Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM Lens


    Photo Review 8.5
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    Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM Lens

      In summary

      Although not pin-sharp at its widest apertures, Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.4 USM remains a competent performer and its image quality between f/4 and f/8is excellent. Two issues should be considered when assessing this lens: the size of the sensor on that camera with which it will be mainly used and whether the types of images you take will be affected by the inherent imperfections in reproduction.

      We suspect only the most critical of photographers will either notice or care about edge performance. And for the rest, stopping down will solve most of them. Unless you really require velvety, out-of-focus backgrounds (which is the main reason for using an ultra-fast lens), Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.4 USM will give you impressive low light shooting ability.

      Alternative lenses that provide a similar perspective to the human eye on a ‘full frame’ camera include the more expensive Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM, the substantially cheaper Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II, which is roughly one quarter of the price of the f/1.4 lens, or the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM, which is marginally cheaper. The only lens in this group we have reviewed is the EF 50mm f/1.2L USM, which was covered in February 2010.
       
      Buy this lens if:
        - You want a fast, general purpose lens with a ‘normal’ perspective for a ‘full frame’ camera.
       - You want a prime lens for portraiture with a camera that has an APS-C sized sensor.
       - You'd like a lens that requires no readjustment when you fit polarisers and graduated filters.
       - You would like a lens with good flatness of field.
       
      Don't buy this lens if:
       - You need close focusing and macro capabilities.
       - You require high resolution at all focal lengths, along with good edge sharpness and minimal vignetting.

      Full review

      The EF 50mm f/1.4 USM is the more expensive of two 50mm prime lenses in Canon's current catalogue. Its cheaper (RRP AU$149) sibling has a maximum aperture of f/1.8, which is 2/3 of an f-stop slower. Usable with all Canon DSLRs, this lens has a field of view equivalent to 80mm on an APS-C DSLR, which makes it a useful portrait lens.

      Angled view of the EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens without cap and lens hood. (Source: Canon.)  

      This lens is unusual for its micro-USM AF drive, which supports full-time mechanical (FTM) override in one-shot AF mode. Normally, FTM is only available with ring-type USM drives, which are slightly faster and quieter.

      Its optical configuration is relatively simple, with seven elements in six groups and the Gaussian design includes two elements with high-refractive-indices to minimise flare and astigmatism at maximum aperture. Canon claims this lens delivers a colour balance that is 'virtually identical to ISO recommended reference values'.

      This lens has a minimum focusing distance of 45 cm, where it provides a maximum magnification of 0.15x. The filter diameter is 58 mm. For its type, this lens is quite compact, measuring just 73.8 mm in length and weighing only 290 grams. But it's not stabilised.

      It should be supplied with front and rear caps. A lens hood (ES-71III) and soft and hard cases (LP1014 and LHP-C10, respectively) are sold separately.

      Build and Ergonomics
      The overall build quality of the review lens was solid. It has a metal mounting plate and the outer barrel is made from high-quality polycarbonate plastic. The front element of the lens it recessed approximately 10 mm behind the filter thread and it doesn't rotate during focusing, enabling the use of angle-critical attachments like polarisers and graduated filters.

      A distance scale is located immediately behind the front of the lens. It displays distances in metres and feet. Immediately behind it is the focusing ring, which is roughly 13 mm wide and covered with a ridged rubber grip band.

      A slider switch on the left hand side of the barrel behind the focusing ring selects between AF/MF modes but you can still adjust focusing manually with the AF setting, thanks to FTM override. Manual focusing feels smooth and steady, regardless of which mode is selected.

      Performance
      Overall performance was as you would expect for a prime lens of this type when we tested it on both 'full frame' and APS-C camera bodies. In each case we found centre-of-field resolution to be very good, although some edge softening was noticeable at the widest aperture settings, particularly with the 'full frame' camera.

      Our Imatest tests were carried out using the EOS-1DX body, which provided the best platform for displaying this lens's capabilities. We obtained the highest resolution in these tests at f/4, with a smooth progression up from f/1.4, which was already acceptably high. Diffraction took effect around f/8 and resolution dropped sharply thereafter. The graph below shows the results of our tests.

       

      Lateral chromatic aberration remained mainly in the ‘negligible’ category and we found no evidence of coloured fringing in test shots. In the graph of our Imatest results below, the red line marks the border between ‘negligible’ and ‘low’ CA.

       Rectilinear distortions were barely noticeable and would not only be of concern if the lens was used in situations where accurate mapping of subjects was critical. They were too slight to affect normal photography.

      Vignetting can be an issue with fast lenses, particularly when they are used on DSLRs with 36 x 24 mm sensors. Test shots taken with this lens on the EOS-1DX showed strong corner darkening at f/1.4, when reduced in intensity as the lens was stopped down, becoming barely visible by f/2.8.

