickly out of focus. This is of course a cornerstone of creative photography, and both lenses give you plenty to explore. (In practice, even f/2.8 delivers a pretty shallow depth of field in close-up shots, so these wider lenses give you even more room to play.)

However, there is such a thing as "blur quality," called "bokeh," based on the number of aperture blades within the lens. The f1.8 has five, and the f1.4 has eight. The f1.8 will portray out-of-focus lights more pentagonally, the f1.4 more roundly. (In focus, those same lights will be eight-pointed stars with the f1.4, ten-pointed with the f1.8 - odd numbers of blades double the number of points.) But most importantly, the blur from the f1.8 can be rather "choppy," especially at wide apertures, while the f1.4's is consistently more "buttery smooth."

In other words, there's more to quality than sharpness - there's also quality where your shot is LESS than sharp. And this is where the f1.4 becomes "a favorite lens" for some people, even at over three times the price of its diminuitive counterpart.

Make no mistake, the f1.8 would make an excellent "starter" lens. But the f1.4 is an exceptionally *serious* lens. Are you still learning to love photography? Then $80 is a fine price to pay for a lens you might outgrow. Or do you already love photography? Then $300 is a worthy price for a true investment that will reliably pay off. So they're both bargains, just buy what's best for you.

(Addendum - Canon also sells a 50mm f2.5 Macro lens around $250. If you NEED macro, it's reportedly pretty good, and for general purpose as well. But it's a) not even as fast as the f1.8, b) more difficult to manually focus than the f1.4, and c) not as creamy in the bokeh, with six aperture blades instead of eight. And Canon's 100mm version is drastically more practical for macro work, and better performing generally. But the 50mm Macro does become a contender, at a "middle price," if what you really need is one decent lens to do as many different things as possible, though none of them as well.)
218218 comments|5,039 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on August 23, 2006
I bought this lens to take indoor portraits of my nine-month-old daughter using available light. I was tired of the harsh photos produced by the built-in flash on the Canon 20D or Digital Rebel. A bounce flash improves matters great deal, but I wanted to see what could be done with a fast lens.

The Canon 50mm 1.4 gobbles light. It opens up a world of indoor photography that is not possible with a 4.0 lens. The 50mm focal length combined with available light produces natural-looking results. It is exactly what your eye sees. Shadows and highlights are intact. It is a revelation if you're used to the harsh drop shadows and evenly-lit faces produced by flashes. This is a jarring step up in quality from snapshot to "wow"

As noted, focus is soft at /1.4 and begins to sharpen at /2.0 to /2.8. Not a bad thing, though. Some of my favorite pictures have been produced with the aperture wide open. The depth of field is so narrow at this point, that the subject's face is in focus, but the shoulders start to blur.

I use this lens with a 20D. The balance is perfect, the combination feels very professional and responsive. Operation is very simple. Move the camera into aperture priority mode (Av), look though the view finder and adjust the aperture until you see the shutter speed is faster than 1/30th a second (30).

I agonized over the 1.4 vs. the 1.8 versions of this lens. The additional stop does provide more shooting options. Often I'm shooting at the edge of acceptable shutter speed, and juggling both aperture and ISO. Many reviews comparing the two talk about build quality, focus motor speed/noise, etc, but the bottom line for me was the extra stop was totally worth it. If you want to shoot indoors without a flash, get the 1.4. If you simply want a nice sharp lens at this focal length, the 1.8 is for you.

As a father, my only regret is I wish I had this lens earlier. From one parent to another, I'll tell you the price of the lens is irrelevant, as the pictures it produces are priceless.

Now, go make a backup of your photo library.
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on November 10, 2004
This 50mm is amazing. I truly love it. I debated a long time between the 1.8 and the 1.4. In the end, I figured I'd never replace it again so get the 1.4. I love it - the images it makes are staggering. Still - it's pricy compared to the 1.8 - but not to L series lenses. I think it's worth it. I read online it had barrel distortion wide open - and it does if you really study the image - but that's perfectly OK with me for the 1.4 shallow depth of field. Normal people will never see that at all. One drawback you may not think of is that beautiful wide open 1.4 aperture is not available to you if there is much light. It's so fast it's easy to overexpose - even with 1/4000th of a second shutter. It takes awesome portraits - awesome landscapes. This is a must have lens in every EOS owner's bag. Don't get the 1.8 and wish you got this one. Get this one and start taking great photos.
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on October 29, 2006
When I worked as a photojournalist many years ago, 50mm was the "standard" lens in that it came closest to a real world perspective, especially for street photography. That is no longer always true because of the field-of-view crop of many cameras. Canon's popular digital Rebel and its successors, for example, have a 1.6X view that turns a 50mm lens into an 80mm lens. The 1D MARK II has a 1.3X view that makes it a 65mm lens.

