Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM Lens

“I don't know what 'normal' means, anyway.”— Karl Lagerfeld

Back in the film days when you purchased an SLR, it usually came with an Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 lens that was essentially the kit lens of its day, although we didn’t call it that at the time. The ubiquitous 50mm was the standard lens and became known as “normal,” although that’s not the real reason why. One rationale given by pundits for it being a normal lens was that it reproduces a field-of-view that appears natural to our eyes. Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens ($349.99) for example, has an angle-of-view of 46 degrees while your eyes cover 114 degrees (horizontally) so that’s not it. The classic photo school definition is a normal lens is equal to the diagonal of the image format, so it’s different for cameras with different sensor sizes. For a full frame (24 x 36mm) DSLR like my EOS 5D, a 43.3mm focal length is normal. That changes to 30.1mm on my Canon EOS 60D, which is why when mounted on an APS-C sensor (22.3 x 14.9mm) camera the angle-of-view for the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens is that of an 80mm lens.

Just as with sports cars, bullet trains, and Internet connections, fast is good for camera lenses too. When it comes to lenses, fast is typically defined as having apertures of f/2.8 or wider. For lots of reasons, such as viewfinder brightness and autofocus speed, it’s easier to take photographs in low light with an f/1.4 lens than one with a maximum aperture of f/4.5 or f/5.6. After you’ve exhausted ISO and tripod-less shutter speed limits, lenses like the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM let you produce well-exposed photographs. And that’s a good thing.

When looking at fast lens options, this solution to low light shooting usually comes with increased price, weight and physical size, but the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens blows all these explanations out the window. The lens price is relatively affordable and at 10.23 oz, its weight, while solid, is about the same as a Starbucks Grandé Caramel Macchiato. The lens itself is relatively small measuring 2.9 x 2.0-inches, especially when compared to Canon’s larger, faster and more expensive Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens ($1349) that measures 3.38 x 2.58-inches and weighs 1.3 lbs.

 The Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens has an ultrasonic autofocus motor (USM) producing fast, smooth and quiet autofocus action with manual focus override available. It not only has a distance scale, something rare these days, but also has an Infrared Index mark for practitioners of this discipline. The diaphragm uses eight blades and should produce pleasant bokeh, or how it renders out-of-focus parts of an image. The lens has a seven element optical design with two high-refraction lens elements and Gaussian optics to eliminate astigmatism. Super Spectra coatings are used for accurate color balance, to enhance contrast and to reduce flare and ghosting. The lens is not weather sealed like the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM, but has a (former Canon standard) 58mm filter thread, so you might consider adding a Canon 58mm Protector Filter ($36) when working in challenging environments. You should, for sure, spring for the optional Canon Lens Hood ES-71II  ($28) for protection, not just from physical damage, but the possibility of flare ruining your shots. More later on this.

Out Here in the Real World, normal lenses like the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM are supposed to work under normal lighting conditions. In photographic terms, “normal” usually means outdoors, but in the real world, normal lighting can also include overcast weather, shade from trees or brightly lit rooms. Because of the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM’s relatively fast aperture, it can also be used successfully when lighting is anything but normal.

After experiencing one of the most spectacular and photogenic Fall seasons in many years, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens arrived just in time for that period between Fall and a snowy and more photogenic winter. During this time, we experience cloudy, foggy, rainy days, which was how it was for the most of the time I had access to the lens and when I made this photograph on Daisy Hill. Fortunately, evergreens don’t completely shed their needles and I was able to make this image using a Canon EOS 5D Mark I with an exposure of 1/60 sec at f/8 and ISO and converted to monochrome with Silver Efex Pro. © Joe Farace

One of my photographer/friends is a former Canon shooter, and when he discovered I was reviewing this lens he tried to give me his opinion, but I told him I’d find out for myself and was off to my favorite wall ‘o bricks for a test. At the sweet spot of f/8, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens was tack sharp from corner-to-corner, with no vignetting nor discernible distortion. It was perfect. Wide open, was another story, which is, I guess what my friend wanted to tell me.

Of the many images of the wall I shot at f/1.4, overall sharpness straddled that razor edge between acceptably sharp and not so sharp. There was also vignetting on the right-hand side and top of the frame with light vignetting on the left-hand side. I also noticed a tiny amount of barrel distortion that might only be noticeable by picky shooters. All these problems gradually disappear as you gradually stop down toward the f/8 sweet spot. Vignetting is not an issue when shooting with an APS-C sensor camera, such as an Canon EOS 70D, since these areas would be cut off by these cameras' narrower angle-of-view. That is also true for sharpness, since the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM seems the slightest bit sharper, but still not exactly crisp in the center when shooting at the maximum aperture.

