The 'standard' lens used to be the one that you would aim to get with your camera body, a do-all optic that would offer somewhere near the field of view of the human eye and would be the point from which you would measure where lenses became either 'wide' or 'long'.
Some very famous photographers of the past have gone through pretty much their entire career with just a standard lens to accompany them, but in recent years zooms have proliferated, at the same time spoiling us all with the wealth of focal lengths they bring in their wake. However, the arrival of widespread full-frame sensors at the professional end of the market and a kind of 'back to basics' movement that has taken hold in recent times, has seen photographers once again taking a look at what the 50mm focal length can offer them and, perhaps not surprisingly, we've all been discovering once again what a useful lens this is to have in our gadget bag.
One of the key differentiators this time around, however, is the speed of the lens, and this can make a huge difference both in terms of the results that can be achieved plus cost, weight and portability. Canon, for example, produces three 50mm lenses, offering f/1.8, f/1.4 and f/1.2 maximum aperture. On paper it might not sound like all that much, but this variation in specification equates to a price difference of nearly £1200 between the cheapest and most expensive of the three, plus you also travel from what is, very clearly, a consumer specification through to a high-end professional product en route.
I decided to take a look at all three of the Canon lenses and to see exactly what the differences actually are between them and whether those price tags really are justified. I do have an interest to declare here: I'm a Canon user and the f/1.4 50mm has been a valued part of my kit for many years now, but still I was intrigued as to how its two sister products would fare and, particularly, I wanted to see whether I could ever justify the move up to the much more full-on f/1.2 version of the lens.
Looking at the lenses
Out of the box the obvious differences between the lenses stand out. The f/1.8 feels light, looks small and is very 'plastic' to the touch; it is quite clearly a consumer product, as you might expect given its street price of around £75. I used one of these when I first started out in photography though, and through that experience know that it is a very competent lens for the money.
As mentioned already, I currently carry the f/1.4 version in my bag and, with a street price of around £270 it is a superb lens. Prior to this test I had never used the f/1.2, but it was on my post-lottery win shopping list, so it was nice to have the chance to try one out on a shoot. You could immediately see and feel the quality when the f/1.2 came out of the box. I put it on my 5D Mark II and instantly fell in love with the speed of it, the sharpness and the clarity of images it was producing. Mind you, it is a bit of a beast compared to the other two 50mm lenses on test here and its street price of around £1269 reflects the fact that this is an optic that is very much aimed at the professional end of the market who can justify the outlay.
Why, you might ask, would you use a 50mm lens and not a zoom? The obvious benefit of using a prime is the wide aperture it will offer you. Even the budget 50mm lens here offers f/1.8 performance, giving you a serious advantage over a zoom that might only open up to f/2.8. A prime will produce sharper images and that wide aperture will allow you to play around with shallow depth-of-field effects that, obviously, will become far more pronounced as you move from the f/1.8 to the f/1.2. If I am shooting a wedding, it is a big advantage at certain stages of the day to be able to open up the aperture, especially when I'm looking to achieve an intimate portrait of the bride and want to introduce some beautiful bokeh.
Another big plus point of fixed lenses, as opposed to zooms, is the price. Consider that £75 price point for the 50mm f/1.8 and compare this to the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8, which costs around £1000. One more advantage is that primes are lighter to carry around: even the f/1.2 weighs less than a top quality zoom lens. The obvious disadvantage is that you have a fixed focal length, and you have to move around to vary your viewpoint. I know that when I am shooting candidly at events the zoom is the lens I would use. However, it's just a case of changing habits, and you soon get used to varying your viewpoint by using your feet. Photographers managed to do this for decades before zooms came of age so surely it can't be too difficult to take a step back and to learn all over again how to manually get precisely the framing you want?
Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II (£75)
The f/1.8 lens costs well under £100 on the street and, when you first take it out of the box, you can well believe it. It's small, light and feels like a cheap lens, being made of plastic throughout. When you see the three lenses side by side, the f/1.8 is tiny in comparison to the f/1.2 and it's quite obvious that there is a huge difference in build quality. In fact on my 5D Mark II with grip attached it feels like there is no lens on the front at all.
