Review: Canon EF 50mm f1.2 L USM Lens
I must admit I wanted this lens since it came out. I wanted it badly after viewing some of the rare photos made with it on Flickr but the price and negative reviews always dissuaded me from buying it. This is such a shame as the Canon EF 50mm f1.2 L USM lens is a gem of a glass (and metal and some hard plastic too). My aim in this review is to post as many actual images taken with this lens so that you can also judge for yourself if this lens is indeed what you are looking for.
I use a full frame camera (Canon 5d) so those of you using a cropped sensor may not find this review as useful.
Currently nothing faster exists in Canon’s current production line up but there is one lens that is just as fast – the Canon EF 85mm f1.2 L USM. Canon EF 50mm f1.2 L also boasts an aspherical element. Leica make a big fuss about the new ASPH line of lenses and charge handsomely for it. Here you have a lens that is a stellar performer at a fraction of Leica price. Coming in at $1400 or EUR 1350 this is an expensive lens for a Canon prime but you would be spending many times more in the world of lovely Leica.
I seem to prefer prime lenses over the zooms. I think they make me think more about the composition of the shot and I like the size and weight benefits too. I have started carrying just one lens with each trip I make to further simplify the technical aspects of the photographing to let me concentrate on the actual image. I also hate carrying a tripod everywhere with me which means that longer focal lengths are usually out of question and larger apertures are always a plus. Fast 50 primes are therefore lenses that spend most time on my camera and as such I gathered that if I splash out on anything I should do it right there on the most classical focal length.
The lens comes in a standard Canon box. It contains a standard L series leather lens pouch. Now, I am really annoyed with Canon over this detail as this is an expensive lens and it should be protected from kicks and scratches and not just from dust. Canon should rectify this as soon as possible. Canon also ‘generously’ provides the ES-78 lens hood which is huge and padded with soft material inside to stop light reflecting. The last thing to mention is the lens manual (does anyone read these) and the warranty card.
Canon EF 50mm f1.4 vs Canon EF 50mm f1.2 L
Before purchasing the Canon EF 50mm f1.2 L I used its smaller cousin the Canon EF 50mm f1.4. The f1.4 is a fantastic lens. It is cheap, light and takes great photos as long as you keep to above f2.8 aperture. Problem being is that I most often did not and even though the performance below f2.8 was fine for my personal work I really needed a better performer for my commercial photography. Additionally, after 18 months of (careful) use the plastic f1.4 lens started to worry me that it might give up on me at a crucial moment so I sold it and financed the purchase of the f1.2 L version.
The L version is bigger and girthier then the f1.4 but the main difference is in build quality and size. The L version is exactly double the weight of the f1.4. The L is 580g and the f1.4 is 290g. The difference in build quality could not be bigger. Whereas f1.4 is ‘plasticky’ the f1.2 feels super solid even though its outer casing is made of hard plastic the inside is strictly glass and metal and that feels very reassuring. The L is weather sealed (providing you put a filter on it) meaning dust and water are kept at bay. The zoom ring on the f1.4 is loose, cluncky and not very precise (you can hear and feel the plastic cogs grinding inside as you turn it) while the L focus ring is precise and smooth.
In short, if you are torn between the two in terms of which one to buy just ask yourself a) have you got enough money for the L and b) do you shoot often in f2.8 or lower. If bother answers are yes then get the Canon EF 50mm f1.2 L without any worry over the extra cost.
Specs (the boring bit)
Angle of view (horzntl, vertl, diagnl): 40º, 27º, 46º
Lens construction (elements/groups): 8/6
No. of diaphragm blades: 8
Minimum aperture: 16
Closest focusing distance (m): 0.45
Maximum magnification (x): 0.15
AF actuator: Ring USM ¹
Filter diameter (mm): 72
Max. diameter x length (mm): 85.8 x 65.5
Weight (g): 580
Lens hood: ES-78
Soft case: LP1214
Chromatic aberration is the purple/red colour appearing at the edge where two highly contrasting areas meet. It is a common problem attributable to many a lens and the digital sensors make this problem worst. Photoshop and other quality tools can easily correct this so it is not a showstopper, just something you should be aware of when shooting scenes of high contrast.
