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Canon 50mm prime lenses Inspiration

Canon 50mm 1.2 vs 1.4 vs 1.8 – Lens Wars 50mm Primes – Episode 6

By Pye Jirsa on January 16th 2014

Welcome to Part 1 of the 50mm focal range of the SLR Lounge Canon Lens Wars series. We have 7 lenses in this grouping, so in this first part, we will be discussing just the 50mm primes.

In part two, since we are using the same zoom lens setup as in the 35mm focal range, we will briefly talk through the zooms, then compare them to the primes.

[LEARN: Free Engagement Photography Guide]

For those that are new to the SLR Lounge Canon Lens Wars series, be sure to check out the Lens Wars Teaser video, where we introduce the series and our testing methodology as well as all the other videos on each focal length.

Watch the 50mm Canon Prime Lens Wars Video

Equipment Used in Canon 50mm Comparisons

Canon 50mm Primes Lenses Tested

Image Quality of 50mm Lenses 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.

Aesthetically speaking, if we are looking at which lens produce the creamiest and most bokeh-licious bokeh, as well as the sharpest image at wide open aperture, then it’s easy to say that the Canon 50mm f/1.2L is the clear winner.

Canon 50mm f/1.2 at f/1.2

Canon 50mm f/1.2L at f/1.2

Of the three 50mm primes we tested, not only did the 50 f/1.2L had the most bokeh, but it also had the best aesthetic quality to the bokeh which can be seen in the samples below.



On top of that, the 50mm f/1.2L’s image was sharp enough when wide open to actually use (unlike the 50mm f/1.4), and the color and contrast were far superior to both the other 50s as can be seen below. Sadly, the 50mm f/1.4 was outperformed in sharpness by even the “nifty fifty” the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II



Moving on to the next most expensive 50mm prime, we have the Canon 50mm f/1.4, and unfortunately, this lens left me feeling a little underwhelmed.

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The problem with the Canon 50mm f/1.4’s image quality and bokeh was that it was too hazy and dreamy. The overall image was so soft that I would say it that the lens is not really usable at wide open, unless you are looking for that soft dreamy vibe. It almost reminds me of smearing the lens with oil or vaseline for a soft focus effect.


In addition, with both the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II and the f/1.4, there was something just a bit “artificial” about their bokeh. This was particularly noticeable when zooming in over the tree branch area.


In comparison, the 50mm f/1.2L had a better and smoother bokeh rendition seen below.


Surprisingly, of the 3 lenses, my second favorite was the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II. While it did have a bit less bokeh at f/1.8 than the other two 50’s, at least its image was not unusably soft. It was still a bit soft and dreamy looking, but not close to as bad as the 50mm f/1.4.


Detail Comparison at Wide Open Aperture

In the images below, when we test center frame sharpness by zooming in over the model’s dress, we can see that at a wide open aperture, the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II is indeed sharper than the Canon 50mm f/1.4. The Canon 50mm f/1.2L surpassed both lenses when it comes to contrast and clarity.



Image Quality at The Widest Common Aperture

Let’s step up to the the aperture of f/2.0 and see how they all fare in regards to sharpness. Here, you can start to see the Canon 50mm f/1.4 pulling away from the 50 f/1.8 in terms of sharpness.


However, the overall winner is still expectedly the Canon 50mm f/1.2L, which is tack sharp over our subject as seen below.



While the 50mm f/1.2L always remained a step ahead of its lesser siblings, we did notice that the visual differences in image detail and sharpness start to equalize at around f/4. Although color rendition is still noticeably better, as we would expect, on the L series lens.

Dress f4-50mmf1.2-50mm1.4

Dress f4-50mmf1.2-50mm1.8

Canon 50mm 1.2 vs 1.4 vs 1.8 Bokeh at Widest Common Aperture

Going back to the common aperture of f/2, the Canon 50mm f/1.2L still renders more bokeh, and with better aesthetic quality to its bokeh, although not by a huge margin. The bokeh on the 50mm f/1.2L was just a bit larger and smoother than that of the 50mm 1.4 and 50mm 1.8.



The Canon 50mm f/1.4 did have a bit more pleasing bokeh than the 1.8, but not by that much. It certainly wasn’t noticeable when viewing the images at full screen.


