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Customer Review

5,043 of 5,111 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why spend more?, March 15, 2005
This review is from: Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM Standard & Medium Telephoto Lens for Canon SLR Cameras - Fixed (Camera)
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.)
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Showing 151-160 of 218 posts in this discussion
In reply to an earlier post on Mar 28, 2012 11:58:29 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 29, 2012 4:24:19 AM PDT

I don't think that I or anyone else here ever said that the overall experience of shooting doesn't matter, for example there is a world of difference between the viewfinder experience of using a rangefinder camera, a digital point-and-shoot, and a high quality SLR. I understand that the experience you describe may seem compelling for you and others. But the idea that the simple visual comparison of one camera / lens viewfinder image to another camera / lens viewfinder image can produce valid data about lens equivalence is a misguided concept. It's a false assumption that translates to false conclusions.

Viewfinder image size is a complex subject. Viewfinder image size is affected not just by the lens, but also by viewfinder magnification and viewfinder crop. These are different for every model, not to mention the fact that you would have to find a way to actually measure objects in the viewfinder to generate repeatable data. You're basing your whole argument on "perceived distance", whatever that means. How do you measure that? You can't, because it's all based on "perception". It would be so much more straightforward, and more accurate, to just take a few pictures and compare them side-by-side. This has already been done.

The only reason I'm still debating though, is that after all the proof to the contrary, you still deny the basic fact and main point of contention that a 50mm lens on a 1.6x crop camera and an 80mm lens on a FF 35mm camera are essentially equivalent, in terms of framing/field of view, compression, and perspective distortion. Even in your last post you once again made the statement:

"I expect those 50mm and 80mm shots wouldn't look as identical as you're suggesting."

You could easily prove or disprove this by just setting up a tripod and taking those shots. I've not only done this exercise myself with several camera models, I already posted several links to where respected photographers have demonstrated it and proven the relationship to be true (not to mention that I've "shown my work" by explaining the math).

I'll give you that the experience you described about alternating between the naked eye and your viewfinder can be an interesting exercise, in a "gee, look at that" kind of way. What I can't agree with is that it carries any weight in determining whether a given lens is, in your words, "useful and intuitive" for any specific application. No photography book, class or professional I'm aware of has ever taught to use that particular "experience" as a basis for choosing the most appropriate lens.

In respect to this lens, we're talking about an 80mm equivalent focal length on any Rebel or 7D, which is not a particularly useful focal length, as it is too compressed to be used for most indoor photo opportunities, and not long enough to serve as a good facial portrait lens. Never mind the fact that it may happen to display images in some viewfinders at close to real-life size; that alone is no basis to recommend this as an appropriate first prime lens for 1/6x crop camera owners -- it's more of a coincidence than anything else.

There's a reason that Canon and other manufacturers chose certain focal lengths that have stood the test of time: The 50mm is the standard, all-purpose lens and for many people the only lens they ever bought, for the very fact that it was the most "useful and intuitive".

I believe a beginning photographer with a 1.6x camera would be much better served choosing something like a 30mm lens as their first prime, which provides a view most similar to the full-frame 50mm. Yes, those are respectively what are known as "normal" lenses, and one reason they are called "normal" is that everyone going back 150 years decided that the ~53 degree angle of view is a "natural" view that is neither too expanded or too contracted. In other words, the "normal" lens is the one that most photographers long ago agreed is the most useful and intuitive -- certainly not 80mm or its equivalent, and many pros are now of the opinion that an even wider lens, such as a 35mm lens (21mm on the 1.6x) more closely simulates the human field of view.

For those reasons that I don't think most crop camera users would find the 50 all that useful, and in my opinion the 50 is better suited for the full-frame format for which it was originally designed and intended. I've used the 50 on my 60D for some product shots and a couple times outdoors, but mostly it stays on my FF camera.

You wrote a very thorough and popular review, with only that one small line that caused all the hoopla. Like SkunkWorks, I guess I just want everyone reading this to have all the facts before buying. Besides, I enjoy a good debate! Thanks and best wishes.

