Onto bokeh. This is always personal and every lens can throw a wobbly and you’d be forgiven for thinking it inherently bad, so I have thrown in some examples at slightly different distances and apertures. They are all dull shots and here for illustration purposes. My personal conclusion is that this lens produces quite wonderful bokeh for portraits. I have seen that at f2.8 and thereabouts, where there is a large distance between subject and background and the background contains repeating patterns and lines, it is not always rosy (a tough test for any lens). However, for shots inside rooms, buildings, in the street etc, I think it performs astonishingly well. This is a lens that may bite once in a while when all factors run against it, but the same can be said for any lens. I am certainly very happy with this one and I regard it as one of the most dependable bokeh machines I have ever used (almost on par with the CV 35mm f1.2). It is also worth noting something else: the lens retains a very gentle fall off, quality bokeh and ‘roundedness’ when stopped down from max. aperture. It never seems to get harsh, or lose its pleasing qualities.
So what about focus errors? As explained, nailing perfect focus is not always easy. You need to be steady and so does the subject, but at times I felt there was more to it. I will investigate this, but here are my initial thoughts:
- At the outer margins of the frame, the lens simply is not sharp at the wider aperture settings. You cannot set it to even f2 and expect to nail focus on eyes at the extreme edge. Few lenses can do this, but this one does seem worse than some. Curvature of field may also be a factor here (I have a feeling this lens is quite complex in how it responds to various distance and aperture combos).
- The 5D III’s focus points are too large for middle distance human subjects and tend to ‘snag’ on eyebrows and noses, which end up sharp, but leave the recessed eyes soft. A bit closer in, where the AF patch nestles within the eye orbit, this problem is less apparent. I hope to test this out more using live view to see what is really going on.
My preliminary conclusions are that this lens is not a good choice for a general-purpose walkaround lens. It is big, fairly heavy, not quite as fast to focus as its slower cousins and has a real fall off in performance at the edges (mine is very solid at f5.6 at distance and razor sharp to the corners at f8 – I can see a difference in these two aperturess). However, used where one must suspect it was designed to perform best, at middle to short-ish distances, it absolutely sings with human subjects. It is one of those rare few ‘beautiful lenses’. It will be a pig at times and you need to know this lens. You cannot just pick it up and shoot 100 varied frames and expect all to go well. I can tell you now, it won’t; however, if you take the time to get to know it and employ it where it is strongest, it will reward you. Bring patience and recognize the situations where you need to confirm focus has been nailed and savour the results.
I can think of no other 50mm lens that delivers the same sublime qualities of hight speed, ample resolution with no harshness anywhere and supremely smooth focus fall off. I am sure they are out there, but they are few and far between. In pure technical terms the 85mm f1.2 L II is perhaps the better optical unit, but I feel the 50mm has a little more character, perhaps due to its flaws. Personally, I would use a 50mm for people shots, instead of a 85 or 90mm, when I want more of the person in the frame, or for environmental shots. This is precisely where very fast apertures matter, because you are using a shorter focal length and you are further away.
Half a stop may not seem much over f1.4, but this lens brings so much more to the party. This lens manages to produce results on digital, at wide apertures, that remind me of film. I can see portraits shot with this lens lending themselves perfectly to platinum printing, or gum bichromate via internegatives.
On that note, I threw a few frames at Silver Efex 2 and have posted here the stock output, with no tweaks, to give you a sense of what I mean.
To me, especially in LR, these images do not have that telltale sign of digital perfection. They do have something of an organic quality that the B&W treatment is in harmony with. The above is at f2, mind you, so lets see f1.2:
Now I changed to the stock preset of ‘Dark Sepia’ for a bit of a change and to hint at how it might work with alternate processes.
Now I have removed some of the sharpening to help you think about how this may be an option for the females, or nudes… or anything where you want to shed more bite.
It’s not an all rounder by any stretch, but if you want something that creates a wholly different look to the current crop of razor sharp everywhere lenses, this one is hard to beat. It’s darned expensive, but I can only think of two lenses that are potential competitors in the 35mm/FF field: the Nikkor 58mm f1.4 and the Leica 50mm f0.95 Noctilux. Neither are for EF mount, the former is no cheaper and the latter will leave you with a hole in your pocket so large your partner will probably leave through it! Perhaps a mark II lens will solve some of the problems with the lens (curvature, fall off in resolution wide open), but it may also kill the character. This is why I decided to buy this lens now and I am awfully glad I did. It is an absolute wonder, precisely because of its flaws. I can only hope that one day I will meet a woman who will say the same about me 😉
Additional Note 09 July 2015: With the announcement of the Sony A7R II, one has to wonder whether this lens is actually better off on a mirrorless body like this. After all, it focuses on the sensor, so any issues with naililng focus wide open will be minimised and we already know the speed with the A7R II and Metabones or Photodiox smart adaptors is almost as quick as on a Canon EOS body…
Additional Note 12 Mar 2018: I no longer own Canon EF bodies, but this is one of the lenses that I have not sold and cannot see myself selling. It performs better on my Sony FE bodies than it did on any Canon I have owned, including the Canon 5D IV. Focus is always smack on and I can work more quickly and efficiently when doing portraits.