Just like sharpness, the majority of the aesthetic differences in bokeh equalized around f/4 for the three 50mm primes as can be seen in the following images.



Despite having the similarities in image quality from f/4 and up, when it comes to color and contrast rendition all three 50mm primes performed right on par to their classes. The Canon 50mm f/1.2L was the best of the bunch with the most vivid contrast and accurate color rendition, the Canon 50mm f/1.4 was next, and the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II was third.

A Note on Build Quality for each Canon 50mm Prime Lens

This is one of those times where I want to also mention the feel and build quality of each of these lenses. The Canon 50mm f/1.2L really sets the standard between the three 50mm primes. It has a great build quality, feels nice, has a smooth focus action, and is exactly what you would expect from a Canon L lens.

[Recommended: Canon RF 50mm F1.2L Vs. Canon EF 50mm F1.2 Showdown]

As for the other two 50mm primes, the 1.8’s and the 1.4’s build quality leave a lot to be desired. I do not think most of us have a lot of expectations for quality on the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II because it is quite cheap. At around $125 (sometimes even less), it has been given the name of the “nifty fifty” because it is cheap and takes great pictures. So it is not a surprise that it feels cheap and “plasticky”, that the focus action is not smooth, that it makes funny noises, and that is not easy to to nail your focus when shooting wide open. But, all in all, still a great value for the money.

By comparison, the Canon 50mm f/1.4 is just that much more disappointing because although it is 3-4x more expensive than the 50mm f/1.8, its build quality and overall image performance doesn’t come to justifying the additional cost.

Unlike the 35mm f/2 IS from our 35mm Canon Lens Wars Shootout, the 50mm f/1.4 feels quite cheap for a $400 lens. Not quite as cheaply built as the nifty fifty, but still cheap.

In addition, it was also quite difficult to get the camera to focus where I wanted with the 50 f/1.4. This is something that can be expected with the 50mm f/1.8, but it is not what I would expect from the more expensive 50mm f/1.4.

The Final Conclusion for Canon 50mm 1.2 vs 1.4 vs 1.8

So, here is the final conclusion between these 3 lenses

The Best Bang For Your Buck – The “Nifty-Fifty”

Canon 50mm f/1.8 I would say that if you are just starting out and you want a 50mm prime lens, get the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II. At around $125, the 50mm 1.8 is a real bargain and it can do 95% of what the 50mm 1.4 can.

So if you are looking for a standard 50mm prime, the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II is going to be the best bang for your buck by far and the “go-to” 50mm lens for beginners.

The One to Avoid – The “Shifty Fifty”

Canon 50mm f/1.4 It goes without saying that the Canon 50mm f/1.4 is simply not worth the 3-4x cost of the 50mm f/1.8.

Even though it has a maximum aperture of f/1.4, its overly soft image quality at wide open nullifies that extra half stop advantage. And if you stop down to f/1.8 or f/2.0, then there really not enough aesthetic difference in appearance to the 50mm f/1.8. On top of that, its build quality is barely any better than the 50mm f/1.8.

For all of these reasons, if the 50mm f/1.8 is dubbed the “Nifty Fifty,” we are going to dub the Canon 50mm f/1.4 as the “Shifty Fifty.”

So my advice is if you are choosing between the two is to save the money and opt for the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II instead of the Canon 50mm f/1.4.

The Best Overall 50mm Lens – The “Gimme! Fifty”

Canon 50mm f/1.2L The Canon 50mm f/1.2L is without a doubt the best 50mm prime lens from Canon. When you want a 50mm for low light, for ultra low depth of field, and for shots that you would not be able to get otherwise from the other 50’s, then save up your money, skip the 50mm 1.4 and just jump straight to the Canon 50mm f/1.2L.

At around $1600 bucks, it is far more expensive than the other two 50mm primes, but at least it does a lot more as well. It is actually sharp and usable when wide open and it can open up a full stop brighter than the 1.8. This prime lens gives you more creamy bokeh and just more bokeh in general. It’s price is actually justifiable in its overall performance, image quality and features.

All around, if you want the best image quality at the 50mm focal length, then the Canon 50mm f/1.2L should be at the top or near the top of your shopping list and we are dubbing it the “Gimme! Fifty.” As in “give me that fifty cause I want it!!!!”