Posted on Apr 5, 2012 10:28:35 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 5, 2012 10:29:16 AM PDT
Siow C. Goh says:
Dear Careful Critic,

I'm a beginner in the world of dslr and I just bought a Canon 60D dslr 3 months ago. Needless to say, the camera is astounding and I really enjoy, not just, taking pictures but also learning how to use this camera. A friend of mine suggested that I should get a 50 mm but later he told me that it might be better if I get the sigma 30 mm instead. His reasoning was because canon 60D is not a full frame dslr and 50 mm might be too zoom in. Hence, I would like to seek your opinion regarding this matter. Should I get this 50mm lens or should I go for the Sigma 30 mm/1.4? Thank you.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 5, 2012 12:33:04 PM PDT
i was considering buying the Canon 50mm 1.4, but after some more research, I purchased the 28mm 1.8 and couldn't be happier. My father in law owns the 50 1.4 (i now own the 50mm 2.5 macro) so I purchased an equivalent of 45mm on crop lens. the 28 1.8 is sharp, super accurate and reliable AF and is literally almost silent. it also features internal focus so the lens doesn't move (at least the outer part). this focal length is much more useable than the 50mm. I am now enjoying my 7d like I thought I would. I am considering purchasing the 85 1.8 and calling it quits on more lenses. more interested in sharp accurate focus than 1.4 wider aperature. I have heard that some canon users have issues with the 30 1.4 on Sigma. hope this helps.

Posted on Apr 18, 2012 12:04:51 PM PDT
Panama Slim says:
Are you guys still at it? He wrote this review in 2005! Honestly!!! It is a great review. And the point on perspective is spot on! I want to photograph the image my mind has already seen and composed. When I look through the lens, that's what I want to see. Whether it comes out in film has a great many more factors to it than just the crop, starting with the photo paper. It goes on and on from there. Read the review, read the comments (ad nauseum). Give it a rest!

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 18, 2012 12:41:18 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 18, 2012 1:52:18 PM PDT
Well Panama Slim, I guess some of us are just sticklers for accuracy and can't stand to see misinformation being sent out to potential buyers. There still seems to be resistance by the author to the established fact that images taken with 80mm on FF and 50mm on 1.6x shots are identical.

As it currently stands, CC, your statement that this lens "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" is still somewhat inaccurate because the various Canon 1.6x crop bodies have different viewfinder magnifications.

Knowing the viewfinder magnification of the camera allows you to calculate exactly what focal length will display the world at the same magnification as your naked eye. Here is a list of all Canon bodies, their viewfinder magnification, and the corresponding focal length that will display the world at the same magnification as your naked eye. As you can see, the statement applies to the 7D but not to some of the other bodies such as the Rebels. The variance between models shows why you can't gauge the suitability of any one focal length by viewfinder image size relative to the naked eye, otherwise 63mm would be the most "useful and intuitive" focal length for XTi owners and 70mm would be most useful and intuitive for FF owners.

Classically, however, 45-50mm is considered the most intuitive length for FF cameras and 28-30mm for all 1.6x cameras, regardless of viewfinder magnification.

I have included APS-H and Full Frame for reference. Here's the real data**

APS-C 1.6x:

7D - 1.0x = 50mm
40D, 50D, 60D - .95x = 53mm
20D, 30D - .90x = 56mm
10D - .88x = 57mm
Rebel XSi / 450D, T1i / 500D, T2i / 550D, - .87x = 58mm
Rebel T3 / 1100D, T3i / 600D - .85x = 59mm
Rebel XS / 1000D - .81x = 62mm
Rebel 300D, XT / 350D, XTi / 400D - .80x = 63mm

APS-H 1.3x:

1D Mark III, IV - .76x = 66mm
1D Mark II - .72x = 69mm

Full Frame:

1Ds Mark III, 1Dx - .76x = 66mm
5D Mark I, II, III- .71x = 70mm
1Ds Mark II - .70x = 71mm

35mm Film:
EOS 3, 1v - .72x = 69mm

**To calculate the lens that will portray the world at the same magnification as the naked eye, divide 50 by the viewfinder magnification.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 18, 2012 1:39:11 PM PDT
David, puh-lease.

I assume your first paragraph contains a typo rather than a willful glaring inaccuracy, so I'll skip past that.

But in the second, you shouldn't ignore my own words: "at ABOUT the same distance as the naked eye." That allows for minor variations, doesn't it? (If you're so concerned about accuracy, then at least respond to the words I've written, thanks.)

Look, you posted many of these viewfinder magnification numbers before, and I DID take it upon myself to go out and test numerous different cameras to investigate their real world differences. And then, to be as credible as possible, I waited until I had a 7D in my own hands to make sure my results held up within a new strain of APS-H cameras, which they did. (That is, I'd tested various Rebels, numerous x0D cameras, even a 1000D, all before the 7D itself.)

Frankly, after you'd posted the numbers before, I was expecting MUCH more variation between the various 1.6x models than I ended up observing (though, as I reported, the full-frame results caught me completely off-guard, and I changed the offending line to allow for them). There WAS variation among the APS-Hs, but *never* enough to undermine my fundamental point.

Surely you understand that I'm going to believe my own lying eyes, rather than cold numbers that didn't substantially affect my own experience and observations.

So thanks, Panama Slim, for reinforcing my underlying point. For some of us, it may not matter at all, but for others, it's profound and a substantial benefit during our process of photography.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 18, 2012 2:04:03 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 18, 2012 2:13:14 PM PDT
Thanks, CC for catching that typo. I fixed it.