Canon EF 50mm f1.2 L clearly suffers from chromatic aberration at larger apertures in high contrast scenes. The effect wears off as we close the aperture down.
Below we find a scene shot at f1.2 and the same scene shot at f2.5. The CA clearly shows at the edges in the frame shot with f1.2 but this effect is almost entirely gone by f2.5. You should open the full size examples below as it is quiet hard to see the effect even in these cropped samples.
The questions are whether the lens experiences focus shift and whether that focus shift is significant enough to create problems in real world use. For a specialist lens one could add a third question which is – am I prepared to work around the focus shift given the other important properties that compensate for the trouble?
Before I get onto the results of my testing let me just say that focus shift is not as big a deal as some make of it and that many legendary lenses exhibit some focus shift, especially at mid apertures. Point in case are some of Leica’s lenses (35mm Summilux for instance) where focus shift exists but it is not significant enough to cause out of focus images in real world use or the buyers of the lens feel that the trouble of focus shift workaround is compensated by the overall quality of the lens.
Having said all this my tests show that there the lens exhibits no focus shift or that the focus shift is negligible enough that I could not notice it in my testing.
How did I test for focus shift? I tested mid and short distance. Mid distance was 4 meters and short was just over half a metre from the subject. The subject was a lens test card which was tilted at an angle. The apertures to watch out for are around f4 but by that time the lens became so sharp that should there have been any focus shift it was compensated by the wider DOF.
Given the UX lens date code it could be that Canon fixed the earlier versions’ focus shift problems. Certainly looking at forums online I could see that 2009/2010 comments report less issues with this lens then there was the case earlier.
If you are worried about investing all this money and the issue of focus shift stresses you out my advice is buy new production lens and don’t invest in a second hand version. I’d be interested to receive any comments from any of you who are having focus shift problems with this lens so please drop me a line and I will include a separate post on your experiences.
This is a complex subject in which real world use of the lens counts more then lab tests.
I have devised a simple test myself to measure where lies the lens sweet spot in terms of aperture and resolution recorded. Here are the results:
The trend of the graph is important here rather then value of the y axis. Unsurprisingly the least resolution recorded is at f1.2, the sweet spot lies at around f8 after which diffraction sets in but at a much smaller cost to data recorded then at smaller apertures.
Now my test measures detail recorded in respect to aperture used for the overall image. The test does not have to be done in a controlled environment but it can be used to compare one lens to another. Where the test fails is in comparing exactly how much detail is recorded comparatively as well as between centre and corners of the image.
Enter dreaded MTF.
The above MTF charts taken from Canon’s excellent EF Works book (more on it here). Wide open the lens produces good sharpness in the centre of the image but this quickly drops to below average for outer areas and corners. At f8 the lens is close to perfection in terms of sharpness corner to corner. The MTF chart also tells us that the quality of the bokeh will be very good with the combination of close dashed lines and lower image sharpness in the image corners wide open.
It seems the MTF chart is not a friend of this lens but this is slightly misleading. Corner sharpness is not something you really want at wide apertures where most of us prefer to keep things rather blurred and with a good bokeh. Portraits are a perfect example of where such performance is an absolute plus. Stepping down to f1.8 to f2 starts to give spectacular results in terms of increasing resolution and sharpness and the bokeh still remains creamy.
For those requiring corner to corner sharpness the f8 aperture is a standard anyway and in here the lens behaves brilliantly.
What I would like to offer here are a few examples of image sharpness so you can judge how sharp the lens is by yourselves.
Background Blur and Bokeh
Being a 50mm with a maximum aperture of f1.2 this lens has plenty of background blur but more importantly the bokeh or the quality of that background blur is excellent. One of the reasons you want to be buying this lens is for its bokeh. It is creamy, buttery, smooth and out of focus highlights at f1.2 are elliptical while at smaller apertures they turn into lovely eight point stars.
