Today I wanted to write about how to make an interesting photo of your Christmas tree, Hanukkah bush, Festivus pole, or whatever you decide to decorate this month. I had the gear spread across the living room floor. I was eyeing up the tree as if I was about to fight the gigantic beast. I sized it up and down trying to figure out how I was going to attack. I opened up the tripod and locked down the camera. Next, I wanted to get some rudimentary exposure settings. Then, the unthinkable happened.
I recall the morning as if it were yesterday. I woke up that morning at dawn. I didn't have work that day. I jumped onto the computer before brushing my teeth. Like a child sneaking downstairs on Christmas Eve, to see if Santa had arrived yet, I logged on to the UPS website to track my package. It had left the terminal and was in route to its destination, my front door. At approximately 9:00 a.m. I heard the unique diesel engine roar that belongs to only one vehicle on the planet, the UPS truck. I ran to the door before the bell rang. There he was, standing at my door, box in hand, electronic tablet thingy in the other. I eagerly grabbed the stylus and scribbled across the screen. Yes, it was here, my brand new Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens! I tore the box to shreds to unleash my awesome new piece of glass. It was a beauty.
I had researched for sometime before deciding to get this specific lens, as I do with any new piece of camera equipment. I read hundreds of reviews on this particular item, all of them beyond positive. It was, hands down, a spectacular lens choice for portrait photography. Its construction, solid. In the field, awesome. Sharpness and depth of field, paramount.
I couldn't wait to use this baby. No time was wasted before I was dressed and out the door, ready to put this lens to the test. Being so excited, I probably still had not brushed my teeth. At this point it was early afternoon. The sky was bright. I didn't bring any lighting equipment, as I just wanted to get some test shots with the lens. Ambient light would be just fine for the situation. I experimented at just about every aperture. What I was most excited about was that it was able to open wide at a fast f/1.4. At that aperture, you get some shallow depth of field. And boy was it shallow.
After hours of shooting random subjects, I decided to head back to the digital darkroom to see how the shots looked on a large screen. It's hard to judge exactly how detailed a shot is simply by reviewing the LCD on the back of your camera. I've been deceived more than once by trusting the little screen. The verdict came in and the decision is unanimous. The Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM is guilty of first degree awesomeness. The sentence, life, in my bag-o-gear.
It was a sweltering hot and humid morning. I was doing a shoot for a client. She owned a flower shop in Old City, Philadelphia. She was in need of some shots for her new ad campaign. I drove down to the shop (could have walked but the combination of heat mixed with being lazy resulted in using the car) and luckily found parking right out front.
The shop was filled with exotic plants and flowers. There were enormous windows in the front letting in ample sunlight. I had a speedlight on camera for fill. I planned on bouncing light from the large white ceiling. If you were guessing which lens I chose on that day, you guessed right. It was the 50mm Canon. I had grown to love that lens. I didn't use it for everything as that would be a poor photographic decision. On the other hand, It was a go to piece of glass, due to its amazing reliability.
I already knew how the store was laid out. The owner and myself had met one week earlier to discuss details of what she expected and what I was able to offer. This would ultimately make the shoot go much faster since I had an preconceived idea of how and what I was going to shoot.
Fifteen minutes into the shoot and something happens. The autofocus motor on my EF 50, well, died. I am dumbfounded. My brain tells me that it was user error. I must have turned something off. I check the lens first. It was still in AF mode. I switch it to manual and back to auto. Nothing. Next, I quickly check my DSLR settings. Everything looks fine. I tell myself that it has to be something simple. No time now, the shoot needs to continue. I'm slightly pissed off at that point. I couldn't let my mood effect the results of this. Hell, Ansel Adams didn't need autofocus (or have for that matter), so why should I need it. I finished the gig in full manual focus mode. I could have easily switched lenses but that would have made me feel defeated.
That night I try to solve this puzzle. I first think of how many shots I've taken with the lens. Maybe the motor burned out from over using it. That didn't add up. Through estimation, I figure I've used it for only a couple of thousand frames. Some of my other lenses had triple the usage. I try to play with the settings again. Nothing. At this point, I'm passed slightly pissed. Now, I'm full blown pissed off.
The following days, even weeks, are spend scouring the internet for answers. I google every possible permutation of [Canon, EF, 50, mm, USM, motor, failure, lens, fix, answer, f/1.4, problem]. I have to admit that the results kind of blew my mind. I was not alone. Apparently it is the biggest and most common problem with that particular lens.
There were tons of posts on the subject, from Flickr to Facebook to Photo.net. Everything ranging from the anger poster to the interesting, fix it yourself poster. I do admit, I was one of the angry posters. Reading what those people felt, just made angrier. I shared my two cents, not that it was going to help the situation.
Next, I tried some of the DIY remedies. The one that made most logical sense was that the contacts were most likely dirty. That was a pleasing read. So simple, it had to be the problem. The fix, even simpler. Grab a pencil, rub the eraser over the contacts and presto. The result. Zero point zero. This went on for quite some time.