I hope you enjoyed part 1 of the 50mm prime focal range in the SLR Lounge Canon Lens Wars series. Be sure to check out the rest of the SLR Lounge Canon Lens Wars Series.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Emma Dallman

    So helpful. Exactly the review I was looking for to help make the choice between the 1.4 & 1.8.

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  2. Mazin Albert

    so what of I get the 50mm 1.4 for the same price of 1.8 (used) should I go for it or no ?

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  3. Dennis Paterson

    I strongly agree with the reviewers assessment of the Canon EF 50mm F1.4; in summary “underwhelming”.

    What about the new Canon EF 50mm F1.8 STM, Sigma 50mm 1.4 Art or Tamron 45mm F1.8 VC ?
    I have a sneaking suspicion an old Leica M Summicron with an adapter would be the best at IQ rendering :)

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  4. Nataliya Labuzova

    50 1.2 will not be as sharp and fast as 135. But the focal length has a very convenient !

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  5. João Bacelar

    If you use the 1.8 a lot, and change camera lens a lot, the camera complains :) after a while start giving me messages saying me there is an error in lens connection with the camera, maybe because its plastic…..

    It happened to me 2 times with diferent 1.8 lens.

    I have all 3, and i cant see mutch diference between the 1.8 and the 1.4 when we talk about image quality.

    In studio the 1.8 in fact seems to be sharper than the 1.4

    The focus of the 1.8 behaves very well in studio But what doesnt work well in the 1.8 is the focus in low ligth conditions, there the 1.4 is better and you see a big diference.

    But i think that lens are like people, you can get a execellet 1.8, or a horrible one. I had over the years lots of 1.8 some were good, same were trash,

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  6. Zeiss how Much progressive lenses cost

    Very quickly this website will be famous amid all blog users, due to it’s good posts

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  7. Aaany

    Hello! Thank you for your great review. I have Canon 135mm f2. but many times I have to take many steps back when I take pictures inside. I also have Canon 50mm f1.4 Do you think that Canon 50mm f1.2 is just as good as Canon 135mm f2? The booketh on Canon 135mm f2. is very, ver good. I will really aprecialte your answer.

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  8. Marco

    I had 50 f1.8 (mark I, wich is built a little better than the actual Mark II), and when i got some money, i wanted to trade for a better lens, so i bought the 50 f1.4 and make same comparison before sellinf the 50 f1.8

    Oh, well, i sold the 50 f1.4…i had same sensation of Pye, f1.4 is unusable and the focus was never achived correctly (even on tripod with steady subjects) by my 5D Mark II.

    I tried another exemplar and results were the same…the nifty fifty, expecially mark I, is not 95% of f1.4 version, for me it’s 150%.
    Canon need definitely to change it, it’s not possible that to have a decent standard luminous prime you have to buy the 50 f1.2 or the 35 f1.4 for not less than 1200 eur (wich i did for the latter, always keeping with the the 50 f1.8 as wonderful emergency backup, i will never sell that lens), they must produce a new 50 f1.4 with same price around 350/400 eur, but with quintuplied perfomance, this one actually really sucks.

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  9. nono

    Yes, but the 1.8 has focus reliability issues. So the 1.4 is far better.

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  10. TOM

    So I was wondering if my opinion of my own 50mm F1.4 was just way off base so I performed a series of tests of my equipment to get less subjective about my “just right” lens. My current F1.4 was manufactured in October of last year, came with the new pinch lens cap and different box design. I ran it against two 50mm F1.8s (I think they are breeding the longer I let them sit unused) and had to borrow back an F1.2 since I had sold it off for three magic beans a while ago. I was pleasantly surprised at how good the F1.8 hold up in good lighting. But even for $100 on sale the F1.8 frustrates me with it’s gritty nasty noisy nature and it’s euro-road-sign bokeh once you stop it down at all. Perhaps my F1.2 was a bad copy because I didn’t like a single picture from it until F2 when the contrast caught back up. I did notice that my F1.4 was softer than I expected at infinity or near infinity focusing. The dreamy was in full effect. But in my typical crowd working distances it did not look that way, was easily sharper than both the F1.8 at any aperture up to about F5.6 where I have trouble seeing the difference between the two unless there are pinpoints of light. As far as autofocusing accuracy and speed the F1.4 was a monster compared to the others in low light on a 6D.