There is no point talking too much about bokeh. Let me show you what I mean. First set of images is taken of a plastic child’s toy with lights in the background. At f1.2 the centre of the image is relatively sharp (focus is on the green fish’s eyes) but everything else simply melts away into a lovely background blur and the lights are elliptical. The files are straight out of the camera and you can view the larger version of each image by clicking on it.
The second set of images is showing the actual shape of points of light from f1.2 to f4. The lights turn from elliptical to octagonal to round again as the lens is stopped down.
Instead of these forced images here are few real world examples of the bokeh this lens produces:
Unlike the Canon EF 85mm f1.2 L, this 50 does not focus by wire and it focuses much faster then its bigger cousin. Not focusing by wire means that the manual focus is more responsive, more subtle allowing for finer and more immediate focus increments. The speed of focusing is on par with the Canon EF 50mm f1.4 which in my view is focusing fast. The only time when one might see some slow focus performance is when focusing form infinity to near and vice versa and sometimes in very low light.
Actually when talking about the very low light focusing this lens is amazing at managing to focus when your eyes would have given up long time ago. I have made a small test to see how the lens focuses with just one candle (lumin) in the scene. It did not disappoint. The lens immediately caught onto objects near the candle and it relatively quickly focused on more darker, less well lit spots.
In fact, it is scary how much light this lens lets in when you consider that the image above was shot in ISO 400 and with just 15th of a second exposure (I can have very calm hands when I need to).
Ghosting and Flare
It is really hard to get this lens to flare or produce ghosting though not impossible. The lens has Canon’s anti flare and ghosting spectra coating which really helps to make this lens an excellent performer in this field. You can just about get away with shooting directly in the sun and still get very contrasty results.
The first image in this sequence is when things go wrong (sun coming in at an sharp angle) but the next few shots do show how the lens performs excellently when shooting towards the setting sun.
I will post soon examples of vignetting but for now you will have to take my word for it.
Vignetting is strong when wide open (estimate roughly -EV2.5) but it gets better by f2.8 and it is gone by f4. It is unreasonable to expect no vignetting at f1.2 but the vignetting is really noticable even though many people will actually want and like that effect.
When taking portraits at f1.2 you really do notice that the lens exhibits a certain kind of warm fuzzy glow which combined with the vignetting, lower lens resolution and a buttery cream bokeh really makes portraits taken with this lens stand out from the crowd. I guess this is why most people consider this lens to be the best at portraiture and wedding photography.
Canon marketing tells us that this lens is perfect for portraiture and wedding photography. I think they are selling it short. I am finding that landscapes are also its forte and so is street shooting. In fact, documentary photography work so well with it too especially because of its large aperture and the ability to work in low light. What I am trying to say in a very convoluted kind of way is that this lens is an all round performer.
The image quality is excellent. Colour, saturation and contrast are all so well controlled that post processing is brought down to a minimum. This has really liberated my time to do what I like doing best – taking photographs.
This lens has suffered some really harsh reviews in the past both by expert reviews as well as by the public on the forums. Reading the reviews it seems like from mid 2009 they all started to turn around and the reports of focus shifting and blurry images have slowly died down. Has Canon really responded to bad press and changed its production to a new set of higher quality? We’ll never know but I do wish all those, just like me, who really like the idea of this lens but never bought it because of the bad press do give it a go as it is worth the risk. The lens is excellent.
I would recommend Canon EF 50mm f1.2 L USM lens to anyone that likes great image quality, large aperture and a 50mm prime. Outside Leica’s shores there is simply nothing like it.
When I got the lens I started logging a three day diary of my experiences of it. Here is what I found…
At the end of day one all I can think about is how bloody good this piece of glass is. I feel like the 50 is one of the most misunderstood and misreviewed (if there is such a word) lenses in teh Canon line up. As the images load (slowly) onto my big large iMac I am starting to see for the first time the contrast, colours, detail and the 3d punch of this lens. It is unlike any other Canon I tried, really different to 50.14 and absolutely on another planet when compared to Nikon.
