For some time I have been looking at picking up a fast 50mm lens for my DSLR system, but have been held back by doubt as to whether I would stay in the Canon system. I have thought this over a lot and each time balked at the cost and drama associated with swapping to another manufacturer. I have many wonderful lenses and it is a pig of a process to go through testing, sending back poor copies and getting to know your equipment. So, after recently being asked to shoot some environmental and individual portrait work, I naturally thought of the 5D III and 135mm f2 L in my camera cupboard in Kabul, then thought about the fact that I have nothing shorter with me! OK, so I do have the wonderful 28mm equivalent Ricoh GR, but the 28mm to 135mm gap is enormous and my mind once again turned to the hole in my fast EOS lens line up. I have a wonderful 85mm f1.2L II at home in storage along with the 24mm L II, so figured that if I am going to stay with Canon, a 50mm is inevitable. Seeing as I am still shooting Canon, the 50mm would have to be Canon and now I have one more lens dissuading me from swapping to a system with better sensors. Besides, I would be lying if I said I was not thrilled with the usefulness of my Sony A7 and A7R bodies with my Canon EF lenses. I can therefore live without 14 stops of DR in my DSLR, thanks to Sony!
A little homework reminded me of the main Canon EF mount 50mm options:
Canon 50mm f1.4 that has micro USM focus motors that repeatedly pack in and which is not convincing in performance until a stop or two down. The reports of people sending failed copy after copy back are too long for my liking.
Canon 50mm f1.2 L, which has a user base with highly polarised opinions. Its expensive and quite large, with a fairly long list of ‘weaknesses’.
Sigma 50mm f1.4 ART. The Sigma ART is evidently a phenomenal technical performer, but with the size of a 24-70 zoom and 850g! Its big, heavy and very, very sharp even wide open.
Sigma 50mm f1l4 EX DG. This lens has a very nice signature, but there are many reports of poor focusing and wild sample variation.
While the signature of the Sigma ART looked good, it appeared more perfect than I am looking for. Clinical sounds unfair, but I already have ‘perfection’ in my Sony Zeiss 55mm f1.8; however, in a lens that will almost exclusively be used for ‘backed up portraiture’, I was looking for something with a bit of character and I kept coming back to photos from the half stop faster Canon 50mm f1.2 L. Yes, it is much more expensive than the Sigma ART and miles more expensive than the Canon f1.4 EF or the Sigma 50mm f1.4 EX DG, but the decision was easier than I had expected.
With great trepidation I went for the most expensive option (unfortunately): the Canon 50mm f1.2L. I have had such good experiences with Canon L glass (what great quality control compared to some brands) and I know the AF is usually very reliable, quiet and smooth. They are made by Canon for Canon bodies, with similar ergonomics and qualities across the range. They are often, but not always the best performers available in the mount out there is a real value to consistent, reliable performance.
On top of this there is the signature. My evaluation of other peoples reviews suggest the lens is not ‘clinical’, has wonderful bokeh most of the time, great colour and contrast and a rather gentle way of rendering. It is not, as the phrase goes, ‘wire sharp’. It is gentle sharp. This is what I want in a lens that will be pointed at women and children as much as men. I want to be able to shoot in very low light and produce shallow depth of field from a 50mm at medium distances and this means the extra half stop of the Canon L will help over the competition, but only if it performs well at f1.2! This lens is loved and loathed, with the most common complaints listed below.
- Its is not all that sharp.
- Some say it is soft wide open.
- It has ‘focus shift’
- It gets soft close up.
- Focus is unreliable due to shallow depth of field and an inability for the bodies to be accurate at this wide aperture.
- It performs relatively poorly at the edges
My intention is to weed through the many internet issues hurled about as fact by users and non-users alike and try to establish real facts. I am looking for a lens specifically for people shots. I am not after a scenic lens; however, in the process of testing the Canon 50mm f1.2, I will comment on its usefulness across the board.
At this point I have already reached some preliminary conclusions and thought I would post one image at f1.2, which is my standard ‘distance’ shot.
What I will say is that a some of what a lot of people say appears to be true, but a lot of what some people say is completely false! This lens has very distinctive qualities and weaknesses and I will lay these out as clearly as I can in the next article.