So, if you're looking for a standard lens today, 35mm probably is closer to the mark on those cameras. And Canon has a couple of options there - a 35 f/1.4 that is great and expensive and a 35 f/2 that is a good value at about $250.

If you're still looking for a 50mm, however, there now are four options from Canon: 50/1.2, 50/1.4, 50/1.8 and 50/2.5. Here are the pros and cons of each:

50/1.2 is the newest, fastest and the most expensive at about $1,600. It is an "L" lens, which means it is more durably constructed than any of the others. The image quality is a cut above all of the others, especially at wider apertures. If money is no object, you'll probably want this one. But most of the rest of us have to ask the question whether it's 5X better than the 1.4.

50/1.4 is maligned by some for the softness of its images at f/1.4, but for me its a good, compact, low-light lens at a terrific price ($325). And the lens gets sharp quickly as you stop it down. It's sharp at f/2 and very sharp by f/2.8 with good contrast and colors.

50/1.8 is a step down from the 1.4 in speed, image quality, build quality and the smoothness and noise of its autofocus. But it is a big step up in value - a decent lens for about $80. If you're just getting into digital photography, this is a great lens to learn on until you get a better feel for the lenses that you want/need.

50/2.5 - this is a macro lens, although you can use it for general photography, too. I wouldn't recommend it. If you're doing macro photography, spend a little more for the 100/2.8, which is a sharper lens that gives you more subject distance. If you're looking for a standard lens, you'll appreciate the wider aperture of the 1.4.

All that said, of the 50mm Canon lenses, I think the 50/1.4 still offers the best mix of image quality and value.
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on December 19, 2005
There are some excellent reviews of this lens already posted, but in my opinion, this lens is quite simply an essential lens for any film or digital photographer using Canon bodies. Here are some specific observations, in no particular order.

* It provides fantastic crispness and the fastest focus I've ever seen. On subjects where my zooms tend to hunt, this lens is instantaneous. I also like the full-time manual ring, because there are times when it's handy to change focus slightly.

* I completely disagree with the reviewer who said this lens wasn't contrasty. I tend to shoot in a range of environments, from dingy school auditoriums for my niece's basketball team to bright sunlight at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, and this lens has reliably given me 30-40% keepers every time I've taken it out of the bag. Colors are punchy, and there's very consistent contrast across the frame without any noticeable distortion.

* It's small enough to go anywhere, but as one reviewer mentioned, it feels good in the hand, so it's not fumbly. I didn't like the lighter plasticky feel of the f/1.8.

* The lens ring is 58mm, which means filters are inexpensive - I recommend a circular polarizing filter for any outdoor shooting.

* I agree that this lens is unbelievably crisp at f/4.0 and higher, but for some subjects I like the blade-thin shallow DOF at f/2.0 and less. Just gotta remember to keep your group pictures within a fairly shallow range. :-)

* The crispness of this lens worked beautifully with black and white photography, and for converting color to BW. Because of the extra stop, it brought out beautiful texture at ISO 100 without requiring that I go with a higher ISO, which would have introduced some grain.

If you're consdering a 50mm prime for your Canon, I recommend that you go to a good camera store, which should offer rentals. Take this lens out and do some real-world shooting. The f/1.8 is a toy in comparison, and anyone who says they would choose it instead of the f/1.4, at any price, is simply not credible.

