Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Nifty Fifty: A Canon 50mm f/1.8 Lens Review


The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II lens was my first lens purchase after I got my DSLR, and it should be the first lens on any new photographer's to-buy list as well. I had spent two or three months browsing the Internet for recommended lenses for beginners, and this one was always near the top of the list. This semi objective review should help you decide whether or not to purchase it for yourself.

The 50 mm f/1.8 is not a zoom lens; it is a prime lens or a fixed focal lens meaning it only captures an image at that particular focal range. In exchange for zoom range, prime lenses are often sharper, have better color saturation and have a much larger aperture value.

Nevertheless, its fixed 50mm focal frame has earned it the nickname the Nifty Fifty, and it truly is. On a camera with an APS-C sensor like one of the Canon Rebels, it's effectively an 85mm lens, making it a bit too tight for most group shots; if a person stood about five feet away from you, the camera would only be able to capture his upper body and face. In contrast, a typical digital point-and-shoot camera has an effective focal range of about 28mm when zoomed out, enough to fit a whole party in front of you.

Despite this limitation, it can be quite effective for candid shots and low light situations. Even with its longer focal length, it can be very useful for street photography once you get the hang of it.

I sold my copy to a friend not too long ago since I was using my Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L USM lens about 90% of the time, but I've kept many pictures I've taken with my 50mm, and I find myself missing it sometimes.

For anyone thinking about purchasing or borrowing this lens, here are a few advantages and disadvantages to the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II:

1) It's cheap.

Comparatively speaking, it's very affordable at around $100 (the price may be different depending on your location). However, don't let that price fool you; it's capable of some amazing shots.

It will repay itself many times over once you find out how incredibly functional it is. If you're considering an extra purchase when buying your first DSLR, your camera shop might be persuaded to lower the lens price. It's so cheap that there's really no good reason why you shouldn't get it.

2) It's sharp.

Well, it's sharp stepped down. Wide open at f/1.8, it's very soft, so much so that you might think your image isn't in focus. The narrow aperture doesn't help that fact. However, stepped down to f/2.0 or f/2.4, it becomes usable. At f/2.8 it's very sharp and you hardly notice any vignetting.

This is the beauty of the prime lens; they are incredibly sharp and they're most often used for magazine shoots and wedding engagements. If you know how to mask the 50mm's flaws, you can use it for professional shoots as well. I know quite a few photographers who do this on paid gigs to good effect. 

3) It's light and simple.

The lens is much lighter than the kit lens, allowing you to hold the camera comfortably with only one hand. In addition, its uncomplicated design makes it a breeze to handle. There's no zoom ring to fiddle with, no extra buttons to press. With this piece of glass, there's only one zoom setting: what you see is what you get.

After awhile, you begin to appreciate the limitation of the prime lens. When you put the camera to your face, you don't need to zoom in or zoom out. All you need to do is compose your shot, and click the shutter.

4) It provides exceptional training.

The first few days using this lens can be very awkward, especially if you're used to the 18mm wide end of your kit lens, but the lens slowly trains your eye to determine what part of the horizon in front of you can fit into your 50mm frame.

Getting used to the nifty fifty's range, you'll find yourself becoming an expert at focal ranges: even before you raise the viewfinder to your eye, you'll immediately know whether a scene fits into a 50mm frame. After switching between lenses, you'll soon be good enough to tell which scenes require a lens with a 24mm, 35mm, 50mm or 100mm focal length.

The lens will also help you determine what kind of shooting style you want. I know a lot of photographers who bought three or more lenses at the beginning of their hobby or career, only to find out they only used two of them most of the time. When you're stuck with the 50mm, you'll often find yourself either backing up to take in more of the scene in front of you, or moving forward to get a closer look.

After a few more months of this, you'll know for certain whether you need that 10-22mm ultra-wide, or that 70-200mm bread-and-butter wedding lens.

For the price, the lens offers a great deal for new photographers. However, not all is perfect. Here are a few caveats against the lens: 

1) Its Auto-Focus is slow and noisy.

Compared to the 18-55mm kit lens, the auto-focus speed is about on par. However, the 50mm is noticeably noisier. This might not bother you, but in situations where quiet discretion is key, a noisy lens might distract from the occasion.

The AF also has a problem in low-light situations. It hunts around and sometimes does not acquire focus. In addition, on some copies of the lens, you might find a slight front-focusing problem. This can be a bit irritating especially at wide apertures, but most people don't notice that problem, especially when you don't crop the image.

