Sunday, January 16, 2011

how to choose a 50mm prime lens

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II  -  approximately 

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM  -  approximately 

Canon 50mm f/1.2 L USM  -  approximately 

Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH  -  approximately 

So, you've been reading this blog and have noticed that I quite often mention using a 50mm lens. The first thing you notice is that it is just that, 50mm. This lens does not zoom, it does not seem as high tech as some monster lenses on the market. Hell, you've seen lenses that could zoom close enough to focus on a fruit fly, yet the same lens could spot footprints on the moon. So why on earth would anyone want a lens that can only shoot at one focal distance? The answer is quality. A lens that is fixed at one focal length is called a "prime" lens. There are advantages to having such a lens. First, they are much faster lenses, meaning their apertures are much larger than zoom lenses. Next, the construction of the lens is usually more durable since it does not zoom and contains less moving parts. Finally, and my favorite reason to owning prime lens, is that it forces you, as a photographer, to physically move around a scene to compose a shot, rather than standing like a bump on a log and letting the lens do the work for you. This will enhance your photographic skills exponentially. Don't get me wrong, there are necessities for zoom lenses. I wouldn't recommend using a 50mm prime lens to shoot, say, a black bear.

Prime lenses come in many different focal lengths. You can go wide in the fisheye range as low as 10mm or less. On the other hand you can go super telephoto, up in the 500mm range (better for black bear). To make a decision you must first know what subject matter the lens will be used for. The two I use most are the 50 and the 85. I feel they are great lenses for portrait work. 

You have educated yourself on prime lenses. Being such a huge advocate of this blog, you decided to get a 50mm prime. You went to a website specializing in photography equipment and saw the Canon EF  50mm f/1.4 USM. As you were about to check out, you noticed something unusual. There seemed to be an almost identical lens for a fraction of the cost of the one you were just about to purchase. Scratching your head and ready to go for the, obvious, less expensive lens, you notice one that is ten times more expensive than the least expensive choice. Relax, I will explain. That's what I do. And even better, I will help you decide which 50mm prime is best for you. 

As you opened this site today, you, as most, admired the beautiful glass (the hipster way to say, lens) display. Just as on the site you were going to buy the lens, you notice the huge range of pricing. If you were wondering, NO, there are no mistakes on the amount of zeroes listed beside each piece of equipment. And, YES, they do range anywhere from, about a hundred bucks, way up to 12 grand, or more. And, YES, they all have a fixed focal length of 50mm. The question at hand is, why and how could a lens of the same focal length vary so drastically in price? Let's break it down, briefly, lens by lens, their strengths and weaknesses.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II  -  ($125.00)

This lens is known in photography circles as the "Plastic Fantastic." An oxymoron of lens description if I ever heard one. This lens is just what its moniker implies. Plastic. Fantastic. The lens construction is made up primarily of plastic, even the lens mount. Although the body's construction is very inexpensive, the optics, on the other hand, are quite nice. This lens is very sharp, given its price point. At f/1.8 it is very fast and works well in low light situations. Sharpness can be lost wide open. If you need to shoot it wide open, you'd be better off around f/2.2. This will give a nice bokeh while maintaining a sharp focused subject. I cannot stress enough that the price of this lens is its strength. The lens' autofocus system can be horrible in any light situations, as it has trouble trying to find a focal point. That can be remedied by shooting in manual focus mode (Ansel Adams didn't have autofocus). The construction, in my opinion, is this lens' number one weakness.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM  -  ($400.00)

Call me biased, call me whatever you want, just don't call me Shirley. Although you may think I would be biased about this lens since it is my go to prime, portrait lens, I have absolutely no problem being 100% objective about the subject. As you may already know, I purchased this lens a few years ago. Shortly after the purchase, the unthinkable happened. Before reading further I recommend reading the article [here]. If you were too lazy to hit the jump and read the article, the short of the story is this: Bought lens, lens autofocus died. I got angry. Refused using lens. Used lens in manual focus mode. Years later, autofocus resurrected. Now, you could agree that I will be objective about my opinion of this lens. My obvious problem with this lens is its autofocus motor. I am not the only victim of this phenomenon. Browse the web and you will find hundreds of pissed off photographers, just as I was. Unfortunately, I don't think anyone else has had their lens come back from the dead, as mine did. Construction of the lens is far superior to that of the "Plastic Fantastic." Everything on the outer body is made of metal except two of its extremities (AF/MF switch and focus ring). The weight of the lens alone lets you know that the build is of a higher caliber. At f/1.4, this lens opens up wider than its less expensive cousin. Shooting with this lens wide open has been nothing less that spectacular, with beautiful bokeh and super sharp subjects. This tells you that the optical detail was given lots of attention. Overall, the benefits outweigh the risks. Yes, I was angry when the autofocus crapped out but I decided, just as a prime lens forces you to work more, the manual focus would do the same. Both, forcing me to become a better photographer. Aside from the AF situation, I highly recommend the lens. The price, along with quality, go a long way.

