Canon EF50mm f/1.2L lens review

If one spends some time browsing various photo forums, and is a Canon user, and has some interest in more specialized lenses, then one has likely come across discussions about ‘the Canon holy trinity’ referring to the very fast aperture EF35mm f/1.4L, EF85mm f/1.2L (both versions I and II) and EF135mm f/2L… Recently Canon released the updated EF24mm f/1.4L Mark II and some consider it along the same lines.

But there is another Canon lens worth considering if one can get past its reputation as the black sheep of the fast Canon primes family. It’s the EF50mm f/1.2L.


(Image from Canon USA)

Why the black sheep reference? Well, to put it bluntly, it can be one damn difficult and frustrating lens to use. When it was first announced many in Canon-land rejoiced at finally having a 50mm L option (the showpiece EF50mm f/1.0L was long discontinued) in addition to the not so highly regarded (though actually quite good) EF50mm f/1.4 and the plasticky EF50mm f/1.8.

We all expected a lens exhibiting super sharpness, good contrast wide open and a flat plane of focus. After all, it was hitting the market at an extreme premium (for a Canon). And it had an aspherical element just like the 85L! And it pretty much delivers this, but not exactly how most had hoped.

Then why is it a difficult lens to use? Uncorrected spherical aberration that causes a focus shift at nearer subject distances as the lens is stopped down. The catch is that Canon’s (and most other) SLR systems are designed to autofocus and achieve correct focus with the aperture at the maximum, widest setting, for greatest accuracy. With the 50L, as the lens is stopped down, the actual plane of focus shifts behind the f/1.2 plane of focus, resulting in images where the focus appears behind the intended point of focus. As mentioned, it’s most commonly seen at nearer subject distances, such as closer than 10 feet, and seems to be worst between f/2-4. Beyond f/4 depth of field begins to mask the focus shift.

The focus shift problem could be compensated with a floating element system to correct spherical aberration, in addition to the aspherical element already in the 50L design. The 85L has a floating element and aspherical elements. Why didn’t Canon include a floating element in the 50L? It’s a question many ask. The conclusion seems to be, without a direct Canon statement, that allowing spherical aberration results in a lens with a smoother, richer rendering quality, well suited for people photography. But, one must always be aware of the focus shift issue. By the way, the 50L is not the only lens afflicted with focus shift. The Zeiss ZM 50mm f/1.5 Sonnar is another well known ‘offender’ as are the ZE/ZF 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.4 and at least a couple very expensive Leica lenses.

Dealing with ‘the problem’:

Solution 1: Over shoot and focus bracket. Considering the shallow depth of field, subject movement, photographer movement, etc. it can be tricky getting the point of focus exactly where it should be. And it’s a lens that inspires hand held available light work, so while a tripod would be helpful, it’s often not part of the equation (at least not for me).

Solution 2: Stop down the lens and focus manually. This is the only real way to compensate for focus shift because one is looking through the actual shooting aperture to determine focus. And at f/2.8-4, where focus shift is worst, it’s still a relatively bright view. However, if you’re like me and have a difficult time eyeballing focus with the 50 manually (for some reason the 85 is easier), even with the Ec-S high precision focusing screen, then the best solution is:

Solution 3: Live view focusing with the lens stopped down. Even for handheld work this can be a viable solution. It’s really about the only way to ensure correct focus. One thing to keep in mind about using live view with fast lenses in bright sunlight, is that the system will stop the lens down somewhat (at least Canon’s live view does). The only way to get representation of what the image at the set f/stop will look like is with depth of field preview. OR!! Set live view from Stills to Movie (works with the Mark IV, probably also with the 5DII and 7D), which will force live view at the actual working f/stop. However, the only catch is that the camera won’t go below a set shutter speed, such as 1/30 if the video setting is at 30 fps. But for any brighter ambient situations, this is a great solution if you can look past the shaded gray 16:9 mask overlaid over the live view image for video capture. Just remember, that’s only for video because stills will continue to be captured from the entire 3:2 sensor area.

“But I paid $1600 for the 50L and it’s not as sharp as the 85L!”

A: It’s not an 85L! It seems that’s what most initially expected. But hang on a second, the 50L is not all that far off. It’s a bit more ‘glowing’ in its wide open rendering, but stopped down to f/1.6 or more, it’s very sharp (in the middle), which is actually very similar to the 85L

If you’re looking for clinical sharpness wide open, then maybe the Zeiss ZE/ZF 50mm f/2 Makro-Planar is a solution. I haven’t tried one yet, so can’t say for sure, but many like it a lot. Based on results from this test though, once the 50L is stopped down to f/2-2.8 there doesn’t appear to be a significant difference in central sharpness. If anything the 50L might have a slight edge. But then, it’s not a Zeiss and many claim therefore doesn’t have that Zeiss ‘3D’ image rendering (another topic altogether).

