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I am in the market for a 50mm lens for my Canon DSLR. I've read plenty of reviews, and all of them have great things to say about both lenses. From a scientific perspective, the f/1.2 performs better wide open, which is to be expected given its price.

My question is, from a real-world perspective, from people who have actually used both lenses, is there any real reason to get the 50mm f/1.2? It costs over four times as much, which really isn't a "problem", per-se, but not an amount of money I want to spend unless I absolutely have to.

My primary use for this lens would be astrophotography and probably some portrait and close-up nature work. It will initially be used on an APS-C sensor, but I plan to upgrade to a 5D Mark III soon after it is released. When it comes to astrophotography, I intend to use such a lens wide open, or perhaps up to one stop down from wide open, as light gathering ability in pitch black is the main idea.

UPDATE:

Based on Matt Grum's answer, I am also interested in hearing about competing fast 50mm lenses. I had not thought of third party lenses before, as I've always bought Canon, however if a third-party lens is optically just as good or better, for a better price, I'd be interested in hearing about them as well.

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You could check out the zeiss 50mm too. It being sharper or not seems to depend on how hip you are but one thing is for sure, the photos shot with it look different, something about the contrast. –  Shizam Oct 29 '10 at 16:41
    
Keep an eye on this question about third-party lens quality if you're thinking about third party lenses. –  Drew Stephens Oct 29 '10 at 18:53
    
@Shizam: Does the Zeiss 50mm come in a Canon mount? Got any links to good reviews? –  jrista Oct 29 '10 at 20:02
    
@Drew: Thanks, useful information. :) –  jrista Oct 29 '10 at 20:03
    
It does indeed come in a Canon mount, there are lots of off the cuff reviews of the lens but I'm having trouble finding a nice in-depth with side-by-sides. –  Shizam Oct 29 '10 at 20:12

10 Answers 10

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The 50L is definitely better than the 50/1.4; I'm just not sure if it is worth that much money. If you need fast and reliable AF, sharpness wide-open, weather-sealing (with a weather-sealed camera of course), f/1.2 and great bokeh, go for the 50L.

I was in a similar situation previously, and I opted for the Zeiss 1.4/50 ZE, primarily because I shoot more landscapes than portraits at 50mm, and at f/4, the Zeiss beats out the Canons. Even at f/2.8 the difference is there, but the Canons win at smaller apertures, while the Zeiss wins out in micro-contrast and colour rendition, at the cost of AF.

You can also consider the Sigma, just make sure the AF is accurate.

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Do you know what the cost difference between the Zeiss 50/1.4 and the Canon 50/1.4 is? –  jrista Oct 29 '10 at 21:24
    
Last I checked, the Canon is about 350 USD, and the Zeiss around 700 USD. The difference is smaller where I live though. –  ctham Oct 29 '10 at 23:32
    
Thanks. Double the cost, but the Zeiss is a full manual lens, which might be better for what I'll be using it for. In the pitch black of night, AF doesn't work, so I never use it for astrophotography. And for close-up work, I prefer to manual focus as well. The focus shift of the Zeiss is the one thing I don't like about it, and for close-up work, it might be a problem. –  jrista Oct 30 '10 at 0:35
    
I think it' just about perfect for astrophotography, at infinity it is a great lens. Closer up, it will be a pain in the butt, but I'm sure you can get used to the focus shift pretty quickly. Stopped down to f/2.8 it's not an issue at all in my experience. This one for eg was taken at f/2.8: flickr.com/photos/callan_tham/5117753860 –  ctham Oct 30 '10 at 0:50
    
Thanks for all the insight, ctham. I am thinking the choice will boil down to the Sigma 50/1.4 and the Zeiss 50/1.4 ZE. After hearing from some of you who have the TS-E lenses, I have decided to put my money into the 24mm L TS-E lens, and save more money on the 50mm. I don't think the Canon 50/1.2 will really buy me nearly as much as a tilt/shift will. I really like the idea of a manual focus lens for astrophotography, and it sounds like Zeiss lenses are better with finer details and color. –  jrista Oct 31 '10 at 18:29

Have you considered the Sigma 50/1.4? That's definitely the lens I would get if I were starting over. Neither The Sigma and Canon 50/1.2L were out when I bought the 50 f/1.4 so it was an easy decision.

Firstly it's worth stating that the 50 f/1.4 is an excellent lens by most standards. However it is soft, and defecty (lots of lateral CA in highlights, heavy vignetting) wide open. This is of course to be expected of such a large aperture,

I don't mind the vignetting as it actually improves the look of portraits however if you're doing astrophotography what's the point in a lens that's f/1.4 in the centre and f/2.0 at the edges? Having said that vignetting is not really a problem with a crop camera.