    I 100% admit these are my results with my equipment in my circumstances with my testing methods but I just think to call the F1.4 the shifty fifty is to discredit a really great lens. And all that said the second Sigma releases their 50mm F1.4 art I’m grabbing is as fast as I can because I have great faith it’s going to beat the pants off of everything I own.

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  11. Chris

    I think it’s about time Canon replaced the 50 1.4.

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    I think you’ve neglected to compare the focus performance between the 50 f1.4 and 50 f1.8 in low light. The Nifty Fifty will be lucky to focus at all in low light, whereas the 50 f1.4 will find focus. I’ve no idea how they compare with the f1.2, but I’d expect good things from a lens that expensive anyway.
    I’m looking forward to seeing how the new Sigma Art 50 f1.4 performs, if anywhere near as good as their 35mm, I might well look to trade in my Canon for my 2nd Sigma prime.

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  13. Disillusioned_Banker

    Very interesing test. I hope you will perform at some point a Nikon vs. Canon battle concerning the 50mm lenses. I am curious to see how well the 50/1.4 Nikon does vs. the Canons.

    Great work in any case. I find the your Lens Wars article very straightforward and interesting. Super helpful.

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  14. Terry

    Two quick comments:

    1) I’m wondering if you have a bad copy of the 50mm 1.4 in your test. Build quality is definitely sucky, the bokeh is not as creamy as the 1.2, the focusing motor is loud, and it focus hunts a bit sometimes, but it was a MAJOR upgrade in sharpness even wide open over the 1.8 I had and actually appears sharper on our 27″ than any of the 3 copies of the 1.2 i have used. I have an 85mm 1.2 II as well and when I happen to use to the the admittedly dusty 50mm 1.4 the sharpness seems very comparable if not better on the 50 1.4.

    2) Any chance the 40mm pancake is going to fit in any of the tests? I was hoping it might find its way in with the 50’s. :) If I was going to spend $100 – $150 i would take that over the 50mm 1.8 any day. Way better build quality, way sharper, just a little less light. :)

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    • Pye

      See my comment above, we have had up to 4 of the 1.4s, now we have 4 1.2s. Sharpness on the 1.4 for us has always been quite bad at 1.4. I don’t think in any way can the 50 1.4 compare to either our 50mm 1.2 or 85mm 1.2 in terms of sharpness.

      Unfortunately, the pancake didn’t make the test =( we skipped over 40mm.

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  15. Tom

    This is just one test filled with opinion. Which is perfectly fine. We all have opinions though and there are a huge number if fans of the f1.4 and some amazing photos have been produced by it. To call it shifty is bunk. It is an excellent lens. The f1.8 is a toy optic and the f1.2 is a mollases slow focusing malfunction prone watermelon. But that’s just my opinion too from owning all three. My choice would be a new manufacture F1.4 every time. It’s just right.

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    • Pye

      Tom, I am sure it depends on experience. You may have had a good one. We have owned 4x of these 50mm 1.4s in the studio, and 4x of the 50mm 1.8s (prior to upgrading) and now 4x of the 50mm 1.2s. On a fast focusing body, the 50mm 1.2 is awesome (it was terrible on the 5DM2). We have broken the 50mm 1.4 more than any other lens we have ever owned (from regular use) . The nifty fifty was cheap, but never had issues. Dunno, if you look online a lot of people feel the same way about the 1.4, but glad you had a good experience.

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    • Josh Ross

      I haven’t used either the 1.8 or the 1.2 but I do have a 1.4 that I shoot with wide open all the time. Never had an issue with sharpness unless I miss the focus. It’s definitely a delicate lens, mine was failing and a small drop sent it to repair, but I’ve never had any issues with sharpness.

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  16. iliketag

    So, if I managed to get the 1.4 for about $50 more than the 1.8, did I still end up wasting money? :(

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    • Pye

      If you already have the 50mm 1.4, definitely don’t go trading down. It is a better lens than the 50mm 1.8, and for only $50 more than the 1.8, it is about the right price for the difference in quality ;)

      I just wouldn’t recommend shooting wide open on the 50mm 1.4, or at least try it out first. Some people like Tom below seem to have had good experience with it, but in our history, it hasn’t been good. But at f/2 and above, the 50mm 1.4 is pretty solid and ever so slightly better than the 50mm 1.8.

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