As I woke up today knowing that my local dealer received the package I got up with a sense of dread – am I really going to spend all that $$ on a lens that so many people have problems with, on subtle improvement from what I already have in my 50.14 and all that at the deepest end of recession – am I mad?
I hoped for problems with softness and back focus, scratches on glass, lady at the shop not remembering the discount we agreed, hoped for all things to go wrong to save me from the financial drrain of this lens but nothing came to my rescue. Everything worked and seemed fine and I had to bite the bulet an take th eplunge.
Here we are in the car and I am putting the lens on my 5d, click and it is on, it is mine (so is the debt) and I am hers. First snap of the changing gear is made and off to grans I go for a nice home made lunch.
I was hearing that it is only good for close and mid distance subjects, that infinity was not its forte, that sharpness is definitely not the prime reason for getting this lens. What a load of tosh! Even at f1.2 the quick shot from the balcony dissuaded me from that – all looks good, details are there, corners soft but not awfully so (we are talking f1.2!!!!!)
I was hearing it is slow to focus. Tosh again! Not true, by any means. The sports events shooters beware (maybe) but then again would they really want this 50 or would then not be more interested in an exotic tele anyhow. The focus speed seems great.
Getting over the initial excitement. I realise that I was a little manic last night after whole day of worry about the cost of the lens and quality benefits to be followed by loading onto the mac display which blew me away and made me fgo nuts.
Today, rarity happened here – Mediterranean snow. Well, for all of you used to snow you’d probably laugh at roughly 3mm of snow cover that fell this morning but the -2C is something we’re not used to here + the cold wind is blowing making outside snapping a strictly no go. Actually, the main reason why I am not venturing outside is that I still do not have the 72mm UV filter with which you must seal this lens to protect it from moisture and dust. Remember, this lens is not sealed against either of those until the filter is places.
So off to photograph animals, my cat Tito and dog Bonnie. Cat is black, dog is white – neither are an easy task for camera’s metering system, cat being the more difficult one.
What I really want to be doing is photographing foliage details and trying to tease out under which circumstances 50.12 will produce a bokeh swirl. I can’t afford Leica and its Noctilux swirl monster but a part of me hopes that Canon is capable of coming quite close to the legendary Leica look. If they pull this off then what I consider to be an expensive prime will be a cheap and serious competitor to Leica’s line up with only negative side being bulk. Leica is much smaller if not any lighter. In the portraits I’ve done yesterday evening and close up shots of drinks in very low diffused light started showing first sign of painter’s lens (expand).
What I am noticing today is the almost total lack of post processing work required. Contrast is fine, tonality is fine, saturation JUST right. Now this matter not only for those of you who shoot a lot but also for weekends shooters as post processing can lead to sometimes overdone look to your shots which at first look cool but soon start looking a tad tacky. I do not mind post processing, quite enjoy it really but not having to do it is liberating too. I can shoot RAW + JPEG and in most cases use JPEGS ‘out of the box’ so the speak. This is a significant plus.
Cool head, cold hands, lens still performing beautifully.
The rain and snow stopped leaving everything covered in roughly half an inch of ice. It is like the whole village turned into a glass display and every step you make causes everything to crackle. Even without the UV filter I can finally go out.
I am still using the lens almost strictly below f2.8 with 1.2 being the norm. It likes it that way so it seems and I like the results. Still, I make a shot at f9 of the village just to tease out some detail and I am very (pleasantly) surprised as to how sharp the output is – out of the box. I used to think my 100mm f2 is sharpness monster but this is better, way better and it requires less post processing. It’s not all about sharpness either, the rendering is lovely and the colours are super.
The size and weight of the lens still feel natural to me on the 5d body. The lens looks just right, not too big like 85mm f1.2. The lens hood makes it huge though.
March 6, 2010