These defects of course to be expected of such a large aperture, however the Sigma is a newer design and they worked very hard to improve the performance wide open. This is evidenced in the fact it has a much larger front element (for the same max aperture), and in tests is sharper wide open and vignettes less than the Canon 50 f/1.4. See:

As for the Canon 50 f/1.2, I have never used this lens, but there are extensive reports of focus shift due to uncorrected spherical aberration (where the plane of focus retreats when stopping down between f/1.4 and f/4.0). This is a feature of the lens and some are able to live with it and some aren't. It doesn't affect the wide open performance (since the lens is focussed wide open), however if you were to use Tv for shutter speed and let the aperture wonder between f/1.2 and f/4.0 you would probably see very variable AF performance. Past f/4.0 the extra DOF masks the focus shift. Opinions are divided on the lens as a result. Personally I would need to be able to rely on a lens, especially at this price, and given the 85 f/1.2L is corrected for focus shift. I'm sure there's a good reason Canon didn't with the 50, I believe it's to do with the quality of the bokeh - lens design is a compromise. I would read the following before investing the 50f/1.2L

Finally, have you considered buying a second hand 5D? You could pick one up plus a 50 f/1.8 for much less than the Canon 50 f/1.2L, and it would gather more light than the 550D + f/1.2. You might even be able to get a 1.4 with the change. Despite the age the original 5D is still an amazing camera.

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Thanks for the info. The Sigma definitely looks better than the Canon for a 1.4 aperture. Its on my list of serious consideration now. I recently asked a question focus shift on Zeiss lenses. Guess its the same problem with the Canon 50/1.2. I find that to be a fairly annoying problem, and would definitely affect close-up photography. Any idea how focus shift would be affected by extension tubes? Worse? Also, have you ever used a Zeiss 50mm manual lens? –  jrista Oct 30 '10 at 0:23
    
Regarding the 5D, I am actually waiting for the 5D Mark III. I've been on the brink of buying a 5D II a few times, but with the Mark III just around the corner, I could never bring myself to actually purchase it. I do believe the orig. 5D is indeed a stellar body, I've seen some amazing photos from it, but I love to blow my photos up to HUGE size with lots of detail...so image resolution counts. The 5D III will be bought regardless. I am seriously considering the Sigma 50mm now, as in comparison with the Canon 50/1.4, it seems to perform very well. Thanks for the tip! –  jrista Oct 30 '10 at 6:10
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I mentioned the 5D as there are two ways to get more light, a bigger aperture (going from 1.4 to 1.2 gives you 1.4x as much light) or a bigger sensor (going from APS-C to full frame gets you 2.56x as much light). Since you're potentially willing to invest in the 1.2 I thought I'd mention there's a cheaper way to get more light. You can still get the 5D markIII when (and if) it comes out! –  Matt Grum Oct 31 '10 at 13:07
    
Thanks for all the insight. For a 50mm lens, I will get either the Sigma 50mm f/1.4, or maybe a Zeiss 50mm manual lens, and save the rest of my money for a TS lens. I think I'll get far more out of say the 24mm L TS-E than out of the 50mm f/1.2. I don't think half an extra stop of light or some better sharpness is really going to do that much for astrophotography. I do agree about the larger sensor of the 5D, and one of my reasons for getting a full-frame body is to finish off my astrophotography kit. Wasn't aware that it was 2.56 times as much light though...intriguing statistic. –  jrista Oct 31 '10 at 18:25
    
Both your answer and ctham's answer were very helpful. As you've established yourself as a solid, core member of our community, I'm going to give ctham the answer vote. Thanks again! –  jrista Oct 31 '10 at 18:33

I own both and possible focusing issues aside the decision on which one to use comes down to two things.

  • If I want to shoot in low light and I don't want to use a flash then the 50 f1.2 is the obvious choice, that extra half stop is the difference between blurred people and not.

  • If I want to have faster (not better) AF then the 50 1.4 is the obvious choice, the 50 1.4 focuses considerably faster than the 50 1.2. The 50 1.2 isn't as slow as the 85 1.2 but its slow.

'Course, the fact that the 50 1.4 is much lighter comes into consideration as well.

