Welcome to Part 3 of the final part of the Canon 50mm focal range of the SLR Lounge Canon Lens Wars series. Since we had 7 Canon lenses in this grouping, we separated the shootout into three parts. In the first part, we compared the Canon 50mm primes, while in part 2 we compared the 4 different Canon zoom lenses that cover the 50mm focal length.
Finally, here in part 3 we are going to compare our favorites from both part 1 and part 2 to come up with an overall conclusion on which Canon lenses are the best at 50mm.
For those who are new to the Canon Lens Wars series, be sure to check out the SLR Lens Wars teaser video where we introduce the series and our testing methodology and all the other videos on each focal length.
Watch the 50mm Canon Lens Wars Conclusion Video
Equipment Used for 50mm Canon Conclusion Comparison
- Camera: Canon 5D Mark III
- Tripod: MeFOTO GlobeTrotter Carbon Fiber Tripod
- Remote Trigger: Vello Shutterboss Version II Timer Remote Switch
Canon Lenses Test
Image Quality of Canon 50mm and Detail at Wide Open Apertures
Let’s start from the top at their Wide Open Apertures (WOA). Once again, this is a visual test of differences, not a technical test. So, we are trying to distinguish differences in appearance while viewing images full screen on a Dell U2713HM 27″ IPS monitor.
When viewing at full screen on our display, two images immediately stick out as having improved sharpness and clarity over the others. Both the Canon 50mm 1.2 at its WOA of f/1.2 and the Canon 24 70mm Mark II at its WOA of f/2.8 are visually more clear and crisp when simply viewed full screen.
Both of these lenses were sharp enough to make it difficult to tell a difference in sharpness prior to zooming in, but, once we zoom in, particularly around the area of the face and dress, you can see just how much more clear the 24-70mm is over the 50mm 1.2 and the other 50mm primes.
This is largely due to simply having a wider depth of field at f/2.8 compared to f/1.2, so when we bring both lenses up to their WCA (Widest Common Aperture) of f/2.8, you see the lenses more or less equalize, and perhaps even the 50mm 1.2 steps a little bit ahead of the 24 70mm 2.8 in terms of center to edge sharpness as we can see in that same branch extending to the right of each frame.
The 50mm 1.2 does have a bit more vignetting than the 24-70mm when wide open, but that is also part of the visual appeal.
Detail Comparison of Canon 50mm at Widest Common Aperture of f/2.8
Now let’s step them all up to their WCA of 2.8. At f/2.8, the lenses for the most part equalize in terms of center sharpness, at least visually. But when you zoom in to the dress, you can see that the sharpest lens is the 50mm 1.2.
Although the other three Canon lenses start to level off at f/2.8, it appears that the other two 50mm primes may be slightly sharper than the 24-70mm. Nevertheless, it is tough to tell, even when zoomed in. Color and contrast however are still very noticeably better in the L lenses over the standard primes as can be seen below.
But, when it comes to edge sharpness as shown towards the right side of the frame, the f1.2 is still in the lead, the 24-70mm 2.8 is next, while the 50mm 1.8 steps to third place, and the 50 f1.4 goes to fourth place yet again.
Bokeh Quality of Canon 50mm at Wide Open Aperture
Ok, so enough about sharpness. What about the overall looks and aesthetic quality of the bokeh. Let’s again compare at each lenses WOA. It’s pretty clear to see that the 50mm 1.2 has the most bokeh, as well as the most aesthetically pleasing bokeh.
In second place as far as the amount of bokeh would be the 50 f1.4 , but, while this lens has the second most bokeh, at f1.4 it is simply too soft and dreamy. While many have said we “simply have a bad copy,” we have owned 4 copies of this lens in the studio, all with similar results.
In addition, the bokeh has sort of a fuzzy and busy look to it which I don’t find too appealing.
This makes me prefer the 50mm 1.8 once again over the 50 f1.4 because while the f/1.8 has a bit less bokeh, to me its aesthetics are more pleasing, sharper, and has less of that soft dreamy look when wide open.
The 24-70mm 2.8 II has the least amount of bokeh when wide open compared to the 50 primes, but it also has a nice amount of bokeh in the background as well, and what bokeh it does have is quite aesthetically pleasing. For a zoom lens, it shows bokeh that is quite close to that of a prime!
