Canon 50mm Lenses Compared
Image Quality top
The 50mm f/1.8 II and original 50mm f/1.8 have the same optics, and test identically.
The 50mm f/2.5 Macro has no distortion, while all the others curiously have the same moderate barrel distortion.
Flare and Ghosts
They are all have very little, except for the 50mm f/1.0 L, which can have quite a lot in some conditions.
They are all equally super-sharp at moderate apertures, and get equally softer from diffraction at the smallest apertures.
The only visible differences occur at the largest apertures and in the corners. In real-world shooting the corners never have anything in focus so it doesn't matter, but under laboratory conditions where we devise tests that have things in focus out there I can see what I'm going to share here.
The f/1.4 lens is the least sharp overall, but not by much. The f/1.8 and f/2.5 Macro are as good as each other, and better than the f/1.4, but the f/1.4 is the most popular because it's just about as sharp as everything else, and much more convenient and almost as light as the f/1.8.
If you can get the f/1.2 to focus reliably, when in focus, the f/1.2 is as good as the f/1.8 and f/2.5, and even sharper at the largest apertures, especially in the corners.
The f/1.0 lens is as sharp as the f/1.2 lens, and both are better than the others at the largest apertures. The f/1.0 focuses more reliably than the f/1.2, but is less sharp in the last few millimeters of the corners.
Here are more details at specific apertures:
Only the 50mm f/1.0 gores here. It's sharp and contrasty throughout most of the image, but only if it's in perfect focus. Otherwise there is a slight veil of color from spherochromatism.
The f/1.0 lens is very sharp and contrasty, while the f/1.4 USM has lower contrast due to its spherical aberration, absent in the aspherical f/1.0 lens. At f/1.4, the f/1.0 is on its game while the f/1.4 is gasping to keep up.
The f/1.2 L is probably the same as the f/1.0 at f/1.4 in the center, while the f/1.2 is sharpest in the corners at f/1.4 of these three f/1.0, f/1.2 and f/1.4 lenses — but I get less consistent focus with the f/1.2, so I prefer the f/1.0 lens.
The f/1.0 is very sharp and contrasty, while the f/1.8 and f/1.4 lenses have lower contrast due to spherical aberration.
In the last few millimeters of the corners, the f/1.8 and f/1.4 gets blurrier due to coma, while the f/1.0 lens gets much softer — but the f/1.0 is much sharper throughout most of the image.
The f/1.4 is about the same as the f/1.8 lens at f/2. Both have a lot of coma in the last few millimeters of the corners, and lower overall contrast from spherical aberration not present in the f/1.0 and f/1.2 lenses.
The f/1.2 is the sharpest in the far corners, and as sharp as the f/1.0 in most of the image.
The f/1.0 and f/1.2 are the sharpest of these f/2.
Now all these lenses are equally super sharp over almost all of the image.
If you get really picky, the f/1.8 is just a tad softer than the f/1.0 and the f/1.4 is a tad softer than the f/1.8, especially on the sides.
The only real differences are in the last few millimeters in the corners, and only if you actually have something in focus out there. If you do, the f/1.8 is blurrier from coma and the f/1.0 is softer out there.
Not charted, but I did shoot a direct comparison, and the 24-70mm f/2.8 L II is as sharp as the f/1.0 at f/2.8. In the corners, the 24-70mm f/2.8 L II is the sharpest of all these lenses! By f/2.8, the best lens is the newest lens, the 24-70mm f/2.8 L II.
All these lenses are equally super sharp.
The only difference is that the f/1.0 L is less sharp in the last half a millimeter of the full frame corners.
Adding the 28-105mm USM II to the comparison at 50mm at f/4, it's wide-open and much softer than the rest, all of which are ultra sharp.
All these lenses are equally super sharp, including the 24-70/2.8 II and 28-105 USM.
The only difference is that the f/1.0 L and 28-105 USM are slightly less sharp in the last half a millimeter of the full frame corners.
The 24-70/2.8 L II is also a tiny bit less sharp in the farthest corner and the f1.4 isn't quite as sharp on the sides, leaving the f/1.8 and f/2.5 lenses as slightly more excellent than the rest under the microscope at f/2.5.
At f/8 and smaller
They're all the same; diffraction is out biggest detriment to quality.
If I carry a 50mm lens with my Canon, it's almost always this cheapest 50mm f/1.8 II, not any of the more expensive options.
For most use, I prefer my Canon 50mm f/1.8 II because it's Canon's sharpest and lightest 50mm lens. It's all plastic, but it turns out that the plastic mount makes mounting and unmounting much smoother. If I break it, so what. I'll try to get it fixed under warranty, and even if I had to buy two or three more, I'm still out less money than if I bought just one 50mm f/1.4 — which isn't as sharp anyway.
I also prefer either 50mm f/1.8 because they use 5-bladed diaphragms, so sunstars have 10 points.
The Canon 50mm f/2.5 Macro is as sharp as the f/1.8 lenses, and focuses closer. I prefer the f/1.8 lenses because I prefer the extra stop of speed over any need to get any closer than a foot and a half.
The Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM is Canon's most popular 50mm lens, and adds the ability to grab the focus ring at any time for instant manual focus override. I don't like it because, under laboratory conditions, it's not as sharp as the 50mm f/1.8 II, and because it has an 8-bladed diaphragm that leads to silly 8-pointed sunstars.
The Canon 50mm f/1.2 L is very popular with weekend wedding shooters.
I don't use the 50/1.2 because the sample I reviewed in 2007 didn't focus accurately on my cameras, and it sometimes would be completely out of focus, even if the camera confirmed that it thought it had captured perfect focus. Today I have not tried it with the newest Canon cameras with which it probably works magnificently — but on my original 5D, the 50mm f/1.0 below gives much better and more consistent results.
The Canon 50mm f/1.0 L is the world's fastest lens ever made for any 35mm SLR, DSLR or any autofocus camera.
As an odd piece of trivia, it is so far advanced that no one, not Nikon or anyone, has ever come out with any AF lens this fast or advanced, and this lens came out back in the 1980s. Another piece of trivia is that paradoxically it's also the only 50mm Canon AF lens that has a genuinely useful depth-of-field scale. This lens usually has no depth-of-field at f/1.0, yet all the other lenses on which some of us might actually like to use a real depth-of-field scale either have none, or have scales so compressed that they aren't very useful.
More trivia is that this lens was first announced back in 1987 with the very first EOS camera. Although discontinued in 2000 from lack of interest, today's newest Canon 85mm f/1.2 L II has almost identical appearance, size and weight and seems made of mostly the same exterior parts. This lens lives today as the 85/1.2L II!
If you want to throw backgrounds way out of focus or shoot in no light, there is no 50mm lens that comes close. Its autofocus is slower than the other lenses due to the extra precision needed at f/1.0, and I find that it's fast enough to photograph action like my kids. You need a camera with an AF fine tune adjustment to get the best results. This len is astoundingly sharp and contrasty at f/1.0, but because depth-of-field is so vapor thin at f/1.0, so if you're not getting sharp results, it's because you didn't get it in perfect focus. For head shots, depth-of-field at f/1.0 is much less than the length of an eyelash: you can't get both ends of the eyelash in focus, much less the eyeball, too.
Beware comments from non-professional reviewers that lack the skill to get perfect focus and think this lens is less sharp than other 50mm lenses; this f/1.0 is much sharper and contrastier at large apertures than the 50mm f/1.4 USM — but only if you have perfect focus.
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04 Nov 2013