You may be asking yourself, "didn't you get a warranty on this expensive piece of equipment?" The answer is yes, but it was only good for two years. The lens crapped out just after two years.
I finally get desperate and start searching for someone to fix the goddamn piece of crap. I get multiple emails of those willing and able to help. Unfortunately, they charge a small fee of $200. That's about half of what the lens originally cost. For that price, I considered just buying a new one.
Running out of ideas, I decided to email Canon directly. I received a pleasing response. I was told to send the lens in via UPS. Canon would then inspect the lens and it's problems. If they decide that it was a manufacturer's defect, they would fix it at no charge. If they conclude that the malfunction is due to the consumer, yours truly, then Canon would contact me with an estimate. This seemed reasonable enough.
The lens is never sent to Canon. I keep the thought in my head although there are often times I just use the 50 in manual mode. It doesn't make for a first choice for any type of shot where there is movement involved. After accepting the loss of the motor, I decide to use only for studio or landscape type of photography. In those situations, I can get one focus point and leave it alone. Easy.
I finally make peace with the lens and move on with my life.
Out on a beautiful fall morning. I was out to get something to hang in the home. The leaves had changed color and about half have fallen. It was still golden hour. I was going to capture a rural landscape. I often go with a wider angle lens for landscapes, but on this day, for some odd reason, I chose the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM.
Although I've made my peace with the lens, from time to time I flip the switch to AF and pray for a miracle. Just wishful thinking, I suppose. Well my friends, on that fine day, my wish came true! Almost. For just one single frame, the autofocus worked again. I was happier than a pig in, well, I was thrilled to say the least. Then I hold the shutter down half way to focus my next shot. Again, Zero point zero. Nothing. My emotions are now mixed up and confused. I'm now pissed off again. It took me quite some time to go through those stages of death and now, I'm back to the beginning. At the same time, I feel there is some hope. It obviously has life in it somewhere. Or was this false hope?
Trying to find this answer online was not as easy as before. Not a blip of data of anyone having this happen to them. I knew it was too good to be true. I try to get through the grieving process as quickly and painlessly as possible. That day is chalked up as a fluke and again, I move on.
The lens will stay in my arsenal. I just have to pick and choose the shoots that it will be appropriate for. Again, Ansel Adams never had autofocus. It has its time and place for particular types of photography and I'm always pleased with the results.
I dialed in the exposure. I wanted a nice shallow depth of field, creating nice bokeh of lights. I opened the aperture on the 50mm wide at its max of 1.4. The shutter speed would be 1/4 of a second. At that speed, I would need a tripod. I kept the ISO low at 100 for minimal noise. White balance was set for tungsten light, as all of those little bulbs are of the tungsten variety. I was neither focused nor had I any idea of how I would portray this tree. In manual focus mode, I could not seem to get the focus points to confirm a proper result. I threw it into autofocus, hoping that this would cause the lights in the viewfinder to accept a focus point, as I adjusted the focus ring. As soon as the shutter was tapped, I heard a noise. It couldn't be! Did I just hear the autofocus motor? In disbelief, I take a step back and a deep breath as my heart begins to race just a bit. Quickly, I think of that day in July that also was a huge tease. My heart rate comes down and I step up to the camera again. With no hopes of hearing that little motor again, I prepare to get a manual focus. OMG (like a child), I shout! It seems to be working. The lens finds the focus point and I take the test shot. Still not convinced, I unlock the camera from the tripod and start wandering around the house, taking random shots. I think that it must fail eventually. The result. Zero point zero. This time it is refusing to fail. That little motor feels full of life, locking in focus points in milliseconds. My emotions are again, mixed and confused.
After taking about fifty shots, I pack up the gear. The Christmas tree shoot would have to wait. This was just too big to ignore. It had to be shared online, with hopes of all Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM users, who have grieved their AF loss, to read this and regain hope. Now, I don't want to jump the gun. It has only been a few hours since the lens has become fully functional. I have prepared myself that tomorrow, it my fail again. I have to think that way or I will be setting myself up for a huge disappointment. I will enjoy it while it lasts. By the way, I have probably tested it three times since writing this article. Crazy? Yes. It is just an unbelievable turn of events.
Some readers may think, "it's just a lens." This is true. It is also a tool, a tool to get a job done. Sure, I could easily go out and buy a new one if the original breaks but it is just the principle of the matter. I've grown attached to that lens. Broken or not, it's a significant piece of equipment for my needs.
It is a day of joy. Christmas (Hanukkah, Festivus) has come early! I can now say proudly that the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM is again my favorite lens. I highly recommend any photographer to buy this. You will not regret it.
On the other hand, I hope I'm not here tomorrow giving anyone bad news. In that case, I will surely retract any statement I made today. I will bash that thing, no holds barred, literally and physically.
Wish me luck.