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Thanks for the concise answer. :) The weight of the 1.4 is definitely a bonus, I didn't realize the 1.2 was twice the weight. I won't really be using flash for the bulk of the work I need this for, as I'll be imaging the night sky over 30-45 second exposures. I also won't really be using AF, as you pretty much have to set focus to infinity, and using live view fully zoomed, tweak focus until it is sharp. Not sure that 1/2 of an extra stop is really worth the extra cost of the 1.2. That boils it down to sharpness...any insight into how relatively sharp the two lenses in low light? –  jrista Oct 30 '10 at 0:30
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Here I'll fall back to Ken Rockwell: "If sharpness at infinity at f/1.4 is critical to you, the 50mm f/1.2 L is far superior, and priced accordingly." –  Shizam Oct 30 '10 at 3:56
    
Thanks! Its always nice to know there is someone more experienced to fall back on. :D –  jrista Oct 30 '10 at 5:57
    
Can you moment on the contrast, color, sharpness, IQ? –  dpollitt May 11 '11 at 22:23
    
@Shizam That is certainly true in terms of center sharpness but the uncorrected spherical aberration that makes it a VERY nice portrait lens also makes it not extremely suitable for astrophotography where you want the same sharpness all the way to the edge of the frame. –  Michael Clark Nov 9 '13 at 18:59

I bought the 50 1.2L and my dad got the 1.4. When comparing the similar images you can tell the difference. His photos are more than acceptable.

The average shooter does not need to invest in the 1.2. I would only recommend it if you need that extra bit of light. So if you are shooting astro it may be of help to you. I shoot similar night scenes and the larger aperture helps.

Just keep in mind that the 1.2 does have some issues with focusing that have been reported many times online. My copy does have it when shooting fully open but stopped down it is fine. I have tried using it for closeup work and prefer using my 100 2.8 for that. The 50 does not give the magnification I want on the 5dMkII

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The DxOMark people recently did a round-up report on 50mm primes for a variety of mounts.

Here is the Canon EF mount page, with figures and test results for four lenses. They liked the middle-priced Canon f/1.4 best, optically speaking.

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Whilst these lenses aren't ones I've had much call for, if you think that having that difference in depth of field of about 20%, then go for the wider lens; Before you do, I would strongly recommend hiring them both (ideally at the same time) and using them as you plan to use them, and evaluate the results -- it'll be a lot cheaper than buying the wrong lens in the long run

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What does it usually cost to rent these lenses for a couple days? –  jrista Oct 29 '10 at 15:19
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You can get them from borrowlenses.com for $40/3 days (f1.2) $16/3 days (f1.4). –  Shizam Oct 29 '10 at 15:24

I've had the 50 f/1.4 for several years. It is the sharpest lens I own by a long shot, and I use it as often as I can.

Given the choice between the f/1.4 and f/1.2, I would take the f/1.4 and use the cost savings to buy an additional lens.

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If build quality is important to you, then go for the f/1.2. The f/1.4 is just as sharp, but its auto focusing mechanism can break if hit from the front when it isn't fully retracted.

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I haven't personally used it but I have friends who use this lens. None of them could give me any good reason to pay four times more for this lens, so I'm still using 1,4. I've read many reviews about this lens and painful fact is that 1,2 is not as sharp as we would expect it to be (for that amount of money) when used at 1,2. If you are shopaholic or just want to have "the best of the -bestest-" than you will buy this one, but in my opinion, if you reasonably consider all facts then I'm pretty sure you would choose cheaper option which is definitely not 4 times worse.

Nowadays, you don't even need to hire these lenses, you can download many samples from internet and see the image quality for both of them.

One thing that I'm not experienced in is recording video. Maybe when recording video 1,2 is in advantage, but this is just an option to be considered.

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I actually did buy the EF 50mm f/1.4 lens. I considered the 50/1.2 for a good long time, but I don't really need that wide of an aperture for what I do, and buying a 5D III, with its FF sensor, will do more for my DOF than the faster lens. –  jrista Feb 2 '11 at 8:06
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I just hope you won't wait too long for 5D III :) –  ile Feb 2 '11 at 9:44
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If it doesn't come out this year, I'll probably pick up a 7D for the interim. –  jrista Feb 2 '11 at 17:56
    
@jrista It's been a while now. DO you care to comment on your impression of using the EF 50mm f/1.4? –  Michael Clark Nov 9 '13 at 19:02

I have a zeiss 50mm 1.4 and I absolutely love it. great results wide-open for portraiture and nature photography but I've never tried it for astrophotography. A beautiful lens, far better than the canon 50mm 1.4 (which my friend has) and around the same price. you cant get a better 50mm lens unless you want to spend silly money on the zeiss 55mm 1.2

.... $0.02 ...

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Could you show me where you purchased it? When I looked at it, it was around $750-$800, which was more than twice the cost of the Canon 50/1.4. If I could find it for $320, I'd buy one in a heartbeat, but I didn't have $750 at the time I bought my EF 50/1.4. –  jrista Feb 22 '11 at 19:26
    
contax zeiss with an adapter, not the newer ZE version. There are nearly always a couple on ebay... –  user4015 Feb 22 '11 at 20:19
    
you do have autofocus though. probably a fair trade-off for very slightly worse IQ. –  user4015 Feb 22 '11 at 20:22

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