Well, today was a bit contentious. But in a good way. My prior commentary on the EDM Snob revealing himself generated a fair amount of buzz, and also some direct emails to me. Some agreed with me, some didn’t, but the magic was that they went through the trouble to email me and their replies were well-prepared and thought out. Even if you think I’m wrong, I always appreciate a well-crafted message. To quote my friend Dade, “It’s the nuances I appreciate…”
That being said, I’m sure my benign lens review will generate far less controversy and commentary. I spew forth about the de-anonymizing of some guy in the dance music scene and it’s game on. I post an educational piece and I get one reply.
Anyways, let’s be an agalmic cowboy and balance out the karma bank a bit.
I recently decided to live a little and invest in a 50 1.2 L prime lens from Canon. This is currently the fastest lens that Canon currently produces. With a maximum aperture of 1.2, this lens can practically “see in the dark”.
I’m not going to bore you guys with MTF charts and line pairs per mm comparisons. It’s been done. This lens has been around for about a decade now, and the scientific reviews have been done and done again. Instead, I’m going to speak about my personal experience with this lens thus far.
I picked it up used from Adorama for a shade over $1200 US total. Adorama rated the condition as “E+” which basically means it was probably a floor demo or something to that effect. The date code has the construction of this specific copy of the lens of sometime in 2008. Now, according to most photo bloggers, the date code matters little, since typically high-priced pieces of glass sometimes can sit for years before they ship out to retailers, or in fact sit on the shelves of the retailers themselves for awhile. So, even though this copy is almost 5 years old, it arrived looking as fresh as the day Canon made it. Adorama of course inspected it and cleaned it, but you can still tell when a lens has been taken care of. Included was a front and rear cap, and even the lens hood, which is normally a separate item.
The build quality is consistent with the other L-series lenses by Canon. Metal housing and mount, and a great deal of weight. This isn’t a light lens by any stretch. The main reason I bought this, other than the fast 1.2 maximum aperture, was the build. Shooting clubs and events can beat up your gear, so I don’t like to take chances.
Case in point, a few years ago, I owned the Canon EF-S 17-55 2.8 IS lens. A wonderful piece of glass in it’s own right, this was the “L” lens of the EF-S (crop body mount) lenses. However, it didn’t have the build quality of a true L lens, and after about a year, the IS mechanism failed on it. Rather than repair it, I sold it to KEH and got a credit towards my current ultrawide angle champ, the 16-35 2.8 L, which has served me faithfully for over six years now.
If you shoot in any sort of environment that could be considered “rough”, buy your glass accordingly. It might seem strange to pay $1200 for a fixed focal length lens, but the build quality will save you money in the long run.
However, all the build quality in the world matters not, if the lens itself does not perform.
And perform it does.
The color rendition is amazing. Vivid, though accurate, with very little chromatic aberration, which can be fixed in post if it bothers you that much. The sharpness is unrivaled by any other 50mm prime I’ve tried, whether it be the Canon 50mm 1.4, or any number of third-party primes in that class. L glass is simply in a class of it’s own. At it’s max aperture of 1.2 your subject is decently sharp. The sweet spot for this piece of glass is from around 2.8 and up to f8 in my experience. This is simply a superb piece of prime glass.
However, shooting with it can be a personal challenge. Unlike it’s bulkier, more expensive cousin, the 85mm 1.2 L, the 50 1.2 L has a decent autofocus mechanism. Your AF will land all the time, every time, where you want it. This is dependent on your body though. The 5D MK II I use isn’t known for having the best autofocus, but I have my ST-E2 with it’s assist beam to help things along. I landed my AF almost every time. Now, with that being said, I was experimenting with shooting at the max aperture of 1.2 a lot of the time.
Even at lesser ISOs than 6400, at 1.2 you are letting in a lot of light. Of course the tradeoff is that your depth of field is insanely shallow. Using a handy depth-of-field calculator, you can see that it is around .07 feet at the distance I took the above photo of Roland at. So, not much to work with. Some not used to this shallow DOF blame the lens. It’s not the lens, it’s you. It’s just real challenging to shoot at that shallow depth of field and land your shot properly. You will need to take multiple images and also, if possible, advise your subject to stay as still as possible. If they move, your composition can be thrown off as your specific focus point can move out of the acceptable area of focus.
Though it is the challenge that makes it fun. While you might have a lot of throwaways at first, after time you will get used to the unique qualities of this amazing lens. I haven’t used it consistently enough yet, but now that I own a copy, I know I will get better with it over time. I’ve already landed quite a few unique images because of this, and I know I will do more as I get acquainted with the properties of this lens. Having the capability to go that shallow with your depth of field can yield some amazing results, whether you are in a nightclub environment, or a controlled daytime situation.
Even with the challenges of shooting with it, I can definitely recommend this lens. You can save a lot of money by buying it’s cheaper cousin, the 50 1.4, however, the faster aperture and superb build quality of the 50 1.2 L will make up for the savings over the course of time. L glass is for a lifetime, and investing in it is definitely worth the effort.
Check out my last two galleries over at See Nightlife for more example images using this lens under real-world, less-than-ideal conditions. I will definitely be posting more examples of what this lens can do as time goes on, including on how this is ideal for video.