But if you’re looking for an autofocus, super fast, Canon compatible lens, the 50L is about the only solution. Yes, there is the Sigma 50mm f/1.4. I haven’t tried it, but the results I’ve seen from others look nice. Many claim it has focus accuracy issues, so buyer beware (do your homework).

Is there a benefit of the 50L over the EF50mm f/1.4? It’s a good question because the L is at least 3-4x more expensive. As with any of the forum discussions, this will be a very subjective decision. Apparently early (like my 1995 vintage) f/1.4s are quite soft and ‘glowing’ from f/1.4 to f/2.0, which I see in my copy. Many hate this (I don’t mind, it has its uses) and it has negatively affected the 1.4’s reputation. Though apparently recent copies are quite sharp in the center, even wide open. I find if everything lines up, the 50L can be quite sharp wide open and very sharp by f/2 (in the center). Definitely very good for people photos. Where I feel the L has an advantage is with better AF shot to shot consistency and follow focus speed, though it’s certainly no speed demon. Compared side by side to the 1.4 it blurs backgrounds slightly more at equivalent apertures. And robustness is better (though I’ve had the front filter ring nearly come off twice, which appeared to be a problem caused by torque/stress caused by the heavy Mamiya rubber lens hood I like).

I guess I have to justify it somehow, but I do like the 50L more than the 1.4. That wasn’t necessarily the case early on. Back a couple years ago when I got the 50L to complement the 85, I was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t as critically sharp wide open as the 85, and not that much ‘better’ than the 1.4, but it has since grown on me. Back then, I used the 85 a lot more than the 50, but now I find it’s often reversed. If the subject matter allows, I prefer working closer with the 50 than stepping back with the 85.

When it’s people photos, I find that being closer helps me connect better with the subject. And 50mm doesn’t blur away the background as quickly, leaving more hints about the subject’s environment than the 85 might at the same f/stop. Sometimes this helps the photo, but certainly there are times when the ability to blur the background more with the 85 is appreciated.

The 50 and 85 are an integral core of my basic lens kit. For general work I bring the 16-35, 70-200 f/4 IS, 1.4x TC, and the 50L & 85L with EF12 extension tube. With this combination I find I cover most of my needs. The zooms are great for most purposes and the primes come into play when I either need shallower dof or if working in low light (the 16-35 works well in low light too). The photos in this blog post of mine show the versatility of this kit. There’s a mix of images from all four lenses represented. It’s primarily the zooms until the light dropped off too much, at which point I used the primes and the 16-35.

When I need a bit more sharpness out of the 50L I like to shoot at f/2-2.8, but as described, this is where focus shift starts to appear. IMO, as mentioned earlier, it’s a great benefit to have a camera with live view in order to fine tune the focus while stopping down the lens.

Looking for some samples, I have a bunch of the 50 online, but not a lot from the 85… I guess it’s due to all the past forum discussions asking for 50L samples…

50L

@f/1.2:

@f/3.5 in the focus shift danger zone, but still somehow managed to get properly focused shots:

@f/1.2 – a small corporate reception:

f/1.2:

@f/2 – I like the feeling of the background here.. you know what it is even though it’s well blurred:

85 L

@ f/2:

@ f/1.2:

The following two images illustrate what I often like about the 50 over the 85. Here the 50 gives a greater feeling of place. It tells more about the location whereas the 85 is more about showing a detailed view, separate from the broader environment

50 @ f/1.2:

85 @ f/1.2:

Ron

Additional information:

A Canon technical report about the EF50mm f/1.2L (and EF70-200mm f/4L IS)

A Canon technical report about the EF85mm f/1.2L II

50L review with good comparison samples

If you’ve found the information on this page helpful and are considering purchasing this lens, or any other photographic equipment, clicking through with the following links to purchase at B&H Photo Video or Amazon would be greatly appreciated!

Canon EF50mm f/1.2L at B&H

Or search B&H directly from this link:


B&H Photo - Video - Pro Audio








Buy the EF 50mmf/1.2L from Amazon:

Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM Lens for Canon Digital SLR Cameras

Buy the EF 85mmf/1.2L from Amazon:

Canon EF 85mm f1.2L II USM Lens for Canon DSLR Cameras

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