Yes, ABOUT the same distance (which should read magnification, because lenses don't change distance) allows for some minor variations. I did quote your line, word for word, with ABOUT. I'll go along with 55mm being "about" 50 but I wouldn't call the difference between a 50mm lens and a 63mm lens minor, would you? And I have to take Canon for their word on their published viewfinder magnifications which are simply more accurate than guesstimating by just looking through the viewfinder... as you said, "lying eyes".

But you missed my other point that a 50mm on APS-C isn't considered the most intuitive focal length by classical standards. That would be 28-30mm.
And that that images taken with 80mm on FF and 50mm on 1.6x are identical in terms of not only field of view but also object perspective and depth compression.

If we can agree on those last two points then I have no other objections.

Posted on Apr 23, 2012 9:04:21 PM PDT
Gaussian says:
This review should rank among the all time greatest reviews on Amazon.. for *any* product ! Thanks. I just got the lens yesterday and am already beginning to love it. Your review makes me feel even better about owning it.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 25, 2012 5:12:32 AM PDT
Hey David,

I see your point about magnification, but since I'm very much talking about perception (rather than results), I think "distance" makes the point more clear toward the audience I had in mind.

On one hand, I see what you mean about the difference between 50mm and 63mm lenses in theory, but a Rebel XTi was my primary camera for several years, and the perceived distance has been very nearly as I've described. I even put the 50 on it last night to look through it again, and it's just that same "right there" distance that I see without the camera. However-though-strangely, of all the APS-C cameras I've looked through at 50, it was the 1000D that seemed to change "distance" the most. I only looked through it briefly, but I distinctly remember noticing it. So according to your cited numbers above, I'm not sure what's going on there. There may be some perceptual factor related to viewfinder size that's creating some minor optical illusion (by which I mean to allow somewhat for your point about perception altogether).

Like I've reported, it's a little more than "guesstimation." When I'm doing this test, I'm actually holding the camera sideways to my left eye with one hand, and then winking back and forth between the camera eye and my unobstructed eye to make the evaluations I've reported. Don't get me wrong though - I'm not meaning to bicker, just to explain what I've been doing.

Your point about intuitive focal lengths and classical standards is fine.

Now, on compression, I'm confused, but I'll admit that I'm confused, and open-minded. I do NOT see how cropping the frame could alter compression (no more than cropping an image could), and I don't see how different lengths could deliver identical compression under any circumstances. (You're not talking about changing the physical distance to achieve the same framing, are you?) But until I've got a full-frame camera to test my own assumptions, I can amiably assume that you might understand this topic much more clearly than me. In fact, since I'm very interested in compression as an issue altogether, I'd be very interested in any ways you could explain: How could cropping the light coming through to the sensor alter the results of the lens engineering that delivers it?

But again, I'm quite open-minded if you've got that issue better figured out than I do.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 25, 2012 12:03:30 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 25, 2012 7:34:38 PM PDT
Hey CC,
I'm cool with leaving that whole viewfinder issue alone. My comments weren't meant to criticize your technique - I still think the Canon figures are accurate but the differences may just be difficult to perceive.

On compression, you are correct that cropping the frame does not alter compression. I never said it does -- I said compression would appear the same with an "equivalent" longer lens on a full-frame body.

The thing to understand is that compression of objects is only a function of your relative DISTANCE from them. Just as cropping doesn't alter compression, lenses per se don't alter compression either because, to my earlier point, lenses don't alter distance. (Despite who your target audience is you can't change physics.) Long lenses only magnify more which automatically results in more cropping of the existing scene. The simplest way to put it is that long lenses result in a more cropped view, and crop sensors result in a more cropped view, so the net effect is the same.

The fact that neither cropping nor using a longer lens alters compression means that using either method to obtain a specific field of view ("framing") yields identical results. That's why a 50mm lens on an APS-C camera is "equivalent" to an 80mm lens on a FF camera in every respect except depth of field -- which can also be made equivalent by using the "crop factor" when setting aperture. I can demonstrate this visually:

Since we last spoke I took some photos with the 50mm, 80mm, and 30mm lengths on crop and full-frame cameras and also compared them to cropping in PhotoShop. This page will demonstrate that a 50mm lens on a crop camera yields not only identical field of view but also identical compression and perspective distortion as an 80mm lens on FF. It also demonstrates that in the same respect, a 30mm lens on crop is the equivalent to 50mm on FF. In other words any method of cropping, whether it's in-camera or in a photo editing program, yields identical results to using a longer lens in terms of compression.

These facts about lens equivalence have been denied by some of the posters to this discussion and this visual should put an end to any doubters out there: