A Look at the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

Canon-EF-50mm

Many DSLR users first experience with a prime lens is with a 50mm of some variation. In the Canon world, the 50mm f/1.4 lens can be charted back to 1971 with the FD 50mm F1.4, with many people having used or owned a entry-level 50mm F1.8 at one time or another or want for the top end 50mm F1.2L USM.

The Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM slots nicely into the middle range line up and has loads of applications from a short portrait lens on a APS-C sensor, to the standard focal length on full frame sensors. There’s lots of competition at this focal length at different price points, which means the real deciding factor is down to your budget for the quality and how large you want your aperture. The great thing about any 50mm lens is that it has so many applications, so it won’t stay in your kit bag for long.

Design

For starters, the optics employ 7 elements in 6 groups with two high refraction glass elements. An eight blade diaphragm is built-in to add to the natural bokeh and a micro-USM for the autofocus.

Being a mid-range lens the barrel is made of plastic, but you do get a substantial metal mount. Better quality than the EF 50mm F1.8 MkII, but not as good as the likes of the EF 85mm F1.8 USM. The Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM can be fitted to any camera in the Canon lineup, both cropped and full frame sensors.

Canon-EF-50mm

The front of the camera is recessed and can fit a 50mm filter. This does not rotate when focusing and so can fit polariser filters. There’s also an optional ES-71II lens hood does a fair job of keeping out stray light. The focusing ring is not very wide, but it’s in proportion to the size of the lens and can turn 200 degrees to acquire sharp manual focus. As a common feature on Canon cameras there is a switch on the lens to go from auto to manual focusing modes. There’s also full-time manual focus, when the lens is switched to autofocus. Lastly, there’s a distance scale in feet and metres, with a basic depth of field scale.

This lens is simple and straight to the point as you would expect with a 50mm lens. With mid-range build and optics, it’s now down to image quality.

Image Quality

As a lens, it can fit on both APS-C and full frame sensor camera bodies, so is worthy to mention how it operates on both. On a APS-C body, apertures of f/2.8 and above look the best, with images being a little soft under f/2.8. As with most lenses, stopping down gets better results, with the sharpest being at f/8. The same is true at the other end of the aperture scale where f/16 should only be used if you really need that depth of field.

Canon-EF-50mm

Softness of images when wide-open is common for a lens with a shallower depth of field as a f/1.4. Images are sharp in the centre of the frame, but can tail off towards the corners when wide open. Overall, it means unless you want that super shallow depth of field, it may be worth just stopping down a little to get optimum sharpness.

Smooth bokeh/background blur will be one of the main draws of this lens. The results are reasonable, but better to keep away from busy backgrounds or ones with high contrast. There are small amounts of vignetting when wide open, but easily cured when stopping down.

On a full frame sensor, images are sharp in the centre at f/1.4, but just like a crop sensor stopping down gives the best results. Images become sharper a little lower on a full frame sensor at f/5.6, where images are sharp across the frame. Chromatic aberration is low. More apparent on a crop sensor, but again can be cured by stopping down a little to f/2.8. Distortion is minimal and can be easily cured in postprocessing. One susceptibility of being an older design is lens flare. The optional hood helped a little, but it’s advisable to be more aware of the sun’s position if it is in your frame.

Conclusion

 Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM Sigma 50mm f/1.4
Aperture f/1.4-f/22f/1.4-f/16
Lens7 elements/6 groups8 elements/6 groups
Filter size58mm77mm
Weight290g505g

This is a straightforward lens which does have some issues, yet is still a great performer. If you consider that the design is over three decades old and still a contender, there’s still a lot to offer from this lens. It’s a much better performer on a full frame sensor, but if you stop down a little, it’s easy to get great results on a APS-C sensor.

The lens is small and light and can serve as a great alternative in optics performance as compared to a medium-range zoom. It’s also got a very fast and quiet autofocus. The build of the lens feels more robust than its cheaper alternative the EF 50mm F1.8 MkII but doesn’t feel as robust as more expensive Canon options.

Other issues are with corner softness when the lens is wide open. This is especially apparent on crop sensor, but if you don’t mind stopping down a little, this and other issues are dramatically reduced.

As an alternative, the Sigma 50mm F1.4 EX DG HSM has better sharpness when wide open and has arguably better build quality. The Sigma is also a more up-to-date design, which could possibly make this lens a better all-rounder. The Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM definitely has a better build quality and AF system than the cheaper EF 50mm F1.8 MkII and slightly better optics, making it a worthy upgrade.

Ideally, choosing the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM would be for image quality over a comparatively priced zoom, a definite upgrade from the cheaper EF 50mm F1.8 mkII and although works the best on a full frame sensor, can be a nice little portrait lens on a crop sensor. If you don’t mind stopping down a little, you can get sharp images which are worthy of its price.

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