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Canon 50mm EF 1.4

Canon’s Mid-Range 50mm

The Canon 50mm 1.4 lens could be considered something of a modern classic. The lens was designed in 1993, before digital photography and was designed to be used in concert with film cameras. However, since Canon kept the flange distance and lens mount of their cameras the same when they switched to digital, the lens continued to function in a digital world. At the time of this writing in 2016, Canon still continues to sell this antiquated lens to photographers all over the world.

Seven elements in six groups work in unison to focus this fast fifty. The ultrasonic motor system works to power the lens elements and provides fast and reliable autofocus! The lens also has an option for manual focus with the flip of a switch, and once switched into manual focus mode the lens does have a smooth manual focus rotation throw. Having this much control over the focus is a nice feature, especially if you rely on manual focusing control for detail or video work.

Often, when selecting a fast prime lens with speed like f1.4, you expect very large price tags. However, due to its significantly aging design and large popularity among professionals and amateurs alike, this lens has become quite affordable. In comparison to other fast f1.4 50mm lenses on the market, it’s half-if not a third-of the cost and can preform well enough to save a little dough! This is an excellent introduction to the world of prime lenses for Canon cameras as was the case for me.

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For Portraits

Generally speaking 50mm is more wide angled then I would like to shoot an up close portrait with. This means that we try to limit our time at 50mm for creating environment portraits or capturing wedding day details. When used in a bright backlight conditions and shot wide open, this lens suffers significantly from purple fringing when shot wide open, which it continues to exhibit even stopped down to f2. Once, the lens approaches f2.8 most of these artifacts disappear and it performs quite well. However, we rarely shoot our portraits at f2.8 or above and prefer to really open up the lens to get the shallow DOF look we love! So whenever using this lens, we will generally accept the flaw and apply fixes in post to resolve the problem.

The range of shallow depth between f1.4 to f1.8 renders a very dreamy image. However, I’ve found (in practice) that its difficult to attain very sharp focus with this aperture/lens combo. However, when shot at f2 the lens can create relatively sharp images, that retain a shallow depth look. Of course, the distance from your subject will greatly impact the bokeh. But this lens is capable of creating it and at a fraction of the cost of many Canon L or other top end professional options.

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Reasons to Consider the 50mm STM

The 50mm 1.8 STM design is 25 years newer than this aging 50mm 1.4 model and is now significantly less expensive. This newer and less expensive version has many advantages over the older 1993 design. First of, the auto focus seems snappier  on the latest 50mm. Secondly, the STM AF motor of the newer version is significantly quieter than the previous Ultra Sonic design employed originally here. Finally, the build quality of the two seem very similar (this was not the case with the older nifty fifty). The newer 50 STM also appears to be sharper at a common aperture like f2. However, if you need the extra speed for a dark wedding reception the 1.4 could just save the day.

In need of an update

As a wedding photographer, I know the benefits of having a fast aperture lens. Often times, I require the fast lenses for low light situations that often pop up on a wedding day. Also, the 1.4 aperture can give photos a very shallow DOF look that brides are constantly asking for! That being said, this lens is about as sharp as a butter knife, when shot wide open. In fact I rarely shoot it under f2 unless the situation absolutely requires it.  With its aging design and mediocre performance its hard to recommend the 1.4 over the latest Canon 50mm 1.8 STM lens, unless the additional speed is of the utmost concern. All the gripes aside, this lens has been in photographers hands for over 25 years and incredible images have been created using it. If you are look for a bargain priced Canon fast 1.4 this could be the lens for you.

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*Past Love: We no longer carry this lens in our bag. For the price point it was certainly a thrill when it was released a couple decades ago. However, its aging floating element design and high price point make it less desirable today. We’ve upgrade to the Canon 50mm 1.2 L for our studio, but the Canon 50mm 1.8 II is also a stronger buy for a third the cost. 

More Resources

Are you interested in learning more about this lens? There are lots of great useful resources all of the web to help us photographers achieve our photographic dreams! We have included some of the articles and resources that were helpful for us when researching our own gear purchase.

Canon –  Canon 50mm 1.4 Specs