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Canon Normal Primes

Peter Kun Frary

The 50mm prime is one of my favorite "walk around" lenses. They often live on my cameras for months due to the excellent image quality, versatility and petite size. The viewfinder is amazingly bright and vivid compared to most zooms.

On full frame cameras, e.g., EOS 5D Mark II or EOS 1V, the 46 degree coverage of the 50mm lens is equivalent to the sweet spot of the human eye. Hence, "normal lens," refers to the venerable 50mm prime lens. The natural perspective of this optic makes it easy to pre-visualize images.

One of the main reasons to own a 50mm lens is for available light photography. At F1.4 or 1.8 you can use a fast enough shutter speed to shoot sans flash in murky light. The fast aperture also makes for bright viewfinders, a useful feature if you shoot in dark conditions. Fast optics tend to have smooth bokeh (background blur). The soft whirl of an out of focus background really makes your subject pop. Finally, a compelling reason to use a 50mm lens is size. Even the fastest 50mm prime is so small and light you'll hardly notice it in your bag.

Canon EF 50 1.4 USM


The EF 50 1.4 USM is small (50.5 mm L), light (290 g), boasts an eight-blade diaphragm for elegant bokeh, 58 mm filter threads for easy sharing of filters and close focusing ability (45 cm). The front element does not rotate, but the lens changes in length when focusing.

The micro-USM motor is nearly silent during AF and allows FT-M, a welcome feature. The focusing ring is large and gripable, but the mechanism feels coarse. Unlike most AF lenses, you must turn the focusing ring considerably to focus from 0.45 meters to infinity, so precise manual focusing is easy, but not as silky or smooth as a dedicated manual focus lens

AF is peppy but about the same speed as the EF 50 1.8 and a little slower than the EF 50 1.2L USM. Although I had no problems with AF reliability during the 6 years I owned this lens, I have read many complaints about its less than robust AF mechanism.

Agashi Near Iolani Palace • Elan 7E, EF 50 1.4 USM, Fill-in Flash (-1.5) and Portra 160VR • Pleasant bokeh but not as smooth as the EF 50 1.2L USM.

Oddly, low light AF is not as reliable as slower zooms or other 50mm lenses reviewed below (it's fine in normal light). Perhaps the extremely shallow depth of field due to the F1.4 aperture yields less contrast than the slower optics?

It does have DOF markings but, unfortunately, Canon dropped the ball and only provided DOF markings for F22. Why bother?

This seven-element design is fairly flare resistant and distortion free compared tozoom lenses, although my EF 24-105 4L IS USM is more contrasty at 50mm/F4. Moreover, it is extremely sharp by F5.6. I found it soft below F2.8 and terrible wide open. Some folks claim their 50 1.4 is critically sharp by F2.8, so this lens may be subject to considerable sample variation. Besides soft performance wide open, my sample suffered coma, e.g., streetlight had comet like tails.

It focuses all the way down to 18 inches, but exhibits noticeable barrel distortion in close-up work (this is why they make macro lenses, see the EF 50 2.5 Compact Macro below). It uses the ES-71II hood, a twist-on design with antireflection flocking on the interior. The size and flocking afford the maximum amount of protection possible without vignetting. I recommend use of the hood to protect the front element and to prevent flare.

At $350, this lens isn't for everyone. The main gotchas are poor low light AF and F1.4 performance. However, if you can find a good copy, it could be the bee's knees for available shooters, bright viewfinder lovers and bokeh strokers.

Agashi at Aloha Tower • Elan 7E, EF 50 1.4 USM, 420EX Speedlite, NPH 400 & Canoscan FS4000US

More Images Taken With The EF 50 1.4 USM

Canon EF 50 1.8 (MK I)

For years this was one of my favorite lenses and the bargain of the EOS system. It shares many characteristics with the EF 35 2.0: small (42 mm L), light (188 g), 5-blade diaphragm, 52 mm filter threads and focuses close (45 cm). The front element does not rotate, but the lens changes in length when focusing. This front element extension is why AF is a little slower than other AFD lenses such as the EF 24 2.8.

