Monday, March 17, 2014

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II

During the heyday of the APS-C DSLR boom, the camera makers actively pushed older 50mm primes as "low-light" or "portrait" lenses. This practice continues today; 50mm and f/1.8 on Canon's EF-S APS-C format is roughly the equivalent of 80mm and f/2.6. It's just on the short side of the portrait range, but f/1.8 on a Canon EF-S body gives plenty of room to create blurred out backgrounds. However, as much as these lenses are sold to fulfill a niche in the Canon consumer DSLR line-up, the real reason why primes like the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 exist is because they are inexpensive to produce, and consequently sell at an inexpensive price for the price-conscious end of the DSLR market.


Let's get one thing out of the way. This is the least expensive lens in Canon line-up and it feels like it. In fact, it may very well be the least expensive DSLR lens sold on any system, regardless of manufacturer. There are no pretensions with regards to the build quality of this lens; it's plastic, it's light and it's simple to a fault. There is a simple autofocus/manual switch, and the focus ring is thin and located right on the edge of the lens barrel. In its defense, the lens doesn't feel flimsy, but it certainly does feel cheap. How cheap? This is the second version of this lens; the original had a metal mount, distance scale and infrared index. Version II lost all of these features, but the saving grace is that the optics are fairly similar between the two.

What comes in the box? The lens, front and rear caps and that that's it. No hood, no lens pouch.

This is a mechanically simple lens. Unlike most other modern Canon lenses, the AF drive mechanism is neither USM nor the newer STM mechanisms. Focus operation is noisy with a very noticeable gear whine when the focus is moved from near to far. Imagine the sound of you car gear-work and you won't be far off from how the EF 50mm f/1.8 operates. Unlike USM or STM lenses, you cannot manually override the AF; the lens can only operate in all-automatic or all manual mode. However, given the low price of this lens, it is a nice surprise that the front element does not rotate during focusing, making it convenient to use with polarizing filters.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II mounted on EOS Rebel Sl1 (100D)

The small size and light weight of this lens match perfectly with the smaller Canon bodies like the T5i or the SL1. This is an important factor for this class of camera, as many EOS Rebel shooters are attracted to these cameras because of their portability.

Image Quality

Despite its price tag, the EF 50mm f/1.8 II is a decent performer. Note, not a "decent performer for its price", but simply, "a decent performer." This isn't because there's some sort of special Canon fairy dust in the mix, it's just that it's fairly easy to manufacture a 50mm lens that also happens to be sharp. This is because the classic "nifty-fifty" lens doesn't require many optical elements; the 50mm f/1.8 only has 6 elements.

When producing lenses that are either longer or shorter than 50mm, the complexity tends to go up. With longer lenses, the manufacturers tend to go with telephoto designs, which means that the overall length of the lens is shorter than what the focal length would suggest. This is to keep the length of longer lenses manageable. Wide angle lenses tend to be retrofocal in design, meaning that their physical length is longer than the focal length of the lens. This is to accommodate extra lens elements, which are needed to produce a wide-angle image that also has good optical qualities. In other words, 50mm lenses tend to be sharp and cheap because they fall within a manufacturing sweet spot.

The following is an ad hoc demonstration of the lens bokeh when focused at a point at close range (approximately 3 feet away). As a portrait lens, many people will be interested in creating a blurred-out background. This is often incorrectly described as bokeh, however, that term more correctly describes the quality of the background blur rather than the amount of it. With this regards, the EF 50mm f/1.8 II is not perfect, but it does produce a good showing. There's a hint of nervousness in the background blur, with a tad bit of highlight fringing, but for the most part, the quality of the blur is acceptable. If you shoot at a more simple background, the nervousness becomes a non-issue. However, there is one distracting aspect, though, and that is with the fact that this lens only has five aperture blades. This is readily apparent on the f/2.8 and f/4 shots, where the highlights have ten on a pentagonal shape.


In terms of sharpness, this lens has nothing to be ashamed about. The contrast and detail in the plain of focus doesn't drop off too steeply when wide open. Peak sharpness occurs at roughly f/5.6, but much of this is already realized by f/2.8. On an EF-S camera, there's some vignetting at f/1.8, but it stops being an issue one stop down.

Concluding Thoughts

For an owner of a camera like a T3i, T5i or SL1, this is a no-brainer lens to own. Since most of these cameras are sold with variable-aperture zooms, the missing piece of the camera bag is a fast prime. The only downside to this lens is that it's too long to be a truly general purpose lens. Unlike Nikon, Canon does not have a cheap 35mm prime to approximate the field of view of 50mm on full frame. The few options to have a fast and general purpose prime lens would include the Canon EF 35mm f/2 USM IS or the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM ART. However, there's a considerable jump in cost from the 50mm f/1.8 to either of these lenses. Owners of the EOS 70D or EOS 7D would probably prefer to have the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM. Again, it's a large jump in price, but the addition of proper USM focusing is more in keeping with the aspirations of the serious-enthusiast crowd. Anybody looking to upgrade to full frame will probably not even put a second's thought into this lens.

For the most part, the logical time to acquire this lens is if you feel that you have the walkaround zoom lenses that you need. Human nature being what it is, zooms will be used more often than primes. For many people that means starting with either the 18-55mm or 18-135mm kit zooms and perhaps adding the 75-300mm or 70-300mm consumer zoom lenses later. Once that's settled, the EF 50mm f/1.8 II makes for a compelling addition, as it opens up additional possibilities with depth of field and low light control. At the price that it goes for, it's of the most affordable camera upgrades in the entire industry.

With thanks to Broadway Camera.

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