Canon 50mm f/1.2 L USM  -  ($1,600.00)

At quite a price jump (400-1000%), this lens is the godfather of the 50mm prime lens category. The first thing you may notice is the red ring around the barrel of the lens. This is indicative of any Canon L series lens. The "L" in L-series, officially or unofficially, stands for "Luxury." This is the luxury line of lenses that Canon has to offer. As we all know, if something is tagged, luxury, than that item is not usually found in the clearance aisle. Yes, this lens is priced according to that label, a cool 16 hundred bucks. Not exactly chump change. Its features do include more than a red ring around the barrel. First, you will notice that it will be even faster than the first two 50's. This monster is super fast, opening up ultra wide, to a sweet f/1.2. What does this mean? Enter a dark room, bump up the ISO a bit, and see what you get. This lens is sharp while shooting wide open. Due to the lens' internal aperture blade curvature, your bokeh lights will be ideally circular shaped. This lens is larger and heavier than the 1.4, which will tell you that the build quality and optics were given even more attention than its less expensive cousins. The L-series line are also known for their performance in inclement weather. Although all Canon lenses can withstand some degree of precipitation, the L-series lenses are weather sealed to the next level. I recall testing this lens out in a thunderstorm (it was a rental, they never found out), and that baby took everything that mother nature threw at it. I was impressed as I would have never taken my 1.4 out in that weather. I get nervous with the 1.4 if there is a light drizzle. The autofocus motor is very fast and very quiet. I haven't heard much about the 50mm L-series having many issues in that department. 

I mentioned how great this lens was at shooting in low light situations but what if this lens was compared to the other two? How would they rank side by side. Which would yield the sharper image? Well, I will tell you. Obviously the three cannot be compared side by side, wide open, since all three open up to different maximum apertures. But what if we set all three to f/2.8? Would there be noticeable differences in image quality? The answer is yes and no. If you are checking out bokeh, you will notice obvious differences in the shapes. I mentioned that the aperture blades are circular in the 1.2. In the 1.4, the blades are slightly octagonal. Both the 1.2 and 1.4 have 8 blades. The 1.8 has only 5 aperture blades and will yield a pentagonal bokeh. The winner, by a nose hair, in the bokeh department would go to the L-series. Image sharpness, on the other hand, is a toss up. A trained eye can see that the L-series and the 1.4 are pretty close in terms of sharpness, with the 1.8 not far behind. 

As you may see there are many variables involved when choosing a lens. So which should you choose? Well, we have concluded the Canon category, but I still have one more to discuss. Just when you thought it was over. . . 

Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH  -  $11,000.00

It's crazy, I know. 11 grand for a lens. This is the mack daddy of the 50mm primes. The player of players. This lens claims to, and I quote, "out perform[s] the human eye." That is one bold statement to make. Before I review this lens, let's for a minute think about that claim. "Out performs the human eye." If that statement were true, and I'm not saying that it isn't, how would we, humans, with human eyes, know that this lens is outperforming our eyes? Think about it. 

Let's get down to it. At f/0.95, this lens is fast, and I mean fast. Shooting in low light situation? No problem, bite a wintergreen Lifesaver and produce all the light you will need. Talk about efficiency. Optics? Nothing can compare. Build? Strong like bull. Autofocus mechanism? None. That's right my friends, at 12,000 clams, this lens requires full time manual focusing. Yes, Ansel Adams never had autofocus but I don't think his lenses cost anywhere near 12 grand. From a purist standpoint, autofocus is for the birds. From an economical standpoint, this lens should have autofocus, refrigerator, microwave, oven, toothbrush and a built in butler named Jeeves. That's just my humble opinion, I could be wrong. 

The lens outperforms in all categories except the autofocus department, for obvious reasons. Even the aperture manually controlled (I actually prefer this). I was lucky enough to test this lens, once. How did I feel about it? First of all, you could immediately feel the quality in the weight of the lens. In inclement weather, I'm not sure of the lens' performance. On that note, I don't care if the lens claimed to be water proof up to 100 feet of icy water, I would not dare get that piece of glass near anything that resembled water. For 12 big ones, I wouldn't even get it near a photo of a glass of water. I have to say, it caused a bit of anxiety holding that lens, in fear of breaking it. I don't think that having anxiety while shooting is a good combo. Besides having the urge to vomit, I loved shooting with the Leica. The lens performed in a league of its own. At f/0.95, I'd never seen such shallow depth of field. It was quite amazing. Image detail in the focus areas were tack sharp. The Noctilux-M is truly the player of players.

Decisions Decisions Decisions

What does it all mean? You're still confused as you were before reading this. You now know that you want a 50mm prime lens but still don't know which is best to suit your needs. First of all, there are tons of lenses out there, especially in the 50mm range. I simply chose four that I have had the opportunity to work with. You can buy any brand you prefer such as, Nikon, Sigma, Carl Zeiss, et al. Is it insane that similar glass can vary so drastically in price? Absolutely not. It's just like anything else in the world. You get what you pay for, to some extent. You can buy a Kia or Cadillac or a Lamborghini. All are cars that, in general, get you from point A to point B. Are all cars built the same? Nope. Do they perform the same? Not quite. Are some overpriced? You bet. Well, the same is true for photographic equipment, you can find great values, luxury items, etc. You must decide, just as if you were buying a car. Which lens is in your price range? How well does it perform? How long will it last? To decide, just be a smart consumer. Don't buy into all of the marketing ploys. Make an educated decision based on your needs.

With all of that being said. Here is the breakdown of who should buy each of the four 50mm prime lenses mentioned here today:

1. Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II  -  Newbie photographers, amateurs, hobbyists, or a pro on a poor man's budget. This lens will perform beyond your expectations.

2. Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM  -  Amateur to seasoned pro, this lens will give you the most bang for the buck. Awesome portrait lens. Excellent in low light. Spectacular bokeh. Two thumbs up.

3. Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM  -  This lens would not be of value to an amateur. I recommend this lens to any pro with money to burn. 

4. Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH  -  I highly recommend this lens to any photographer of any level, who has just won the Powerball.

Until next time. . .