I take my pictures because I want an excellent representation of what I saw. I don't always have the luxury of retaking them: I need the best possible shot the first time and every time. The 50mm f/1.4 is the best of these two lenses, and one of the best three lenses I own (I also own the 17-40mm f/4L and the 70-200mm f/4L).
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on January 15, 2005
Like many, I'm just an amateur photographer. If you are using the standard 18-55mm lens that accompanies the Canon EOS Digital Rebel kit, you've probably discovered how slow the lens is. With a f/3.5-5.6 aperture, the lens is better suited for outdoor photos where natural lighting is available. With indoor photos, I've found myself using the built-in flash repeatedly, thus drowning out a lot of the natural color. This was particularly true with photographs of people. Thus, I sought out a high quality lens, high speed lens -- this is definitely one you'll want in your lens collection. The 50mm size best simulates a person's visual perspective, so it tends to avoid the type of distortion apparent in wide angle photos. The distortion is rather minor, but more pronounced when you use 28mm or wider. If you are accustomed to using a wide angle lens, you need to be forewarned that your perspective appears extremely narrow when using a 50mm lens. Be sure to take a look at a 50mm lens in person and make sure that you are okay with it. Overall, Canon quality is unsurpassed and my photos come out clear and much brighter as a result of the lens' speed. I've tested other brands and occasionally, you face incompatibility problems. Often, you end up wishing that you didn't buy an off brand anyway, so I've learned to avoid long term regrets about why I didn't buy a dedicated Canon product. Life is too short -- save up your money and buy top quality equipment. You won't waste time second-guessing your decisions!
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on August 18, 2005
The 50mm/f1.4 and 50mm/f1.8 are the BEST PORTRAIT LENSES that Canon offers. I own a Canon Rebel 2000 and Digital Rebel XT and have used both these lenses for several months. Pictures have been outstanding and my professional customers frequently cite the sharpness, light balance, depth of field, color reproduction, and "bokeh" (intentional blurring of background in portraits) from these lenses. Some people question the usefulness of a 50mm lens on digital SLRs with a 1.6x crop factor (i.e., 50mm lens = 80mm on a dSLR like the Digital Rebel XT)... I can vouch that the range is beautiful and relevant, focusing more closely on key subjects in portraits.

WHAT DO THESE LENSES HAVE IN COMMON? They are both fast (the f1.4 is blazing fast - dSLR can hardly keep up!), details are incredibly sharp (you can see individual hair strands), virtually no chromatic (color) aberration, no dithering or shadows in the corners, focusing is rapid and quiet (thanks to Canon's patented Ultrasonic USM technology) and photo quality parallels even my professional Canon "L" lenses. These fixed aperture lenses also provide superior pictures than telephoto lenses at 50mm because of better glass and aspherical elements.

HOW ARE THESE LENSES DIFFERENT? Having tested both lenses across 1500+ pictures, there are 5 key factors that make the f1.4 superior (justifying the $300+ price tag).

1) FASTER ESPECIALLY IN LOW LIGHT: Extra f-stop makes the f/1.4 better for indoor photos or low light. Great companion to the 480EX flash. I was able to take nearly 40 pics/min with flash and the fastest Sandisk 1GB Ultra II CF card

2) NO CHROMATIC ABERRATION, whereas the f/1.8 has slight yellowing of photos under certain lighting conditions or where edge definition is low

3) FULL AUTO/MANUAL FOCUSING RANGE: f/1.8 requires flipping between auto and manual using a switch, while f/1.4 can be manually "hot" focused/tweaked after auto focusing

4) SUPERIOR BUILD QUALITY: The f/1.8 is plastic and feels cheap, like it might fall apart anytime. The f/1.4 is metal, weighty, and is for the proud lens owner

5) CLEANER "BOKEH" - f/1.4 produces beautiful blurring of background in portraits ("bokeh") while the f/1.8 leaves less clean edges. Canon reviews suggest this is due to the f/1.4 having 8 lens elements vs. 5 elements for the f/1.8

WHICH LENS SHOULD YOU BUY? This is a question of utility vs. value. The f/1.4 costs over $300 while the f/1.8 can be acquired for under $75. The f/1.4 will last forever while the f/1.8 will probably break under normal use in a year. Does this justify the 4x price tag? If you are a budding photographer looking for a "play lens" then the f/1.8 will more than over-deliver. If you are a photo enthusiast who looks for "the perfect shot," you will want the f/1.4 because it surpasses every expectation (and so you're not left wondering, "what if"). If you are a photo professional, you already have the f/1.4 lens among your bag and are not reading this review. :-)
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on September 12, 2005
...then look no further than the 1.4 50mm lens.

Superb for low light conditions (without flash), the 50mm is known as a "fast" lens. What few know is that this speed comes at a trade-off. At 1.4 aperture, the depth of field (DOF) is very shallow. When focusing up close, a noticeable bokeh (lens blur) can be achieved between 2 inches of focus. This is great for blurring out backgrounds, but if you're not careful, you may focus on a nose and end up with blurry eyes.

For those who shoot with a Canon DSLR other than the 5D or 1D (35mm sensor), the focal length for this lens is really more like 80mm (50mm x 1.6 crop factor) which makes it the perfect portrait focal length.