But (and this is an important but), when you’re shooting in extreme low light and you need to shoot wide open at a high ISO setting, getting proper exposure may be more important than these issues. If these quibbles mean something to you, shoot at f/8 and use a tripod, which you might reply is not always possible. Just do your best and be aware of the consequences.

My habit when testing any new lens is to photograph the gazebo in Parker, Colorado’s O’Brien Park and to put a new spin on it, I went there at night. I had expected the gazebo to be lighted for the coming holiday season but it was not, so I decided to shoot Mainstreet (yes, it’s one word) handheld using illumination from the new lights the town has strung across the roadway. I walked up and down the street, shooting at ISO 1600 and with apertures from f/2.5 to f/1.4, to see how well the lens performed under low light conditions. I was pleased because shooting in three dimensions is going to visually produce better results, even when wide open, than shooting a flat wall. Autofocus under these challenging conditions was as fast as you could want with no noticeable delay with no waiting for focus to lock on.

While big city sophisticates might sneer at the lack of activity in Downtown Parker Colorado on a Sunday night, those of us that live nearby are happy with it. That happiness was manifested when I was able to stroll unmolested and unencumbered up and down Mainstreet making images at wide open apertures, like this shot make with a Canon EOS 5D Mark I and an exposure of 1/100 sec at f/2.5 and ISO 1600. © Joe Farace

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM is the perfect first lens in your system because it’s so versatile and, with the addition of a few accessories, becomes even more so. Adding an extension tube, such as Canon’s Extension Tube EF 25 II ($168), lets you increase its close focusing beyond its modest 18-inch limit. Another option is the Canon 58mm Close-Up Lens 250D ($104) that lets you focus as close as 9.9-inches. Any one of these accessories would have come in handy when I was photographing a firethorn bush after a recent snowfall, although using a Canon EOS 60D did give me the angle-of-view of an 80mm lens, without having to crop in postproduction.

After all the bad weather, the sun finally showed up after an overnight snow storm, so I mounted the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens on a Canon EOS 60D, giving me the angle-of-view of an 80mm lens but unfortunately not assisting the lens’s 18-inch close focusing distance. This uncropped image was made right at 18-inches with an exposure of 1/125 sec at f/8 and ISO 320. © Joe Farace

It was a chilly 41 degrees F when I took the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM to the Vehicle Vault’s rain-or-shine Cars & Coffee event. It’s the kind of eclectic show where you can see everything from a vintage FC Jeep to a McLaren 650S Spider. I mounted the lens on my Canon EOS 60D because its weight (1.64 lbs) is less than the EOS 5D’s (1.78 lbs), making it easier to handle even if it meant that I was dealing with an 80mm (equivalent) angle-of-view. I always learn something new every time I go out to make photographs and while photographing a C3 Corvette, I discovered why you really, really should get a lens hood for this lens. The illustration says it all.

On yet another chilly day, I headed out to the 17-Mile Farm in Douglas County, Colorado, so named because it was 17 miles from this former stagecoach stop to Denver. I took my Canon EOS 60D for much of the same reasons I brought it to the car show; it’s light weight and easy handling combined with the heft and flexibility of the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens made it a delightful package to carry around the 33-acre site. The farm has two windmills and it’s difficult to get both in one shot, so I photographed each one and the really liked the lighting on the one featured in the illustration.

Mile Farm has two windmills and on this chilly November day, I photographed both, but really liked the way the light fell on this one. This shot was with a Canon EOS 60D with BG-E9 battery grip, shot using Program Mode exposure of 1/1250 sec at f/11 and ISO 320. © Joe Farace

I also think the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens will be useful for portraits, especially those made under low light, but a model I scheduled to photograph for this review canceled when she was injured prior to the shoot. I couldn’t draft Mary for the planned shots because she was traveling for her job; she’s in New Mexico as I write this. I am, however, doing a “tips and techniques” article about this and other Canon EF lenses in the near future and I will include the planned shots then. Stay tuned.

The look and sheer physicality of the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens is impressive and yet its classic design looks right at home—and works just as well—on the newest Canon DSLR as the EOS-1v film camera that was discontinued in 2015. My time spent with the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens caused me to re-evaluate my Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens ($125) that I purchased used for fifty bucks. The f/1.4 lens is more than just a little faster. It has a USM motor instead of the stepper motor used by the f/1.8 and has a more rugged build quality. And there’s that whole question of bokeh. They don’t call this focal length the “nifty fifty” for nothing.