Bokeh Comparison of Canon 50mm at Widest Common Aperture of f/2.8
So, let’s bring them all up to their Widest Common Aperture (WCA) of f/2.8 and see how they look aesthetically. With all 4 Canon lenses at f/2.8, the aesthetic quality to the bokeh really starts to even out. In fact, it becomes very tough to tell the difference between each lens when simply viewed at full screen.
By zooming in and doing side by side comparisons, we can still see that the 50mm f/1.2L still has more and smoother bokeh; the 50mm f/1.4 is also very comparable while the 24-70mm falls into 3rd place, and our nifty fifty drops into last.
Low Light Performance of the Canon 50mm Lenses
When it comes to low light performance, the Canon 50 1.2 will give you potentially up to 2.5x more light than that of the Canon 24-70 2.8 II. So, clearly it is the low light winner, especially since it is quite sharp and usable when wide open.
The Canon 50 1.4 gives you 2 stops better than the 24-70 2.8 II, but again, because every version we have used isn’t sharp enough to shoot wide open, we always left the aperture around f/2.0. As a result, the 50 1.4 only ends up only being a stop better than the 24-70, and because its look at f/2 is similar to the Canon 50 1.8, I would rather shoot with the 50 1.8 instead.
The Best of the Best – 50mm Final Conclusion
The Low Light and Bokeh King
So if the winner in this focal range for pure aesthetic quality of the bokeh, sharpness, overall contrast and image quality would have to be the Canon 50 1.2.
The 50mm 1.2 will give you 2.5x more light and it will give you an aesthetic bokeh that is noticeably different from the 24-70. In addition, it actually feels and functions as it should, like an L lens. Although it should be mentioned, if you are on poorer focusing camera bodies like a Canon 5D Mark II, you may have trouble nailing your focus.
But of course, this lens does cost just north of $1,619. So what about more in the value range?
The Best Value
If you are looking for a great value, simply go with the Canon 50mm f/1.8 AKA the “Nifty-Fifty,” which is only $125. It is going to give you great image quality and that nice 50mm bokeh without breaking the bank. Of course, its build quality leaves a lot to be desired, but you have to expect that at the $125 price point.
Nevertheless, it is by far the best value in the group. I would start with the Nifty Fifty, then simply save up to jump right to the 50mm 1.2L.
The Lens We Would Avoid
I would recommend skipping over the Canon 50mm 1.4. The 50 1.4 offers a more bokeh than the 50 1.8 and the 24-70mm 2.8, but it is very soft and dreamy at wide open aperture. The lens starts to sharpen up at f/2.0, but at this point, its image quality is on par with the cheaper 50 1.8.
While many in the community have argued that you simply need to find a “good copy” of this lens. We argue that we shouldn’t have to buy and return lenses until we find a “good copy.” That if this is the situation, there is obviously a manufacturing and quality control issue. It is also worth noting that we have owned 4 of the Canon 50mm f/1.4 lenses in the studio prior to upgrading to 1.2s. All 4 had the same issue with softness, and as a result we made it policy to always shoot at f/2 and above. They also tended to break and require repair far more than any of our other lenses.
So our recommendation, start with the 50 1.8. When you do decide that it is worth the upgrade, save up so that you can skip over the 1.4 and just go straight to the 50 1.2. There is just too little of an improvement from the 50 1.8 to the 1.4 to justify it.
The Zoom Lens with “Prime-Like” Quality
Now, here is what I would do. Again, start with the Canon 24-70mm 2.8 lens for this focal range. In fact, if you plan on owning 2 or more lenses, the 24-70mm 2.8 should be one of them. At 50mm, it will have a very similar aesthetic quality to the Canon 50 1.4 and 50 1.8 when they are used around f/2.
The 24-70 has a beautiful look to its bokeh, it has great sharpness, wonderful color and contrast and so forth. In addition, you can also back up a bit more, zoom into 70mm, shoot wide open and you will get even more background blur which can mimic that prime look as you can see below.
The only reason to get one of the cheaper primes would simply be because you need the extra stop or so of light, but from an aesthetic look, there simply isn’t a big enough difference in my opinion to justify owning them in addition to the 24-70mm unless it is the 50mm 1.2L.