If you're looking for a perfect portrait lens, you can't go wrong with the 1.4. For those who are money conscious, the 50mm 1.8 may be a better alternative. Some argue that aperture between 1.4 and 1.8 is not practical and favor the 1.8 for price.

The build quality on the 1.4 is better than the 1.8, but not as good as an L series lens. If you're willing to spend a few hundred more for better build quality and the extra speed, you need look no further for a lens which is destined to spend a good deal of time on your camera body.
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on August 13, 2007
This lens makes great pictures. There's no doubt about that. But what is in doubt is how long it will make those great pictures.

I bought this lens, and as soon as it was out of warranty, the autofocus failed. I took it in and had it repaired (at about half the original cost of the lens) and a few months later the AF failed again.

I researched this issue, and it turns out many people have experienced the exact same problem.

This lens does not have an UltraSonic Motor, as Canon would like you to believe. The word they glaze over is "MICRO". It is a MICRO USM lens.

What does this mean? It means that while the autofocus is fast and quiet, and it has full-time manual focus, the motor is actually made of PLASTIC and is prone to wearing out VERY QUICKLY.

So, if you plan on buying this lens and not using it, by all means, buy away. But if you plan on actually shooting with it, I'd recommend saving for the EF 50mm f/1.2 L, or (more realistically) a 50mm f/1.8. That lens is a quarter the cost of the f/1.4 and 80% of the optical quality.
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on November 3, 2006
The latest 50 f/1.4 EF lens is the best performing chunk of glass that any photographer can buy for anywhere near the price. Granted, the 50 1.8 lens is awesome for it's dirt cheap price, but it is outclassed by the f/1.4 in all respects.

Others have already raved about the virtues of this cheap (not really) lens, so I'll just agree with with the strong points, and lay out the broad picture on an open table.

First, the 50 f/1.8 is usually a fine lens. It is dirt cheap, has better quality control than anything built by Sigma, and is super light weight. That being said, it does have issues with lens to lens quality, it is "only f/1.8", has a plastic lens mount, and is pretty slow in AF.

The 50 f/1.4, on the other hand, can darn near allow you to see in the dark through the viewfinder, can focus in total darkness with the right shoe mount flash, records tack sharp images at most all apertures, has great contrast, is light in weight, small in size, has a metal lens mount, and is pretty cheap to buy.

It is NOT an L lens in construction, yet it offers L lens optical quality. It does have a USM, but it is the "old style" USM, and is not as fast as the modern ring type USM lenses. Still, it is very fast, it beats the speed of the throw away f/1.8 lens to death, and is pretty darn quiet. Also, despite the majority plastic build, and lack of distance data for E-TTL II flashes (the f/1.8 also lacks this feature) the f/1.4 lens does offer a very responsive full time manual focus ring that works like a charm for manual focus, or just touch up in difficult auto focus situations.

This lens is all that, and everyone should own it as their first lens. Zoom lenses included in body/lens kits are just plain junk (sorry), but this lens will stay in your camera kit for decades, no matter what camera body is in your future.

People who are using 1.6 crop factor cameras like the 20D, 30D, and Rebel line should bear in mind that the 50 f/1.4 lens is effectively an 80 mm f/1.4 lens when mounted on their cameras. That makes the 50 f/1.4 an awesome portrait lens, and the aperture and diaphragm design of the f/1.4 make it unbeatable for capturing shallow depth of field shots with pleasingly blurred backgrounds.

As fine a lens as the 50 mm f/1.8 really is, it cannot begin to compare to the 50 mm f/1.4 lens in terms of functionality. Buy this lens today, and it will be with you until the end, no matter what Canon body you use in the future. If you use a 1.6 crop factor camera today, this lens will become a favorite, and the best 80 mm portrait lens you have ever owned.

As always, use it with the factory lens hood at all times (only about twenty five bucks), and use a UV filter that is multi coated on both surfaces at all times. Anyone who suggests that you use a cheap filter is steering you down the wrong path. No matter what lens you buy, always use a UV filter that is built at least as well as your lens. Cheap filters, and filters that are not multi coated on both surfaces are just plain garbage. The shame of it is that even Canon offers garbage filters for cheap, and many people who spend hundreds of Dollars on a lens claim that "If it's good enough for Canon, it's good enough for me". Nonsense. A cheap filter is just that. A good lens with a cheap filter might impress, but a good lens with a great filter WILL impress. Don't fall into the cheap trap.
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