A little side-note for Nikon readers, the Nikon AF Nikkor 50 mm f/1.8D does not auto-focus on entry level cameras like the D3100 or D5000. While Nikkor lens can be mounted onto these cameras, the lens unfortunately does not have an internal auto-focus motor, so you will have to manually focus the lens yourself. 

2) It produces ugly bokeh.

The five aperture blades of the Canon 50mm unsurprisingly offer very lazy bokeh. It's not a deal breaker, considering that the bokeh is the out of focus portion of the image, but once you know about it, you can't help but notice it.

To Nikon's credit, the Nikkor version has seven blades and produces beautiful bokeh in my opinion.

3) It's build quality is subpar.

The lens is predominantly made of plastic, and sometimes feels like a child's toy. Nevertheless, because of its small size and light weight, you probably won't notice it.

The plastic construction offers adequate protection for the glass inside. Only a deliberately hard blow to the lens would deal it any lasting damage.

These disadvantages might sound discouraging, but this is just to offer you a more objective review of the lens. If you were to ask me whether or not you should buy it, the answer is a resounding "YES"! In my opinion, the advantages more than outweigh theses small disadvantages.

Buy it, rent it or borrow it. If you can spend $800 on a camera, you can spend an extra hundred to allow you to capture better photos.  Other than your kit lens, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II lens should be one of the first lenses you mount on your camera. If this personal review has convinced you, purchase the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Camera Lens along with the Fotodiox Dedicated Lens Hood, for Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Lens as Canon ES-62 and Professional High Quality 3 Piece Filter Set For Canon SLR Cameras That Have A Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Lens.





32 comments:

Jamy said...

man, that looks hot... wish i could afford it right now.

Raw said...

Great review, I need to pick up one of these and play around with it.
It sounds like a fun lens.

Anonymous. said...

Is it worth it? I've only got lenses from the late 70's. I need to upgrade.

tearinox said...

cool info thanks :)

UncommissionedArt said...

m actually getting into photography now and was looking for a good lens like this.

Steven said...

Thanks for the tips

Freek said...

I may be mistaken, but I think this type of lens came standard with the Canon EOS 350D. Maybe it's successors too, though.

Jay.CA said...

@Anonymous: This is an EF mount lens. The Canon lenses of the 70's were FD or FL mounts I think, and aren't compatible with the current generation of EOS cameras, unless you buy an adapter.

@Freek: The current standard kit lens for the Canon Rebel line is the 18-55mm. :)

Burger said...

My brother just got a 50mm lense for his Nikon D50!

Shutterbug said...

Thanks for the info. Very informative and detailed. :)

schultzz said...

hey i could use on of these for a class project, the camera i have has horrible lenses.

Chris said...

Cant go wrong with the trust Nifty Fifty.

Grafted said...

Nice review, I'll look into it.

FrenchNeo said...

I love photography, but I'm definitely too poor.. :(

rndmg123 said...

a lens for the newbies. great post!

liam said...

i wish i could afford one!

The Game Store Guy said...

Ironically, I have always skirted away from this lens. Maybe I should add it to my collection. Thanks for the review.

baxxman said...

Really interesting! Can't believe that it is only aroun 100 bucks
Baxxmans

Andre said...

Hehe I think we this lens in my photography class, it was pretty cool
How to Hack Life.

Anton Nuemus said...

thx for the review.
Now I know which camera I have to buy :)

Devon Davidson said...

Yeah... This thing is way out of my price range...

Assange No.1 Fan said...

The fuss about photography these days :/

Triper said...

it is good instruction, looks cool my friend.

thenitefalls said...

Pretty sweet lens for new photographers! Following and supporting!

G said...

nice review

Garth said...

very pricey, but worth every dollar.

Sam said...

Great review, time to save some money to buy one.

Tenko said...

Looks like a great lens. When buying anything I always try to get the best quality for the lowest price.

Joel C Anatoli said...

Seems like an ok lense to me.

ironchefman said...

Finally, a camera equipment post! I have a relatively new Canon DSLR kit that I'm thinking of getting some lenses for. The 50mm seems so widespread, but I'm not sure how much use I'd get out of that focal length on a crop sensor camera. I know there's no one-size-fits-all lens, but I'm looking for a solution with as few lenses as possible, and I'm not sure the nifty fifty fits in...

Jay said...

@ironchefman: it'll probably be more of an experimentation lens, although i've used it for general use for many months.

buy or rent it, you won't regret it. :)

dimzPhotography said...

Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
thank you :)

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