Surprisingly, AF is about the same speed as the EF 50 1.4 USM. Unfortunately, the AF motor is nosier than most AFD lenses. Like the EF 50 1.4 USM, this lens has problems snagging focus in low light (my slow zooms do better). The manual focusing ring has a loose gritty feel, among the worst I have used.

I grew up using DOF scales to set hyperfocal distance, so having them on an AF prime is a big plus. This lens only has DOF markings for F11 and 16. Not nearly as useful as the scales on old MF primes but better than nothing. In contrast, the EF 50 1.8 MK II lacks a DOF scale and the EF 1.4 USM only sports F22.

The six-element design is flare resistant compared to most zoom lenses. Moreover, it is extremely well corrected, sharp and contrasty. Image quality is in the same ball park as the EF 50 1.4 USM: barrel distortion below 2 meters, critically sharp at F5.6, good at F2.8 and terrible wide open. I've owned two copies of this lens and optical quality was very similar.

Agashi at Aiea Heights • Canon EOS A2, EF 50 1.8 (MK I), Reflector & Fujichrome 100

The EF 50 1.8 has been out of production since the early 90s, so it's difficult to find the original ES-65 lens hood. Fortunately, there are three good substitutes that clip-on just like the original: the EW-65 II, ET-65 III and ES 65-III. The EW-65 II is the hood for the EF 35 2.0, so it's on the small side. The ES-65 III is the hood for the TS-E 90 2.8 but fits perfectly and affords excellent protection. It's identical to the original ES-65 but is updated with rayon flocking. The ET-65 III is the hood used for the EF 70-210 USM, EF 100-300 USM, EF 85 1.8 USM and EF 100 2.0 USM. Although it looks too big, I have used the ET-65 III with this lens on full frames bodies for years and it gives the maximum amount of protection possible without vignetting, plus it looks cool.

EF 50 1.8 (MK I) • 1988 Black Beauty with matching ES-65 III hood • Photographed with EOS 5D and EF 50 2.5 CM.

Unfortunately, this wonderful lens was discontinued in 1990 and replaced by the cheaply made EF 50 1.8 MK II. Optically they are identical, but the newer version has a plastic mount rather than metal, lacks a distance window and uses a bogus screw in manual focus adapter on the end of the barrel. Canon probably did this to make a clear distinction between it and the EF 50 1.4 USM. The result is that the old EF 50 1.8 holds its value on the used market, selling for more than a new EF 50 1.8 MK II.

Heather's Hair • EOS Elan, EF 50 1.8 (MK I), Elite Chrome, F1.8

If you wish to buy a MK I used, expect to pay $150 to $200 for one in excellent condition. Mint ones may be a bit more.

Ala Moana Fishing CircleEOS Elan, EF 50 1.8 (MK I), Sensia 100

Canon EF 50 2.5 Compact Macro

This lens is optimized for macro photography and, thus, is able to focus as close as 23 cm (9 inches) and create 1/2 life size (1:2) images. With the Life Size Converter EF it's capable of life size (1:1) images.

It looks similar to the EF 50 1.8, but is more beefy at 63 mm L and 280 g. It has a 6-blade diaphragm instead of the 5-blade version common to most old AFD prime lenses. The front element does not rotate, but the lens changes in length when focusing. Surprisingly, the AFD based AF is peppy and is only slightly slower than the EF 50 1.4 USM. I find the sound of the motor a little buzzy but it's very soft, just not silent like USM or STM. Like the EF 50 1.8, this lens has 52 mm filter threads.

EOS SL1 & EF-s 18-55 3.5-5.6 IS STMEOS 5D MKII & EF 50 2.5 (reflectors & window)

The manual focusing ring is surprisingly smooth turning, albeit loose, but more usable for manual focus than the EF 50 1.4 USM or the EF 50 1.8. Unfortunately, there are DOF markings for F16 and 32 only. Finally, this lens may be stopped down to F32 for maximum depth of field, versus F22 or F16 for most 50 mm optics.

Wittner MT-70 Metronome • Canon EOS 10D, EF 50 2.5 Compact Macro, Bogan 3001 tripod, 420EX Speedlite triggered by the ST-E2 and bounced off a white panel

Its nine-element design is one of the most flare resistant I have encountered, better than the EF 50 1.4 USM and EF 50 1.8. Moreover, it is supremely well corrected for distortion and is sharp and contrasty from edge to edge from macro to infinity. This lens is ideal for photographing coins, documents and other inanimate objects as there is virtually no distortion in the macro or normal ranges. However, this is not an ideal lens for little critters and flash as the working range is very short.