The question, however, was how well would the lens perform in the field? Is there really a reason to fork out loads on the higher quality glass, or would the f/1.8 still do a great job? Well, despite feeling so small and light on the camera, the lens still performed well, with sharp results and fast focusing. In fact, given the price, it's hard to find much fault with this lens at all. The only obvious weakness is the build quality, along with slightly noisy autofocus compared to the other two lenses, but then again I would say that it's not enough to be an issue.
I would have no problem using this lens on a daily basis at weddings or portrait shoots. I shot some images in a derelict building and the winter light wasn't great so I needed to open the lens up to get my shots. These conditions really brought home to me the true benefit of having one of these fast 50mm lenses to hand, as the ability to open up to f/2 and beyond allowed me to work comfortably in testing conditions.
Canon EF 50mm f/1.4
This lens has been in my camera bag for a few years so I already know how good it is. Out of the box it is clearly a better-made lens than the f/1.8 version, weighing over twice as much and having a much more solid feel in the hands. This lens just feels like it's built for serious action, and I had a lot more confidence in its ability to do the professional job I required of it.
Having used this lens for weddings and portraits for some time I know how sharp and fast it is. I used it for one of the fantasy portrait shoots, and tested it at f/4 and also at f/1.4 to see how it compared to the others. The shoots I did were done in an old derelict building, using window light and a reflector. The light was changing throughout the session due to the sun coming out and then hiding behind clouds, so I had to be flexible in my approach.
In use the lens feels pretty light on the camera and is noticeably brighter than the f/1.8 when you look through the viewfinder. The depth-of-field at f/1.4 is very small, and with careful focusing you can get the eye of your subject in focus and just lose everything else. The autofocus on this lens is much quicker, quieter and smoother than the f/1.8, as you would expect given the extra engineering that's gone on here, and that's reassuring for the professional user. As with the f/1.8, there were a couple of minor issues with sharpness at the widest apertures, but that could be down to the camera as much as the lenses.
Canon 50mm f/1.2
This lens offers totally different quality to the other two and weighs a lot more. When you pick this one up you immediately feel that it has professional credentials, and if you're investing in a lens to stand up to the rigours of a busy workload then this should be a serious consideration.
At f/1.2 the depth-of-field, particularly when you're close up to a subject, is so shallow that it's actually quite difficult to focus and you have to be very careful as the slightest movement will mean that you lose sharpness. All of this is great if you're after a particular effect and you're willing to work hard to get it, but I don't think I'd ever use f/1.2 on a commercial job. In reality I would instead probably work at f/2 upwards.
The bokeh of the lens wide open is fantastic. Looking at the image here, you can see how tiny the depth-of-field is at f/1.2. One eye of the model is sharp while her other is out of focus, and the background, which was only a few inches behind the model, is completely blurred and soft. For particular effects nothing can touch it.
Another noticeable thing about this lens is the virtually silent autofocus. After using the other two lenses I wasn't even sure if the lens was working properly since it was so difficult to discern the AF in action, but it soon became obvious everything was fine. In fact the AF was super fast, which I appreciated.
I just loved the total feel of quality with this lens and it pressed all the right buttons for me. Stopping it down a little to f/4 made all the difference because, without the worry of things being out of focus, I could relax and shoot normally and more freely. Overall the lens was a joy to work with, and it's one that would do a great job for the professional.
Well, after using all three lenses, I have to admit that the f/1.2 version had to be surgically removed from me after the test. It's a stunning lens and if I had the budget, I'd definitely buy one. However, at less than a quarter of the price, the f/1.4 is a very good lens and, for now, I'm going to stick with it. After all, it's never let me down to date!
I think overall the three lenses all have a place in the market. The f/1.8 is a great bit of kit for the price and is ideal for people starting out and looking for a quality image on a budget. Someone with a budget looking to improve their low light capabilities would be well advised to add this lens to their bag. Results are very sharp and it's nice and light and easy to work with, while being available for a very low price.
I'd say the f/1.4 is a good compromise between quality and price, whereas the f/1.2 is obviously an amazing bit of kit. Is it worth spending almost £1000 extra to move from the f/1.4 to the f/1.2?
I'm pretty sure it is if you are working in an area such as portraiture where there is a value on high quality bokeh and you can perhaps justify the outlay, but my advice to anyone unsure about spending big money would be to aim for middle ground and go for the f/1.4. The sharpness of this lens is superb and, at well under £300, it's worth every penny and represents incredible value for money.
Taken from the February 2012 issue of Photo Professional magazine