      When we swapped the lens to an EOS 40D body vignetting at f/1.4 was reduced to the point where it was barely noticeable and would have little influence on normal photography. Most of the latest cameras provide in-camera corrections for distortion and vignetting as well as chromatic aberration so these issues should be of minimal concern to potential purchasers of this lens.

      Autofocusing was very fast and quiet, thanks to Canon’s USM (ultrasonic motor) technology. Moving from the minimum focusing distance of 45 cm to infinity took roughly 0.7 seconds.

      Full-time manual focusing enables users to fine-tune focus at any time by turning the focus ring without needing to swap to manual focusing.  In addition, the front element doesn’t rotate during focusing, making it easy to use angle-critical attachments. The front of the lens is threaded for 58mm filters.

      Traces of veiling flare were found when the lens was pointed towards a bright source of light, even though it was outside of the frame. However, backlit subjects were generally handled very well, with little or no loss of contrast and colour reproduction.

      Bokeh quality (out-of-focus blurring) is one of the main factors influencing most photographers’ choice of very fast lenses. The bokeh produced by the review lens was generally good, although not spectacular. Vignetting tended to affect highlights around the edges of images when the lens was used on the ‘full frame’ body, although this was barely evident in shots taken with the EOS-40D.

      We also found some outlining of highlights at the widest aperture settings but it had vanished by f/2.8. Interestingly, blurring in the transition zones between in- and out-of-focus was nice and smooth, as you would expect from a lens at this price point.

      Conclusion 
      Although not pin-sharp at its widest apertures, Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.4 USM remains a competent performer and its image quality between f/4 and f/8is excellent. Two issues should be considered when assessing this lens: the size of the sensor on that camera with which it will be mainly used and whether the types of images you take will be affected by the inherent imperfections in reproduction.

      We suspect only the most critical of photographers will either notice or care about edge performance. And for the rest, stopping down will solve most of them. Unless you really require velvety, out-of-focus backgrounds (which is the main reason for using an ultra-fast lens), Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.4 USM will give you impressive low light shooting ability. Alternative lenses that provide a similar perspective to the human eye on a ‘full frame’ camera include the more expensive Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM, the substantially cheaper Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II, which is roughly one quarter of the price of the f/1.4 lens, or the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM, which is marginally cheaper. The only lens in this group we have reviewed is the EF 50mm f/1.2L USM, which was covered in February 2010.
       
      Buy this lens if:
        - You want a fast, general purpose lens with a ‘normal’ perspective for a ‘full frame’ camera.
       - You want a prime lens for portraiture with a camera that has an APS-C sized sensor.
       - You'd like a lens that requires no readjustment when you fit polarisers and graduated filters.
       - You would like a lens with good flatness of field.
       
      Don't buy this lens if:
       - You need close focusing and macro capabilities.
       - You require high resolution at all focal lengths, along with good edge sharpness and minimal vignetting.

      SPECS

       Diagonal picture angle: 46 degrees
       Minimum aperture: f/22
       Lens construction: 7 elements in 6 groups
       Lens mounts: Canon EF
       Diaphragm Blades: 8
       Focus drive: Micro-USM (supports full-time manual over-ride)
       Stabilisation: no
       Minimum focus:  45 cm
       Maximum magnification: 0.15x
       Filter size:  58 mm
       Dimensions (Diameter x L): 73.8 x 50.5 mm
       Weight: 290 grams

      TESTS

      Based on JPEG files from the lens on the EOS-1DX body.

       

       

       

      SAMPLES

       

       Vignetting at f/1.4 on a 'full frame' camera body.
       

       Vignetting at f/2.5 on a 'full frame' camera body.
       
       

      Vignetting at f/1.4 on a camera with an APS-C sized sensor.
       
       

      Rectilinear distortion.
       
       

      Close-up with an aperture of f/1.4.
       
       

      Close-up with an aperture of f/2.2.
       
       

      Close-up with an aperture of f/16.
       
       

      Veiling flare at f/4.5; ISO 100, 1/2000 second exposure.
       
       

      Strong backlighting; ISO 100, 1/250 second at f/8.
       

      Bokeh in a close-up at f/1.4; ISO 100, 1/1250 second.
       
       

      Enlarged crop showing slight outlining of highlights in an out-of-focus area in the above image.
       
       

      ISO 100, 1/25 second at f/9.
       

      ISO 100, 1/200 second at f/11.
       
       

      ISO 100, 1/125 second at f/10.
       
       

      ISO 100,1/80 second at f/4.5.

      Rating

      RRP: AU$649; US$400 

      • Build: 8.8
      • Handling: 8.5
      • Image quality: 8.8
      • Versatility: 8.0

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