EF 200 2.8L USM & EOS 3 EOS 10D, EF 50 2.5 Compact Macro, F16 & white reflector.

There is no official Canon hood for this lens, probably because of the extreme front element extension required for 1:2 or 1:1 reproduction. However, the front element is so far recessed that this is a moot point. If you're not using the macro range, use of a screw-in generic hood is a good idea. The filter threads are 52 mm, making filters and hoods affordable.

Agashi at Ala MoanaCanon EOS 10D, EF 50 2.5 Compact Macro, popup fill, F 2.5. Here's how the bokeh looks (6-blade diaphragm). Not a bad portrait lens for crop sensors.

Nature photographer John Shaw recommends, if you're going to buy a 50 mm lens, get a macro version. Subsequently, you'll get small F-stops and the ability to focus close if you need it. This lens is about $300 new. I bought a used one in mint condition for $175.

I've owned this lens for over 19 years--outliving dozens of EOS cameras--and it's still one of my favorites and the first one I reach for when shooting small products, flat art and general macro.

Nikon Nikkor 50mm F2.0 AISEOS 5D MKII, EF 50 2.5 CM (F16), RS-80N3 Remote Switch, Manfrotto 190 and 2 silver reflectors

EOS Elan 7E all Dressed UpEOS 10D, EF 50 2.5 CM (F16), RS-80N3 Remote Switch, Bogan 3001 tripod and 2 white reflectors

The Three Amigos Square Off

Each of these three lenses is designed with a different purpose, but all three work nicely for general photography. Moreover, build quality and AF speed are similar between the trio. The EF 50 1.4 USM has marginally faster AF speed but hunts more in low contrast situations. Of course, the larger aperture, silent Micro-USM, large focusing ring, exceptional bokeh and FT-M give the EF 50 1.4 USM advantages over the other two lenses. Nevertheless, stopped down to middle apertures, all three are similar optically--extremely sharp and distortion free. The EF 50 1.4 USM is extremely soft wide open but sharpens up by F2.8. It's sweet spot is F5.6 to F8. The EF 50 1.8 has similar performance although the 50 1.4 is slightly sharper from F2.8 to F4. Amazingly, the EF 50 2.5 Compact Macro is sharp wide open, with a super sweet spot at F5.6. In terms of consistent sharpness throughout the aperture range, the EF 50 2.5 Compact Macro rules.

As I mentioned earlier, all three lenses are virtually flare free. However, in a high flare scenario, e.g., a strong light source just outside the field of view, flare resistance differs between these lenses when shooting wide open. The nine-element EF 50 2.5 Compact Macro displays almost no ghosting and flare, whereas the seven-element EF 50 1.4 USM and six-element EF 50 1.8 have slightly more pronounced ghosting and flare. Fortunately, stopping down a couple of stops controls flare considerably. Lenses with more elements have more reflective surfaces and, hence, more flare and ghosting. However, the design of the EF 50 2.5 Compact Macro is exceptional as it has more elements, yet less flare. I strongly recommend the use of hoods with all lenses to help control flare.

All three lenses have little or no distortion at normal distances. Once you get inside the macro range, e.g., 45 cm, both the EF 50 1.8 and EF 50 1.4 USM exhibit considerable barrel distortion, the EF 50 1.4 USM more so than the EF 50 1.8. However, barrel distortion is only apparent with straight lines and isn't noticeable with most natural objects, e.g., rocks and flowers. In contrast, the EF 50 2.5 Compact Macro is flat and distortion free from edge to edge.

Although each lens has individual strengths and weaknesses, they're in the same ball park in terms of value. Pick the one that fits your shooting style best. If I could only have one, my money is on the EF 50 2.5 CM. Indeed, it is the only one I continue to shoot with after all these years.

EF 50 1.2L USM Review

01/05/2002 • Updated 01/09/2014

©Copyright 2002-2014 by Peter Kun Frary • All Rights Reserved

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